The Grammar of War and the War on Grammar

I am more qualified to talk about grammar than war, although (the pending Syrian) war is the truly important item—so I will start with grammar.

The War on Grammar: We know that language simplifies itself over time. For example, the use of the apostrophe seems doomed. Half the people who see it’s importance, use it incorrectly (yes, I know, I did, and I know punctuation is not grammar, strictly speaking).

Similarly, it appears the intransitive “lie” (I lie down; I was lying down yesterday) is soon to vanish, merging with the transitive “lay” (I lay down the rules; I was laying down rules before).

A few nights ago, I mentioned the use of “lay” for “lie” to my Older Intellectual Friend (OIF) and was surprised to hear him say he wasn’t bothered by the use of “lay” for “lie.” It surprised me, because I figured anyone older than myself who had taught English would be less flexible than I. So wrong was I. Thus, I see, that this is not a war worth fighting, not if the likes of OIF are pacifists. 

I do not think OIF would be as sanguine if he heard the common, “…it would be an honor to OIF and I….” In time, however, “me” and “I” may become interchangeable, another war not worth fighting publicly (but I predict there will be an underground railway of subject-object purists moving through the English speaking world).

The Grammar of War: What surprised me more was when the conversation turned (by my stealthy mind) to our pending attack on Syria. Again, OIF was much more sympathetic to the option than I could have guessed. My mentor in progressive liberal democracy—my mentor was siding with the President in a decision that strikes me as one more instance of American imperialism, the kind that always has a moral justification, no matter how immoral the outcomes may prove to be.

Syria’s use of poisonous gas is apparently substantiated and is painfully significant. What I see as loosely grammatical in the proposal to attack Syria, to “degrade” its capability to repeat the use of poisonous gas, is the either/or construction of its argument. Either we attack, and in doing so, disable further uses of gas as well as send an important message to Iran and Korea, or we do not attack and let the weapons proliferate. 

Other options exist, but “either/or/or” is not a common linguistic construct, nor a common piece of political rhetoric, nor a convenient way to pose a question in a poll. It is harder to get people on your side when they see just how many sides are available.

The option that comes readily to mind is to use the (conservatively set) “tens of millions of dollars” that an attack is predicted to cost for something else: to aid the 2.5 million refugees that are leaving Syria in extraordinary rates. There may be some countries so entrenched in war that the peace loving citizens must find new homes, and I long to hear our capacity to support such citizens emphasized much more. If the President were to say, “Either we attack Syria, raising unknown responses from Iran, Russia and China, or we support with money and troops the refugee camps growing along Syria’s borders…” well, even I would lay in the sun and smile.

2013/11/08 – Post Script

Well, I’m relieved that what was almost a throwaway comment by Secretary of State John Kerry provided Russian President Vladimir Putin the impetus to urge Syria to allow the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to rid Syria of its poisonous gas reserves. This is truly good news, although Syria continues to be in a very bad way, however you side with the Syrian splinters.

And I’m vindicated in a small way by a capitulation on the part of my Older Intellectual Friend (OIF), who later admitted the ease with which the Obama administration was considering attacking Syria was wrong, and that his generosity toward the administration’s position was wrong. What changed his mind was an excellent article by David Bromwich in the London Review of Books.  

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