Dear Crabby,

I’m not the ultimate grammarian for sure, but I have a wife and mother-in-law who hammered into me at least some semblance of the obvious tenants of English usage. Being a “cowboy with a degree,” they did have to do some retraining, with such intricacies as “feeling bad versus feeling badly” and “I’m going to lie down versus I’m going to lay down.” I was already pretty good with “I saw versus I seen,” “I did versus I done” and others of the more obvious.

I have a friend (also a “cowboy with a degree”) who sends chills up my back at least three or four times every time we visit, which is almost daily. “I seen a big buck the other day driving to town.” Or maybe something like, “He don’t ever pay his rent on time.” We do some business together, and he often does this with clients of ours, some of whom may also be “cowboys with degrees” but more often are university presidents and such.

Should I correct him? Should I pay for his tuition to grammar school? He’s driving me nuts.


Cowboy with a Degree

Dear Cowboy,

Well, it’s an awkward position. I usually don’t point out others’ grammar and usage mistakes, because doing so almost always makes a person look like a pedantic ass. (I would never tell you, for instance, that the word you were looking for in your opening sentence is “tenets” not “tenants.”) But, like you, I do silently judge. I wish that weren’t the case. Good, smart people sometimes make language errors just as lousy, dumb people sometimes speak or write precisely and accurately.

I would like to be intellectually magnanimous enough to weather the spine-chills of the former and avoid being unduly impressed by the latter. But I can’t help it; people’s use of language informs my opinions of them. When I hear someone say, “That’s up to Joe and I,” I want to shout, “MEEEEEE! You damn-hell illiterate! It’s up to Joe and ME!” And then I think, “What an idiot,” referring 80 percent to the person who misspoke and 20 percent to myself for caring so much.

Then again, I am not a well-adjusted person. I struggle pretty much constantly with the whole how-to-function-as-a-human-being-alive-in-the-world thing. I don’t have any T-shirts without stains. I stand at the fridge, with the door open, eating cold cuts straight from the deli paper. My family members pray I won’t draw their names in the annual Christmas gift exchange, because they know I won’t send anything until at least July. I have problems. I acknowledge that, yet here I am sitting in judgment of some perfectly nice guy because he doesn’t know how to conjugate verbs.

Me? Chubby, slobby, barbecue-sauce-from-yesterday’s-lunch-on-the-front-of-my-slacks me? Well, you know, yeah. And that’s just how it is. People judge others by their ability to speak and write properly. So, yeah, seeing as how you’re in business with the guy, you may want to find a way to point out nicely that his cowboy vernacular is lowering people’s opinion of him. It’ll take a deft, diplomatic touch to do it right, and you shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little resistance. If he gets really mad about it, you can tell him I told you to do it.

Hope that helps.