In 1932 when boxer Max Schmeling lost his heavyweight title to Jack Sharkey, his manager, Joe Jacobs, exclaimed during his ringside radio interview, “We wuz robbed!”
I see more of this going on lately. Not radio interviews, contested decisions, or robbed titles. I’m talking about bad grammar. Don’t get me wrong. I am not with the grammar police. I love Yogi Berra’s and Casey Stengel’s colloquialisms and would never go around correcting people. Well, unless they insist on saying “between you and I,” which ought to carry a mandatory fine. I don’t think any reasonable person would object to that.
But I am concerned about a specific faux pas: the breakdown of subject-verb agreement. To wit, “We wuz robbed.” Coming from Jacobs, who acted more like a flamboyant publicist than manager, it sounded expected, warranted, even charming. Incidentally, baseball and boxing have more than their share of ungrammatical witticisms, probably because of their popularity among lower economic classes and immigrants. But that’s another story.
This week alone I came across half a dozen subject-verb errors in online publications that should have known better (or paid their copyeditors better). Here are two:
“Anxiety and depression is on the rise among young people,” and “Lockdowns, travel restrictions, physical distancing, and the shift to remote work has the potential to seriously stress and compromise how well both individuals and organizations function.”
To be gracious, the writer of the former may have decided to treat “anxiety and depression” as a collective noun, which is not only a bad decision but bad psychology. The second sentence should have been deleted and the keyboard on which it was typed disinfected with Lysol, which is the equivalent of having your mouth washed out with soap.
It is no coincidence that both errors have to do with COVID-19. For just as baseball provides fertile ground for Yogi’s wit, Coronavirus provides fertile ground for our current social anxiety. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better environment to grow both virus and panic.
And don’t be surprised when we find out that a direct correlation exists between the breakdown of subject-verb agreement and the spread of the virus. It’s as if our immune system is breaking down step-by-step with our grammar. Just remember you read it here first.
Is the world coming to an end? Some believe the virus portends calamities on a biblical scale, but then people have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of the world. If the world isn’t exactly ending, it might be temporarily closing. It would be similar to what retail stores do when they restock their shelves or prepare for a new product line. So, the last thing we want to do right now is panic and act like grammatical barbarians.
But what might portend the end of the world is the closing of churches throughout the world. It’s never happened before in the church’s two-thousand year history, which is nothing to sneeze at. And if you do sneeze, make sure it’s into your elbow, which sounds like advice you’d get from the Shirt Manufacturers of America.
Even with all its tradition, the church cannot claim grammatical purity. For instance, at the center of the Eucharistic prayer you find this gem, which makes me wince every time I hear it: “All glory and honor is Yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever, Amen.”
This might be a matter of collective nouns again, but the error has infiltrated the minds of the faithful to such an extent that we now accept any change with little or no resistance. Today, Palm Sunday, serves as a perfect example. Where are the palms? You see what’s at stake here.
Put simply–and I do not think I am being alarmist here–if we lose subject-verb agreement, we lose everything. We will be like a flock of sheep lost in the wilderness, the twelve tribes wandering in the desert, me trying to use GPS. Think of Lyndon Johnson losing Walter Cronkite. And, if my calculations are correct, the COVID-19 situation will get worse. It won’t be pretty.
At that point, the only thing we will be able to say, along with Joe Jacobs, is that we wuz robbed.