You’re probably familiar with the psychiatric terms schizophrenic and bipolar. They’re diagnostic labels for complex disorders that require highly specialized treatment.
To the average person, however, schizophrenic and bipolar have a very simple definition: a split personality. That definition would not be helpful in a busy psychiatric practice – but it can be surprisingly useful in everyday life. If we’re honest, we often see swings, contradictions, and anomalies in our own thinking and behavior.
So I have to admit that yes, I have a split personality – at least when it comes to the English language. I am a grammar stickler who hates grammar.
To explain what this is all about, I’m going to talk about the Kentucky Derby. My father loved horse racing. (That’s an understatement.) Derby Day – the Run for the Roses – was practically a national holiday in our house. My favorite moment came early in the TV broadcast every year. When the first horse took the first step onto the racetrack, a band started playing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”
We will return to Churchill Downs in a moment. Now I’m going to talk about a test question I just read about in a wonderful book about writing: Making Sense by David Crystal.
Schoolchildren were asked to fill in the blank: “The sun shone_____________in the sky.” One of the children wrote bright – and was marked wrong. Shone is a verb, and it should be modified with an adverb – brightly.
But can you guess what immediately came to my mind when I read that test question? The first line of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”: “The sun shines bright on my Old Kentucky Home….” I would have been marked wrong too because – damn it – I’m sure that’s what I would have written in the blank.
I just checked a couple of dictionaries, and they all dutifully note that bright is both an adjective and an adverb. If the test graders had taken the time to double-check their assumptions, they would have given that child (and me) credit for the right answer.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think bright is an adverb. Or maybe I should say that I don’t think we should try to put a grammatical label on bright. It was the right word for what Stephen Foster was trying to say, and the song is wonderful, and the lexicographers didn’t want to argue with him. So they said – in effect – okay, Stephen, it’s an adverb.
Who cares, for crying out loud?
I think a lot of English grammar is bogus. It’s an attempt to go back and retrofit some structure and logic on a lively and powerful language (English) that resists our best attempts to tame it.
If you watch the Kentucky Derby this year, think of me when the first horse steps onto the track and the band begins to play. I’ll be remembering my father, alert and expectant in front of the TV, with a cocktail in his hand, waiting to see which horse would be crowned with roses in this year’s run.