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September 19, 2014
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Mother Tongue, Mother Lode

Photo by Ross Brinkerhoff

By Rebekah Creshkoff

Whenever I asked my mother how to spell a word, she would invariably tell me to look it up — a strategy that instilled in me a lifelong love of language.

I also owe a debt to Mad Libs. “What’s an adjective?” I demanded whenever my sisters and I played the fill-in-the-blanks word game, which required familiarity with the parts of speech. I had a firm grasp of nouns and verbs, but adjectives were still beyond me.

My eldest sister couldn’t be bothered with explaining, or maybe my mind boggled at a word that modifies a noun. In any event, she’d simply say, “Just name a color.” And so a suitor’s letter to his paramour’s father would begin, “I am in love with your GREEN daughter,” and close with “I promise to make her PURPLE .”

But Mad Libs never had players come up with prepositions, which perhaps explains the sorry state in which we find them today. I first noticed it in the corporate world, where my boss would say things like, “Let’s gather employee feedback around diversity.”

“Whatever happened to about?” I grumbled to myself. But the plague quickly spread, and using “around” instead of “about” became endemic throughout the company.

A promotion to editor further heightened my sensitivity. The hapless writers in my bailiwick constantly struggled with prepositions — although perhaps “were blissfully ignorant” would be a more accurate description, since “struggling” implies consciousness of one’s predicament. (It’s not just corporate hacks who don’t know when to use which preposition. Every day, I encounter errors in such reputable news outlets as NPR and The New York Times—even The River Reporter.)

I also exhorted my writing team to use short Anglo-Saxon words instead of Latinate ones ending in -tion. Such words tend to be polysyllabic — a fact I first registered, if unconsciously, in fourth grade. We were supposed to go home and ask our parents to teach us 10 new words ending in -ation. Naturally, by the time my parents got home from work, I’d long since forgotten the assignment.

The next day, when our teacher asked us to write down the new words we’d learned, my initial response was panic. Then I pondered and came up with 10 words that had the requisite ending — utterly mortified that Mrs. Haycock would think I hadn’t already known the word “transportation.”