A stretch of river LVIII: Scruffy Hears a Whom; or, About a Small Amount of Words. A Shaggy-Dog Fragment
Your correspondent (disguised as a very casually-dressed Kubla Khan) and his faithful companion watching where Ark the sacred river ran on our evening walk a couple of years ago. Taken by the Mrs.
Back in the spring, I listened to a recording of a 2005 reading by Billy Collins, and after reading "The Revenant," he said, in so many words, that it's surprising to learn that dogs are the poetry-writers, that you'd think it would be the cats who did that sort of thing. On our morning walk a couple days later, something about Scruffy's sniffing combined with Collins' observation and my musing over how language seems to be changing especially rapidly, and that led to what you'll read below. I wrote it out in long-hand while tutoring, then put it aside and almost immediately forgot it until, yesterday, I ran across it again while going through some old papers.
It's a fragment--just like "Kubla Khan." ("Just like." Uh-huh.) It has no real beginning; I know where it wants to go, but I don't like that direction. But some of what's here, I kinda like, and that's why you're reading this . . . or will, if you dare to go below the fold.
Something more of substance to come in the next few days.
Me: So: here we are at the grave of Whom.
Me: Whom. Whom is the object of our being here.
Scruffy: How did Whom die?
Me: Hardly anyone uses it in print anymore. People who should know better--journalists; other, I assume, educated people--just don't use it. They use who in its place. It's really rare these days to see whom used properly, even in a mainstream publication.
Scruffy: Death by neglect. A sad thing.
Me: Yessir. Oh--over there is Generic He's grave. I met him way back in the early '70s, when I was just starting to learn grammar. He looked so healthy then--you'd never have guessed he'd have only about ten years to live. All those years ago . . .
Scruffy: Never knew him. He was long before my time. Were you two close?
Me: Well, no, not really. It's not sadness I feel. It just feels weird to see their in his old place. Language changes, you know? It's a fact of life. I get that. But it usually changes slowly. Over years. So when you can bear witness to its changing within your own lifetime, well . . .
Scruffy: Wait. You said its. Twice.
Me: Yeah. So?
Scruffy: Which its? With or without the apostrophe?
Me: One with, one without. And thanks for reminding me--I do believe that's the Apostrophe's grave they're digging over there.
Scruffy: Death by neglect again?
Me: Nope. Abuse this time. Using it when not needed, not using it when needed. Uncertainty all around about how to use it. I once received a paper from a student with it's' in it. I guess he was just trying to be sure.
Me: One of these days, Im afraid, people will decide theyre too much trouble and just leave them out entirely. Readersll figure out what were saying, theyll say.
Scruffy: Like leaving a de-clawed cat outside all the time. Heh heh.
Me: Don't be cruel. It'll be more like leaving an inside dog out in the snow.
Scruffy: That's cold.
Me: Ironic, isn't it: Apostrophes exist because written English exists; thanks to the Internet and the growth of knowledge as a commodity, more of us write more than we would otherwise, and so more people forget or misuse apostrophes more often than ever before.
Scruffy: Is that really irony?
Me: Yeah, I really do think--even though its mausoleum is over there on that little rise.
Scruffy: When did that go in?
Me: Can't you tell? The asymmetrical façade? The off-horizontal rooflines? Late '90s or early '00s.
Scruffy: Well. If I may, I'd like to say that it was premature to entomb Irony. I mean, here we are, a dog and his owner, talking about language. Absurd. And absurdity is at least a half-sibling of irony, their common parent being incongruity.
Me: Correct you are, Scruffy, in this as in so many things. But that's assuming, of course, that Congruity is still around.
Scruffy: Yeah, well, right now the only congruity I care about is that you remember to give me my treat when we get home.
Me: The warp and woof of your world is not especially expansive, is it?
Scruffy: No--but it helps with the congruity thing. Woof in particular.
Me: Pun intended?
Scruffy: You're asking a dog that question?