Linguists strive to hold the forte
Language is alive. It must be to adapt to discoveries and inventions, yet its versatility shines in day-today usage. You and I, the humble practitioners of the art of communication, exert gradual yet persistent forces on the living spoken and written word.
Such an evolution of elocution, a transition in composition, is beautiful, in a way. On another hand, like watching my grandson teeter on the brinks of his first step, it can also be painful.
My wife and I were sorta (not an official word yet, but it will be soon) watching a television broadcast from the graduation ceremonies at Howard University. The cable news folks were airing it because a particularly remarkable group of students was receiving diplomas this year.
OK, not really.
The cameras were waiting for Oprah Winfrey to address the graduates. She did not have the microphone yet because someone - I believe it was Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert - was attempting to establish a world record for laudatory comments. Exactly what he said, I did not catch, but he did make some mention of Oprah's forte being something or another.
Now, whether it was Swygert or some other Howard notable, the speaker was obviously well educated. It's pretty much a requirement for standing before a few thousand college graduates and singing the praises of one of the most powerful people in the world. Besides, his academic robe had four stripes on its sleeves.
That awareness was with me as he spoke ... and spoke well ... when he said "forte."
"That does it," I told Leah. "The battle is over. If the president of a major university does not have the nerve to correctly pronounce 'forte,' then the dictionaries are next."
Granted, if anyone anywhere has been waging a fight that forte is correctly pronounced "fort" and not "for-tay," he or she has probably done so with nobody watching. The winner has been declared and it carries two syllables.
Not that I blame the speaker. Whether while preparing for this event or at some divergence of his academic road in the past, he likely weighed the pluses and minuses of using the correct-yetnever heard-in-public pronunciation.
Plus: It may create awareness. It could lead people to look it up in the dictionary. (Quit laughing; it could happen.)
Minus: Here is the decision-maker. It interferes with the communication process. Instead of hearing what the speaker says, it causes people to think, "What did he say? Did he mispronounce 'forte'?"
That's something we try to stay aware of in journalism. It is tempting, sometimes, to pump up one's writing with big words, but doing so increases the chance of losing the reader. Clarity, rather than making an impression, is the objective of communication.
Many growing pains lie ahead for the English language and that will always be the case. My grandson will soon walk and run with confi- dence, yet language is constantly growing new limbs it must learn to control.
My wife predicted that a great battle looms in granting plural noun status to collective nouns. One always hears people say, "The team lost their first game," when the singular noun "team" should take a singular pronoun, "its."
I am not ready to throw in the towel in that fight. After all, it's not right and, most importantly, one can still abide by the rules of language without impeding communication.
Holding less promise is lie/lay, the proper use of which may already be missing in action. You lay something down. When you recline, you lie down.
I lie not. However, the word on the street is that they are virtually interchangeable.
And let's not even get started with the proliferation of apostrophes in forming plural nouns.
Steve Martaindale is a self-syndicated columnist. Write him at penmanmail-steve@yahoo. com.