My mother was a grammar nut and an avid proofreader. I benefited (and sometimes smarted) from her skills. She marked up books with typos and homonym errors, sighing over bridal paths when nobody was getting married, and interests that were peaked, or peeked. She always threatened to send the books to the authors with her corrections and an offer of future copyediting, but as far as I know she never did.
Mother (she refused to be called Mom) wouldn’t have anything to do with a dictionary later than Webster’s Third. The fourth edition included “finalize” which she insisted was not a word. She and my dad argued about whether common usage could ever make an error correct–I think some of the debate centered on “hopefully” instead of the more correct (and cumbersome) “it is hoped.”
But nothing got Mother going like someone using “less” when they should have said “fewer.” In her later years she worked at the state Department of Education, and for some reason educators seem particularly prone to this mistake. She had many opportunities to point out that there were fewer students graduating, or enrolling, or being proficient in one way or another–not less. “The students may well be less,” she would say, “but that isn’t something we generally want to advertise about them.”
I would roll my eyes. But now I find myself yelling, “Fewer, not less!” at the people on TV and muttering under my breath when people say the new employees have been “orientated.” I share my mother’s love of commas and Trollope, but not her fondness for Strunk & White and Henry James. I have her forehead and hatred of the telephone, but not her height or her passion for social action.
This is what I have learned about parents and children since my mother died: we will always be locked together, in battle and embrace. We remain interwoven, intermingled, like the sea and the shore. From a distance, we think we can see where one ends and the other begins, but up close we see that the sand is full of water and the water is full of sand, the two merging, but not quite together and not quite apart, endlessly.