New York, NY —When I was in high school, I had an English teacher that I think about when issues of language arise...
Father Bechtel was my honors English teach in the tenth and the twelfth grade. An old school priest, he would pound the rules of good grammar into my classmates and me but he would also assist us in constructing our “writerly voices.” According to him, a writer should be direct and authorial. So, besides pouncing on every instance of our use of colloquialisms such as “a lot,” (“A lot is a parcel of land! You mean, ‘a great deal!”), Father Bechtel also strove to hone the manner in which we communicated so that readers of our work would take us seriously. I’ve been thinking about his teachings the last few days as we discussed sayings and terms that should be “retired” And there are two that come to mind that I want to talk about a little bit.
Besides, “a lot,” the other big phrase that my esteemed teacher rhetorically beat out of us is one that I still grimace over: “in my opinion” and it’s more annoying little brother, “in my humble opinion.” I guarantee that, in the history of that phrase, no one has ever uttered it in the hopes that the following statement is taken any less seriously than a fact. However, what usually follows is a statement that is off-putting or outright nutty so the speaker is trying to soften the impact. Likewise, if someone adds that this is their “humble” opinion, trust me; it’s not humble at all. For instance, in my humble opinion, Predator 2 is better than Predator. Now, as far as I’m concerned for real? That’s not opinion; that is fact and I can prove it with charts and pie graphs and a stirring monologue on the dramatic stylings of Gary Busey and Adam Baldwin. When Father Bechtel would see the dreaded “in my opinion,” you can be sure that you would get a big, red comment that said, “Of course, it’s your opinion, you wrote it!” And you would probably get a “C.” Training a room full of adolescent boys how to become men, his major theme was that an adult speaks and writes so that he fully claims his work without qualifier or pretext.
This is why I know Father Bechtel would also despise the politician inspired use of the passive voice to throw off blame. “Mistakes have been made” is, of course, the most famous example of this technique but I’ve heard multiple versions over the past few years; “money was lost,” “there were cases of infidelity in our marriage,” “things were broken,” etc., etc. It’s the like the whole world has decided that our philosophy towards responsibility is to invoke “Not Me,” the mischievous ghost from Family Circus that the Keane kids blame their misdeed on.
Like the good student that I was, this is the stuff that still annoys the hell out of me when people speak or write. If you have something to say, say it! Claim it! Cowboy (or, y’know, cowgirl) up and take the credit or blame for anything that you state! Of course, this is all my opinion, so make of it what you will.