In the mid-1950s Ellen Lee accepted a position in the front office of the Rappahannock Record. At the newspaper, she joined her husband, Robert M. Lee Jr., who was the production manager. In those days the paper was printed on premises, along with the usual, large quantity of commercial printing done for local businesses and individuals. For purposes of this column, I shall refer to her henceforth as Auntie, my personal name for her.
In 1984, when I began writing this column, I often would ask Auntie’s opinion on archaic matters of grammar and syntax, for which in both arenas her knowledge was masterful and encyclopedic. Whatever appeared in the newspaper had been vetted by Auntie, her co-worker Jean Dize, and the editor/publisher, J. Emory Currell. They formed a grammatical triumvirate of awesome authority.
Auntie would take notice of misspellings, errors of grammar, and punctuation slips in other publications with great disdain. When watching a television program, if she caught a mistake being spoken, she would take personal umbrage, and remark that she was surprised that such an error could have escaped the attention of the show’s editors.
In those pre-computer days, as a sideline business, Auntie would type manuscripts for professionals and students. One of her clients was a graduate student enrolled in a master’s program at a Virginia university. Auntie was appalled at the student’s misspellings and grammatical errors, all of which she corrected throughout the manuscript. When the student finally graduated, Auntie said she thought she deserved the degree as much as the graduate.
She especially disliked trite expressions. As an example, when saying what she was going to be doing, she never used the word now, always preferring to say “presently.” She found the modern blurring of the distinct difference between “should” and “would” to be particularly irritating. After all, when one was using the subjunctive mood, expressing a conditional wish or a future hope, the proper way to express the situation is to say, “I should hope …”
The misuse of “lay,” “lie” and “laid” was equally offensive to Auntie. When she found a mistake in that area, she would say, “I am going to lie down; I lay down for a nap yesterday afternoon; I laid the pencil on the desk.” The lay-lie mistake caused her great consternation.
She also deplored the passing of the word “shall” in expressing a future tense construct, its use having been eclipsed by the universal use of “will,” a genuine bitter pill for Auntie. The meanings of “I shall” and “I will” remained quite different in her lexicon.
Precision in all matters was important for Auntie. In some areas she made her own rules, but they were non-grammatical. For meals she always preferred to use the salad fork for the entire meal through dessert. When dining as a guest in another house, immediately after saying grace, which she called “the blessing,” she would ask the hostess if she would allow her to use the salad fork accordingly. That was true for every meal, even at her sister’s table where the hostess was well aware of her cutlery preference since childhood.
Next month will be the 25th anniversary of Auntie’s passing at the age of 81. As her son, Charlie, asked me to speak at her funeral, in the eulogy I mentioned some of her unique idiosyncrasies, and I readily admit that I have thought about them innumerable times thereafter. Once one knew her, she was a person one never could or would forget.
As I was writing this “item,” the late Gilliam Lewis’s term for a column, my Good Wife passing through the room, asked what the topic was. When I told her, she replied that I should do a sequel entitled, “Auntie’s Rules of Grammar Confronts the Age of Texting,” but I shall leave that for another essayist.