Monday, May 14, 2012

English and Angst

I will grant you that in most situations where someone says something that upsets you or makes you anxious, it is the specific words that bring on the negative feelings.  But generally we are reacting to nouns and adjectives and the occasional verb.  I had an experience last week where the anxiety producing words had to do with the idea of tense and number agreement.

We are sometimes very casual when we speak to others, and there are some singular versus plural areas where this is fairly common.  For the most part any confusion of the singular and the plural doesn't really cause negative feelings.  Last week, however, a cop's not watching out for correct English usage gave me a lot of anxiety and a whopper of a headache.

I drove from SI to Long Island to visit my mother.  About a mile from her house I noticed a police car with flashing lights in my rearview mirror.  At first I thought he wanted to pass me, so I pulled over to the side to give him the room to do so.  Then he pulled in right behind me.  I couldn't figure out what I had done, as I wasn't speeding and I hadn't run a red light.  I rolled down the window and turned off the car.  One officer went to stand by the passenger side of the car and one came over to the open window.  I asked what the problem was.  The answer was "Your brake lights aren't working." He asked me to turn the car on again, he went to the back of the car to check, and then came back to the window.  "Yup, you've got a brake light problem.  You need to get them fixed."  Luckily I did not get a ticket.

I managed to get to my mom's without a meltdown, but on the way home I needed to stop at school for a bit.  I was nervous the entire way to Brooklyn.  What if I got stopped by a cop again?  What if I had to stop suddenly and the car behind me couldn't  see that I was stopping and rammed into me?  Traffic on the Belt Parkway heading towards SI was heavy, with lots of cars weaving in and out of the lanes, and I was not a happy camper.

SI was even worse.  Due to massive construction on the SI Expressway, lanes went from 4 to 1 to 2 to 1 to 3 lanes open the entire way to my exit.  When I got off the Expressway I was truly frazzled.  I made my careful way down to my mechanic and told him that I had no brake lights.  Two minutes later he called me over to take a look.  He had turned on my car and this is what I saw--the car has a brake light on both the right side and the left side above the bumper and also has a rectangular brake light located at the bottom of the rear window.  The left light and the window light were fine--only the right light was not lit.  Frazzled got replaced by angry. 

When the policeman used the plural terms "lights" and "them," I understood that to mean that more than one light was not working.  In fact, because he did not specify that one light was not working, I was correct in assuming that NO lights were working.

Had correct English been used, I could have been saved the frustration and anxiety of that trip home.  So yes, English counts, and correct English counts even more.


Shua said...

Not saying I don't see why the cop got you angry but I hate it much more when people don't edit their writing. Try getting a bill from your doctor that was for 107,240 dollars. Should have been for just 107.24 dollars. Took me a week to straighten it out with the office because no one there would believe that the billing service could make such an impossible error.

Mark said...

Who knows? Maybe if all the brake lights were out, the cop would have given you a ticket. Count your blessings!