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Which is considering getting itself crated for Cleveland

From time to time I read or hear something which confirms me in my wicked ways. Recently I listened to a lecturer say practically everybody has a pet peeve in the field of language. Some word or phrase, some usage or misusage will start the ears twitching. The end result will be anything from a disapproving glance to a tantrum.

Now all of this made me feel pretty good, because in an age that values conformity, I am conforming. I, too, have a “thing” about a fragment of speech. Moreover, in a world that is beginning to wonder if individualism might not have something to recommend it after all, I am also an individual. As my linguistic bete noir strolls by and I start screaming, nobody else even lifts an eyebrow. That puts me in a class by myself.

No pet peever, however, is long satisfied to stay in a class by himself. He has to talk about the object of his disaffections, has to strive to win converts to his side, has to create public awareness of the evil in the midst. Again I conform, as witness the following dissertation on the subject

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DO YOU WANT TO – ?

To put it bluntly, this business of winning friends and influencing people is rapidly eradicating the imperative mood from the English language. “Do” and “Don’t” are becoming the dirty words in anybody’s vocabulary. The correct approach seems to consist of buttering up the subject with some inane remark so he will slide into the desired situation, yet at the same time believe he walked into it on his own two feet.

Sometime while I was in high school I began to recognize when these tactics were being used on me. I suspect I matured slowly or I would have been aware of them sooner. Thirty-five years later what really annoys me is, if the shapeless mind of an adolescent rejected such techniques, why are they still being tried on me or any other adult?

Now phrasing a question so that the hearer is predisposed to say “yes” or “no” is as old as language. I have no objection to someone asking, “You would like to, wouldn’t you?” or “You don’t want to, do you?” There is a certain endearing honesty in the questioner who lets you know what is in his mind and heart. You don’t have to go along with him, but at least he isn’t trying to conceal what he wants.

No, my wrath is concentrated on the question which begins “Do you want to – ?” or “Would you like to – ?” and ends up with one object instead of two. The implication is you are offered a choice. In reality you are not. A few examples should make this clear.

Mother to Child: Would you like to eat your nice spinach?

Translation: Stuff that stuff into you or I’ll ram it down your throat.

Wife to Husband: Do you want to put this book on the table?

Translation: Do as I say or I’ll throw a fit.

Nurse to Patient: Do you want to turn over so I can give you your shot?

Translation: Bottoms up or I’ll swat you.

I have no idea as to who or what started this devious routing around the plain request, but I can guess. I suspect it is linked with the philosophy which believes:

1. The psyche is easily bruised. Therefore, do not hit it over the head. Just pinch it lightly as it passes by.

2. Personalities are warped by constant commands. Never bend a twig unless you are wearing gloves.

3. Public relations cannot face up to the naked truth. Drape it in something cheap and remove price tag.

As for me, my reaction to all these pseudo questions is simply to say no to anything beginning “Do you want to” and let the seekers after something figure out another way to get whatever they are determined to have. It is not at all surprising that most of them immediately drop the mask of permissiveness and come right out with what they want. Dictators, like strip teasers, sooner or later, somehow or other, are going to get down to bare essentials.

I would ask, then, what is wrong with a plain imperative in the first place? When life is not a bowl of cherries, but one gnarled, wormy bit of fruit, which you are going to have to swallow whether you want to or not, it isn’t going to taste any better because someone twitters, “Would you like to have this?” instead of “Take it!” If you wish to be polite, say “Please.” But don’t slop saccharine and soothing syrup over your orders. I’ll take mine straight, thank you.

If all of this seems like a tempest in a teapot, of course it is. Peeves, in common with most domesticated creatures of the bird and animal kingdom, and even some children, are of value to no one but their families, and do not have to be petted by anyone else. Leave me to mine and I won’t kick yours.

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Published now and then by Louise Lincoln and A. Walrus in Columbus, Ohio
And printed by Alf Babcock

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