Reflections on the importance of proper language

After reading Jim Baumann's column "Grammar Moses" in the Sunday editions of the Daily Herald, I've been reminiscing about how much written language has changed since I learned my ABCs and our family gathered around the kitchen table at 5:30 sharp every evening.

Our lively dinner conversations focused on the events of the day and no one was excused until everyone was finished. My folks were sticklers for proper grammar. They corrected my two younger brothers and me when we misused the language, likely hopeful lessons to relate subjects and verbs and other parts of speech would carry over into our school work.

Though it always sounded somewhat stilted, my dad insisted, "It is I." At age 92, he still does.

About a month ago, I considered contacting Baumann about National Grammar Day on March 4 after one of his columns struck a nerve.

Topped by the headline, "I am literally dying to write this newspaper column," his words set mine in motion regarding how virtually friendly our business world has become in this digital age when rules seem nonexistent and social media is everywhere.

How does a traditional writer find friends?

In high school English class, we studied distinctions between business and friendly letters. I still have a collection of books dedicated to communications from the days when poor grammar and improper etiquette were unacceptable.

Just as Baumann's shelves, mine are filled with volumes of vintage business books, some published by the highly successful Naperville-based J.L. Nichols and Co. The company's founder and publisher, James Nichols, upon his death at age 44 in 1895, became benefactor of the Naperville Public Library.

In 1898, when Naperville's population was 2,200, our city opened its first library at 110 S. Washington St.

Regarding letter writing, one of J.L. Nichols' books says, "From the President in his cabinet to the laborer in the street; from the lady in her parlor to the servant in her kitchen; from the millionaire to the beggar; from the emigrant to the settler; from every country and under every combination of circumstances, letter writing in all forms and varieties is most important to the advancement, welfare and happiness of the human family."

Have times changed that much?

Do six-second video messages and 140-character tweets, sometimes filled with vitriol and often misinterpreted, always encourage the advancement, welfare and happiness of the human family?

Or consider broadcast emails, now with the technology to personalize every one. These digital days, when hundreds of emails hound my inbox every morning, I'm sometimes offended by the familiar manner perfect strangers use to greet me.

After "Hi, Stephanie," I often read, "How are you? I hope this email finds you well …" Then, when I scroll the email, I find I've been duped again. The sender is unknown to me.

And I wonder whether the total stranger would find humor if I honestly answered how I am.

Another constant annoyance to me begins, "Hi, Stephanie. Just a reminder that you're receiving this email because you expressed interest …" When I try to undo my uninterested interest, I seem to stimulate the sender to send more. Now I simply delete.

Back in 1891, Nichols' Business Guide suggested when writing to a stranger that "he be addressed as 'Sir.' … A married lady is addressed as 'Madam' and an unmarried lady as 'Miss.'"

OK. Strangers can call me "Mrs." or "Ms." However, I do prefer "Dear Stephanie."

Some time ago, my Aunt Ruthie lovingly typed copies of more than 300 letters handwritten between 1931 and 1941 by my grandmother to her parents, Jessie and Floyd Rowen, in Genoa, Illinois. She bound them in a book titled "With love, Gertrude."

Every letter begins, "Dear Folks."

Back then, the farmhouse in Battle Ground, Indiana, where my grandparents were rearing nine children, had no electricity, indoor plumbing or central heat.

Grandma Mitchell's letters provide a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the decade when my mother, now 88, her five sisters and three brothers were children, a time when my grandfather traveled as an agricultural economist for Purdue. Many letters end with a rush to finish in order to make the day's mail.

Rereading 385 pages of those informative, cherished letters, I also noted my grandmother didn't begin one letter with "How are you?" She always got right to the point, such as the tale about her joy when purchasing a present for herself at the fair - a fountain pen and an ever-sharp pencil full of lead for 50 cents.

And I'm reminded National Pencil Day is March 30.

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville. Her column appears regularly in Neighbor.

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