Encamped at opposite poles of the English-speaking world are extremists whose habits annoy the general population. At one end are those who are either profoundly ignorant of correct usage or completely indifferent to it. Tell one of them that he just misused the possessive your in place of the contraction you’re, and he may clap a palm to his forehead and exclaim, “I should of known!” Less forgivable is the tendency of their nemeses, the strict grammarians, to point out linguistic transgressions at every opportunity. They’re the ones who won’t let this whole lie versus lay business lie. Or lay. Whatever.
In between is the vast spectrum of English users and abusers, each of us harboring a unique sense of that which is laudable, that which is permissible, and that which must be condemned. To trample over one of our beloved conventions is to commit a heresy. Conversely, correcting any of our colorful colloquialisms is boorish dogmatism. That is the crux of the problem with grammatical debate. It’s impossible to define a universally appealing set of standards.
For example, my father, no stickler for proper usage, nevertheless has always been irked by the folksy replacement of going to with gonna. “We’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna do that,” he mocks. “Even the nightly news anchors use it!” Yet there are others who perceive a consistent adherence to going to as robotic speech. Who knows? Who cares? Well, my father does. But he knows it’s a losing battle.
“Mr. Hunt!’ one of my students will exclaim. “You can’t start a sentence with but or and!” The little William Safire will point an accusing finger at an offending passage and look to me for sympathetic indignation. “Ah, yes,” I’ll acknowledge, “that is what you’ve been taught, and I’m sure Jerry Spinelli (or Kate DiCamillo, or Louis Sachar, or whomever else we may be reading) knows that rule, too. Once you’ve shown you know the rules, though, you might sometimes have a good reason to break one now and then.” The poor kid is inevitably disappointed. We want the scofflaws who break our rules to be punished.
Which brings me to my pronouncement of a personal peeve, merely one of a great many, of course, yet abominable in its growing popularity. I speak of an ubiquitous phrase that was once a pleasantly employed metaphor but is now a linguistic crutch upon which far too many educated speakers are limping. I have witnessed its use in professional circles by successful types who surely possess the creativity to avoid it. It is the supreme cliche of the new millennium:
At the end of the day…
Oh, you have heard it many times, I am certain, or else it has become so ingrained in your everyday experience that you have failed to notice it, as a commuter may never observe the proliferation of litter on the route to work. I first detected its overuse at a professional development seminar during which a presenter uttered the phrase several times an hour throughout the day. When the end of that day did finally arrive, I was most grateful. Its repetition had become so obvious that I was no longer attending to the speaker’s ideas but became fixated on catching the next recurrence.
Since that challenging day, I have become especially sensitive to the prevalence of ATEOTD. The figure of speech is well suited to summarizing one’s point of view on any controversial issue. It is especially practical when used in rebuttal to a debater who has become mired in detail while blind to a larger truth:
That may be true, Senator, but ATEOTD…
And where, I ask you, does one typically hear a barrage of commentators and interviewees justifying their opinions? Why, National Public Radio, of course! Yes, the insidious ATEOTD has infected the hallowed signal of NPR. I confess that it may be appearing even more blatantly on CNN, MSNBC and comparable media outlets, but I long ago abandoned the contentious and uncivil landscape of television punditry in favor of the placid discourse of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. I wouldn’t say that you necessarily hear ATEOTD on NPR every day, but let me put it this way: I wouldn’t put money on not hearing it. It certainly happens often enough to raise my hackles.
Now, I don’t wish to be so pedantic as to call for a moratorium on the overused phrase. Much as I’m tired of hearing it, people have the right to say it. Moreover, if we banned every bit of speech we find annoying, there wouldn’t be much left to say. No, I think a more productive strategy is simply to educate. Let us call people’s attention to the ubiquity of ATEOTD. Then, like a self-conscious teenager who is mortified upon discovering that her dialect is dominated by repetitions of you know, America will take pause and resolve to think before it speaks.
Therefore, I call upon the FCC to implement the official ATEOTD Bell. It is nothing elaborate, I assure you, just an ordinary, push-button bell of the variety found on hotel front desks and customer service counters. Those little devices pack a wallop that belies their size. A sharp slap on the button delivers a crisp ding! that cuts through all the aural clutter and demands to be recognized. And that’s exactly what I want our nation to do: recognize just how often we are tossing out ATEOTD.
Here’s how easily it could be achieved. Imagine a typical installment of Morning Edition. Host Renee Montagne is getting the latest political scoop from NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts.
Renee Montagne: What do these primary results say about Rick Santorum’s likelihood of becoming the GOP nominee?
Cokie Roberts: This is certainly an uptick for the Santorum campaign, Renee, but at the end of the day-
And then Cokie can go on with whatever else she wishes to say, while a vital point will have been made with minimal intrusion.
Oh, it may not make much of an impact the first dozen or so times. But as more and more heads turn to the tone of the ATEOTD Bell, a nation may purge this verbal detritus from its language.
And if it works especially well, I’ll tell my father to request a Gonna Bell.