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.
When our eldest daughter was quite young, my wife supplemented our income by providing child care in our home. Amber seemed to enjoy the company of her daily playmates, one of whom was a boy her age named Dylan. The two of them got along well, whether they were building with cardboard bricks or guiding a toy school bus through the living room. One day, however, the mood suddenly turned sour, and that's when my wife first heard it.
Was it a nonsense word, or was it simply an approximation of something one of them had heard? While its origin would remain a mystery, its meaning would not. Over the next few days, the word deebies resurfaced, sometimes arising in a moment of anger and other times sputtered in mock frustration followed by giggles. We looked at the little ones in amazement. Apparently, they had invented their very own swear word.
A golf ball sails across the fairway. A loaf of bread rests upon the cutting board in two neat halves. A balloon explodes as a child inflates it. Each of these scenarios suggests an obvious cause: A golfer has swung a club at the ball, a baker has applied a bread knife to the loaf, the child has exhaled more air than the balloon's capacity. The sailing ball, divided loaf, and exploding balloon are therefore the effects of their respective causes. All of this is so clear that it hardly warrants discussion. Yet the fundamental concept of cause and effect is often frustratingly elusive. At the risk of appearing smugly metacognitive, I ask the question, What is the cause of this misunderstanding?
Part of the problem rests in the brain's unceasing habit of inferring information regardless of the quantity or quality of the data it receives. Our minds are constantly mulling over sensory intake with a silent hmmm... and very often proposing unsolicited hypotheses preceded by maybe because... This phenomenon exhibits itself regularly in my elementary classroom, where I need only ask for the cause of, say, a fictional character's sudden wealth, and all at once a couple dozen young brains start churning. Some hands go up much too early in a competitive impulse. Should I call on one of the first volunteers, the odds are good that the chosen student will not have thought through the problem for the best answer. I can always tell this when a child starts to answer a question that requires a definitive cause by using the words Maybe because..., often said with interrogative intonation. In fact, so pervasive did this response become last year that I banned the phrase maybe because from our classroom whenever a clearly identifiable cause was readily available.