Weighing in on grammar and Brian Williams

NBC suspended “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, one of America's most notable newscasters, for six months without pay for repeatedly telling a false war story involving himself.

In the dumb and dumber department, it seems I have the unique distinction of topping out both categories as pertains to a specific grammatical problem raised a few weeks back, in which I said I felt “badly” as opposed to “bad” while suffering through a recent case of the flu.

A reader protested. I put the matter up for discussion, the mail poured in, and EVERYBODY agreed with the reader — that feeling “bad” (as in ill) is the only grammatically correct way to feel. In the words of my old friend and retired newspaper photographer Bill Jordan, who was a mentor of mine during my high school and college days in the photo lab, and who had an amusing and no-nonsense way of assessing sub-par performance: “Son, you just plain full up with the dumb a--.”

I put a shout out to Ken Hauck, my fourth-grade English teacher at Porter-Gaud, to help mediate this crisis and render a final verdict.

“One can feel both ‘bad’ and ‘badly,’” he writes (in part,) “depending on what is meant. In the fourth grade we actually did not spend much time learning about the copulative verbs (linking verbs) except for the be verbs (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being). ... While those are often helping verbs, when they are linking verbs they are followed by a subjective complement (predicate, noun, pronoun, or adjective), which refers back to the subject. By 6th grade, students learned that there are other verbs sometimes used as linking verbs such as grow, seem, become, appear and the sense verbs: look, feel, sound, taste and smell. Therefore, one should say, ‘The boy feels bad,’ since bad is a predicate adjective referring back to the boy, i.e. modifying or describing the boy. In this sentence bad means sick.

“On the other hand, if I say I feel badly that means there is a problem with my ability to touch or handle something and being able to distinguish it from something else. I can remember discussing this with the class and as an example walking up to one of the boys, closing my eyes, and then rubbing the top of his head and saying, ‘Yes, I think this is a cantaloupe.’ The boys would howl, but they got the idea. Obviously my ability to feel was not exactly what it should have been.”

Well there it is, right from Mount Rushmore. I remember Ken and columnist emeritus Ashley Cooper discussing grammatical miscues, the most famous of which at the time (dating us just a tad, I dare say) was the famous Winston cigarette slogan: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Both Ken and Lord Ashley agreed that “like” was wrong and that the correct word in its place should have been “as.”

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Poor Brian Williams. If there was ever a guy who seemed born for the job of news anchor, it was him.

From the sonorous tones of his rich baritone to the raising of an eyebrow, tilt of the head, concerned furrowing of the brow, relaxed demeanor and nearly perfect elocution and delivery, he was it, THE best. Or at least I thought he was.

So good that Maureen Dowd recalled in a recent column joking with him once and wondering if he weren’t some kind of anchor android. “Not that I’m aware of,” Williams replied. “I can deny the existence of a factory in the American Midwest that puts out people like me.”

And contrary to what a lot of others seem to think, I did not perceive him as a de facto and biased liberal apologist — or at least as compared with some of his predecessors and competitors, some of whom were outrageous, including dear old Uncle Walter, who had no qualms introducing editorial commentary into his reporting of the news.

In fact, Williams struck me as atypically (as far as some national new anchors are concerned) pro-American and supportive of salt of the Earth middle-class values. Of local interest, he paid a lovely tribute to Medal of Honor recipients when the museum on the aircraft carrier Yorktown opened in 2007 and he gave a wonderful commencement address at Elon University in 2013. He is known to be entertaining, engaging, and self-deprecating, as demonstrated many times over the years on late night TV.

So why a guy like that would find it necessary to embellish a record that had already put him at the top of his own game is perplexing. We’ve all got character flaws and I’m trying not to be judgmental, but there was no good that could have possibly come out of it and why risk the consequences?

It’s a sad situation and I’m afraid he’s finished. Bias is one thing, but dishonesty and unreliability are traits that don’t exactly sit very comfortably in the anchor chair. Most disturbing of all, though, is how such flawless appearance should be so apparently false.

It’s enough to make one furrow a brow in consternation.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.