The Grammatical Curmudgeon*

Mapping the Decline of the English Language

Robert G. Ferrell
I'm a writer. I deal with English as both an art form and a means of communication every day. I occasionally even derive income from this pursuit. I'm also a lifelong devotee of the language and its myriad uses for expressing human sentiment.

As a consequence of this dedication, I get somewhat irritated by blatant abuse of the structure and form of the language by people who either don't know any better (failure of the educational system) or don't care (intellectually apathy, an epidemic in this country). This journal is an attempt to document insofar as possible the slow but steady decay of what was once a beautiful and elegant linguistic instrument. Along the way it will also provide some helpful hints for improving your own command of the language.

English is a potpourri from a variety of linguistic sources, the sum of whose contributions is a language rich with multicultural influences and textures. It's not an easy language to learn or use correctly, for it has many conflicting and seemingly arbitrary rules, but employed properly I believe no language in the human repertoire surpasses it for clarity and range of expression.

Ill fares the land, to galloping fears a-prey, when gobbledygook accumulates, and words decay.
         -James Thurber, to whom this site is respectfully and affectionately dedicated.

28 January 2004

When did the spelling of "the process of growing older" shift from "aging" to "ageing?" Merriam-Webster shows the latter to be acceptable, although secondary to the former, but lately I've been seeing this rather ungainly variant taking over. Is this a harbinger of some misguided effort to bring uniformity to English spelling rules? I see "judgement" fairly often, too, although I'll admit this one isn't so offensive. What's next, "engageing?" "Dateing?" "Operateing?" I find the whole trend very exasperateing.

29 January 2004

Today's installment owes a debt of gratitude to journalist Michelle Delio, who sent me a short list of her own observations in this field. As I happen to agree with her on all counts, I'll include them here.

Alot: this a not a word. It's a concatenation of "a lot." Allot is a word, but it means to assign, distribute, or mete out. The same applies to alright, which should be "all right."

Misuse of apostrophes: an apostrophe indicates possession or a contraction. It can also be used to form the plural when the noun already ends in "s." Allow me to illustrate.

"Is that your mother's orangutan? No, that's the Jones' from next door."
One usage that often trips people up is "its." This is the only case I can think of offhand where the possessive is not formed with an apostrophe. "Its" is possessive, whereas "it's" means "it is." It's just the way its plural has always been constructed.

An apostrophe should not be used for constructing plurals under ordinary circumstances. Just add an "s" and be done with it.

Overuse of exclamation points: I'm going to quote Michelle on this one.

I think people should be issued one dozen exclamation points at birth -- once they've used that dozen, that's it. Done. Over, no more exclamation points for you. Perhaps if exclamation points were rationed we'd all use them only when a sentence truly demands an emphasis that words alone cannot provide.
Personally I think our high stress society, coupled with the ease of access to exclamation points, is to blame. Multiple exclamation points are a plague devoutly to be avoided, lest we all sound like pubescent girls passing notes in algebra class. Mkay??!!!

Irregardless: while this is a word, technically, it's completely unnecessary. "Regardless" has the same meaning and is much less clunky.

Speaking of unnecessary, how about utilize? To date I have yet to encounter a single instance in which "use" is not the better choice. To utilize utilize when you could simply use use is bad bad.

A point that no longer matters is moot, not mute. Mute is a person who cannot speak, the action of silencing, or a button on a remote control that many of us wish would be supplied with every human being.

Using quotation marks for emphasis: this "will" drive you "bonkers" if you see "enough" of it. Thurber once remarked on the tendency of female novelists in the early 20th century to use italics to emphasize every other word. I think the quotation phenomenon is an extension of that malady. Wasn't that just amazing? I thought I would simply die!

30 January 2004

Hi, boys and girls. Today's installment begins with less and fewer. In a nutshell, if you can count them, use "fewer." If not, use "less." Erroneous example (taken from a fabric softener container): "Less Wrinkles. Less Ironing." Ironing is a verb with no specific quantity connected to it, so "less" is fine in this case. Wrinkles may be enumerated, however, so the first phrase should read, "Fewer Wrinkles." The fewer mistakes you make in this regard, the less like an idiot you look.

Like and as are also perennial confusers. Use "like" when you want to compare two things: "Standard dachshunds are like cannister vacuums with legs." Use "as" to replace 'in the manner of,' as in: "Now everything was as it should be." Never allow yourself to utter the phrase "like I said;" roundly castigate anyone you catch doing so. Likewise, do not use "like" as filler in your conversations. It's, like, gross.

This segues neatly into the widespread and atrocious misuse of goes. This word has never been a synonym for "said," and never will be, if I have my way. To go is either 'to embark upon a journey' or, in cruder colloquial terms, 'to attend to one's excretory functions.' How it got associated with the process of verbalization is beyond me. I guess it just goes to show.

12 February 2004

TWIFOA: The World Is Full Of Acronyms. Sure, they can serve a useful purpose in this hectic race we call modern life, but if you're going to employ them in sentences, try to be certain you know what they stand for first. Few phrases engender in me the urge to tear out my own or someone else's hair more readily than "ATM machine" and "PIN number." I've even heard them used in the same sentence. "Insert your card into the ATM machine and enter your PIN number," some illiterate sot will blabber, "Now transfer $2,000 dollars into my IRA account as soon as ASAP."

IMNSHO, acronyms should be avoided like yesterday's sushi in written communication unless you're willing to think them through and use them appropriately. KWIM?

11 April 2004

The salient "o": There is apparently widespread confusion about the use of "loose" versus "lose." I suppose this is somewhat justified, because the two are rather closely related. To lose is to relinquish control or possession of something. To loose is to release. The more common usage of loose, however, is as an adjective (the opposite of tight): "loose as a goose" or "hang loose" being familiar examples. You can lose track of something, but you can't loose track of it. If you fail to win the game, you lose (although doing so might make you loose your inner demons).

18 April 2005

Comma-tary: I'll be the first to admit that there are no truly lucid rules covering the use of commas in written English. At least not any that mortal man can readily comprehend. In the interests of fighting the good fight, however, I'll take a stab at elucidating some of them. Fasten your seat belts and keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times, please.

The comma (that's one of these ->,<- for those of you who only do AIM) is intended to break up a sentence and give you a chance to breathe, physically or intellectually. Its most common use is to separate a modifying expression from the word or clause it modifies, as such:

Our postal delivery person, who has the work ethic of a deceased banana slug, once again failed to pick up our outgoing mail.

However, think not that you have now plumbed the depth of comma utility; you have but barely begun your journey of discovery. It is traditional, for example, to set off an internal quote using commas:

"I found a brand new golf ball in the woods today," he said suddenly, "a Top Flite Infinity."

I see this rule misused and ignored frequently.

It is equally important to avoid putting in punctuation where it has no business. I think the following comma pitfall is probably the one I encounter most often:

Gravity and taxes are the two funadamental forces, which drag us all down.

The comma serves no purpose here. The sentence works perfectly well without it. This is similar to the infamous "dangling participle" issue, where the comma is necessary but misplaced:

Approaching the intersection, a signal light fell on her sports utility vehicle.

That's bound to leave a mark. More on commas in some future installment.

In order to highlight the decline of editorial, if not actual grammatical, competence amongst the media (who ought to know better), here is a random sampling of errors I've encountered during my daily sojourns on the Web. I call it PwP (Publishing without Proofreading), a sort of oblique tribute to Scott Kurtz.

P w P
Date Quote/Source Comments
18 Apr 2005 Two Texas Murders Set for Execution on the Same Night This simple omission of two letters (er) completely changes the meaning of the sentence. Instead of "two convicted killers are to be put to death on the same evening," what this actually says is, "two people are to be killed illegally on the same evening," since the infinitive "to execute" simply means "to carry out." Is this merely a typo or a subtle comment on the legality of the death penalty?
3 Oct 2005 The 1982 discovery transformed peptic ulcer disease from a chronic, frequently disabling condition to one that can be cured by a short regiment of antibiotics and other medicines, the Nobel Prize committee said. The additional t conjures up a mental image of a vertically challenged military unit, rather than the intended regulated system of treatment.
30 Mar 2006 Kids allegedly kidnapped my mom back in Arizona OK, this is just a typo, a substitution of m for b in the word by. What it illustrates most clearly is the way in which failure to proofread can lead to a completely different meaning from the one intended.
4 May 2006 Jones say's it could turn out to mean more than just a training sight. There is a clause that the deal could end if San Antonio gets it's own NFL team. Say's? Sight for site? It's? Truly, a proofreading nadir.

*Apologies to Jericho for appropriating his label. ;-)

Revised 5/4/2006, RGF