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Friday, April 30, 2021

Language Abuse, Grammar Addiction

     "I'm silently correcting your grammar."

     That's what it says on my new coffee cup, and that’s what I do. Can’t help it. I'm commenting (to myself) about the stylistic quality of what I'm hearing in this conversation we're having. I'm commenting in detail, all in my head.

     An obsession with the rules of language arose in me early, and has sent down deep roots over the ensuing decades.

     I'm the son of an editor. I wrote well from an early age. I was successively an English major, a newspaper editor and a management/writing instructor. I designed and delivered a three-day course in Business Writing and a daylong training session for working professionals called “A Grammar Refresher.”

     You don’t easily get over such a history.

     And there are a lot of us so afflicted. When we amateur grammarians are together – such as enjoying a family TV evening – we drive everyone else to distraction. All commercials, and all newscasts and other programs, are met with a stream of critical commentary on whatever language is involved. Needless to say, the remarks rarely are complimentary.

     Reading the newspaper is a special treat for grammar addicts – especially those who are recovering newspaper editors.

     (Do you know how many times “its” was mistakenly presented as “it’s” in today’s paper?)

     For the information of those who care – and the many who don’t – there is nothing sacred about the relationship between the apostrophe and the possessive. It doesn't always have to be there. Have you noticed that "his" lives happily without one?

     But the poor apostrophe does have a number of jobs, one of which is to show elision, the dropping of one or more letters from a word. “All’s well that ends well,” for example, is a statement that bounces well off the tongue when "All's" takes over for “all is.” That’s one of Shakespeare’s many gifts to the linguist.

     How did the apostrophe come about, anyway?

     ’Way back in the history of our language, I’m told, you’d use the possessive pronoun “his” in this way: “John his book.” Over time, the term was shortened to “John’s book,” with the apostrophe -- contributed by the French language -- marking the spot where the possessive pronoun used to be. (The feminine possessive was never granted an elision for this.)


    The coffee cup whose inscription triggered all this is a gift to editor-writer me from my writer-editor daughter Maureen, another recovering newsperson and self-identified grammar addict 

     Now that I'm older and wiser, somewhat, I generally keep such critiques to myself. The instinct to help people improve their linguistic habits is never appreciated. They take it personally, and being right does not make you popular.

     Some really ugly exchanges can be ignited by a sarcastic chuckle at someone’s self-assured remark about, say, the serial (Oxford) comma, the one that goes before the "and" at the end of a series. Or not.

     Why do people take this stuff so personally?

     Apparently, your speech is closely tied to your sense of self. Something you’ve learned is something you’ve earned, and it’s precious to you. Experience proves that people’s first acquaintance with anything becomes their conviction about it.

     They’ll fight you, maybe physically, if you demean some treasured definition or usage they picked up along the way.


     We refer to it as “grammar,” but what do we mean?

     A veteran reporter once told me she had been given a test by a newspaper that was considering her for a staff job. She was asked to name the parts of speech. “Well, I could think of subject and predicate,” she told me, “but then I couldn’t remember the others.”

     Sorry, my dear friend, subject and predicate generally are not parts of speech, although they are parts of a sentence. (She got the job anyway. Probably sounded fine to the editor.)

     Some people think any words you say or write fall within the definition of grammar. But some words don't. This language field is infested with tight-minded lawgivers. I saw one formal definition that confined grammar to the rules for use of the eight parts of speech. Or is it nine? Ten? More?

     Test yourself: What are those parts of speech?

     (I pause here so you can write them down.) 

     The parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection ("Hey!") and article/determiner ("the" and "a"). That's eight. The article sometimes is classified as an adjective. And articles can be subdivided into definite  (the) and indefinite (a). And verbs can be lexical or auxiliary. Conjunctions split into a couple of classes. And so on.

     Instead of all that you might want to simplify things with one broad and inclusive definition: Grammar is a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.

     Not so fast. Imagine tossing the red meat of the term “presumed prescriptive” into the middle of a conversation among a few grammarians.  


     Language abuse is constant. Even normally forgiving people have to be sick of the inappropriate use of the adverb “incredibly” these days. “Incredible” means beyond belief.             “I’m incredibly impressed.” Do you mean you don’t believe you’re impressed? Or are you suggesting we shouldn’t believe you’re impressed? Or are you just mindlessly using the word to indicate you’re really, really impressed?

     As one of these sloppy usages sweeps the country, the foul phenomenon reminds us once again how handy a popular cliché is in saving a speaker/writer the pain of thinking too  much – even as it robs the listener/reader of meaningful value. 

     In the end, your use of language needs to account for three important matters: 

1.               Most people don’t know or care about everyday grammar errors. However, if your target readership/listenership includes 25 percent who know proper grammar, those people do care about the difference. They tend to be judgmental, and they tend to be influencers -- meaning they're very ready with very definite opinions, and many people listen to them. 

2.              You wouldn’t write if you didn’t intend to have readers. If your readers have the normal range of sophistication, you want the text to be useful and pleasant to everybody, the least educated and most educated among them. 

               Good grammar can be so labored it turns your regular reader off. Tinker with your wording until it is both accurate and acceptable.

3.         . . . To butcher a famous comment by Professor Henry Higgins: It doesn't matter what you say or write if you don't word it correctly. 

             Good luck.


See also: Project Management: Words Matter