Monday, July 16, 2012


I’ve been sitting (read: stewing) on this subject for months now, and it’s time to let off some steam.

Rant Mode ON:

Whatever happened to proper, grammatical English?

Some grammarians attribute the near-universal collapse of proper English usage to social media such as emails and texting, but I don’t buy it.  The collapse of our beloved tongue began long before electrons started replacing ink.  I am not concerned with internet shorthand such as LOL, IIRC, or even BFF.  I am talking about basic, essential English as taught by Mrs. Woodroofe way back in the 1960s.  She was not only my English teacher in grade and high school but my aunt, and she went to considerable length to avoid giving me the benefit of the doubt at grading time. 

Fortunately, I missed a lot of school as a youngster due to illness, and unknowingly I used the time well by reading literate texts.  I absorbed proper usage almost by osmosis, which was a Good Thing because I was never-ever going to diagram sentences coherently, let alone remember all those rules and exceptions (“I before E except after C, or sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh.”)

The reasons for near-universal English abuse are varied, but I blame the twin evils of indifference and political correctness.  I believe that feel-good classroom philosophies permitting approximate spelling or usage will be found at the core of the educational self-esteem movement.  It’s related to the huggy-feely notion that we’re all Special, and it’s hurtful to correct the little darlings when they’re wrong.  (Related issue: the current crop of “parents” consider any public venue a playground, hence children running around shouting in restaurants.  It’s happened to me twice lately.  A subject for a future Rant.) 

Several years ago I saw a news report about a black lady trying to teach English at an inner-city school, either in Chicago or Detroit.  She insisted on proper grammar but was resisted by many students who wanted to indulge in street talk/jive/whatever.  Naturally, the Education Professionals in the front office failed to support her, even though she was unquestionably right: once out of school, the bro’s and sisters speakin’ da way dey want were going to have problems getting hired for most positions dealing with da public.  She cared more about the kids’ future than they, their parents/guardians, or the administrators.  God bless her.  At least she tried; her halo awaits.

However, the point of this Rant is not minority/ethnic argot but common usage in personal communication and in the media.  Here’s a random list of errors that make me cranky because they’re so damnably common.  A tip of the hat to my friend and colleague Colonel Walt Boyne, USAF (Ret) for inciting this month’s topic.  In fact, I’ll let him lead off:

“A surprising example is the use of ‘ordinance’ vice ordnance by people who should know better.  I just reviewed an Air Force colonel's PhD thesis that needed a global search to root out the error.”

Walt has a solid point.  I wonder if that O-6 knew that the use of ordnance is governed by ordinances and laws and stuff.  Evidently not.

“This and These.”  Boy, does THIS abuse get me going, harking back to Mrs. W and two other competent teachers who stressed the need for specifics and clarity (oddly enough, or not, only one of them was a journalism instructor.)  Definite articles such as This and These have become universal crutches, used so often in the same paragraph or even sentences that the original intent becomes blurred.  One short passage from an otherwise fine book:

“The British also carried out a significant number of precision attacks during this period, though we tend to forget this, which lent themselves to detailed interpretation of specific facilities, as did American precision raids beginning in August 1942.  This skill proved vital once the bombing effort moved away from city attacks…”

More examples of common usage abuse:

"The exact same situation/whatever."  If it’s the same, why is it more the same with Exact?

Gender vs Sex.  Forget English grammar; there are now dictionary definitions stressing Gender Issues without mentioning grammar, but in usage there are obvious differences between the masculine and feminine genders.  Or there were once upon a time.

Which vs That.  Relative pronouns introducing adjectival (descriptive) clauses frequently are folded, spun and mangled.  To quote a professor, “That which is, is.  That which is not, is not.”

That vs Who.  Misuse of the relative pronouns is increasingly common: "People that do thus and such" (Sean Hannity probably is the Main Offender).  The way I learned it, “who” refers to people (including deities) while “that” refers to nonhumans, including animals, buildings, policies, etc., etc., etc. 

"Between you and I" should of course be “Between you and me.”

“He was taller than me.”  Shouldn’t be hard to get right.  “He was taller than me am tall” or “He was taller than I am tall”?  Sheesh.

Lie vs lay.  Past participles are tough—I never did get my nascent brain around them, at least not reliably on English tests.  Sorry, but “A transitive verb requires a direct object” just addles me.  Other than “Now I lay me down to sleep,” I wordsmith my way around the whole grammatical sandpit.  “I put the damn thing wherever I wanted.”  Sothere…

Hopefully.  It’s an adverb, which is a modifier: “We waited hopefully for the ninth inning.”  But proper use has been overwhelmed by convention: “Hopefully our team will rebound in the ninth” when the intent is “We hope that our team will rebound.”  This year the Associated Press permits the misuse due to general acceptance.

Irregardless.  It’s not a real word.

Among aviation people: hanger vs hangar.

Among many Christians, Cavalry vs Calvary!

Amurrica typically overdoes apostrophes.  I have seen a sign at an Arizona trailer park: "Tonight's movie, My Hero's Have Alway's Been Cowboy's."  Honest.

And as a onetime broadcaster, I get REAL cranky when a straight news story says, "The guy was last seen heading thataway."  Ever hear "the gal was wearing..."?

Me neither.

Just thought I’d mention it.

Rand Mode to STANDBY