Bad language

It’s not easy being an English major. Our ears are constantly battered, our eyes poked by print and bad signage. And what we love is daily assaulted by those who don’t even understand that they are doing violence to their mother tongue. 

Yes, I know. We each have our cross to bear. Those talented with numbers watch with sadness America’s poor math scores. Those who can draw are dumbfounded by the lack of visual literacy in our population. Those with the musical gift watch pop stars who require autotune to hit pitch. 

But the curse upon English majors is to hear TV newscasters mangle the language, politicians utter pious and meaningless gobbledy-gook, advertisers hollow out their words to imply what isn’t there. Most of these people should know better; they are too often deliberately subverting the language for some personal gain. 

And beyond that, there are common solecisms one encounters daily. How many times do e-mail writers confuse “there,” “they’re,” and “their?” Or someone order an “expresso” at Starbucks. Or hear the personal pronoun “I” used in the objective case — as in “Jessica gave her tickets to Tracy and I.”

We English majors cringe. 

I am not talking about a simple slip of the tongue, or, in print, a typo. Typos happen. I don’t know how many times, when working for the newspaper, I got phone calls or e-mails asking, “Don’t you people have proof readers?” But you try putting together the printed equivalent of a new novel every day without having the occasional misprint. It happens. A certain forgiveness is essential for living a graceful life. 

But I’m not talking about that. Typos happen once and don’t typically get repeated. I’m talking about misusing English habitually. 

Please don’t mistake me for the language police. I am a devout descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. Language is governed by usage, not rules. But some distinctions still need to be made for clarity. And while some usages may be changing, others remain a norm and to ignore them is simply illiterate. 

Indeed, speakers and writers all cause frequent flinching from those of us attuned to the mother tongue. In our household, we find ourselves yelling at the TV screen every time a talking head says “less people are moving to the cities,” or “the problem centers around …” or “none are …” Often in unison, we will yell at the screen, “None IS!” 

There are a bunch of issues that seem widespread in speech but also in print. Rampant apostrophes; excessive exclamation points; typing in ALL-CAPS.

There are words whose meanings are just not understood and used in jarring ways. “Enormity” does not mean “big.” An “epicenter” is not a fancier word for the “center.” To “beg the question” is not to “raise the question.” Yet you hear these constantly. Oy. 

There are common mispronunciations: “Mischievious” for “mischievous;” “nucular” for “nuclear;” “ek cetera” for “et cetera.” More flinching for us English majors. 

I’ve got four primary categories for these grammar and vocabulary issues. There may be more, but these are the four that constantly grab my attention.

— The first we can dismiss pretty quickly. I’m talking about breaking the pedantic “rules” enforced by grammar Nazis — those who adhere to outdated strictures and feel it is their duty to point out the mistakes to their fellows. 

These no-nos have been called “zombie rules,” and were devised mostly in the Victorian era by grammarians in pince-nez who tried to make English behave like Latin. Outdated ideas, such as that a sentence should not end in a preposition. That was never true for English. Just ask Shakespeare, or remember Winston Churchill’s famous “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put,” to show how silly such an idea is. 

The same for split infinitives. Let’s face it, “to go boldly where no man has gone before” does not mean the same thing as “to boldly go.” The first emphasizes the “bold” part, as if that were the important thing. But the true version, with the cloven infinitive, emphasizes the journey. There is a reason it was written the way it was. It was not a mistake or a solecism. 

Such zombie rules need to be whacked into an open grave with the backside of a shovel. 

We can still see the ghost of a few of these zombies as they dematerialize. The distinction between “who” and “whom” is now largely gone, left only for old schoolmarms to point out. “A lot” remains two words, but so many people write “alot” it may well enter the official language soon. 

“Who did you give that to” sounds idiomatic, whilst “to whom did you give that” sounds stilted, even though the first breaks two rules at one go. Oh, and yes, “whilst” is just silly.

There used to be significant differences between “Can I go to the concert?” and “May I go.” But only the pedant points them out. The same between “I might go,” and “I may go.” In the past, you would find schoolteachers parsing the differences between “among” and “between,” and between “common friends” and “mutual friends.” Ask Dickens about that one. 

— The second category includes common misuses that have spread virally. Some may eventually become part of proper usage, but as of now are still solecisms. There is a difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” Between “ensure” and “insure.” Between “further” and “farther.” 

Apostrophes do not create plurals, yet sign painters seem to love to sprinkle them into their work. Holiday cards come with the message, “Greetings from the Connolly’s.” “We did a lot of drugs in the 60’s.” (Just move the danged apostrophe in that last one — “in the ’60s.” And because typing on computers makes it an extra step, try to avoid using a single open-quote in place of the apostrophe — not “in the ‘60s.”)

Words that are similar get confused: “discreet” and “discrete;” “flout” and “flaunt;” “foreward” and “forward,” “loath” and “loathe.” “Hoard” and “horde” (to say nothing of “hord,” used almost exclusively for “wordhord,” meaning “vocabulary.”) I knew a poor medical secretary who fought with a physician when she had dared correct a letter in which he had dictated, “keep you appraised of the situation.” She fixed it to “apprised,” and the doctor scolded her and retyped it “appraised.” Some of these things are stubborn. 

I also remember a real estate sign I saw, advertising a “track of land for sale.” And politicians often like to take a different “tact” to a problem. 

— The third group concerns idiom. If you want language to be logical and rational, you will have to give up on English — or any other language, for that matter. Idioms are common usages and they laugh in the face of logic. 

A good deal of our speech consists of idioms, and if we don’t want to sound like someone for whom English is a second language, we have to let them through the gate. I’ve seen so many corrections yelled at “I could care less” — no, it is not the opposite of “I couldn’t care less,” it is the same, just as “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same. It is an idiom.

After all, “window shopping” doesn’t mean you are shopping for windows. Idioms are just things that have slipped into our informal language over time, often unnoticed. 

If you have “bought the farm,” it doesn’t mean you purchased property upstate to grow sorghum. Elbows don’t have grease. Whistles are not cleaner than anything else. Turkeys are not cold. Thunder cannot be stolen. Teeth have no skin. 

It isn’t only English, of course. In Japan, if you “have a wide face,” it means you’ve got lots of friends. Why? Dunno. It’s an idiom. In Spain, to turn someone down is to “give them pumpkins.” In Portugal, if you treat someone especially nice who doesn’t need or deserve it, you are “feeding the donkey sponge cake.” In France, window shopping is “licking the glass.” In Latvia, to “blow little ducks” is to talk nonsense. In Sweden, “There’s no cow on the ice,” means “don’t worry.” 

I remember Mrs. Weinstein observing that some glutton “eats like he’s got nine rectums.” A Southerner driving fast for long distances will say he is “busting bugs on my teeth.” A Southern widower is a “granny dodger.” I loves me some idiom. 

Idioms are also regional locutions, or cultural markers. Black English is not English with rules broken, but English with its own set of rules. An Englishman might complain that Americans say “different from” and think it is wrong, because he’s been taught to say “different to.” These things happen over time, space and cultures. English is not a monolithic, single thing with a single right and wrong. 

Appalachian English has a whole different vocabulary: “That Granny woman has a jag o’ simples in her poke” means the midwife has a small amount of medicinal herbs in her bag. 

Variant dialects treat tenses differently, pronouns, even sentence structure differently. They are not wrong. They are just variants. 

In the U.S., among younger speakers, you are sure to hear “like” meaning “said.” “An he’s like, ‘Are you going to the show?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course.’” It sounds illiterate to older listeners, but over time, it may very well become standardized. Still, I wouldn’t want to put that down in a job application. 

“Would of,” “should of” and “could of” are just mishearings of “would’ve,” “should’ve” and “could’ve,” and may also eventually become standard English as idiom. Not yet, though, please. 

— Finally, there are my personal grievances. Each of us makes a choice on which grammatical or vocabulary usages we find acceptable and which remain ugly in our ears. We each have to draw a line somewhere. My own line is rather forgiving, but there are locutions that give me a bad electrical ping to my spine and I react instantly.

I don’t know where your line may be, but here are a few of the things that are over mine:

Pictures are hung; criminals are hanged. I will yell at the TV screen when I hear them confused. 

“Imply” and “infer” are two different and opposite things. 

“Less” and “fewer” are clear as a bell to me. Ring the wrong one and I start awake. More screen yelling. 

While it doesn’t bother me too much when I hear or read it, in my writing I still make a clear distinction between “convince” and “persuade.” 

Certainly, I have been trained to Pavlovian perfection by having worked at a newspaper for so many years and having memorized the Associated Press Stylebook the way John Gielgud memorized Hamlet. And so, even though I have been retired for a decade, I still mostly adhere to AP guidelines. 

(Those guidelines are not always right. For years, the Stylebook required us to spell the small hot peppers as “chillies,” although that made us look illiterate to any Southwestern citizen who knows they are “chiles.” Eventually, my newspaper broke with AP and let us spell it in a way that didn’t make us seem like idiots. Many years later, the Associated Press relented and now they also require “chiles.” Change comes dripping slow.)

Probably the biggest, and most common problem that I react badly to is the use of “I” in the objective case. It grates on my ears like a fork on a dinner plate. I cannot stand it. Yet it is becoming pervasive. 

No doubt, all those people, who, as schoolkids, were scolded for saying “Me and Tommy went to the store” — “No, that’s ‘Tommy and I,’” said the teacher, maybe with a threatening ruler in her hand — have taken the lesson to where it doesn’t belong and now feel it must be more correct to say, “He gave it to Tommy and I.” However it came about, it is barbarous and should be extirpated. 

Related to the “I” problem is the increasing use of “myself” where “me” would do. Perhaps it sounds more correct to some ears, but it is an unneeded prolixity. Much of common writing by those who were not English majors seems to want to sound more important than it is, and longer words, or words that sound as if they should be more “correct,” infects such language. “Roger and myself went to the store” is another barbarism, as is “He gave it to Roger and myself.” Ugly, ugly, ugly. Don’t do it. 

Language changes over time and we cannot stop it any more than we can stop aging. Some changes come, sit in the vocabulary for a decade or so and disappear into the phrase graveyard, like “23-skidoo.” Proposals to make gender-fluid pronouns are being tried; perhaps they will stick, most likely they will fade. “Ms.” was once a fad word, but has become so normal, no one even notices anymore. Language changes.

But those with their antennae out are trying these words and phrases out and testing them for durability. Meanwhile, barbarisms are still barbarisms.

Artists have visual talent; musicians have hearing talent; dancers have kinetic talent. English majors have a sensitivity to language and grammar and just like a wrong note causes pain in a pianist, so these solecisms can cause anguish to the poor English major. Have pity on us. 

1 comment
  1. I don’t think I had occasion to interact with you during my time at The Republic as a copy editor (2000-2007), but I have always appreciated your writing. Thanks for this blog. I think you hit a sizable majority of my own list of pain-inducing infractions. I’m particularly happy to see you included the dreaded apostrophe scandals, especially the single open quotation mark usage problem.

    I think I first noticed this way back in the late 1970s or so, when I was for a while an electronic typesetting machine operator. This was, I’m pretty sure, before the advent of relatively sophisticated word processing programs with “smart quotes” capabilities. However, by that time typesetting programs already used them, but the problem was that they were and are, not smart enough to know when one means to use an initial apostrophe instead of an initial (opening) single quote mark.

    I am assuming the same programming that made these typesetting machines work was probably copied over into the first popular word processing programs when those came along later and has resided there ever since.

    My solution was always to type two quote marks and then delete the first one. But since almost no one seems to be taught about this problem when learning a computer word processing problem, most writers (typers) simply blunder on past it, either unknowingly, or if they notice it, seem to have no clue how to fix it.

    I just subscribed to your blog, and so, hopefully (there’s another one) I will get to read more of your missives.

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