Tag Archives: English language

Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Clever Words for Clever People

Another good one from my friend Nicki N. Thanks, amiga!
 
1. ARBITRAITOR
A cook that leaves Arby’s to work at McDonald’s.
2. BERNADETTE
The act of torching a mortgage.
3. BURGLARIZE
What a crook sees through.
4. AVOIDABLE
What a bullfighter tries to do.
5. COUNTERFEITER
Workers who put together kitchen cabinets.
6. LEFT BANK
What the bank robbers did when their bag was full of money.
7. HEROES
What a man in a boat does.
8. PARASITES
What you see from the Eiffel Tower.
9. PARADOX
Two physicians.
10. PHARMACIST
A helper on a farm.
11. RELIEF
What trees do in the spring.
12. RUBBERNECK
What you do to relax your wife.
13. SELFISH
What the owner of a seafood store does.
14. SUDAFED
Brought litigation against a government official.

 

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Singular or Plural?

I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.

• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.

• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.

Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.

But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural.  Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:

The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.

 

 

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Abbreviations vs. Acronyms

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When people see an abbreviation, many refer to it as an acronym, thinking they mean the same thing. They don’t.

You all know what an abbreviation is.  An acronym is also an abbreviation—but one that is pronounced as a word:

NASA

Snafu ( it lost the caps when it became a common word)

Scuba (ditto)

Fubar (ditto)

MOMA in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles

You’d never say “Oosuh” or “Yoosuh,” so USA is not an acronym, just an abbreviation.

All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.

(If you’re not sure what snafu and fubar stand for, look them up in your online dictionary; there you will discover the slightly off-color meanings.)

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Don’t Shun the -sions

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An optical illusion–I see movement and three dimensions. Perhaps I am deluded.

 

Here are a few words that look as if they might be related,  but they have different meanings:

ILLUSION: 1) A false belief or idea. 2) Something that is perceived incorrectly, such as an optical illusion. For example, at times the moon appears to be enormous, but, in fact, it doesn’t change its size. For a multitude of optical illusions, google the art of MC Escher.

ALLUSION: A reference to something without specifically mentioning it. For example, many literary works contain allusions to Shakespeare’s plays.

DELUSION: An idea firmly held but not founded in fact. Paranoid thought can involve many delusions.

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Vivid Headlines

My Florida friend Cami sent me these headlines, as shown in newspapers. I have fiddled around with the images and am not sufficiently tech savvy to be able to show you those pages. I am able to copy the headlines for your entertainment. I’m fairly certain several were written intentionally and somehow got past the newspapers’ censors. Here we go:

Rangers get whiff of Colon

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Barbershop singers bring joy to school for deaf

Miracle cure kills fifth patient

Bridges help people cross rivers

Girls’ schools still offering “something special”—Head

Still unsure why the sewer smells

17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree

Starvation can lead to health hazards

Man Accused of Killing Lawyer Receives a New Attorney

Parents keep kids home to protest school closure

Hospitals resort to hiring doctors

Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons

Total lunar eclipse will be broadcast live on Northwoods Public Radio

Diana was still alive hours before she died

Meeting on open meetings is closed

Tiger Woods plays with own balls, Nike says

Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package

New sick policy requires 2-day notice

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25

Bugs flying around with wings are flying bugs

Study Shows Frequent Sex Enhances Pregnancy Chances

Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee

Worker suffers leg pain after crane drops 800-pound ball on his head

Thank you, Cami!

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About Condoms

Because this blog is about the English language, just about any topic can be adapted to fit. Today we shall speak of condoms. My reference book is A Browser’s Dictionary (and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language), compiled by John Ciardi.

Ciardi states that “the first to deal with this word was Capt. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785.” Here is Grose’s definition:

Cundum. The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection; said to have been invented by one Colonel Cundum. These machines were long prepared and sold by a matron of the name Phillips at the Green Canister, in Half-moon St., in the Strand. That good lady having acquired a fortune, retired from business, but learning that the town was not well served by her successor, she, out of a patriotic zeal for the public welfare, returned to her occupation, of which she gave notice by divers hand-bills in circulation in the year 1776.

Ciardi then notes, “What Grose is really saying is that the old bag sold her business and then set up competitive shop again, ruining the poor fool to whom she had sold out.”

My note: I’m not sure what Grose meant by “machines,” and I find it interesting that he considered condoms useful for preventing STDs but said nothing about their contraceptive function.

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