Tag Archives: plain English

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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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Unprecedented

Tweeting about the Chinese retrieval of an American drone, Donald Trump recently tweeted:

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”

Did you notice the typo? Trump said it was an “unpresidented” act. I don’t believe such a word exists, but obviously he has things presidential on his mind. I would tender the observation that many things he has done and said are unprecedented. I only wish there were a way to unpresident him. Just my opinion.

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Trump’s Use of Language

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Full disclaimer: I am not and never was a supporter of Donald Trump. As much as I abhorred his style of campaigning and saw him as a misogynistic, racist, and cruel candidate (I cannot shake the image of him imitating a disabled reporter), I was always fascinated by his use of language. He usually spoke in very short sentences with a severely limited vocabulary, often in fragments, and repeated words and phrases many times in a row. He was far from a polished speaker, but I have no doubt his conversational style struck a chord with his audiences: he showed he was not above them, that he was at their level. He made them comfortable. Many poor, jobless, undereducated and uneducated people were able to relate to a New York City billionaire who attended an Ivy League school. Go figure.

The following items are far from a full analysis of his favorite words, just some that have stuck with me.

CLASSY: I built the Grand Hyatt right next to Grand Central Station —beautiful, classy job— but then the city denied my request to have the top 10 floors illuminated with my face at night. Can you believe that?

TERRIFIC: (About Obamacare): Repeal and replace with something terrific. (But no details were given.)

TREMENDOUS: I am worth a tremendous amount of money. I have had tremendous success.
(on Islam) There’s something there…there’s a tremendous hatred there.

HUGE (pronounced YUGE): It’s gonna be huge!

AMAZING: Yesterday was amazing—5 victories.

DANGEROUS: (on protesters at Trump speeches) They are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people.

TOUGH: Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?

SMART: I’m, like, a really smart person.

MORON: (on Nelson Mandela’s funeral) What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at [the] funeral!

WE: (This indicates solidarity with his audiences. He is telling them what they believe and that he agrees with them.) We need to build a wall on the Mexican border. We are going to make Mexico pay for it.
We are going to make great trade deals.
We are going to bring back our jobs.
We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.

THEY: (This word indicates “the other,” those who are in opposition.)  (on immigrants) They’re pouring in. They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime.
The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
(on poor people who become politicians) And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.

LOSER: (on John McCain) I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I’ve never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers…. He’s not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

STUPID: I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

WINNING: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!

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Simplifying Legalese

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Here is the writing on a T-shirt I bought for my husband, a lawyer. It’s labeled “The Layman’s Glossary of Legal Terms”:

ACQUIT: To wimp out
APPELLATE: Hamster food
ARRAIGN: Stormy weather
ATTORNEY: Major sporting event
BAR ASSOCIATION: Drinking buddies
BONA FIDE: Dog treat
CRIMINAL LAWYER: Redundant
COURT OF APPEALS: Justice for bananas
CRIME OF PASSION: Sloppy kisses
DEBTOR: Less alive
DECEIT: A place to sit down
DISCOVERY: Cable TV channel
EXTRADITION: More math homework
GRACE PERIOD: Just before the meal
HUNG JURY: Overreaction to verdict
IN TOTO: Where Dorothy places trust
INNOCENCE: Fragrant when burned
LEGAL BRIEFS: Always boxers
LEGAL SECRETARY: Old enough to party
LIEN: Not overweight
MIRANDA RULE: Wear fruit on head
ORDER IN THE COURT: A call for takeout
PRO BONO: Cher before the divorce
ROE V. WADE: Tough choice at river
SUPREME COURT: Where Diana Ross plays tennis
TRIAL DATE: More fun than dinner and a movie

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How Does This Issue Impact You?

So many issues to contemplate and solve. Issue after issue. Issues are issuing forth from radio, television and every segment of media all day and all night. We are bombarded with issues.

We are constantly being asked how these issues impact us. So many impacts. Impacts here, impacts there, impacts, impacts everywhere.

What I want to know is what happened to problems affecting people. I’m guessing impact has replaced affect, at least in writing, because so many people are unsure whether to use affect or effect.

Either of those can be used instead of impact:

  1. How does this problem affect you? (Affect is a verb.)
  2. What will be the effect of this problem? (Effect is a noun.)

It’s true that affect can be a noun: The patient had a flat affect (no facial expression).

Effect can also be a verb: Every new president hopes to effect changes (meaning bring about). 

However, you can see how rarely each of those words is used in those ways. Try memorizing the overwhelmingly more common uses of affect and effect (see sentences 1 and 2 above) and take them out for a spin every now and then. Don’t get stuck in the Issue and Impact Rut.

 

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Can You Do These Things?

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Glued to the TV

Can you do your level best? Can you throw a fit? How about throwing someone under the bus? Or throwing a birthday party? Can you crack a smile, float a trial balloon, pose a question, bear the brunt, beat a hasty retreat, grab a nap, or cause someone’s words to fall on deaf ears? Are you glued to the conventions? Can you drive a hard bargain and nail down an argument?

If you can do these acts, it might be better if you didn’t. They’re all clichés, and everyone knows clichés should be avoided like the plague.

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