Everyone knows that person, the corrector. The person who stops you midsentence to fix a grammar error, points out the apostrophe or lack thereof on signs, and carries a red pen in their back pocket. Author of the bestselling humorous grammar book “Eats, Shoots, & Leaves,” Lynn Truss includes herself as she describes these special people: “For any true stickler…the sight of the plural word ‘Book’s’ with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.” and goes on to say, “We refuse to patronise [sic] any shop with checkouts for ‘eight items or less’ (because it should be ‘fewer’), and we got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’, and we really hate that.” (2003, p. 1-4) It is hard to have sympathy for these people when these blunders do not bother the average English speaker. But, they are onto something and we need to take notice. Grammar vigilantes are quick to point out mistakes that go otherwise unnoticed. Their constant corrections annoy and irritate the average person so thoroughly that many wish the sticklers would simply disappear. These small seldom noticed errors are growing more frequent and more severe and slowly leading us not only to miscommunication, but illiteracy.
An excerpt from the opening of an essay written by a thirteen year old student about her summer holiday leaves her teacher clueless, “My smmr hols wr CWOT, B4, we, used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :[email protected] kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.” Translated: “My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend, and their three screaming kids face to face. I like New York, it’s a great place.” (Freund, 2003, p. 12) But students are not the only ones with grammar issues. A sign declaring “NO PARKING ALOUD,” apparently permits the parking of quiet vehicles (Nichols, 2009, p. 63). Even those that are supposed to have reliably correct grammar err. A newspaper tries to entice buyers with the headline “Fan’s Fury at Stadium Inquiry,” when in fact; it was a mob of fans, rather than one (Truss, 2003, p. 2); while another headline announces “Dead Sons Photos May Be Released,” leaving the reader wondering whether there is one dead son, or many (Truss, 2003, p. 13). And “people ‘could care less,’ even when they couldn’t” (Klose 1996, para. 9). A list of errors similar to these could consume an entire volume of books, and their impact cannot be ignored much longer.
Attempting to fix and prevent these errors is foolish if the cause is not determined first. The general consensus among scholars is that the educational system is simply failing students where English is concerned. High school biology teacher Robert Klose decisively places the blame squarely on schools (1996, para. 10). College Board President, Gaston Caperton blames plummeting English SAT scores on the “dumbing-down” of English classes (Barnes, 2002, para. 1). The standardized test model that schools have uniformly adapted does great things for math, but takes the blame for declining English skills (Barnes, 2002, para. 4). In his article, “Readers: Wanted,” Julian Barnes sites a survey of students that took the SAT, discussing how English class requirements and enrollment have fallen (Barnes, 2002, para. 3). While preparing for these tests, reading falls by the wayside, claims English teacher Kay Morgan, she insists students have stopped reading outside of the classroom stunting their intellectual growth (Barnes, 2002, para. 4). Pat Graff, co-chair of the English department of a high school in New Mexico explains that when a teacher sees 150 students a day, editing that amount of writing takes a substantial amount of time (Barnes, 2002, para. 4). It is hard to dispute the evidence that schools do indeed deserve at least some of the blame for the deterioration of English grammar. Though Klose is ready to blame schools for their part in the grammar slide, he admits to being a parent that teaches his son grammar, and corrects him when he errs. Good as this is, he also confesses to feeling that he is the only parent that does so (1996, para. 1, 13-16). While parents and teachers have a great impact on students, there is something that affects the majority of English speakers, technology.
It would be ignorant to omit the impact that the internet and technology has on modern grammar. With social networking web sites like Facebook and Myspace, and everyone’s ability to write a blog if they so choose, the probability that people will be exposed to and encourage incorrect grammar is exponentially greater than if those things did not exist. Examples from the internet alone could fill at least one book in that volume of errors mentioned in paragraph 2. A sampling of internet errors includes words like “wanna” (want to), “wat” (what), “tomoro” (tomorrow), and “om nom nom” (to be absorbed in eating something), along with a complete lack of apostrophes on what appear to be contractions. Youtube (a popular video sharing web site) sensation Rebecca Black claims, “We so excited,” nonchalantly excluding the poor verb “are” and no one seems to see a problem. Journalist Patricia O’Conner explains that there is indeed a lack of grammar on the internet, but also points out that there are people who have taken it upon themselves to correct those in error (1997, p. 36). However, O’Conner is quick to point out that even those who correct are in need of grammar guidance, compounding the problem with incorrect corrections (1997, p. 37). There are, however, a few online organizations attempting to help both the online community and society as a whole. One of which is the Apostrophe Protection Society, which, as the name implies works to ensure the correct use of apostrophes, making sure it’s ‘Bob’s House of Pizzas’ rather than ‘Bobs house of Pizza’s.’ Another is the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), that, along with publishing a blog demonstrating and correcting grammar, writes polite letters explaining to grammar criminals their offenses and how they should go about correcting them. One such letter is as follows:
Dear Ms. Snider [Universal Pictures Chairman-Marketing]:
The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar loves Meryl Streep, especially after her turn as grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Alas, we have been informed of an unfortunate event of a marketing nature regarding her movie Prime.
You were generous to send a box of prime-quality frozen meats to key film critics, one of whom shared the contents with us. The accompanying note describes the film, alarmingly, as “a real juicy romance.” If the romance is genuine but literally oozing juice, then you would need a comma separating the words “real” and “juicy.” This is often the case when you have a string of adjectives modifying a word.
To investigate whether the movie literally dribbles the juices of Ms. Streep, we visited your Web site, which informed us that Prime was “a gentle comedy that weaves a tale of two lovers trying to keep the flame alive as an unusual obstacle is hurled in their path.” We suspect the unusual obstacle is metaphorical, and not, say, the box of frozen steaks and hamburger patties that we wish we had received ourselves.
We conclude, then, that the movie is merely metaphorically juicy, and we would recommend all further meat deliveries be accompanied with a note that describes Prime as a “really juicy” romance.
With that small change, your meat recipients can anticipate the joys of their meat and movie with all the appropriate forms of salivation, and none of the horror of unclear grammar.
(Brockenbrough, 2008, p. 155-156)
Clever, and good for a laugh, these letters are actually sent to their intended recipients, and are slowly chipping away at the atrocious grammar displayed by people and organizations. Along with these societies, some individuals have taken it upon themselves to correct the incorrect grammar they see in public, sometimes forcefully. Kate McCulley, also known as the grammar vandal, takes her sharpie and adds missing apostrophes when the possessive is clearly intended and changes “your” to “you’re” when obviously they meant to use the contraction, among other grammatical good deeds (Bakkum, 2007).
To avoid the wrath of such individuals and groups of grammar enthusiasts and more importantly to help stanch the flood of grammatical errors and the onslaught of illiteracy, here are some common grammatical errors to avoid. As grammarians can (and surely do) tell you, the list of mistakes made by many English speakers is extensive. The list provided herein is only a small sampling of things that correctors want to attack with their red pens. First, a list of homophones, commonly mistaken for their like-sounding counterparts:
- · to, too, and two
- · they’re, there, and their
- · its and it’s
- · your and you’re
- · affect and effect
Even though, or possibly because, these errors can only be made in the written word, they play a large role in the decreasing of literacy. If one cannot tell the difference between the verb ‘affect’ and the noun ‘effect,’ or distinguish between the possessive ‘your’ and the contraction ‘you’re,’ meanings and messages will quickly become confused and unclear. Not only will the individual be unable to tell the difference and have a hard time understanding messages communicated to him, he will have an even harder time sending out clear messages. (Brockenbrough, 2007, p. 29-36) Like ‘its and it’s,’ ‘you’re and your,’ and ‘their, there, and they’re,’ there are misconceptions about making a noun possessive. Though ‘its’ is the possessive case, from a young age students are taught to add -‘s to a noun to indicate possession. This is often correct, but in the case of ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ as well as nouns ending in ‘s’ the possessive is often miscommunicated. The biggest problem with possessives is the confusion of a singular or plural subject, for example, when the newspaper was trying to convey that the fans had fury, the apostrophe should have been placed after the ‘s’ in ‘fans’ rather than before, which indicates a single angry fan.
Moving away from mistakes only visible in the written word, are some common phrases and habits that make a stickler grimace at the sound. “I could care less,” though a perfectly common phrase especially among youth in current culture means exactly the opposite of the intended message. Unaware that they really mean “I couldn’t care less,” people are constantly unintentionally communicating exactly what they do not mean. For those whom this does not instigate a sudden urge to grab someone by the shoulders and shake them until they understand, “I could care less” implies that one cares initially, while “I couldn’t care less” implies that they care so little initially, that it is impossible for them to care any less. The word ‘literally’ means “used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense” according to the Oxford English dictionary. If you ‘literally died laughing,’ you would not be alive to say as much. This mistake is made so commonly, that some sticklers consider the cause lost, but the true meaning of this word can still be preserved if one is aware of the meaning and willing to spread the knowledge. Malapropisms occur when what one hears, and inevitably repeats, is not the correct message, misheard song lyrics for example (Brockenbrough, 2007, p. 46). Here are a few to avoid if you want to dodge nasty looks from a stickler. When you want to communicate that you ‘could have eaten a horse,’ be sure to do so by avoiding the malapropism ‘could of,’ that phrase simply makes no sense (Brockenbrough, 2007, p. 47). The phrase is ‘all intents and purposes,’ not ‘all-intensive purposes,’ unless of course you do mean that your reasons are completely intensive (Brockenbrough, 2007, p. 47); there is no such thing as a ‘safety-deposit box,’ there is however, such a thing as a ‘safe-deposit box’ (Brockenbrough, 2007, p. 47).
Parts of speech are taught in elementary school, and unfortunately tossed to the curb in higher education. One may recall, for example, learning that a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. The parts of speech that really cause problems in day to day communication are adverbs and adjectives, and the constant misuse of one in place of the other. A little review; an adjective is a word describing a noun while an adverb is a word describing a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs are commonly taught as ‘-ly’ words, though not every adverb ends in ‘-ly.’ Unfortunately, when a sentence calls for an adverb, often an adjective is mistakenly called to duty, as SPOGG so politely points out to Ms. Snider, whose campaign meant “really juicy” rather than “real juicy.”
Finally, though certainly not lastly, a verb must agree with its subject. The internet sensation of “LOLcats,” adorable cat pictures with captions that send shivers down the spines of grammarians everywhere, has made verb/subject disagreement popular, wondering if they can “HAS CHEEZEBURGER” when they really want to know if the can “have” that cheeseburger (Brockenbrough, 2008, p. 144-145). For example, a single dog barks, while dogs bark. A pack of dogs, however, barks, because ‘pack’ is singular (Marius, 1991, p. 230). While for many people subject/verb agreement comes naturally, there is an increasing number of people who fail to recognize the discrepancy. When in doubt of any and all things grammar, check a grammar manual, or consult the nearest corrector, who is, no doubt, nearby adding an apostrophe to the nearest “Two Weeks Notice” billboard.
But more than avoiding the wrath of correctors everywhere, careful obedience of these, along with all, grammar rules can help increase literacy and encourage competent communication by all English speaking people. While a uniform following of accepted grammar rules is very important, and vital to the resurgence of literacy, an update to the educational system’s English department is also necessary. Some teachers favor the revival of traditional grammar classes (Barnes, 2002, para. 5). Sissonville High School in West Virginia tried employing this tactic by requiring all tenth graders to take a course in usage and grammar, their test scores in English have only improved (Barnes, 2002, para. 5). As Sissonville High School so nicely demonstrated, grammar classes must be reintroduced to schools around the country. To avoid the English scores in the SAT and other standardized tests lowering further, eventually dropping to zero when students can no longer understand the test questions, the basics must be taught. One certainly would not attempt calculus without first learning basic arithmetic, just as one should not try to compose an essay without first understanding the components of a sentence.
One may wonder why correct grammar and usage is important, as long as messages are still being communicated effectively; Klose makes a wonderful analogy that supports the restoration of proper grammar, “There seems to be a sense that as long as a student is making himself understood, all is well. Sort of like driving a junker that blows smoke and has a flat tire. If it gets you there, what’s the problem?” (1996, para. 16). Truss assures that though the message “C U later” may be perfectly understandable, anything longer without correct grammar and punctuation becomes indecipherable, “much like the writing of the infant Pip in ‘Great Expectations'”(2003, p. 17-18). Truss goes on to say, “…what if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang together and everyone ends up in Minehead.”(2003, p. 19-20) Attempting to communicate in a language without first understanding the basics is folly. Without the knowledge of parts of speech and the proper placement of apostrophes, one cannot communicate entire thoughts, nevertheless effectively write down and share complete ideas, as is necessary to survive. Furthermore, those students that cannot distinguish a noun from a verb, or an adverb from an adjective, explains Klose, have no hope of learning secondary languages (1996, para. 11). Simply put, without proper grammar, usage, and punctuation, there is no way to reliably and effectively communicate (Truss, 2003, p. 20).
It is going to take a lot of work, and it is going to require a large collective effort including every person that speaks and communicates in English, but literacy and effective communication is not a lost cause. It may be discouraging to look at just how many errors are made every day, and putting yourself in a stickler’s shoes, if only for a moment, brings about a shocking revelation about the state of English. It may seem hopeless to fix even your own grammatical slips, nevertheless try and change the habits of entire countries. But it is definitely possible to start the restoration of language, not to its original, but to a commonly accepted standard. As an individual, be brave and correct those mistakes you see, nicely, of course, and do not be afraid to stand up for basic grammatical structure, you know what can and will happen if you do not. As a society, the United States, and all English speaking countries, must turn back to the basics and teach young children the proper tools they require to communicate in the English language. We need to encourage, not bully the correctors; we need to agree to work together. Nothing can be accomplished if we stand divided. We need to adopt the attitude of young Pip in “Great Expectations” before our language is reduced to his:
MI DEER JO I OPE U R KRWITE WELL I OPE I SHAL SON B HABELL 4 2 TEEDGE U JO AN THEN WE SHORL B SO GLODD AN WEN I M PRENGTD 2 U JO WOT LARX BLEVE ME INF XN PIP.
(My dear Joe,
I hope you are quite well. I hope I shall soon be able to teach you, Joe – and then we shall be so glad. And when I am apprenticed to you, Joe: what larks! Believe me, in affection, Pip) (Truss, 2003, p.18, 21)
Common are grammar slips, but we need not tolerate them any longer. Let your inner corrector out and help change the world for the better.
Bakkum, B. (2007). Grammar vandal at large. Writer, 120(11), p. 12-16.
Barnes, J. E. (2002). Wanted: readers. U.S. News & World Report, 133(9), p. 44.
Brockenbrough, M. (2008). Things That Make Us [sic]. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Freund, C. P. (2003). Text Talk. Reason, 35(2), p. 12.
Klose, R. (1996). ‘Whoa’ is the state of English. Christian Science Moniter, 88(196), p. 16.
Marius, R. & Wiener, H. S. (1991). The McGraw-Hill College Handbook. McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Nichols, S. A. (2009). I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-Ups. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
O’Conner, P. (1997). Grammar Cops. New York Times Magazine, p. 36.
Truss, L. (2003). Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York, NY: Gotham Books.