A few days ago, I shared an article written by Oliver Kamm in The Wall Street Journal on “Proper English.” I had hoped it would spark a few comments, and boy, has it ever done that! Who knew so many were so passionate about this topic? And truth be told, several of those amazing comments are way above my pay grade. I learned from them, as I’m sure many others did.
Of course English and other languages have evolved; punctuation and usage have as well. Each year the editors of major dictionaries delete a few words that have fallen away and add others that have become ubiquitous. Words that were “never to be used” creep into dictionaries, even if they are not considered proper . . . yet.
An example would be the dreaded irregardless, the use of which makes many grammarians shiver. But it is a real word, and it is in dictionaries. It’s usually defined as a “non-standard word, which may be used in humorous or colloquial situations.” Hardly a ringing endorsement right now, but my bet is on its complete acceptance some day when folks will wonder what all the fuss was about.
An example of what was once considered proper would be “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Really? NEVER?
Well, Sir Winston Churchill supposedly was upset by that idea that he claimed made no sense – and muddled his writing – so he (again, supposedly) wrote to an editor: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” There is no proof he did this and it’s likely he did not, but it makes a point: if our goal is clarity, that sentence doesn’t help. Our common speech patterns would more likely come up with “This is the sort of bloody nonsense that I will not put up with.”
Is that “proper” English? Maybe not to some, but it is easily understood by most of us. You can find more at http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/churchill.html
No matter where you stand regarding that WSJ article or the use and/or misuse of the English language, here are three ways you can stay ahead of the game:
1. Read what you’ve written out loud before you send it. Did you leave a word out? (It’s very easy to do.) If you read out loud, your ears will hear what your eyes might have missed. Did you repeat a word (one right after the other)? While spell check won’t highlight a missing word, it will highlight a doubled-up word, saving us from looking less smart than we are.
2. Turn off your grammar check. Grammar check is a great idea, but not always a great program, especially for those for whom grammar is already confusing. A good friend whose blog I proofread kept writing “Monday’s” and “mother’s” when they were just pure plurals, not possessives. Since he’s a good friend, I asked him why he did that. His response? His grammar check program always changed “mothers” to “mother’s” no matter what the context was, so he got lazy. He figured “it must be right.”
3. Use spell check. Did you use a non-word, which would be highlighted in any decent word processing program? Ignore the underlining that spell check will put under such “words” at your peril. While spell check cannot help with homophones (your/you’re), it’s great for detecting non-words — or at least words it doesn’t recognize. Believe it, and check them out.
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For me, the only issue is writing clearly, and helping my audience or students in any way I can. My classes are the nuts-and-bolts version of the English language and American grammar rules; we don’t delve deeply into anything else. I am delighted to have learned from those who took the time to comment on the above-mentioned post. Thank you all!