Wednesday, 9 September 2009


I am about to rant. I know that this is an uncool and totally useless thing to to, but I just (gasp) can't (struggle) help myself. I am going to complain about bad grammar. You can leave now. No? Okay, imagine me writing this between thumps as my head hits my desk.
This afternoon I read an article in one of our local papers in which a woman who describes herself as a graduate in journalism wrote ' [A daughter] has kept my husband, Joe, and I running.' I have just finished sending her as polite an email as I could contrive, pointing out her blooper and explaining how to correct it. I did not explain it by parsing the sentence, for two reasons. One is that I have no idea how grammar is being taught in this century but am pretty sure it is not taught the way I learned (and taught, in my turn). The other is that, shaming though it is, I have to admit that I was not sure how to explain why what she had written was wrong in a clear and concise way.
The Board that I chair had a horrible task at its last meeting; we had to review and approve a huge list of updated and revised policies. Several of us went through the text ahead of time and made corrections to the grammar and punctuation. At the meeting, when we reached this stage of the agenda, I started the item by pointing out that this had been done and urging anyone who had found further errors of this type to mark it on printed copy of the policy in question and hand it to the recording secretary after the meeting. I then went on to explain that I was asking the board members to ignore one recurring error, that of subject and possessive pronoun/adjective agreement. In other words, when they got to something that said "An employee is requested to keep their valuables in a locked drawer during working hours", they were to approve it without whinging about the agreement. This misalignment is done in the name of political correctness; that is, the easiest way to use a possessive without getting into the whole male/female thing is to use the plural. At this, the recording secretary looked at me and said 'I have no clue what you are talking about!'
The case agreement is one of those grammar points that is slipping out of at least American English (and I class Canadian English as American English - we all live in North America after all.) I have heard a Master's student say 'Me and my dad went canoeing.' I have read, in a letter from a PhD, 'Thanks for the help you gave David and I'. It makes my teeth grind. There are other - I guess I have to call them niceties - that are being swept away on the tide. The distinction between 'lie' and 'lay', the difference between 'less' and 'fewer'. The subjunctive. As well, I think the use of tired metaphors is increasing. By leaps and bounds.
You can easily understand what someone is trying to convey in a sentence that contains those errors. But speaking this way, in my opinion, is like going out in public in old, ripped jeans, uncombed hair, uncleaned teeth and food spots on the tee shirt It's sloppy. We all make errors and have bad hair days, but most of us, I think, try to present ourselves to others positively. We proofread and change our tee shirts and check our teeth in the bathroom mirror.
The poor young woman who received my grammatical correction earlier has emailed me back a very nice and polite email, thanking me for the information and saying that if anyone ever pointed this out to her before, she does not remember it.
I used to teach the difference between 'lie' and 'lay' by saying that since 'lay' takes an object, you have to 'lay' something or some one. Usually there was a moment of fraught silence as the adolescents in front of me tried to believe that they had really heard what they thought they had heard. And they remembered it.

11 comments:

  1. Yes, but what really confuses people is that "lay" is a perfectly correct past tense form of "to lie." Me just wanted youse guys to no that.

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  2. I dropped my subscription to my local paper because I was so irritated by the errors in it. And. . . sometimes I wish there was spell check when I make comments :)

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  3. Amen. Preaching to the choir, Mary. :)

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  4. Ooo, "fewer" and "less" is one that makes me crazy! I nag my poor kids about that one (and the hubby) constantly. It doesn't seem to sink in, though. Ironically, I had less of a problem when they used "brung" as the past tense of "bring." One, it was, technically, grammatically logical and two, I knew they'd grow out of it.

    The sad thing about "Thank you for helping David and I" is that people don't normally speak that way. They are *trying* to speak or write properly.

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  5. I'm just glad that I know what you're talking about.

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  6. Today my husband read me an Associated Press article which claimed that the recession is ending because unemployment claims are down. To illustrate the story, they included a file photo of the Cessna plant in Bend, OR, with a caption saying something banal like "Picture of workers working."

    The Cessna plant in Bend, OR, closed down a few months ago. Almost everyone was laid off. The few who weren't laid off got relocated to Kansas.

    I can handle sloppy grammar but I can't handle sloppy fact checking. It makes me doubt every single article I read.

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  7. I am sort of shuffling shame-facedly into the comments here as I am sometimes guilty of the first error you describe. In my defence, it is usually when I am blogging (which tends to be something of a brain dump) rather than in any document which I check over and I am at least aware that I am getting it wrong (or Isabelle corrects me!). Can you do a post on superfluous apostrophes so that I can really riled up?

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  8. Loth, sure, but have you read 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves'? And we all blow the 'I' and 'me' thing, from time to time. But this woman boasted about being a journalist. Surely she should proofread better than that.
    Jennifer, that's even worse. But while the factual errors cause me one kind of pain, sloppy writing causes me another. And, yes, I used to be in municipal politics and the things I was quoted as saying bore little relation to what I said.
    Mac and Cheese - glad to hear it.
    JMIU, I love the way little kids do logical language. Would that we all did it. I used to have a SIL who said 'I have went'. Ouch!
    Slouchy, yes indeed. And boy, can you sing.
    Oh, Kaye, so do I.
    Anvil, that's what makes it so much fun to do it right. I lie, lay, lain, I lay, laid, laid. Looks like a chart map for the Thousand Islands and is just as hard to navigate.

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  9. I'm not great in the grammer department at all. One of the things I do remember learning was that if "I" could or "the other person" in the sentence could stand alone and have it sound right then it was the "The other person and I" blah blah blah. If blah blah blah didn't sound right with me verbblahing blahing way it wasn't right. So My Friend and I went skating. "I" could have gone skating alone, or my friend could have gone skating alone, but ME wasn't going skating with alone because well ME may have been from CB but I try to hide it sometimes. :)

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  10. I'm a trained copy editor and a self-professed word-nerd, but I do sometimes feel like trying to convince people to speak in a grammatically-correct vernacular is a losing battle. And I know I leave a few things dangling every now and then.

    Still, I will always appreciate a stickler.

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  11. I have to tell you that the difference between "lay" and "lie" is one of those grammar hang-ups I have. I think now I will remember it.

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