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My lonesome language crusade

It would be easier if I overlooked grammar. But that’s a no-go for me.

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Michael Sloan

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I am a biology professor, but I have an impulsive ear for language. This slows my correcting of papers to a slog as I consistently get hung up on my students’ grammar and spelling errors.

Let me first avow that I have a devoted affection for my students. They’re earnest, funny, and (generally) hardworking. But their written English! It’s gotten so bad that, with great trepidation, I was finally compelled to approach one young woman and gently ask, “Is English your first language?” Her offending sentence: “The genes is not cellular like a cells.”

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But grammar and orthographical horrors are not limited to students. There are some bad examples out there that periodically leave me shaking my head.

I am a longtime listener to NPR. It has informed and experienced commentators. But it is precisely because the context is professional that errors glare so starkly. Here are a few I’ve collected:

“Good Friday was the day when Jesus Christ was crucificated.”

“Just to the east of Austria lies Hungaria.”

“The police didn’t expect the mob to be so fractitious.”

And, just recently (in reference to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania), “The torpedo sunk the ship.”

When I off-handedly voice my pique at faculty meetings, there is always that one well-meaning colleague who counsels me that language is protean; it changes with the years and the passing of generations. 

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I don’t dispute this. I even admit that there are grammatical inconsistencies that, through incessant usage, have become familiar and accepted forms. When I knock on a door and someone asks, “Who is it?” I don’t hesitate to answer, “It’s me,” as opposed to the stilted (but grammatically correct) “It’s I.”

In the early years of the English language there were many varieties of English and a plethora of ways to spell a given word. Even Shakespeare, to whom English owes so much, was spelled, variously, Shekespear, Shakspeare and Shakspere, before we settled on the current spelling. But then something happened: The first English-language dictionaries and grammars appeared. The effect was to standardize the language and offer rules of usage.

It is these rules – and those dictionaries – to which I appeal when correcting my students’ work. Appalling spelling and grammar errors are evidence that a crime has been committed. Dictionaries and grammars are the presiding judges.

There are rare, fleeting moments when I tell myself that it would be far less painful to overlook grammar and spelling and just grade content. But then I come to my senses. For me, such a laissez-faire attitude is a no-go. Further, what is gained when I dispense with a standard for quality work? I cannot bring myself to accept the following two sentences as equivalent: “The protein effected a change in the reaction” and “The protein affected a change in the reaction.” They are two entirely different beasts, and sometimes beasts must be slain if they threaten the common good.

I realize that my sort is on the way out. I quibble with affect/effect and sank/sunk when the language’s trajectory is arcing high over such seemingly petty considerations toward a target that reads, “2 L8 4 lunch? C U L8er.” Perhaps, then, the English of tomorrow is already staring us in the face, and all my exertions are for naught.

However, I once read that it is important to go on caring even when it seems impossible to change things. In this light, increasingly alone though I be, I’d like to make a closing statement:

Jesus was crucified in a place far removed from Hungary. It was a fractious time in Palestine, but it cannot be said that the occupying Romans sank the hopes of the people for a brighter future.

I feel better now.