On Language: Grammar Gripes and Other Stuff

by Eric K. Williams

I want the mid-1970’s book written by the late NBC-TV National News reporter, Edwin Newman, to be RE-ISSUED and revised now. Re-issued and revised in this new century.

Talking about Newman’s book: ‘STRICTLY SPEAKING: ‘Will America Be The Death Of English?’ The News Director at my very first television news job made EVERY REPORTER working under him read it. Why?

In his book Newman is an advocate of precision when it comes to Americans speaking and writing the language. Edwin Newman

What are your thoughts, dear reader, of this sorry state-of-affairs in the computer age with annoying bits such as: SMH, instead of ‘Shaking My Head;’ LOL, instead of Laughing Out Loud; WTF, instead of ‘What The Fuck?’ I could go on….. For example, I happen to think that ‘Ha!’ works better than ‘LOL.’

But, other examples pointed out in a social network ‘thread’ where Grammar Gripes was the theme got me to thinking that I am not alone in re-thinking the way we express ourselves. Here are a few bits to ponder:

For all intensive purposes instead of, “for all intents and purposes.” It makes the reader think that the person who wrote this is a medical doctor administering emergency techniques during an operation for ‘intensive purposes.’ Ha! Ha! Ha!

Not to mention the lack of precision as pointed out by one writer in the thread that piqued my interest. Below here are some examples……

Using the word “on” in front of an unspecified day or date:
– correct: I expect it to arrive on the 13th.
– incorrect: I expect it to arrive on tomorrow.
– correct: I’ll eat too much on Christmas.
– incorrect: I’ll eat too much on next week.

Prolly instead of probably. Good grief!!!!! How many times have you seen this written by so-called intelligent folk?

And don’t get me started about the use of certain slang I hear in my community. I am PROUDLY African-American. I currently live in a Black and Brown working class neighborhood in New York. That is, a neighborhood not that different from the one I grew up in as a youngster…… Yet, hearing such bits as, say, “conversate,” instead of converse, and “mannaise,”instead of mayonnaise, REALLY makes me cringe. (I nearly dropped my groceries when standing at the counter to pay, as I heard a young lady order a sandwich at a local grocery store. “I don’t want no mannaise,” she said, while ordering a turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce.)

This is not to say that I am opposed to ‘color’ in the American language. No pun intended here. Okay? Ha! Ha! Ha! I love the linguistic input from my own folk, Jewish folk, Latinos, and others, who all make the American language, and tongue, rich and strong. And thus, quite different from what is spoken, and written, and found in, say, London, Toronto, Auckland, Kingston, Cape Town, and Sydney.

It is important to note here that American Black and minority folks are not the only people on U.S. shores guilty of misuse in expressing themselves. NOPE! Not at all, as EVERYONE IS GUILTY HERE in diminishing the American language. From the same Grammar Gripe thread there was this example that another writer posted: “Deep seeded instead of deep seated.

One has to ask if the original writer was a farmer who criticized other farmers who did not insert their seeds in the earth deep enough. Perhaps there was the fear of the seeds getting blown away. Bad language uttered by supposedly intelligent folk certainly blows me away.

Then there was this other example pointed out: (“The) incorrect usage of ‘decimates’ drives me bonkers too,” another reader added. “The word you’re searching for is extirpate!!” Indeed. How many times do you get to see that in print? Too many times for my stomach.

Again, with computer-speak, yet another writer offered this view: “another one I’ve just been reminded of, having just gotten a message with people using “can,” instead of “may,” when I’m in a (computer) chatroom, and someone typed, “can I ‘pm’ you?” I’d reply, I don’t know, can you? or, “no doubt you can, but you may not.”

“I’d then invite them to look up the different meanings,” is how this writer concluded her thoughts on that “can’ and “may” exchange. Ha! Ha!

The woman who started the thread on her Grammar Gripes did add this bit further down in the conversation. Serious food for thought. She wrote: “I befriended a man who capitalized every noun. It turns out that English is his second language, and German is his first, which is why he carried over that habit. Once I find out that English is not one’s native tongue, I am quite forgiving of mistakes. However, I am forever disappointed that so many people who are born and educated in the U.S. have no clue how to write well. A typo is one thing, but a consistent error frustrates me. Yet I’m not always comfortable enough with that person to correct them (so my correcting your writing means I love you).”

Indeed, given that English, and principally the American Language, is the Global lingo used in so many sectors, from aviation to shipping, the lack of precision is, or at least should be, cause for concern. I am a journalist and published writer who has that very concern. Yet, I do wonder about what the British-based newsweekly magazine, THE ECONOMIST, talks about in their annual survey on ‘WORLDE ENGLISH.’ That is, the editors of the magazine express a real fear that as the English language becomes more globalized, that the ‘original speakers’ of it will also lose control of it. Food for thought.

“I shouldn’t be here,” wrote another participant in the thread. “I am a Norwegian having a youth in English speaking countries. My grammar education from school is severely lacking. What has carried me through, is only my sense of language. I agree with Athene-October (another writer shared above!) “He should of” – makes me cringe!”

Think about it…… the H.L. Mencken book, THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE (originally published in the 1930’s,) is revised and republished every ten years. Why not add Newman’s book to this mix?

I do not want what the French have, with their Paris-based Language Academy, that was set-up to stem the tide of change, whose founders were terrified of English ‘pollution.’ Unlike French and Spanish, English is the only language I know of that has three dictionaries. They are, if you will, The Macquaire Dictionary for the Aussies and Kiwi’s in Australasia.

Then, for Canadians and USA-folk there is the good old Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

And finally, the Brits have what many would consider the ‘mother church’ of English: The Oxford Dictionary. Amazing! And also confusing.

Yet, what may be confusing for some, is pure ‘democracy’ for others. Such is the view of Peter Anthony, who is both an editor and writer of note. Anthony is a journalist, and a man who has had the rare opportunity of writing and editing professionally for major publications in both the USA and Australia. Peter, who is Australian, is also a buddy of mine (although he would say ‘mate,’ for me,) and as two writers we have often gotten into the discussion of navigating through the differences in the way English is expressed. It is beyond accents, of course. He would never say, “wassup dude?” upon greeting me. I would never say “fortnight,” when talking about an event two weeks ago. He abhors the notion of creating a language academy, as the French have done. Yet, he agrees that there should be some sort of formal guide. How to proceed is the question I ask. 

There is a difference between making a verbal flub, say, either in a person-to-person conversation, or while on-the-air, speaking to thousands. Such events are excusable, and even funny. Here is a bit that comes to mind.

“Lethal orgasms” was a flub uttered by a news biz colleague once while on-the-air at a Southern American television station. He mis-read his copy, and had meant to say, “lethal organisms.” He was describing a polluted lake that made some young people sick in a Florida district. A viewer with terminal cancer had later called-in following the broadcast, asking my colleague where he could “get one of those,” a ‘lethal orgasm.’ Ha! Ha! Ha! You cannot make this stuff up. 

Then, there is the classic broadcast flub that occurred on a national news broadcast. Back in the 1980’s ABC-TV had a three anchor format on the WORLD NEWS TONIGHT program. They had anchors, or ‘presenters,’ based in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and, in London, England. There was a woman at the London desk who had ‘sat in’ this one particular evening, substituting for Peter Jennings, who was away on assignment. The Chicago anchor, the late Max Robinson, then pivoted to the London desk for the foreign news segment. He did so with the words, “and now with news from abroad, here is Cathy Mackin.” Oh yes! Ha! Mistakes do happen. 

Yet, to me, the word ‘mannaise’ makes the person uttering that mistake, sound thuggish and moronic, irrespective of gender. Not funny at all. Now THAT sort of linguistic pollution is one of many of my Grammar Gripes.