There’s a crisis in the United States and Canada, and it’s getting worse all the time. It’s the abuse and misuse of the English language and the resulting poor and inexact communication skills being displayed by native speakers in their Mother Tongue at all levels of society.
I first noticed this trend over 25 years ago when a friend’s son brought home his graded paper to show off his progress. I was shocked at the number of grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors in the paper that had not been corrected by his teacher. When I asked my friend about it, she informed me that the teachers had been instructed by their department heads and administration not to grade the students’ papers on those factors, but only to consider the information and ideas expressed in the paper.
In other words, instead of using these assignments to practice and reinforce the basics of good writing and communication skills that they should have been learning from their first days in school, the teachers were directed to ignore those principles and just, basically, grade on whatever the student was trying to say, not how well or correctly they said (or wrote) it and not to include these factors when assigning a grade.
After a generation of these practices, we are now seeing the results: English speakers who do not know how to communicate correctly in their own native language.
Take pity on the poor, abused little apostrophe. It seems to be destined to be misused liberally in all sorts of ways it was never meant to be used.
Apostrophe use in contractions such as don’t or I’m seem to be fairly safe from abuse although there have been sightings of such abominations as do’nt and wo’nt and other similar misplacements out in the wild. Usually folks know that there really needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere when you leave out letters from a shortcut contraction, even if they don’t always get them in the right place.
The real trouble comes when writers try to use the apostrophe to form a plural of a word or misuse it when using it to denote possession (no, not the type of possession caused by evil demons).
Everything from echo’s to video’s and more have been seen in written works, Internet postings, and even advertisement signs. I’ve yet to find an echo or video that could possess anything, so why do they have an apostrophe? These are simply examples of writers trying to form a plural by using an apostrophe incorrectly instead of using the correct plural forms of those words. It is unknown where people ever got the idea that an apostrophe had anything to do with forming plurals of anything, but it seems widely enough spread across several English-speaking nations that it had to have been spawned by some source of misinformation that they all had in common. Subliminal messages transmitted through rock music, perhaps?
By the way, the correct plurals are echoes and videos.
There is a similar problem of misuse in the way to indicate a family name when referring to the family as a group. It is not the Jone’s or even the Jones’; the correct form is the Joneses. No apostrophes, just the plural form of the surname.
Commas, semicolons, and quotation marks all have their own misuses that are rampant in everyday use too, so the pitiful apostrophe is not alone in its abuse.
One of the most commonly heard and read grammar faux pas is the misuse, or more specifically, the lack of use of the past participle. Along with an auxilary verb or helping verb portion of the past perfect tense (in our example the auxiliary is have), the past participle is the correct verb form to use as in the sentence “I have gone to the store.” All too frequently what is heard is “I have went to the store.” Instead of the correct participle, the plain old past tense form of the verb is being paired up with the auxiliary verb creating a sort of hybrid tense that is just wrong.
“I went to the store” is correct. “I have gone to the store” is correct. “I have went to the store” is incorrect. The speaker or writer has two correct forms from which to choose to express a past action, so why is it the incorrect one seems to be the one heard so frequently these days?
The few types of punctuation and grammar errors mentioned in this article are just the tip of the iceburg.
When you begin tossing in other usage problems such as the misuse of homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings), direct and indirect pronouns, verb-subject agreement, and so many others that are heard every day, it would take several books to cover the possibilities of misuse with any hope of touching on them all.
Luckily for us Grammar Warriors, a very readable and entertaining book covering these and a wide range of other forms of language abuse has already been written and has become even more relevant today. Look for How Not to Write by the late, great William Safire for a humorous look into the incorrect, correct, and even the sometimes-correct way to express yourself properly in the English language.
Is there any way to turn the tide on this tsunami of ungrammatic babble?
You can ensure that your own communications are as error-free as possible, both to reinforce your own correct usage and to set a good example for others around you. Unsure of what’s correct? There are plenty of grammar and style books (old ones still give valid information) available inexpensively in the used book market. Keeping one on hand as a reference is a wise investment. Online sources can also be handy for a quick check or look-up.
Beware of grammar-checking add-ons to word processors though; they vary widely in their usefulness and often are biased in favor of their designers’ preferences. For example, some insist on marking passive case verbs as wrong and suggesting active case sentence structures instead, even where the context makes it inappropriate.
If you’re determined to try grammar checking software, see if the ones you are considering have options that can be tailored to the type of writing you’ll be doing (i.e., formal, academic, business, or informal) to customize the levels and types of grammar checks that are being done.
The big problem facing us is what to do about the lack of skills being taught in the schools. Just as the teaching of cursive writing is being dropped in many school districts, the teaching and practice of correctly written and spoken English is being pushed aside for what the administrators feel are more important topics such as diversity, gender issues, and other socially-based issues currently in vogue.
Speak up when you can to urge school boards, adminstrators, and curriculum specialists to place a higher value on proper skills in written and spoken English at all levels of schooling. These are skills that will last the students a lifetime.
Become a Grammar Advocate. Offer to help youngsters (or even adults) outside of the classroom in learning and using proper English. You might even do the same for those kids who are not being taught cursive writing and combine the lessons in written grammar and punctuation with practice in cursive writing. The small amount of time you spend will result in an invaluable gift of knowledge to the person you are tutoring that will pay him or her a lifetime of dividends for the time and effort spent.