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What Bad Grammar Means for the Future of Our World (Hint: It’s Not Good)

November 16, 2009

Everyone has a minor slip-up from time to time. Misplace a comma, dangle a participle… typical, everyday grammar blunders. I read a fascinating post by Mizzou Journalism professor Don Ranly called “Shall We Let Sleeping Dogs Lay?” If you’re a grammar stickler (read: geek) like me, the word “Lay” jumps off the page. If you’re not, it might seem entirely correct. If you represent the latter group, you’re wrong. “Lay” is wrong; however, Ranly’s post supposes that maybe we grammar nerds need to face facts: maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. He asks, “Is the battle worth fighting? Shall we let sleeping dogs lay—or lie?”

The answer is YES. Fight on!

The AP Style Book used to be the Bible, and if you’re a journalist/PR pro/marketer/advertiser, you probably still consult it on a regular basis (though you probably consult @FakeAPStylebook pretty regularly too). But what about standard grammar rules, the ones that you (should’ve) learned back in grade school? Does it really make a difference if you use “lay” instead of “lie?”

There’s something to be said for taking a little creative license. Things do change. That goes not only for grammar and syntax, but for design as a whole. This morning, I saw a preview on television for the new Sandra Bullock movie “The Blind Side.” The final text dropped into the ad said “coming friday.” All lowercase! What a crazy, post-modern world we live in. That’s what happens; we challenge convention, we reinvent the wheel, and start lowercasing the word “Friday.”

Today, Oxford Dictionary released its word of the year: UNFRIEND. As in, “She stole my boyfriend so I had to unfriend her.” I love the explanation for why they chose it:

“Unfriend has real lex-appeal,” senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program, Christine Lindberg, said. “It has both currency and potential longevity.”

True, but were there no other words? Has “unfriend” wedged its way so deeply into our vernacular that we’ve failed to realize that the verb, “to friend,” does not exist? Or, again, does it matter? Does “friend” need to be a verb for us to understand what it means to “unfriend,” really?

There are countless examples in everyday speech/writing of bad grammar: there/their/they’re, its/it’s, waste/waist, your/you’re (which is the worst of them all). They’re in our face and they’re obvious. They’re also easily corrected. The real travesty is that the kiddos will grow up never knowing or caring about the ones that aren’t so clear. Eventually, the quickness with which we put out information really will overshadow the quality of the words, no matter how painful the downward spiral into colloquialism may be. It’ll be a battle to the starting line. Who can get the information into a tweet or post with the most speed instead of the most style.

Let’s keep fighting the good fight, hoping that we don’t end up with a version of English that we have to rename “Slanglish,” which, by the way, is going to be Oxford’s word of 2012. Definitely a sign of the Apocalypse.

*Full disclosure: I’m aware that I started several sentences in this post with conjunctions. You know, creative license and all that.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 6:37 pm

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. Mollie Oshman permalink
    November 18, 2009 9:03 pm

    Esther, thank you for putting my thoughts into words! Mollie

  3. November 19, 2009 6:20 pm

    I was a little surprised also when I read “unfriend” was chosen as the word of the year. But, considering the impact of social media, maybe the choice was correct. Either way, your point about deterioration of proper language usage is meaningful to me, at least. I’ve edited corporate communications for the past 12+ years, and I’m amazed, shocked really, that very intelligent men and women can’t construct an active-voice subject-verb-object sentence. Keep writing and educating.

  4. Valery permalink
    December 1, 2009 9:27 pm

    I like it! Grammar errors and spelling mistakes make you appear uneducated. My office has an entire department dedicated to checking the spelling/grammar of all correspondence written by engineers.

    • Esther Steinfeld permalink*
      December 2, 2009 11:07 am

      That’s smart! Are engineers known for their good grasp of syntax? 🙂

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