The Chronicle Review

The Elements of Clunk

January 02, 2011

Four years ago, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review cataloging "The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers"—the errors and infelicities that cropped up most frequently in my students' work. Since then a whole new strain of bad writing has come to the fore, not only in student work but also on the Internet, that unparalleled source for assessing the state of the language.


For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go. But, the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey, so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie, "Iron Man 2".

Those two hypothetical sentences contain 11 instances of this new type of "mistake" (I put the word in quotes to include usages that would almost universally be deemed errors, ones that merely diverge from standard practice, and outposts in between). They are as follows:

1. There should be no comma after "But."

2. The period after "Iron Man 2" should be inside the quotation marks around the title (which would be italicized in most publications, including The Chronicle).

3. No comma is needed after "movie."

4. "Its," not "their," is needed with "Weather Channel."

5. "Whomever" should be "whoever."

6. "Myself" should be "I."

7. "Girl that" should be "girl who"

8. "Gray" is the correct spelling, not "grey."

9. "Amongst" should be "among."

10. "One year anniversary" should be written as "one-year anniversary," but, really, "first anniversary."

11. It's a "Yankee," not "Yankees," game.

Are you surprised by the absence of smiley faces, LOL-type abbreviations, and slang terms like "diss" or "phat"? A reading of the typical lament about student writing would lead you to think all are rampant. However, I have yet to encounter a single example in all my years of grading. Students realize that this kind of thing is in the wrong register for a college assignment (even an assignment for my classes, which for the most part cover journalism, broadly defined—that is, writing for publication in newspapers and magazines, in print or online). Maybe students are being too careful. Slang can streamline or lend poetry to language, or both. The new errors and changes, on the other hand, make it longer and more prosaic. They give a new sound to prose. I call it clunk.

The leadoff hitters are Nos. 1 to 3; punctuation is a train wreck among my students. I have no doubt as to the root of the problem: Students haven't spent much time reading. Punctuation, including the use of apostrophes and hyphens, is governed by a fairly complicated series of rules and conventions, learned for the most part not in the classroom but by encountering and subliminally absorbing them again and again. Students have a lot of conversations and texting sessions, but that's no help. You need to read a lot of edited and published prose.

Unfamiliarity with written English has brought about the other mistakes and changes as well. They may not appear at first to have much in common, but note: All except Nos. 2 and 8 lengthen the sentence they're in. This is the opposite of the way language usually changes. "God be with you" becomes "goodbye"; "base ball" becomes "base-ball" and then "baseball"; "disrespect" becomes "diss." Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen wrote, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." A copy editor today would cut both commas.

Standard written English is a whole other language from its spoken (and texted) counterpart, with conventions not just of punctuation but also of many shortcuts to meaning—streamlined words and phrases, ellipses (omitted word or words), idioms, figures of speech—that have developed over many years. You learn them by reading. And if you haven't read much, when you set pen to paper yourself, you take things more slowly and apply a literal-minded logic, as you would in finding your way through a dark house.

Thus, in No. 1, it seems natural to place a comma after "But" because in speaking you would pause there. (So natural that commas after "But," "And," or "Yet" at the start of a sentence now show up frequently in Associated Press dispatches and The New York Times, as well as in blogs and other writing on the Web.) And in No. 2, it makes sense to put a period after the title Iron Man 2—after all, a film title is a unit. But in both cases the rules, animated by a general urge to make writing smooth and efficient, allow us and in fact compel us to punctuate in an illogical and counterintuitive way.

The question in No. 3, of whether to put a comma after the word "movie," relates to the famously difficult issue of defining or nondefining clauses and phrases—the whole "that/which" thing. It's a slam dunk that students would be clueless here. What I want to point out is that they're much more likely to err by putting a comma in than by taking one out. In other words, every day I see mistakes like "the movie, Iron Man 2" or "my friend, Steve." But rarely do I encounter something along the lines of "We live in the richest country in the world the United States."

As for No. 4, every student of mine who is not the child of a high-school English teacher uses the third-person plural pronoun ("they," "them," "their") to refer to companies, organizations, and rock bands with nonplural names, such as the Clash and Arcade Fire. That is eminently reasonable, given that these outfits consist of multiple individuals, and in fact the plural pronoun is standard in Britain. However, we live in the United States, where it is not.

(Even English teachers' children use "they" for the epicene pronoun—that is, to stand for a person of indeterminate sex. Thus, "Everyone who wants to come on the trip should bring their passport." In that sentence, "their" is so much better a choice than "his or her," "her or his," or "her/his" that it will almost certainly become standard in written English in the next 10 years.)

Nos. 5 and 6 are examples of "hypercorrection": errors that are induced by a combination of grammatical confusion and a desire to sound fancy, such as the chorine who refers to "a girl like I." Her equivalent today would say "a girl like myself." The enormous popularity of that last word stems in part from understandable uncertainty over whether "I" or "me" is correct. The same goes for "who" and "whom," about which almost nobody is completely confident.

But there is more going on here; stay with me. In No. 5, while "whoever" is correct (you would say "we'll go with he who can make it," not "with him who can make it"), the error is reasonable because most of the time prepositions like "with" take an object, like "whom." But people often use "whomever" even when the error is not reasonable. A Google search quickly yields a Facebook group called "Quazie's Hair Fan-club" (put up by college students, significantly), which has a discussion called "Whomever wants an office in this group."

Here's what's happening, as I see it. My students aren't unique but represent a portion of the millennial generation: at least moderately intelligent, reasonably well-educated young people. When they write in a formal setting—for a class assignment or for publication in a blog or a magazine—they almost always favor length over brevity, ornateness over simplicity, literalness over figuration. The reasons, I hypothesize, are a combination: the wandering-the-house-in-the-dark factor, hypercorrection brought on by chronic uncertainty, and the truth that once people start talking or writing, they like to do so as long as they can, even if the extra airtime comes from saying "myself" instead of "I."

Examples of the trend may seem trivial in isolation. Take "a person that" instead of "a person who." It's not a crime against the language. But the language, in its wisdom, has offered us "who" as a relative pronoun when referring to a person rather than a thing. It's there to make your prose marginally more fluid, to save a letter, and to be used. Why not use it?

Another manifestation is a boom in Britishisms: not only the weirdly popular "amongst," but also "amidst," "whilst"—I actually have gotten that more than once in assignments—and "oftentimes." (In a parallel move, the stretched-out and unpleasant "off-ten" has become a vogue pronunciation among youth, as has "eye-ther.") In spelling, "grey" has taken over from the previously standard "gray." I haven't seen "labour" yet, but the day is young. "Advisor" isn't British—in fact, dictionaries label it an Americanism—but it seems so, or at least fancier and more official than good old "adviser." The "-or" spelling has become so prevalent—85 million in Google, against 26 million for "adviser"—that although the Times, The New Yorker, and the Associated Press, along with The Chronicle, cling to "-er," it has started to look funny in their articles.

Rampant hyphen confusion is part of the general punctuation problem, but the particular usage in No. 10 is also an example of a concise locution replaced by an awkward literalism. People: We've always had a way to indicate the day when something is a year old, and it's "first anniversary." A Google search yields 1.2 million hits for "one-year anniversary" (or "one year anniversary") to 2.4 million for "first anniversary"—and I predict the margin will quickly vanish. (It just occurred to me to Google "one-year," as opposed to "first," birthday. I have to admit I am shocked: nearly two million hits.)

A lot of venerable expressions have had their seams let out recently. One change (picked up and then propelled by Facebook) is from the traditional "he's my friend" or "he's a friend of mine" to the longer, clunkier, and more literal "I'm friends with him." In similar fashion, "too big a" has turned into "too big of a"; "can't help thinking" into "can't help but think"; "this kind of thing" into "these kinds of things"; "I would like to have gone" and "I would have liked to go" combined into "I would have liked to have gone."

And then we come to the Yankees and their contests. I know there will be skeptics on this one, so let me start with some numbers. In The New York Times, from 1851 to 1980, the phrase "a Yankee game" occurred 39 times. And "a Yankees game"? Zero. Contrast the period between January 2005 and June 2010. The Times used "a Yankee game" 19 times and "a Yankees game" 65 times: more than three times as often.

To understand the change, let's first look at the previously dominant "Yankee game." I would characterize "Yankee game," "Yankee pitcher," or "Yankee fan" as metonymy: a figure of speech in which the part (a Yankee) stands for the whole (the Yankees collectively). The convention still holds for some expressions: We say "I'm a cookie lover" or "Let's go to the shoe store," even though I like cookies (plural) and the store stocks many pairs of footwear. The dropping of the "s" is one of those shortcuts that streamline the language.

Not for sports teams, however—not anymore. Trying to get a more precise fix on when the change occurred, I compared a "Yankees game" with a "Yankee game" in the Times database for various chunks of time. It turns out that "Yankees" surged ahead between 1996 and 2000, beating out the previously preferred "Yankee" 35 to 22 and setting the stage for dominance in the 2000s. What was going on in the late 1990s? I confess I do not have a clue, only a conviction that this was an early sign of the coming of clunk.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author, most recently, of Memoir: A History (Riverhead Books, 2009).