In the past week or so people have been urging Lingua Franca to comment on an article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal on June 20, headed: “This Embarrasses You and I*: Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office in an Age of Informal Email, Texting and Twitter.” But Lingua Franca scarcely knows what to say about this kind of nonsense. I think it might be better for people to pay no attention to grammar at all than to be cowed by the parade of trivialities and blithering stupidity that Shellenbarger peddles.
A total of four (4) examples are cited in this tired tale of grammar going to the dogs, all of them hackneyed and rather pathetic. Here they are, with my parenthesized comments:
- There’s new people you should meet. (Not a grammatical sin. In spoken Standard English, there’s regularly covers both the singular and the plural. It’s not a confusion, because *There is new people hardly ever occurs and *There are a new person never does.)
- I could care less. (A familiar variant of the original colloquialism I couldn’t care less, showing that it is becoming idiomatized and no longer gets interpreted literally.)
- He expected Helen and I to help him. (A very large proportion of competent Standard English speakers prefer the nominative pronoun I after a coordinator. The reasons might go back to hypercorrection, but since it occurs in Shakespeare, I’m not so sure. It certainly does not betoken any confusion of subject or object: Nobody says or writes *Me want your report or *Send I a report. It’s entirely a matter of choosing the nominative in coordinations of NPs where the final coordinate is a pronoun.)
- The Oxford comma: My sisters, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna, if intended as a tripartite coordinate structure, is ill-punctuated because it can be read as if my sisters were being expanded appositively by the binary coordination Oprah Winfrey and Madonna. (Yawn. We have seen this before: “I am grateful to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Yes, the Oxford comma—the one before the coordinator and—is a good idea; but really, does this punctuational threat of ambiguity really disrupt business in a typical office every day, or even every year?)
That’s all she wrote. Just these time-worn and trivial examples, and some anecdotal mush about how managers reportedly attribute the decline in grammar abilities “to the informality of e-mail, texting, and Twitter where slang and shortcuts are common.” Naturally no evidence connecting these media to slipping grammar skills is cited. In truth the advent of e-mail and texting and tweeting has vastly increased the amount of writing we do. It would be very odd if the extra practice were crippling our abilities. And sure enough, if you look you can soon find hard evidence in the opposite direction).
Patricia T. O’Conner of the Grammarphobia blog reports an employee complaining that his boss actually ordered him to write for John and I rather than for John and me in a memo. This tells us first that some bosses are among the English speakers who prefer the nominative after and, and second that grammar panic is making some people change phrases from what is traditionally regarded as correct to what is traditionally regarded as incorrect. Grammar anxiety without sufficient knowledge to do anything sensible about it.
Shellenbarger reports Leslie Ferrier, a human-resources executive, as “aghast” that employees at a Jersey City company were sending customers letters that were phrased “as if they were speaking to a friend.” Oh, heaven forfend! Letters to customers in ordinary English that sound like communications to a friend! I think American business can survive an epidemic of people writing letters to customers in their native language the way they use it in conversations every day.
What it may not be able to withstand is bosses like Don Silver, who interrupted Vice President Caren Berg in a staff meeting at a marketing and crisis-communications company to correct an occurrence of there’s to there are. Silver establishes in one step that (i) he’s uninformed about the grammar of educated colloquial English, and (ii) he’s the kind of pig who would interrupt a woman and undercut her authority in front of staff just to parade his grammar pickiness.
Even if there’s new people was a flat-out speech error (which it is not), anyone with a proper sensitivity to language should see that interrupting the flow of a presentation is a lot worse than overlooking a questionable instance of verb agreement. I wish I knew why it is that when grammar rears its head nobody can muster any sense of proportion.Return to Top