English Language Minor Crimes

The English language may be on life support. I’m sure this isn’t news. Whether it’s tied to an overall decline in formal education, I don’t know. I’ve already written about America’s abysmal standardized test scores and low international rankings, so I won’t cover the same ground.

I’m rankled by mangled English more than most probably because in college I majored in journalism and minored in English, therefore these minor crimes really stick in my craw. While hiking and sheltering with other hikers this past year, my craw was filled to the brim. (What’s a “craw”? A jaw?) As a way to let off steam, I’m listing some of the most egregious linguistic violations I’ve encountered.

This pedagogue ain’t perfect and has his own stumbling blocks. (The word “ain’t” here was deliberate.) One of my biggest blasphemes is intermixing subject and object pronouns.  Example: one doesn’t say “The teacher accused she and I of bad English.”  “She” and “I” are subject pronouns but are mistakenly being used here as object pronouns.  The correct sentence is “The teacher accused her and me of bad English.”

However, you should say “She and I use bad English,” because in this sentence the she and I are used as subject pronouns.

A good trick is to chop off part of the sentence.  Would you say “The teacher accused she” or “The teacher accused I”?  I would prefer not to.

Here then are longitudes’ top English language pet peeves:

  • Happy Belated Birthday.  I see this all the time on Facebook.  Everyone seems guilty except I me. Not many take time to ponder this convoluted phrase, because thinking has taken a back seat to blindly following lemmings, and not just in political circles. Here, the adjective “belated” is modifying the noun “birthday.”  Taken literally, this implies that the person’s day of birth has changed; a phenomenon that generally only happens with Hollywood celebrities. Listen up, Facebook: the sentiment is belated, not the person’s day of birth.  It should be Belated Happy Birthday. (You’re welcome.)
  • The word “literally.”  Literally is an adverb and should be used when something occurs that has both a figurative and literal meaning.  Example: “I literally bumped into John yesterday.”  This means that you not only saw John, but that you physically walked or ran into him. 

However, numerous millennials (and some older fucks) say “literally” when the literal doesn’t apply (“I literally died when I saw her”) or when there is only one meaning (“I literally fell asleep during lunch”).  Since correctly choosing the word “literally” involves thinking, it’s probably best to avoid this word completely. But if you feel compelled to provoke astonishment in your listener—try substituting “actually” or “believe-it-or-not.”  I realize they don’t sound as impressive, but saying “literally” ad nauseam impresses no one and makes you sound like a dumbass.

  • The word “like.”  This word, when spoken in the middle of a sentence multiple times and out of context, indicates substandard vocabulary or verbal laziness.  Most people use it to stall, as a substitute for “uh” or “um.”  Others are fast talkers and invoke “like” as one would shove coal into a furnace. Either way, it’s like, a bad habit.

When I was a disc jockey in a previous lifetime, long pauses while in front of the microphone were referred to as “bad air,” and the program manager frowned on them.  However, outside of the radio booth long pauses are an indicator of a thoughtful person who takes his or her time to choose the right words.  Former President Obama, although not perfect, was very good at this.  I encourage it.

  • The word “so” used at the beginning of a sentence.  I’ve written about this before. Some think this trend began in Silicon Valley, or with Facebook nerd Mark Zuckerburger.  “So” is used either as a coordinating conjunctive to refer backwards or forwards to something, or as an adverb.  But “so” is now regularly used at the beginning of a sentence when responding to a question.  Example: “What is Facebook’s privacy policy, Mr. Zuckerman?”  Response: “So our latest and greatest privacy policy is (blah blah blah).”

Are you really keen to emulate Mark Zuckinstein’s poor command of English? I would prefer not to.

  • Waiters and waitresses who use the pronoun “we.”  Example: “Would we like some dessert this evening?”  How the fuck did this shit get started!  “Who invited you to eat with us, Ashley?  Yes, pull up a seat, we’ll all have some dessert together.”

I don’t know why it is so difficult to use the word “you,” or the Southern colloquialism “y’all” or Yankee colloquialism “you guys.”  “We” is not only the wrong pronoun, it also sounds condescending as hell, as if the patron is a child. Do waiters and waitresses think the pronoun “you” is impolite?  DON’T FOLLOW LEMMINGS!

Other minor English crimes include pronunciation violations (here in the Ohio Valley they say “warsh” instead of “wash”) and America’s peculiar penchant for raping geographic names derived from Europe.  (“Versailles” should not be pronounced “Ver-SAILS,” you good people of southeastern Indiana.) 

I think the most comical mispronunciation example I’ve heard is in and around the small, Amish-Mennonite community of Berlin, Ohio.  People here literally actually pronounce their town’s name “BER-lin,” with the emphasis on the first syllable.  I’m guessing the awkward pronunciation is an attempt to distance the town from 1940s Germany, similar to 19th-century Irish immigrants who dropped “Mc” and “Mac” from their surnames to escape discrimination by hiding the fact they once scoured bogs for potatoes. But I say: folks, stand your ground, and fuck the lemmings.

I feel better now.  As I said, like President Obama, I’m not perfect, so if I’ve violated anything here, I’ll accept the traffic citation.

8 thoughts on “English Language Minor Crimes

  1. Why do people, whatever their native language, often not refer to the actual names of foreign places? Americans say Rome instead of Roma, for example. And French people say Les Etats Unis instead of The United States. There are millions of other examples of that.

    • Right, I’ve noticed that too. We say “Munich,” they say “München.” That’s more translation than pronunciation, and I think it happens due to ease of use related to heritage of the particular speaker or writer. Somewhat similar: I notice it’s now “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev,” due to Ukraine’s establishing autonomy from the former Soviet Union.

  2. So, I really enjoyed your piece, like I literally laughed out loud! BTW Craw is the crop of a bird…the bit they store the food in to feed their chicks. I like the new formatting style you have used. You had best not come to Australia! We’ll drive you crazy with our remodelling of English! I’m thinking the double t in formatting and double l in remodelling will already be making you wince!

    • Hi Robyn. Thanks for the “craw” definition. Actually, differing English language spellings don’t bother me much. I’m OK with America’s “color” instead of “colour,” “theater” instead of “theatre,” “jail” instead of “gaol,” etc. Heterogeneity between cultures makes life interesting.

      On a different note, my wife has fallen in love with the Aussie show Darby and Joan, with Brian Brown.

    • Me too. This is a mistake usually easy to fix since the advent of spell-check, so there’s really no excuse for it.

      There’s also no excuse for four-letter words. If you notice, I have none of those in my essay. 🙂

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