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.

Nerdspeak and the Word “So”… What??

words

I’m driving home and listening to my favorite radio station. Here’s how the radio conversation goes:

Interviewer: Can you tell us the current state of affairs in Syria?

Guest: So what we’re seeing is people now returning to Syria. One of the factors is because…

Interviewer: Have you been talking with those that have fled Jordan?

Guest: So they tell me they moved back into houses due to fear. If you have no choice…

Interviewer: What’s to account for the funding shortfall, where refugees can’t get enough food?

Guest: So it’s a political problem with humanitarian solutions, and…

___________

Maybe you’ve noticed it too: people putting the conjunction “So” at the beginning of their sentences. It happens during interviews, and occasionally in prose writing. “So I was in the store yesterday, and…”

The first time I heard it, I said to myself “How rude.” It sounds like the person being interviewed wants to bypass the question being posed. Instead, they continue an earlier thought. To me, it seems like an utter lack of courtesy. Maybe it is.

Although most common with young adults, this phenomenon also affects older folks. According to Business Insider magazine, it has its roots in Silicon Valley. In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped the “So” bomb four times in a row while sitting for an interview.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

So… it’s not enough that Facebook wants to dig into our personal lives. Silicon Valley has also affected the way we communicate. Talk about Revenge of the Nerds.

Maybe the techies in Silicon Valley have their own nerdspeak, and this odd syntax is only now seeping into “normal” society. Maybe their world is so cluttered with numbers, symbols, and acronyms that correct syntax can’t find room.

I have nothing against nerds. As an adolescent, I was probably one myself (and with this essay, maybe I’ve returned to being one). But their language sometimes reminds me of the robotic “duckspeak” of George Orwell’s “1984,” where nouns are linked with verbs to create a machine-like, Big Brother-approved vocabulary. In the business world, one hears the word “leverage” all the time. Isn’t there a less pretentious and less vague word than “leverage?”  Or is the idea to be pretentious and vague??

In nerdspeak, though, it’s not about Big Brother. It’s about consciously or sub-consciously conforming to sub-cultural fad. Kind of like attending prep school and feeling the urge to wear corduroy and Docksides.

I can handle fad in small doses. But lately I’ve been hearing the So-fad everywhere. On radio, television, and even during an interview with a supposed English language scholar.

Interviewer: Can a dangling participle be used as an adjunct without modifying the noun?

Supposed English Scholar: So the dangling participle is intended to…

Gosh and golly.

One would expect a grammar egghead to know that the conjunction “So” is frowned on at the beginning of a sentence. It’s like starting a sentence with “But” (something I admittedly do all the time). When “So” is used as a conjunction, it should arrive in the middle of a sentence, since it follows a statement and introduces a consequence (“The NPR interview made no sense, so I turned off the radio.”). But it’s even more irritating when “So” is used, not only at the beginning of a sentence, but also at the beginning of an entirely new thought.

In addition to being used as a conjunction, the word “So” can also be an adverb, as in “That egghead is SO wrong,” or “Zuckerberg is SO nerdy.” These uses of “So” are acceptable.

___________

I’m tempted to call the radio station every time I hear one of these So-people abusing English syntax. But I know how the conversation will go:

Me: Why do you always start your response with the word “So”?

So-person: So what’s wrong with that?

Me: It’s not proper English. It’s almost as bad as pronouncing “ask” as “axe.” You’re chopping up the English language.

So-person: So sue me, ok??!!

It’s a losing battle.  Quack-quack.

duck5