Grammar Police
Robert Bruner

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Raw sentences
  • The eternal present
  • Between you and I
  • Verbing nouns
  • Graduating schools
  • Why bother stopping?
  • To affect the effect you plan to effect
  • Weather activity
  • Active accidents
  • Passive observers
  • Missing verbs
  • What if I am wrong?
  • Grammar resources

  • Introduction

    This essay is devoted to the notion that people can learn to speak and write well, and that those who are too lazy to do so deserve the ribbing they get. I'm not talking about people who haven't had the opportunity to study, but about advertisers, filmmakers, broadcasters, and other creators of the messages with which we are steadily bombarded. It is bad enough that the content is often shoddy. Having the language distorted in the process adds insult to injury. Don't bother telling me grammar isn't as important as the substance of people's speech, because it is exactly the substance of their speech which is being called into question. People who say one thing when they mean another are asking the rest of us to compensate for their ignorance and laziness. Sorry, folks, I have enough to do, and don't really believe you are as puny as you seem to think.

    Sarcasm aside, the point is that careful, accurate expression stands up well to noisy transmission, distraction, and removal from context in a way in which sloppy expression does not. Sloppy speech on the other hand requires the listener to know more context to extract the meaning. The eternal present presents an amusing example of a disturbingly prevalent failure to recall that English has a past tense as well as a present, and that they mean different things. Newscasters constantly make this mistake, but I have also observed this failure in many PBS historical documentaries, coming from apparently educated people. I find this quite mysterious. Ken Burns, in particular, seems not to know that English has a past tense. (Ken, it turns out, was simply an early casualty, and this is now a pandemic, which has abolished all tenses, as in 'President Bush goes to Kansas tomorrow'.)

    Advertisers, whose primary mission in life is to separate people from their money, and who therefore cannot afford to care any more about truth than legal liability requires, are primary offenders. Non-words which resemble actual words and meaningless turns of phrase which resemble meaningful statements are the stock in trade of those who wish to suggest without being liable for actually saying. Of course, this resembles the practice of poetry, and in a culture less dedicated to making everything a subject of commerce, some of these advertising writers might have added to, rather than subtracted from, our culture.

    I recently had an interesting discussion with a fellow who was accosting people in the hall of a classroom building, apparently with University permission, offering them `free' gifts in return for applying for a credit card. When I pointed out that this contradicts his claim that the gifts are free (unless one's personal financial data and obligations are worthless) he found my complaint surprising.

    Sadly, our university's radio station, WDET, is a repeat offender. It was a traffic report they broadcast which finally pushed me over the line from complaining to my wife to complaining to the world, as I am here. I believe that a radio station associated with a university ought to be able to reach a minimum standard of literacy. (To its credit, the large number of examples I can draw from WDET does show that it is still the station I listen to the most, though CBC and WUOM are gaining fast.)

    I have looked at a number of postings on the web on the subject of grammar and have seen a lot of messages which don't distinguish between bad typing and bad grammar. I have no beef with someone who simply mistypes a word and doesn't catch the typo. Here, we're going to make fun of the people who would still be wrong no matter how well they type.

    I have also gradually expanded the scope of this curmudgeonly diatribe to include semantic errors, as in the case of the 'free' gifts mentioned above.

    Raw sentences

    In the last few years, people have stopped transforming sentences when they incorporate them as a clause in another sentence. For example, the head of UPS was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition at 6:56 AM on the 15th of November 2012. He said

    "You need to understand what are the policies going to be."

    Now, it is perfectly acceptable to ask "What are the policies going to be?", but when you incorporate that into another sentence as he did, you should transform it slightly:

    "You need to understand what the policies are going to be."

    This has become pandemic. I compiled the following list of examples from various media sources. One of the striking features of this change is that, while its original occurrences often shortened sentences, now that it has become the norm, many of its occurrences are actually lengthier and more cumbersome than the classic (and I still think, correct) form.

    The eternal present

    In an attempt to make you feel that 'You are there as history happens!', documentaries are now full of the false, or historical, present: the use of the present tense for something which happened long ago. Some of these can be quite misleading, especially if you tune in a little bit late.

    `Meanwhile, cholera spreads to Boston, New York, and Chicago.' What? What happened? I am glad I live in Detroit! Oh, they're referring to the epidemic of 1836-1838! Whew! There for a minute I thought our water treatment infrastructure had deteriorated rather severely.

    This is now a serious epidemic (the false present, not cholera), with professors from the University of Wisconsin and other seemingly educated people apparently unable to distiguish between present and past tense. I can hardly listen to PBS historical documentaries any more, they are so full of this nonsense, and news reporters now routinely switch between past, present and future tenses in mid sentence with complete abandon. (Since I wrote the paragrphs above, this has escalated exponentially.)

    A recent massive offender on this front was Ken Burns in his Jazz series. This morning, on NPR, he said "John Hammond is getting tired of swing." I'll bet! Especially if he's still listening to nothing else. Of course he was talking about something that happened in 1938 or so. Frankly, I think Ken sounds a little silly, putting so much into the present tense. (But he has made converts, so he is no longer alone. It would be interesting to tease out the factors which bring about such changes.)

    I do understand the proper use of the 'false present', but I don't think people are consciously using it for its beneficial effects. I think they're completely unaware that they have switched tenses, in most cases. Perhaps the demise of editing is a factor in this.

    Between you and I

    Come on folks, don't be so frightened of `me'. It is the appropriate word when referring to oneself as an object rather than as a subject. Aha! There we see the problem. There is no such thing as objectivity! Everything is subjective. If you think otherwise, fine! That is your subjective opinion. And if you wish to fly to the moon on wings made of wax, go ahead. There is no objective reality to interfere with your plans, only your failure to believe.

    But, gratuitous slams against people who don't believe in the possibility of common understanding of a really existing external world not amenable to change by magic aside, some people have been so frightened that they would say `me' when `I' was appropriate, that they never learned when each is needed. A simple test suffices: remove the plural and see how it sounds. You'll probably see the correct answer immediately. For example, is it

    `The cashier gave John and I the pizza.'

    or is it

    `The cashier gave John and me the pizza.'

    If the choice were between `The cashier gave I the pizza.' and `The cashier gave me the pizza.', you would know which was right, wouldn't you. For a slightly harder example, is it

    `Who is there?' `It's me!'

    or is it

    `Who is there?' `It is I!'

    Compare the answers 'Me am' and 'I am' to see which is correct.

    I frequently hear statements like

    'Me and her went to the mall.' or
    'Her and I went to the mall.'

    from people who would never say 'Her went to the mall or 'Me went to the mall.'

    For a discussion of the reason for this problem and some others, here is an entertaining column by Nick Clooney from The Cincinnati Post.

    Verbing nouns

    I am sorry about that ugly title: it is an example of a generic failure on the part of people whose vocabulary lacks verbs. They must coerce nouns into playing the role of verbs, generally by creating a nonexistent gerund. Sun Microsystems is a good company, (wow, you can see how old this essay is, can't you!) but I still recall it trumpeting some grand scheme for `transitioning' its operating systems a number of years ago. This usage is now commonplace, and no less ugly for it.

    Then there is the execrable `authoring' so prevalent today. You may `author' your works if you like, but I will continue to write mine.

    Graduating schools

    The ugliness of the phrase "to graduate college" is mitigated only by the amusing image of these folk carefully inscribing evenly spaced marks on the side of their school. They should never have been allowed to graduate from college if they cannot distinguish this sort of vandalism from receiving a degree. If you disagree, here is a hint: learn the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs.

    Why bother stopping?

    On the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia in the spring of 2000, the train conductor often announced, as we were approaching a stop, that "All doors will not open at the next stop". It made me wonder why they bothered stopping if they weren't going to open the doors. Of course he failed to understand the difference between

    All doors will not open.


    Not all doors will open.

    A similar failure to properly use word order showed up in the NPR report about the earthquake in India on January 26, 2001. The reporter said "The worst city hit by the earthquake ...", an entirely gratuitous insult. Of course she meant "The city worst hit ..." or "The city hit worst ...".

    To affect the effect you plan to effect

    If you don't know the difference between the verb 'affect' and the verb 'effect', learn it now. It is a nice example of the fine distinctions which can be drawn in English by careful choice of words. To `effect' something is to bring it about. To `affect' it is far vaguer, and can mean anything from effect to the merest sort of minor transitory influence.

    Now we're ready to learn the noun `effect', and if we're psychologists, the noun 'affect'. If this is all too hard for you, just say `impact' whenever one of these words might be appropriate. I always visualize a small spacecraft smashing into the moon when I hear this word used when `effect' (n.) or `affect' (v.) would be more appropriate, and I often wish the speaker were aboard, so he or she could learn what `impact' really is.

    Weather activity

    For some reason, weather announcers frequently refer to weather activity, when all they mean is weather. Similarly, there is rain activity and thunderstorm activity, and snow activity, none of which is distinguishable from rain, thunderstorms, or snow.

    Then there was the 'perfect gift solution' we were told of the other night. I don't recall what it was, but perhaps they were referring to a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

    Active accidents

    Yesterday, according to the WDET traffic reporter, an accident cleared the Southfield Expressway. It must have been quite an accident to remove all the vehicles (and debris?) from the expressway. Or maybe they meant that the accident managed to go over the expressway without touching it, as in `Joe cleared the hurdle.'

    Of course they meant that the accident had been cleared off the expressway, but saying 'off' or 'from' was apparently too hard.

    Passive observers

    Then there are the traffic announcers who speak of a "slow ride" on the Freeway. This is not a grammatical error, but it betrays a very interesting attitude toward the world. It is an admission that they are passive observers of a world for which they feel no active responsibility. When I am on the freeway, I drive. I don't ride unless I am in someone else's car. Since these reports are directed to the people who are controlling their vehicles so that they may avoid traffic snarls, "drive" is the more appropriate word here.

    Missing verbs

    It is only a minor fault, but announcements often omit verbs, as in

    "For more information 313-987-6543"

    I am sorry, but I have never learned to 313-987-6543. Perhaps they mean "contact 313-987-6543" or "call 313-987-6543". Of course they do, and they know it, but they think it sounds cool truncated. Or they're too tired to say "call". Or they're reading a line from a chart:

    For more information 313-987-6543
    Police 911
    Amici's pizza 123-4567

    Just this morning I heard it again: "For concert information Ticketmaster or the Music Hall Box Office".

    This is now a common feature of national news broadcasts as well. The omission of a form of 'to be' is the most common: 'His only option, call in the National Guard.' The verb would add information, distinguishing between '.. was to call in the National Guard', '... is to call in the national Guard', or '... will be to call in the National Guard.'

    Other forms occur as well. 'When he arrived at the scene, total destruction.' Why not say 'he found total destruction', or 'he saw total destruction'? Or perhaps even 'he called for total destruction.' Using whole sentences can add a lot of information with very few additional words. Sometimes they require substantial additional effort to compose, however, and the mania for delivering undigested 'facts' as rapidly as possible pushes these otherwise intelligent people into meaningless blather as they search for something to say before they've had the opportunity to think.

    What if I am wrong?

    You may have noticed errors in grammar, spelling, or especially punctuation, in my diatribes. Go ahead and let me know. How else will I learn?

    Grammar resources

    (Added in 2005) Here is a marvelous example of the volatility of the web. The next two links were alive in 2002, but are no longer valid, despite the fact that their content (if they can be found) probably has changed very little. Keeping up with all this is an enormous waste of time and effort, in my opinion.

    The Missourian Copy Desk from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism is another interesting site.

    Virginia Tech's English department has some very interesting comments on grammar, some of which support and others of which dispute my comments above.

    Finally, if you can find a copy of David Foster Wallace's review of the Dictionary of Modern American Usage written for Harper's Magazine (April 2001) you will find an important and entertaining discussion of prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes toward grammar, their evolution, and their current effects.

    Copyright 2002, Robert Bruner
    Updated version Copyright 2016, Robert Bruner