Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plain English

Gene Weingarten, writing this past week in the Washington Post, came to a startling conclusion: The English language is dead.

"It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness," he wrote. "It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself."

And who is to blame for this outrage, this laying to waste the language that binds us together? Rap music? Illegal immigration? A failed public education system? Obama?

Weingarten doesn't really single out any one cause but he does point the crooked, bony finger of blame at the American newspaper industry as a partner in crime.

"In the past year alone, as the language lay imperiled," he writes, "the ironically clueless misspelling `pronounciation' has been seen in the Boston Globe, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Deseret Morning News, Washington Jewish Week and the Contra Costa Times, where it appeared in a correction that apologized for a previous mispronunciation."

I feel his pain, especially since executing a computer keystroke will launch spelling and grammar checks that guarantee even bad stories will be written in good English.

Weingarten continues, "The Lewiston (Maine) Sun-Journal has written of `spading and neutering' and The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star described professional football as a `doggy dog world.' The Vallejo Times-Herald and the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune were the two most recent papers to report on the treatment of `prostrate cancer."'

Not mentioned but one of my favorites was a line in a newspaper that read, "And when he arrived, nobody wasn't there." It had a zen-like quality to it.

To be sure, newspapers aren't the only purveyors of botched grammar.

The Cook County (Ill.) Board, apparently fed up with what it perceived as negativity in the mainstream media, decided to produce its own magazine to ensure "regular positive press."

But the initial run of 5,000 copies had to be tossed because the magazine had too many spelling and grammatical errors.

In Minnesota, a would-be bank robber was arrested after handing the teller a note that said, "Give money, I gun" thereby assuring that the only sentence he'll complete is in state prison.

But back to newspapers.

I read newspapers every day, lots of them, and while I see the occasional grammatical lapse, it pales in comparison to the millions of words that are published.

Weingarten's examples are painful but most come from smaller papers. Small papers pay small wages and don't often attract erudite writers, settling instead for inexperienced reporters who are still learning the craft. This journalist as a rookie learned a lot more about grammar by writing than I ever did diagraming sentences.

Then there is the copy editor, the last line of defense at any newspaper. When I first started out, these were mostly gray-haired newsroom veterans who spoke like ham actors and read dictionaries on their lunch break. Make a grammatical mistake and you would be loudly and publicly humbled.

Copy editors are still on the job but in much fewer numbers. In this era of severe staff cutbacks, they are overwhelmed by the workload, which includes myriad production responsibilities and leaves scant time for careful editing. Thus, mistakes get made.

It may be a rough patch for the English language. It is under siege by texts, tweets and blogs. But it is far from dead. Dozens of new words are added to the language each year. An estimated 6 billion people worldwide speak it. The Oxford English Dictionary gets 2 million online hits a month.

Hold the autopsy, Mr. Weingarten. As Winston Churchill once famously said, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."

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