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Journalists and grammar - Baltimore Sun on Astini News

June 26, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

You may imagine that journalists, because they make their bread by wielding language, would (a) know something about grammar and usage and (b) write about grammar and usage intelligently. If so, you have a vivid imagination.

I put it to you (prosecutorial mode today) that a recent article in The Wall Street Journal on grammar in the workplace is a farrago of shibboleths and cultural prejudices. Even if you accept a broader definition of grammar that includes spelling, punctuation, and style conventions, the article is useless.

The argument is that there has been a shocking lapse in competence in writing in the workplace. No doubt. There has always been shocking writing in the workplace: jargon, buzzwords, slack writing, pompous writing, disingenuous writing, slipshod writing. For sheer obfuscatory cant it would be hard to beat the statement by Helen Dragas, rector of the University of Virginia, on the firing of the university president.

But that kind of bad writing is not what the Journal article is about. It is about an "epidemic of grammar gaffes." You might think that in the middle of an epidemic there would be some examples to present, but the article has none. It merely quotes people who say there is an epidemic, which we must presumably take on faith, because The Wall Street Journal quotes people saying so.

There is instead a reference to pitched battles over the Oxford comma.* And the article quotes Bryan Garner on examples of 'uneducated English,' such as saying 'I could care less,' instead of 'I couldn't care less,' or, 'He expected Helen and I to help him,' instead of 'Helen and me.' "

The Garner examples are of interest because they display two very different phenomena. Using I instead of me as an object of a verb or preposition is a misguided attempt to be formal, to write posh. Using I could care less** represents a choice to be informal.

And there, with a preference for informality, we have located the burr under The Wall Street Journal's saddle. It's those damn Young People. "Tamara Erickson, an author and consultant on generational issues, [wouldn't you love to have that sweet gig?] says the problem isn't a lack of skill among 20- and 30-somethings. Accustomed to texting and social networking, 'they've developed a new norm,' Ms. Erickson says."

I thought that breezy business exchanges go back as far as Babbitt, and the young were quite able to write badly without the assistance of texting when I was a graduate teaching assistant forty years ago. New forms of slang crop up all the time, but slang is a continuing phenomenon. Fresh examples of uneducated writing crop up all the time, but bad writing in all its forms is a cultural constant. The Internet has not made writing worse; it merely makes it easy to see just how much bad stuff is out there.

Your working assumption whenever you pick up an article on grammar and usage in a newspaper or magazine, then, is that someone is merely furnishing a platform for the peeververein.***



*This is merely a style convention. Use the final comma in a series or not, as it suits you, or as it suits your employer. Even the Associated Press Stylebook says to use the final comma when it's necessary to avoid ambiguity.

**Though not logical, I could care less is always perfectly understood, though I have apparently not been able to persuade Mr. Garner of this. As I remarked in a different context, English ain't algebra. 

***Jonathon Owen was tickled by this coinage, and I've resolved to include it in the working vocabulary.


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