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English, Languishing

One writer wonders why no one seems to care about grammar and diction anymore.

- August 11, 2004

I have a rare affliction, unfortunately. Were it not so rare, if more people suffered along with me, my condition would cause me less pain. But I seem to be one of the very few who still care about the proper use of the English language, and so I'm stuck witnessing it be abused to the point that we might as well call it the English "languish."

It's like this: Whenever I see a grammatical glitch, I wince, mutter, gnash, and twitch (with apologies to Dr. Seuss). I don't actually go looking for transgressions of clear, crisp communications. They just casually pop up on TV, in print, and on radio, with alarming frequency and apparent indifference by those charged with conveying information.

What am I talking about? Here are some examples to get us going.

There's a devolving of certain words, I've found, which yield bogus words, such as "harkens back" instead of the proper "harks back." (There's "hearkens" and "hark," but no such term as "harkens.") Sportspeak is a vernacular unto itself, and with the trend in recent years of retired professional athletes at the mike, we're being serenaded by the most inarticulate group of public speakers around, just the most knowledgeable about playing their sport. Among the most curious bogus words is how gutsy has devolved in the broadcast booth to gutty. "That was one gutty at-bat for Jeter," the announcer tells me, and all I want to know is where the "s" went.

There are other bogus words, and a simple test to gauge their authenticity. I challenge you to use the term comedic in a sentence where it means something different than the simpler, sufficient "comic." Or the same with "proactive" versus "active." Why do we create words that are longer, less mellifluous, and without distinctive meaning?

It's the literary equivalent of Hollywood's penchant for remaking classic movies that can't possibly be equaled, let alone improved upon. As remakes, proactive and comedic are flops in this reviewer's notepad. Is Jim Carrey a comic actor or a comedic actor? Duh!

When it comes to hoary phraseology unnecessarily displacing what was perfectly adequate in the first place, nothing beats the absurdity of "up close and personal," originated by ABC Sports many years ago to brand an interview series.

It's almost excusable that ABC created that overwrought version of "close-up" simply to set its product apart from other interview shows. Call it poetic license, though the poet who wrote it was a real hack. But how do you explain otherwise sensible people in the intervening years using the clunky "up close and personal" for everything from a movie title to a legitimate substitute for close-up. It just may be the most insipid popular coinage of the last 30 years. It goes a long way to say nothing new.

By far the all-time bogus champ of the modern era is the term "homophobia." If claustrophobia is fear of close spaces, and agoraphobia is fear of public spaces, homophobia is fear of what exactly? Homo is a Greek prefix meaning "same as," as in homosapien. As congealed into homophobia, homo is co-opted as a derogatory term, which is a bogus way to form a word. In fact, homophobia literally—and ironically—means, for example, that a man is repelled by any other member of his gender.

As a commonly accepted term formed from a prefix both pejorative and slang, homophobia is a rarity. Let's hope it stays that way.

Isn't it ridiculously nitpicky for someone like me to spend time honing in on this sort of marginalia—oops! Did you spot the word that doesn't fit in the last sentence? No, not "nitpicky," wise guy. You can "hone" your skills, but you should be "homing in" on something. When did "homing in on" become "honing in on"?

Likewise, for years growing up, I was under the impression that a super-slick player of poker or blackjack was called a card shark, only to realize later the actual term is "card sharp." No matter, because today, most people, all grown up and everything, assume, as I did in my youth, that it is card shark.

But what's the point of all this? I've concluded that just as some people are averse to dealing with numbers, and others can't nail two boards together, and plenty of folks are tone deaf with music, there also are lots of people, evidence suggests, who are tone deaf with everyday language. However, whereas you won't find a tone deaf musician playing in the Philharmonic, there's an alarming number of writers who—let's face it—are clueless when it comes to the rules of grammar and whose vocabulary wouldn't see them winning any spelling bees, even against grade schoolers.

How else do you explain this malapropism of recent vintage: the inability of even highly educated people to distinguish between "corps" (as in Marine Corps, where the "s" is silent) and corp., which is the abbreviation for corporation. The unnerving result is hearing people refer to Rupert Murdoch's company, for example, as "News Core." Not far behind is a recent rash of confusion switching "reign" with "rein," as in this slip-up in a newspaper I just spotted, "Pulled in the reigns...."

Those examples are not so much matters of grammatical literacy as cultural literacy. The difference is that the former is taught in grade school, while the latter presupposes you've been around and just know about stuff like what a card sharp is or that corp. is pronounced with a "p" at the end.

The preponderance of grammatical errors, some off the charts, is enough to make you wonder if we are at the threshold of a post-verbal culture—or are we reverting to a kind of pre-verbal? Or, better yet, are we emerging mutants in a post-modern-verbal society?

After all, hip-hop has a lexicon all its own, as does electronic correspondence, from IM to email to pagers. We've developed, almost unconsciously, a new shorthand that is the lingua franca of communicating in a world without time for full words, spelling niceties, or, heaven forbid, grammatical precision.

What's off the charts? At the top of my list of inexplicable language devolution is the rampant insertion of an apostrophe to create plural words, like the tavern poster we've all seen proclaiming, "Live music on Friday's."

But nothing is as grating to my sensibility as the faintly oxymoronic epidemic out there that has people saying something is very or most "unique." I guess that's not terrible—if you also think nothing of uttering, "I just had the most one-of-a-kind experience." That's what unique means, after all: one of a kind. How is it that news writers for CNN and other cable channels are so limited in their grasp of grammatical fundamentals imparted in grade school? Unique is an absolute, not a comparative.

Of course, the problem with our languish wasn't helped any by our Founding Fathers and how they led in—not lead in, another phonetic faux pas—to the United States Constitution: "In order to form a more perfect union," it reads. One heavyweight, unabridged dictionary I consulted went so far as to allow that "perfect," an absolute term in my book, "can be used comparatively." News to me. And which example does this tome cite? Yep, that imperfect Constitutional phrase about forming something that, impossibly, is "more perfect." That dictionary's concession either is a testament to the credibility of the Founders, or it's circumlocution, as in "Perfect can be used as a comparative because it was used that way in a historic document." Ho-kay!

The rest, as they say, is historical—or is it historic? Those words are in the running for most confused conjugations of a single word. TV talkers and even newspapers can be relied on to transpose the two, turning a momentous event into "a historical day." Wrong. Simply put, a movie about World War II is historical, because it depicts history, while the event itself is historic because it makes history.

It's plausible to conclude that our electronic media cocoon is the main cause of rising verbal fallibility—if not folly.

By that I mean we tend to rely less on linear learning through reading and more on random sight and sound bites. Whether it's the car culture's dashtop, the cyberculture's desktop, or the video culture's set-top, we consume data in digits, hence our language style and skills follow suit. Electronic media have transformed our innate ability to discern what is elegant expression and what is sloppiness.

The conclusion to this exploration may just be that collectively we are developing a kind of shorthand for our modern language that will prevail over what once were deemed proper English rules. And the conservative part of me doesn't want to give an inch in protecting the integrity and elegance of our pristine units of communication—words, punctuation, diction, concise and coherent expression of thought.

But the liberal in me recognizes that times change, and if you subscribe—as do the world's most regarded dictionaries—to the principle of common usage, then who am I to object to "honing in on" as a legitimate phrase, even if it always will sound off-key to me? Majority rules.

After all, once upon a time people didn't while away the hours, but "wiled away the hours," as in fooling time. Makes sense, more so than the evolved spelling we take for granted today. "All told" started life, quite logically, as "all tolled," a synonym for "in sum." Of course, I'm crazy and sentimental enough to still spell those phrases in their native form, as a homage to their ancestry.

Still, I can't shake that ringing in my ears echoing the epigram famously authored by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, about "defining deviancy down." It's hard for this nitpicking grammatical grump not to believe that, with each day, we are doing our best to define literacy down.

Bruce Apar of Mediapar is a business communications consultant.

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