Grammar Time! (And Why We Should Care)

Crabby wearies of inflated writing and speaking…

I read Yelp mostly for the bad restaurant reviews, which are almost uniformly hilarious. Reviewers out for a meal with “the husband” or “the girlfriend” vent their spleens on waitstaff who haven’t been sufficiently subservient, menus that have no vegetarian options (this one for a barbecue restaurant, I kid you not), and observations about the”quaint” decor of ethnic restaurants. Spoiled, imperious, and self-righteous diners abound in this alternate universe where everything is supposed to be Gordon Ramsay perfect.

However, the bizarre grammatical constructions really induce fingernail-on-chalkboard tremors for me. Mostly, they come in the form of gassy expansions of simple and often elementary structures that violate two of George Orwell’s primary rules of English writing:

1. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
2. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

This behavior is not confined to Yelp. I find it daily in newspapers, brochures, and even this morning on NPR, where a commentator said something was “more tiny” than something else. No, no, no: “tinier” is the comparative! Also, “smaller,” “wider,” “sweeter,” and so on and on and on. Why gum up the works?

Especially in a time where “writing” has become “tweeting” for many people, you’d think that the 140-character limit would inspire brevity and clarity, but no. Things seem to be going the other way in normal English composition. Some other particularly egregious examples of unnecessary linguistic bloat:

1. The unjustifiable “Makes mention of,” “makes reference to”: What’s wrong with “mentions” and “refers to”? It doesn’t make you sound smarter, it makes you sound cloddish.

2. One of my Yelp favorites: “I’ve been wanting to try this place…” No, little Yelper, you’ve “wanted to” try it for some time. One could make the case for the progressive voice under certain circumstances, but it’s gaudy filigree here.

3. “Went missing” isn’t really a Yelp thing; it’s a Britishism (I think) that has mysteriously wormed its way into American English over the last several years. It still rankles. Maybe “Downton Abbey” is to blame, although it’s been around longer than that over here. We have a perfectly good word for this condition; it’s “disappeared.”

4. What do “stereo type” and “play ground” have in common? They are compound nouns that have been ignorantly divided. Why? Who knows. Is spellcheck to blame? When I’m in a good mood I think so, but maybe not.

5. Adverbs get a bad rap, but that’s no reason to write, “He ate the meal in a reluctant way” or “The flowers bloomed in a colorful way.” It’s “reluctantly” and “colorfully.” That’s it. Why cram other words in there?

6. Let’s sing a dirge for subject-verb agreement while we’re at it. “There’s many reasons to avoid this place,” “The variety of appetizers are amazing,” “The food and drink at this place was excellent.” I’m picking on Yelpers here, but these are examples similar to what I’ve read there and elsewhere. The subject of each sentence is “reasons,” “variety,” and “food and drink,” which take as their verbs, respectively, “are,” “is,” and “were.”

Why should we care about any of this? Isn’t it just nitpicking? Isn’t language always evolving? Well, yes, but we don’t have to help it. And we certainly don’t want to help it get worse. Ideals of clarity and direct expression still matter. Getting your point crystal clear and caring that your eventual reader will understand you are (not “is”!) still goals worth aiming for. It’s not that grammar is ironclad (even Orwell wrote, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”); it should be the guide for how we communicate with others.

When I read sloppy writing by people who should know better, I think the writer doesn’t give a damn about me. He or she just wants to fling anything that might stick at the page, leaving it for me to clean up. That annoys me. As a result, I discount what the writer is trying to say. Good writing is an expression of one’s respect for others, not just empty etiquette. Whether you’re Yelping or composing a college application essay, that’s really your main concern. I prescribe George Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English Language” as a wake-up call, to be read once every six months. You’ll thank me later.

BONUS ROUND

Other linguistic curiosities/transgressions from various areas:

1. “But yet”: “He wanted to try the gelato, but yet it seemed too sweet for his taste.” Mostly spoken; I can’t recall seeing it written. Either “but” or “yet,” not both. “Yet” is a little fancier. (However, this isn’t a new development. I recently heard it spoken by a character in a film from around 1954.)

2. “Is, is…”: Also spoken and dating, at least in my experience, from around the mid-90s, when I heard a friend say it for the first time. “My idea about that is, is that we make the cake first.” Like stuttering, I guess. Weird.

3. Using “iconic” to describe anything and everything, especially when you really mean just “well-known.” Jesus! A pointless, stupid, and lazy add-on that attempts to elevate those often fairly ordinary things to some kind of reverential or uniquely representative status. It seems as though one lazy writer used it a while back, maybe to describe something that actually wasiconic,” then everyone else thought, “Oooh, that’s good!” But constant overuse has robbed it of its power and it looks ridiculous now.

Icon

Icon

Icon

Icon

Not an icon

Not an icon

4. Frank Zappa made fun of it in “Valley Girl” 30 years ago. Since then, “uptalking” (along with “like”) has infected spoken English like the plague. Every conference presentation I’ve been to in the last few years has had at least one uptalker, sometimes many more. It’s distracting and makes my vocal cords tense up, but more significantly, I discount the presenter’s intelligence as a result. It’s almost impossible to escape; I sometimes find myself doing it and have to very deliberately stop and reorient my speech. Gag me with a spoon!

Men uptalk, too.

Men uptalk, too.

If people saw uptalking represented in writing they might think twice about doing it? They’d be more conscious of how grating it is? And maybe they’d take steps to correct it? It would definitely help them in many situations where they have to speak authoritatively? Here’s a short video that addresses the problem?

All better for now.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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