“Are we so surrounded by informal conversation,” writes Jim, “that clear and effective writing is a luxury?”
Recently retired from “a research and writing program that prepares health professionals,” Jim is no purist who thinks language should never change. “For years I have tried to differentiate the vital and laudable transforming growth of the English language from simple ignorance and laziness,” he writes. “I’ve started asking myself, is this other-than-standard usage a useful addition to our language that allows us to refer accurately and usefully to a new phenomenon, or is this merely a mistake that confuses?”
Jim was responding to my column about grammatical errors in an Intelligence Squared debate broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio. Granted, the four debaters were speaking, with no opportunity to proofread and edit. And none of us speaks perfect English. But their 17 errors were mostly repeated errors, and the repetition led me to believe that they were habits of speech rather than occasional slip-ups.
The errors undermined Cindy’s confidence in the debaters’ expertise.
“I fear for the future of the English language,” wrote Cindy, “when those who teach and make education policy make so many grammatical errors.” When she showed my column to her husband, he said, “Is this the radio show you were screaming about?”
The debaters’ 17 errors fell into six categories:
1. Singular verbs used in place of plural verbs (There’s things in place; There’s some states; These issues that we are talking about is what we are obsessed with; There’s bad apples everywhere; These and millions of other data points is; There is many forms of school choice; There’s only five countries).
2. Failure to use that in reference to things and who in reference to people (There are also public schools who [should be that]; I may be one of the ones that [who]; There was a whole bunch of people ... that [who]; thousands [of people] that [who]).
3. Dangling modifiers, or introductory modifying phrases that fail to connect to the first words in the main clause (Having actually worked with real superintendents …, these are people [should be I]; Having actually lived with people who are concerned about their future, charter schools [I]).
4. Past tense used in place of the past participle (The systematic research has showed [shown]; I first became involved in charter schools … soon after they were first began [begun]).
5. Incorrect pronoun reference (When we talk about charter schools, we forget the fact that it was [they were] created and pushed by teachers).
6. Incorrect pronoun case (Across the country people like myself [me]).
In his message to me, Jim reflected on his career: “I was honored to be privy to students’ struggles as they moved from conversational street English to structured and clear professional-grade language.”
Thank you, Jim and Cindy, for your commitment to precise use of language.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.