Have we crossed a line in our disregard for English grammar?
For years I've resisted the temptation to add my voice to the doomsday bandwagon of those who believe our language is in precipitous decline, but certain errors have become so pervasive that a growing disregard for the rules and conventions of English seems as undeniable as climate change.
I'm not talking about intentional errors in pop culture that add color and personality to artistic expression, as in "He don't plant taters / He don't plant cotton" in reference to the Mississippi River in the "Show Boat" song "Old Man River," or "I have to go 'cause he don't know" in Taylor Swift's "Wait for Me." I'm talking about basic errors in Standard English, errors that detract and diminish rather than enrich and augment the language we use to convey information and conduct business.
Two errors are becoming so common that one day they may be accepted as grammatically correct: There is used with a plural complement, as in "There's two ways of looking at this issue," and me and another person, as in "Me and my colleague attended the meeting."
Would you object if I wrote "There's two errors"? Even if you accepted there's with a plural complement, I'm guessing you would not accept "There's two errors that's becoming so common … ." At least not yet.
But careful users of the English language worry that if "There's two" becomes idiomatic and acceptable, a broader disregard for subject-verb agreement will follow, just as "Me and you are friends" may lead to a more general disregard for correct pronoun case. The problem isn't that these errors make the meaning less precise but that they offend the ear and they suggest that careful use of language is unimportant.
I'm no purist in matters of our evolving language. I embrace new words and expressions that capture new realities. I also recognize that none of us speaks or writes perfect English (whatever that is). For example, even some well-educated people say, "Between you and I" rather than "Between you and me."
For years, readers of this column have expressed their dismay at the poor grammar of TV announcers, from newscasters to sports commentators, but I'm sensing a fundamental shift. What worries me is a sharp increase in basic errors on the part of experts and people in positions of authority. With alarming regularity we're hearing sentences such as "The relationship between the parties have deteriorated" and "The city council's efforts to reduce the achievement gap has shown promise."
In his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote, "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way." His concern: "The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
Have you noticed a decline in language skills? If so, do you think the trend is gradual or rapid and accelerating? Do you agree with Orwell that "the process is reversible"?
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.