The Grammar Police on 'You Are What You Speak'

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From English teachers to grammar grouches, people have been complaining for generations that the English language is going down the drain. As they see it, our vocabularies are shrinking, our grammar is abysmal, and we’ve all but forgotten about how to punctuate (?!). Carol Shaffer is one of those grammar grouches. A former teacher, she’s also the founder of the website, which has been pointing out language usage errors for fifteen years. Robert Lane Greene has a different perspective. The author of the new book, “You Are What You Speak,” he thinks what some people see as errors are in fact evolution.


Robert Lane Greene and Carol Shaffer

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [11]

Will Shapira from Roseville MN

I am very concerned that immigrants are being short-changed by incompetent, uncaring school officials who cannot or will not provide proper resources for the teaching of English. I wasted an entire academic year 2009-2010 trying to teach English to a group of refugees from Burma. It was utterly futile because they had almost no English to begin with and I spoke not a word of their language. Teaching was impossible.
It should be obvious but if it is, it is being ignored: all teachers of ESL must speak the language of the student or teacing cannot be done.
Earnest young Amereican citizens who desperately want to learn English to participate in society are being penalized by administrative incomptence and-or indifference.
I hope you will look into this and see how widespread it is among teachers of ESL.

Mar. 24 2011 08:04 AM
JB from Boston, MA

I totally agree with Celesete's mom on the use of is like nails on a chaulkboard to me. Add to that "irregardless"...seems as though the two always go together!

Mar. 23 2011 08:39 PM
Doc from Lubbock, TX

It's not the ungrammatical that drives me crazy-- granted, it's a short drive-- but the nonsensical.

"...sweating like a pig..." Any farm boy can tell you that pigs don't sweat. That's why they wallow in mud.

"...working like a dog..." Unless you're talking about a sled dog here, forget it. All the vast majority of dogs do is eat, sleep and make messes which their humans have to clean up.

"...sleeping like a baby..." Apparently the sleeper in question is waking up every couple of hours, wanting to be fed and needing to be changed. Not terribly restful.

There are plenty of other examples, but I believe I've made my point.

Mar. 23 2011 04:41 PM

My mother was a grammarian and I learned a lot from her though my grammar is far from perfect. As a kid, I'd roll my eyes when she started explaining the correct use of a certain word. I always used the word "hopefully" in the wrong way and was constantly corrected. I started saying "Hopefully, used incorrectly, the sun will come out tomorrow." The other big one was the misuse of the word "nauseous" for "nauseated". I also 100% agree with the comment about "I could care less." It irks me that people use it and it means the exact opposite of what they want to say. - c cook

Mar. 23 2011 12:40 PM
Alex Kukielka from Marlboro, MA

I get very annoyed, and my ears feel most irritated when I hear "is" when it should be "are". This is not only spoken commonly but I'm especially offended when professionals on radio and TV who probably had a course or two in English continue to speak without "are". My little expresion for this irritation is - "there is no are". Thank you for bringing this topic to the radio. I do fear, though, that the
English language will continue to go down hill.

Mar. 23 2011 10:34 AM
Sally Lederman from New Jersey

The idea that you use the language of the people you are speaking with, so that you can communicate with them is missing the point. One ideal of language is to be unambiguous. It takes care, and good use of grammar, to accomplish that. Most speakers who do not speak carefully or accurately recognise the meaning of careful, accurate language. If I say "he is a really good man", those who would say "he is a real good man" understand me, and no one who speaks properly would debate if I was distinguishing him from a doll, by using the word "real". If I say I was "nauseated", those who would improperly say "nauseous" would understand me. It allows me the use to also tell them "don't sniff this naseous gas!"

However, if we all accept and use the misuses, then the ability to be very accurate declines and we all have to use circumlocutions to explain our meanings. As an example, "anxious" is a lost word, being totally conflated with "eager" by careless speakers. So if I want to say that I am anxious about something, I now have to use a fully descriptive phrase in place of that formerly precise word. This is the key issue that supports the proper use of words and punctuation.

When I read my graduate student papers, I find myself rereading many sentences to identify the true meaning, because of careless use of words and grammar.

Mar. 23 2011 10:10 AM
Don from Detroit area

What an interesting concept about the reason that writing seems worse these days - it used to be that the writing you would read would be the writing of people who really knew how to write; now that anybody, no matter how competent or well-trained in English, can put their writing out there for everyone to read, it shouldn't be surprising that the overall level of quality has declined markedly.

Mar. 23 2011 10:00 AM
Victoria Price from brooklyn

Its amazing how many people say I could care less when they mean I couldn't care less. Its just english, and is incorrect expression of their thoughts.

Mar. 23 2011 09:58 AM
Melissa Fogarty from Jackson Heights, NY

Why do we have to make sure our english is at our best when speaking with lawyers? Having worked for lawyers, I can tell you, no need to elevate how they speak. And WRITE? Just frightening.

Mar. 23 2011 09:57 AM
Frank Dearden, [LCSW-C]

Great news item re. "You are what you speak." I am a clinical/therapist in Baltimore City, both live in & practice with folk in community; on an 'outreach' or 'in the hood' basis. i have an ability to ease into the level/character of the language being used most immediately by the folk, children & adults. We deal in feelings, anxiety, anger, depression and the full array of emotional issues that reflect the tragedy of their circumstance. IT is very important to NOT talk down or up in this context, BUT also one must not do so as "an act" but in a manner that conveys the concern, helpfull purpose, & some degree of emotional identification with the people being served. I tried to leave 'simple' phone message, but topic a bit more complex in my perception/use of language. i would be pleased to talk further with either/both of your guests on this topic.

Mar. 23 2011 08:11 AM
Mary Gutmann from Morgantown, WV

"...if it needs replaced," and "Friend's husband doesn't need invited," and "There are many abandoned wells needing plugged." These grammar oddities drive me wild -- especially because I hear and read them often.

Mar. 23 2011 08:07 AM

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