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Published: Monday, 11/24/2008

Misspellings, grammatical mistakes dumb down language

I REMEMBER taking a spelling test in high school a long time ago that included the word "meteorology." I botched it badly, and the teacher took great delight in telling the class "that's the worst spell of weather I've ever seen." Obviously he'd been hoping somebody would mess up so he could drop his joke on us. I never misspelled it again.

But I remembered the incident recently when I was struck by how much misspelling, how many grammatical mistakes, how much dumbing down has compromised a beautiful language.

I don't mean to pick on the kids, because language abuse cuts across all age groups. But you see spelling mistakes all the time on the outdoor signs at fast-food places where so many young people work. I've seen "Bergers." I've seen "Frys." However, I assume grownups are responsible for the huge sign over the front door of a store in Dallas, Texas. The sign reads: "Bargin City." Maybe the sign is too big and too expensive to change, or maybe they just like the notoriety it brings.

Much closer to home, I still remember the sign I saw a few years ago at a downtown Toledo auto repair business. "Wheel Alinement," it said. I would prefer to have my wheels aligned, but on some level I guess you'd want your wheels in "a line" too - two on the left, two on the right. So I'll give those guys a pass though they don't deserve it.

Contrast that with a sign in San Carlos, Calif., not far from where we used to live. I wouldn't change it for the world: "Fang's Acupuncture." Or this one in a Laundromat in Alameda, Calif.: "Clothes Must Be Removed When Finished." Or this one in a Blade ad some years back: "Blowout Sale on All Tires!" Grammatically all three are fine and spelled correctly. I just find them hilarious even though the irony, I suspect, was unintended.

I saw a sign reading "Boat Wash" at a marina once and that struck me as funny too. I mean, would you blow-dry an airplane?

Here's one I spotted at a shopping mall in Michigan: "Ears Peirced While You Wait." That one hit the daily double. Not only was pierced spelled wrong, I'm waiting to hear how one could get his or her ears pierced any other way than by having a seat right there in the shop.

I was tempted to walk in and ask if it would be OK to leave my ears for about an hour while I do some other shopping. I decided against it, however, because the idea of piercing my body with foreign objects really creeps me out.

I'm not talking about an intimate understanding of the nuances of the pluperfect subjunctive; I'm just talking about basic English usage. I used to teach college journalism courses at night, and it was depressing to discover how many of the students wrote so poorly and how ill prepared they were for the demands of higher education.

Athletes, professional and amateur, talk in the wrong tense all the time. How many times have you read a story in The Blade's sports pages and some jock is saying, "Boy, if Jack doesn't make that free throw, we lose." Well, the game ended last night and the fellow's talking like Jack is still waiting to take the shot. I want to grab the guy by the shoulders and tell him he should have said "Boy, if Jack had not made that free throw, we would have lost."

Does anybody teach grammar any more? Do high school students know how to diagram a sentence? Do they even know what the term means?

Carelessness abounds in the way we talk and write these days. Text messaging gets much of the blame. When a teenager text messages his girlfriend with "U R A Q T C U @ 8?, she can figure it out, and maybe it saves a little money to do it that way, but it's still dumbing down the language and I don't like it.

It's certainly true that the English language is full of contradictions. Take the double-e, as in street. The double-e sound appears in a lot of different ways: convene, sardine, team, fiend, people, key, he, protein, and debris are just a few.

Or consider the confusion many of us encounter when we struggle with troublesome word-pairs. Is it "good" or "well"? Less or fewer? Effect or affect? Which or that? Insure or ensure? Flaunt or flout? Founder or flounder?

What a challenge our language presents to foreigners. There is no pine in a pineapple. No apple either. You won't find ham in a hamburger. Boxing rings are square. We park on a driveway and drive on a parkway. We recite at a play and play at a recital. Yet many folks for whom English is a second language understand it better than we do.

I don't claim to be an expert on language and usage. I'm sure I've dangled a participle or two.

But I don't think it's too much to ask to understand that "its" is a possessive and "it's" is a contraction of "it is." Or that there, they're, and their mean distinctly different things. Or that "Him and me played a really good game" is just plain awful. Today's college gridiron heroes could be zeroes in a couple of years when they can't find a job.

Several years ago I wrote a column about the most frequent grammatical errors I encountered as a newspaper editor, particularly those that originated with contributors to our Blade Readers' Forum. Abuse of the language, it seemed to me, had become an epidemic. Today, it appears little has changed.

However, I am not arbitrary about this stuff. To change the old Rolling Stones song, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" to "I Cannot Get Any Satisfaction" might have been grammatically prudent but it would have also been musically stupid. Plus, I think Star Trek had it right with its line: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." To boldly go is a split infinitive, supposedly a grammatical no-no. But Captain Kirk, commander of the starship USS Enterprise, liked it, and so do I.

Sometimes you have to boldly go where your English teacher would rather you didn't.



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