by Janis Patterson
All right, I admit it. I spend far too much time on Facebook – partially to keep up with friends/family, partially to see what’s going on in the world and what other people think about it (rightly or not), and partially with a sick curiosity to see how some people have mangled the language. The latter I watch with a horrified fascination, as one would an inevitable train wreck.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly well-educated person. I don’t have a college degree. High school was little more than an unpleasant endurance contest. There are literary and cultural references that go right over my head. Math – well, we just won’t talk about that. But – compared to some of the people on FB, people whom you think would know better, I find myself to be a most learned person even if I couldn’t tell you what a past progressive or a pluperfect anything is if one bit me on the ankle.
I know everyone makes an occasional typo, especially when writing in the grip of some strong emotion. However - ! The odd ‘wierd’ for ‘weird’ or even ‘wired’ or something like that is hardly remarkable or even especially noticeable. Some of the words, however, are so egregiously misspelt that even sounding them out doesn’t give any clue as to their meaning, which may or may not be interpreted by context.
Sadly this phenomenon is growing through the popular world rather than decreasing, which is shameful. We make education available – at no charge to them – to every child, kindergarten to high school. There are educational shows on educational/public broadcasting that deal with all kinds of studies. Almost any information is available on the internet. There are libraries, for Heaven’s sake, just chock full of books on the English language. Community colleges and even universities now have to have remedial English courses – both continuing education and for credit. There is absolutely no reason in the world for people to be so bad in their usage of English.
Unless, that is, they don’t want to change, and really don’t care about how ignorant and low-rent they appear to the world. Unfortunately, this disregard of proper usage is spreading, not shrinking, and has now infected the literary world. I realize that the Typo Gremlin is alive and well and appears at least one or two times in just about every book published. One would have to be a complete tartar to find that unacceptable. (Which it should be, but hey – this is reality we’re dealing with!) What really is unacceptable is when a plethora of typos, misspellings and other egregious mistakes run rampant through a book, sometimes several to a page. There used to be a belief that these errors were solely the province of self-published books (some people say ‘trash’), but in my own and others’ experience traditionally-published books are running almost neck and neck if not outstripping many self-published books in errors accrued.
It affects our real lives, too. I have taken to carrying a big black Sharpie with me to correct the egregious misuse of apostrophes, and even began a semi-humorous group called the American Association Against Apostrophe Abuse. What is painful is when you find someone creating an error (such as Banana’s – 50 cents a pound) and ask them which banana’s what only to have them stare at you without having the slightest clue as to what you’re talking about. I have been known to cry in such situations.
So how does this affect writers? I know that even if they do know proper grammar, spelling and syntax, most people don’t speak in perfect English using only complete, diagramable sentences. So – how can we make our people sound real while still staying within nodding distance of correct grammar?
Like my betters, I will take refuge in ambivalence. I believe the prose part of your book should be as grammatically correct as possible, but if the words go between quote marks (or as a first-person direct thought) they can be anything as long as they fit the character. The last is the most important part – you can’t have a dowager duchess talking like a field hand, or a street-wise ghetto kid talking like an English professor. At least, not without a plain and viable plot reason!
In real life… I don’t know. I hate to see the language degrading almost before our eyes. But languages change, some people say. Nothing remains static. I agree with that – to a point. Change is evolution, a process over time – not immediate conscienceless mangling.
One final thought - perhaps if we really got serious about wanting to have people look through grammar books, maybe we should hide a Pokémon in some of them.