Always a good writer and grammarian, earning top grades in English throughout my school years, I became even more punctilious while serving as copy chief for the group of magazines in Palm Beach Media Group. Soon after my arrival, other staff members recognized me as the go-to guy for all writing issues. The bulletin board in my office was plastered with newspaper columns by the late James Kilpatrick’s The Writer’s Art, which played an important role in refining my skills. I found it necessary to rewrite many of the stories supplied by freelance writers.
A newspaper review by an acclaimed editor who was a longtime professor of English literature and creative writing praised my writing for its “polish and grace,” and observed, “His sentences and paragraphs are well turned.” That opinion bolsters my authenticity, I think, to expound on a subject that causes me increasing dismay: the breakdown of standards in English grammar and usage, and the mechanics of writing in general.
I must say that the sentences and paragraphs in public communication these days are often turned inside out, upside down, topsy-turvy – anything but straightforward and clear. Spelling is careless and punctuation just plain ragged.
Let’s see … here are a couple of items from a respected South Florida newspaper, same day, same section: “It’s got a bright taste,” the writer said of a wine. Removing the contraction, the phrase becomes, “It has got a bright taste.” Is there any reason in the world to include the word “got”?
An endemic problem in sentence construction is the dangling, or misplaced, modifier. A perfect example is this one, from the same paper: “Located across the street from the Blue Heron Bridge, Jaeger said the new store is in the perfect spot.” One wonders whether Jaeger enjoys the view at his location across the street from the bridge.
Here’s a doozy by a columnist in a weekly Palm Beach County newspaper: “Being a member of my town’s Code Enforcement Board, at our last meeting water violations seemed to fill our agenda.” I kinda, sorta think she meant to say that as a board member, she noticed an awful lot of water violations on the agenda.
What about the broadcast media? As Mark Antony requested at Julius Caesar’s funeral, please “lend me your ears” so we can bury blasphemies of pronunciation and resurrect proper accents. I’ve lent TV and radio my ears, and repeatedly heard national talk show hosts place the accent on the second syllable in “formidable,” i.e., “forMIDable.” It’s supposed to be on the first syllable: “FORmidable.” (They can be somewhat forgiven because the current U.S. president, whom I mostly admire, is likewise guilty.) Whenever election time comes around in politics, the airwaves are filled with elecTORal. Rarely is the word correctly pronounced eLECtoral.
I rarely hear “schism” pronounced correctly. Broadcasters say SKISM or SHISM, both wrong. It’s SISM. Of course, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate allows the first two as options, but if that dictionary were a parent, said parent’s permissiveness would result in incorrigible kids.
Some TV show hosts have pet phrases. The brilliant Chris Hayes surely holds the record for most frequent use of “sort of” on a television network, namely, MSNBC. I once decided to count during a conversation he had with a guest. After he used it four times in about one minute, I switched to CNBC, where watching my stocks fall was less painful. Someone must have spoken to Hayes, because I don’t hear the phrase anymore.
Even more grating to the ear is TV’s omnipresent “if you will.” A political talk show host says the politician was “stretching the truth, if you will.” Instead of calling the pol a liar, the host hedges, which he already has done with the “stretching” language. Is the added phrase necessary? Do these people have to qualify almost everything they say with that God-awful appendage?
Close behind “if you will” in frequency is “literally.” “This house at 200 Pine Street was literally destroyed by fire,” the TV reporter announces as the camera takes in the scene. And you say to yourself, “Aw c’mon, I see a couple of charred studs still standing. You sure it wasn’t just figuratively destroyed?”
So it goes – as the eyes cross and the ears jangle.
Now a novelist, I am able to observe such foibles from a distance and vent my dyspepsia in this blog. In The Writer’s Art, Kilpatrick defined his perverse feelings about these violations of linguistic standards as “irks, crochets and peeves.” If you, too, are beset with such emotions, join me on the blog and become a contributor.