Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | November 14, 2017

Grammar: An Instrument of Torture…Or of Clarity?

J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, fall trees, field and trees

November is such a busy time of year for me. With harvesting and processing the last of the garden vegetables; picking apples and making and canning applesauce; going through catalogs and ordering holiday gifts; making plans; doing a major clean-up for the holidays; buying food, cooking, and hosting the family’s Thanksgiving dinner; and, this year, physical therapy twice a week (to mention just some of my necessary tasks), I never have time to participate in NaNoWriMo. In fact, some days in November I don’t squeeze in any writing at all.

I do, however, often listen to the television while working on my November tasks. I like to know what’s going on, but listening to the television includes hearing commercials. Although I try to tune them out, especially the endlessly repeated political ads before the election, some ads contain such glaring grammatical errors that I can’t ignore them. Each time I hear these ads, the misuse of the language grates on me more and more (which means I am increasingly less likely to buy whatever they’re trying to sell — take note ad agencies).

J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, red-tailed hawk on pole, red-tailed hawk in fall

Red-tailed hawk, November 1

After a career as an English teacher, I’m especially sensitive to poor grammar in any published writing. Before it’s published, I expect the writing to have been proofread by someone who knows how to use the language properly. Once something is published, it’s out there. As a writer, I cringe at mistakes in published works because such errors reflect poorly on the author of the piece — and on all of us in the writing business. Even more annoying to me, such mistakes provide a poor example of language usage posing as the opposite. (Contrary to what my critique group might think, I don’t sit around eager to pounce on grammar errors like a hawk seeking prey. I’m not a total perfectionist; authors, editors, and proofreaders — myself included — will miss some errors because we’re human. Too many errors, however, and I stop reading.)

I feel the same way about the language we hear in scripted material on television and other media, language which presents an example that — except for impromptu comments and informal conversation — ought to be correct. Errors in oft-repeated ads are especially problematic because the incessant repetition of wrong examples can convince people that the incorrect forms are the right ones.

But really, why do we need to use correct grammar? People can understand what we’re saying anyway, right?

Maybe. In conversation, good grammar isn’t as vital. When we speak with each other, we frequently use sentence fragments, leave out words, and otherwise disregard correct grammar. If our listeners don’t understand us, they can ask questions. They can also take cues form our tone, our emphasis, our facial expressions, and our body language. Readers and media consumers don’t have those extra clues and can’t ask questions.

Okay, so the purpose of all those pesky rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling is to provide clarity in communication. They’re still a pain to learn.

Yes, most people — young and old, students, writers and non-writers — feel learning the rules is boring at best, tortuous at worst. Maybe it would help if people pictured learning grammar rules as a laying the foundation necessary for effective communication. A firm foundation results in a sturdy house. Build a house on a shaky foundation and the whole construction will be shaky as well.

Learning the rules of grammar and usage isn’t easy. With all the exceptions, the rules can be confusing. Plus, there are so many of them. Mastering grammar may be a time-consuming challenge, but it’s well worth the effort, especially for writers. (Helpful handbooks abound; get yourself one or two.)

In addition to finding grammar boring and time-consuming to learn, I suspect people also resist learning grammar because they don’t understand the origin of the rules, imagining that experts developed the complex horde of edicts and imposed them upon unsuspecting students as a devious punishment. In truth, the rules reflect how the language is commonly used.

The English language (and all languages) existed as a spoken language long before it was written. If you look at examples of the earliest writings in English — the original, not modernized, versions — you’ll notice that the writers spelled words however they wanted. Sometimes the same word would have several different spellings in the same manuscript. For a time that didn’t matter because few people could read. As more people became literate, the variations in spelling caused confusion and the need for standardization became obvious.

Standardization in spelling, word order, usage, and punctuation grew from necessity. If there were guidelines that everyone could follow, confusion would be reduced. So, experts looked at how people used the language and worked out a set of rules to explain that usage. In other words, grammar rules were not arbitrarily imposed on the language but came from the language instead.

If you know another language, you probably noticed that speakers of English do not use their language in quite the same way as speakers of French or German or Hindi or Spanish or Swahili. Some languages capitalize all nouns, not just proper nouns. In English, a noun’s function in the sentence depends upon its placement in the sentence, while many languages indicate a noun’s usage by giving it a particular suffix instead. Some languages have formal and informal, singular and plural versions of the second person pronoun, which in English is always simply you. Because of these differences and more, each language has it’s own unique set of grammar rules.

People who are not native English speakers tend to have difficulty learning the language, not because of the vocabulary but because of the complex grammar. Two of my family members have spouses from other countries. Conversations with them involve more dedicated listening and asking frequent clarifying questions because they may leave out necessary words, add extra words, use adjectives as nouns, mix up word order, or use wrong words. While they’ve acquired a good English vocabulary, they haven’t yet mastered correct usage. Following the rules of grammar enables people to make their meaning clear.

I hope I’ve convinced you that grammar rules are not evilly crafted instruments of torture but guidelines meant to standardize language usage in order to provide clarity.

I hope I’ve convinced some television advertisers too!

So, what are some of the grammar mistakes in ads that currently annoy me?

1. The use of different than instead of different from

“What makes this plan different than the others?”

“They’re no different than anyone else.”

This is the one that bothers me least. I understand using than instead of from after different because than is used in comparing differences – he is taller than John, for instance. Over time, our language does change, and when it does, the rules change too. I predict that in another decade or two, than will be considered a correct form to use after different.

2. The misuse of the preposition to

“…resume to your normal activities…”

This would be fine if only they’d used return instead of resume. The word resume includes the meaning to, so using that preposition after resume is redundant.

“…different to regular…”

I don’t see any logic to this one. The two words are opposite in meaning, so using to after different hits me like fingernails screeching on a blackboard.

These are my current grammar pet peeves. What are yours?

J. J. Thomas Ross, The Author Chronicles, fall trees, fall street scene


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