Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I have officially become an old crank

Maybe I've just spent too much time hunched over a keyboard with my friends consisting of disembodied names and messages from every part of the globe except this one.

But I have become an old crank.

I don't yell at kids to get off my lawn. In fact, some of the neighborhood kids were over playing with the dog a few days ago and I'd welcome them back (as would he).

No, I've become one of those loveable, tiresome old cranks who writes letters to editors complaining about mistakes in grammar.

Let me correct that: Complaining about one mistake in grammar.

I don't deny that it is a personal thing, that this particular error drives me up the wall and I am simply indulging in self-therapy by complaining. Nor do I deny that I'm being a pain in the ass.

But let me just share the letter I have been sending out, which will explain it perfectly well, I hope. I have this letter in a file on my desktop and, when I feel the need, I simply cut-and-paste it into an email, add the particulars in two places to make it specific to the case at hand, and send it off.

It reads:

As a former reporter and editor, I used to hate people who would seemingly reduce a story to a grammatical error they had spotted, but this is one that is becoming an epidemic and that changes the meaning of a sentence. It is also, of course, a pet peeve of mine or I wouldn't bother. (Letters like this are why you make the big bucks.) 

(Insert paragraph citing incorrect usage in case at hand, which is invariably "may have" in place of "might have.")

Most writers and editors realize that, in speculating against fact, you use "were" rather than "was" -- If I were in your shoes, If I were a rich man -- and that "if I was" implies uncertainty -- "If I was there, I don't remember it."

But "may have" and "might have" carry the same requirement, and the difference in meaning can be genuinely confusing. 

Where it becomes an issue is in sentences like "The criminal may have escaped" versus "The criminal might have escaped."

If he might have escaped, well, thank goodness he didn't. If he may have escaped, somebody should go have a look in his jail cell and find out.

Again, a bit of a pet peeve, but, perfection aside, it's an error that makes the reporter look stupid: "Police said wearing a seat belt may have saved his life" is a foolish sentence if the lede was "John Smith died in a car accident."


(Insert paragraph pointing out that meaning and usage in case at hand were obviously in conflict. Add polite closing.)

I get polite responses. So did Lazlo Toth.

Well, whatever. I feel better about it because I'm not sitting there thinking "Idiots! Idiots!"

Instead, I'm sitting there thinking, "Your children are going to have to have you locked up."

9 comments:

ronnie said...

We need all the grammar curmudgeons we can muster against the ever-increasing tide of bad grammar. Even more alarming than the sea of examples out there is the increasingly common attitude that if enough people make a particular grammar mistake, we should just accept it as the new norm.

My personal pet peeve these days is the fact that the noun "bias" is increasingly used as an adjective. "I was trying not to be bias, but I really felt Montreal played the better game." It's like people don't even know the word "biased" exists anymore.

Bah! Get these bad writers offa my lawn!

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you have the professional credentials to buttress this particular pet peeve. I am tired of being just a cranky old lady who merely wants to know the facts of the matter, without apparently contradictory conjectures. Where is the dear old subjunctive when you need it.

Bless you, my boy.

Sherwood Harrington said...

I wish that most of my students wrote well enough that the use of may or might would even be an issue. Instead, I find that most of my red ink on written test questions goes to trying to push away the horrid plague of text-messaging shorthand. u no what I mean?

Penmanship is going down the crapper, too. Most of these kids are more used to forming words with their thumbs than with a pen or pencil.

ronnie, I haven't yet seen that particular abomination ("bias" as an adjective), but it will probably work its way out here soon.

Brian Fies said...

A not uncommon hobby among erstwhile editors. I know one--a very intelligent, accomplished man who was an important mentor to me when I was a teen and is now in his eighties. Among his many careers was newspaper editor. I believe to this day he still marks up an occasional front page and mails it to his old paper. (I was going to write "former colleagues" but I'm sure they're all gone now. The punks there now probably just wonder who the crazy old guy is.)

Keep on fighting the fight. It might (or may) make a difference. After all, you turned me around on "alright." I still can't bring myself to use it but it no longer sets my teeth on edge, for which my dentist and I thank you.

And Sherwood, handwriting is dead, didn't you read the obit? When I was in elementary school in the mid-sixties, we were drilled relentlessly on cursive for at least a year. When my kids were in elementary school (ca. 1997) they studied it for a week or two. Nowadays I don't think kids get that much. When they're not typing, everybody prints.

One of my fantasies is that I'll become a high school English teacher and I'll spend the year drilling my students to write simple sentences with subjects and verbs that follow one another to express a thought or build an argument. With good spelling. It's a simple crazy dream, but it's mine.

Hearing someone use "bias" as a adjective wouls make me violent. Do people really do that, or is it just one ignorant person with a quirk?

Brian Fies said...

"Wouls" is an innocent typo. Don't hate me because my fingers are faster than my brain.

Mark Jackson said...

My elementary school years were [mostly] in the 1950s; lots of penmanship drills but they didn't work. I took a full year of typing as soon as I could in high school and prefer a keyboard to a pen whenever given the choice.

Bias as an adjective? Google returns 4400 hits for "biast against"; is that any better?

Jean said...

Ouch! I don't know how many of those mistakes I make in my writing! My only excuse when/if it happens would be... it's a foreign language after all. ;)

Mike said...

Jean, I've seen one or two unsteady phrases in the casual commentary on your blog, but never in the stories and more formal pieces. Besides, I suspect English isn't even your second language, so you get a free pass anyway.

See? I'm not bias against you!

Jean said...

Haha, thanks, Mike, for not being bias against me! :)