John Brock: Correct usage of English language valuable to understanding

  • Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The English language is a perplexing enterprise. Sadly, rarely do you hear it spoken or written correctly during these days of mass communication. In fact you may find errors in this column. But for a civilized society we must strive to communicate accurately or there will always be verbal misunderstandings.

Court records contain ample evidence of civil suits based on the meaning/interpretation of grammar, words or clauses in contracts or covenants. Relationships are broken daily by miscommunication between individuals or groups. Marriages are broken up by verbal misinterpretations, wars are undertaken, etc. Accurate communication is imperative to a successful society.

I firmly believe that everyone, who is a US citizen and those who aspire to be, should be able to speak and understand the English language. At the same time, I am thankful that I don’t have to learn our complicated language.

I recognize that it must be difficult for new arrivals on our shores to learn to speak English in a short time. It’s taken me a lifetime in an attempt to master it. I’m not there yet but I’m working on it.

I can’t turn on the television or pick up a publication without wishing that a lot more Americans would also be attempting to get a better hold on our common language — especially those who choose to lead and those who publicly comment on affairs. It seems that there is less and less emphasis placed on correct grammar than in the past. As you may be aware, I spent the final professional years of my life on the college campus and it was appalling to me to hear the utterances that sometimes come out of the mouths of so-called educated teachers. No less is true in almost any American teaching venue — including public schools.

I will readily admit that English is a bastard language made up of a conglomeration of other languages and even English is not standardized in all areas of the globe. Our words are sometime confusing and words that are spelled the same have different pronunciations and meanings. For instance, look at “lead” and “lead” — one is a verb and the other is a base metal. Other examples are multitudinous.

Even the best-known television commentators have great difficulty with pronouns, especially “I” and “me”. Also “He” and “Him’ or “She” and “Her” seem to be pitfalls for many public speakers. How many times do you hear an incorrect usage such as, ”He was talking to she and I” or some other faulty usage? A respondent to my column once used “I” incorrectly and I used the remark in a column but I changed “I” to “me’ to ensure its correct usage. I received a harsh reprimand from the writer who accused me of not knowing the difference. I didn’t argue. The next time I will print his inaccurate grammar and use the journalistic symbol “sic” meaning, “I didn’t say it. He did.”

Some of the most common errors of grammar involve pronouns: “Who” is a subjective or nominative pronoun along with “he” “she” ‘it” “we” and “they.” It is used when the pronoun acts as a subject or a clause or sentence. “Whom” is an objective pronoun along with “him” “her” “it” ‘us” and “them.” It’s used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Using “who” or “whom” depends on whether you’re referring to the subject or object or a sentence. The same holds true with the other above-mentioned pronouns. If you say, “He threw rocks at she and I” — it would be incorrect. The correct usage would be “her” and “me.” On the other hand you would not want to say, “Her and me threw rocks at you.” It becomes simple when you know the difference between subjective or objective usage.

I am not well suited for language and it has been a struggle for me to learn a new tongue. I must say that high school Latin was among the best hours I ever spent in a public classroom. Much of English is based on this ancient language and my knowledge of it has afforded me immeasurable help in my quest to master my native tongue. I didn’t do nearly as well with college German.

The correct usage of our English language is important for an orderly society. There are those who insist what difference does it make as long as the other person knows what I am saying or writing. That is precisely the point. Sloppy usage very often leads to misunderstanding rather than understanding.

If you would like to explore the correct usage of the English language, I suggest you consult the Internet or obtain a copy of: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

Some of you will be certain to let me know how many errors I made in the writing of this column. I need all the help I can get! I don’t claim to be perfect but I’m working on it.

John Brock is a retired newspaper editor/publisher and college professor. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper or by Email at: brock@johnbrock.com.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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