where the writers are
Does Anyone Here Speak English?

     I am absolutely dismayed at the decline of the English language in this country.  Just in case you think this is another anti-immigration diatribe, forget it.  I, for one, love the variety of languages I hear on the Washington subway as I commute to and from work.  No, I am talking about the abysmal use of English, written and spoken, but people who speak nothing else in many cases.


     How much of it is due to poor education, and how much to just plain sloth, I do not know, but regardless of the reason, mangling of the language grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalk board (I think I’ve written that somewhere else, so it must be a chronic condition).


     Here are some of the most egregious violations of just plain speech/writing:

      Me, myself and I 

     A sentence that I have both heard and read goes as follows:  “Myself and John are standing by to assist.”  This is especially prevalent in government writing and speech, and I am at a loss as to how it came about.  Myself is a form of the first person singular pronoun, used as an intensive, a reflexive or as a quasi-noun.  The correct form of the forgoing sentence would be “John and I are standing by to assist,” with the rule being drop the other person and use just the first person singular pronoun.  You would never say “Myself is standing by,” but rather “I am standing by.”  So the correct way to do it is put the other person first and change am to are.  Are you as proud of yourself as I am proud of myself for figuring that out.


     Horton hears a Who, not a That


     I have been told that it has become accepted English to use the word “that” instead of “who” in sentences such as “John is an agent that knows the importance of honesty.”  Well, I don’t know who made that decision, but I didn’t get to vote, and I am a person who believes that it is important to use words correctly and in a manner that makes sense.  As I read my dictionary, that when applied to persons is used to designate the person mentioned or understood, such as “that student is Mary,” but not, “Mary is a student that likes to read.”  Now, I suppose it is probably technically not incorrect to use the latter form, but frankly it is grating to my ears.


     “Farther” and “further,” words that in some senses mean the same, are another area where I can be a real nitpicker.  “Further” can be used to represent greater distance or time, but in such cases it is more common to use “farther.”  If you consider the following sentence, you can see my point – “I will go no farther to further my agenda.”  No replace the first “farther” with its counterpart and read the sentence to yourself.  See what I mean?  Just does not sound right.  Once, riding the Metro, I saw an advertising sign that basically said “We aim to help families get further down the road.”  Now, while that sentence is technically correct, it bothered me until the sign was finally replaced with a grammatically correct, but equally inane slogan.


     People, there is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking correct English.  It avoids misunderstandings and just sounds better.  Please!??    


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The real culpable culprit is

The real culpable culprit is Microsoft.  The grammar checker in MS Word will, by default, change who  to the abominable that.  This is just one of the egregious, insidious plots by our "friends" in Redmond.  I am eternally grateful that I learned how to write before I learned what a computer was.

 Eric the Luddite

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Welcome to my nightmare : )

I write about this stuff. In fact, all of your topics are in my most recent book ("Mortal Syntax"). The handy trick I teach people for "myself" is, if you can replace it with "me," don't use "myself."

However, regarding Horton: He does hear a "that." The "Oxford English Grammar" and many other authorities I cite in "Mortal Syntax" allow "that" to refer to humans. "Who" is more precise and I share your feeling that it's preferable. But "The man that I love" is not grammatically incorrect, according to numerous respected sources. (Let me know if you want me to cite sources. I'm not home with my books at the moment.)

Dictionaries change regularly -- and they all disagree. I caution people against labeling less-than-ideal usages as "wrong" because the best authorties in our country disagree on many of these issues.

I started writing a grammar column about six years ago, which spun off into two books. I've been getting e-mails from readers for years sharing exactly your lament. You are not alone.

 Grammar and usage are heartbreakers. We're taught one thing, we invest our time and effort to learn it, then misuage renders our hard-won wisdom obsolete. For example, I was taught that "since" can't mean "because" and that "under" can't mean "less than." That's just not so. Just because the "Associated Press Stylebook" forbids a usage for its adherents doesn't mean it's wrong for others to use it.

In other words, welcome to my nightmare!

- June