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BY THE WAY

When you comment on errors I've found, the English language stays safe and sound

Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - 12:01 am

So what is this lover of the English language supposed to do when the sign at the entrance to the mall reads, “Shop local”?

Is she supposed to stop her car, get out a marker and add the ly to local even though her car may be bashed in the rear because she stopped to correct that glaring error? Should she put her head down on the steering wheel and weep, although she won’t be watching where she’s driving? Or should she shout with glee when she receives a letter from Mary Ann, who writes, “I have to control myself when we see the sign: ‘Shop LOCAL.’ Surely someone should correct it!”?

That reminds me of the olden days when we walked diligently in Southtown Mall and my friend corrected signs outside stores, adding commas or erasing apostrophes. Anyway, hurray for you, Mary Ann; I thoroughly enjoyed your letter.

Richard also notices the proliferation of the use of apostrophes, and he is bothered by an inelegant use of the word “got” as in the advertisement he enclosed in his letter. The copy reads “we’ve got what’s for dinner.” Had it said “We have what’s for dinner,” he would have been a much happier camper. “Do they teach English any more in school?” he asks.

The answer is a resounding “Yes, they do.” But – and you knew there would be a “but,” didn’t you? – look at the new “art” of texting. The new rules even allow for improvising to keep messages within limits. Texting and social networking have affected rules as we knew them, and as columnist Sue Shellenbarger wrote, some grammar rules aren’t clear.

Case in point: Should a series have a comma before the last “and”? The example Ms. Shellenbarger uses: “The greatest influences in my life are my sisters, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna.” Doesn’t that mean that her sisters are the two celebrities? I have been arguing about the deletion of that last comma for quite a while, to no effect, I might add. The new rule says no comma; common sense often says a comma is needed.

Columnist and professor Stephen Carter recently wrote indignantly about the Oxford English Dictionary’s acceptance of the word “Hopefully” as a synonym for “it is to be hoped that.” Then he asks should we change rules to conform with what people are saying, even if what they’re saying is not correct. His answer, of course, is a firm “No.”

I probably should put an exclamation mark there as I can almost hear him slam down a book and say, “What’s right is right!” We need rules in writing and speaking just as we need rules in morality, he argues. Those rules help us be precise. Proper grammar really matters.

My son and I are very careful about using the words “eager” or “anxious.” Does that matter in the long run? Of course not. But there is a fine line, isn’t there, and that word Dr. Carter used, “precise,” can be important.

We are eager to accept that invitation but are anxious about the report of that latest test our doctor administered. Again, does it matter?

Well, there was a long article in the New York Times by an English professor, who wrote about “The Most Comma Mistakes,” so apparently he cares.

And our newspaper still has copy editors to amend or correct. And there are your letters with your comments about sloppiness, so obviously, you care.

The result: You have prompted me to write an ode:

Is grammar good or is it bad?

Its frequent abuse can make me sad;

But what is good – no, really great –

Is when you comment on an error that you hate –

And I know our language is safe and sound

Because you care, a fact I’ve found.

Betty E. Stein is a retired teacher.