Grammar Gripes

| Present

Some of us believe – were brought up to believe – that the English language that we speak in the United States has grammatical rules and that following those rules is a good thing. Speaking our language well makes us understandable to each other (at the very least), and it is a positive in many other ways. As Kathy and Ross Petras argue in a March 2021 CNBC article, “No matter what type of work you do, good grammar is relevant for all organizations, and it can make a big difference in your career path.”

Even if we are not in the workplace or are retired, many of us still want to seem fairly intelligent when we speak our native language! Furthermore, if we examine advice being given to non-US citizens learning English, we can see that speaking American English properly is very important to our friends and colleagues around the world, whether the goal is to gain employment in an English-speaking organization or to assimilate well as an immigrant.

This is why many of us (“purists,” perhaps) become very aggravated when we hear grammatical mistakes throughout our culture, especially by people who should (we feel) know better – news anchors and reporters, college professors, business people, professionals in many fields, elected officials, television personalities, etc. When people we hear on a regular basis and whom we respect make grammatical errors, those errors seep into our conversation – and send negative messages to young people and non-English speakers who are trying to learn our language.

It is hard to know why so many spoken grammatical errors are occurring in our culture these days. Are schools and teachers short on time to teach correct grammar and to then reinforce it over subsequent years? Have many of us grown up not knowing, somehow, the differences between subject and object (nominative/subjective and objective cases) and other parts of speech? Do some of us, trying to sound sophisticated or at least intelligent, use “I” instead of “me” incorrectly – or vice versa (see examples below)? Are we basically repeating what we’re hearing around us, not knowing the correct way of saying something?

No matter the cause, we argue here that speaking English properly, in as many situations as possible, lifts us up as a culture and, in fact, serves the common good. (We will not focus here on written English.) We are not commenting on ethnic dialects or turns-of-phrase that might be particular to a group; it is important to recognize that ethnic and racial groups have a right to their own languages, accents and so on. Also, communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter and even email has birthed their own languages of abbreviations and emojis; we will not deal with these either. In this post, rather, we will to point out some sample corrections with the modest goal of avoiding a “lowest common denominator” approach to speaking our own language – for the sake of self-respect and for the sake of our young people and others trying to learn English.

Here are some sample common errors in spoken English and their corrections.

Cases. We hear numerous examples of the misuse of “cases.” In English, the subjective or nominative case – such as I, we, she, he, they – holds the “subject” part of a sentence. Example: “She won the game.” “She” is the subject; “the game” is the object of the verb “won.” The objective case – me, us, her, him, them – holds the “object” part of a sentence or is used after a preposition (to, after, around, about, etc.). Examples: “The cat scratched her” or “The boss handed it to him.”

Much too often we hear errors like the following with the wrong case usage: “Her and I drove to New York” or “Me and him played in the backyard” or “Give it to my mother and I.” Corrections would be:

“She and I drove to New York.”
“He and I played in the backyard.”
“Give it to my mother and me” (or “Give it to us.”).

Reflexive pronouns. There is a similar misuse of “myself,” such as “Myself and my team won the game.” “Myself” and its sister words (himself, herself, themselves) are reflexive pronouns. According to Macmillan Dictionary, a reflexive pronoun is used especially in the following ways: “as an object that refers to the speaker or writer who is the subject of the sentence or is mentioned somewhere earlier in the sentence.”

The correct usage in the above example would be “My team and I won the game.” One can also use a reflexive pronoun for emphasis: “I myself didn’t see that when it happened.”

Tense usage. In written English, there is often a misuse of the past perfect tense. Writers use “of” instead of “have,” as in “should of” or “could of.” The correct usage in these examples would be “should have” and “could have.” A similar problem occurs with spoken past perfect usage. An incorrect example is “That man had went down the street.” The correct wording would be “That man had gone down the street.”

Quantities. When we speak about quantities, correct usage between “less” and “fewer” seems difficult for many of us. We often hear (or say) something like “Less than 10 animals were in the barn,” when the correct usage would be “Fewer than 10 animals were in the barn.” Similarly, “We had less than 20 singers at the rehearsal” is incorrect; correct usage would be “We had fewer than 20 singers at the rehearsal.” Here are the general rules, per the CNBC article:

Use “fewer” for numbered, countable things (e.g., “100 fewer purchases”).

Use “less” for things that can’t be counted … at least reasonably (e.g., “there’s less sand at this beach”).

Use “less” with numbers when they are a single or total unit that measures distance, amount or time (e.g., “less than 30% of us bothered learning these rules”).

Word combinations. There seem to be many times in which we no longer use word combinations correctly. For example, when did the weather forecast change from “a chance of rain” to “a chance for rain”? According to Daily Writing Tips, the word “chance” in this context should be followed by “of,” not “for.” Other examples include:

Wrong, heard on National Public Radio: “[NAME is a] Special Envoy for [a country]…” Correct usage would be “[NAME is a] Special Envoy to [the country]…”

Wrong, heard on the TV show, Most Terrifying Places in America: “They feel comfortable to be here.” Correct usage would be “They feel comfortable being here.”

Wrong, heard on a Boston 10 weather report: “focusing for…” Correct usage would be “focusing on.”

Wrong, heard on National Public Radio: “Origins to [a certain food].” Correct usage would be “origins of [a certain food].”

Double negatives. A very common error is the use of double negatives. One of many examples, this one heard on the TV show Where Murder Lies, is “she didn’t know nothing.” Correct usage, of course, would be “she didn’t know anything.”

If we are proud of our country and want the world to know that, it behooves us to speak our own language correctly. It should embarrass and shame us that non-native speakers of English often speak it more properly than many of us do. Let us put our best foot forward by paying attention to what we say in English and how we say it.