Language Matters

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I don’t make the rules of English. I just enforce them. Click here for tips on effective communication at my blog,  “Write It Right.”

Is correct English dying? Does it matter? And what is “correct” English, anyway?

It matters a great deal to the grammar guardians who clutch their pearls and swoon when someone says she’ll “hopefully” do something (“‘Hopefully’ means ‘filled with hope,’ damn it, not that you hope it happens!”) or uses the phrase “very unique.” (“‘Unique’ is an absolute, damn it! It doesn’t have degrees of severity!”)

Correct English matters to me, too, but not because I want to prevent civilized society from disintegrating. It matters because it’s how we achieve clear communication. When a sentence is constructed from the right words placed in the right order, there can be no doubt what is being stated. Let’s not forget punctuation and what that can do to a message — as surely as a misplaced comma in a budget figure can bring your company to financial ruin. It can be serious:  In a major U.S. Supreme Court case on gun control, the decision came down to a comma.

Rules should be followed not because “rules are rules,” but because they help us communicate effectively. “Very unique” is just a waste of space. “Very” almost never adds anything to the adjective it modifies. Even if “unique” could be modified, how does “very” increase the object’s uniqueness?

The really tricky thing about the English language is how changeable and nuanced it can be. The rules keep changing, or you find the rules to which you had sworn lifelong allegiance were never rules to begin with. Remember when Merriam-Webster declared (and cited no less than the Oxford English Dictionary) that “literally” can correctly be used to mean “figuratively”? You’ve probably heard the quote about not ending a sentence with a preposition (“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put”), famously attributed to Winston Churchill (and likely incorrectly, according to the ever-meticulous Quote Investigator).

The rules seem to be dropping away faster than ever, as short, quick digital style becomes the norm. I’ll let someone else declare that standards are eroding and no one cares and dad-blast it don’t they teach sentence diagramming any more? For now, I’m just offering some simple advice based on more than 30 years’ experience in newspapers and other forms of publishing.

Share your questions and your own wisdom, and together we’ll do what we can for the cause of clear language.






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