Some of us never forget the first sentence we conjugated*. Others of us are, like, LOL, WTF? Conjumugation? Unfortunately, it appears the LOLers are encroaching, ruining everything that is good and holy, i.e., grammar. A terrifying piece in The Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenbarger reveals that employers are cringing each time they hear their staffers say something ungrammatical and not-smart sounding—not only cringing, but also imposing fines for offenses ranging from saying like, you know, all the time to combining there and are into the totally incorrect there's to things far worst, like ginormos, mortifying typoze.
There's a growing problem in Amercia, as evidenced by the reality of Amercia. People can't spell. They can't write. They barely even know where to put a semi-colon. Gone are the days when we clustered about Grandmother's knee to ask, in our wee tot voices, "What's an em-dash, Granny? How is it different from an en-dash, or our dear friend, the hyphen?" There's a rising group of people unwilling to participate in the always rousing debate over the serial comma simply because they have no idea what it even is. Our hearts hurt.
The Journal's Shellenbarger explains that it's not just our imagination: Language usage is changing. At the same time that grammar skills are getting worse, we're in an expanding grammatical free-for-all, in which "language is evolving so fast that old rules of usage are eroding." What to do, what to do? As is common in this day and age, most immediately everyone should blame the Internet, social media, and all that newfangled technology that's ruined, like, everything.
But even as managers struggle, embarrassed that their flocks are so slangy and grammar-rules poor, which they say creates bad impressions, ruins marketing materials, and hinders communication, there is an up side, at least for the endangered species that actually know grammar, like the late, wonderful-sounding Lu Burke of The New Yorker.
Yes, it's tempting to feel depressed if you're the only one in an office who cares about a typo. Or if you, at home, reading along online, feel grievous dismay when you stumble upon a mistaken conjugation. It's tempting to shout, "What idiots!" or to raise your fist to the sky and shake it (fist, not sky). But the fact is, you have just proved your import to the world. You are superior. You know grammar.
Here are a few of our favorite copy and grammar life rules, used to assert our English nerd dominance over others. This list is by no means exhaustive. Please, tell us your own:
1. It's is the same thing as "It is." If you're not saying "it is" but you've got an apostrophe in there, you're clearly worthless and nothing you have to say will be taken seriously by anyone. Similarly, your is not you are; you're is. Too and to are different, too! Isn't this fun? Update: Yes, as many have emailed, "It's" may also mean "It has." But those who mess up the apostrophe generally don't need to be confused by that right off the bat. Baby steps!
2. Pay attention to your figures of speech. Oh, these are the most fun to make fun of. Yes, you shouldn't mock the foreign exchange student who's just mastering a second or third or fourth language (how many do you speak, after all?). But the native English speaker who announces that you need to "Nip it in the butt"? Oh, the laughs that should ensue!
3. Bad pronouns are bad. As Mrs. Smith taught us in the 7th grade, pronouns may be small, but they are as important as anything else. When you are attempting to put two of them together, for example, "Me and him went to the store" here's a quick check. Subjects are subjects and objects are objects, and "me and him" is always wrong. Don't know what we're talking about? You fail.
4. Canadian geese do not exist.
5. When in doubt, look it up. Merriam-Webster.com is extremely helpful, and sometimes just Googling is, too. Don't shout your moronic question over a cubicle wall—it only makes you sound moronic, especially if no one is sitting on the other side. Fact: Despite what you've been told your whole life, there is such a thing as a stupid question.
6. Don't use whom instead of who to sound smart. The reverse whilst occur, marketh our words.
7. A tip for modern times: Never text your boss, because autocorrect will foul something up. But if you do, and it does, always blame it on autocorrect. Related, if the person you like is texting you terribly illiterate missives, that is a red flag and they should be judged. They should also be judged for putting an e in judgement. And I should be judged for using they instead of he or she here.
8. Be free with your dangling participles so we can rail upon you for your mistake, which, if we're really up on our nerd cred, we refer to as a dangler. Here is an example of one: "After being whipped fiercely, the cook boiled the egg." The cook was not whipped! (Unless he was, and who are we to judge?) The point is, you have a clause describing a noun that's not the noun you intended. Rephrase to avoid such mistaken interpretations, unless you want to be scolded or laughed at.
9. Here's another example of why grammar and spelling matter. Check the URL.
10. Hang in there and this, too, shall pass. It could, after all, be worse. For example, per Shellenbarger :
In workplace-training programs run by Jack Appleman, a Monroe, N.Y., corporate writing instructor, "people are banging the table," yelling or high-fiving each other during grammar contests he stages, he says. "People get passionate about grammar," says Mr. Appleman, author of a book on business writing.
This leads me to a final point. Messy grammar is a bit like having a messy apartment. It's something that grammar nerds care about deeply, as do clean freaks with their sanctimony about their perfectly appointed habitats. But when your roommate is someone who doesn't care, not at all, you're going to be the one running around cleaning up after him, and he'll never really understand why you're so adamant that everything be spick-and-span. If you find yourself living with a person like that, don't ask him to proofread anything. Do it yourself, and then lord it over him.
Also, I have no idea what the first sentence I conjugated was, but I love the serial comma with all my aching copy-nerd heart.
*Update: All of the commenters here prove that grammar is not dead, not in the slightest. And, as Edward Saslow informed me by email (and as numerous of you commented), "One conjugates a verb; one parses a sentence; and, for completeness, one declines a noun or pronoun." Long live grammar nerds who will correct me when I do wrong, like conjugating instead of diagramming. I count on you guys!
Image via Shutterstock by Helder Almeida.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.