Losing the grammar war


“If I was president, this wouldn’t have happened,” John Kerry said during Hezbollah’s war on Israel last summer. As 2004’s Democratic presidential nominee should know, he should have said, “If I WERE president …”

It’s sad, but hardly surprising, that the subjunctive evades someone of Kerry’s stature. The English language is under fire, as if it strolled into an ambush. It would be bad enough if this assault involved the slovenly grammar, syntax and spelling of drooling boors. But America’s elites — politicians, journalists and marketers who should know better — constantly batter our tongue.

The subjunctive, for instance, lies gravely wounded. Fewer and fewer Americans bother to discuss hypothetical or counterfactual circumstances using this verb mood.

“This would not be a close election if George Bush was popular,” Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., told reporters last summer, using “was,” not “were.” He erred further: “This would not be a close election if there wasn’t a war in Iraq.”

Similarly, a HepCFight.com newspaper ad declared: “If Hep C was attacking your face instead of your liver, you’d do something about it.”

In an Ameritrade ad last year, a teenage girl begs her father for $80.

“80 bucks?” he asks.

“Well, there’s these jeans,” she replies, adding later: “There’s these really cool shoes.”

Forget the shopping spree. Dad should have sent his daughter upstairs without dinner until she mastered noun-verb agreement. Since they are plural, “there are” jeans and shoes, not “there’s,” the contraction for “there is.”

This is a burgeoning linguistic blunder.

United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told a Manhattan labor rally: “The muscle and the zeal that built our union is still with us.” As a teachers’ unionist, for crying out loud, Weingarten should know that muscle and zeal ARE still with us.

Likewise, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “There was no terrorists in Iraq.” Actually, there WERE, and Reid should have used that plural verb with those plural Islamofascists, even if he considered Baathist Iraq a terrorist-free zone.

In a taped, on-air promo, one cable news network’s announcer said, “Inside the U.N., there’s more than a thousand doors.” No, there ARE more than 1,000 doors.

In another odd grammatical glitch, plural subjects of sentences interact with singular objects. Confusion follows.

As one cable-TV correspondent reported: “Every day, 1.5 million Americans ride a 747.” Visualize the line for the bathroom on that jet. Make that “747s,” and the turbulence vanishes.

Just before January’s Golden Globe awards, a major newspaper’s headline read: “Stars put their best face forward for the Globes.” Wow! Eddie Murphy and Helen Mirren share a face?

A cable channel’s news crawl correspondingly revealed: “Iraqi authorities find at least 21 bodies, many with nooses around their neck.” Who knew so many Iraqis shared one neck?

Consider run-on sentences. A sign in a San Francisco M.U.N.I. streetcar recommends: “Please hold on sudden stops necessary.” At the local airport, a men’s-room sign asks: “Please conserve natural resources only take what you really need.”

Would it kill people to spell properly?

A New York outdoor-display company solicited new business by announcing in huge, black letters: “YUOR AD HERE.”

A cable-TV news ticker referred to the “World Tade Center.” Another explained that President Bush said he needs wiretaps “to defend Amercia.”

Such sloth generates nonsense. Ponder these three items, all from cable-TV news crawls written by practicing journalists:

Arab diplomats last August tried to change “a U.S.-French peace plan aimed at ending nearly a month of welfare.” Imagine if Hezbollah lobbed food stamps, rather than rockets, into Israel.

Another channel described a deadly, anti-Semitic attack at a Seattle “Jewfish” center.

And then there’s this beauty: “Disraeli troops kill two Hamas fighters,” including one implicated “in the June capture of an Disraeli soldier.”

Today’s explosion of rotten English should motivate Americans to speak, write and broadcast with greater care, clarity and respect for grammar and spelling. Also, when even college graduates in Congress, newsrooms and advertising agencies express themselves so sloppily, America’s education crisis becomes undeniable.

Is it pedantic to expect linguistic excellence? No. Unless Americans want English to devolve into an impenetrable amalgam of goofs and gaffes, protecting our language, like liberty itself, demands eternal vigilance.

(New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com.)


  1. Jay Lewis

    For more examples, look no further than today’s Rant: Bill and Hillary Lie.

    Some examples that make you grit your teeth:

    “The Clinton faithful claim Somalia doesn’t count because only a few Americans dies.” “From Watergate to Lewinskygate, the Clinton lied through their teeth.”

    And my personal favorite: “Former Both Clintons, for example, still owes millions in unpaid legal bills….”

  2. Snow

    Grammar is one thing, how a language is spoken is another. The speakers of a language decide how it evolves. If this was/were not the case we’d still be speaking proto-indoeuropean. Grammar should be presriptive for formal uses but descriptive for informal uses.

  3. Mary

    Oh, yes! I cringe when I hear supposedly intelligent people say “ain’t.” That is my pet peeve. I do have issues with some of the examples in the article though. If you are talking about the “muscle and zeal” as it is one thing, it would be proper to say “is.” You wouldn’t want to say “the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich were tasty.” If you have the ability to infer meaning when you are reading, sentences like “Every day, 1.5 million Americans ride [on] a 747” don’t sound so bad. I KNOW there are more than one 747 airplanes to ride on.

    Don’t forget about slang and Ebonics. What was improper 10 years ago is becoming proper now. Ain’t is in the dictionary listed as a substandard contraction for is not. How long will it be before it is considered standard?

  4. Joe Lawrence

    How did Deroy Murdock manage to mention a couple of Democrats as examples of poor usage, while ignoring the Grammarian-in-Chief’s role in the ever-accelerating downward spiral of the English language?

    Combine garbled usage of tense, mangled – or invented – vocabulary, disregard of pronunciation standards and the like, then add to the mix as many outright lies, semantic hedges and factual misstatements as the market will bear, stir gently over a lukewarm press office, then let cool until Friday for release to a media corps acting as one to publish uncritically.

    What a recipe, eh? And someone is surprised that the very public letting these sins go unremarked upon is not, somehow, vigilant about simple typos in a rant?

    Jesus H. Christ!

  5. Colin H

    With a lying sob in the White House, is this important. Language continually evolves. For example, notice how those who appear on your TV screen several times per day, news people and others, now have replaced common words such as government with guvermint and education with edgikation. And it continues.

  6. Any live language is a growing example of human evolution and inexorable change. I doubt, for example, anyone anymore is concerned that “apron” is a bastardization of “a pron,” a change which happened many, many years ago. I too cringe at the loss of the subjunctive and frequently find myself “translating” the writing of modern novelists and newspaper columnists to suit my now ancient, iot would seem, training. But for 500 years English has been evolving from a language based on inflection to one based on word order, and that change has perhaps now run its full sway before interfering with meaning. I’m not sure since youngsters seem little concerned with these subtleties of English usage. The evolution of language is like a great glacier unmoved by global warming but inexorable nevertheless. I suspect Mr. Fowler and Mr. Strunk are at times rolling over in their graves, but change goes on. Yet consider that the majority of news reporting energy at this time is devoted to such nonesense as Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears, does a concern for the niceties of traditional rhetoric really make much difference?

  7. Wobba

    The degradation of the English language is occurring not only in grammar and spelling, but in rhetorical and conversational style. Not only is English being misused functionally, it is being misapplied. English is one of the most powerful languages in the world, with a large vocabulary of synonyms to offer shades of meaning and subtlety other languages can only approximate.

    How is this power used? To tell bald-faced, brazen lies to the American people, in exaggerated and emphatic terms. To tell careful half-truths when the former is too dangerous. To reduce the state of debate in this country to little more than ad-hominem attacks and false premises. There is no point in debating an issue with facts and formal logic. There is no point in breaking down an argument to find its fundamental flaws and strengths. There is no such thing as a polite, rational debate in which the argument with the strongest factual and logical basis is acknowledged. These are practices lost to our time and culture.

    This kind of misuse irks me more than the functional misuse of English. However, it stands to reason that if one cannot be bothered to adhere to the rules of English grammar and spelling, then it is sure folly to expect one to adhere to the dictates of formal logic and civilized debate. If, on the other hand, one is educated, intelligent and conscientious enough to follow such rules of usage, it is at least possible that one will also argue using such principles. Thus, it is almost pointless to read anything written by an author who could not be bothered to be functionally correct, as the chances said person has anything intelligent or relevant to say are practically nil.

  8. Wallace White

    If I would have known there was so much problems with the English language I would have went to my grammar book more often.

  9. Jill

    Actually, folks, it should be “If I HAD BEEN president.” Kerry was talking in the present about what he would have done in the past.

  10. WENDY

    Two of my pet peeves are misspelled and mis-used words (their, there, they’re, etc.) Grammar ranks a close third. I read a news article just yesterday that had misspellings in every single paragraph – a major news outlet and it was posted online as well as in print. I admit to hyphenating sentences to show pauses or emphases where I would have placed them while speaking. I’m sure those aren’t perfectly accurate; but other than a typo here and there, I do try to maintain proper noun/verb agreement and word usage and spelling throughout my statements. It bothers me tremendously when professional writers (journalists ARE professionals, correct?) fail to do the same. Where are their editors? Does no one proofread anymore – or are the proofreaders equally lacking in grammatical knowledge? It only serves to reinforce what isn’t being taught anymore.

    As for Hezbollah’s war, I was under the impression it was Israel’s war in retaliation for a kidnapping, but I guess that’s more perspective than precision.

  11. Barbara

    Finally, someone steps up the plate and complains about the abominable grammar in use today. Improper use of the subjunctive mood has been one of my pet peeves for years.

    One expects poor spelling and grammar from someone with minimal education, but, unfortunately, minimal education appears to be all one receives from the government-controlled schools these days. By the time one gets to college, the damage appears to be too ingrained to correct.

    Thank you for writing about what I find so annoying.

  12. I saw this weakness in English after WW2. I had no grammar rules taught in my school but I was a reader and read aloud to my mother and learned where commas, semi-colons were to be used in writing. My kids started in school in the early 60s and my search for a strong academic system took me in and out of all kinds of schools. I also learned that if “if” was a part of any sentence, the verb would have to be changed. I learned that from reading books and listening to the news on the radio.

    We all make mistakes when we are writing on emotionally-charged subjects and often in too much of a hurry to proof what we type.

    Thanks Mr. Murdock for the reminder.

  13. Bat

    So, what is with these people who abuse apostrophes? I know someone who puts an apostrophe after every ‘s’ at the end of every word ending in ‘s’; I guess the watchword is, “Possessive or not, here I come! (what’s a plural?)”

    Yes, I am your apostrophe Nazi. Learn to use them properly! GRRRRR.

  14. Lexie Homewood

    One of my majors was English, and I, too, cringe when I hear what passes for grammar these days. Stll, Mr. Murdock, all that complaning and the Language Mangler in Chief got nary a mention.

  15. jules

    The English language is under attack from all sides! I wanted to blame it on computers and all the shortcuts people take when using them, but I now find one of my favorite forms of entertainment is a red pen and the Sunday newspaper! And my kids aren’t learning it at school– if it’s something important to me(i.e.,one of my pet peeves!)I make sure they know it.I don’t want them to make a fool of themselves in front of a potential employer in the future just because that person is from my generation and might actually know this stuff,too.It’s a sad state of affairs and I see no relief in sight.

  16. Elizabeth Mondschein

    I react strongly with mis-use of the word “only”. When one says I only have a week to do this – it means that person is the only one who has a week to do this. Properly – it should be I have only one week to do this. It is incorrectly used every day. em