Monday, April 25, 2016

The Mark of Ignorance

CBC dunce intern
It's not an exaggeration to say that the level of spoken and written English has declined in recent years. That's probably a claim that has been made every decade for the last two hundred years. But I truly believe that skewed syntax, bad grammar and malapropisms are more widespread now than in the past. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that those people are more likely to be heard or read (think of the proliferation of online media outlets and the need to staff them) and are more clueless (or shameless) about their language ignorance.

Grammar mistakes in mainstream media are extremely common nowadays, especially online. The most common errors that have for years been an indication of uneducated people now clutter the pages of even the most well-known newspapers. These errors jump out at anyone with even a basic understanding of grammar and language usage. The editors of newspapers regularly seek refuge behind the excuse that the 24-hour news cycle means it's harder than ever to ensure error-free copy. I'll accept that even people who know the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" will sometimes type the incorrect word when bashing out an article. So that excuse may have some merit, but for the most part, there are just more people today who never learned how to write or speak correctly.

Many of the mistakes that appear online are an indication that the people doing the writing (and the editing) do not possess the necessary skills to do their job. Why is this so? I would say that the education system is largely to blame. When I was going to school in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, grammar was not taught. The idea was that students would absorb the rules through activities and practice (inductive learning as opposed to deductive learning). Lo and behold, a few generations of semi-literates after moving away from more traditional teaching methods, and not only do many people not know how poorly they speak and write English, but there is no one to tell them when they make mistakes. Thankfully, because there are always some people around who possess critical thinking skills, and because some people in decision-making positions recognize the importance of language skills, deductive grammar learning is making  a partial comeback.

Beyond the claim of the frenetic pace of reporting and filing stories, there are other excuses for the legions of professionally employed language morons to hide behind. Any human weakness can become a virtue. When enough people possess that weakness, there is no further need to defend. What used to be an excuse becomes accepted wisdom. When the borderline incompetence of many reporters and others who are paid to write is highlighted, the person doing the highlighting is likely to be dismissed or ridiculed. The tut-tutting and supposed arrogance of anyone who points out the mistakes are more worthy of discussion than the mistakes themselves. The tools of the trade are words and grammar, but somehow, expert usage is not considered a requirement. Of course, moralizers of any kind are necessarily self-righteous. The two are inexorably intertwined. You cannot be one without the other, and I'm guilty as charged.

The funny part about this focus on the people complaining about bad grammar is that many of the so-called grammar Nazis are being played for all they're worth. All newspapers now encourage anyone who sees mistakes in their online rags to dutifully report them. How thrilling! I am a more skilled editor that the ones employed by big newspapers! And look! I reported a mistake, it was promptly corrected, and I even got a personal email thanking me!

You bloody fools! Why on earth would you provide your services for free when you could otherwise let the mistake stand, thus highlighting the sloppiness and perhaps increasing the likelihood that the buffoons in charge might take steps to improve the quality of their product?

But I want the focus of this post to be about speaking, not writing. There is one extremely common mistake that many people currently make when speaking. It's not a careless error made while the speaker is passionately arguing a point. It's not a one-off blunder made when tired or annoyed. It's a fundamental gap in the speaking ability of the people in question.

This obvious blunder is committed not just by people from lower socio-economic classes. I have heard doctors, lawyers and newsreaders speak in this fashion. It makes me cringe every time I hear it. My mother claims that a friend of hers who is a principal in a school in Canada makes this mistake whenever she speaks.

And what is this most shockingly bizarre lapse in fundamental language skills? One that what would have, years ago, been a mistake worthy of a solid cuff to the side of the head?

The inability to use the past participle when using participle verb tenses. People who suffer this affliction speak in sentences like the following:

I haven't went to the movies in a long time.

Have you ever ate spicy food?

It is hard to fathom that people who speak like this are not aware of it. And it is also hard to believe that no one has ever pointed out to them how ignorant they sound. My guess is that they know full well that this major gap exists in their ability to speak the English language. But they just don't care. It likely warms their hearts when they are in the company of other semi-literate mules who were also never taught how to speak correctly.

And that is the modern-day mark of ignorance among native English speakers.


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