Unlearning the good stuff

Notice anything strange about the following ESPN.com headline from last night?You gotta see it.

I’ll give you a hint: “it’s” grammar sucks.

Now, I’m not a good grammar theorist; frankly, I couldn’t define its more esoteric concepts and have to repeatedly remind myself what a gerund is.

But when I was growing up, I internalized the basic rules of grammar by inference — by reading lots of books. Books have editors and even the most basic adhere to a cohesive set of grammatical rules. Sure, descriptivists love arguing about “he/she” vs. “their”, the proper use of semicolons, and whatnot, but in my experience, when it comes to published media there’s a staggering level of agreement about what constitutes good grammar.

Of course, I have my quirks. The New Yorker is as good as modern writing gets, but I still grimace when its editors throw in gratuitous umlauts, as in “coöoperate”, and “ands”, as in “three hundred and twenty”. On the other hand, I’m cool with split infinitives (find the one in paragraph 3!) and sentence-ending prepositions. But on the whole I can read an entire issue of the magazine and only set the internal grammar klaxons firing once or twice.*

Anyway, the web is ruining all that. The average Facebook user is a grammar-ignorant heathen who probably thinks that “Strunk and White” is a web comic. Worse, popular bloggers — people who actually make a living as writers — are just as bad, and more shameless. TechCrunch routinely has elementary-school level grammatical gaffes on its front page, and it’s by no means an exception.

I wonder: is this because (a) bloggers just don’t know grammar, or because (b) most writers don’t know grammar, but only bloggers that don’t have copy editors fixing their mistakes?

Fine, I understand that no one wants to hear complaints about bad grammar. It’s overdone. But I’m not out to change other people; this is my personal forum for narcissism, after all.

The problem is that the Internet’s poor grammar is killing me. It’s making me dumber, and I know it, like I’m Charlie Gordon in the second half of Flowers for Algernon. I read these blogs every day. I learn by inference. And my internal inference generator, which long ago induced the basic rules of grammar from reading texts, is going haywire. I sometimes double-take when I see a grammatically correct phrase because I expect to see something incorrect. It’s really bad.

(For instance, I might read that last paragraph, and hesitate on the last sentence for just a second… is that “It’s” actually correct? Is there any truth in a morally relative universe?)

And now… the front page of ESPN. Ouch.

P.S. My computer science friends tend to be exceptionally good at grammar. Is this because the same skills that enable you to understand the syntax and semantics of a programming language also enable you to grok English grammar? Or maybe the maddening attention to detail that’s required to write good bug-free(-ish) code also applies when writing prose.

* A strict nerd will realize that if you have no internal grammar rules, your klaxons will never fire. In other words, your internal grammar checker is sound but not complete. But rest assured that I have plenty of rules, and strictly hew to them to irritating effect. I mean affect. Just kidding!


Addendum: I posted this last night. By 8am this morning, an old high school friend, Allison, sent me two more mainstream errors:

from “you’re” favorite paper, the WSJ.

from the Chicago Tribune. We’re on a “role” now!

Yeah, so these are still bloggy, but the writers are real journalists, and anyway the posts have been up for hours and the errors are still there.

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15 Responses to Unlearning the good stuff

  1. Diaereses, not Umlauts. Personally, I like them. One of my favorite little idiosyncrasies of the New Yorker’s editing.

    • aj says:

      See, I told you I didn’t know the proper terms! And yes, I am also not surprised that you did =).

      I can’t really get over them. It’s just a little too pretentious for me. I am otherwise deeply enamored with the New Yorker, though, so I suppose I find things to hate for my own sanity.

    • aj says:

      Oh yeah, one issue is that I read them as umlauts, even though they are merely diaereses. (I didn’t know these terms, but I did know that the dots weren’t supposed to affect the pronunciation.) As in:
      “So you want to co-er-perate, eh? Or shall I re-er-nact the sordid affair?”

      This is always simultaneously funny and irritating to me. And I can’t stop doing it.

  2. Also, I trust you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s review of “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage”?

  3. Muggle says:

    Of course Grill knows the difference between diaereses and umlauts.

    But the point is well taken. Nice blog.

  4. wingerz says:

    your smart

    sorry if this decreases the average quality of comments on your blog

  5. Allison says:

    “an old high friend, Allison,”

    haha. i wish.

    • aj says:

      I’m hopeless. You know, there’s still time to change your ways. I can change it to “a newly high friend, Allison” — just let me know ;).

  6. charles says:

    you’re pretentious for reading The New Yorker :)