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Correct English: Does anybody really care? - Odessa American: Billsalter

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Correct English: Does anybody really care?

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Posted: Sunday, January 6, 2008 12:00 am

(NOTE: Poor William and Miss Kitty enjoyed a four-day New Year’s holiday and he did not have time to write. This column is from Jan. 14, 2000, and its subject still is PW’s pet peeve.)

A NEW BOOK CALLED “The Art of Spelling, The Madness and the Method” was given to Poor William as a gift. It’s by Marilyn Vos Savant, who writes the “Ask Marilyn” feature in Parade magazine.

PW hasn’t had a chance to read the book and check it for spelling errors, but it raises an interesting question: “Does anyone really care anymore?”

Grammar and spelling aren’t on the “Top 100 Important Things” lists of very many Americans, or so it seems. For sure, there doesn’t seem to be an embarrassment factor attached to saying you “seen it” or writing that you “recieved it” any more than being unmarried and pregnant or having to file bankruptcy.

The times have changed, in other words. This makes PW wonder if the spelling book won’t be a flop, but he hopes it will lead to a grammatical revival.

Incidentally, the book jacket notes claim that “a bad speller can be very bright.” Too bad this revelation did not surface in time to help Dan Quayle, the “potatoe” man!

MORE THAN LIKELY, though, there’s no hope for proper spelling and use of the English language. Sometime it is the fault of the language itself.

For instance, as PW understands the situation, in Spanish every word really has only one meaning. “Bad” never means “good,” and there’s none of this “their, there” and “it’s, its” stuff.

Is it even possible to make a joke using a “play on words” in Spanish? PW’s experience in this area came in Brownsville when the Spanish language version of the Herald routinely translated the cartoon strip “Funky Winkerbean” from English into Spanish.

Most of the strip then made no sense at all. A literal translation of English “wordplay” into Spanish lost its humor. (Of course, the result was so stupid that perhaps Spanish-speaking readers laughed about that.)

NONE OF THIS, though, is Poor William’s favorite gripe. That’s reserved for English “collective nouns.”

Their use — and mostly misuse — plus the absolute stupidity of the actual rules for their use, are enough to drive PW onto a soapbox at the drop of a subject-verb disagreement. In this area, no doubt, the electronic media are the masters of misuse.

XYZ Company is holding THEIR annual sale. Wrong! The church is having THEIR Easter service. Wrong!

“Company” is a singular noun and so is”“church,” and each “denotes a unit” and as such “require singular verbs and pronouns,” as the Associated Press Stylebook clearly states.

That means it would be ITS, not THEIR, in both examples. But, this is where English is crazy … basically every person is left to his or her own devices to decide whether the “company” or the “church” is a so-called “collective noun.”

That means that if you choose to do so, you can say that “church” means each individual member and therefore the word becomes a plural, not a singular, noun. As it says in Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “ … where notional agreement operates, there are no absolutes.”

PW likes absolutes; he likes things to be clearly understood. That cannot happen with a language that allows each individual to decide what a word means or does not mean, which seems to be a certain president’s problem, by the way.

In plain English, when it comes to English, you can throw out the logic of the AP Stylebook (the Bible for the newspaper profession) any time you choose. And, it gets even sillier in England.

It is not unusual there to see something like ... “The family ARE going shopping.” In other words, father, mother and little Johnny are going to board the Tube and go downtown to Harrods, which makes “family” a plural noun.

This is stupid, but it is “proper English.” In the United States it should NOT be proper, but every TV and radio announcer inflicts it on the ears of listeners to the extent that it is no wonder that most Americans cannot even use logical, much less proper English.

What a shame! But, does anyone really care anymore? Maybe someone should ask Marilyn to write a book on the subject.

HAVE A SUPER SUNDAY and a wonderful week!

Odessa, TX

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