Will We All Be Grunting Soon?

by James Scott Bell

Remember when we used to call them “grammar schools”? The idea was to train the young in the foundational rules for communicating in our language, especially in written form. Such teaching has fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer teachers are adequately trained or interested in the rules of grammar. The fallout can be seen everywhere, from schoolrooms to boardrooms, from books to blogs.

If this slide continues, what will we be left with? Grunting, I suppose. We could end up communicating like the monster in Young Frankenstein:

In years past, all journals and newspapers had crusty editors who were deeply grounded in rules of style and grammar, and could train their cubs to be more precise and understandable. But this species of grammarian has largely died out. And with the onset of digital and instant media, the flubs are flowing more freely than cheap beer at a bowling alley wedding.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no grammar expert. Unless I’m reminded, I don’t know a gerund from Geritol. To me, conjugation sounds like what prison inmates get when their wives visit. Nevertheless, I try to do service to the King’s English by regularly checking reference books like Write Right!

So allow me to cite a few examples of grammatical drift I’ve come across recently, mostly from “reputable” sites. They may seem innocuous now, but they’re like pebbles that precede a landslide. Let us watch our wording lest we get buried under rocks of perpetual bafflement!

Apple have been focused on your point of sale dollars for hardware.

A verb has to agree with its subject. Apple is singular, so has is required.

He has been more prolific in his career than either Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.

It’s either/or, not either/and.

Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide, in all socioeconomic strata and often most dominant in emerging markets, only account for 6% of publishers’ sales typically?

Can you spot the error in this mangle of a sentence?

The best hope for conference chaos this Fall after the Big Ten canceled football season lied with Ohio State.

Hoo boy. The lie, lay, lied, laid distinction is one of the trickiest in our language. I confess it confuses me still. But it doesn’t take an English degree to sense that lied is wrong. What to do? Consult a stylebook, or find an online explanation like this one that explains the differences.

Another editorial judgment is whether to just rewrite the sentence for greater clarity. In this case, I would. First off, is the writer saying people “hope” for “conference chaos”? Or is the gist of the thought that a hopeful end to the chaos would come via Ohio State?

I suspect it’s the latter, and if so the main thought of the sentence is deflated somewhat by its structure. We need a rearrangement and a comma. And we don’t need that big capital F jumping out at us in the middle. (Almost always, a season should be lowercase. How do I know? I looked it up!)

I would recast the sentence thus:

After the Big Ten canceled football season, the best hope for ending conference chaos this fall was Ohio State.

Instead, Costas had to take a pop shot at one of the sports he helped cover for a large part of his 38-year career at NBC Sports.

Did Costas throw a can of soda? Or was this a potshot (one word), an off-hand critical remark?

How Zoom’s new features will fair in the video conferencing landscape.

One wonders how Zoom can put up a Ferris wheel and sell cotton candy in a conferencing landscape.

They’ve heard the writing on the wall.

A neat trick!

We have to tip your hat to them.

I’ll do what I please with my own hat, thank you very much.

Now the FBI goes to work pouring over surveillance videos.

Pouring what? Coffee? Won’t that hinder the investigation? I’ll need to pore over more articles to figure out what they’re doing.

We were all waiting with baited breath.

I wonder what they baited their breath with? I’ve tried anchovies, but my wife objects.

In the absence of editors, what’s a writer in a hurry to do? (Here I’m distinguishing articles and the like from novel-length books, where we do have more time for beta readers and editors. See also Terry’s excellent self-editing tips.)

I know there are digital grammar apps, like Grammarly, that might help. Most of them require a subscription and I’ve heard they’re not 100% accurate. At least you should take the time to check your doc with Word’s spelling-and-grammar tool, and listen to your document via text-to-speech.

Words and how they sound are our bread and butter. So don’t jam up the works with clunky grammar. That’s just not fare to our readers, who tip our hats to us.

26 thoughts on “Will We All Be Grunting Soon?

  1. I love your example.

    My answer to:
    Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide:
    Yet, why do more…

    Regarding the first error, “Apple have been focused,” you are most likely quoting an American publication. But in British English, collective nouns like a company, a crowd, a group, etc. use plural versions of verbs. for example: The crowd clap after the performance.

    • That’s incorrect. In British English (as I was taught at newspapers) company and crowd are singular entities.

  2. “They heard the writing on the wall” sounds like something Yogi Berra would’ve/could’ve said.


    What I’ve noticed is the misuse of:
    • bring and take
    • between and among
    • less and fewer
    not to mention the written “confusion” with:
    • you’re and your, (but, fortunately, not yore),
    • there, they’re, and there,
    • possessives vs. plurals

    Throw in texting shorthand (txt, thks, lol, imho, rofl, etc.), and I think we’re well on the way to having Dr. Frankenstein’s creature sounding Shakespearean (if not Berra-like).

  3. Fabulous, Jim. I may send a link to your praiseworthy contribution to the so-called editor of my local newspaper.

    The error I notice is the substitution of “council,” as in a body of elected or designated people to manage or advise a governmental district — for “counsel,” when used to refer to an attorney. I see it so often that I am afraid that it will become an acceptable practice to use the words interchangeably. Maybe it already has and I haven’t received the memo.

    Thanks for another great post.

  4. Thanks for the shoutout, Jim. I beta tested Grammarly in its early days. Maybe it’s better now, but I fed it the first chapter of a manuscript, and it reported 27 errors, not one of which was right. The deal-breaker for me was when I’d written, “Jim. What the (*f-bomb) are you doing here at two in the morning?”
    Grammarly’s flagged it and “suggested” “Jim. What the (f-bomb) is you doing here …” because (f-bomb) is singular.
    And I’m old enough to have gone to grammar school. But most of my grammar lessons came from studying German and Latin. I’m still guilty of misplaced/dangling modifiers. I hold the honor of creating an answering machine that gave neck massages.

  5. “They’ve heard the writing on the wall.”

    Text-to-speech, of course.

    Or they called in Daniel and heard it from him:

    25 “This is the inscription that was written:

    mene, mene, tekel, parsin

    26 “Here is what these words mean:

    Mene[e]: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

    27 Tekel[f]: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

    28 Peres[g]: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”


  6. ROFL, Jim!

    Here’s one that’s always stumped me: “For the wages of sin is death.” Shouldn’t it be “are” since wages is plural. Can anyone explain?

    I recommend Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It answers 99% of my grammar questions and is much easier to use than the doorstop Chicago Manual of Style.

    • Good question, Debbie. I didn’t have an answer except that “The wages of sin are death” can’t be right, either. So I looked around and found this on a site called grammarphobia.com:

      Because “wages” was often treated as singular in the past.

      The Oxford English Dictionary has published references from the late 1300s to the 1700s of the plural noun construed as singular.

      In fact, the OED’s first citation of this usage is from the 1395 revision of the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The wagis of synne is deth.”

      Here’s a later example from a 1679 book about Islam by the Anglican cleric Lancelot Addison: “As for his wages, it amounted to so little, that it would not do him much service.”

      The word “wages” here, according to the OED, is being used figuratively to mean reward or recompense.

  7. I’m with you, Jim. To paraphrase George Orwell, “During times of universal incoherence, good grammar becomes a revolutionary act.”

  8. Great post, Jim. It may already be too late. I think we are tap, tap, tapping our way back to grunting and smoke signals. This comment will get me into trouble, but I blame much of our illiteracy on an addiction to social media and texting.

    Thanks for the link to Write Right. I bet everyone will be double checking their grammar this morning.

  9. Been to a physical therapist lately? They all want you to lay down on the table.

    Your first example is typical British grammar. A group is always plural: Manchester United are opening their football season tonight. Though a great news source, BBC are annoying on this issue.

  10. I love the examples you gave, Jim. I think I hear my fifth grade teacher. “Sloppy language comes from sloppy thinking.” Or something like that.

    I especially liked the video from Young Frankenstein. Although the monster wasn’t very eloquent, at least he got his point across.

    The grammatical error that makes me cringe and roll my eyes is the use of “I” instead of “me” in the objective case. “John gave the tickets to my husband and I.” I hear and read this mistake so frequently that I suspect it will become part of accepted usage.

    • “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (Alexander Pope has nearly as many “clichés” as Shakespeare.)

      For some reason, we want to say “Johnny and me got into a fight. (Maybe influenced by French use of “moi”? I’m guessing here.) So we get scolded into knowing to say, “Johnny and I got into a fight.” From there we wrongly generalize, not having been properly educated into the objective case, to say “Afterwards the teacher scolded Johnny and I.”

      Lots of educated people do this. I even saw it this morning in a well-respected novel (not in dialogue). So even editors.

      A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not…”

  11. This was my morning quiz but thankfully I passed! 😎 And many of these things are easy to pick up on with little effort. For example, I pasted these sentences into a Google doc, which immediately points out the errors with have/has or fair/fare.

    Pasting them into Word points out things too, such as the lack of hyphenation between point of sale, the either/or discrepancy, and baited/bated. In a bit of humor, for conciseness, Word recommended changing “We have to tip your hat to them” to “We must tip your hat to them.”. 😎 Obviously Word was not programmed by cowboys because if you mess with a cowboy’s hat, you’re in trouble. LOL!

    However both Google and Word missed ‘hearing’ the writing on the wall which shows that good old human due diligence is still needed to review our work.

  12. I LOVE my Chicago Manual of Style for this. They have a 38-page section called “Glossary of Troublesome Expressions.” It’s not all grammar, but they cover lots of troublesome things: “that/which”, “lay/lie”, etc.

    One source of grunting concern for me is the poor use of the Subjunctive. Especially irksome in song lyrics. Simon & Garfunkle’s “I wish I was, homeward bound” always grates on me. UGH. It’s “I wish I were…” Like: “If I were a rich man…” (Fiddler on the Roof). The key guideline is if the statement is contrary to fact or not.

    I’ll leave it laying there. Or is it “lying”? ;-)))

  13. Great post, Jim!

    My husband and I have noticed the spelling and grammar on our local nightly news program going the way of grunting. One night, as the local weather guru was waxing not-so-eloquently, a word on a weather map behind his head was cringeworthy. It was, I kid you not, Weather Adivdisory! Say that fast three times.

    And I can’t tell you how many times we catch the kids giving the news reports saying, for example, the witness said she seen the man getting out of his car…. Just typing it gives me a headache.

    We now watch our local news for the laugh factor, not to find out what’s goin’ down in our area. 🙂

  14. Terrific post, Jim. Thank you! I love your witticisms, and here they are doubly amusing to me: “I don’t know a gerund from Geritol. To me, conjugation sounds like what prison inmates get when their wives visit.”

    This describes me as well. I rely on the kindness of copy editors, sharp eyed beta readers, and proofers. That said, it’s something I still need to work on. It’s all too easy as an indie published author to focus on “more content, faster” and let the grammar slide. I’m going to be spending my craft study time for the next few months strengthening my own grammar knowledge and sentence smithy (so to speak 🙂

    Happy Sunday!

  15. “baited breath” has been a pet peeve of mine for years. whenever I see that one, I tell the writer they’ve been eating worms.

    • You reminded me of another, Joe. I have a friend who used to say “It’s a mute point.” The first couple of times he said that I would immediately go into a mime routine, you know, feeling a wall, pulling a rope. He looked at me with utter confusion. I finally explained it to him. But I think he still lapses.

  16. Sorry, had to share this: “Despite the Covid-19 death count in the United States rapidly accelerating, a startlingly high percentage of health care professionals and frontline workers throughout the country—who have been prioritized as early receipts of the coronavirus vaccine—are reportedly hesitant…”

    Could it be that they really meant recipients?

    This is a quote directly out of an online article from Forbes…Oy!

  17. It’s hard for me not to respond to this post, Jim, because so many of your examples bombard me in social media, sports “journalism,” and as Deb showed, even a highly regarded financial outlet. My pet peeve is what I term “apostrophe chaos.” People writing today seem utterly bamboozled about where and when to place the daggum things. It’s typical of an apostrophe to see its placement reversed when it’s meaning is confused or forgotten or its just plain ignored.

    The gerund thing slammed into my face the other night while reading the Look Inside for a book with more than 6,000 positive Amazon reviews. The first four paragraphs were so loaded with -ing endings (running, leaping, going, seeing, having, etc. ) it became almost comical. What causes me most grief is to realize how many thousands of readers don’t know and don’t care.

    Thanks for giving us grammarians a soap box.

  18. In defense of all that crappy writing, it says more about the necessity of speed and volume of content in journalism than it does poor grammar skills. Journalism is a fudging sweatshop these days. Plus, being unwilling to pay editors to actually edit.

    People, even the young, care about good communication. At over 430 million users, one of the biggest communications platforms in the world is Reddit, a crowd-based Ann Landers and Judge Judy as well as a spot to share stories around the campfire. The first thing most people say when they tell a story or ask a question is “I apologize for any grammar errors.” One of the primary advertisers is Grammarly.

    One of my favorite comment section hang outs is at GoComics, and the comments explode on grammar issues. People are, to put it mildly, passionate about language.

    So, no, all is not lost.

  19. The small mistake in verse tense is the least of the problems with this sentence…Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide, in all socioeconomic strata and often most dominant in emerging markets, only account for 6% of publishers’ sales typically?
    I haven’t figured out what it means yet .lol

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