GRAMMAR: “OMG”

By PATRICK COVERT

(Buffalo, N.Y.)–I am a member of the “Internet Generation” so it probably comes as no surprise that I use internet resources for everything from news to shopping, education and entertainment.

I was there when “AOL-speak” took root in the youth of America. I faintly recall a time before “lolz” and “omg” “pwned” us all (for an explanation ask someone mid-twenties and younger.)

Many conversations with my coworker Dave start with, “Since when did THIS language become acceptable?”

Typically our next action is to peruse wikipedia.com® or reference.com® to find the answer. Usually entries have listings for its proper usage, or proper spelling, with a side note concerning “slang” or “common usage.”

The modern world’s lack of concern for basic rules of the English language is a constant irritation. I see how it inhibits effective communication.

The English Language is dynamic and alive, constantly evolving as it has since before the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. Normans invaded the British Isles and influenced global change.

The Normans also injected a new dialect to fold into and further evolve “Old English.” The natural progression of a language follows and adapts to its purpose of communication.

We must both know the same language for us to effectively communicate. Furthermore, we must both follow commonly accepted rules of the language.

It was a population’s common usage in 1066 that defined its rules. Now we have PhDs, linguists, books by author Noam Chomsky and The Holt Handbook. We have countless English dictionaries, including the revered Oxford, or more common Merriam-Webster. Yet when I interact with the general public, any assurance that we speak the same language is gone.

Topping the list of my grammatical irritants are:

their/there/they’re;

disrespect (it isn’t a verb!);

also “dis”; “yo”; “word”; “ain’t”; epic fail;

and a basic lack of proofreading.

I admit to some ‘failures’ employing the “King’s English.” I was raised in public schools, a social environment where knowing the lingo can be the difference between outcast and insider status. I try to employ a mix of the good grammar heard in my parents’ home, ’90’s pop culture slang and a bit of the New Yorker/Canadian “urban” from here.

Writing for public consumption is a different story, as it should be for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. One of the attractions to writing is the opportunity to be patient about composition, taking my time to ensure effective communication.

My internal censor may be found wanting at times, but that is no excuse. My goal is to attempt intelligent and thoughtful composition of thoughts.

Verbal communication between two persons can be a challenge, but might there be hope for the mass media?

USA Today surprised me last week. I read glaring typographic errors among six articles that lead to abandoning the paper out of frustration. I was first diverted by a photograph for which the caption described priests lying “prostate” (of course you know that is a gland, try “prostrate”).

So I turned on the television and what did I see? A car ad spoke about the “oh twelve” Hyundai. I own an “oh six” Scion; should it be a “double oh six”?

What happens to my faith in the source if I cannot read the newspaper or watch a car ad without errors overwhelming the message?

Dailysource.org published an article on problems in the media, citing a poll from 1999 that found 35 percent of newspaper readers found grammatical errors multiple times each week. I could find no date on the article, but odds are that the numbers are worse today.

I suppose when you consider the average reporter with a Bachelor of Arts degree earns $33,000, the old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true.

The website also cites deadlines and bottom lines as the chief culprit for the typo dilemma. I conducted further internet research and found a never ending supply of hilarious misprints, forgotten substitutions and wrong photographic captions.

One link, though, caught my attention: “Regret the Error” by Craig Silverman or, “How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.”

Off to the library I went. I found the book, along with its two “best friends,” and after reading for hours found more than I needed.

My original thesis here was that minor annoyances such as typos or layout mistakes could undermine a reader’s faith in the reporter. Silverman cites James Reason, whose theory of “error traps” takes some of the responsibility off the individual reporters and lets editors and corporations bear their fair share.

Silverman also declares that editors who gloss over basic mistakes probably don’t do much fact-checking.

Furthermore, 84 percent of Americans trusted their daily news source in 1985. That number dropped to 52 percent in 2004. Every week I read business reports of venerable newspapers laying off reporters and production employees, losing money, beset by other corporate problems undoubtedly because they failed to evolve with the digital revolution.

Can newspapers afford to lose what little customers they have remaining?

As I read about yellow journalism, I feel a modern frame of reference. Simply watch the evening news, look at newspaper headlines, or watch commercials for the hundreds of “talk shows” which pollute the airwaves these days. You will see a relationship to the socio-political quagmire in which New York City was mired at the turn of the century.

I feel as though newspaper titans like Hearst, Pulitzer, and Sulzberger could be Fox, CNN, and CNBC. We may not hear the outright lies of 1897’s hard-core journalism, but when a young, attractive anchor regularly says, “Stay tuned, the next story could SAVE YOUR LIFE,” I feel the need to change the channel.

What does the foregoing have to do with bad grammar? The premise that someone who is careless enough to err on basic grammar may have already laid off the fact checkers and will do anything to attract viewers to earn advertising dollars.

Journalism has been long regarded as the “Fourth Estate,” a public watchdog for the government, which is supposed to check-and-balance itself. If journalists continue to allow their craft to be degraded, there may be a time when they fault themselves out of a job.

Without a voice, “The People” have no assurance of the process and the other three “estates” have no input from their constituency. When that happens, I suppose I’ll just get my news from Dave. LOL.–©2012 Patrick M. Covert

Patrick Covert writes from Buffalo, N. Y.  He welcomes your comments.