English Abuse Epidemic! 4 Common Strains of the Disease

It’s an epidemic! No, not a biological virus attacking our bodies, but an epidemic of English-language communication breakdown, attacking our speech and writing.

You sense there’s something really wrong when presidents and presidential candidates nowadays find themselves being widely mocked for mangling sentences into incoherence through their fumbling, awkward efforts to articulate their thoughts. But it’s only an especially obvious sign of what’s happening, on an epidemic scale: effective and essential communication is crumbling.

Deterioration is traveling through the English language like a virulent disease, rotting out the flesh and blood of not merely functional, prosaic communication, but beautiful, elegant, artistic linguistic expression itself. It’s not just a problem anymore that your English flubs might make you look stupid – the basic problem is that fewer and fewer of us even recognize that serious mistakes are widespread, and that our ability to communicate clearly is just plumb breaking down.

The number of relevant examples is overwhelming, but here I’ll just focus on several of what I regard as by far the most egregious felonies in terms of epidemic English abuse – errors that have been proliferating within recent years. You can regard these as different “strains” of the epidemic.

Felony #1 – Jumbling me and I

You hear this all the time: “Just between you and I….” Or “They took Tom and I out to dinner….” Or “They gave the award to he and I….” [All WRONG!]

Crash! That’s the sound of good English (and effective communication) smashing into a wall… followed by the sound of an alarm siren going off. In grammar terms, this kind of error is a capital offense.

Using the proper case of pronouns is absolutely fundamental to correct English, and that’s what is getting mauled here. In this use, the objective case of the first-person pronoun (me) is required when it’s the object of verbs and prepositions. But, for some reason, lots of people have developed a peculiar aversion to using “me”, and substitute the subjective case (I). Ditto, sometimes, with other pronouns – like substituting “he” (wrong) for the correct “him” in the last example above.

To understand why this is wrong, it’s helpful to isolate the pronoun from the compound object phrase, and try that by itself in the same sentence. So, would you say “They took I out to dinner…”? Surely not!

[CORRECTED grammar] Anyway, just so you know… the correct English is: “Just between you and me….” Or “They took Tom and me out to dinner….” Or “They gave the award to him and me….”

But – and here it gets really crazy – while more and more people seem deathly afraid of using objective pronouns such as “me” and “him” in the right way, they apparently feel quite comfortable using them in the wrong way… in a role as subjects, substituting for the correct subjective case (I, he, she, etc.). So we hear lots of sentences like “Mary and me went to the party.” Or “Me and him go to the same school.” [Both WRONG!]

Another crash! Another alarm sounding – this mirror-image case-jumbling is another major violation of English usage. This used to be considered a sign of illiteracy (or semi-literacy), speech that branded you as a poorly educated hick… but nowadays we’re hearing it all the time.

(Incidentally, I’ve got nothing against hicks, and nothing against colloquial dialect – but correct, standard English, it ain’t.)

In this situation, the subjective case of the first-person pronoun (I, he, etc.) is required, but the objective case (me, him) is being used (for some inexplicable reason). Again, to understand what’s wrong, you can use the isolate-the-pronoun test: Would you say “Me went to the party…”? I doubt it!

[CORRECTED grammar] For the record, the correct English is: “Mary and I went to the party.” Or “He and I go to the same school.” (Placing the first-person pronoun last is considered better style.)

Felony #2 – Jumbling past and perfect tenses

It’s not just pronouns that are getting mangled in this epidemic… the deteriorative disease is creeping into misuse of verbs, too – especially in the use of present-perfect tense. Increasingly, you hear dysliterate sentences like “He has took the flight to Miami.” Or “I had went to the store.” [Both WRONG!)

Arrrgh! Another major grammar capital offense! What’s wrong with participles, such that so many people are dropping them?

Participles are those forms of verbs (like “taken” and “gone”) used after auxiliaries such as “has”, “have”, and “had” to form the present-perfect and past-perfect forms of verbs. In standard English, you don’t put the past tense (e.g., “took”, “went”) after one of these.

Are people being taught how to conjugate verbs anymore? You know – “take, took, taken”, or “go, went, gone”, and so on? (This also includes “I take, you take, he/she/it takes”, etc…. but let’s leave that for another discussion.)

[CORRECTED grammar] Anyway, for the record, the correct English for the original examples is: “He has taken the flight to Miami.” Or ” I had gone to the store.”

Felony #3 – Run-on sentences

As a writer and editor, I instinctively wince when English is tortured, and starting about a dozen years ago, I started noticing the torture was spreading with this kind of mangled sentence: “That’s what we’re seeing now is that he can’t do it.” (WRONG!)

This is a run-on sentence, and it used to be one of my biggest gripes. Nowadays, while this kind of error has become entrenched and commonplace, it pales in comparison to appalling errors like “for he and I…” and “I had went….” But it’s still a major problem.

To understand why this is so bad, let me use this example is a way to show how a run-on sentence gets you all bewildered about what the speaker is trying to say is all jumbled up, and you don’t quite know what starts where or where it ends is totally confused about what this person is trying to say in the first place is basically lost.

What’s gotten mangled here this time is the sentence structure. In the original example I’ve used, two separate sentences have been scrunched together: “That’s what we’re seeing now” (perfectly good sentence) has been merged with “What we’re seeing now is that he can’t do it” (another perfectly good sentence). But when both sentences try to use the same dependent clause (“what we’re seeing now”), you get a mangled, confused, faulty sentence – and it’s happening all the time.

So who or what is confused? Well, the sentence is confused; so the audience or listener gets confused; and this probably indicates that the speaker is somewhat confused – he or she has lost track of how the original sentence started out, and where it was supposed to go. Everything is confused!

Both speakers and writers need to understand what their sentences are trying to do – what the subject and the verb are trying to communicate, in their relationship with the other stuff in the sentence. A subject can have more than one verb; a compound subject (more than one subject) can share one or more verbs. But you can’t have two difference sentences, in effect, sharing the same subordinate clause, trying to pull in two different directions in the same sentence. It’s rather like intentionally creating a Siamese twin… not a good idea.

[CORRECTED grammar] There are several ways to repair the original mangled sentence; here’s one: “That’s what we’re seeing now – he can’t do it.” Here’s another: “That’s what we’re seeing now – it’s that he can’t do it.”

Felony #4 – Do you feel badly or bad?

This is a relatively smaller error, but I’ve included it because it’s making another of its periodic resurgences and starting to spread virulently. I’m hearing more people claim “I felt badly all day yesterday.” Or “The weather looked badly this morning.” Or “The dog smelled really badly after rolling in the manure.” [All WRONG!]

The grammar here is wrong because we can presume that in each instance the state of being of the subject (I, the weather, or the dog) is being talked about – not a physiological or neurological function involving sensory perception, the weather’s eyesight, or the dog’s olfactory capability.

People get confused over this because verbs such as “feel”, “look”, and “smell” can serve as either linking verbs (as they’re used in these examples) or active verbs (invoking physiological or neurological functions). While an active verb would take an adverb (ending in “-ly”) to indicate how the action is performed, a linking verb describes the state of being of the subject and takes an adjective (“bad” in this case).

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