Remember “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?”

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As baby boomers, we’ve seen a lot of things get better in the course of our lives. But we’ve also seen some things get worse. That’s what’s bugging Larry Lefkowitz right now: the dumbing down of nothing less than the English language.

On most Sundays, you can find me at the local gym, doing my best to stay alive for as long as I can. I like going on Sunday mornings because I can see at least four different news programs at virtually the same time. Recently, I heard a well-educated and respected journalist describe an issue as being systematic of another issue. Of course, he meant “symptomatic.”

Larry Lefkowitz

Larry Lefkowitz

When I got home, I watched a very articulate sports news reporter ask an athlete during a recorded interview to give him a “self-assessment of himself.” What? Remember, this was not a live interview. Every day I hear on the radio, see on television, and read in the paper, language transgressions bordering on English butchering.

I am a technical writer and editor by trade. Most of my occupational writing has been for manuals and guides. I do not possess a college degree. However, I have learned and treated the language with respect and, at times, awe. Our language is part of our history, our legacy, our means of providing tangible and intangible heirlooms to our successors.

So I do not understand why language is not treated with more respect and reverence. How is it that people who are paid to speak to us are so cavalier with their words? Laziness? Or ignorance?! Why isn’t more care and preparation done to communicate clearly and correctly? And, in the case of commercial media, where are the editors?

It's Larry's job to assure proper grammar.

It’s Larry’s job to assure proper grammar.

In my own business, I expect to see language misuse. Most initial information is provided by engineers and designers. Typically, they communicate best with their own kind, as it were. One of the ways I have been successful is in learning to understand engineer-speak, and turning it into proper English. These people are not expected to be articulate or to speak in public, but media people are, and increasingly, I find that they fail.

I cannot fathom the reason for this. I do believe there is a general dumbing down of society and I attribute it to, among other things, the reliance on computers to do more and more of our work and, arguably, more and more of our thinking. Texting on our handheld computers, sometimes referred to as smartphones, but seldom ever called telephones, uses an annoying but hilarious predictor application that tries to make sense out of what you input with your THUMBS. Many other devices use it as well, including PCs and tablets.

These latter devices are perhaps major contributors to the verbal apocalypse. The forte and attraction of the tablet is its point-and-touch interface. In other words, you fingerpaint your information. Do you remember kindergarten? I submit that there is far less thinking needed now with our super gadgets.

Do people ever even consider language when they are communicating with their forefingers and thumbs? Perhaps not so much. Maybe this lingual laxity is bleeding into our aural communications media. Radio is an incredible language wasteland. Listening to news and sports during my morning drive, I cringe listening to what amounts to a bunch of Norm Crosbys misspeaking in gleeful ignorance. I wonder how people get through college, much less post-graduate education, without knowing how to write or speak.

grammar

There is a local radio host I sometimes listen to on the morning drive, who has a Masters degree in communications from Columbia University. He habitually uses double-negatives, redundant phrases, and erratic tenses. How can this be? Is he trying to appeal to the great unwashed in his listener base?

Perhaps the greater question is why this upsets me so. When I was quite young, my aptitude tests indicated that I was best suited to be a car mechanic or an insignificant underachiever. I aspired to be neither. While I do love words, I don’t expect everyone to feel this way. What I do expect is respect for the English language, and a concern to perpetuate it in its proper form. Fortunately, as an editor, I have an opportunity every day to do my small part.
 

8 Comments

  1. I think the “dumbing down” is happening partly because too many people are clueless about what it means to study “English.” They think English majors are trinsing around in ivory towers, reading obscure literature of no value. A politician in the south, during the 2012 campaign, advocated that college students with English, Art and other “liberal arts” majors be charged more per credit than people getting “useful” degrees in, say, engineering and medicine, etc. Never mind that they are going to have to WRITE A HELL OF A LOT in those other courses – and the majority of students today have been grievously under-served by their public schools in the areas of grammar, punctuation, and the very essentials of written communication. I just read an article about an apparently widely-used approach, whereby you don’t “teach” kids, you put them in a situation and let them “catch” what’s important. Infuriating. It would work to some degree, if reading were encouraged. However, too many kids today avoid reading, and for some reason view it as “hard.” Go figure.

    1. Kids view a lot of things as “hard.” Yet, mastering smartphones and Xbox is easy. If made to understand language better, reading might seem easier, no?

      1. Can’t disagree with that. But smartphones and Xboxes are perceived as “fun” and “cool.” No one wants to be left out, so how to use them gets learned, and practiced. Wouldn’t it be great if the inner drive to learn, the inner spark to extend one’s abilities, were nurtured? For example, look what happened in Somalia, where kids were given Motorola Xoom tablets, even though they have very little else. Check out the story in the MIT Technology Review: http://bit.ly/S4P0vY

  2. Lovely article! And in principle, I agree wholeheartedly with you, Larry. When I trip over a misused or misspelled word when I’m reading, I can’t help but think just a little less of the writer for letting it get through QA. It’s the editor in me. The nice person in me gives the writer the benefit of the doubt by assuming there was an attempt to catch the error in the first place, which, as you point out, is not the case nearly often enough. I’ve recently read (in many very well-written but not entirely error-free posts on various technical communications blogs) that it’s the fault of something of a double standard in language. We don’t SPEAK with the same care with which we (well, most of us) WRITE. And the informality with which we speak varies with the audience. Today, when IM and Facebook status updates are serving the purpose spoken communication used to, we’re seeing the same relaxing of “The Rules” creeping into written communication more and more, and by more and more writers who 15 years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of writing so informally. Add to that the heavy reliance on spell-check instead of actually knowing how to spell (or how to look up words in a dictionary), and you have your linguapocalypse.

    People today, the experts tell me, don’t care how well you communicate. It’s what you communicate that counts. Me, I’ll keep trying for perfection, because somebody, somewhere, has to remember that “systematic” is not “symptomatic,” and that “Let’s eat, Grandma” is not at all the same as “Let’s eat Grandma.”

    1. Rhana, I don’t think perfection is the main objective, though I admire your goal. Speaking properly and using the language well should be ingrained from the earliest years of schooling, just as it was back in the old days. That this has been lost, where language misuse is acceptable in colleges and universities, is deplorable and could have serious consequences in the future.

  3. Sloppy language has long been one of my pet peeves. Many people don’t seem to pay any attention to what they are saying and even the new readers sometimes say astounding things. Words are powerful tools and should be treated with respect!

  4. Larry, thanks for your thoughtful article on the dumbing down of the English language. You covered the subject so eloquently that I have nothing to add. However, I did want to comment on your last paragraph about why it upsets you so much. Don’t despair Larry, you aren’t alone! There are tens of millions of Boomers out here who agree with you. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back again in many areas of society. Stranger things have happened…

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