Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Lonesome Language Crusade

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Lonesome Language Crusade

Article excerpt

I am a biology professor, but I have an impulsive ear for language. This slows my correcting of papers to a slog as I consistently get hung up on my students' grammar and spelling errors.

Let me first avow that I have a devoted affection for my students. They're earnest, funny, and (generally) hardworking. But their written English! It's gotten so bad that, with great trepidation, I was finally compelled to approach one young woman and gently ask, "Is English your first language?" Her offending sentence: "The genes is not cellular like a cells."

But grammar and orthographical horrors are not limited to students. There are some bad examples out there that periodically leave me shaking my head.

I am a longtime listener to NPR. It has informed and experienced commentators. But it is precisely because the context is professional that errors glare so starkly. Here are a few I've collected:

"Good Friday was the day when Jesus Christ was crucificated."

"Just to the east of Austria lies Hungaria."

"The police didn't expect the mob to be so fractitious."

And, just recently (in reference to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania), "The torpedo sunk the ship."

When I off-handedly voice my pique at faculty meetings, there is always that one well-meaning colleague who counsels me that language is protean; it changes with the years and the passing of generations.

I don't dispute this. I even admit that there are grammatical inconsistencies that, through incessant usage, have become familiar and accepted forms. When I knock on a door and someone asks, "Who is it?" I don't hesitate to answer, "It's me," as opposed to the stilted (but grammatically correct) "It's I."

In the early years of the English language there were many varieties of English and a plethora of ways to spell a given word. Even Shakespeare, to whom English owes so much, was spelled, variously, Shekespear, Shakspeare and Shakspere, before we settled on the current spelling. …

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