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Illiterate America: An Epidemic of Bad English

May 17, 2008
There is a plague among us. No, it's not fatal like ebola or avian flu. But it can your make your ears bleed- figuratively speaking- if you're an English freak like me. This scourge is referred to simply as bad English. Recently, its spread is being fueled by an army of illiterates taking to the internet and text messaging.

We, as Americans, do okay when we have a script off of which to read (i.e. presidential speeches, Oscar acceptance speeches). Anytime someone is off the script, however, watch for their English to fall apart like a house of rice paper cards.

As an education writer and an English-phile, I feel an overwhelming responsibility to straighten people out and preserve the Mother Tongue (which, I realize, is already a crazy hodge-podge of Germanic, Norman, and Celt and is absorbing words from other cultures worldwide almost on a daily basis). Okay, honestly, I just think bad English sounds ugly and uneducated.

My friends, people around the world are learning our language, believing it will open a world of opportunity for them. We grew up speaking it and take it for granted. It's high time we had the dignity and self-respect to at least get our language right. And that means actually thinking about what we are saying and eliminating those things that don't make sense or make us sound like morons.

Following are the five most common offenders. If you find yourself afflicted by these, check out our list of online English and business writing programs to inoculate yourself against the plague:

1. "Like" - From the Valley of San Fernando to nearly every social setting imaginable, the trademark multi-purpose linguistic tool of valley girls has now become a national phenomenon. People of all races and social classes use it. Small children, college professors, and celebrities use it. From construction workers in Atlanta to businessmen in Seattle, the word "like" has become, like, indispensable. It is used to mean "similar to," "like this," "uh," and as a simple precursor to another offender, "So." The problem with this overuse is that "like" only means one of these; it only means "similar to" or "to have a fondness toward."

2. "So" - Once upon a time, "so" meant something akin to "therefore" or, in its other use, "this much." People would say things like, "I didn't like the popcorn. So I left it in the bowl," or "You look so beautiful tonight." Recently, however, it has become acceptable and reasonable to say, without any logical precursor, "So I started my new job," or "I am, like, so over him." It just doesn't make sense. You don't just go up to your friend and say out of the blue, "Therefore, I started my new job." Sounds kind of weird, doesn't it, because you didn't say anything to lead into it?

3. "Speak to" - I grew up with people saying, "He can speak about that," or "I believe he is best equipped to speak regarding that issue." When did it become acceptable for people to say "speak to this" or "speak to that" when they really mean "speak about that"? You can speak to your grandma. You can speak to your friends. However, you can't speak to an issue or a subject. It's an inanimate, immaterial object with which you can't converse.

4. Punctuation - I think it is safe to say that over three-fourths of America's high school graduates have no idea what to do with their commas. Judging by the emails, advertisements, and blogs that float my way, most people think the comma stands for a dramatic pause. This causes them to throw in commas arbitrarily whenever they feel a pause coming on. Or, if they don't hear a pause in the sentence when it's spoken, they don't include the comma when they write the sentence.

For example, they write, "See you at the party guys," instead of the correct "See you at the party, guys." The extreme of this habit can be seen when people omit commas, semi-colons, and periods altogether in sentences like, "I saw the movie last night it was lame."

5. Question Confusion - The next time you watch a press conference or news interview, look out for this one. The person speaking will say, "We are in the process of determining what are we doing about the tax problem." This is, of course, incorrect. The speaker has forgotten that, although it sounds like a question, they are actually stating an object that sounds like question. It should have been said, "We are in the process of determining what we are doing about the tax problem." You'll usually see this in situations where someone is responding on the fly, and you'll see both highly educated and uneducated people make the same mistake.
About the Author
Education Guy enjoys helping students learn about online writing degrees and writing education. For more information about online english writing degrees, visit Classesandcareers.com.
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