She judges you when you use poor grammar

Amazon just informed me of a book, by Sharon Eliza Nichols, entitled I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-Ups (Paperback – September 29, 2009).

In fact, there’s a whole series of books around the “More Badder Grammar” rubric. Of course, I’ll order the book and review it more extensively (if such extensiveness is merited; it may not be).

But I already have an idea of what it’s about. Here’s the blurb on the site…/0312533012/ref=pe_375410_246941470…

“Correct grammar and proper spelling can be a challenge, and their absence can be a source of gleeful humor to everyone but the victim of a bad grammar attack. How do you react to sandwich boards, road signs, laminated instructions, and other written missives that are just not exactly what their creator meant? If you’ve ever (gently) judged anyone else for their linguistic failures, if you find yourself guffawing about the frequent confusion between “incontinence” and “inconvenience,” if you’ve ever been tempted to whip out your marker to add in or cross out apostrophes, and if you’ve refused to answer e-mails in which “your” and “you’re” are used interchangeably, this book is for you. With pictures culled from the Facebook group by the same name, I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar is a hilarious and eye-opening tour through restaurants and shops, through parking lots and along winding roads, and around the world.”

Ah, yes, who among us has not smirked at others’ language slip-ups; who has not judged another person by their speech or writing? As a forensic linguist, I try to be objective and descriptive – but I’m human and have my prejudices.

“Poor grammar” is everywhere

And there are so many kinds of mistakes for the Facebook community to make fun of!

Malapropisms abound (“see incontinence”). Unintentional obscenities, such as we often find on Chinese menus. Apostrophe errors, spelling mistakes, and homonym gaffes galore!

Possessive “it’s,” though it drives some people crazy, has been immortalized in print, sometimes surrounded by otherwise perfect prose.

And with quotation marks, some of the rules for which are somewhat subtle, it sometimes seems that people just make up their own usages, as in my favorite example, “LIVE” NUDE GIRLS. Does that mean zombies?

But let us choke back our laughter, wipe away our tears of mirth, and look in the mirror. As a linguist, I pick up on people’s speech quirks, and if you don’t think you have them, then you haven’t been listened to closely enough.

One of my wives said “because that” instead of “because” even though “because” does not require a clause-introducing conjunction. Annoying. Someone else I know prides herself on good English but constantly mispronounces peripheral (“periphreal”) and can neither say nor write “persona non grata.”

“Mistakes” = language variation and change

I’m also tuned in to language change. I hear “mistakes” that others may miss. I noticed when “hone in on” began to replace the original “home in on,” which is what pigeons and missiles do. Yes, I know, “hone” connotes sharpness and focus, but, it’s “HOME in on.” This may be a lost battle. “Hone in on” has already appeared in print.

“Infer”/”imply”? Forget it. Some dictionaries list them as synonyms. I still remember the difference, but the number of people like me is dwindling, until someday there’ll be only one who remembers, and in the movie version of the story, he’s played by a senescent Jeff Bridges.

Talk about differences that disappear: “transpire” used to mean ‘become known’ (‘breathe + ‘across,’ i.e., one person tells another). Now it means ‘happen’: “It transpired that profits fell.”

Over the history of English, many incipient changes were derided as errors or “improper,” “poor,” or “ungrammatical” English – but many variations eventually prevailed and became standard usage. Even as I write, “they” is rapidly gaining acceptance as the pronoun of choice with an indefinite antecedent: A person wants to pay the taxes they owe, and no more.

The basis of language judgments

So let’s all make fun of language mistakes – even though our language judgments are serious indeed…because the judgments are associated with the intellectual depth and level of education needed to avoid the error itself. This seems to be the dual thrust of the “bad grammar” books: mirth mixed with contempt.

Can’t keep “your” and “you’re” straight? How inattentive could you have been throughout the educational process that drummed these into you? The same for basic pairs of homonyms: years ago, one student wrote, in an evaluation of my teaching, that “Perlman spends a hole lot more time on mechanics than he needs to.” Apparently not enough.

On the other hand, malapropisms and spelling and quotation-mark errors may not be a sign of general lack of education and erudition, but just isolated flaws in the person’s mastery of literally thousands of rules and exceptions that define competence in written and spoken English.

Are you sure you don’t have linguistic tics that annoy people? Maybe you say “lay down” instead of “lie down.” Or you pronounce “February” and “library” with only one “r.” Or you use infer to mean ‘imply.’


Laugh if you must, but cut people some slack.

When the President tweets, he speaks from his heart. You want correct spelling too? To you, I say, “covfefe.”

PS. Although it probably isn’t mentioned in the book, there’s another important category of speech judgments: dialects and accents. In these times of division and mistrust, the way a person speaks English leads us to infer a great deal, much of it unjustified, about the person himself. That’s another whole post.