Dear Mr. Dad: When I was in elementary school, there was a much greater emphasis on English grammar and usage. I remember diagramming sentences and memorizing spelling rules. Does anyone do that anymore? My third grader—who goes to a very expensive private school—comes home with notes from his teacher (or school newsletters) that frequently contain grammar and spelling mistakes. I’m worried that our kids are going to come out of school completely illiterate. Is there any hope?
A: Depends on what you mean by hope. The English language is a living, growing thing—just think of all the new words and ways of using them that have crept into our dictionaries over the past few years: Green and friend are now verbs (as in “greening your home” and “I’m going to friend you”). And five years ago, had you ever heard of webinar, ecotourism, emoticon, netbook, or notspot? We’re never going to be able to stop our language from evolving—and I think that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an attempt to at least use it properly. People (and by “people” I mean “plenty of native English speakers”) make dozens of usage errors. Some are kind of entertaining, but others can actually distort what’s being said. Here are a few of the ones that drive me batty.
“Me and Jane were texting last night,” or “Report your concerns to the editor and I.” Both are wrong. “I” is the subject, the person doing something. “Me” is the object, the recipient of the action. The test? Reword the sentence without the other noun (person) and let your ear be the judge. “Me am texting” and “report to I” both flunk.
“Its not a problem if the earth stops spinning on it’s axis.” “It’s” (with the apostrophe) is always a contraction, meaning that two words—it and is—are joined into one. “Its” (without the apostrophe) is always a possessive, meaning it belongs to something. The test? If you replace “its” or “it’s” with “it is” and the sentence sounds right, you need the apostrophe. “It is not a problem” passes; “spinning on it is axis” doesn’t.
“I get dozens of emails from mom’s and dad’s.” Again, an apostrophe usually indicates a contraction, in this case “mom is” or “dad is,” and “email from mom is and dad is” is clearly wrong. Regular plurals don’t need apostrophes. If you want to talk about mom’s dress, the apostrophe is correct. But a group of moms (or dads or pigeons or violins) should always be apostrophe-free.
“Who’s socks are these?” Yet another contraction vs. possessive issue “Whose” is the possessive. “Who’s” is a contraction. The test? Replace “whose” or ”who’s” with “who is” or “who has.” “Who is socks are these?” doesn’t work. “Who is the grammar nut?” does.
We’re running out of space here, so I can’t get to some of the really annoying word-usage mistakes, such as less vs. fewer, then vs. than, effect vs. affect, they’re vs. their vs. there, disinterested vs. uninterested, accept vs. except, and flush out vs. flesh out. But we’ll talk about them in future columns.
Until then, I suggest that you gently (and privately) point out to your son’s teacher the mistakes in the materials he’s bringing home from school. Keep in mind that errors are incredibly common—and are no indication of intelligence. But since they’re everywhere, you’ll have no shortage of teachable moments, when you can point out mistakes and teach your son how to avoid them.