As students return to America’s classrooms this month, they will focus anew on the nuances of the English language. Beyond their teachers’ lessons, it unfortunately has become increasingly difficult for them to learn from prominent Americans.
Hearing her husband describe her as “the best-qualified non-incumbent I have ever had a chance to vote for in my entire life,” Mrs. William Jefferson Clinton told Iowa voters in July: “If I was as smart as Bill seems to think I am, I would say nothing.”
As the frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination should recognize, she should have said, “If I were as smart…” Senator Clinton (D., N.Y.) merely echoed the Democrats’ last standard- bearer.
“If I was president, this wouldn’t have happened,” John Kerry said during Hezbollah’s summer 2006 war on Israel.
These two glitches prove that graduating Yale will take you just so far. More important, it’s sad — but hardly surprising — to see people of Clinton and Kerry’s stature manhandle the subjunctive. The English language is under fire, as if it strolled into an ambush. It would be bad enough if this assault involved the slovenly grammar, syntax, and spelling of drooling boors. But America’s elites — politicians, journalists, and marketers who should know better — constantly batter our tongue.
The subjunctive, for instance, lies gravely wounded. Fewer and fewer Americans bother to discuss hypothetical or counterfactual circumstances using this verb mood.
“This would not be a close election if George Bush was popular,” Rep. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) told reporters in summer 2006, using “was,” not “were.” He then erred further: “This would not be a close election if there wasn’t a war in Iraq.”
Similarly, a HepCFight.com newspaper ad declared: “If Hep C was attacking your face instead of your liver, you’d do something about it.”
In an Ameritrade TV ad last year, a teenage girl begs her father for $80.
“80 bucks?” he asks.
“Well, there’s these jeans,” she replies, adding later: “There’s these really cool shoes.”
Forget the shopping spree. Dad should have sent his daughter upstairs without dinner until she mastered noun-verb agreement. Since they are plural, “there are” jeans and shoes, not “there’s,” the contraction for “there is.”
This is a burgeoning linguistic blunder.
“Where’s my snowshoes?” a blizzard-bound florist wondered on NBC Nightly News earlier this year.
United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told a Manhattan labor rally: “The muscle and the zeal that built our union is still with us.” As a teachers’ unionist, for crying out loud, Weingarten should know that muscle and zeal are still with us.
Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said, “There was no terrorists in Iraq.” Actually, there were, and Reid should have used that plural verb with those plural Islamofascists, even if he considered Baathist Iraq a terrorist-free zone.
In a taped, on-air promo, one cable news network’s announcer said, “Inside the U.N., there’s more than a thousand doors.” No, there are more than 1,000 doors.
In another odd grammatical glitch, the plural subjects of sentences interact with singular objects. Confusion follows.
Duane Reade, whose drug stores occupy virtually every other corner in Manhattan, has bought billboards around town. They say: “We pledge… prescriptions when you need it every time.” Of all the compounds available in the pharmacopoeia, one wonders which one “it” is.
As one cable TV correspondent reported: “Every day, 1.5 million Americans ride a 747.” Visualize the line for the bathroom on that jet. Make that “747s,” and the turbulence vanishes.
Just before January’s Golden Globe awards, a major newspaper’s headline read: “Stars put their best face forward for the Globes.” Wow! Eddie Murphy and Helen Mirren share a face?
A cable channel’s news crawl correspondingly revealed: “Iraqi authorities find at least 21 bodies, many with nooses around their neck.” Who knew so many Iraqis shared one neck?
Consider run-on sentences. A sign in a San Francisco MUNI streetcar recommends: “Please hold on sudden stops necessary.” At the local airport, a men’s room sign asks: “Please conserve natural resources only take what you really need.”
Would it kill people to spell properly?
A New York outdoor display company solicited new business by announcing in huge, black letters: “YUOR AD HERE.”
A cable-TV news ticker referred to the “World Tade Center.” Another explained that President Bush said he needs wiretaps “to defend Amercia.”
Such sloth generates nonsense. Ponder these items, all from cable-TV news crawls written by professional journalists:
Arab diplomats in August 2006 tried to change “a U.S.-French peace plan aimed at ending nearly a month of welfare.” Imagine if Hezbollah lobbed food stamps, rather than rockets, into Israel.
Another channel described a deadly, anti-Semitic attack at a Seattle “Jewfish” center.
That news outlet also reported that the pope planned a Vatican ceremony to “beautify” Mother Teresa on her road to sainthood.
And then there’s this beauty: “Disraeli troops kill two Hamas fighters” including one implicated “in the June capture of an Disraeli soldier.”
Today’s explosion of rotten English should motivate Americans to speak, write, and broadcast with greater care, clarity, and respect for grammar and spelling. Also, when even college graduates in Congress, newsrooms, and advertising agencies express themselves so sloppily, America’s education crisis becomes undeniable.
Is it pedantic to expect linguistic excellence? No. Unless Americans want English to devolve into an impenetrable amalgam of goofs and gaffes, protecting our language, like liberty itself, demands eternal vigilance.
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.