Grumble, Snarl, and Gnash

I’m wearing my curmudgeon coat right now. Today, I’m grumbling about language and the general decline of American literacy. Now, I’m not a trained grammarian. I can’t quote all the grammar rules, and I use sentence fragments when it suits me to achieve a certain informal tone. What I know about vocabulary and grammar I learned from voracious reading instead of formal training. Nevertheless, I wish to rant and therefore I shall.

The French language is lovely, precise, and protected. Consider a culture and an academy of letters that gets upset when the word “weekend” is allowed to creep into the language. “Le weekend” created quite a scandal a few decades ago. Zut alors! An English word being adopted wholesale? C’est incroyable, n’est-ce pas?

It’s probably safe to say that Americans are generally indifferent to such matters. Despite the steady bloat of government administration in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, most of us dislike bureaucracy and red tape. We take a native pride in dodging rules. Our culture is built on independence and doing things our way. We’ve made a mythology of it.

However, when it comes to our language, I think we might benefit from taking a page from the French and tightening our standards. After all, the English language is an intricate, complex, and fascinating tongue. English is filled with quirks, idioms, and inconsistencies. We enjoy a parterre of regular and irregular verbs. We possess an enormous vocabulary from which to draw. American English is constantly borrowing words and terms from other languages, and it flirts with British English without ever fully committing. (Post Revolutionary War, Daniel Webster was hired to alter American spelling from the English version. Therefore, gray is American; grey is British; pronunciation is the same.)

Okay, so given the richness of our linguistic heritage, why don’t we cherish it? Why don’t we preserve it? Why isn’t our educational system fighting tooth and nail to see that every jot and tittle is correctly learned by American youth? And why aren’t we bothering to protest as grubby, semi-literate gobbledygook crawls into our texts, emails, reports, letters, articles, and books?

Here’s the offending sentence and “word” that set me off on this diatribe: “Once the room is clutter-less, arrange the furniture for better flow.”

Clutter-less! I ask you, who in the world thought that one up? What writer, producing copy to be published in a national magazine, is so inept as to utilize such a ghastly term? Hyphenated, no less. (Undoubtedly because if you type “clutterless” without the hyphen, Word codes it in red to indicate a misspelling. And we wouldn’t want to misspell a word that doesn’t exist, would we?)

Quick, boys and girls! What’s the correct term?

That’s right. “Uncluttered.”

Let’s move beyond the hapless writer who stumped her toe and fell splat on this one. Let’s stamp indignantly on her editor, who let it go through. Let’s bellow at the magazine which published it. No, wait. They don’t have a letters-to-the-editor section. I could track down their email address on the Internet and send in a protest, but I doubt it would gain their attention.

After all, who cares? Uncluttered vs. clutter-less. What difference does it make?

A lot.

I could draw on the parable of the tiny leak in the big dike, but I’m sure you get the idea. An illiterate population is a population that can be–and will be–controlled. Just give it time.

After wincing through novels whose authors don’t know the correct usage of “may” and “might,” and whose copyeditors obviously don’t either, I try to console myself by thinking of the past–say, Shakespeare’s era, when spelling wasn’t standardized and even the bard himself was wont to vary the appearance of his own name. Alas, such consolation fails to soothe me because American spelling has been standardized since the establishment of national public education. At least it was until the combined onslaughts of advertising slogans and phone texting. Now I understand that some language arts teachers allow students to spell as they please, as long as the teacher can guess the intended word.

Is that progress? Looks like regression to me.

Another peeve of mine is usage of the verb “shine.” It’s irregular, which means that the past tense should be “shone,” yet more and more frequently it appears as “shined.”

Maybe that doesn’t bother you, but when I read it, the experience is akin to watching a scorpion scuttle across my foot.

Then there’s the misspelling of the term, “all right.” It’s been clipped and smashed together into “alright.” Am I the only individual who finds that visually offensive?

When I hammer students into spelling all right correctly, they blunder forward and alter the spelling of “altogether” into the incorrect “all together.”

I see the logic of what they’re doing–poor dears. But it’s wrong, wrong, wrong! The English language isn’t about logic. It’s about flavor and spunk and vivacity. It’s contradictory and odd. It’s a hodge-podge of all that it’s borrowed and adapted. Without the peculiar spellings that make no sense unless you burrow deep into Anglo-Saxon history and Norman conquest and the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, and Ellis Island, we are bland, featureless drones tapping out acronyms and calling it good.

It is not good. It is pap, when we could be eating steak. And not just steak, mind you, but filet mignon.

Clutter-less … phooey!


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16 responses to “Grumble, Snarl, and Gnash

  1. I’m an ‘alright’er. I use it in dialogue. This really stepped on my toes and has me thinking.

  2. Kay

    Would you consider that, right or wrong, the writer used “clutter-less” to mean “not completely and absolutely neat, but less cluttered and as good as you can make it for now” rather than “uncluttered”?
    A quick online search shows at least two websites using “clutterless” and even a magazine called Clutter-Less. As in “not clutter-free but clutter-less.” Perhaps this is part of a trend. I’m no linguist but adding “-less” to indicate “less” rather than “none” actually makes sense on some level.
    Granted, the example you shared might have been due to sloppy deadline writing and careless (but not care-less) editing. They could have used “uncluttered–or at least less cluttered” and avoided this kerfuffle. Worst case, the writer has heard/seen it being misused by someone else and now thinks it’s correct. And someone else will see it this time and repeat it somewhere else. The error perpetuates. (Some would say the language grows and thrives from such mutations, but that’s for another discussion.)
    Or, it could be the writer improvised a word because it suited the purpose, the tone and the flow of the piece.
    Because of these considerations, would you be inclined to give any leeway on this one? I agree that standards need to be raised and maintained, but a gray area must exist in order for that vivacity (Latin root: long-lived, vigorous, high-spirited, from vivere to live) you spoke of to add color to our language and our reading experiences.
    I’m glad you brought the subject up. I will share this post at my next writing group meeting.
    Thank you for your very informative blog. I’ve only been a subscriber since January, but went back through your whole archives at that time and look forward to future knowledge and insights from you.

    • Thanks for sharing your insights on this matter! You’re being very kind and open-minded toward the writer I picked on. Perhaps you’ve gauged her intent correctly; however, I still maintain that the meaning could have been conveyed by “uncluttered” or “less cluttered.” You’re correct in showing that they have different meanings. Isn’t it fun to reach for the precision our language offers?

      As for the vivacity of words, I’m all for color and linguistic playfulness, but I fear we’ve grown too lax in assuming a writer’s mutations must, in fact, be correct. Perhaps we need to rein in such impulsiveness. Not obliterate it, but use it less freely. Otherwise, as you’ve indicated, a writer sees an error, assumes it’s correct, and adopts it, thus perpetuating the mistake.


  3. Well, good! I figure that “all right” is going the way of the dodo bird, but I try to do what I can.

  4. And here I was going to go with “clutter-free”, to give emphasis not on the clutter but its absence, and to give a nice hard word on which to pause for the comma.

    My feeling about the purity of English was severely impacted when a romantic interest successfully defended “hippopotamuses” by citing a dictionary that listed it as an accepted plural. All you have to do to change English is to have company in your erroneous view, and eventually it becomes standard. And the references amend to keep up.

    And for those who really demand purity in English, I refer Gentle Reader to Douglas Hofstadter’s matchless essay on the subject:

    • I have no objection to “clutter-free.”

      You’re so right about the wishy-washy attitude these days in letting public usage dictate what is and isn’t standard. I guess we might as well throw all punctuation away and just rite 4 rselves.


      • It’s the price of a living language. It grows … and sometimes, it gets ill.
        Had you read Hofstadter’s personpaper on purity in language? It had a real impact on me as I weighed the traditional usages and their assumptions about gender. Sometimes evolution is good. But I don’t deny we see devolution, too.

  5. I read Hofstadter’s personpaper today, based on your recommendation. He makes his point quite effectively, doesn’t he? Beyond the frequent absurdity of so-called political correctness–which may have sprung originally from compassionate intent but has too often mutated into intellectual fascism–I’m reminded of my constant battle with students over the correct antecedent for using the pronoun “they.”

    These students are so conditioned by society to avoid the usage of “he” as a standard pronoun that they think of every singular individual as he/she. Unwilling to use that clumsy combo, however, they then jump to “they.”

    So I’m combatting sentences such as “When the reader finds a passage boring, they stop reading.”

    In vain do I try to convey the apparently astonishing and inconceivable concept that it’s acceptable to utilize a singular pronoun of either gender.

    In other words, by this push to avoid belittling the female gender in the written word, we’ve achieved the inability to write correct noun-pronoun agreement.

    No evolvement in that, is there?


    • In legal teaching, they cheat. They assume that all the parties are corporations and use “it”. We’ll never sell that in a romance!

      If you have a person who has a gender, “it” is wrong. But “she” is wrong for men and “he” is wrong for women and “they” is neutral for gender but wrong on number. We’re trying to force gender-neutrality on a language that isn’t gender-neutral. And we don’t have a singular pronoun with indeterminate but non-neuter gender. We could invent an answer like “Ms.” for marriage-status, but it’d have the same problem as “Ms.” and require generations to settle in. It won’t help today.

      In other languages, the problem may be different. For example, in a language where a bus is always “he” and an auto is always “it” but a car is “he” and all cats are “she” while all dogs are “he”, the use of a pronoun might not be thought to be so loaded. But in an era in which each word is parsed for prejudice, we have tough choices.

      I have a WIP in which I don’t want to announce the gender of a newly-introduced character until the narrator pays attention to it, and it was interesting to figure out how to write without pronouns for a few pages. Then I needed to conceal the character’s name until the narrator began to learn parts of it, and the limitation was again a source of thought. This time, for chapters.

      My heart is with you that we shouldn’t butcher our language to coddle people who complain without merit that we secretly harbor animus against them when we say “Man is mortal” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But awareness of the problem is the first step to doing something about it.

      Preferably, without relying on hippopotamuses for our answer.

  6. While looking at Strunk & White’s comments on the use of “while” I noted that by 1918, the “they” peeve was already irritating thinkers on English writing style.

    Strunk and White conclude on “they” for the unknown singular: “Use he with all the above words, unless the antecedent is or must be feminine.”

    • I never argue with Strunk & White. It’s the best reference out there for these sorts of issues.


      • Do you have any idea how often I’ve seen “she” used for this purpose lately? It avoids the “Ms.” problem (not being a novel word), and it staves off the people who assert “he” is sexist, and it’s clear enough to readers. It’s just exactly the opposite of what we’ve historically done. It seemingly seeks to placate the gender-conscious by offering something that’s equal but different.

        So is “she” for the indeterminate like hippopotamuses, or is it less offensive? Worse?

        It’s clear there’s a problem current authors are trying to solve, to keep their audience from hanging up on “he” in ways that might not have been as much a problem in 1918. In the effort to reach their audience with a message that isn’t related to the he/she/it/they discussion, they’ll surely try every possible solution. Which ultimately wins out is something of a trick. In some fields (using “it” in legal writing by pretending everyone’s a corporation) the fix is easy, but in others we should expect ongoing experimentation. Not all of it good, perhaps. But surely we’ll learn by watching what succeeds.

        I like Strunk and White, but looking a few entries down from “they”, one finds “viewpoint”. Maybe in 1918 it wasn’t a word, but it doesn’t seem a corruption now, does it? And what does it do to the strength and rhythm of sentences to swap it for “point of view” as S&W would have us do? Doesn’t the “of” lengthen sentences and complicate the thinking required to decipher them – to the detriment of foreceful and efficient prose? Some evolution isn’t bad. At least, from my point of view.

        The trick is telling evolution from devolution. Maybe in ninety years the pronoun gender problem will feel like “viewpoint” does now, with a widely-accepted solution. At the moment, it’s still a problem. Maybe a little worse for the male writer, but never a deal-killer. The show must go on!

  7. You make valid points here. I don’t have a problem using “she” from time to time. It’s no different for a male reader to see a reference to “she” than for a female reader to see a reference to “he.” And as long as the language standard remains “he,” I have no issue with it. I’m strong enough in my identity to know that the pronoun is referring to humans in general, and I don’t feel crushed or oppressed by its usage in that context. All I ask is that we seek noun/pronoun agreement in our sentences.

    Those who seek to skew language to fit their agendas or who load meanings of bias or oppression that probably weren’t intended are certainly giving writers of today a challenge. Too bad English isn’t like French in assigning gender to every object out there!


  8. “All I ask is that we seek noun/pronoun agreement in our sentences.”

    Yeah, this is the real beef. There are some with strong reasons to eliminate gender reference, but they can often solve their problems within the rules by simply using plural subjects.

    I did see National Geeographic recently use “she” in a large-print quote in its magazine while reading yesterday about exploration. I always notice this choice, and it always comes off as a slightly-distracting off-topic comment, but it’s not offensive and it’s grammatically correct even through it’s a comment on style I wasn’t looking for. With frequency, this will probably become less jarring. As you say, it’s objectively no different than arbitrarily assigning “he” to this role.

    “Too bad English isn’t like French in assigning gender to every object out there!”

    Although in German, your male cat is “she”. How can your randy and territorial Tom be a “she” and keep the taste and feel of your tale? It makes my head skip tracks to experience this in real life. Maybe native speakers solve it by unloading meaning from pronouns … but aren’t the meanings loaded into words what makes them fun to use?

    Maybe Germans think differently about what gender means for people and for everything else. The word “to eat” differs between humans and everything else: humans “essen” and animals “fressen”. Maybe they feel something similar with their pronouns, and don’t feel the gender mismatch in their pets’ pronouns. Anyone know?

    (As I type, children have played a song: “And hippopotamuses like me too!” Alas.)

    • If you grow up in a language that assigns gender to words, then you probably don’t think twice about mismatches. It would be confusing only to non-native speakers trying to learn the language.

      As for the hippopotami issue, I think the biggest assault on standard usage has come from twin invaders–pop music lyrics and modern advertising. Rhymes are forced and spellings are skewed to grab attention. Some are quite clever, but the problem comes from how pervasive they are in multiple forms of media so that individuals who are young or indifferent or poorly educated start to think that “hippopotamuses” is correct.

      Alas, indeed.

      🙂 Deb

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