The Grammarphobia Blog

Lingua frankness

Q: What’s to be done about the poor state of English? It seems most people just don’t care if they appear uneducated. No, I don’t envision myself as a defender of English who goes about righting the wrongs perpetrated by illiterates. I merely find the butchered writing I run into annoying and frequently difficult to decipher.

A: What can you do about the poor English that you run into, or that runs into you? I can think of a few things.

(1) When you see an example of bad grammar or usage in an advertising campaign, write a letter to the CEO of the company (don’t bother with the advertising department).

A friend of mine recently wrote to Thomas J. Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Allstate, to complain about a full-page ad in the New York Times that read, “How long of a retirement should you plan for?”

She pointed out the ungrammatical “of.” Not only did she get a letter of thanks, but the FOLLOWING WEEK, the ad was run again reading “How long a retirement should you plan for?” No “of”! The lesson: Complain, and go straight to the top.

(2) Take an interest in what your local school board is doing. Are the schools teaching grammar? Are children’s mistakes being corrected – in speech as well as in written papers? If not, why not?

(3) If you get an incoherent email, send it back with a request for clarification. If you can’t make heads or tails of some garbled sentence, say it doesn’t make sense and ask for a translation!

In short, you do what you can. These may be little things, but if enough people did them, we might see a difference.

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