Working in radio does not give us license to trash the English language. After all, we’re supposed to be professional communicators, right? We radio folks may find it easier to hide our misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors behind a microphone but sooner or later they’re bound to be a source of embarrassment.
I was an English major in college, aspiring to be a teacher.
I ended up in advertising.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. Advertising and marketing involve a great deal of reading and writing, consulting and coaching. So, it’s not all that far removed from teaching. It’s just a different kind of classroom.
Reason I mention the English major thing is because I’m going to climb up on my soapbox and rant a bit.
Because if you’re going to invest your hard-earned money on advertising, or if you’re going to take the time to write a blog or send a newsletter, you most certainly don’t want the things you write leaving others with a poor impression.
I happen to live in a college town, where one might reasonably expect to find a higher level of education among its citizens, or at least a proclivity for maintaining high standards in the area of communication, especially in our mother tongue.
One had better be prepared for disappointment.
I see with astonishing frequency newspaper headlines, articles, and advertisements (created by the newspaper’s own employees); reader board signs on businesses; posters on bulletin boards; business cards, brochures, newsletters and professional correspondence, etc., rife with errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax.
The widespread use of texting and email has fostered a tendency toward sloppiness, the former through its use of abominable abbreviations (“Hpe UR w/me on ths, K?”) and the latter by its disdain for proper punctuation, e.g., the non-use of capital letters at the beginning of sentences and of periods when bringing that sentence to a full stop. (instead we like just run our thoughts together kind of like this and i hope you’re following what i’m sayin OK because i havent got a lot of time to be treating this like a letter i mean after all its just email right? hey see you later ‘K? bye”)
Should an email, particularly a business email, be accorded the same treatment as a conventional letter, typed or hand-written?
Should a blog post be checked for spelling, grammar, and punctuation before sending it into the ether?
Do you recall hearing the radio spot for a learning product called Verbal Advantage? It began, “People do judge you by the words you use.” Why? Because it’s true. They do.
The famous direct response copywriter Maxwell Sackheim made a fortune selling the mail order Sherwin Cody English Course by means of newspaper and magazine ads that grabbed readers with the headline: “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?” Considered one of the top advertising campaigns of all time, the Sherwin Cody ad ran (largely unchanged) for over 40 years, because it pulled in business. And why? Because most people make mistakes in English!
That doesn’t mean you and I have to do so. But we can’t fix something if we don’t recognize it as broken. So, let’s look at the most common errors, with a view toward eliminating them in our advertising and correspondence.
ITS vs. IT’S
It’s is a contraction of “It is.” Whereas its is the possessive form of the neuter pronoun. If in doubt, remember that there should be consistency with its masculine and feminine counterparts; think: “his, hers, its,” or “he’s, she’s, it’s.” See how nicely they fit?
THE ERRANT APOSTROPHE: CONFUSING POSSESSIVES WITH PLURALS
This is a close relative of the previous problem. I alluded to it in the title of this blog post, writing “Mistake’s” instead of Mistakes. This problem is so pervasive, there are even websites dedicated to exposing it! This, more than any other error in punctuation, makes the offender look like…well, a hick. There, I said it. I’m sorry. But it’s true.
Honestly, if this needs further explanation, a class in remedial English may be worth considering.
THERE, THEIR, and THEY’RE
One’s a place, one’s a possessive, and one’s a contraction. No reason to confuse or misuse them.
ACCEPT vs. EXCEPT
The former means to take, the latter means to leave out. Accept no exceptions.
AFFECT vs. EFFECT
When used as verbs, the former means to influence, the latter to bring about a result. My words may affect your next blog post, but their effect remains to be seen.
PRINCIPAL vs. PRINCIPLE
Principal means main, first in importance; principal is also the title given to heads of schools or business partnerships. Principle is a rule, proposition, or governing belief.
OF vs. HAVE
I would have preferred not to bring this up, but whenever I see something like: “I would of come to your party if I’d known about it,” it makes me want to throttle the person who wrote it, bless her heart. Need I say more?
DIFFERENT THAN vs. DIFFERENT FROM
This will be a bone of contention in some quarters, but I side with the purists. Technically, one thing differs FROM another. It does not differ THAN another. Therefore, my opinion will be different from the opinions of others who don’t see the problem.
MANGLED AND MISCONSTRUED EXPRESSIONS (PHRASEOLOGY 101)
It’s “one and the same” and not “one in the same.”
“By and large,” not “by in large” (although if you’re giving somebody shopping instructions, as for clothing, “buy in large” might fly).
“For all intents and purposes” is correct; notice the symmetry between intent and purpose. There’s no such thing as an intensive purpose. So, please don’t say “for all intensive purposes,” okay?
“Unique” means “one of a kind.” Literally. It is not a comparative. It is not a superlative. It is an absolute. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that something is “more unique” or “one of the most unique…”
JUST IN CASE, NO MIXED CASES
When used as the subjects of a sentence, the correct personal pronouns are “he,” “she,” “I,” “we,” and “they.” When used as objects, direct or indirect, they are “him,”, “her,” “me,” “us,” and “them.” Be careful when combining pronouns in a sentence to keep the cases consistent. For example, you might be inclined to say, “They’re going to meet Sheila and I after work.” It should be “Sheila and me.”
An easy technique one can use to avoid making this mistake is, in this example, to leave Sheila out of it. You wouldn’t say, “They’re going to meet I after work.” It sounds stupid. Adding “Sheila and” to the sentence won’t make it any less so. “They’re going to meet me after work” is the way you’d really say it, right? Well, you can insert “Sheila and” and it will still be right. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.
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I keep quite a few reference works at hand when I sit down to write. Some, like my thirty-year-old Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary (which, having survived the 1987 fire that gutted the radio station, I had rebound, though it still smells faintly of smoke), might not be all that useful to you unless you are writing poetry or a radio commercial.
However, I can recommend without hesitation two excellent and accessible volumes:
EATS SHOOTS & LEAVES by Lynne Truss is both an engaging read and valuable guide to proper punctuation.
COMMON ERRORS IN ENGLISH USAGE by Paul Brians, a former Pullman resident and Professor of English at Washington State University, is a gem! It will enable you to avoid the most common pitfalls in spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and usage of our native language.
Words, whether spoken or written, are the currency of communication. Invest them wisely; spend them well.