Drum roll please…

At long last, it’s time to reveal the Big Kahuna, the Top Dog, the Numero Uno Bête Noire of Summer 2011. Before I name the Best in Show, I would like to offer a final justification for why I’ve put this list together. First of all, I had no intentions of trying to scold anyone or of suggesting that I am rigidly prescriptive about language. In fact, I often enjoy the way language rules can be broken when we are being resourceful or creative because this might result in new meanings or useful distinctions.

I also wanted to make clear that I focus on the errors that native speakers make with their own language. Of course there are some learners of English that may make the same mistakes, but confusing grammatical structures in a second language is understandable. Learning another language is a huge undertaking and errors are a natural part of the process. Native speakers have less reason to be confused, especially with the more basic structures that should have been learned in elementary school.

Essentially, these are errors that are generally not made out of ignorance of obscure forms, imperfect learning of a second language, or creatively bending rules for effect. These are errors which can be avoided with some more awareness of how we write. Simply put, I would just like people to pay more attention. And then spread the word!

The issues I take with the items on my list have to do with their negative effect on writing. I firmly believe that clarity in writing should be a major, if not the single most important, consideration when choosing words and sentences. If clarity can be maintained along with style, so much the better, and the combination of both is what good writers strive for and actually produce. Less skilled writers may achieve clarity, but their writing becomes dry and dull. Others may sacrifice clarity or substance for the sake of overly stylized writing, and their writing suffers for it.

It’s a dubious honor to be Bête Noire Blue Ribbon winner. (image courtesy of ckroberts61 via flickr.)

Conflating count and non-count nouns, misused apostrophes or misplaced modifiersclichés, in varying degrees, all affect the clarity of the writing or reveal a sloppiness in style. And then there is one issue that puts the others to shame: conditional abuse. This standout can be mangled in not one, not two, but three different ways. For the diversity of errors one can commit while using it, the conditional has clinched the Number One seed.

Error 1: ‘Sounding it out’ doesn’t always work. Our dear English language loves to leave out sounds as we speak. It’s a way to cram in more words and meaning in less time. It’s why we say gonna or wanna, which we all do whether we admit it or not. The process is called elision, or the omission of one or more sounds in speech.

Elision in the conditional happens when we use past tense conditionals. “I could have been a contender” often reduces have to ve or a in speech: ‘I could’ve been‘ or ‘I coulda been‘, though we generally only write the former. The problem here is that another function word reduces to a similar sounding contraction: ‘kind of‘ becomes ‘kinda. Again, we generally don’t write this, but we say it all the time.

Yes, yes, you could have been a contender. Now step away from the pasta fagioli. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Because the pronunciation of the elision, a common mistake when students try to write the long form of the conditional is, “I could of been a contender.” It was a common enough mistake that many spell-checkers will now fix it automatically while we type. This may seem like a godsend to many, but for me it just muddies the waters. Who knows how many of my students had tried to write ‘could of‘ but were corrected without them even noticing? How can they ever begin to correct themselves if they never get the chance to?

Error 2: Know your verb forms. The conditional construction requires the form of the verb commonly known as the past participle. In verb form tables, this is usually the third column, and in some textbooks I used overseas, it was actually referred to as ‘Verb Three’. For regular verbs, this is indistinguishable from the past tense form: both forms get a simple ed suffix.

This is not true for irregular verbs. For example, if I say “I should have waxed my car this afternoon”, any error in thinking would not be reflected because the forms are the same. However, using an irregular verb will reveal the error: “I should have went to the car wash.” Of course it should be ‘should have gone‘, but this mistake is distressingly common. Most people are aware of the form gone and even use it correctly elsewhere. Similarly, they wouldn’t dream of saying “He could have was a contender.” And yet, the Past Tense form often makes an appearance in the conditional when a past participle is called for. Imagine how quickly a seizure is induced at the sight of ‘should of went‘!

Error 3: Yes, you can say ‘had had’. The most egregious error found with the conditional construction is one that I see made not just by my poorer student writers, but also by journalists, politicians, and even my fellow English teachers. These are people who would never dream of writing ‘could of‘ or ‘should have went’, and who even know to use the last bastion of the subjunctive verb form in English: ‘if I were‘ instead of ‘if I was‘. And yet, I’ve heard many sentences along the lines of: “If he would have just done the research paper, he would have passed the class.”

Here’s the problem with that sentence. The conditional is generally expressed in two separate clauses, one dependent (the ‘if‘ condition) and one independent (the ‘then‘ result). In a past tense unreal conditional sentence, the dependent clause should contain the Past Perfect, not the modal. So the correct sentence would read, “If he had only done the research paper, (then) he would have passed the class.” There are some other options; in informal spoken contexts, people will often use the simple past: “If he did the research paper, he would have passed.” Or, if the past unreal event had current or future results, you might end up with, “If he had done the research paper, he could be taking the final exam right now.”  The change, however, is not in the dependent clause, but in the independent clause. The only options for that clause remain the Past Perfect or the Simple Past.

It’s amazing how many people misuse the conditional in this way. Even style manuals have to specifically instruct people not to say ‘would have + verb’ in the ‘if’ clause. The problem is not new. The 1965 Fourth Edition of An Index to English writes, “The use of would have after if rather than had, though increasing, is not established in Standard written English.” (Perrin, p.215)  I put the phrase ‘if I would have done‘ into Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool for finding the frequency of specific words or phrases in a corpus of books from 1800 to the current day. Here’s what came up:

‘if I would have done’ from 1800 to present

Similar charts come up when I substitute ‘done‘ with a different verb. The most interesting graph is for ‘if I would have been‘:

‘if I would have been’ from 1800 to present

Clearly, the misuse has been a consistent behavior for a significant amount of time, and yet it is still marked as incorrect. While the graph is interesting, it only tells us of the frequency of usage during the past 200 years in a relatively limited number of written documents. It tells us nothing of the context or the reasons why it was misused.

The conditionals can be confusing. Sometimes we can get all twisted up in the mechanics of what could have been, what conditions had to have been in place, and how odd it sounds to see ‘had had‘ (as in “If Timmy had had a cell phone, Lassie wouldn’t have had to save him all the damn time!”) Don’t get started on mixed conditionals! (“If Lassie hadn’t been ‘playing vet’ with Rin Tin Tin, Timmy would not have been living in the well for the past 20 years, and would be a strapping young man by now!”)

This brings me full circle to the idea of clarity. If a writer is getting tangled up in her own confusing over the conditional, how must her reader feel? Are you really saying what you think you’re saying? Isn’t it worth the trouble to just step back, think about that sentence a little more, and check if you’re not certain? It should come as no surprise that I always vote for double checking. Honestly, I’d probably even encourage a triple-check. Just to be really sure. But I don’t expect everyone to be as neurotic as I am about the issue, so I’ll stop short of suggesting more than that (to anyone else but myself).

So there you have it! My very first Top Five list, inspired by Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity and my geeky love of grammar. Did I miss anything? Do you have your own Bêtes Noires you’d like to share? Any suggestions or requests for future grammar discussions or Top Five lists?

21 thoughts on “Drum roll please…

  1. That misuse of conditional (in place of subjunctive) is one of my main peeves, too. However, my top five would certainly include the use of “I” instead of “me” (as in “They invited my husband and I to dinner.”)

    I like to show off by making up dialogue which correctly uses the phrase “If I was…” Maybe that would be an interesting subject for you.

    Fowler’s Modern English Usage has a great discussion on subjunctive.

    • I’ll definitely look at Fowler’s. I’m always on the prowl for a good style guide.

      I hate the overuse of “I” instead of “me” as well, though I do admit that it’s funny to see people try to make themselves look better by using ‘correct’ grammar, only to use the incorrect form! Hrm…that does give me an idea for doing a post about ‘corrections’ that are actually incorrect.

      I definitely want to see some of these dialogues using “If I was…” correctly. I’m going to be thinking about that one for a while. Great challenge!

      Wow, thanks for such a great comment! :)

  2. There are so many things that I dislike about the way that the mass media mistreats grammar (and good sense) that it would be impossible to list them here. I really am disappointed with the frequency of simple stories becoming illegible at the hands of journalists and newsreaders. Television has a lot to answer for.
    I have been following your blog for a while now and would love to read what you have to say about the prosody of language. How important is the meter of language to the way that it is read or recalled?

    • Television really does have a lot to answer for, you’re right. And whatever it started, the internet has certainly perpetuated! The good thing is that these media are just tools and we can use our powers for good as well :)

      Prosody is an interesting topic and your suggestion is a really good one. I will definitely look into that and work something up.

      Thanks so much for the comment and the idea! If the rest of the comments are as good as yours and SeeC’s, I’m going to be one happy girl :)

  3. I am increasingly fed up with people’s inability to spell correctly! Or misusing words that are homonyms….In the past two days, I’ve read two blogs subbing incite (!) for insight. The word cache has become mistaken for (?) cachet. Manse has now replaced mansion — I understood manse to be a rectory, not a huge, luxurious house.


    I’m a career journalist, so blaming the media for dumbing down doesn’t impress me much…write an email, make a call, let the editors know this is annoying to you. I can assure you that most journalists write well, but their/our work is subject to many editors’ input.

    • Spelling certainly has always been an issue in English. Even Noah Webster tried to simplify it (though to be fair, part of the reason was to rid American English of its British roots, thus the removal of u from words like ‘color’ and the double letter in words like ‘traveled’). And George Bernard Shaw championed simplified spelling as well. But I do wonder if it’s getting even worse, and if so, why. Could spell-check really be partly to blame or is that too easy of a scapegoat.

      I can’t speak for others, but when I say ‘media’, I don’t mean just ‘journalists’. Editors are part of the media too, right? When I see the atrocity that is our college newspaper, I blame the editor first, and then the faculty adviser for appointing a student editor that can’t recognize bad writing. And certainly when people complain about the internet, it doesn’t necessarily involve professional writers or journalists at all, but there is an astonishing number of errors on websites that get tons of traffic. Exposure to mistakes isn’t solely responsible of course, but I don’t see how this doesn’t have an effect on a child’s or teenager’s development of grammar and spelling habits.

      I’m curious – and this really is an honest question even if it may sound like it’s combative – how seriously would an editor take a complaint about grammar or spelling issues? How many people would have to complain before anything were actually done to improve matters? I’m sure this would also depend on the size of the publication, the format…not to mention the complaint as well (I’m sure shrillness isn’t a good feature of a complaint!) If the answer is encouraging, then I have me some letters to write! :)

  4. Great post! My college alarm system is tested periodically. It then proceeds to tell us, “If this would have been a real emergency. . .” It makes me mad every time, and no one understands why I get so upset. You’d think our very good English department would have made the security people fix it by now.

    • It IS an emergency! A grammar emergency! :)

      That would drive me insane. I think we should follow the advice of broadsideblog above and complain about mistakes more often. You should go to the English department or the administration and keep bugging them until they ask security to fix it.

  5. I will admit, I have, well, not so good grammar (or spelling, or punctuation for that matter). I believe I often misuse ‘I’ for ‘me’ and I have forgotten so many grammar rules that were not really drilled properly into my head in school. Not that I’m blaming school for all of my shortcomings. I used to be a great speller, but I think with the digital age and spell checker, I have been going downhill. I do always get frustrated though when I spell ‘colour’ and that nasty little red line appears telling me it’s spelled wrong. Maybe in the States, but not where I live thank you very much. ^_^

    I guess since I am posting a lot on my blog I should really brush up on my grammar. I’ve been told I write how I speak. I think part of this is just me rebelling against all the academic papers I had to write in university. That and laziness.

    Great post. It has inspired me to at least think about becoming closer to grammar. :D

    • I’m laughing because I used to get annoyed at the same thing in reverse: when I lived abroad, ‘color’ was always marked as being spelled incorrectly. Even some of my students told me that I had spelled it wrong!

      See, and just thinking more about grammar was the only thing I really hoped people would do after reading the list. I never wanted people feel like they needed to apologize or feel bad. I think for the most part, people try to get things right. The thing that gets me crazy is what I see all too often in my students, which is a complete lack of interest. When I ask, for example, for an explanation of the there/their/they’re difference, everyone in the class knows what the correct usage is, but then they go ahead and use these words wrong in an essay. They just don’t pay attention, and that is what I really object to more than the mistakes themselves. I respect anyone who is actually trying to pay attention :) And having a bit of a stubborn streak myself, I can also respect the rebellion ;)

  6. I was looking forward to this last part of your list. The whole series of posts has been not only enjoyable (quite like everything else you write!), but very useful to me. It’s interesting how many people make similar mistakes in Italian (for example with dangling participles). Of course, I’m talking about native speakers too – I’ve never thought you were referring to anyone else. My own shyness about writing in English depends only on my tendency to do everything perfectly – which, of course, means I hate doing things in which I know I could make mistakes. But that’s not the best approach in communicating, is it? :)
    In Italian, conditional sentences are a real bête noire for many. People keep substituting the second conditional with the first one, not using the subjunctive form because it’s the most difficult even for native speakers. Personally, the fact speakers tend to reduce the meaning range and depth of language just because they don’t think about what they’re saying drives me mad.

    • I’m really glad they were helpful to you, and even happier that you enjoyed reading them, too! I’m the same way about wanting sentences to be perfectly formed in my head before they come out of my mouth or onto the paper. It’s one of the reasons I’m not fluent in the other languages I know.

      What you say about “reducing the meaning range and depth of language” is so true! I’m always telling my students that the whole point of speaking or writing is because they want someone else to understand a message that they want to convey, and what will truly convey that message? Sloppy, careless language that only they can understand? Or more carefully crafted language using more precise words and structures? I think too many of them just don’t care enough about it to pay attention, and that attitude just baffles me.

  7. Although I am a bit of a stickler for grammar, I’m by no means as familiar with the rules as you are or I once was when learning them in school. This post exposed me to issues I’ve never even thought of. Could of/Could have… sure I’m all over that one. But I’m not even sure whether I knew that “would have + verb” is wrong, or how many times I have committed that particular infraction in the past. Now I know, so very much thanks for “learnin’ me” that. :-)

    “Excuse me miss, your grammar is showing.”

    • That particular mistake in the conditional turns up in a lot of places. I’ve heard top newscasters and journalists say it, politicians, other teachers…I even found a website: http://ifiwouldhaveknownjustonething.com/#cover
      It’s an interesting concept but it’s also amusing to me to go through the slides on that website and see which of his leaders knows the correct construction, who doesn’t, and who completely avoids it.

      My grammar is showing…heh heh…I like it :)

  8. In error 2, I understand that saying, “I should have waxed my car this afternoon” is wrong, but what is the correct form? I would not want to sound ignorant in my future conversations.

    • Actually, “I should have waxed my car” is correct. The issue that I was mentioning is that the form doesn’t give any indication of whether or not the speaker actually knows they are using the participle and not the simple past form. In regular verbs, the two forms are identical. So…wax – waxed – waxed. Or talk – talked – talked. You get the idea :) So again, because the forms are the same, I have no way of knowing which form your brain is choosing. It’s only clear with irregular verbs that have different forms for the simple past and past participle: for example, go – went – gone, or come – came – come, or take – took – taken. Using the simple past form is incorrect, which is noticeable with these irregular verbs: “should have took” is wrong. “should have taken’ is correct.

      Does this make sense?

  9. Pingback: Saturday night’s all right for tweeting. | As a Linguist…

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