Cheap Talk Can Cost You

A word nerd’s burden: someone said to me, “I guess I can’t say anything around you.” It was a lighthearted remark … I hope.

Saying is far different from writing, and the spoken word deserves a lot more leniency. I don’t want people to think I go around rating everyone’s conversational acumen, waiting to pounce. That’s not my style. Besides, I don’t always speak standard English either. Sometimes it’s more fun not to.

However, it’s different when someone misspeaks over the airwaves. Even if it’s a talk show featuring casual chit-chat, lots of people are tuned in, and the participants must not forget Rule One of being on the air: Watch what you say and how you say it.

So when a great athlete—I’ll call him “E.J.”—declares in front of a national audience: “Kenny and Charles is both right. They shoulda did it another way,” civilized people rightly cringe. Other more-articulate athletes squirm. Parents scowl, aware that this man is a role model for their kids. Teachers worry that their students will follow in his grammatical missteps.

This is not to disparage E.J., one of ten kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest. Matching his physical genius with a relentless work ethic, he became a winner who played on five championship teams. When E.J. retired, he became as brilliant in business as he’d been in sports, and today he is one of the great rags-to-riches success stories in America.

Now why can’t this bright, accomplished man speak decent English? Kenny and Charles is? Shoulda did? Awful—and I don’t mean the shoulda, which I can live with when it’s spoken.

I’ve read that E.J. has someone on his payroll to monitor his verbal skills. If so, start earning your money, buster. On the other hand, some might say it really doesn’t matter anymore. Would better language skills have made E.J. more successful? Doubtful—you can’t get more successful.

Still, I keep thinking of that line from Citizen Kane: “It’s not difficult to make money … if all you want is to make money.” Is it too old-fashioned to think that “having it made” is about more than wealth and fame? There used to be something called class.

There is an annoying argument that good English is irrelevant if you get your point across. Sometimes it might be true, but there are other times when being articulate carries the day, and these may be some of the most significant times of your life: when you have to speak at a formal occasion, when you bare your soul to a friend or loved one, when you meet someone you’ve always respected and admired, when you’re interviewed for a dream job, when you have to make an important presentation, when you propose marriage …

Or how about when you’re in charge and it’s vital to establish your authority. There’s no harsher critic than a subordinate. Respect is never just given away; it must be earned. I was watching one of those inside-prison documentaries and a commotion broke out in the prison yard. A guard had to act fast to restore order. He barked out, “Get on your backs—face down!”

That’s anatomically impossible.

Such a remark can be costly after order is restored. I’ve no doubt that for a long time afterward, that guard was a source of wicked glee for the inmates.

Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist with these ill-advised words: “Although Michael achieved notoriety, he was a simplistic man.” What he meant was, “Although Michael achieved fame, he was a simple man.” Trying to convey Michael’s integrity and charm, the speaker instead called the dear departed notorious, and kind of a simpleton.

This person’s ineptitude was an affront to both the mind and the heart. Vain and insecure, he dumped fame for “notoriety,” a five-syllable blunder, and swapped simple for “simplistic,” another fancy-sounding but inappropriate word, which further undermined his entire tribute.

It can’t be said enough: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 6:50 pm

7 Comments on Cheap Talk Can Cost You

7 responses to “Cheap Talk Can Cost You”

  1. Bill P. says:

    I was one of seven kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest, but I don’t have the problem. Maybe it’s because I had a Catholic elementary and high school education, and the nuns taught us to use the English language properly. I consider the proper use of the English language a must.

  2. Lallane B. says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Tom.

    You missed one of my pet peeves: the incorrect case of the object of the preposition when referring to yourself in a sentence. I’m so tired of hearing, “It was so hard for her and I.”

    And let us not ignore, “Tom’s and I’s job is to correct bad grammar.” Ugh!

    I retired in January after editing five years for an author whose broadcast is heard on five continents. I told him he could get by with some violations orally, but when the printed error smacks you between the eyes, there’s no excuse. That being said, I really do take exception to the oral mistakes and have had the producer to bleep numbers of them; they are on the web and can be reviewed again and again when someone says, “Did he really say that?!”

    Oh, well, I’m just a 74-year old who was taught proper English in elementary and high school . . . the kind you can’t even find today at the college level. But our five kids (ages 30-53) are right on in their grammar and spelling, so I’m grateful for that.

    Thanks for listening.

  3. Allan M. says:

    Civilized people may cringe, but we non-civilized writers of fiction love EJ speak. It makes character come to life. Thanks for the continued flow of articles.

  4. Rick Z. says:

    Hear Hear … Couldn’t agree more.

  5. Barry U. says:

    Holy, high school English, Batman, has there’s replaced there’re as the new plural, and has “I” now replaced “me” as the accepted object of prepositions?

    From a weather caster: “There’s three storm fronts moving into our area over the next two days.”

    Everything from the evening news and into prime time viewing: “John went to the store with Tim and I.” (OUCH!!)

    • Yes, these are certainly two of the most stubborn and persistent gaffes one hears nowadays. As grammar gets less and less respect in our culture, look for it to get even worse. That’s what we’re here for.

      We do have a “Note” addressing there’s and there are in the “Subject-Verb Agreement” section of our Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation as well as online.

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