Annoyed by Bad Grammar

Before I get into this subject, I readily recognize that I make grammar mistakes all the time. In fact I am notorious for bad spelling. Grammar mistakes in common conversation or blog posts or blog comments don’t bother me much. And even though I did major in English in college, I have never approved of those who feel the constant need to correct the grammar of others, especially when the meaning of their words is perfectly clear even with the incorrect grammar.

However, I am annoyed under certain circumstances by obvious grammar mistakes. Three recent bad grammar sightings that annoyed me:

1. My wife, our two daughters, and I were waiting in the office of our family doctor for the nurse to come out to tell us that the doctor was ready to see us. I grabbed a couple of the children’s books available there to read to the girls while we waited. The first book was one of the books from the “Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library” series. (This was a few weeks ago and I don’t remember the specific title, though I think it was “On Beyond Bugs: All About Insects ”).

Perhaps I am somewhat prejudiced because I have never been very impressed by the third-rate Dr. Seuss knock-offs that have been produced using his characters. Anyhow, about half way through the book there was a severe verb agreement problem. If I get a chance to take a look at the book again I’ll copy down the exact phrase, but it said something like “There’s three of them…” I know that is common for people to misuse “there’s” in everyday speech (I have done it myself), and perhaps the editors approve of bad grammar in order to keep the meter right (though the meter in the rest of the book wouldn’t seem to indicate a real concern for such). In any case, the mistake really annoyed me and I stopped reading and commented about it to my wife.

2. There is a song by the modern progressive rock band, Coheed and Cambria, called “The Suffering” that I like a lot. However, throughout the song there are various phrases that begin with the construction “If it was up to me, I would have…”

Now it seems clear to me from the lyrics that these portions of the song are supposed to be what in grammar is called the past subjunctive mood. The past subjunctive is used to to describe an occurrence (or hypothetical) that the speaker presupposes to be contrary to fact. But the correct construction of the past subjunctive is “If … were, … would ….”

So every time I hear the “If it was up to me, I would have…” in the song, I just shudder and think “If it were… if it were!”

You can hear a 30 second clip of the song with the offending phrase from amazon.com (Windows Media ).

It doesn’t annoy me enough to stop listening to the song…yet.

3. The last example is from a song that I don’t like, by a band that I generally don’t like. System of a Down’s music has been called nu-metal, and progressive rock. I call it Anarcho-AgitPop. Their music is primarily concerned with socio-political commentary. Their most recent radio release is called “Lonely Day.” It is hard for me to take their generally liberal socio-political lyrics seriously when they can, in all seriousness, sing the grammatically grating words “The most loneliest day of my life” over and over and over again. Arrrrggghhh! Listen to a clip from amazon.com if you can stand it (Windows Media).

Anyway. I guess I am just in a griping-grammar freak mood. Good night.

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6 Responses to Annoyed by Bad Grammar

  1. Of course, there is the question of whether one takes a descriptive or a prescriptive view of language. While I’m sometimes annoyed by “there’s several” or “if i was,” i can’t help but recognize that both are exceedingly common; indeed, they may have become more common than the prescriptively correct “there are several” and “if i were.” and if so, perhaps i am in the wrong in being annoyed. there’s nothing about these constructions that makes them “true.” we define our language, and there’s nothing to say that aspects cannot be redefined over time. from a descriptive perspective, perhaps “if i was” is now more correct. i have trouble arguing that any meaning is lost… it still rubs me wrong, but i fight the rub.

  2. I was an English/Psych double major, and at least used to be not too bad in grammar, but I came to understand verb tenses more clearly in my French studies. Seems to me that the whole “If it were up to me” thing would have been called in French “conditional” but I don’t really remember, is that the same as subjunctive?

  3. I actually thought about descriptive linguistics vs prescriptive linguistics when writing this post. I’m glad you brought it up. I’m not sure exactly why I am annoyed. Perhaps I feel at some level that published works should be held to a higher standard than common communication. It probably also has something to do with the fact that even though English departments teach about descriptivism, their methods of evaluating and grading student essays involve a high degree of prescriptivism. So even though intellectually I can accept and even advocate descriptivism, I have been conditioned by the underlying educational process to prefer prescriptivism!

  4. Peggy,

    As romance languages, I suspect French and Spanish are grammatically similar. While conditional and subjunctive are similar in a way, they are different. They actually are used together. Usually if you use subjunctive in the first clause then you use conditional in the second clause. If I am remembering right, in the “if…were..would” construction the “were” is subjunctive and the “would” is conditional.

  5. Tyler Rutt

    I think that you are totally right about the grammar mistakes that you’re annoyed by. I feel that you may just overreact about the mistakes because they are very common. You even said that you make some of the same mistakes. In my mind, I just feel that someone can make any kind of grammar mistake as long as you understand what they’re talking about.

  6. Elizabeth Adams

    Using the word “if” makes the phrase an optative clause which uses a subjunctive mood. The reason would be a conditions, something like past contrary to fact or future less vivid. But anyway, because an optative clause has been created the correct word to use would be “were”.

    Ex: “If it were me…i would go to the dance.”

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