This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

This column first ran on November 1, 1998.

Does it bug you that the "Kwik Stop" spells "quick" that way?

Do you ask shopkeepers, who, exactly, pronounced the word "open" quoted on the doorway placard? And how come the "we're" isn't in quotes, too?

When you get a note saying "Thanks alot!" do you feel even the slightest urge to remind the author that "a lot" is always two words?

Well, I do, although I've learned it's dangerous to express such literary concerns in public.

"Dumbing down" the language bothers me, though, and it bothers me, too, that some people are bothered by the fact that I'm bothered about it.

It hit me again this week when an author sent me his self–published book to review. "There are grammar mistakes & it is not the best book written," he declared in the cover letter, but he said it would be unfair to hold that against him because the book was heartfelt and "honest."

Which, in an amazing coincidence, is exactly the reason I should be allowed to play in the NFL – not because I have the skills or have even taken the time to learn them, but because I really, really want to. Honest.

In my writing classes, too, I'd say at least half my students consider grammar unimportant, and exhibit a shockingly practiced ignorance of it. Usually, a majority doesn't know how to punctuate a quote. Many don't know the difference between "their" and "there," or "too" and "to." When I correct their misuse of "it's," as in the sentence "The unicorn returned to it's UFO," I am often sullenly accused of missing the point.

Maybe I am. I suspected as much, anyway, when I reviewed a novel by Dorothy Allison last spring. It was a highly anticipated book, and given a great deal of publicity. It was also riddled with every type of grammatical and syntactical error imaginable, and I took the author and her editors to task.

Of course, that wasn't the only reason to give it a bad review. But it does seem to me that one of the givens of getting published is at least a slight familiarity with the fundamentals of our language.

Nonetheless, Allison's book got rave reviews across the country, and of the many I saw, none mentioned the stupefying assault of grammatical errors. Instead, Allison was hailed as an amazing "prose stylist." Well, that's one term for it, I guess.

In the meantime, back on my lofty perch, it makes me talk to myself — not about true issues of style, honest mistakes, stray and occasional mistakes, or mistakes on obscure grammatical issues.

No, what I'm mumbling about up here is something perniciously consistent and deliberate, a general trend that's become more and more pervasive: The belief that simplified or even incorrect language is legitimate because the average American is dumb as a rock.

You think this doesn't apply to you? It has a lot to do with the editing of newspapers, magazines and books, to name one way it might.

Take magazines – don't most of the big ones seem as if they're written for cretins? Even at highbrow, literary outlets, such as The New Yorker, say, the language is getting simpler, and the articles are getting shorter. (Their ads, meanwhile, get longer and longer – they now often run multipage supplements.)

At some of the schools I've taught at, professors are subtly encouraged to overlook "little problems" such as complete grammatical ignorance. Students often collude by buying into the bigger cultural marketing subterfuge that grammar isn't hip 4 you. Meanwhile, standards are lowered so more applicants get in, and stay in — so the school makes more money.

And that's what it's about, ultimately: taking advantage of an audience to make the filthy lucre. "Kwik Stop" means to sell an image of casualness — we're simple folks like you, it seems to say. We even save on letters, so our prices couldn't possibly be considered gouging.

But I don't buy it. When I see an ad for Apple computers, say, telling me to "Think Different," I see a coded message saying "Grammar's hard! Stupid's easier! Validate that! Give us your money and you won't be different at all – you'll be part of the big, secure, Stupid Club, just like Einstein and the Dalai Lama!"

Breaking the rules of language, simply, is not the same thing as breaking spiritual, intellectual, or cultural bounds. Quite the opposite – those goals are rarely achieved without a rigorous and thorough knowledge of the appropriate fundamentals.

Just ask the Dalai Lama, who requested that Apple stop using his photograph in their ads. You think he doesn't know the fundamentals of his faith inside and out? He not only knows them, he believes in them so profoundly he'll probably never be allowed to go home again.

Breaking the rules of grammar doesn't make you a rebel. It just makes you stupid. Which is exactly how the bad guys want you — complacent, easy–to–manipulate, and ready to exploit.

Be fearless, dear reader. Be demanding. Declare your lack of stupidity. Be different — think differently!

Last Week’s Column: BEAU REGARDLESS OF THE OTHERS What would inspire someone who worked at Knopf to quit and start his own publishing company — and kick it off with a book by the Unabomber?


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