The language of journalism

Grammar changes can erode meaning

International visitors are often amazed with the number of cereals available in American supermarkets.   Wikipedia lists almost 400 brands – and that’s counting Cheerios, for instance, as one brand, not the 20 different Cheerios varieties you can buy.

Do you really need to be able to choose types of Cheerios that range from oat cluster to apple cinnamon to banana nut to yogurt burst? Probably not, but each brings a little different taste.  We would lose something by doing away with all the different flavors and returning to just plain ol’ Cheerios.  Who’d want to lose all that taste nuance?

But what we wouldn’t do with flavors, we do with language.  The trend now is to level everything out.  Brank Bruni of The New York Times pointed out the latest casualty this week:  who.

Now you hear TV talking heads talking about the Alabama governor that resigned and the passenger that United removed from its flight.  We’ve forgotten the pronoun that acknowledges us as people, as human beings.

Bruni laments this trend in his column, and then offers an explanation that goes far beyond grammar:

How did we get here? Why is “who” on the ropes? One of my theories is that in this hypercasual culture of ours, we’re so petrified of sounding overly fussy that we’ve swerved all the way to overly crass.

And my fear is that there’s a metaphor here: something about the age of automation, about the disappearing line between humans and machines. The robots are coming. Maybe we’re killing off “who” to avoid the pain of having them demand — and get — it.

Whether or not that’s the reason, we are certainly watching our language change. And for those of us who object, we’re labeled with the ultimate pejorative:  prescriptivists.

We evil prescriptivists believe that language standards mean something.  For that, we’re labeled as linguistic purists. Or worse:  old-fashioned, traditionalist, grammar geeks and fuddy-duddies.

And how did we earn this scorn?  By saying that words mean things.  By holding that they is plural and should not refer to a singular noun. By rejecting dangling modifiers as the norm, with no concern for the reader. By standing firm against inserting – or leaving out – commas willy-nilly, disregarding the effect on a sentence’s meaning (it’s the Let’s eat Grandma vs. the Let’s eat, Grandma question).

We criticize the president for his misstatements of fact.  That’s because we believe that presidential statements should accurately reflect reality.  But grammar is not a dilettante’s playground – it’s a verbal representation of reality; when we drop time-honored standards, we’re saying that our language does not need to line up with the reality it represents.

We’d never want just one flavor of Cheerios.  They are different for a reason.  Just like who and that, and they and he or she.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.