I get it. English Grammar sucked for a lot of us. Getting rapped on the knuckles or made an example of when we made a mistake caused many of us to long for the day we could graduate—or not—and get free of the imperious schoolmarms who corrected us every time we’d open our mouths.
“No more pencils! No more books! No more teachers’ dirty looks!” (even if they didn’t know where to place the apostrophe)
Undoubtedly an anthem for disaffected schoolchildren everywhere who, upon graduation, gave a big middle finger to said teachers and began using their native language without regard for the rules that had theretofore been enforced upon them.
But then a funny thing happened. Many of those selfsame children became adults, and a few even decided they wanted to be writers, journalists, and media professionals. And if they were interesting, attractive, or clever enough, maybe they got their chance.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of these women showed up for their first day of work in overalls and Crocs. And none of the guys considered a tube top or anything made of organza. Why? Because they cared about their reputations. Whatever character anomalies these new-hires were aware of, I’m sure they worked very hard for at least a week to keep them from their coworkers. Because first impressions are hard to undo.
Curiously, however, many of these communications professionals gave no thought whatsoever to how their use of language might affect their reputations. So cozy were they in their orgy of teacher-free language usage that they were rendered permanently incapable of remembering—let alone employing—the rules they had once been forced to learn. (Even more curious, many employers seem content to settle for the laissez-faire usage model that often renders speech and writing unintelligible.)
Let’s illustrate with some real-world examples culled from the world of professional journalism:
1. “After scaling a fence, a security guard led them to the apartment.”
This kind of error is so common, so easy to spot, and so easy to correct. Sadly, few care to do it. If you’re wondering why the security guard scaled a fence, you should be. It was the “they” in that sentence who had scaled the fence. Whenever a subjectless dependent clause introduces a sentence, the very first noun phrase following the comma must be the subject to which the clause refers. Otherwise, you have security guards climbing fences to which they clearly have the gate keys.
Try: “After they scaled the fence…”
2. “We are in store for lots of rain this weekend.”
I have literally lost count of the times that multiple television weather forecasters have said things like this (even after I emailed them and they acknowledged their mistake). Again, it’s simple to recognize and correct: think about what you’re saying. Something is “in store”; that is, it’s being stored for later application. There are only two noun phrases in this sentence to which this could apply: “we” and “lots of rain.” I doubt any of us expects to be released from storage and thrown at the rain, come the weekend.
Try: “Lots of rain is in store for us this weekend.”
3. “He did as best as he could, but was ultimately unable to revive the dog.”
Every time I hear this phrase, I here “asbestos.” Because there’s no such phrase as “as best as” in proper English usage. Try this with any other adverb: “He walked as quietest as he could, but she still heard him.” Or maybe, “She played the guitar as worst as she knew how, just to spite him.” No. Way. When you do something “as well as” you are able, you have done “the best” you can. The two ideas are synonymous. You can’t compare “best” to anything; that is, nothing can be “as best.” Best (and quietest and worst) are superlative. They are always preceded by “the” because there is only one (except in the case of a tie, in which you may have “one of the best.”)
Try either: “He did as well as he could…” or “He did the best he could…” (Both mean the same thing.)
This self-righteous diatribe is, of course, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg (though one can rightly question whether the iceberg was ever mentioned in a proverb).
My point is this: we all make mistakes; we can all learn something new about our mother tongue on a daily basis. I’ve heard it said many times that a great writer is not necessarily a great storyteller. That is true; just because you know the rules of language, doesn’t mean you have something interesting to say. On the other hand, if you do have something interesting to say, go for it. There are no rules for storytelling; it is at its most basic a talent. But remember, while a great storyteller may not necessarily be a great writer, one can always learn to write the best they can.