I didn’t know, although I’ve seen evidence of it for years, that newspapers and magazines have taken it upon themselves to change the rules of language and grammar. It must have been a long ago conspiracy that concluded with the universal dropping of the serial comma – the comma where you have a list of three or more things and there is supposed to be a comma after each item except the last one. For example: I went to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. A comma follows each item up until the conjunction, no comma after it. There are very few exceptions, the only one coming to mind being when two items are linked together in such a way that they lose meaning when separate, such as peanut butter and jelly. For example: I had milk, peanut butter and jelly, and fruit for lunch.” There is no comma after peanut butter because it would break up the commonly known pair of peanut butter and jelly.
Another modification of the language at the hands of publications is in the form of a new spelling. Flip through the newspaper and look for the a word spelled cigaret. Although it looks familiar, that’s not the correct spelling. Publications seem to have forgotten there is another t and then an e at the end: cigarette. But the self-imposed change that has bothered me lately is with the words got and gotten. Got is the past tense of get. Today, I will get lost. Yesterday, I got lost. However, if I’m writing in the perfect tense, using the helping verbs has or have, then I have to use the past perfect form of got, which is gotten. For example: That boy used to be short, but he has gotten taller. In the past six years that I’ve been a subscriber to Time magazine, I have seen at least ten instances when they have written got when it should have been gotten. In the January 22, 2007, issue (cover story on China) there was a story about the character Jack Bauer with the following sub-headline: “As the war on terrorism has got complicated, so has 24’s Jack Bauer.” Because of the helping verb has, the correct form of the main verb should be gotten.
This brings the obvious question that governs most of the universe, or at least the part of the universe occupied by humans – Why? Why do publications change the rules of grammar and the spellings of words? It’s the same answer to another question – What motivates man most strongly? Yes, money. “Money?” you ask. “What does money have to do with commas and a shorter version of a word?” In publications, space equals money. Any time they can save space, they are saving money. If they drop a (cigaret)–te here and a (got)–ten there, then they’re saving some pennies that eventually add up into dollars on the way to a free lunch.
Probably an even worse violation of language in print is the incomplete sentence. In Time’s “Man of the Year” issue, there was a story by Brian Williams of NBC news that was so riddled with one-word and incomplete sentences that I first thought he must have had someone write it for him. Never would I think that a national news anchor would have such a poor command of the language until I gave it a little more thought. Then I realized that he doesn’t write the nightly news, he just reads it. Someone else writes the news, and he does his best to be a talking head. However, for that Time story, he actually wrote it, but he wrote in the same way he speaks, and he (and most of the rest of us) does not always speak in complete sentences. We constantly give one-word or short-phrase answers because we’re speaking in reply to something for which the context has already preceded, so that allows shorter answers/sentences that seem to make perfect sense because of the context it is in at that moment.
In college I had a class called Linguistics and Grammar with a professor named Robert Kloss. It was the toughest English class I had ever taken, even tougher than the one I failed, but that’s because I got an A the second time. I never felt so inadequate during a class, nor did I ever feel as great an accomplishment at the end of a class. After a semester of ripping apart almost every word, both spoken and written, he said to us on the last day, “Please remember this about language: it doesn’t matter how well or poorly you say it or how well or badly you’ve written it. The most important thing about language is that the person or audience to whom you are speaking knows exactly what you mean.”
Note to Time magazine: instead of dumbing yourself down, how about you help out and raise the standards a little bit? Richard Nixon said, “When you lower standards, you lower expectations, results, and the future.” Set the bar a little higher if you want, but don’t lower it.