The Case for Sweating the Details

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Does proper English still matter?

Between you and I, it does. But when we put the question to a friend recently, we were answered with a demurral. “Not so much,” they said.

If you’ve read this far, you may have flagged two lapses in grammar and word usage. “Between you and I” sounds right but is dead wrong. And, given that we were chatting with only one friend, there was no “they” there.

Reviewing Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in The New York Times, some years back, Joe Nocera cited “the enormity of Jobs’s accomplishments.” He meant “enormity” in a good way, of course, as a synonym for “impressive scope”—but the word has nothing to do with size. An enormity, according to the dictionary, is “an abomination, an act of great wickedness.”

All of which begs the original question: Does proper English still matter?

Language evolves constantly, and many words and usages that would once have brought a wrist-slap from the grammar cops eventually gain acceptance. Some purists still reject “hopefully” as a stand-in for “it is hoped,” as in “Hopefully, the rain will stop in time for our picnic.” They insist that the word’s only proper meaning is “full of hope”—“He gazed hopefully across the room at the green-haired girl with the accordion tattoo.”

That was once true. It isn’t now. “Hopefully” is a classic example of what lexicographer Bryan Garner calls a “skunked” word—one whose meaning has expanded or changed, but still annoys traditionalists even when used correctly. Hopefully, they’ll get over it.

These issues interest us at Carpenter Group as writers and communicators. They are also at the heart of the messaging we create for clients, which should be clear, conversational and grammatically correct. That said, it’s not lost on us that good grammar can sometimes be bad for clarity and simplicity. Consider the noun-pronoun disconnect in the sentence “We help each client achieve their financial objectives.” Replacing “their” with “his” would be grammatically correct but objectionably male-centric. “His or her” is acceptable once, but repeat it too often and it begins to sound clunky.

For these reasons, editors who once flagged noun-pronoun glitches routinely now appear to be taking a more tolerant stance. These days, linking “their” to a singular noun has become increasingly common practice, and few seem to have a problem with it. Same for words like “media” and “data,” which are plural forms of “medium” and “datum,” respectively. But treating them as singular—“The media reports that the data is inconclusive”—is standard usage in many circles. But license has its limits: Writing “it’s” when you mean “its” or “hone in on” in place of “home in on” can be as cringeworthy as showing up on a zoom call with spinach in your teeth.

“When I use a word,” says Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” His thinking is scrambled: Language is mutable but it isn’t anarchic. Rules apply, whether you’re writing a blogpost, web content or a wealth management brochure. At this point in time, enormity does not equal enormousness. And to “beg the question” isn’t to “raise the question,” notwithstanding its deliberately wrong-headed use above.

Someday, perhaps. But not today. Between you and me, there definitely is such a thing as proper English. And, yes, it does matter.