Illiterate Illustration | Online English DegreesThere is a plague among us. No, it’s not fatal like ebola or avian flu. But it can your make your ears bleed- figuratively speaking- if you’re an English freak like me. This scourge is referred to simply as bad English. Recently, its spread is being fueled by an army of illiterates taking to the internet and text messaging. We, as Americans, do okay when we have a script off of which to read (i.e. presidential speeches, Oscar acceptance speeches). Anytime someone is off the script, however, watch for their English to fall apart like a house of rice paper cards.

As an education writer and an English-phile, I feel an overwhelming responsibility to straighten people out and preserve the Mother Tongue (which, I realize, is already a crazy hodge-podge of Germanic, Norman, and Celt and is absorbing words from other cultures worldwide almost on a daily basis). Okay, honestly, I just think bad English sounds ugly and uneducated.
My friends, people around the world are learning our language, believing it will open a world of opportunity for them. We grew up speaking it and take it for granted. It’s high time we had the dignity and self-respect to at least get our language right. And that means actually thinking about what we are saying and eliminating those things that don’t make sense or make us sound like morons. Following are the five most common offenders. If you find yourself afflicted by these, check out our list of online English and business writing programs to inoculate yourself against the plague:
1. “Like” – From the Valley of San Fernando to nearly every social setting imaginable, the trademark multi-purpose linguistic tool of valley girls has now become a national phenomenon. People of all races and social classes use it. Small children, college professors, and celebrities use it. From construction workers in Atlanta to businessmen in Seattle, the word “like” has become, like, indispensable. It is used to mean “similar to,” “like this,” “uh,” and as a simple precursor to another offender, “So.” The problem with this overuse is that “like” only means one of these; it only means “similar to” or “to have a fondness toward.”
2. “So” – Once upon a time, “so” meant something akin to “therefore” or, in its other use, “this much.” People would say things like, “I didn’t like the popcorn. So I left it in the bowl,” or “You look so beautiful tonight.” Recently, however, it has become acceptable and reasonable to say, without any logical precursor, “So I started my new job,” or “I am, like, so over him.” It just doesn’t make sense. You don’t just go up to your friend and say out of the blue, “Therefore, I started my new job.” Sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it, because you didn’t say anything to lead into it?
3. “Speak to” – I grew up with people saying, “He can speak about that,” or “I believe he is best equipped to speak regarding that issue.” When did it become acceptable for people to say “speak to this” or “speak to that” when they really mean “speak about that”? You can speak to your grandma. You can speak to your friends. However, you can’t speak to an issue or a subject. It’s an inanimate, immaterial object with which you can’t converse.
4. Punctuation – I think it is safe to say that over three-fourths of America’s high school graduates have no idea what to do with their commas. Judging by the emails, advertisements, and blogs that float my way, most people think the comma stands for a dramatic pause. This causes them to throw in commas arbitrarily whenever they feel a pause coming on. Or, if they don’t hear a pause in the sentence when it’s spoken, they don’t include the comma when they write the sentence. For example, they write, “See you at the party guys,” instead of the correct “See you at the party, guys.” The extreme of this habit can be seen when people omit commas, semi-colons, and periods altogether in sentences like, “I saw the movie last night it was lame.”
5. Question Confusion – The next time you watch a press conference or news interview, look out for this one. The person speaking will say, “We are in the process of determining what are we doing about the tax problem.” This is, of course, incorrect. The speaker has forgotten that, although it sounds like a question, they are actually stating an object that sounds like question. It should have been said, “We are in the process of determining what we are doing about the tax problem.” You’ll usually see this in situations where someone is responding on the fly, and you’ll see both highly educated and uneducated people make the same mistake.
Again, for those of you who suffer from this malady, there is help right here at For those who see this problem but don’t know what to do, find out more about careers in editing, journalism, or business writing.

4 comments on “Illiterate America

  • So sorry for you Mr. Varner. Unless you are eleven years old and wrote this as a paper for your third year in fourth grade grammar, you have no more command of the language than the “illiterates” you so despise.

  • I must have struck a nerve. Since you have such a command of the language yourself, I’m sure you noticed you omitted a comma preceding my name. Of course, you would notice that, right? In your vast understanding, you left out that vital piece of punctuation to be ironic. I’m sure that was the case.
    Not really.
    In your effort to discredit my post, you actually provided yet another example of this sad plague of illiteracy.

  • College grads these days deny ever having heard of the predicate nominative. One of them actually laughed at me when I asked if she had had a dramatic intent when she split the infinitives in a lead-in for a chapter of a brief.

    They don’t work for my law firm any longer. In fact, they don’t work for ANY law firms any longer. Standard english is not optional in some professions.

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