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Grammar for Spammers and Pop Stars
Dear Noah R. Estrada:
You accidentally sent us an e-mail meant for a Mr. Bret U. Sandoval. Ordinarily, we’d ignore this sort of thing, but we were so concerned for your grammar, we wanted to contact you so that you could clean things up a bit. Your mail read as follows:
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD THIS, "GOD! YOUR PENI-5 IS
DIDN’T YOU FEEL, STUPID?
DON’T LET THEM CHOOSE SEXUAL TOYS BUT NOT YOU! MEGADIK WILL MAKE YOU A REAL MAN ! YOU JUST HAVE TO TRUST THIS EXCELLENT PREPERATION!
We’re not sure what a peni-5 is. Is that some sort of new currency? A poor cousin of the euro? If so, we agree; it would be annoying to have a small peni-5. The regular-sized ones are already hard enough to retrieve from gutters.
In any case, we wanted to let you know you might have inadvertently insulted Mr. Sandoval when you wrote, "Didn’t you feel, stupid?"
We believe you meant to say, "Didn’t you feel stupid?" The difference, of course, is that the first sentence calls him stupid, while the second empathizes with him for feeling that way because of his poor, tiny peni-5.
For all we know, Mr. Bret U. Sandoval might be the kind of guy who likes a little verbal spanking. We suspect, though, that you’d have more luck in general if you were kind to your customers in your correspondence.
In any case, good luck with Megadik. What ever the effect of this preparation (that’s the correct spelling, by the way), we’re confident it’s every bit as high quality as your e-mail advertising it.
The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar
P.S. There is no need to put a space before an exclamation point. Your penultimate sentence should read simply, "Megadik will make you a real man!"
If the state of language in popular culture is any indication, we’re in trouble. As we write, Billboard’s list of top-selling albums contains two serious spelling errors: Underground Kingz by UGK, and Dutchess by Fergie. These aren’t just bad; they’re royally bad. And it’s not just musicians assaulting the language, either. We don’t believe there has ever been a time when so many of society’s rich and powerful have risen to their positions without first mastering the language of the land. Nor has there been a time when careful and correct use of the language—something that can only be learned by reading well, listening carefully, and sharpening skills—was routinely disdained as a vile act of the untrustworthy "elite."
Somehow the powers that be have decided to wage a costly and unnecessary war on the mother tongue. Someone in Los Angeles has decided that movie titles sound funnier with incorrect grammar, and that pop stars will have more credibility if they spell and punctuate as they please. Someone in New York has decided that "kids" and other plurals will sell more products when they’re spelled with a terminal z. Someone in Washington, D.C., has decided that people who regularly bungle language can be called "plainspoken," when the truth is that people who actually speak plainly are the language masters, so skilled that their meaning is transparent without the use of long words, misleading jargon, or convoluted clauses.
This sort of mastery doesn’t come without effort. Why do we allow this to be disparaged? If you wouldn’t trust your hair to a stylist who hadn’t mastered the craft, then why should you trust your cultural legacy to so-called artists who can’t write songs, your money to marketers who butcher words, and your political future to any leader who hasn’t mastered the ability to shape and convey his or her ideas?
It is time for those of us who love and respect our language to take it back. Clear, grammatical communication is society’s foundation. It is what helps us understand and be understood. If we let that bedrock crumble from neglect, or if we actively chip away at it in a misguided fit of anti-intellectualism, then we run the risk of watching the world around us collapse.
This is a dramatic picture, to be sure. But consider the difference in meaning a single comma gives these two simple sentences:
"Let’s eat, children," is something a kind mother might say before offering a nutritious meal to her beloved offspring.
"Let’s eat children" is something else entirely. And while the likes of Hannibal Lecter might like to eat the delicate flesh of babies, the rest of us—in the immortal and grammatical words of Bartleby the Scrivener—would prefer not to.
Knowing how punctuation and sentence structure can give collections of words the power to communicate complicated ideas is a good thing. We can, for example, let others know we merely intend to feed our children, and not eat them. Likewise, it’s also good to know the meaning of individual words. Pajamas marked "INFLAMMABLE" are not flame-resistant; rather, they are liable to blaze up if exposed to extreme heat. It would be a shame, really, to resist eating your children only to lose them in an unintended bedroom barbecue.
These are unlikely misunderstandings, but that doesn’t mean there are no risks to sloppy English. If you don’t speak or write well, others are likely to assume you are stupid, uneducated, or both. Never mind that many of today’s most powerful people have no grip on their grammar. If you’re not a pop star or the president of the United States, you don’t necessarily get a free ride on the language bus. We know of an otherwise lovely man who was not hired to be an editor because of a spelling goof on his Web site. During the interview, the hiring manager was happy to overlook the large wad of spinach the candidate had stored in his teeth. The spelling error, however, sealed his fate.
What’s more, the price can go beyond the mere professional. One woman we know—a ravishing expert in sexology who has had exotic and erotic affairs around the globe—will not date men whose personal ads contain errors. The errors in typing, if they are so innocent, are costing these men certain experiences we will not describe here, but that can be imagined by those with even modest creative gifts. Bad grammar can either screw you or leave you unscrewed. The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar refuses to take this lying down.
Bad grammar is a particular irritant in two places: our e-mail in-boxes and our ears. Try to go shopping without hearing the ubiquitous undulations of pop music. It’s difficult, if not impossible. Inevitably, the most embarrassing of those shopping songs take root as "earworms," a word translated from German and thrust into popular usage by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris. Synonyms include "repetunitis" and "melodymania."
The danger, grammatically speaking, occurs when an ear-worm infected with bad grammar dwells not just in your ear, but in your mind. For even a seasoned speaker, it could blunt your ability to know the difference between good grammar and bad. And for vulnerable teens still struggling to use "I" and "me" correctly, it could deafen their ears to the difference between correct and incorrect speech.
While e-mail spam is far less likely to tattoo our minds, it is still a huge problem. Some fifty-five billion pieces of unsolicited mail are sent daily; this is about eight per man, woman, and child living on the planet. And it’s not just that the e-mail generally offers to enlarge body parts half its recipients do not even have; it’s that the vast majority of this junk mail is hideously ungrammatical. It’s an affront to the eyes of anyone with any sense. Worse, you can’t write back and correct the grammar, lest you want to confirm your e-mail address is a valid spam target. It’s the virtual equivalent of dog poop left on your lawn in the cover of night. There’s no stuffing it back from which place it came. You must dispose of it daily, and it stinks.
This is why we have created two fantasy programs: grammar rehab for pop singers, and grammar court for spammers. They’re dreams today; may they someday come true.
GRAMMAR REHAB FOR THE RICH AND FAMOUS
TIMBERLAKE CLEANS UP AT "EDIT"
Manager: Star "Exhausted," Full Recovery Expected
(LOS ANGELES) Pop star Justin Timberlake today checked himself in for a three-month stint at Each Day I Try, a glamorous Los Angeles center for celebrities who’ve fallen off the grammar wagon.
Timberlake’s people issued a statement that said the star "was exhausted from the constant subject-verb disagreements in his lyrics. We ask that his fans respect his privacy and dignity during this difficult time. EDIT is a top-notch facility, and we expect him to be in perfect shape, both grammatically and musically, after his treatment is complete."
On his MySpace page this message appeared briefly for his fans: "I just want 2 be grammatically correct. I have a long way 2 go. Keep me in UR thoughts."
The personal message was removed after only a few hours, and replaced with the following: "We’re keeping Justin away from the keyboard for his own good. Please keep him in UR you’re your prayers."
(From Justin Timberlake’s EDIT diary)
This is what I learned today from my grammar therapist: Any man who can dance like I can without losing his pimp hat can conjugate a verb. So I corrected the lyrics of "What Goes Around."
When you cheated girl
My heart bleeded bled girl
Then I realized that I’d punked my rhyme! So I changed it:
When you cheated girl
My heart did bleed, girl
Peace out! Do you think people are going to start wondering why I write songs about my girlfriends cheating on me whenever I’m breaking up with them? Man, that would suck worse than the Backstreet Boys.
I totally get verbs now. They’re like me. They just want to get along with their subjects, which makes them royalty, which makes me the Prince of Pop. Bite that, Michael Jackson! You’d better hide your glove because I AM COMING FOR IT!
I think I will write a love song to verbs. Me and them, I mean, they and I will never break up. I’m not saying we’re going to get married or anything, so Ellen DeGeneres can hold off on buying her bridesmaid’s tuxedo. But damn! Verbs are about the love between equals.
And this is how I meant to write that part of "FutureSex/LoveSounds" (I am pleased to say I already spelled "you" right this time around:
You can’t stop baby
You can’t stop once you’ve turned me on
And your enemy are is your thoughts baby [Because "enemy" is the subject of the sentence, not "thoughts"!]
So just let ’em go [Oops, missed that apostrophe first time around. Good thing I put it in here.]
Dear Diary, Today my therapist and I had the most interesting discussion. I had been reviewing the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone," which I thought was probably a Mick Jagger song, but turns out to have been written by this totally tight geezer named Bob Dylan.
I had some questions about his grammar. For example, he says, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
"Shouldn’t that be ‘you’ve got’?" I asked my therapist.
Her eyes got wet, like maybe a piece of dust landed in them or something. And she said, "Oh, Justin. That’s where the artistry of the song comes in. While it technically would be correct to use the present-perfect tense, to indicate an action that began in the past and leads up to and includes the present, Dylan is increasing the folksy feel of his song by playing a bit with his verb tenses." "How do you know he didn’t just screw it up?" I asked. "Just look at the rest of the lyrics of the song," she said.
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags
And the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
"Do you think anyone who’d craft an image about Napoleon in rags wouldn’t know how to conjugate a verb?"
"Conjugate," I asked. "Is that the sort of visit you get in prison?"
"No," she said. "Not even close. Though many people derive similar plea sure from good grammar."
Then she slid something she’d written about verbs over to me [see "Things That Make Us Tense," page 167]. I read it. And I realized I could sing about so much more than I’ve been singing about if I just used more WORDS. I had no idea that words could actually do anything besides give my mouth something to do when I shake my groove thing.
I feel like a whole new man.
TIMBERLAKE LEAVES REHAB, TELLS OF NEWFOUND
(LOS ANGELES) Pop star Justin Timberlake today checked out of the high-profile Each Day I Try grammar rehab clinic.
"I have made a full recovery," Timberlake said to a throng of screaming teenage fans. He read from a prepared statement:
"No more will I use unnecessary abbreviations. I will ensure my subjects and verbs agree with each other. And I will use conventional word order and considered vocabulary wherever possible in my future songs.
"I just wish every artist knew how it felt to use the tools of language," he said. "I feel so much more creative power. I might even try to use actual metaphors in my songwriting now, so that I can sing about more topics than just wanting to go skin to skin with the ladyfolk."
Then Timberlake’s manager jerked the microphone from his hands, while young Timberlake fans screamed and wept at the notion of more complicated songs.
"It’s going to be a lengthy recovery period," Timberlake’s manager said. "But don’t think that good grammar will make him any less of a futuresex lovestallion.
"And you can quote me on that."
PSYCHIC CLAIMS TO HAVE MADE CONTACT WITH THE GHOST OF JIM MORRISON
(LOS ANGELES) Noted psychic Ivana Predict held a press conference today where she claimed to have spoken with the ghost of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison.
"He told me he wanted to make an apology," she said. "And it wasn’t for wearing unwashed leather pants.
"His apology," she said, "was for singing the following lyric repeatedly: "I’m gonna love you ’til the stars fall from the sky / For you and I."
Predict continued: "Jim Morrison has been in Limbo since his death, but because the Pope just officially shut the place down, Mr. Morrison is being evicted. God told him he’d get into heaven if he agreed to no longer say ‘for you and I’ just for the sake of a cheap rhyme."
A representative of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar officially accepted the apology, and sent the Morrison estate a coupon for 30 percent off leather cleaning at a reputable chain.
The Thesaurus Awards
Not all musicians, of course, are guilty of grinding our language into a useless paste.
SPOGG hereby presents Thesaurus Awards to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, Chuck Berry, and Arthur Hamilton.
The antepenultimate award goes to Flanders and Swann, who managed to work "antepenultimate"—which means third-to-last—into "Have Some Madeira, M’Dear."
Then there flashed through her head what her mother once said
With her antepenultimate breath:
"Oh my child, should you look on the wine when ’tis red,
Be prepared for a fate worse than death!"
She let go her glass with a shrill little cry.
Crash, tinkle! It fell to the floor.
When he asked "What in heaven...?" she made no reply,
Up her mind and a dash for the door.
The penultimate award goes to Berry for incorporating "vestibule" (an entry or reception room) into "My Ding-a-Ling":
And then mother took me to grammar school
But I stopped off in the vestibule
Every time that bell would ring
Catch me playin’ with my ding a ling.
The ultimate award, for use of non-plebeian language, goes to Arthur Hamilton, who wrote "Cry Me a River," which makes us cry tears of joy:
You told me love was too plebeian,
Told me you were through with me an’
Now you say you love me, well just to prove you do,
Come on and cry me a river, cry me a river,
I cried a river over you.
SPAM POLICE: YOU’RE UNDER ARREST!
There is much about e-mail spam that puzzles us. We get why spammers send it, of course. It’s about the money. One notorious spammer whose last name appropriately enough was "Pitylak" made $3 to $7 for each sucker he managed to lure with his unsolicited online propositions. We utterly lack pity for the million-dollar fine he racked up. (He had to sell a house and a BMW to pay it off, the poor dear.)
What we don’t get is why it’s so difficult for spammers to send grammatically correct e-mail. We don’t care if they’re actually working out of converted bunkers in those crazy Easternbloc countries that keep changing their names, using online translators to churn out spooky English. No one should want to buy medication that will change the size of vulnerable body parts from people who can’t spell "pill."
But apparently some people don’t care where their fake medicine comes from, which is why we continue to get such offers, even at e-mail addresses we have never distributed to anyone for any reason. People, please stop this.
Meanwhile, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, Spam Police Division, issues the following citations for crimes against language.
Case No. 1: A "Unique" Snow Job
The Evidence (an Actual E-mail):
YOU CAN NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME, OWN A BUSINESS IN YOUR AREA WITH THE MOST UNIQUE, INNOVATIVE PRODUCT IN AMERICA TODAY. WORK LESS A WEEK WITH THE POTENTIAL TO EARN $100,000 A YEAR. THERE IS NO SELLING AND NOT MLM. JOIN A MULTI-TRILLION DOLLAR MARKET.
The Charges: Improper use of commas, abuse of the word "unique," serial word-dropping, criminal capitalization, and overall nonsensicality.
The Verdict: Guilty.
The Sentence: To have this edited version of your own spam tattooed on your forehead. Imagine how embarrassed you’ll be when people ask you what it means and you have to try to sell them on this nonsense in person.
You can now for the first time, Own a unique, innovative business in your area with the most unique, innovative product in America today. Work less a each week, with the potential to earn $100,000 a year. There is no selling, and the opportunity is not MLM multilevel marketing. Join a multitrillion-dollar market.
Case No. 2: Too Little, Too Soon
The Evidence (Again, an Actual Spam):
BUT NOW I CAN PENETRATE HARDLY AND GIVE THE PLEA SURE TO EVERY WOMAN!
The Charge: Too much information, inadvertently delivered.
The Verdict: Guilty! We suspect this spammer meant to describe his penetrative gifts with a different adverb: "hard." Although it does not end in -ly, "hard" is, indeed, an adverb in this sense. "Hardly," on the other hand, means "barely." And though we cannot speak for all recipients of penetration, we suspect the nigh-imperceptible sort is not the typical path to plea sure. It’s also possible the seller was using truth in advertising, which we generally applaud—but not when it’s unsolicited.
The Sentence: To wear a "Mister Softee" T-shirt in public (and to hang out with the guy who sent us an e-mail with the inadvertently funny subject line: THE ONLY SOLUTION TO PENIS ENLARGMENT! [Sic]).
Case No. 3: Talking Like Latka Gravas on Taxi
The Evidence (Actual E-mail):
ANATRIM—THE UP-TO-THE-MOMENT AND MOST ENCHANTING LOSE FLESH PRODUCT IS NOW READILY AVAILABLE—AS TOLD ON BBC.
DO YOU RETAIN ALL THE SITUATIONS WHEN YOU SAID TO YOUR-SELF YOU WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR BEING SAVED FROM THIS FASTLY GROWING POUNDS OF FAT? HAPPILY, NOW NO MAJOR SACRIFICE IS EXPECTED. WITH ANATRIM, THE GROUND-BREAKING POUND-MELTING MEDLEY, YOU CAN GET HEALTHIER LIFE STYLE AND BECOME REALLY THINNER. HAVE A LOOK AT WHAT PEOPLE WRITE!
"I HAD WEIGHT PROBLEMS SINCE A BOY. YOU CAN’T EVEN FANCY HOW I ABHORRED BEING DERIDED AT SCHOOL. I HATED THE WEIGHT AND I ABHORRED even MYSELF. AFTER TRYING MANY DIFFERENT REMEDIES I HEARD ABOUT ANATRIM. THIS STUFF LITERALLY PULLED ME OUT OF THIS TERRIBLE NIGHTMARE! MANY AND MANY THANKS TO YOU, MY FRIENDS."
—MIKE BROWN, BOSTON
"DO YOU KNOW WHAT? ANATRIM PRESERVED MY MARRIAGE! I WENT INTO THE CIRCLE, DEPRESSION—MORE EATING—JUST MORE DEPRESSION. MY WIFE WAS ABOUT TO LEAVE ME AS I WAS TURNING IN OVERWEIGHT PSYCHO. MY FRIEND SHOWED ME WEB SITE AND I CALLED FOR MY PACK OF ANATRIM AT THE SAME TIME. THE RESULT WAS EXCELLENT, MY APPETITE CAME TO NORMAL LEVEL, I WAS OFTEN IN A GOOD MOOD, AND, CERTAINLY, I WENT SOME BELT HOLES BACK. AND YOU SEE ME, THE BEDROOM BECAME COOL, TOO!"
THERE IS A LOT OF THANKS LEFT BY DELIGHTED PEOPLE TAKING ANATRIM. WHY DON’T YOU JOIN THE THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF SLIM BUYERS AND TRY THIS NATURAL APPETITE-SUPPRESSING ENERGY BOOSTING PRODUCT NOW!
DO NOT DECLINE THE PREPOSITION!
The Charges: We’re throwing the book at them. Literally. And we don’t care if it leaves marks. That’s how much is wrong with this.
The Verdict: Guilty of crazy-talk and repetitiveness.
The Sentence: A proposition they cannot decline, namely, a sound lashing with Luis’s belt, now that he’s too "thinner" to wear it.
Case No. 4: This One Left Us Speechless
Statistically speaking, it was inevitable that one properly composed spam would penetrate the e-universe. Here is that lone correct junk mail, recorded for posterity. Note: We’re still not interested in the product.
IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM GETTING OR KEEPING AN ERECTION, YOUR SEX LIFE CAN SUFFER. YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT YOU’RE NOT ALONE. IN FACT, MORE THAN HALF OF ALL MEN OVER 40 HAVE DIFFICULTIES GETTING OR MAINTAINING AN ERECTION.* THIS ISSUE, ALSO CALLED ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION, OCCURS WITH YOUNGER MEN AS WELL!
YOU SHOULD KNOW THERE IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. JOIN THE MILLIONS OF MEN WHO HAVE ALREADY IMPROVED THEIR SEX LIVES WITH VIAGRA!
* Note: This is correct as "erection," and not "erections." Though men are plural, they still only want one each—or so we fervently hope.
Excerpted from Things That Make Us [Sic] by Martha Brockenbrough
Copyright © 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.