English on the chopping block

House majority leader Dick Armey, defending the conservative position on social issues, commented recently, "Both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible."

Allen Quist, a Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota in 1998, stood before a group of real estate agents and said, "Thank you for inviting myself to this forum."

What's going on here? Does anyone know how to speak proper English anymore? Does anyone care about the decline of the language?

This "myself" affectation even rears its ugly head on National Public Radio - that bastion of literacy. Ira Glass, host of "This American Life," ends each show by stating, "This program was produced by Nancy Updike and myself."

I complained to Mr. Glass. He responded that while he knows the rules of grammar "and how they apply to this particular case," the grammatically correct way "doesn't sound like the way people normally talk."

The "everybody does it" defense - on NPR!

Just as "myself" often shows up incorrectly, so does "I." Several people have said to me, "Just between you and I..." An ad for a Minneapolis radio station implores, "Join Guy Green and I every Sunday night for 'Fantasy Football.' "

Another grating English misusage is what the St Paul Pioneer Press calls "the verbing of America." It's the pervasive transformation of perfectly good nouns into awful verbs.

In its "Bulletin Board" feature, the Pioneer Press compiles reader reports on this. Recent contributions include "columnize," "voucherize," "incentivize," "concretize," and "Cecil B. DeMilled."

Of course, the most ubiquitous of them all is the use of "impact" as a verb.

A publication by the Minnesota Housing Partnership states, "The impact of the housing crisis will impact the Twin Cities for generations to come." A recruiting ad by Medtronic (a pacemaker manufacturer) exhorts, "Impact a life every 20 minutes!" A temporary help agency advises, "Impact your career!" A colleague once said to me, "This ad isn't very impactful."

Even CNN's Wolf Blitzer has gotten into the act, asking "How will the election impact the impeachment process?"

David Fryzell, a columnist for Writer's Digest, sagely notes that "impact" as a verb smacks of jargon, "the kind of word a university administrator would use to avoid actually saying anything. It lends itself too easily to obfuscation: 'The policy will negatively impact the poor' seems a mealy-mouthed way around saying, 'The policy will hurt the poor.'"

And what does this horrible bastardization mean? Helped? Hurt? Rescued? Damaged? And what's wrong with good old "affected," anyway?

Incorrect usages of apostrophes litter the landscape. Every day, I drive by a billboard for "University Auto Sale's." Many people named Johnson or Smith put "Johnson's" or "Smith's" on their mailbox. A sign at a Goodwill says "Donation's accepted."

Similarly, many businesses neglect to include apostrophes, such as "Fishers Donuts" and "Todays Employment." Plenty of college students don't know the difference between "its" and "it's." Some even use "its'."

But can we blame them? After all, American students live in a culture where ABC News omits the comma between cities and states, and where "Jeopardy!" (supposedly for eggheads) doesn't know that commas go inside quotation marks.

Students also live in a culture in which a gasoline station issued the following notice: "We are currently going through several in-store price increases, some are increases while others are decreases, you may find that the price on the shelf does not match the price at the register."

In his classic essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell warned that banalities reflect a corrupted political culture. Unfortunately, banalities abound in common English usage. Merchants offer "free gifts." "I could care less" somehow indicates indifference. People agree to meet at "9 a.m. in the morning."

Red McCombs, owner of the Minnesota Vikings, said of rookie receiver Randy Moss (who has a troubled past), "He's been well-recepted here." (Or, as some might say, "The people of Minnesota love professional athletes who play good, irregardless of their background. Of course, I may have errorred.")

The decline of the English language mirrors an ignorance and mediocrity in American society.

Marion Barry, mayor of Washington, D.C., once said, "Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country." No episode of "Jerry Springer" is complete without a brawl or chair toss. Each year, the Naval Academy pays tribute to the midshipman finishing last in the class. In Massachusetts, 59 percent of public K-12 teachers recently failed eighth grade math and reading tests. Millions paid $39.95 to watch Dennis Rodman wrestle Karl Malone.

While I'm appalled by many linguistic trends, I'm no purist. I don't care about the distinction between "who" and "whom." I applaud the recent edict by the Oxford University Press that split infinitives are perfectly acceptable. I have no idea how to diagram a sentence.

But I do know that Dick Armey should have said, "Both Senator Lott and I believe strongly in the Bible."

* Ted Rueter, who has taught political science at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., was most recently a strategist for a Democratic candidate for governor of Minnesota.

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