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No excuse for language abuse

My mother once said she thought a clear sign of intelligence was adaptability.

I must be dumber than dirt.

Even if I'm able, I'm definitely unwilling to adapt to the new English language some professional communicators now use. You know, the one in which modifiers dangle unmoored from their objects, homonyms suffice if they can't think of the words they really want and apostrophes wander around like Israelites in the desert?

I don't care if somebody ends a sentence with a preposition, and to me, good grammar is like pornography--I can't always define it, but I know it when I hear it. I couldn't explain the difference between the nominative and dative cases if I were being held hostage at a texter's convention. But when I'm not sure if my compound object requires a singular or plural verb, I care enough to ask my overeducated Ph.D. friend Tom, who is charmed by such questions the way fantasy baseball players are charmed by on-base percentage stats.

Yes, language is evolutionary. But there's a difference between language dynamism and language laziness. One is thoughtful and respectful of its progenitor; the other is ignorant and untroubled by it.

Sometimes, a failure to communicate properly isn't about ignorance or disrespect, it's about economics. The diminishing ranks of copy editors at mainstream newspapers are less the language monitors of yore than assembly line workers most valued for their speed. Sometimes, speed kills. Remember the Los Angeles Times headline that read, "Nuclear weapon drivers may have drank on duty"?

Sometimes, though, poor communication reflects sloppy thinking. When you've been entrusted by a business to communicate its interests, how can you justify being other than a careful custodian of the language that conveys your message?

Content providers (formerly known as writers and editors) receive a daily tonnage of email sent by publicists pimping their clients. If I were fair, I'd note that PR people have a hard job. These folks are widely disparaged in newsrooms as desperate, shallow and unclear on the concept of news.

The life-threateningly funny Gene Weingarten, a columnist for the Washington Post, once staged a competition among PR reps to determine just how desperate they were for ink. "[S]ome of you might call this experiment cruel," he wrote. "However, others might call it very cruel."

He promised PR people he would write about their clients if they would confide something personally humiliating about which he also would write. The more humiliating, in his opinion, the more client ink.

If you think this isn't fair, consider that a remarkable number of flacks agreed to the trade. Here's an excerpt:

"My husband dumped me for a younger woman. ... She was a blonde. ... A secretary. And I'm not ugly! And..." Lisa showed no signs of stopping, until I informed her she'd made the cut.

Lisa represents Houles, Europe's largest manufacturer of trimmings, fabrics and decorative accessories. Houles has a new line of richly colored, lavishly textured pillows that, in my professional judgment, provide an exciting, affordable ensemble for any living room or den.

Long ago I received a hard-copy press kit so memorable it made fun of itself. The account executive, Peter Packer, worked for a company on Chicago's East Wacker Drive that was promoting ... a penile implant.

If it's not fair for smug journalists to make fun of people only for trying hard to do their jobs, I believe we have complete license to call them to account when their appeals for coverage are barely literate.

A publicist wants me to write about her client's clothing line. Here's her pitch:

Since the Silicone Valley boom pushed in graphic tees, turtle necks and jeans, Casual Friday has established itself in boardrooms everywhere. Despite its acceptance, there are critics who believe there isn't room for casual dress in the office.

40% of companies now subscribe to Casual Fridays while only 9% of US workers wear formal business attire. Like the proposed ban on sleepwear taking place in Louisiana (USA Today), pajamas and dress pant sweats aren't the real issue.

Most of the Casual Friday debate falls on basic common sense (read: rationale fear of indecent exposure), context and company culture. Whether office sartorialist or corporate casual, wearing PajamaJeans to the office isn't the end of workplace productivity, just a compromising way of mixing comfort and professionalism. Some consider PajamaJeans insane (and ingenious), but they might just be the last thing standing between business casual and open toed sandals.

I'd love to send you a sample of PajamaJeans (www.pajamajeans.com) to dress up and try out. For Wall Street bank and Palo Alto tech startup alike, PajamaJeans and dress sweat pants are more reasonable than tank tops and Capri's. Look forward to hearing from you.

Lots of people confuse silicon used for computer chips with silicone used for breast implants. Lots of rational people sometimes suffer word identity crises, and sometimes the rationale is that English is not their first language. Lots of people write the way they talk, in tortured lines of illogic and allusions only they understand.

But when lots of these people are communications professionals, I take umbrage. I think it is their job, as it is the job of a journalist, to be accurate, clear and careful with diction, syntax and punctuation.

I like using the tool of English well. I like being a skilled craftsman. It's how I make a living. My resistance to adapting to duller tools isn't about being a snob. It's about watching my livelihood--crafting the language product--lose its value in the communications market.

Or am I just too dumb to adapt to standards of communication used by a close-enough culture?


More by Ellen Alperstein:
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