A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it into the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
—Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; Lynne Truss
The recent and widely spread tendency towards illiteracy has me immensely concerned. People everywhere are increasingly coming to accept “then” where “than” should be and spelling “awe” in the place of the affectionate exclamation “aww.” Most worrisome, most worrisome. And it has become even more sinister in that it is spreading to my own house. I had a verbal showdown with my younger sister today on the subject.
“No, no, no, no, no!” I thundered. “How many times do I have to tell you this? It’s a policeman. A POLICEMAN. NEVER a police!!”
“Why are you so crazy?” she demanded in her turn. “It doesn’t even matter!”
“Doesn’t matter?” I cried in a strangled voice and looking, I am sure, slightly mad. “Doesn’t matter? Of course it matters! How could it not matter? Language is the foundation of intelligent existence! It is important that you know these things!”
“They’re just words,” she shot back. “You’re the only one who cares.”
And at this point I lost the power of speech entirely and stood there as she left me in my shattered state. And I do not blame her for it. I will admit that I can become extremely fanatical on the subject of correct English, and had she stayed I am sure that I would eventually have become offensive.
But it is important! It is. I refuse to let go of my fanaticism. Language is not just words. Language is everything. Words are the only tool we have to understand reality and, indeed, each other! If we cannot use them with even the most basic level of competence, what will ensue? Anarchy. Life will fall apart, and we will become beasts. You no doubt think I am exaggerating. You are perhaps amused that the sight of a sign in a library (a library, mind) reading “Teen’s Computer” is almost enough to move me to genuine tears of anguish. Let me assure you that this is no laughing matter. When someone consistently misspells “lose” as “loose,” it is not simply a trivial mistake. It is an attack upon the very foundation of human understanding. And it's not because we're stupid, either. It's because we simply do not care enough to learn.
Language is one of the most powerful tools that any of us can possess. Americans (I know little of other peoples) vastly underestimate the power of a good speaker. History does not remember the brilliant or the beautiful or the brawny. History is full of men who had an exceptional ability to use words to their advantage. Indeed, history is written by these people. One cannot be taken seriously if one speaks and writes like a particularly dense foreigner. It alarms me that such an important— nay, an essential!— art is being so thoroughly neglected. Everywhere I look, I am confronted with new and hideous perversions of our beautiful language. “Its not a big Deal,” one person will write, while another proclaims that, “im wandering,” totally ignoring punctuation, capitalization, and, more seriously, the fact that the word he wants is “wondering.” Wal-mart smilingly assures us all that they “believe that good, works;” meanwhile, Golden Corral sinisterly posts signs all over kingdom come telling us what is on their “Senior’s Menu;” also, one mustn’t ignore the arresting command from Safeway: ‘“Attention Customers,”’ encased in gruesomely superfluous quotation marks.
People. This is not a joke. This is very, very serious. Leaders are never illiterate. People who speak more like drunken foreigners (not, of course, to imply that foreigners have a higher rate of alcoholism) than learned natives are not easy to take seriously. Even if you do not realize it, you will have a higher level of respect for and belief in the words of a man who can speak fluently. I myself have been told numerous times that I am smart, despite the fact that I did not stop believing in Santa Claus until the age of twelve, and then only when forced. This is because I can speak! I know how to use words well and elegantly. People are impressed by this, and they overlook my unfortunate inability to add fractions. But you understand, don’t you? You see why it is imperative that we Americans, especially, are fluent in our own language? People! If we cannot speak, we cannot lead! If we cannot write, we cannot be taken seriously! Good gracious, the United States of America is one of the last free places in the entire world! If our generation is peopled entirely by appalling dunces that cannot identify this symbol ’ as an apostrophe, we are in for a very grim time indeed. Our country’s freedoms will be lost in an abyss of ignorance because we were too lazy to learn how to share them with the world.
One last, impassioned plea, then. You may be tempted to dismiss this article as the fanatical ravings of an obsessive lunatic. Don’t. Just because an article is the fanatical raving of an obsessive lunatic doesn’t mean it’s untrue. I am therefore entreating you to take action. Please. If we lose the language, we lose everything. English is not “just words.” It is communication. It is understanding. We cannot allow ourselves to remain ignorant in this matter. This is serious. There’s a reason, you know, that Jesus was called the Word. Correct spelling and punctuation and grammar aren’t simply a preference of the snobby bourgeoisie. They are power. The world’s leaders are not brilliant or talented or beautiful. At least, they may very well be all of these things, and more besides, but the reason they can steer the world is that they can communicate. That is what makes them exceptional. Words are not just words. They are so much more.