A Higher Standard? Maybe Not…

Jul 3, 2014 | 6 comments

Sydney-With-Medoras-Letters-in-H.A.-Espy-House-Library-1024x780With regard to English usage, I hold teachers and writers of published materials to a higher standard. Perhaps that is unfair, but since I fall into both categories, it’s a matter of ‘do as I do’ and not simply one of ‘do as I say.’ I try to make allowances for the ongoing changes in both spoken and written English, but my hackles automatically go up when I see words wrongly used.

Take the (non)words ‘journaling’ and ‘scienceing’ for instance. I’ve seen both in bold cut out letters being used as headings for elementary school bulletin boards. YIKES! I suppose the reasoning went something like “I have a Reading Corner so I can devote equal time to Journaling and Scienceing.” But ‘reading’ is a gerund – a verb, as in ‘to read’ with an ing ending that can function as a noun. As far as I know, neither ‘journal’ nor ‘science’ are verbs; they cannot be correctly used as gerunds. It’s just plain poor English.

As far as published works are concerned, the problems in print have geometrically escalated now that writers (and editors and is there even a job description called copy reader anymore?) have discovered spellcheck. As we all know, it’s a wonderful tool, but a tool with limitations.

IMG_7094Yesterday’s paper had a doozy in it and right smack dab in the middle of the front page, too. The sentence began: Each year Pacific County District Court clerks receive a couple letters from drivers… That’s as far as I got on my first attempt. Where was the ‘of’ as in a couple ofletters? But I am hearing and seeing that usage more these days and perhaps my hackles were sending an outdated message. So I looked it up.

 According to the online Merriam Webster dictionary: The adjective use of a couple, without of, has been called nonstandard, but it is not. In both British and American English it is standard before a word (as more or less) indicating degree <a couple more examples of Middle English writing — Charles Barber>. Its use before an ordinary plural noun is an Americanism, common in speech and in writing that is not meant to be formal or elevated <the first couple chapters are pretty good — E. B. White (letter)> <still operated a couple wagons for hire — Garrison Keillor>. It is most frequently used with periods of time <a couple weeks> and numbers <a couple hundred> <a couple dozen>.

According to The Language Portal of Canada, a website showcasing the use of English by our neighbors to the north: The use of a couple (without of) before a plural noun (a couple trees, a couple days, etc.) is a colloquial American usage. To Canadian ears, this expression may sound odd or uneducated. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary calls it “highly informal” and recommends that it be avoided in writing.

So, I guess I have to get over myself on that one. The usage is obviously changing and I need to re-train my hackles… But it ain’t easy.


  1. Stephanie Frieze

    Newspapers have long written to the lowest common denaminator of literacy, which is a shame given their platform for preserving English usage. In the last 25 years the Observer only haf a copy reader on a volunteer basis, who, like you, was upset with what she was reading. Dave would be great, but they can’t afford him.

  2. Bill Grennan

    Sydney, leave your hackles right where they are, right up there with mine. How you put down the written word says a lot about who you are and how lazy (unlazy?) you are. The use of a “couple trees” or ” couple days” should be limited to cases where you are quoting a person who speaks that way. And that’s my couple thoughts for the day.

  3. Cate Gable

    One of my ongoing pet-peaves is the non-standard use of gerunds — i.e. it’s a possessive that goes in front of a gerund: “We were all fond of his standing in line with the rest of us” rather than “him standing in line.” It’s a tiny thing but tells me a lot about the writer.

    And, yes, I bemoan so many sentences/phrases/mistakes in the CO. Often I send my column in and mistakes are politely added. Oy vey!

    • sydney

      Great point, Cate. YIKES! I wonder if I’m guilty of that one. I’ve never really thought about the correct possessive in front of a gerund. I wonder if I was taught that by my wonderful eighth grade English teacher, Miss Hamilton, or if it’s just one of those things you grow up hearing — either correctly or incorrectly.

      • Cate Gable

        I can’t remember every flinching either when you write or speak so I doubt you are a purveyor of the wrong possessive in front of a gerund—or any other language blooper for that matter!

        • Cate Gable

          Make that “ever.” Where is my proof-reader when I need her?


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