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Jane Ahlin, Published September 28 2013

Ahlin: Surely the newspaper should get grammar right

Worried about world peace or global warming, antibiotic-resistant super-germs or extraterrestrial life? The world applauds you. Find solutions (find Martians?) and a Nobel Prize may be in your future.

Worried about what is happening to grammar? Forget popularity and prizes but come sit by me. Although others find our preoccupation with syntax boring and unnecessary, we know there’s nothing persnickety in our concern for careless language. Among hopeful things I’ve learned through feedback to this column is the fact that Forum readers bristle at bad grammar. (Surprise, surprise, we grammar groupies comprise a larger bunch than most people think we do.)

Grammatical mistakes on the front page of the newspaper particularly set readers off. Take these two recent examples:

1. “He only shops in Moorhead.”

2. “Most of the seniors also plan on attending 4-year colleges.”

The first example – “He only shops in Moorhead” – contains a misplaced modifier. Because the placement of “only” is incorrect, the statement is confusing. The news article that follows makes clear the headline was meant to say that the only place the man shops is in Moorhead. Therefore, the line should read, “He shops only in Moorhead.”

The grammatical explanation for the mistake is that “only” is a limiting modifier and limiting modifiers should be placed in front of the words they modify. When “only” is in front of the verb “shops,” the sentence says that the man does nothing else in Moorhead other than shop. He doesn’t walk in Moorhead or talk in Moorhead or eat dinner in Moorhead. “He only shops …”

For the sentence to correctly reflect the news article, “only” must limit where “he shops,” which is “in Moorhead.”

The second example – “Most of the seniors also plan on attending 4-year colleges” – is tougher because the grammatical problem is unidiomatic (nonstandard) language. As speech forms, idioms follow no hard and fast rules. We say, “Go to bed,” or “He is in trouble.” But we don’t say, “Go to bank,” or “He is in hospital.” We put “the” before some nouns that follow prepositions and not before others. In fact, sometimes the use of “the” depends upon which preposition is used. We say, “He’s in bed,” but we don’t say, “He’s on bed or he’s under bed.”

In the example from the newspaper, “plan on attending” is nonstandard. The correct phrase is “plan to attend.” In the same vein, “intend to do” is correct; “intend on doing” is not. (Another common mistake is using “try and” instead of “try to.” Incorrect: “He will try and get to the Bison game.” Correct: “He will try to get to the Bison game.)

The news article headlined with the “plan on attending” error concerned a survey taken by seniors at Fargo high schools. Along with the article, three of the questions posed to seniors were listed with accompanying graphs showing the percentage of students answering one way or another. Interestingly, one of the questions written by Fargo schools for the survey and shown with a graph in the article included the same error as the headline.

The question posed to seniors: “Where do you plan on working?”

To be grammatically correct, the question should ask, “Where do you plan to work?”

Perhaps by now a different question comes to mind: When does common usage change nonstandard language into standard language? After all, language always is evolving and changing, and rules change with it. No matter how much rules change, however, there always will be rules.

Believe it or not, satisfaction for grammar lovers isn’t about self-righteous “gotcha” moments. Satisfaction comes from understanding what makes language strong and striving to keep it that way – even though we’ll never get to say, “Hold the applause.”

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.