I don’t know if I will ever be in the market for such a vehicle, but the Toyota RAV4 has earned my respect thanks to a television campaign now underway.
It’s the commercial that begins with two people discussing whether the phrase should be “couldn’t care less” or “could care less.” Since I fancy myself as something of a wordsmith, you might expect me to focus on this part of a car promotion — as opposed to less important things like fuel mileage, dependability, horsepower, resale value, safety ratings, or cup holders.
The man in the commercial says “could,” and the woman tells him it should be “couldn’t.”
I land on the side of “couldn’t.” Saying that phrase using “could” doesn’t make any sense, but I acknowledge that it is commonly used. If you “could care less,” you still have a measure of caring. If you “couldn’t care less,” your reservoir of care is empty.
Our language is a fluid entity, and I understand that, so common usage — once deemed improper — eventually finds its way into dictionaries all the time. This is how idioms develop. They don’t make sense when taken literally, and they certainly don’t translate into other languages accurately, but there they are. Every language has them, I suppose.
The irony that this “could-couldn’t” controversy was selected to be in a commercial for a vehicle whose name is shorthand for “Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive” is not lost on me. Not all RAV4 cars are equipped with 4-wheel drive. But I digress.
The widespread use of written digital communication, as opposed to the spoken word, has led society down a dark and dangerous path. The English language as we know it hangs in the balance. There was once a time when misuse of English made a person look ignorant. Now, few people seem to care. It’s almost as though as long as the essence of the message comes across, its form doesn’t matter.
Everywhere I look, things are beginning to unravel. Even Garrison Keillor retired this summer from the radio program “Prairie Home Companion,” so I don’t know what will happen to his Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM).
I will amend this rant by conceding that even smart people misuse our language. Others can judge whether that “smart people” group includes this writer, but I know I’ve been guilty many times. Yes, it happens, especially in casual conversation, and I usually know better. Lazy, uninformed and just plain sloppy thinking can result in things that embarrass you after you realize what you’ve done. At least, it embarrasses me.
We live at a time in history when people would rather spend a few minutes typing out a text message or email, when they could instead spend a few seconds and place a phone call. So, the sheer volume of written communications makes it more likely that words will be misused. In addition, the speed with which most of these messages are created adds to the percentage of unforced errors, even when the writer knows it’s wrong. Let’s not even go into what an invention called “auto-correct” can do to you.
In our rush, the temptation to replace real words with special lingo, numerals or homophones grows as well. People who text frequently have developed their own vocabulary of terms, abbreviations, acronyms and such that leave uninitiated recipients scratching their heads. IMO, there must be hundreds of these shortcuts, and standardization is sometimes sketchy.
But let’s assume you really want to come across as someone who paid attention in English class. If so, here are a few words you need to review so you will know when to use which, and when not.
The experts who track these things say the distinction among the words “two,” “to” and “too” is getting blurred in casual written communications. I might add the numeral “2” to that list.
Then there’s the ever-popular “your” and “you’re.” I’m convinced I see those two used incorrectly on Facebook more than any other error.
Additional words that are similar in appearance or sound, but mean different things, are likewise swapped at will. We have, for example, “lose” and “loose,” “accept” and “except,” and especially “their,” “there” and “they’re.” These were trouble-makers before the dawn of digital communications.
I write “especially” on that last example, because it is a personal roadblock. Colleagues here at the Bulletin through the years will attest that of all my weaknesses, the misuse of “there” words may be my greatest. At least, it’s the weakness most often demonstrated.
I know the difference, I promise. But when the hour is late and a deadline is near, someone please protect me. I will invariably type “there” when I mean “their,” and the other way around. I’ve come to the point that I accept this tendency to the point that whenever I feel the need to use one of those words approaching, I slow the pace of my typing… and deliberate on it. Sometimes, I just have to let myself type the wrong word, and then go back and correct it.
Their-they’re-there. That feels better.
On a deeper level, consider that “fewer” compares numbers of things, and “less” involves amounts or volumes. Purists debate the use of “over” and “more than,” but most have given up the fight on that. By the way, do you use “try and find” or “try to find?”
The “me” or “I,” “him” or “he,” “her” or “she,” and “who” or “whom” puzzle is actually simple to understand. Once learned, you have it for life. Sadly, it is misused so often, correct usage often feels awkward, if not presumptuous.
We have “can” and “may,” “affect and effect,” “capital” and “capitol,” “led” and “lead,” “lay” and “lie,” as well as “then” and “than.”
If you are unclear on the differences between these words, and when one should be used instead of the other, it’s time to refresh your homework from eighth grade.
That’s assuming, of course, that you even care. Caring may be at the root of the lost art of proper use of the English language. From reading many public outlets, it appears many people don’t.
What’s even worse, people take offense when someone dares to correct their (got it right the first time) mistakes.
Nevertheless, protecting the English language is a noble cause, even though its defenders seem to be dwindling. Thankfully, Toyota’s ad department and members of POEM are doing the best they can, and I applaud them for it.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.