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Q & A Interview with Richard Lederer

Why is it that people nowadays speak so badly?
In part because proper usage is so little taught in schools and homes.  But I would emphasize that there's a lot of powerful and effective speaking and writing going on.

Where do they pick up bad habits such as using “at” at the end of a question, as in: “Where’s your brother at?” Isn’t it grammatically correct to leave “at” out altogether?
That kind of "at" is incorrect not because it's a terminal preposition but because it's completely unnecessary to the message.

Do you think it could be television or more recently, the Internet?
Skill in language is skill in code switching.  We might say, "How's it hanging" to our best buddy, but "Good morning Father Johnson" to our priest.  I have no problem with initialisms and other informal uses of English in cyberspace, as long as people know that a more formal standard English is required in other parts of one's life.

Are schoolchildren, in particular the ones you visit and talk to, expressing much interest in being able to speak correctly?
Yes, they realize, in a way, that to reap the full fruits of American civilization, they need master as best they can the dialect we call standard English.

Aren’t they being taught to write and speak properly in school?
In many cases, they are; in some, they're not.  The teaching of proper writing and usage is a crucial passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

Why do you think that punctuation and spelling is so drastically lacking nowadays? You only have to read some of the comments pages on websites to see just how bad this is.
Because these areas are less taught in schools and consistently violated in cyberspace.  Yet there's a good market for books such as SLEEPING DOGS DON'T LAY, which shows that people do want to speak and write correctly.

What can be done about people learning to write and speak properly so as not to embarrass themselves (or their companies) when trying to converse?
As William Faulkner said, the best way to learn how to write is to read! read! read!  Read challenging material written in effective English and strike your brain against the flint of such excellent writing to kindle the potentialities of your own style.

How did you get into the lingo business?
I've always loved words and began writing for the public as editor of my junior high school literary magazine and my high school newspaper.  I was a pre-med student in college and attended Harvard Law School.  I loved both courses of study, but not to be a language guy would have been to have wasted my sweetness on the desert air.  Fortunately, I made the switch so that there is very little distance between who I am (a verbivore) and what I do -- write and speak about language.

What's the worst mistake people make when speaking, in your opinion?
Insincerity is the worst mistake.  Regarding usage, confusing "lie" and "lay" and mispronouncing words, like "nuke-u-luhr."

When writing?
Same as above, except for the mispronunciation.

What message do you put out on your lecture tours?
Let's share the many joys of our glorious, uproarious, notorious, outrageous, contagious, courageous, tremendous, stupendous, end-over-endous English language.

Is there any hope for us?
Absolutely.  Despite rumors to the contrary, our language is alive and well and living in the mouths and keyboards of millions of effective communicators.  The American love affair with the English language has never been more passionate than it is right now.

Richard Lederer
April 2007

Visit Richard Lederer at his website for more information.

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