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Speakin’ and writin’ proper, like

IPFW student’s Let It Slide? offers a primer on English grammar

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-09-01


What’s wrong with this sentence: “You should of checked the tire pressure on you’re car.”

Or this one: “It’s bark is worse than it’s bite.”

Or this: “We’ll go to the game irregardless of the weather.”

If you couldn’t find any mistakes, then you should check out Let It Slide? a pocketbook-sized publication by IPFW biology student Derrick Okanga that collects 21 common grammatical and spelling mistakes that slip into our conversation and writing everyday. Even if you’re a stickler for correct English usage and spotted them right away (and they were sort of easy ones), this book is bound to have your pet peeve in there somewhere.

The book’s author, Derrick Okanga, really isn’t the kind of guy who will correct your grammar while you’re having a casual conversation with him.

In fact, Okanga claims he’s not especially picky about grammar during everyday conversations. “Initially, when I’d hear people using colloquialisms in formal settings, I thought it was just an individual slip of the tongue,” he says. “But then, I’d hear one person saying these things, and another person, and another person…”

The more he listened and looked for these everyday slips — the way some people will say “hows come” instead of “how come” (or just plain “why”), or the phrase “a lot” being written as “alot” — the more he saw how prevalent they were. His response is Let It Slide?

For example, Okanga writes that sometimes people will say “I did a 360” to mean they started out one way and ended up going the opposite direction. But turning around 360 degrees would actually send you in the same direction in which you started. What they mean is that they did a 180.

Or sometimes, people will pronounce “supposedly” as “supposebly,” which isn’t even a real word.

Okanga thinks that for the most part, people were taught the correct usage for many of these phrases and mistakes, but they’ve forgotten them or heard them said incorrectly so many times they don’t know the difference. “Sometimes, even people in the media say these things, so then you would think it’s appropriate,” he says.

Let It Slide? also taps into some common mistakes people make when writing, like mixing up there, they’re, and their, or its and it’s. The latter is a particularly common mistake, since “its” doesn’t use an apostrophe “s” to indicate a possessive. “’Its” is one of the hardest for people to write correctly,” says Okanga. “Like I explain in the book, if you can replace it with “it is,” then it works. If you can’t replace it or it doesn’t make sense, then you use the other form.”

Okanga is from Kenya, where English is almost as common as Swahili, the country’s national language. He considers English his first language. “I can say that, because that’s the language of instruction in schools and just about everywhere (in Kenya),” he says. “They teach you grammar and sentence structure from a very early age. They drill it in to you, so to speak.”

Okanga says he has never had any ambition to be an English teacher. He always excelled at English in school (in addition to English and Swahili, Okanaga also speaks French and his tribal language), and he wrote Let It Slide? to serve as a short, amusing refresher course for students and young professionals. He published the book himself, and says the response so far has been very good. “A lot of people seem to like it. I’m surprised. One common response I hear is they’ll find something (in the book) and say ‘oh, that really bothers me, too. That drives me crazy’ you know, when they hear someone say it over and over again.”

As to why a biology major thinks speaking and writing correct English is so important, Okanga says that clear communication is “really, really underestimated. When you’re reading something from someone else, why not just make it clear, make it sensible, so the other person doesn’t have to decipher it?”

Furthermore, according to Okanga, in a competitive market place you don’t have the luxury to assume other people will “know what you mean” or let your little mistakes slide. Potential employers are deluged with resumes; you may be the most qualified applicant for the job, but if a potential employer thinks that you can’t be bothered to check your grammar or spelling, you’re out of the candidate pool.

Finally, Okanga says English is one of the most common, if not the most common, languages in international business and science. Someone who speaks English as a second or third language is not going to understand your colloquialisms and slang anymore than you would theirs. “Clarity is essential.”

Okanga says he is thinking about a second book based on some responses he’s had from readers (“did you include this one? I hate that one…”) and other material he didn’t have space for in Let It Slide?

“I selected 21 because I didn’t want to bog people down with so many that they would be bored,” he says. “I just wanted to package it in a pocketbook — easy to read, easy to retrieve. But I already have content for a second book. Whether it will take the form of a pocketbook, I haven’t decided yet.”

You can find Let It Slide? at the IPFW bookstore, Book Mark on North Anthony, Convolution Records on Wells, and the local section at Borders.

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