Tuesday, May 12, 2015


For reasons I can't explain, I've been feeling the need to grouse about the evolution of the English language lately.  As a trained linguist, I know (or maybe I just ought to say I buy into the fact) that language standards are largely impotent attempts by power structures to maintain control, and language evolves on the basis of actual usage.  Language is, in the long run, what people say, not what somebody says they ought to say.

Language use conservatives may wail all they (we) like.  Sooner or later most of the “breakdown” in rules becomes a new standard.  In high school my English teachers were ruthless in not allowing me to split infinitives.  I don’t think young people today can even tell you what that means.  Teachers may still try to really convince you you ought to never split an infinitive, but they are fighting a losing battle.

And remember the sentence, “That is a situation up with which I will not put,” making fun of the rule that you never “use a preposition to end a sentence with”?  That, too, illustrates a rule that has fallen by the wayside.

At my local supermarket there are two fast lanes with signs declaring they are for people who have “Fewer than 12 items.”  I actually made a point of thanking the manager.  The fewer/less distinction seems to be falling by the wayside.  I am delighted some are holding on to tradition.

There is no logical or esthetic reason we should maintain the count/non-count distinction.  No reason we shouldn’t say “less people” and “amount of people” instead of “fewer people” and “number of people” respectively.  But I feel a twinge of sadness, a sense that the world is going to hell when people misuse words, whether in spelling – like discrete for discreet or pour over for  pore over (a mistake I made not so long ago in a blog) ­– or in word choice – like using the non-words like irregardless and firstly or choosing to say point in time when time is perfectly adequate.  Some insist firstly is simply more formal than first when used as an adverb, but what the hell does that mean? 

Why is it I have become so conservative about language use, I wonder.  I really care about the its/it's distinction and the placement of commas (and I always take criticism seriously from people who tell me I am an over-user) and about using lie-lay-lain as an intransitive verb and lay-laid-laid as its transitive equivalent, another rule apparently on its last legs.  I’m not only conservative; I’m chauvinistic when it comes to regionalisms.  In the part of the country where I grew up nobody would think of saying, “If you would have come, you would have had a good time.”  But in huge sections of the country, the sentence appears to be quite acceptable. 

Nothing new hear here.  Language is in flux.  The world is changing.  Sometimes you go with the flow, and sometimes you try to channel that flow or even damn dam it up entirely.  Usually you fail.  The flow’s the thing.

Like this article I just came across which inspired this rant:

A new survey from the  Pew Research Center indicates that the amount [sic] of American Christians is declining, while the amount [sic] of Americans who don't identify with any organized religion is increasing.

Oh well.  Lose a little here, win a little there.


Bukan Lagi said...

Language-use conservatives, not Language use conservatives.

The two sics should have been in square (editorial) brackets, not parentheses (may be mistaken for appearing in original text).

Punctuation standards are going to Hell, I tell you.


Bukan Lagi said...

"Going forward," "boots on the ground," "optics of the situation," all drive me up a wall.

And surely "drive me up a wall" was at one time such an irritating coinage for a previous generation.

Alan McCornick said...


You and your kind are the salvation of mankind. I have changed the parentheses to brackets. And I thank you.

Bukan Lagi said...

De nada, hombre.