Tag Archives: changing language

Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Singular or Plural?

I often hear people talk about a phenomenon, which refers to one thing or situation, when they need the plural of phenomenon—which is phenomena, referring to more than one thing or situation.

• Global warming is a potentially disastrous phenomenon.

• The phenomena that contribute to global warming are being studied extensively in hopes of avoiding worldwide catastrophes.

Another pair often misused are criteria (plural) and criterion (singular). If you have only one standard that must be met, you want criterion.

But here’s one you can stop worrying about: datum. That’s the singular of data. Today, data is used for both singular and plural.  Why? Because common usage changes all languages. However, if you are using data as a plural, make your verb plural also:

The scientific data are unequivocal that ocean temperatures are rising rapidly.

 

 

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What Constitutes a Sea Change?

 

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 of his Last Will and Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, it never occurred to me to be a STEM major. In fact, that acronym hadn’t been invented. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Word on the street today is that if you are not majoring in one of those areas, you might as well crawl into a cave with your literature, philosophy  and history books and be happy and useless away from society. I contend that liberal arts majors have much to offer, even in today’s STEM-heavy environment: they are well rounded and can think and write clearly and logically.

Which brings me to Shakespeare. As a senior, I took a Shakespeare seminar with the best professor I ever encountered—as an undergraduate, graduate student or as an English teacher myself. (I’m talking about you, Joseph Kramer.) He once made the statement that any three lines of Shakespeare could be read as a microcosm of the world, and went on to demonstrate that point repeatedly and brilliantly.

Which brings me to today’s jargon. Previously, I wrote about clichés and jargon that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course they weren’t clichés at the time of their origin, but they did catch on. A prevalent cliché, a bit of jargon, these days is “sea change.” I see it everywhere; no simple “changes” exist any more. They are all monumental, life-altering “sea changes.” If the price of oil were to drop five dollars a barrel, that would be a sea change. If Donald Trump were to fix his comb-over to the right rather than to the left, that would be a sea change. (If he were to remove the small animal that lives atop his head, I would grant that truly would be a sea change.)

The phrase originated in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” Here is how he used it:

                                                    Full fathom five thy father lies,

                                                          Of his bones are coral made:

                                                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:

                                                          Nothing of him that doth fade,

                                                   But doth suffer a sea-change

                                                   Into something rich and strange.

We’ve lost the hyphen and also lost—or changed—the meaning. Until quite recently, “sea change” indicated an enormous transformation. Now, any old change will suffice. I wish the original meaning were still appreciated.  How long until someone writes about “an enormous sea change”?

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How Urgent?

In a post in my Next-door group, someone wrote about a topic she said was of the “upmost urgency.” I have to smile; it probably makes more sense to most people than the correct phrase, “utmost urgency.” “Utmost” means to the greatest extent; therefore, because “up” indicates an increase, “upmost” could mean the most effort or extent of interest in a topic.

This is how language changes, folks. Maybe “upmost” won’t be adopted this week, but check back with me in 50 years. (I might not be able to answer you, but I’ll try my upmost.)

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Test Your Pronunciation

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For language lovers only! Here is a poem, “The Chaos,” written in 1922 by Gerard Nolst Trenité. He used 800 words that illustrate the absurdity of English spelling. My favorite is the British surname Cholmondeley: it’s pronounced Chumly. Go figure. “Take a deep breath and try your tongue on these:

“The Chaos” Gerard Nolst Trenité (1922)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
 I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
 Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
 Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
 Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
 But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
 Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
 Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
 Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable-admirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
 Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
 Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
 This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
 Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
 Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
 Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
 Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
 Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
Buoyant, minute, but minute.
Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
 Would it tally with my rhyme
If I mentioned paradigm?
Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
 Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
Rabies, but lullabies.
Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
 You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
In a linen envelope.
Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
 To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
Does not sound like Czech but ache.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
 We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
 Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice,
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
 Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,
Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
 But it is not hard to tell
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
 Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
 Pussy, hussy and possess,
Desert, but desert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
 Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
Cow, but Cowper, some and home.
“Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker”,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor”,
 Making, it is sad but true,
In bravado, much ado.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
 Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
 Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
 Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
 Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.
Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
 Prison, bison, treasure trove,
Treason, hover, cover, cove,
Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
 Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
 Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
 Evil, devil, mezzotint,
Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)
Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
 Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
Rhyming with the pronoun yours;
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
 Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
 No. Yet Froude compared with proud
Is no better than McLeod.
But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
 Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
 But you’re not supposed to say
Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.
Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
 How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
When for Portsmouth I had booked!
Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
 Episodes, antipodes,
Acquiesce, and obsequies.
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
 Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
 Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
Wan, sedan and artisan.
The th will surely trouble you
More than r, ch or w.
 Say then these phonetic gems:
Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.
Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em-
 Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
Lighten your anxiety.
The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
 With and forthwith, one has voice,
One has not, you make your choice.
Shoes, goes, does *. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
 Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,
Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
 Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners,
 Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
Puisne, truism, use, to use?
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
 Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
 Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.
Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
 Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
, Bona fide, alibi
Gyrate, dowry and awry.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
 Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
 Rally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
 Never guess-it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
 Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
 Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
Do not rhyme with here but heir.
Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
 With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.
Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
 Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
 Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
 G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
I of antichrist and grist,
Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
 Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
Polish, Polish, poll and poll.
Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
 Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying “grits”?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
 Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
 Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
Hiccough has the sound of sup…
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

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What to Call Half the Population

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ICK!

Are they females or women? In most cases, female is the adjective and woman is the noun. Referring to women lawyers is unnecessary; we don’t refer to men lawyers. In vocations that were until quite recently male, it may be necessary to write, for example,  female soldiers.

If you want to use female as a noun, reserve it for the following situations: for animals; when you don’t know if the person in question is a girl or a woman; and when describing a gathering that includes both girls and women.

It’s common for women to describe their close female friends as their girlfriends. It would be a very good idea for males to avoid calling women girls. And it grates on my ear when I hear women refer to their female friends as gals. Ick. But that’s just me.

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Who’s Murgatroyd? Or Betsy, Flynn or Riley?

All languages change through common usage. English is no exception. Do you remember any of these once often-used words and expressions?

Heavens to Murgatroyd
Heavens to Betsy
Jalopy
Hunky Dory
Don’t touch that dial
Carbon copy
Broken record
Hung out to dry (before clothes dryers, I’m guessing)
Gee willikers
Jumping Jehoshaphat
Holy moley
In like Flynn (again, who’s he?)
Living the life of Riley (another unknown person)
Not for all the tea in China
Spats, knickers, poodle skirts, fedoras, saddle shoes, pedal pushers
Pageboy, beehive and DA hairdos
Kilroy was here
I’ll be a monkey’s uncle
A fine kettle of fish
Pshaw!
Knee high to a grasshopper
Fiddlesticks
Don’t take any wooden nickels

And fifty years from now, many of today’s common expressions will be looked at as quaint and archaic.

See ya later, alligator! After a while, crocodile!

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