25 September 2023

Linguistic fussbudgets, pedagogues and scolds.

I revere the English language.  My parents taught it to me early on, and I still like the way it sounds.  I wish I spoke other languages, but I’m lucky to have English, since almost everyone around the world speaks it well enough to get by.  I do have adequate Spanish, Italian or French to trot out briefly, just long enough for the other person to take pity on me and continue in English, happy with my attempt.

I know it’s my native tongue, so I’m not entirely objective, but linguists agree it has a lot going for it.  For one thing, English is astonishingly promiscuous.  It will copulate with any other language and produce lively, hybrid offspring.  It’s Open Source.  Anyone who wants to suggest an alteration can have at it.  Whole subcultures have made important contributions, rarely acknowledged except through their enduring modifications. 

(I believe African Americans have had a greater influence on our contemporary language than any other group.  Though that’s a subject for another essay.)

France has an old and venerated institution called the Académie Française which is charged with anchoring the French language somewhere in the 19th century.  Which is one reason why the Lingua Franca of the world’s academic, commercial and governmental interactions is now, ah, the Lingua Anglaise. 

A central principle of linguistics is that languages evolve.  If you don’t think that’s the case with English, you’re backing a losing proposition.   All you need to do is sample 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century literature to see how true this is.  

That’s why efforts by English purists are not only absurd, but completely doomed to failure.  You may as well decide that a particular bacterium, currently occupying a petri dish, is the ultimate expression of the species and inviolable in that form forever.  Wait a few minutes. 

That’s not to say that the inevitable changes should just proliferate at will.  A certain discipline applied to the progression is not a bad idea.  An organized, orderly, ongoing retreat.  Holding to certain standards in the short term, forcing the fresh iterations to prove their worth, or inevitability, makes the process civil and responsible.  It keeps English teachers, proofreaders and copy editors employed, and gives elderly pedants something to sniff about in their book clubs. 

It also saves us from the vast majority of unworthy alterations and contributions that are instead left to whither and die as the flood of variations are created, with only the sturdiest able to survive. 

Contrary to my haphazard application of proper grammar, syntax and usage, I belong to this volunteer cadre of English defenders.  I hold firm to “Those people love my wife and me.” As opposed to “Those people love my wife and I.”  In my world, a business downturn will never impact the economy.  Though it will have an impact.  Those dogs are never different than mine.  They’re different from mine. 

A new trend I’ve noticed is to forego the plural form of there are, or there’re, for the singular, however many items follow along.  “There’s hundreds of people showing up every day.”  Versus, “There’re hundreds of people showing up every day.” I’ve caught myself doing this as well, appalled.  Though what it teaches me is that common parlance is a powerful thing, creeping into our minds and words despite efforts to keep it at bay. 

I apply these faltering principles to my speech and writing, but never in correcting others.  All they’re doing is participating in the relentless, unstoppable march of language evolution.  Nobody’s fault and no ones responsibility to police (except in France).  


  1. Thoughtful essay. I resist change, primarily because it eventually tends to render literature written in the past difficult to appreciate. On the other hand, we have the Vikings to thank for making English an uninflected language.
    Edward Lodi

  2. I was once speaking with a well-educated European man who said to me, "Many of us, from all classes, speak two or more languages here. We don't understand why you English can't master the grammar of one."

  3. I know, I know. I try to use correct grammar whenever I'm writing from an authorial point of view. However, my characters use slang, bad grammar, etc., as would befit them. Sometimes it gets VERY bad.
    And Melodie, what a GREAT comment from that European!

  4. Great post. I love that language changes over time. Spice of life stuff.

    Re: Europeans, etc., it's darn impressive to be facile in multiple languages vs. being dogmatic about one. I wish I'd mastered this versus just being the overseas muddler that I am.

    1. My greatest regret is failing to hold on to the Spanish I learned from my mother and brother, who learned it mostly from a Mexican uncle who helped raise my mom. Europeans have it all over us on this front, though I think we're handicapped by lack of necessity, since English really is the universal tongue

  5. "There's" type structures show up in my writing, but I usually manage to edit them out. Ugh!

    A couple of comments about français: French visitors to Quebec have commented their language truly is rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries. But French shines in the United Nations. Because it's more precise than English, UN source documents are written in French. In case of disputes, authorities turn to the French version.


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