My Two Cents


It is the day before Thanksgiving. The world is settling in, thinking about turkey and ham and sweet potato casserole and dressing and all the other fixins. I am grateful about many things. But I’m also stubborn and contrary and difficult, and I detest Thanksgiving because of my distended family and the obligations, stress, and cooking that it entails. Like, I said, I am a thorny, willful woman. Instead of chatting on about T-Day, I am going to share my two cents (worthless as two pennies are today) about language and a few English things that please or annoy me.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know I mangle the langue all the time, but those are mostly deliberate errors and fit firmly into the stubborn, willful profile I’ve just provided.

Language has to change. It can’t stay hidebound and rule-bound, though some of us may want it to. Language has to be fluid, it has to evolve as culture evolves, it has to change, and even the *rules* of language have to change. With nearly 1.5 billion people speaking the English language, it must meet bend and grow to meet the needs of varying cultures and new inventions and the passage of time. Not too long ago, I read an article by a linguist on modern, English word usage and grammatical forms, and she was sharing about the great change of the English language and the horrors we are perpetrating on our language today. She was not a happy camper.

Do I like some of the recent changes? Ehhh, I’m not sure. I’m not going to gripe, mind you. If action needs to be taken, I’ll take a more determined stand than mere complaining. But I do miss some special things about language as it has evolved over the last few decades.

I was raised (in the dark ages, before computers in every classroom *gasp, gasp*) when kids were taught to diagram sentences. Every part of language had its own spot, its own direction, its own comfortable zone. It was a great way to show how language was put together, the way that words related to one another. Adverbs were the words that made sense of and explained and described the verbs. Simple. He ran quickly, she sat gracefully, the dog trotted slowly, the brown fox jumped quickly. Now, New York doesn’t want adverbs.

“No adverbs,” one editor told me. “Rewrite and remove nine-tenths of them.”

I miss adverbs from time to time. Yet, I must admit, that my writing takes on a speedier pace without them. Ly slows me down, slows my characters down, slows the pace of a building conflict down. Ly is closer to telling, farther from showing. I’ve learned to write without the little Ly, well…without so many of them, and its loss pushes me into the future and the changes of the language we can expect to see in the next century.

Thanks to the electronic age, I think words will be shortened, and the shorter spellings will be accepted into proper language. For instance, we all understand that, “No prob, bro,” means “No problem, brother.” I believe that the shortened versions will be accepted and will replace longer words. Does it bother me? Nope.

Prolly does bother me, and it’s used all the time. I like the word probably. I’ll keep using it. And there is no such word as *imformation* though the network newsperson used it last night. It’s *information*. I’ll take my stand on both of those and keep using the originals.

Another change to our language (and one I have decided I cannot and will not accept unless an editor forces the change down my throat) is the loss of the universal he. Back when women were less confident of their place in society, fighting to break through the glass ceiling, they burned bras and railed against the word he. “What about us? We count too! Say they! Use *they*!” So, now many writers mix the singular with the plural in ungainly sentences like, “Someone should dust the furniture, and they should vacuum too.” No. Not proper. (I cringe at thinking of myself as proper but just for this one small thing!) Someone should dust the furniture, and he should also vacuum. Being a totally emancipated female, the universal he doesn’t both me, and the idea of a man who cleans is immensely satisfying.

Anyone else want to avoid holiday thoughts for a while? While the turkey is cooking and the gravy is bubbling slowly (there’s an Ly!) and the pumpkin pies are cooling, do you have a language change you abhor, detest, revile?
Share with me!


15 comments to My Two Cents

  • As writers, it’s a crime for us not to have an opinion! One that always gets me is the word “ain’t”. Long held as ungrammatical, incorrect slang, the word was recognized and admitted into Webster’s a few years back. I don’t know if it’s managed to stay in, and while I don’t have a problem with the word as slang, it doesn’t seem appropriate to consider it an actual, official word.

  • I’m very much against novels written in netspeak. As far as I know, they’re only occurring in young adult right now, but my eyes start to spin when I have to read “OMG, teh nu boi is totes sexxors!” Or “Teh l33t haxor pwned u!” If people want to use it online, that’s up to them, but it has no place on paper, in my mind.

  • I despise universal he (it’s really “generic” he, but whatever). Not because I am some bra-burning maniac. I am not a feminist. Even if I was I’m not a women, so it’d be rather odd for me to go bra-burning. 🙂 The fact is, we’ve been using “they” for a very long time, since the 15th century at least.

    But, analytic arguments aside, it’s just what I grew up with. Everyone where I lived as a kid used it. I learned the “he” in school and in “proper” writing and speaking, but ‘snot part of my idiolect. I often get confused by it.

    But in general, I’m pretty loose with mah lang. Language is and always will be in constant flux, and while I accept that certain registers will always be prefered (though which these are is bound to change) in certain arenas such as writing, I’m not going to jump down anyone’s throat over it.

    Interesting things to consider.

  • But in general, I’m pretty loose with mah lang. Language is and always will be in constant flux…

    The trouble with being too loose with language is that we lose comprehension. Yesterday in the library, a student walked up to the desk and handed me a book. I asked, “Are you returning this?” and she nodded. I tried to check it in, but it wasn’t checked out to anyone. I asked if she meant to check it out. She waved a hand and said, “Check in, check out, I don’t bother with all those terms you use.”

    You see what I mean. By dismissing the proper words, she made it difficult for me to easily determine what she wanted. Language exists to allow communication, so when rules are ignored, that communication tangles up.

  • Mikaela

    I am probably a bit, um, flexible when it comes to grammar and spelling. It is natural, though. I was taught british spelling and grammar in school. Films and tv-series was american… so, yeah. I mix british and american english. But it is my second language…

  • Stuart, I love ain’t! But only in dialogue, internal and otherwise, and only as indicative of voice. Like you, I don’t like to see it in narrative.

    Misty, I haven’t seen that. I don’t want to see that. Bleagh. Sounds awful.

    Atsiko, *they* is perfectly acceptable and proper in language usage as long as all other verb forms and nouns also match it for plurality and do not appear in singular forms. It’s the mixing I find unplesant. I know others have no problem with it.

    Misty… OMG. My mouth fell open. Terms??? Bet she’ll change when she wants something and no one understands her. Hey! Next time just put the book aside and smile plesantly at her. Don’t help her clarify her wants, see what happens. And tell me, please!

    Mikaela, I can see that with the British and American influences spelling would be an interesting mix of choices. The second language concept, with the sentence structure differences involved from language to language, certainly would give you a lot to draw on in character voice.

  • I was taught to think of language is continually evolving and that the job of dictionaries and teachers of grammar is to describe what is rather than prescribe what should be. That said, I loathe (as I’ve said before) the shrinking of our vocabularies and the limited, generic words which have come to be overused in place of what has gone: “hot,” “cool,” “awesome” “all right” and the similarly bland modifiers that go with them: “pretty,” “totally” etc. I use them all, but they feel lazy and imprecise. My real vitriol is reserved for the encroachment of business speak cliche into everyday language: “thinking outside the box,” “the bottom line,” “shifting paradigms”,anything using “impact” as anything other than a noun. OK. I’m starting to get that crazy gleam in my eye. Will stop. Totally.

  • Yo. I get it, bro. It’s like, totally, um, not cool. You know?

  • I have to admit to being a total traditionalist when it comes to language. My older daughter is a wonderful writer and a precise speaker…most of the time. But when she falls into the all-lower-case online vernacular it drives me up the wall. A few non-formal things that I love: I’m a Northerner living in the South, and I have come to love “y’all”. It just works. And I love “all y’all” even more. I also love the hyphenated example-of-something-you-can’t-otherwise-name-thing, which I use quite a bit. And, something I picked up from A.A. Milne: I love capitalizing words to convey a certain self-conscious (perhaps undeserved) importance. Milne would use this when writing about Pooh’s recognition that it was time for a Morning Snack, or Piglet’s fear that there might be a Large and Dangerous Animal lurking ahead of them in the wood. Love it.

    Fun post, Faith. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Hey, David! Happy T-Day to you too.

  • Misty, that’s a little crazy. Being “loose” and being incomprehensible are two very different things.

    Mikaela, I mix up my British and American spelling all the time. I’m not sure what you mean by grammar differences?

  • Squeak

    I was a speech & debate geek for a few years. When I first started piecing together prepared speeches, my coach sent me back to rewrite them. He claimed that I was composing as if I were writing a paper instead of how I spoke. “Nobody speaks like that,” he pointed out and I gradually picked up the differences after a few tournaments.

    Now I’m having the opposite issue, trying to regain what it’s like to write for the primary purpose of reading off of paper. On the plus side, my concept of dialogue has improved.

    Also, drawing on a previous post, my “crutches” seem to be exclusively adverbs. The Ly crops up everywhere. I blame roleplay MUDs for that.

  • Atsiko, I agree, it was incomprehensible. And I bet it was said with a heap of snide, as if the kid were superior to the adult.

    Squeak, I agree. There is nothing so effective as a person who can debate and speak as if he is really talking to others. It is a gift seen in some preachers/teachers/politicians/actors etc. But it is a totally different style of communication from narrative (though I’ve found that both forms may communicate info that is totally fictional).

  • Robin

    I’m late, but want to chip in anyway.

    I shouldn’t have to read a book with Google handy so I can look up all the terms the dictionary wouldn’t even know. One popular author always makes me feel like I’m WAY out of the “cool” loop. I’m pretty sure I’m in her target demographic, but you can’t tell by the slang she uses.

    We need a gender neutral word for she/he/they. Why is only the plural gender neutral?

    I love how flexible the English language is (normally). I love that we can make up words like Muggle and steal words we like from all the other languages. Any new words, though, will need to be thoroughly explained for readers or that darn communication just ain’t happenin’.

  • >>We need a gender neutral word for she/he/they. Why is only the plural gender neutral?

    Yep, I agree. I’ve been thinking about making one up. Okay — I’ve been actively working on it but nothing is making me happy.