This one’s been over and done with for a while. Despite what your high school English teacher may have drilled into your brain, there is nothing inherently wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition — especially if the alternative is clunky and awkward-sounding. When was the last time you asked someone, “From where are you?”
We all could benefit from being bolder about challenging the notion of “real” words. If we use a word and we write it down and we all understand its meaning, it’s real, plain and simple. Dictionaries record how people actually use words and sometimes they simply can’t keep up with the pace of change. The word adulting, for instance, is a word most of us have used for years by this point and know well, though you won’t find it in a current standard dictionary. You might also need to make up a word to convey an idea for which there is no “real” word in existence yet (maybe sciencey, not scientific, more accurately describes the sentiment you’re looking to express). And sometimes it just doesn’t matter whether you spell rollercoaster as one word or two; it’s understandable either way.
“Beg the question”, for instance, is a phrase derived from formal logic that means to make an assumption based on a premise that lacks evidence, or a kind of circular reasoning. But it’s just as fine used in its newfangled sense as a stand-in for “raises the question” — we can’t turn back time and undo this organic shift in its usage.
Not only does use of he or she or he/she erroneously suggest that only two genders exist, it’s also terribly stilted and clumsy-sounding. The singular, epicene they is here to stay, and it makes life for everyone a whole lot easier.
As an intrinsically cynical person, I’ll be honest — I don’t hate the subjunctive. A verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses something that is doubtful, wishful, or contrary to fact — aka using were instead of was (or adding the word had before a verb that isn’t was or were): “If I were to leave the house, I’d have to put on pants.” But I also accept the death of the subjunctive as imminent, because subbing in a was for were there (and in most other instances) works just as well and reads just as smoothly, albeit grammatically “incorrectly”.
In a world where things much worse than a straggling F-word are accessible via the fingertips of children, we’ve seen a shift in attitudes toward “casual-use” profanity for comedic effect or more dramatic emphasis — see, for example, BuzzFeed quiz “How Fucking British Are You?” or essential reading material “27 Trees That Don’t Give a Fuck About You Or Anything You Do.” We’d be much better off worrying about things that are truly offensive, like exclusive or derogatory language.
This depends on context, of course. No one cares if you don’t end a tweet or Instagram caption with punctuation, or if you choose to punctuate a sentence with an emoji instead, for instance. But in anything more than a few lines long, of course, full stops and other end punctuation marks serve an essential purpose — and they’re not going away any time soon.
Face it: You hate whom. (Go ahead, I won’t tell anyone!) Can you recall the last time you asked, “Whom is this for?” The worst offence is when whom is used incorrectly, in the subjective case — “They were not sure whom would do a better job” — a move made perhaps in fear of being judged for not using the correct form of the word. Let’s avoid the headache altogether and help whom see its way out; you can thank me later.
Brits can get rather sniffy about the English language – after all, they originated it. But a Google search of the word “Americanisms” turns up claims that they are swamping, killing and absorbing British English. If the British are not careful, so the argument goes, the homeland will soon be the 51st State as workers tell customers to “have a nice day” while “colour” will be spelt without a “u” and “pavements” will become “sidewalks”. The two versions of English are intelligible but have long had enough differences to inspire Oscar Wilde to claim:
We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.
My research examined how both varieties of the language have been changing between the 1930s and the 2000s and the extent to which they are growing closer together or further apart. So do Brits have cause for concern?
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, most of the easily noticeable features of British language are holding up. Take spelling, for example – towards the 1960s it looked like the UK was going in the direction of abandoning the “u” in “colour” and writing “centre” as “center”. But since then, the British have become more confident in some of their own spellings. In the 2000s, the UK used an American spelling choice about 11% of the time while Americans use a British one about 10% of the time, so it kind of evens out. Automatic spell-checkers which can be set to different national varieties are likely to play a part in keeping the two varieties fairly distinct.
There is also no need to worry too much about American words, such as “vacation”, “liquor” and “law-maker” creeping into British English. There are a few cases of this kind of vocabulary change but they mostly tend to be relatively rare words and they are not likely to alter British English too much.
The British are still using “mum” rather than “mom”, “folk” rather than “folks”, “transport” rather than “transportation”, “petrol” rather than “gas”, “railway” rather than “railroad” and “motorway” rather than “highway”. Words to keep an eye on, however, are lawyer, jail, cop, guy and movie – all of which are creeping into the lexicon more and more.
But when we start thinking of language more in terms of style than vocabulary or spelling, a different picture emerges. Some of the bigger trends in American English are moving towards a more compact and informal use of language. American sentences are on average one word shorter in 2006 than they were in 1931.
Americans also use a lot more apostrophes in their writing than they used to, which has the effect of turning the two words “do not” into the single “don’t”. They’re getting rid of certain possessive structures, too – so “the hand of the king” becomes the shorter “the king’s hand”. Another trend is to avoid passive structures such as “a paper was written”, instead using the more active form, “I wrote a paper”.
I’m rather fond of gradable adverbs
And some words are starting to be drastically eroded from English – especially a grammatical class called gradable adverbs which consists of boosters like “frightfully” and “awfully” and downtoners (words or phrases which reduce the force of another word or phrase) like “quite” and “rather”.
If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise – so “the worst day ever” is “things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be”. As the American critic Alexander Woollcott once said: “The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm.”
Classic films such as Brief Encounter are absolutely packed with gradable adverbs. Americans, on the other hand, tend to communicate in a more straightforward manner, telling it “as it is”. However, and here’s the thing, in all these aspects Brits are changing too – and in exactly the same way as Americans. They’re just about 30 years behind the trend that Americans seem to be leading.
So this raises a question, is British English actively following American English – copying its more economical, direct use of language – or is this something that is simply a global trend in language use? Perhaps we’re all just on the same path and the British would have gone in that direction, even if America had never been discovered? I’d like to think the latter but due to the large amount of American language that British people encounter through different forms of media, I suspect the former is more accurate.
These stylistic changes generally make for a more user-friendly version of the language which is accessible and easy to follow so they’re hard to resist. Except for the loss of those gradable adverbs, though – I’m slightly annoyed about that and would like to advocate that we keep hold of them. They’re a linguistic passport and also a marker of national character, so it would be rather lovely if we could hold on to them.
Sometimes it feels like we must be the snarkiest, slangiest, least-formal generation in human history. What other age could have coined the word chugger, invented ROFL and its many permutations, or seen vocal fryripple out from Kim Kardashian in an unstoppable wave?
This idea fits snugly next to that familiar prejudice about language: that it’s gradually deteriorating. And it is part of a broader cognitive bias that leads us to extrapolate from our own experience in order to make theories about the world. The linguist Arnold Zwicky has labelled it the “recency illusion” – “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent” (my italics).
Thankfully, there’s a big chunk of actual data on the history of English to check our assumptions against: it’s called literature. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the way people spoke, but it sheds light on the lexicon of the literate classes. The lack of a word doesn’t tell us it was never used, but the occurrence of one strongly suggests it was. In any case, hidden amongst the mass of written records of English are some real surprises. (Some of the examples that follow are taken from this Metafilter thread.)
As in intoxicated by drugs. It must be from the 1960s – the era of psychedelia, right? In fact, being “high – under the influence of a narcotic” appears in an edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1932. And when we confine ourselves to booze, we find the usage goes back much further. In 1627 Thomas May wrote “He’s high with wine”.
Speaking of which, booze meant “potable liquid” at least as far back as the 1730s, as in the phrase “peck and booz” for meat and drink. In terms of alcohol, the earliest reference found by lexicographers working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is Hotten’s 1859 compendium of slang. And a Daily Telegraph court report from 1895 goes as follows: “Mr Willis: ‘She heard some men shout that they wanted some more booze.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘What?’ Mr Willis: ‘Booze my lord, drink.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘Ah!'”
Stick this at the end of a statement to negate everything that went before it. “I’m really looking forward to spending time with my great aunt Iris. Not!”. Ask anyone who was a teenager during the 1990s how this caught on and they’ll probably refer you to the film Wayne’s World. But in the 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss there’s a very similar construction. “She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.” The OED records several further instances.
The verb hang out, meaning to spend time or live, is attested in this 1811 “dictionary of Buckish Slang“. “The traps scavey where we hang out” means “The officers know where we live”. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, from 1836, a character asks: “I say old boy, where do you hang out?”.
The use of this word to denote a dwelling place – linked in many people’s minds with African-American slang, particularly hip-hop subculture – has a long pedigree. The OED describes it as meaning “a small habitation, cabin, hovel; a narrow room.” In this last sense, Shakespeare has King Henry IV ask “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee … Than in the perfumed chambers of the great?”
The OED has found babe – as in sexually attractive female – back in 1915. The American Dialect Society’s journal of that year records the phrase “She’s some babe”.
To me, at least, this sounds like office speak. “Is this doable before close of play today?” an email might demand. But it’s a surprisingly ancient coinage. Bishop Reginald Pecock writes in 1449 of “a lawe … which is doable and not oonli knoweable”. Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary translates faisable as “doeable, effectable”.
The abbreviation of legitimate has a modern ring to it. Ex-cons in TV crime dramas struggle to go “legit” after they’ve served their time. But precisely this use is attested as far back as 1897, in the US National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit’,” it tells us.
The use of this phrase, which has a very recent flavour because of the saga of the September dossier, published in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, has plenty of precedents in printed material more than 70 years old.
OK, it’s not a word, exactly. But a joke in a letter to Winston Churchill may well have given the world its first taste of OMG – an exclamation so ubiquitous on the internet, and now even in speech, that it must be about to fall out of fashion. Given its practical, space-saving nature, who’s to say there aren’t thousands more private instances of early OMG out there?
This may be cheating. Unfriend, as used by Thomas Fuller in 1659 (He wrote: “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us”) clearly does not refer to the act of removing someone from one’s list of Facebook acquaintances. It does, however, mean the severing of a friendship – so maps quite closely onto Mark Zuckerberg’s word. It’s hardly a coincidence that they both chose the same construction, given the flexibility of the “un-” prefix. Just goes to show, there’s nothing new under the sun.
So why do we always fall for the idea that there is – and why does the recency illusion (a form of inductive reasoning) hold such sway, in language as elsewhere in life? This is probably down to the fact that it was very useful, from an evolutionary point of view, to be able to construct models of the world based on our individual experience of it. For example, not hunting on the side of the mountain where you were once bitten by a hyena could save your life. But what if the hyena attack was a freak occurrence, and the odds of it happening again extremely small? Personal encounters aren’t always the best guide.
Now we have data, historical accounts, advice from the past and from our peers. We don’t need to rely on gut feeling to tell us whether something’s true about the world. When we do so, we’re often wrong.
Another day, another linguistic bugbear held up for ridicule. This time, it’s the harmless, modest, blink-and-you-miss-it word “so”. What has this innocent syllable done to offend the British public? If you have been struggling to get through to the BBC recently it’s because their switchboard has been jammed with complaints about it.
Here’s Robert from Wakefield: “I have been increasingly irritated over the last couple of years by the increasing use of the word ‘so’ when prefacing a sentence.” (I know how you feel Robert, I’ve been increasingly irritated by the increasing use of the word increasing). And Kay from Belfast: “I don’t think ‘so’ is an appropriate word with which to begin a sentence.”
As for Fergus from Glasgow, it’s practically ruining his life: “Every time I hear it, the hair on my neck rises and my teeth bare in a grimace”. They have a champion in Today presenter John Humphrys, who believes that “The misplaced ‘so’ has invaded everyday speech like some noxious weed in an untended garden.”
I think I may have a cure for this allergic reaction, which has now reached the leader page of The Times. But first, let’s look at the causes. Prime among them is what linguist Arnold Zwicky has called “the recency illusion”, a tendency to assume that things you have noticed recently are in fact innovations. Very often, they’ve been around much longer than you think, as this list of new-sounding old words shows.
Listeners are upset about a particular use of “so” as a discourse marker – a way to introduce a sentence, or link parts of a narrative. I doubt they’d complain about “so” used to mean “as a result of” – as in the sentence: “He hit me, so I called the police”. (It’s worth noting at this point that discourse markers are perfectly respectable grammatical widgets found in virtually all languages.)
The idea that the discourse marker form of “so” represents any kind of “invasion” can be swiftly dispatched. As linguist John McWhorter points outin an episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley, it’s mostly used in casual speech. Casual speech isn’t often written down, so it’s easier to fall for the idea that this is a contemporary phenomenon – it doesn’t appear much in the historical record. But it does appear.
There’s a 1929 recording of a comedian Jack Osterman routine, for example, in which he says “So I said alright, we’ll go to the Ritz – so we walked in the Ritz, and we sat down.” That’s 88 years ago.
One place you can find casual speech written down is in passages of dialogue in novels. And, in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, published 117 years ago, one of Carrie’s suitors asks, “So you lost your place because you got sick, eh?”
But the real clincher? How about a poem from the 10th century? Beowulf, the Old English epic, starts with the words Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum. This has been translated as “What! We of the Spear-Danes in days-of-yore” – but, as McWhorter points out, “What”, although it is cognate with (etymologically linked to) Hwæt, makes no sense to modern English ears, and is therefore a poor translation. A better one, used by Seamus Heaney and others, is “so”– “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by”.
If it’s good enough for one of the greatest works of English literature, why isn’t it good enough for John Humphrys, Kay from Belfast, and poor Fergus?
Part of the reason is that we tend to feel alienated from linguistic and cultural changes that occur after our young adulthood. Although “so” isn’t new, it’s possible there’s been an uptick in its use as a discourse marker (it would be very difficult to know for sure, since research on usage is often done by analysing large amounts of written material). A simpler explanation is that it has begun to appear in contexts – like BBC Radio – where, for cultural reasons, delivery used to be more formal.
It’s probably this that sticks out to John, Kay and Fergus. However they might try to justify their dislike of so linguistically – it’s inappropriate, ungrammatical, a “misuse” of the word – what they are really expressing is upset at a cultural change, one they are powerless to influence, and one future generations will not care about.
They trouble is, now they’ve noticed it, they’ll be hearing it everywhere. Spare a thought.
If you’ve ever deliberately studied the English language — or, even worse, taught it — you know that bottomless aggravation awaits anyone foolish enough to try to explain its “rules.” What makes English so apparently strange and different from other languages, and how could such a language go on to get so much traction all over the world? Whether you speak English natively (and thus haven’t had much occasion to give the matter thought) or learned it as a second language, the five-minute TED-Ed lesson above, written by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowernand animated by Patrick Smith, will give you a solid start on understanding the answer to those questions and others.
Forget Brexit. Europe is facing an even more fundamental crisis: one of its major languages is en péril mortel (“in mortal danger”). If you take the French Academy at its word, within a few years 70 million EU citizens will be communicating using only grunts – or grognements, as they will no longer be able to say.
The cause? Political correctness gone mad, as usual. The academy, which is charged with the Canute-like task of preventing the French language from changing very much, is furious at the use of “inclusive language”, which attempts to get around the assumption of male superiority baked into French grammar. Because French, like many other languages, requires nouns referring to people to have masculine or feminine endings, if you’re describing a mixed-gender group, you’re forced to pick one. By convention, it’s the masculine. So a group of, say, six MPs – one man and five women – would be called députés, not députées. One way to deal with this is to have an alternative form that covers everyone: député-e-s.
That’s what the academy is railing against. But the idea that it places French in “mortal danger”, as its statement argues? Have these people gone complètement fou? It’s an optional shorthand, used only in print. It may be relevant at this point to raise the fact that, of the 34 academicians, 30 are male.
Apart from the gender imbalance, there’s the academy’s mission according to its 17th-century statutes: to make the language “pure”. Talk about setting yourself up to fail – or at least to get angry about things that you can’t change. Languages are always impure: they borrow, blend and innovate, without any loss of expressive power.
One radical solution, of course, is for members of the academy to become reformers rather than reactionaries, and eliminate masculine and feminine forms altogether. Plenty of languages, including English, Turkish or Thai, get along perfectly well without them. And the French have done radical things with language before, such as scrapping the names of days of the week during the revolution. People of France, you have nothing to lose but your gender markings!
When it comes to changes in language, there’s no point crying over spilt milk: researchers charting fluctuations in English grammar say the rise of certain words, such as spilled, is probably down to chance, and that resistance is futile.
Comparisons have long been drawn between evolution and changes in language, with experts noting that preferences such as a desire for emphasis can act as a type of “natural selection”, affecting which words or forms of grammar are passed on between generations.
But a new study shows that another evolutionary mechanism might play a key role : random chance.
The authors of the study say that the work adds to our understanding of how language changes over centuries.
“Whether it is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English – and indeed other languages – is that the language changes,” said Joshua Plotkin, co-author of the research from the University of Pennsylvania. “The grammarians might [win the battle] for a decade, but certainly over a century they are going to be on the losing side.”
Writing in the journal Nature, Plotkin and colleagues describe how they tracked different types of grammatical changes across the ages.
Among them, the team looked at changes in American English across more than one hundred thousand texts from 1810 onwards, focusing on the use of “ed” in the past tense of verbs compared with irregular forms – for example, “spilled” versus “spilt”.
The hunt threw up 36 verbs which had at least two different forms of past tense, including quit/quitted and leaped/leapt. However for the majority, including spilled v spilt, the team said that which form was waxing or waning was not clearly down to selection – meaning it is probably down to chance over which word individuals heard and copied.
“Chance can play an important role even in language evolution – as we know it does in biological evolution,” said Plotkin, adding that the impact of random chance on language had not been fully appreciated before.
For just six of the 36 verbs, the rise of one form over another was clearly not only down to chance, but was largely a result of active preference – akin to natural selection.
The study also revealed that a flower today is more likely to be “smelled” rather than “smelt” and that the neighbour’s cat probably “dove” behind the sofa – although, as Plotkin notes, British felines remain more likely to have dived.
But there was a puzzle. “The prevailing view is that if language is changing it should in general change towards the regular form, because the regular form is easier to remember,” said Plotkin. However, four of the six verbs show a rise in the irregular form of the past tense.
That, the team note, might at least in part be down to whether the word sounds similar to other commonly used words of the age. For example the increasing popularity of “dove” rather than “dived” in American English coincides with the development of cars, and hence the rise of soundalike “drive” and past tense “drove” in describing journeys. The team add that they suspect similar effects might be at work in a number of the verbs that currently look like they might be changing by chance alone.
The authors add that the research suggests rare words are more likely to vary over time and be subject to random chance.
The study also explores the use of negation in sentences, such as “I say not”, across English texts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, revealing that the placement of the negative word has changed more than once due to selection, possibly because of a desire for emphasis.
“There a was period of time where double negation … was the way to negate things, just as it is in French today,” said Plotkin.
Dr Christine Cuskley, from the Centre for Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, agreed that similarities to commonly used irregular verbs could affect which form of past tense is on the rise.
But she said that it was likely that there were other pressures affecting which form of a past tense is favoured. What’s more, Cuskley added, it is not clear if the conclusions from the latest research could be applied to other languages.
“English is weird,” she said.