Sleepless vigilance

I had a bit of a mental meltdown this week, and I couldn’t think of anything to blog about until I found myself talking with some like-minded people about the lamentable and ongoing corruption of the English language. That got me thinking. I mentioned a well-known apocryphal tale from the First World War as a humorous illustration. You know the one – the message, “send reinforcements, were going to advance“, is sent from the battlefield back up the chain of command. When it arrives at its destination, the message is received as “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance“.  It’s an extreme example but it demonstrates how easily our language can be altered and distorted when we rely on the spoken word.

One of my pet hates is the use ‘of’ instead of ‘have’. It’s quite common these days to hear otherwise erudite and articulate people come out with, ‘I should of done it’ rather than the correct form, ‘I should have done it’. ‘Should of’ and ‘should have’ sound quite similar – but the former clause doesn’t make any grammatical sense and it’s certainly not something these people would ever have seen written down – it’s verbal negligence that has somehow found its way into common parlance, but thankfully, not into print as yet. Funny that these people think nothing of speaking nonsense, but wouldn’t dream of writing it – it seems they do know the difference. Or maybe they just rely heavily on the intuitive auto-correct function on their computers.

I don’t actually mind this evolution of the English language, as long as it’s effective. What I object to is the constant attack on literacy; I remember being taught grammar, syntax and punctuation at school. We appreciated words and their meanings and were encouraged by enlightened teachers to use as many different ones as possible. We expanded our vocabulary by reading and our handwriting was tested as well as our spelling. OK, all this was a century ago and it was called ‘composition’ in those days, but for today’s kids it’s all abbreviations, textspeak and contractions. What happened to the passion and enthusiasm for words? Emoticons have taken the place of expressive communication. We seem to be going backwards.

Anyway, I’m getting off the point here.

Last year, OMG and LOL were inaugurated into the Oxford English Dictionary, following other agents of the electronic age. Google is already there, so is dotcom. Who knows what next? This reminds me of the words of William Safire, the late New York Times columnist. In addition to his political columns, Safire wrote a popular etymology column, ‘On Language’ in the weekly New York Times Magazine from 1979 until the month he died in 2009. Even this exemplary exponent of the written word came to accept that ‘words come to mean what most people think they mean, not what we say they ought to mean.’

Look here for some more of Safire’s invaluable insights.

I leave you with this little titbit, written over 100 years ago, but still relevant to today’s writers. By Thomas R Lounsbury (1838-1915), an American literary historian, it reverberates down the years and shows us that there’s nothing new under the sun. Though I wonder who was tasked with keeping that sleepless vigilance….

The Standard of Usage in English: Is English Becoming Corrupt?

‘No one who is interested in the subject of language can have failed to be struck with the prevalence of complaints about the corruption which is overtaking our own speech. The subject comes up for consideration constantly. Reference to it turns up not infrequently in books: discussion of it forms the staple of articles contributed to magazines, and of numerous letters written to newspapers. Lists of objectionable words and phrases and constructions are carefully drawn up. The frequency of their use is made the subject sometimes of reprobation, sometimes of lamentation. There exists, it appears, a class of persons who, either through ignorance or indifference, or often through both combined, are doing all in their power to corrupt the English tongue. Their efforts are too largely successful. There is accordingly no salvation for the speech unless heroic measures are taken to guard it from the perils threatening its purity. Sleepless vigilance is required. Grammatical sentinels must always be on the watch-towers, ready to raise the cry of warning or alarm the moment they discern the approach of the least of these linguistic foes.’

PS – A new twist on an old joke: Would you rather talk to a linguist or a terrorist? Answer: A terrorist – at least he’ll negotiate.


4 thoughts on “Sleepless vigilance

  1. The more things change…. I am simplifying the language in my novels somewhat. But if a less-common or “bigger” word is best, I’m sticking with it. Context should make clear what it means. And if not, well, that’s what dictionaries are for! (And surely everyone has an app for that these days, right?)

  2. I can’t believe OMG and LOL made it into the dictionary. I am yet to adopt them and likely never will. Seem a bit too teenager-ish for me. 🙂

    • I get text messages from younger friends (and these days they’re all younger) which are littered with these contractions and acronyms. I don’t understand half of them and can’t bring myself to use them.

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