Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary." ~ James Nicoll

A friend of mine recently posted a few critiques about how many common English words and phrases are used incorrectly which sparked an interesting debate or two on his Facebook Wall.   

This friend has been teaching high school (mostly Sciences) for close to 20 years.   His position is that English grammar and usage rules should not be allowed to "slip" and that those who don't follow standard English rules (and are native speakers) should be corrected.  Seemingly irregardless of circumstance or situation.    In a school or other learning setting this makes sense and I agree with it; since you need to know the rules to break them.  However, in a public forum or other social gathering to correct someone's English is incredibly rude and presumptuous.    

Now, he's a great guy and I respect him alot; but on this topic not only do I disagree with his argument about common English usage, I think he's fundamentally wrong.   Especially in spoken settings.  

His most recent post was a link to Sarah Brooks article for LIVING; "17 Phrases You're Probably Saying Wrong  and from just a brief skim of the article (not that it's a heavy read) it's clear that the writer made some pretty sweeping judgements.  It's also clear that she has little understanding of how written English differs from spoken, how regional accents, nationality of speaker and diction all play a role in how a word or phrase is enunciated or used.    

As a whole the article is pretty terrible and should be largely ignored as someone whining that clouds often mean rain. 

News at 11:  Water is Wet!  (Exclusive)

My biggest irks with the article:
  • The title.   It's correct, sure. However, It would be more correct to have gone with "17 Phrases that You're Probably Saying Wrong."   An article title should also not be in all caps, but since that's a pretty common failing of all web media these days, I'll give it a pass.  
  • Many of her choices can be explained as common accent or diction differences when spoken versus written.  1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12 and 16  are most like speed and accent related.  ie. "Should've"  sounds exactly like "should of" when spoken.   "Beck and call" when spoken quickly (as we do here in New England) would sound like "beckon call" to those used to a less rapid spoken pace.  "Did you eat?" when spoken with a thick southern accent will sound like "Dijaet?"  to a Yankee.  
  • In #4 Literally is being used for emphasis and hyperbole.  Choose a better example like ATM Machine or something equally inane.  
  • In #5 she corrected on accident  to by accident but missed a common mistake that's completely national/regional.   Spilled is incorrect to me and most speakers outside the US.  I'd say would be more correct t o say spilt (International Choice).  No crying over spilt milk.  This one is personal choice, either are correct.  
  • In #9 we see another International vs US difference with towards vs toward. This one bothers me since she admits that "towards" is used and considered correct outside the US. That makes it as correct as "toward." Again, personal choice. I'm apt to use both. 
  • In #11 is one I love- irregardless. It's a real word that has been in common usage since the late 1700s in the US. It is a likely a portmanteau word created by combining the two words "irrespective" and "regardless." It's a non standard word that many grammar aficionados despise since it's a double negative that "breaks the rules" of standard English. Which it has been doing cheerfully for over two centuries now. Pretty long time to be in common usage and still not be considered a real word. Which is why I love it and use it. Irregardless of the purists. Tim Moynihan's defence of irregardless.
  • And finally with #17 she chose the old standard: "Could/could not care less." Again, in common usage here in the US despite the logical inconsistency of "could care less" versus "couldn't care less." When I use "could care less" (and I do) I'm using it as a sarcastic inversion in the sense of "Tell me about it!" or "I should be so lucky."  Which would be absolutely correct.      
English has about as many rules as a cat and is as contrary. Personally, I love language and studying it's evolution. Non standard doesn't necessarily mean "wrong" despite what the lexicographers like to insist. It simply means that it's in "common usage". Common usage is often used as a benchmark to measure when a word or phrase entered into the language. That makes spilt/spilled, toward/towards, irregardless et al as correct as the more grammar teacher approved words. 

I've gotten into similar debates with such words as orientate (IC) vs orient (US).  Just because a word isn't common in your region or country does not mean it is incorrect or that it doesn't exist.  In fact, if I say a word and you understood it; then it exists.  You would not have understood the word otherwise.   Don't like it, fine. Don't use it.  I will and can.  

I'm not saying that I am a modern day Shakespeare capable of creating some 1700+ words for this ramshackle language, nor am I perfect.  I'm sure there are many grammatical mistakes in this blog post for which I don't apologize.  To be honest, I am a bit bothered by how my grammar and spelling has slipped since leaving school as I find that I am much more reliant on the built in grammar and spelling checks than I was before graduation.   

It's frustrating and I'm not proud of it.  As I see mistakes in my posts I correct them.  I just refuse to apologize for them.  If the reader or listener is capable of understanding what I am trying to communicate to them, then my job has been successfully accomplished.  You understood me.   

Basically, stop seeing the trees for the forest.   Languages are beautiful and ever changing.  The English language is quirky, sexy, profane, charming, redundant, illogical and frequently jumps back through hoops to evolve forward.   Shoving it into a neat little box of rules just doesn't work very well.  

In closing, I'll leave you with this delightful Stephen Fry podcast excerpt.  

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