Learning To Live With 'New Age' English

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Language has always moved toward greater simplicity, like a river seeking the easiest way through a landscape.

On the same recent day that a Washington Post columnist deplored the increase of four-letter words in our national life, a writer on the next page of that paper used one. The New Yorker, a magazine that still regards itself as a model of superior taste, for decades refused to print an off-color word. Now virtually every issue sports three- and four-letter words that were once taboo, as well as nasty expressions that most dictionaries label as "vulgar" or "offensive."

"New Age" English sanctions hitherto unconventional vocabulary, syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and meaning. It has stimulated the grating substitution of "you and I" for "you and me," as in "between you and I"; "chaise lounge" for the original "chaise longue"; "ax" for "ask." It encourages "whom" when "who" is more natural and "correct." It has muddled the use of the apostrophe for plurals and possessives. And some of its chief purveyors, politicians and media commentators, have given us such corruptions as "nuckelar" for "nuclear" and "deteriate" for "deteriorate."

Most teachers of English attuned to changes in usage would regard all this as neither good nor bad, just real and inevitable, although they might also consider some practices as less than desirable. It seems simply pedantic in the new age to distinguish "like" and "as," "between" and "among," to never split an infinitive or use a preposition to end a sentence with--in short, to strictly observe the rules up with which Winston Churchill said he would not put.

Language follows the patterns of ease and efficiency we find in nature. A stream flows around hills, through valleys. For one thing, it's often awkward to say something effectively except "incorrectly." You can't always gracefully recast "different than" to "different from," generally considered more correct. You may not always want to recast sentences or revise punctuation according to classical rules when it seems better to be more natural.

Language has always moved toward greater simplicity, like a river seeking the easiest way through a landscape. Which is why persons who speak languages that derive from classical Latin don't have five ways of saying "girl" in relation to verbs and prepositions, the way ancient Romans supposedly did. Which is also why "ain't" has honorable precedent; "doesn't" is often replaced by "don't," even in high society (see Henry James for both "don't" and "ain't"); "their" is replacing "his" and "her," when a gender-neutral pronoun is desired; why "none," literally "no one," nowadays can be singular or plural; why "me" is more and more replacing "I," as in "it's me," and "who" is replacing "whom" almost everywhere.

Some changes just reflect sloppiness, of course. Estimable persons mix "imply" and "infer," "lay" and "lie," "flaunt" and "flout," "uninterested" and "disinterested," "incidences" and "incidents." Respectable papers print "lead" when they mean "led." We use "fulsome," derived from "foul," to mean "abundant." It's as difficult for perfectionists to accept some of these changes as it is to adjust to new and uncomfortable traffic patterns.

English orthography offers its own pitfalls. Too many commonly interchange "its" and "it's," for example, "their," "they're," and "there," "who's" and "whose," and even "to," "too," and "two." George Bernard Shaw complained that one could spell "fish" in English "ghoti," "gh" pronounced as in "rough," "o" as in "women," "ti" as in "nation." He proposed replacing conventional spelling with a phonetic alphabet.

While we need not go to such extremes, we really ought to try at least not to debase our language by blurring useful and easily maintained distinctions. We achieve confusion by imposing an artificial order, like a phonetic alphabet, not necessarily efficiency or ease. But instead of accommodating to sensible change, distinguishing between what we can control or modify by paying sensible attention, too many stubbornly keep resisting all change. Thankfully, publishers did not reject F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose because of misspellings, or William Faulkner's because of confusing grammar; wherever possible and unobtrusive, they made changes.

We really ought to try at least not to debase our language by blurring useful and easily maintained distinctions.

Too many would like to freeze the language at some point. They continue to react with the same outrage to a new, public word as they would to an old, private deed. I once asked an irate academic official whether he objected to a venerable if crude four-letter word in a student publication or to the venerable act it described. He paused to ruminate. When I assured him that the word was appearing in publications distributed by the U.S. Postal Service, he relaxed his complaint. We then had an amicable exchange, wondering why it is socially acceptable to know a word in private, as it were, but not to acknowledge its existence in print, even in a dictionary, or as a graffito on a public wall, the basis of efforts to ban J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye from high school reading lists.

All respectable dictionaries today include words that many of us hesitate to speak or write. Those who would exclude them from books in libraries or from daily life are like the secretary I knew who blacked out names of persons who offended her from the campus directory. The gesture satisfied a deep personal need but caused confusion among students, colleagues, and faculty. An editor at Merriam-Webster, publisher of a range of dictionaries, told me once that friends of the wolves had tried to pressure the company to exclude unfavorable references to those animals from its editions.

We're relaxing our national discomfort over casualness in communication much as we are in the area of clothes. Theater and concert audiences can now dress in a range of attire, from tank tops to tuxedos, slacks to floor-length gowns. And not many teachers these days, men or women, teach their classes in anything other than sweaters, slacks, and sneakers or comparable shoes, sometimes with the laces untied.

I'm not comfortable with pointlessly laid-back language or dress. I respect the conventions. As a student of English, however, I regard usage like a linguist, even if I try to express myself like a grammarian--that is, I recognize reality even as I try to avoid what I feel are indecorous lapses and abrasive modernisms. The glory of the language is that we have so many ways of saying more or less the same thing. One way or another, we must learn to accommodate to language as we do to nature, grudgingly at times but sensibly.

Vol. 17, Issue 19, Page 32

Published in Print: January 28, 1998, as Learning To Live With 'New Age' English
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