Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit.

Cicero is boring, but on that point he is correct.

You cannot have missed the fact that I have a thing about (in no particular order) communication, language, the English language, and good English. I write for fun, after all, and I have a history of a greater than average interest here.

I could read, well, at 2 1/2. Therefore I have no memories of learning, it feels like something I was always able to do.

I was a published poet at the tender age of 6. By the BBC no less. Does this affect your confidence? Yes it does. It goes direct to the ego. I was convinced from that moment onwards that I was literary genius. Not with poetry, mind you. I am no fan of poetry.

My English teachers were also very encouraging, except one. I'll even name the bitch, Mrs Vago. When I got an A for my English "O" Level, she showed surprise and, I can't help feeling, a little contempt. Did that dent my ego? Not a chance.

I taught 5 out of 6 of my kids to read before school. Sian, being dyslexic, defeated me, I left her to professionals, and they succeeded.

I write a lot, I write about language, and I get myself into all sorts of hot water by being pedantic. Fortunately I don't take myself too seriously.

The other day I was in one of those moods - you know the one - and I mentioned in another place that I hate the word "convo". It's been a while since I had that many replies, LOL. I discovered that not only did MANY other people hate that word, people have all sorts of hated words. And some words are hated by many people. "Plethora" seems to be especially reviled. (I quite like it myself.)

Not only that, some words were on the "Hate" list by some people, and on the "Love" list by others. I dunno, what chance do we stand getting along, when even our vocabularies annoy one another.

It's not only "convo" that I hate. I hate pretty much any word that is shortened with an "o" added, as slang. Which is unfortunate as both Australians and the French do this all the time.

Almost all the words that annoy me are slang (I'm not opposed to slang in principle, just certain words/uses) or mispronounced/misused words. I heard a professor say "acrossed" the other week and I wanted to hurt him.

But it was interesting to see that some people find some standard dictionary words, in correct usage, correctly pronounced, objectionable. I can't think of any myself, but if I do, you'll be the first to know.

Still, the fact is, it is possible to have negative as well as positive feelings about English. Some people, even though they can spell well, find many spellings ridiculous and therefore annoying. I just find it quirky, and it doesn't bother me.

What I love is that people think about language. They don't just use it. They select from it, enjoy it, play with it, and critique it. It's all good.

The question remains then, is it getting better or worse?

Are we, as users of English (or any language we are comfortable with) improving due to the modern increase in the need to read and write, or is txt spk and lazy shorthand on the internet dumbing us down?

It is only in recent years I have noticed just how many people I would otherwise take as educated and intelligent, make very basic mistakes when writing or speaking. When somebody who is poorly educated, maybe didn't even finish school, writes or speaks badly, I just accept it. It is to be expected.

But when it is a person who holds down a responsible job, that includes important written work, I notice it. It's not a question of judgement, it's more confusion. How do you get to be a 50 year old university professor, for example, and never have anyone tell you that "acrossed" is not a real word?

If somebody cannot remember that principle and principal are different, I can overlook it easily (unless they are a teacher or a mortgage broker) but when people with a degree muddle up than and then, WTF is going on?

If you're not sure when to use a hyphen, or a semi-colon, and you are a train driver, nobody cares. But if you are in senior management and you can't use an apostrophe correctly, there has to be a reason why. There has to be.

So, is it because we see so many errors by others? Is it that we don't pay attention when reading? Are people getting worse at writing? Or are we just noticing more errors because we see more writing?

Is the world becoming more "casual", allowing for lazier speech, or are we so used to being polite and tolerant of ESL speakers, that we simply ignore bad English when we hear it spoken?

Above all, is there more awareness of language in modern society, and if so why is there less importance being placed on keeping it standard?

What sparked these thoughts off, was a paragraph written by an American, a middle-aged business owner, which was otherwise good, standard English, with no other mistakes, but included the glaring error of the word "tell" instead of "until". This is not a typo. It was a subconscious recreation of the way he speaks - that is obvious. But it demonstrates a rather oblivious way of writing, a lack of thought.

And nobody is going to point it out to him. That would be awfully rude.

I'm not sure how many readers even noticed it. That is what I mean about lack of awareness. Intentionally or not, we are all just ignoring such things.

What's your limit? At which point would you stop saying "Oh, I knew what it meant", and start saying "This is bad English" ?

At which point is "casual" no longer OK?

Because there has to be a limit.


  1. This is such SYNCHONICITY, you just won't believe it. I will e-mail you the details later, Colleen is aware already. It is just too funny. I don't know if I can stop laughing long enough to reply to this, in context....gimme a sec. ;)

    Okay, I've calmed down enough to share some thoughts with you. The computer age, beginning with the BBS, augered in a definitive change within written mediums. Bizarre abbreviations, slang, lack of punctuation or common grammar rules have become the way of things. In addition, more and more people are becoming multilingual out of necessity and this starts to show in their ability to write in their mother tongue or in English. English is not an easy language to master. For every rule, there are multiple exceptions to that rule. Remember the old one? "I before E, except after C" and then there is neighbour, weigh, feist and I have no idea how many others. Try and explain all the rules, the exceptions, the nuances to someone whose mother tongue isn't English, it is an exercise in futility. Is this shift in linguistics a good thing or a bad thing? I don't think it is either. It is just a change in how we communicate. Simplification and brevity is necessary when you are trying to express an idea using a smart phone. The world is changing, our grammar is experiencing a shift as a result. I think we'll see more and more adaptations in the years to come as we all try to express ourselves across linguistic borders.

    1. Experts agree with you. In particular those who speak "minority" languages see English as becoming less rich as a result, not suited to great writing, and more of them are choosing to write literature and poetry in their own languages.

      As for "i before e". Nobody seems to know quite how that began, because experts have counted ALL English words that would be affected by this, and there are TWICE as many exceptions as there are words which follow the rule. The rule is therefore not a rule, has been completely trashed, and is no longer taught. It remains a weird myth.

  2. Know that you will always hold a special place in my heart in gratitude to your pedantry about language and its proper use. That said, your entertaining essay today does speak on a number of levels of communication.

    There is the technical, proper way of form for the language itself. Knowing what words are really words, knowing proper grammar, the difference between 'then' and 'than,' etc. Added to that are the myriad possibilities for error--whether it fall to simple, human nature, failure to edit, speed or haste, etc. I agree with you that, in most cases, the most strict among us will and can bend the rules when need be. We can be forgiving--maybe because we KNOW the difference and are benevolent enough to overlook 'some' erroneous aspect of a person's communique.

    Then we have the idea of meaning or connotation behind whatever words may be expressed. If someone happens to get their gist across but happens to use the totally wrong word, it might be forgiven. However, if someone (as you have said) is in a position of authority, they really ought to be held accountable.

    On the other hand, there is that whole 'mindfulness' aspect to consider. For those who have not had the benefit of Buddha's teaching about the 'rightness' of thought, speech, mind, and action, there is a living deficit of opportunity to apply one's self to...being better in some way. Self-improvement seems to be up to the individual to determine (darn it!--LOL).

    Whether someone points it out to us or not, change is always happening. Perhaps as observers of this change, it does fall to 'someone' to be that voice of reason and point the way. Might we all recognize the power found in constructive criticism? I was informed today that my favorite closing word ("Blessings!") might not be very appropriate to use in one particular forum where I post. That is up to me to make that edit, if I so choose. It takes guts to take someone aside and tell them they can do better or that we hold a higher expectation. As happened with me today, maybe it takes a buddy system?

    Back to Cicero's quote--he speaks to the idea of focus. Maybe with so many distractions and multi-tasking, we are that much less focused on the 'one' idea of fidelity to our language and what that entails? A liberal-arts ingestion of knowledge may mean that our expression is as varied. On top of that, I know I can get distracted at times....SQUIRREL! (I know...for most people it is CHOCOLATE... LOL.) ;) ~ Blessings! :)