Friday, June 03, 2011

English On the Rocks

As a writer, a reader, and a person living in a supposedly civilized society, I despair about the future of English, because it’s being misused, abused, belittled and just generally trashed at every turn.

I was saying to a friend just the other day: there are two kinds of language mavens – the prescriptive and the descriptive. The descriptive school says language is a living thing and it changes with the times and we shouldn’t get hung up on grammar and spelling and usage, because all that can and should be flexible. The prescriptive school says language has been honed and perfected over time and it’s important to speak and write properly, because that creates the opportunity for maximum communication, as well as an expression of the beauty of language.

As a prescriptive maven, I also feel strongly about the role of good language in thought. If your understanding and usage of language is poor, it follows that the quality of your thinking will be poor: simplistic, incorrect, limited. Clear thought, original thought, rests in good language.

I’m concerned about English, because that is the only language I know, and it is (still, so far) the international language of diplomacy and trade. (French used to have that position, but it lost it. See what happens when you don’t take care of your language?) I’m not proud of only knowing one language; I should know more, at least Spanish, since it’s becoming our nation’s second language. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do think all of us should be bi-lingual, because that will foster greater understanding among us. But for the moment, my subject is English.

First I want to address usage, because the meaning of words is becoming twisted. The Times’ language guy was recently complaining about figuratively, and the fact that people are using it to mean literally and actually, which is the exact opposite of what it means. If we don’t share agreement about what words mean, then we can easily misunderstand each other – even before we get around to disagreeing with each other based on common understanding.

Some of my other pet peeves: irregardless, a word that doesn’t exist, but is often used to mean regardless. Simplistic in place of simple. Simple means easy or straightforward or unfettered. Simplistic means stupid, or more precisely, to speak or think of complex things in an inappropriately simple manner. Decadent used as a synonym for luxurious. One could make a working class argument that luxury is decadent, but that still doesn’t give the words the same meaning. Decadent is, more accurately, a side-effect of too much luxury; it means jaded, even depraved, but certainly wallowing in the worst kind of sophistication – another word that’s rarely used to mean what it means (jaded not glamorous).

Infamous [when] used to mean famous, perhaps really very famous, but that’s not what it means. Bad people, bad things that become famous are infamous. Adolf Hitler is infamous. Adolph Green is famous (or at least he used to be…). I once heard someone call someone else superfluous, but she didn’t mean that the person was unnecessary, she meant to say that the person was super! That’s a problem.

The fact that many people today can’t distinguish among there, their and they’re drives me nuts, along with your and you’re, to and too, weather and whether, its and it’s, fewer and less than, as well as more than and over. And don’t forget about using like when you mean as. If you don’t know the difference, look it up; I don’t have the space to go into it here. Because (and, by the way, it is not incorrect to begin a sentence with because, it’s incorrect to begin a paragraph with because) I want to address other pet peeves.

The first is using nouns as verbs, which has appalled me ever since things started impacting other things. I wince when I hear that people are scrapbooking or journaling. Now they’re blogging, tweeting, texting and friending. I’m vomiting. A noun is a person, place or thing. A verb is an action. In essence, what I’m saying addresses one of our core social problems: confusing being with doing. Think about this one, it’s important.

Then there’s the frequency with which people add mis to the beginning of words and ize to the end of words that formerly had neither. I can’t explain why it’s okay to formalize but it isn’t okay to incentivize, and indeed, Strunk & White did not approve of formalize. In any case, English is inconsistent. A foreign-born person once asked me why Kansas and Arkansas are pronounced in their different ways instead of alike. Who knows? All I know is, one can misspeak, misunderstand and misinform, but one cannot misdescribe, which is what Paul Ryan accused Barack Obama of doing in regard to his kill-Medicare budget.

Last but not least – and this is perhaps the most egregious – is the offshoot of English created by…texting. If U thnk its k 2 reduce language to charmless abbreviations, you’re wrong. It’s a bastardization (I’m not sure if that’s a word…) of the language that is creeping (running, actually) into other forms of written communication, and it’s ugly and ignorant and decidedly ill-advised.

Yesterday, I wrote about our being overly concerned with unimportant things, because we can’t cope with the big issues of our time. Perhaps my fixation with proper English is one of those unimportant things. But it isn’t to me. I’m a writer and it bothers me that nobody seems to care about good writing, good use of language, anymore. I think it says bad things about where we are and where we’re going. Take it as you please.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The reason French went down the tubes is because relatively very few people speak it and they didn't keep up with technical progress. For example if one goes to medical school in France a large percentage of the of the knowledge is in english because a large percentage of the inventions have come from the US. Things like most of the medical machinery and research. The television, computer and cellphones are a good example too.
French has very limited vocabulary compared to English, Russian,Spanish etc.