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Does our language matter?

By Irving Dean
Sunday, August 21, 2011
| 1 comment

I’ve said it before. Nobody ever said English was easy. Nevertheless, I’m opposed to any attempt to dumb down the language.

Grammar and spelling are not supposed to be based on popular opinion, but it seems that those of us who view ourselves as noble guardians of the language are viewed by others as scolds — annoying dinosaurs who don’t realize we’re supposed to be extinct.

Still, with varying results, we struggle on, even in the face of pronouncements like that of The Associated Press the other day that the term “drive-thru” is now an acceptable alternative to “drive-through” to describe the place where you pick up your burger and fries or cash your check.

It’s not acceptable to me, but the style committee of The Associated Press, whose rulings are not only followed but also anxiously awaited by some copy editors, says it is.

Time was when newspapers had their own style committees who would meet occasionally to decide on the acceptability of new expressions and avant-garde spellings, and would even approve deviations from AP style. Today’s streamlined newspaper staffs, however, have little interest in spending valuable time debating whether “doughnut” can also be spelled “donut.”

Besides, there are more basic problems. Subject and verb agreement is one of the toughest for us to master, and we have difficulty forming the plurals and possessives of some words. I could write a book, or at least a lengthy essay, on the misuse of the words “its” and “it’s.”

Part of the difficulty is attitude. Why do I need to know how to spell a word? Isn’t that why we have editors?

It doesn’t help the cause when government gets involved. I took note a couple of years ago when British primary teachers were told they should stop using the old spelling rule “ ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c.’ ” The reason they should drop it, they were told, is that there are too many exceptions. The rule doesn’t account for words like “veil” and “their.”

I wrote at the time that it also doesn’t consider words like “neighbor,” “weigh” and “seize,” or inflections of words ending in “cy,” like “fancied,” where it is “ie” after “c.” It’s not a helpful hint I would discard, even though there are exceptions. Learn the rule, then discover the exceptions. Again, nobody said it was easy.

Learning how to spell words that do not follow logic is something writers should do or, at least, they should know when to pull out the dictionary. But “spellcheck” in most word-processing programs is such a temptation. It’s how you can end up with an item reporting a choir would sing “archipelago,” or without instrumental accompaniment.

I recognize that emphasis on correct English is a generational thing and I approach the topic gently with younger writers. The other day I set out to teach a young colleague how to change a proper noun ending with “s” to its plural form. (Here’s a hint: it doesn’t involve apostrophes.)

“Fill in the blank in this expression,” I said. “Keeping up with the ... .”

She answered without hesitation: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

I blame myself. I hadn’t accounted for the pervasive influence of reality TV or considered that a young person might not have heard of “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Irv Dean is the Gazette's city editor. Reach him by email to dean@dailygazette.com.

 
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comments

August 22, 2011
7:57 a.m.

[ Suggest removal ]
rjk1915 says...

I agree completely with your feelings about the language. What you have said applies also to the spoken word Although seldom admitted, it is a marker of class attribution. Employers use it as a selection tool And there is an underlying pleasure in doing it right.
rjk1915@yahoo.bom

 

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