Half a dozen things you may not understand about English

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Last month I posted that English has no need of self-appointed grammar police because English is a self-regulating system that cannot be effectively policed, especially by some rando on Twitter. The impulse to put on a badge to “serve and correct” rises from fundamental misconceptions about how language works. I thought it might be useful list some widespread misconceptions.

To save your wrists if you respond to the peeververein online, feel free to cite this post, listing the appropriate number(s).


Item 1: Misused words are “like fingers on a chalkboard.”

People hear lie and lay confused, hopefully used as a sentence adverb, or decimate used to mean “substantially damage” rather than “reduce by a tenth.” It is just too much. They fall upon the thorns of life, they bleed. But the golden age of good usage they mourn never existed — people have always mixed up lie and lay, despite scolding by generations of schoolteachers — and some of the things people adhere to are bogus rules or shibboleths.


Item 2: Standard English is not the only English or the “correct” English.

Standard English is one of many Englishes. It is the prestige dialect because it is the dialect in use in business, government, and the professions, and it is the dialect associated with the upper classes. But that does not make it more correct than other dialects, merely that it is a more appropriate dialect in certain contexts.

Item 3: English is not in decline.

Jonathan Swift complained in 1712 that the English language was going straight to hell. He was mistaken. Language evolves, influenced by historical events, cultural changes, technology, and other factors. Words change their meanings, sometimes their parts of speech. Conventions of spelling and punctuation shift. Grammar itself alters. English is ticking along very nicely, thank you. Try to keep up.

Item 4: The Young People/internet/texting are not destroying the language.

Yes, the Young People with their loud music, crazy clothes, and outlandish slang. From generation unto generation, the mind of man remembereth not to the contrary, those who feel the cold hand of Anno Domini whinge about the degenerate customs of youth. Pay them no mind; God is waiting for them.

It has long been fashionable for faculty to moan that their charges are woefully uninformed in general and particularly ignorant of the niceties of formal writing, apparently overlooking that their charges are there to learn things they did not previously know.

Item 5: Non-standard dialects of English are not “ungrammatical.”


Non-standard dialects can have grammatical features that differ from the standard. Appalachian English and African American Vernacular English, for example, are dialects that use double negatives for emphasis (as did Chaucer). And you understand their grammar. Don’t try to argue that “I don’t get no satisfaction” means that you are perfectly satisfied.

Item 6: Dictionaries are contributing to the decay of the language.

First, it’s not decaying (Item 3). Second, words are not Platonic ideals; they have no essences. Words mean whatever we collectively decide they mean. Nice no longer means “silly” or “holy,” and awesome and terrific long ago lost their moorings with awe and terror. Lexicographers have quite enough on their plates identifying for you the meanings of new words and the changed meanings of old words. They are trying to show you the world as it is, not as you suppose it to be.