Susan Vaughan here. Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day, but my topic is far from hearts and flowers. If you hate grammar, you have my permission to read no further. For this post is about changing and meandering usage and spelling in English. Although I taught seventh grade language arts for eight years once upon a time, I did not major in English, but have long enjoyed the peculiarities of the language.
The English language began and developed over a thousand years into the tongue we speak and write today. Invasions by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought its beginnings to England. Christianity brought by St. Augustine and his followers introduced Latin and Greek influence, and the language was further transformed by the French-speaking Norman conquest. Many words used in courtrooms today derive from Old French—attorney, bailiff, defendant, jury, mortgage—to name a few. If you’ve ever wondered why English is so hard to spell and has so many variations, as well as silent letters, you have all those invasions to blame.
Living languages change and grow with new discoveries, new technologies, new immigrants, wars, and wider communication. One example is something I read often in novels and hear and read daily on various media by the media.
MEDIA. According to grammarphobia.com, the word media is considered a plural noun and should take a plural verb, as in “The media are all agog over the latest Tweets.” Radio is a medium of communication, TV is a medium, and together they are media. But of course, language changes, and given the daily misuse, it won’t be long before media will be considered acceptable by all as plural.
ALL RIGHT VS ALRIGHT. The spelling variation (or error, depending on your viewpoint) alright has been creeping into informal writing since the 1980’s. I’m convinced that when Pete Townshend wrote “The Kids Are Alright” for The Who, he simply made a spelling error. And today in informal writing, you’ll see alright, but it should never appear in edited text, according to Dictionary.com. At least for now.
ALL OF A SUDDEN VS ALL OF THE SUDDEN VS ALL THE SUDDEN. All of a sudden may not seem grammatical now—many idioms defy rules—but at one time sudden was a noun, derived from the Latin into the Anglo-Norman French sudein, and becoming sudden in the 1500s. All of a sudden is an idiom that has been in the vernacular for a long time. But how did we get the alternate forms?
All of the sudden and all the sudden started popping up in the 1980s as slang variants, and with the advent of social media have become more prevalent. Maybe in another hundred years, the new options will be the standard, but according to Motivated Grammar, all of a sudden is the standard idiom in contemporary English.
FARTHER/FURTHER. These are words that both mean “at a greater distance,” but have gone different directions on either side of The Pond. In the U.S., farther is most often used to refer to physical distances, and further to refer to figurative and nonphysical distances. I might say, “Moosehead Lake is farther away from me than Damariscotta Lake,” and “Before we go any further, how much further has your investigation gone, and has the suspect run any farther?” In the British Commonwealth, further is preferred for all senses of the word.
AWESOME/DECEMBER/DECIMATE. Sometimes words stray from their roots. Awesome originally meant “deserving of awe,” and awful to mean full of awe. The Latin root decem means “ten, but December is our twelfth month. The same discrepancy crops up for September, October, and November because the ancient Roman calendar had only ten months in the year. Two more were eventually added, shifting the numbering but not the words.
Decimate also contains that pesky root meaning “ten,” and originally meant “killing a tenth of the enemy’s soldiers” or “taking the tenth” or a tithe. Merriam-Webster also includes the meanings that we hear most of the time now: “to reduce drastically in number (Spraying decimated the mosquito population.) and to cause great destruction or harm (Carpet bombing decimated the city.).”
Detours and developments in English have many causes, perhaps more in the 21st century than in the past. We are a more diverse society. Grammar is not being taught as rigorously, partly because of so much more that must be covered in school at all levels. More slang is creeping into our speech and writing from TV and other media. Speech in general is less formal than in many previous generations. The greatest and fastest changes may stem from the speed of technological development and the availability of communication and prevalence of travel today. Our English language is changing almost daily.
Does anyone else find it hard to keep up? Does anyone have a new word or phrase to mention or an old one that you see/hear changing?