VAGARIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

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?

About Susan Vaughan

Susan Vaughan is the award-winning author of twelve romantic suspense novels. Sign up for her email newsletter at her website, follow her on Twitter @SHVaughan, and like her on Facebook. Her latest releases are the four romantic suspense ebooks in The DARK Files series, available on Amazon.
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13 Responses to VAGARIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

  1. Beth says:

    The incorrect use of “I” for “me” in recent years is like fingernails on a chalkboard. For example, “She gave it to you and I.” I heard someone make “I” possessive once. My understanding is that “I’s” is not a word!

    • That grates on me too. I think that incorrect usage came about because people were trying to sound sophisticated. It’s wrong no matter how you couch the reasons. Thanks for mentioning this.

  2. Gram says:

    Using slow for slowly, etc. bugs me.

  3. Kate Flora says:

    Eating healthy. It is insanely common and drives me…uh…insane. Also the man that as opposed to the man who. But these are different kinds of grammar errors. Love your post and the illustrations.

    I find I am constantly pondering on whether to correct alright to all right when reviewing people’s manuscripts, as alright has become so much a part of common usage.

    Hope you start a nice, rigorous discussion here.

    Kate

    • Yes, people are healthy because of eating healthful foods. Another usage that is changing before our eyes and ears–or has changed. This post could’ve been interminably longer if I’d included everyone’s bugaboos.

  4. Lee says:

    “Alright” is one of my pet peeves, and I see it more and more frequently in published books. It’s very distracting and interrupts the flow of my reading because I do a little mental rant every time I see it.

    And I agree with Beth about “I” and “me”! I see and hear that usage seemingly everywhere.

  5. Amber Foxx says:

    Good post. I’ve been grading student papers and can’t bring myself to talk about what I saw.

  6. Heidi Wilson says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for the link on “all right.” I have forwarded it to my writing group. Let’s preserve the correct spelling as long as we can. And don’t even get me started on the death of the subjunctive. The reversal of “may” and “might” are making me old(er) before my time.

    However… decimation was not something Romans did to the enemy. It was inflicted by the Roman commanders on their own soldiers as a punishment for collective cowardice or other military offenses. Members of the century (roughly, the platoon) would be required to carry it out on their own comrades. So fight on, or you might be one of the ten!

    • Heidi,
      Thanks for your helpful comments. I often see confusion of may and might, and I have to confess I understood the subjunctive until I studied another language, French. And I did find the original use of decimation in my research, but the above cartoon was much better than the ones that illustrated that.

  7. Laurie Evans says:

    I have never heard “all of the sudden.” *Cringe*

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