English Can Be Weird

Being sequestered during this coronavirus crisis is difficult for us all, and will become more so as the weather warms and spring growth explodes. Although I’m working on a new book (set in summer, so maybe this is getting to me already), I’m spending more time online reading the news and laughing at memes about hoarded toilet paper. For this language nerd, it’s also an opportunity to edit mentally as I read and listen. If you hate grammar, you have my permission to read no further. 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 language because of the 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. We may already be there.

ALL RIGHT VS ALRIGHT. The spelling variation (or error, depending on your viewpoint) alright has been creeping into informal writing since the 1980’s, although its first usage appeared in the 1880’s. I’m convinced that when Pete Townshend wrote “The Kids Are Alright” for The Who, he simply made a spelling error. However, the creators of the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right couldn’t bring themselves to use the informal variant even if the title was a clear nod to The Who. 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 because we generally use sudden as an adjective, as in “the sudden storm” or “his sudden outburst.” Many idioms defy rules, however. 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? [image] 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 away?” In the British Commonwealth, further is preferred for all senses of the word. That seems a lot easier for all, and is possibly how that usage evolved.

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 “to select by lot and kill every tenth man” or “to take the tenth (or tithe) by exacting a tax of ten percent.” The former usage, killing a tenth of a group, comes from a brutal practice of the ancient Roman army. A unit or regiment that was guilty of a severe crime, such as mutiny or desertion, was punished by selecting and executing one tenth of its soldiers. A certain way to scare the rest into compliance. Merriam-Webster also includes the meanings that we hear most of the time now: “to reduce drastically in number  and to cause great destruction or harm, “ as in “Carpet bombing decimated the city” and “Spraying decimated the mosquito population.” I’ve found decimate used recently in reporting on the effects of the coronavirus stay-at-home policies. Here’s one example. Cleveland, Ohio journalist Peter Krouse wrote that hotel taxes were down by about ten percent of normal revenue, “as occupancy rates have been decimated.

Detours and developments in English have many causes, perhaps more in the twenty-first century than in the past. We are a more diverse society. Grammar is not being taught as rigorously, partly because so much more 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. 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?


If like me you’re at home, here’s your chance for new reading matter. The e-book of the first book in my DARK Files series, Dark Vision, is free on Amazon starting today, April 17, and ending April 21.

About susanvaughan

Susan Vaughan loves writing romantic suspense because it throws the hero and heroine together under extraordinary circumstances and pits them against a clever villain. Her books have won the Golden Leaf, More Than Magic, and Write Touch Readers’ Award and been a finalist for the Booksellers’ Best and Daphne du Maurier awards. A former teacher, she’s a West Virginia native, but she and her husband have lived in the Mid-Coast area of Maine for many years. Her latest release is GENUINE FAKE, a stand-alone book in the Devlin Security Force series. Find her at www.susanvaughan.com or on Facebook as Susan H. Vaughan or on Twitter @SHVaughan.
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7 Responses to English Can Be Weird

  1. David Plimpton says:

    Thanks, Susan, for the interesting column.

    Not sure this is a good example, but I’ve noticed people saying they’re “anxious” to to something, when they really mean “eager” more than “worried.”

    But I might be behind the times on shifting usage, or as my mother used to say to me, “you’re a day late and a dollar short!”.

    • susanvaughan says:

      David, thanks for your fascinating example. I suspect you’re correct that the difference between “eager” and “anxious” is one of those that’s disappearing. I remember being taught that if one is looking forward to an event, they’re “eager,” and if they’re worried, as you said, they’re “anxious.”

  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    I’m tempted to say “What a fun post” but then I’d have to cringe. I always enjoy reading about the peculiarities of the English language, and (fair warning!) tend to work lots of them into my Deadly Edits mysteries. Thanks for this morning’s first smile.

    • susanvaughan says:

      Thanks. I cringe at that use of “fun” also. I have a friend who loves to say, “what a fun time we had.” I have to bite my tongue. But we might as well resign ourselves to “fun” becoming an adjective–or already having done so.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Susan. There are so many issues with grammar and punctuation that make me crazy these days. Eat healthy, for example. Eat healthy what? And then there is the epidemic of plural/possessive confusion. Women’s clothe’s? One of these days I must follow your example and write about homonyms…one of my favorite things. Such as quaffed and coiffed.


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