The Waves of Change in English

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Italy. When we were in Rome, the woman who was acting as our tour guide (a native of Rome) warned us to make sure we crossed the street in the marked crosswalks.

“We have traffic laws,” she half-joked, “but they’re more like guidelines.”

The same can be said for English grammar “rules.” We get ourselves into trouble when we remain inflexible about punctuation, usage, or even word meaning. It is because the language is forever in flux.

I like to think of English as a “mutt” language; its DNA is made up of lots of other languages, and it continues to change. All those invasions of the British Isles over the centuries as well as modern communication connections cause constant transformation of the language.

Like the tide on a beach, the way we use English ebbs and flows. This is what makes English so wonderful – and so very frustrating.

I was talking with someone this weekend on just this subject. We agreed that, in order to break grammar rules, we need to know and understand them first. All great artists break the conventions, but they need to know the rules first and have a purpose when they play with them.

In writing, it all comes back to clarity. Blindly following the rules, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, can actually make things too dense.

Who are you talking to? versus To whom are you talking?

The second example is correct, but feels stilted and clumsy. On the other hand, if an unnecessary preposition shows up at the end of the sentence, it needs to be purged:

Where are you at? (One of my many pet peeves!)

Years ago, a former boss, now a dear friend, gave me the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, printed in 1975. In only 40 years, we can see how English usage has changed in how and where we use words. Meanings especially are fluid. What was once considered slang has become an acceptable use.

For example, the panel of language experts the authors turned to pretty much agreed that “premiere” (a noun meaning the first performance of a motion picture, play, or television show) should not be used as a verb. Today, however, it is common to use it that way: The movie premiered to great acclaim.

This fluidity of language can drive us crazy if we let it. The main idea is to factor in purpose, audience, use, formality, and, above all, clarity when approaching writing. We never want to make the reader work overly hard to understand what we mean. We leave that sort of thing to lawyers.

So remember, if you are going to wander outside the English guidelines, do it with a purpose and always make sure the content is clear to the reader.

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12 thoughts on “The Waves of Change in English

  1. I am a big proponent of the idea that one needs to know the rules in order to break them. If you can’t explain why you chose to break the rules, it’s generally just sloppy writing. However, I feel we do a disservice to students today when we teach them that the five-paragraph essay has any value outside of the academic system that created it (which it does not), or when we do not teach them the rules of the language well enough to confidently and intentionally break them for the sake of clarity, style and voice.

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    • I agree that the five-paragraph essay doesn’t have a direct use in real life. However, as a composition instructor, I tell my students that those essays are like the drills athletes perform. They are a structured way we can practice organization and support of ideas. Of course, I usually cheat a little on the syllabus and have them write reports and letters, too. Don’t tell anyone! 😉

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    • If you get me started on the usage errors I’m constantly encountering, I’ll rant forever! That’s the problem, isn’t it? How much do we let go in order to preserve our grammar sanity? I’m constantly correcting people who use adjectives when they should be using adverbs. I can’t help myself; it’s a compulsion!

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  2. I’m an English teacher in Japan, and I’m often asked why we say things the way we do. That is an incredibly difficult thing to answer because of the nature of English. My most common answer is that we shouldn’t think about why English is the way it is, just learn to use it. It really doesn’t help the understanding if we search for the answer why. It makes it more confusing!

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  3. Yes, and when going outside the guidelines you really have to make VERY clear to the reader why you are doing it.    Satire is particularly dangerous — especially when viewed over time.     Barbara S. RivetteWriter & Historian315-687-9334This e-ma

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