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Barbara's Virtual Pen

A Language For Our Times

September 20, 2010

Tags: language, grammar, linguistics, errors

Lately, I've been hearing a great many gripes about errors in published books, and it is a valid complaint. But then a subsequent discussion about it in a LinkedIn disussion group set me thinking, and I decided to voice some of my musings.

A living language is a changing language. As such, if “wrong” usage becomes widespread, it eventually is no longer considered “wrong.” Living languages see changes in spelling, grammar, and usage. For example, the lead / led confusion may seem straightforward to those who adhere to current rules of verb conjugation, and yet I can see the confusion, as many think of read / read, and recall how in school irregular verbs were grouped together. It is easy for someone to imagine that read and lead were in the same group of irregular verbs. If the trend continues, they may eventually be. But for now, they are not.

I read the book aloud to the child.
Yesterday I read the book to him for half an hour!

We lead many groups on hikes. Last year we led at least fifty!

As for they’re and their, there is no excuse for confusion among the educated, and yet I’ve gotten e-mails from editors confusing the two! It seems that some people do not understand the use of the apostrophe, and that they’re means they are. Same with it’s and its, not seeming to understand that it’s is a contraction of it is, while the possessive of it is its, without the apostrophe.

They’re minding their own business.
Their minds are made up; they’re taking their trip in August.

It’s a well-known fact that a dog may chase its own tail.
It’s been snowing so heavily that the group lost its way.

I don’t blame text messaging for these problems as they predate TMs. The truth is that very few people really learn grammar and fewer bother to teach it. How can they if they’ve not learned it themselves? When I told my graduate school advisor that I wanted to take linguistics, he told me not to bother. I was shocked at his attitude (at an Ivy school, no less), and decided to ignore him. I wound up taking a number of linguistics courses. I am grateful for my decision. It was crucial in my career both as an English teacher and an editor/writer. I couldn’t understand how someone could study “English” and not learn the language itself.

With the rise of the Internet, neologisms today are multiplying as never before due to the rapid explosion of social media and the need to communicate in different ways, and particularly with an emphasis on brevity. After all, what are you thinking in 140 characters or less is an inducement to many to create new words altogether, if not abbreviations. Grasping the fluid spelling variations has been a challenge to those who attempt to keep up with this communication phenomenon. But it does not excuse blatant assaults on accepted grammar and usage.

English is a dynamic modern language, really a bastard language, but nonetheless one that reflects our times. It will continue to change with our society, and we should embrace the changes, keep an open mind, and not be too unyielding about trying to hold back the surge.

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