For English to evolve, grammarians must die

Consider these three word pairs:

  • Choose vs. chose
  • Loose vs. lose
  • Noose vs. nose

Loose and noose rhyme, but they don’t rhyme with choose. Chose and nose rhyme, but they don’t rhyme with lose.

There are lists of frequent grammatical errors; mistaken use of choose/chose and loose/lose are commonly found on such lists.

I could pick on hundreds of other English irregularities, but these ones happened to set me off today.

My son Sammy is nearly four and we’re teaching him to read. The irregularities of English are sufficiently common that I spend more time teaching the exceptions rather than the rules.

Simultaneously, as use of cell phones for texting proliferates (along with other communication typed in real-time, such as game chat or status updates, where character limits apply), there’s an emphasis on brevity that favors abbreviations, slang, acronyms and intentional misspelling.

In the early grades, as English is taught, correct spelling is the least important skill, taught last. The lesson plans emphasize vocabulary and the more common sounds for letters, even if it means young kids create sentences that don’t have a single correctly spelled word. The exceptions are cleaned up in the later grades.

English is a difficult language for non-native speakers to learn, because of the pervasive exceptions. But that flies in the face of English’s growth as a worldwide universal langauge.

English does evolve over time — just look at how many new words are added each year to various dictionaries. Novel forms of speech are created constantly, and are adopted based on an evolutionary model: If it’s simple, readily understood, and fills a gap in our forms of expression (or more efficiently gets an idea across in one or two syllables compared to a lengthier, traditional construction), then it will be spread from group to group, and eventually be considered “standard.” In general, this evolution makes English simpler, since complex or non-standard constructions are not spread as readily. So, evolution of English is “good” in the sense that it makes English easier for non-native speakers or young learners.

However, standing in the way of English’s evolution is prescriptionism. Linguists (those that study language) are generally either descriptivists (who observe and describe how language is actually used) or prescriptionists, who dictate how language should and shouldn’t be used.

No one has enjoyed a quick spelling or grammar flame more than me, but today I’ve come to the conclusion that English needs to evolve faster, and armchair grammarians (even ones with linguistics degrees, like me) must stop what they’re doing in discouraging novel forms of expression.

For everyday communication online, from now on, my only consideration is if I understood the other person. Instead of, “Is every word spelled and used correctly?”, my standard will now be, “Is the intent clear?”

Starting today, I resolve to never make another spelling or grammar flame. For informal forums, I may gently encourage others to stop making such corrections as well.

I’ll still apply higher standards for business communications, especially for my own e-mails and from prospective employees . Bad spelling as a signifier for low intelligence is a deeply-ingrained bias in our culture, and misspelling a few words in a widespread corporate e-mail is still a career-limiting maneuver.

The next barrier will be lowering my standards for my own informal writing, such as here on this blog. It’ll take a while before I’m ready for that leap.

10 Responses to “For English to evolve, grammarians must die”

  1. DaveZatz Says:

    [my standard will now be, “Is the intent clear?”]

    I approve. 🙂 …as someone with no “journalism” training, no linguistics degree, who likes random hyphens, ellipses, and starting sentences with “And”. 🙂

  2. Louis Gray Says:

    Sounds like a loosing proposition.

  3. Peter S. Conrad Says:

    As a linguist, there are a few points I agree with in your post. I would argue, though, that the inconsistencies you point out in English stem from just the kind of inevitable evolution you are encouraging. The differences between “choose,” “lose,” and “nose” stem from the fact that they come from different languages in the first place.

    The evolution that goes on will stem from more mixing, not less. There are now more non-native speakers of English than native speakers (non-native in that English is not their first language). Control of the evolution of the language is out of our hands. In the future, what you and I consider English will be a quaint dialect of something bigger–and by “future,” I don’t necessarily mean after we’re dead.

    So, what happens to the grammarians? I can only speak for myself. I think it’s important to know how things are “supposed to be,” and to try to figure out the rules–which are based on usage, after all (for example, it’s now okay to wantonly split infinitives). Your supposition that grammarians are against linguistic evolution is false. But evolution is slow and heavy, and language has history and weight too. Remember that language is really an agreement among all the people who speak it. It takes time to change that agreement, because it takes time for those changes to propagate. It also takes tremendous momentum. So if you start pronouncing “lose” to rhyme with “nose,” you’ll get a lot of “huh?” in response. And if everyone in California started pronouncing “lose” that way, it still might take a hundred years for people in New York to do the same, so say nothing of the billion English speakers elsewhere.

    Now, to your point about clarity being paramount. I agree. The language is flexible enough to preserve meaning through the “mistakes” that are really evolution. It’s really fault-tolerant. But remember that some “mistakes” are just, well, mistakes. Not all “mistakes” end up changing the language for the better (if at all). It’s true that “presently,” which means “in a moment,” is changing to mean “now” because so many people make that mistake. But what about the use of the apostrophe in plurals? This is a mistake that people make all the time. There’s no consistency. So, you let this evolution happen, and what is the benefit? What’s the rule that’s evolving here? Doesn’t that particular evolution contribute to the inconsistency that frustrates you so? And why not use apostrophes or “presently” correctly, for now, among people who know what it means? In the future, if its meaning changes, the grammarians will document that fact, not try to keep the dinosaur alive.

    The grammarian is your friend–trying to discover order in a tremendously challenging language, and preserve that order where it relates to meaning. Grammarians are not just arbitrary self-appointed police. And by the way, those of us who are interested in grammar, etymology, spelling, etc. have extra tools of meaning at our disposal when talking to other people who pay attention to these things. I would argue that without caring about this stuff the English language is a great tool–but caring about it makes it into music and poetry too. I didn’t choose the word ‘wantonly’ above by accident, but because I hoped that someone, somewhere, would enjoy it and all its little ripples of meaning, and the little implied joke there with the word ‘split.’

    I think what you are really railing against is the kind of grammarian who flames. Well, that kind of person is just in it for the attention. It’s okay to teach your children to use English correctly–they’ll learn the real English anyway, and they’ll have more tools at their disposal when they do. And it’s okay to strive to be not just an efficient practitioner of the language, but an excellent one.

  4. Stephen Says:

    I need to get that FF comment plug-in working — intense discussion also going on here:
    http://friendfeed.com/zeigen/eff48bff/for-english-to-evolve-grammarians-must-die

  5. Stephen Says:

    Peter, you have made a wonderful post, and I agree with far more than I disagree with.

    You’re right to pounce on the weakest point of my argument, which is the assumption that language evolution is always towards regularity, rather than more irregularity.

    In a sense I’ve made a circular argument, because I define spelling simplification as evolution, and I define evolution as simplification and regularity.

    I need a lot more evidence to back up my claim that language evolution favors simplicity and regularity. But that’s my claim.

    I will indeed teach my children to use English correctly (a shifting set of rules if ever there was one), but it certainly would be much easier if the exceptions didn’t outnumber the rules.

  6. Peter S. Conrad Says:

    Well I think linguistic evolution favors complexity, if anything! Language defines distinctions among things in the world. When you need more distinctions, you get more language. As the world becomes more complex, so does language. I think new words spring up faster than old ones wither away. And with more cultures influencing the direction of evolution, etymology will become an even branchier tree.

    How can evolution favor simplicity and regularity? There are no predators, so where’s the pruning process?

  7. Rich Says:

    How can evolution favor simplicity and regularity? There are no predators, so where’s the pruning process?

    The complexity is happening in other places, like technical language.

    There are predators all around. There are memes that are displacing other memes. If a meme shows that one usage is more useful than a different usage, that old usage will fall to the side and become arcane.

  8. Stephen Says:

    I agree with Rich.

    Peter, by the way, I’m not suggesting people change how they pronounce lose or loose. But if someone spelled it looz and loos, no complaints from me.

  9. TheoH Says:

    A language wil becum mor complex as mor distinctions ar made. It wil becum mor simple as distinctions ar dropd. It may also becum simpler ware an adjectiv plus a simple root noun is uzed insted of a distinct unrelated-sounding root. Amung indigenus languages in western Canada, ware I hav livd, the word /raven/ includes ravens & their smaller rellativs, crows. Insted of saying the unknoen word cro, one can say /small raven/ . If one dusnt eeven kno the word raven but only the generic word /bird/, one can stil describe the cro with adjectivs: small blak bird. A raven may be /big blak bird/, and a vulture /very big blak bird/. A biologist wil prefer to hav & uze the 3 root words & wil further subdivide them into latin subspeecies, but the simpler root wil du for moast tribal peeple and for children, supplemented with adjectivs wen needed. [The spelling I uze is explaind & demonstrated in my website].

  10. Scible Imp Says:

    Steve,

    You may want to check this out. I highly recommend this Web site to anyone who is interested in the subject of grammar, and also to those who are incapable or unwilling to punctuate, capitalize, or otherwise attend to the needs of their sad, broken sentences.

    http://www.grammaruntied.com/blog/?p=88

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