Take a Stand for Language Standards

By Mark Nichol

English usage is always evolving, but the rate of evolution seems to accelerate all the time, and careful observers will note in a wide variety of content pervasive examples of the relaxation of standards for written English. This post discusses several categories in which it appears that even professional writers often seem unaware of basic precepts of good writing.

As discussed in previous posts, the velocity of change in what is considered acceptable written English has sped up thanks to the proliferation of media resources available to the average person and the dynamics of the publishing industry. Because of the explosive increase in content produced by poorly trained writers (amateurs and professionals alike) and the decrease in rigorous editing, substandard writing spreads unchecked, with the following results.

Writers often, out of ignorance and/or apathy, close compound words that are treated as open and hyphenated in dictionaries and other writer resources, so that, for instance, we increasingly see “life span” styled as lifespan and “time frame” written as timeframe, and mind-set and light-year appear, respectively, as mindset and lightyear. This process has occurred for hundreds of years as a natural progression, but we appear to be in the midst of multiple evolutions occurring simultaneously.

In a similar case, “all right” frequently appears as alright. It has done so since the mid-nineteenth century, but what’s new is that it is now creeping over from lay writing such as personal blogs to professionally produced content such as online newspapers.

Amateur and professional writers alike are also increasingly failing to observe two types of distinctions between essential and nonessential phrases. First, for example, is the error seen in identifications of people such as the one in “Company president, John Smith, was also named in the suit.” The mistaken use of internal punctuation, due to the confusion of the simple job description “company president” with the appositive “the company president,” which would require the name to be set off from the descriptor because that phrase and the name are interchangeable (while “company president” and “John Smith” are not), is nothing new but is becoming commonplace in professionally produced content.

As an example of the second type of essential/nonessential confusion, the following sentence is flawed because it implies that more than one Emergency Alerts system exists, and the one in question, unlike one or more others, can send alerts about catastrophic events: “The agency sent the alert through the national Emergency Alerts system that can send alerts about catastrophic events.” The following revision correctly observes that “can send alerts about catastrophic events” describes the system’s function rather than explains the specific function of one type of system (which is the point of the sentence): “The agency sent the alert through the national Emergency Alerts system, which can send alerts about catastrophic events.”

That type of error, published on the website of a metropolitan newspaper, unlike the others noted above, is a cardinal sin rather than a venial one because it doesn’t just “look wrong”; it affects clarity and comprehension.

I’m well aware that observations such as these can make me sound like a get-off-my-lawn geezer, but this is my point: Such shifts in our language are inevitable, but as a treasure hunter tells intrepid teenage Indiana Jones when the latter fails to prevent an artifact from being sold on the black market, “You lost today, kid, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” That is not to say I don’t “like it,” that I don’t approve of language evolution (which is just as futile as not approving the sun going down or the tide coming in), but what I don’t like is a failure to respect and observe current standards. Just as we agree that certain letters, numbers, and other symbols represent various sounds, quantities, and functions, we should agree on precepts of grammar, syntax, usage, and punctuation.

As a professional editor and writer, it is my responsibility to help preserve the language as it is now, according to standards codified in numerous writing and editing guides and other resources, and not anticipate revisions that will appear in future editions, and I recommend that you do so, too.

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10 Responses to “Take a Stand for Language Standards”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note from the article: “Because of the explosive increase in content produced by poorly trained writers (amateurs and professionals alike) and the decrease in rigorous editing, substandard writing spreads unchecked, with the following results.”
    This could be condensed down to “Poorly trained editors and publishers, amateurs and professionals alike.”
    ——————————————————
    Furthermore, the reason behind this is that there are plenty of publishers who are unwilling to pay for the training and upkeep of great editors.
    They would rather just lay them off, rather than to pay them. Furthermore, “laid off” used to mean “with a reasonable expectation of being ‘brought back on board’ within a reasonable amount of time.” Workers used to get laid off for three months, six months, nine months, a year, and then rehired.
    Nowadays, “laid off” means forever.

  • venqax

    Can we please overcome the need to keep explaining what the dictionary is and what it is not, and why it is of little to no relevance when discussing matters of English more sophisticated than standard spelling?

    “…inclusion in the dictionary merely acknowledges its existence and does not endorse its inclusion in formal English usage.”

    Dictionaries are de scriptive, not pre scriptive. That does not mean there are no prescriptive standards for English. And how old some usage is says little about its legitimacy today. Angell, bicause, garlick, jugg, garbidge, abowt—superfluous “e”s on the end of just about everything—these are all common old spellings as well. That doesn’t make thme acceptable nowe.

  • ApK

    Venqax,
    I understand the “comprised of” thing (although I must admit I can’t get worked up about a subtle shift like that for a few reasons, not the least of which is that ‘comprised’ does not need to be dimished by the existence of an alternate related meaning that is clearly indicated by the addition of ‘of’) but what the heck is wrong with “control their destiny?”

  • venqax

    I am also frustrated by the decline of language (and other) standards, and I think it is the responsibility of professional language-users to resist it. Yes, English “evolves”, but, unlike in the past today the majority of the population is not illiterate (technically, anyway) and a large portion have some higher education. So, historical excuses simply no longer exist for changes to English that are borne of ignorance or laziness. And we must face it: That is exactly where most “evolution” comes from. People don’t say “aks” because they are aware of the medieval spelling, don’t say “nucular” for a considered reason, and don’t write “alright” because they are familiar with its pedigree. They don’t say they want to control their destiny or that the US is comprised of 50 states because they know the definitions of those words yet choose to ignore them. They do so because they don’t know better and/or don’t care. That is the fault of our failure to teach and enforce proper standards. And with then internet and sites like DWT alive today, everyone has access to knowledge of proper English if they just make a little effort. No more excuses.

  • ApK

    To play Devil’s Advocate, Mark:
    Who or what has to “endorse its inclusion in formal English usage?”
    And who or what determines if a standard is indeed prevailing, or is on the way out?

  • Mark Nichol

    Helen:
    I am aware that alright has been attested in English for hundreds of years, but its inclusion in the dictionary merely acknowledges its existence and does not endorse its inclusion in formal English usage. (See also ain’t.) Arbitrary standards (why, for example, is altogether considered standard when alright is not?) are vexing, but as I argue, we best serve clear communication by adhering to them while they prevail.

  • Michael Tevlin

    Your point is well taken that we should honor current standards while acknowledging the evolution of the great English language. I also agree with ApK that we are seeing more and more egregious errors such as using me rather than I as a subject. How many college-educated adults say things like “Me and her went shopping”? As I used to tell my teenagers, “Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t make it right.”

  • Helen A

    I too was initially inclined to a “hear hear” – until I read your comment about the use of alright in place of all right. Consulting my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which, as I am sure you know, is anything but “short”!) confirms that the usage “alright goes” back to the early 17th century, so is hardly new! I quote:
    “all right adverbial, adjectival, & noun phr. Also alright. E17.
    [ORIGIN from all adverb + right adverb, adjective.]”

  • ApK

    On seeing the title, I was all set to give this article a “hear, hear” as well, but to see you lead with closed compounds, perhaps one of the most arbitrary and dynamic aspects of English style, makes me pause.
    We have so-called professional writers who don’t know the difference between “I” and “me” in the simplest uses, and who use words to mean something completely other than than they do, just because they are ignorant of the meaning, but are happy to reuse it incorrectly if they hear one other lazy, apathetic writer misuse it first (‘literally’ and ‘factoid’ come immediately to mind), and who actually spend the energy to make arguments like “standards and grammar rules are meaningless and irrelevant as long as you get the point across, and no one really agrees on the rules anyway,” that I can barely believe closed compounds even make the list!

    Well, on principle: Hear, hear.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Hear, hear! I, too, am disheartened by the rapid deterioration of the English language. That deterioration seems symptomatic of a more general malaise, that of the degradation of any kind of standards or norms. Even the very word “normal” has become insulting to people.

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