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.