Friday, May 17, 2013

Keeping Up with Language Changes

The English language is an ever-changing, malleable tapestry. It's always changing and growing. Words that never existed even ten years ago are now mainstream words that we use without hesitation. Words that existed three hundred years ago don't mean what they once did, or we stopped using them altogether.

Even the rules and styles we desperately cling to like a life raft, as our language roils and churns beneath us, change on a whim.

As a writer, I'm constantly studying language and its changes that have developed over the last nearly 30 years, since I was in high school. I've learned that we hold on to our favorite rules with a manic fever.

"You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."

It's funny to watch people sputter in anger when you tell them a word's meaning has changed, or that a rule we learned in seventh grade English was never right in the first place. You wouldn't believe how mad people get when you tell them "it's okay to end your sentences with a preposition."

I love throwing one of those little language tidbits out there and sitting back to watch people's reaction. Last year, I posted on Facebook that the Associated Press said they were no longer going to prevent their reporters from starting sentences with "hopefully." The level of stubborn anger from people who said they weren't going to allow some dumb international news organization to tell them what to do was hilarious.

I pointed out more than once that "this doesn't mean you have to, it means the AP is not going to admonish their reporters over it," but these people would have none of it.

And I've caused more than one gasp in a room when I'm giving a talk and I say "you can end your sentences with a preposition." The rule was created by a Latin scholar in the 1700s who tried to impose Latin rules on a language that didn't follow those same rules. It has long been accepted by even the most die-hard grammar snobs that saying things like "in what did you step?" is the height of foppish pretension, and they all agree that this never should have been taught in the first place. But that doesn't stop the grammar bullies from reciting their 7th grade English lessons about sentences and prepositions.

Of course, I don't have room to talk. I still get agitated when someone says "she brought the drinks to Steve and I" instead of "Steve and me." But despite my loudest shouts of "Steve and me. It's Steve and ME!" at the TV news (some of the biggest offenders of this rule), some dictionaries and style guides are starting to recognize that the "and I" is Common Usage, and they're no longer loudly correcting people about it.

(Not me. I'm going to keep shouting at the TV as long as I can.)

Common Usage is that Get Out of Jail Free card when you're faced with angry grammar bullies who feel the need to correct any and all grammar "errors" even though they 1) haven't kept up with grammar changes since 7th grade, and 2) often confuse style choices with grammar rules.

This is actually something I deal with on a regular basis. I hear from would-be editors who feel the need to "correct" my work, and tell me when I've made grammar errors.

"You can't start your sentences with 'and,'" they say.

"Actually, you can. It's an acceptable method in certain types of writing. Besides, it's a style choice, not an actual hard and fast grammar rule."

"Nuh-uh," they say. "I remember when my mom gave my sister and I —" GAAAH! "— a book on grammar rules, and it said you can't do that."

I follow novelist Elmore Leonard's admonition to the grammar bullies about how they need to keep their booger-encrusted fingers off his writing. He said, "If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

And that has been my excuse for the last 25 years. Language is forever growing and changing, from new words to new rules to new styles. As a writer, I need to keep up with it, and just go with the flow. I can't cling to old myths that should have never become rules in the first place.

Hopefully one day some young writer will respond to a grammar bully one day by saying, "I happen to follow Erik Deckers' rules of writing. . ."



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