Life’s Lessons Learned
The dynamics of English language can be very baffling to the non-native speaker trained in the tradition of formal/written (as opposed to colloquial/vernacular) usage. US English is especially quirky. In the book Mother Tongue & How it Got That Way an oriental businessman is quoted as telling his countrymen not to be daunted because they might make mistakes when expressing themselves to Americans in English: “They cannot speak their own language, anyway!” he said. And right he is too. There is a lot of babbling in the USA! While Americanism may be charming and catchy in colloquial usage, some of it is downright incongruous in written communication. The distinction between colloquial and written English is often ignored in the USA these days. The rot is spreading furiously now that everyone feels emancipated from restraint and entitled to write as they please without oversight.
English language is, so to speak, the final frontier of an all-too-familiar steam-rolling American dominance in world affairs. British imperialism planted English language in all corners of the globe and US military, economic, and social dominance consolidates that trend, making English a second language for nearly everyone on the globe. But whereas the British required all users of the language to conform to a rigid structure in grammar and syntax, American English is free-wheeling, in keeping with the irrepressible individuality of Americans. As the bold initiators of change in our world, with boundless drive and a pronounced disregard for they way things are done anywhere else, Americans are changing English rapidly ― for better and for worse. US English is, ultimately, an expression of the hegemony of a peerless and pushy people.
At first the US immigrant from a former British colony is intimidated by the honey-smooth flow of the American accent. He starts to copy the style, warts and all, just to be “with it” and to get along. He begins to pronounce the second month of the year as “Ferb-you-wary” (which seems to be OK because even British commentators now use that pronunciation). Then he gets a note from his college-educated boss saying “We may loose money do to your error,” and he begins to wonder: Does anyone care anymore? Do Americans use the dictionary? Do they really learn English in high school? Does the use of correct English matter at all?
Declension of pronouns is muddled ― so that presidential candidate Bill Clinton once kicked off his cross-country bus tour with the folksy message to rally attendees: “If you have any questions send them to Al Gore and I.…” (Did anyone understand that Mr. Clinton was saying: “Send your questions to Al Gore and/or send them to I”?) Verb conjugation is going too. “If I was you” is much more common than the correct formulation, “If I were you.” We may overlook oddities of colloquial expression; otherwise we alienate too many people, for instance by observing that the “dee-poh” in Home Depot (or the “deb-you” for debut) is really neither French nor English but a higgledy-piggledy amalgam of both languages. But what of errors in written communication? Should we ignore them too? Must I guess the meaning behind your sentence? If so, at what point shall we become mutually unintelligible?
Ask Johnny how he’s doing and he will reply: “I’m doing good.” Not long ago that would have meant that he is performing charitable deeds! Perhaps because of its ending in “ly,” the word “likely” has morphed entirely from adjective to adverb. Casting a sentence in the subjunctive mood was always challenging at best with its troublesome requirement of a verb in the infinitive tense; now it is altogether a lost art. Actually, it has been said that whereas the British have only recently began to fudge the subjunctive mood, Americans never bought into it in the first place.
Among the most noticeable changes in written English (one hesitates to call modern American popular writing “literature”) is, that the hyphen is following the semi-colon and the serial comma into oblivion. Those changes in punctuation style are accelerated by the proliferation of text editing features embedded in nearly all software and textual apps we use. If you are reading this text on an electronic screen you will notice several words or phrases underlined in blue or red. Many instances of such machine editing turn out to be wrong, and if you click on the underlined passage you are apt to receive a wild and horrible suggestion for an alternative! All it shows is that those hidden text editors are no better-informed than the persons who wrote them in the first place. I almost always ignore all the editing prompts in MS Word. (Most useless and ubiquitous is the prompt that says, “Fragmentary; consider revising.”)
FUNDRAISING, SHOPLIFTING and THANKSGIVING are similar constructions: in each case a noun is formed by plugging a gerund onto another noun, in the lego style that is quite common in the German language. One can imagine that not long ago the preferred style was to connect the noun and gerund with a hyphen; however, the hyphen is becoming extinct. If you change the gerund to its verb of origin the similarity between the three words vanishes. “They shoplifted” is OK but not “They fundraised” or “They thanksgave.” If you wonder why that is so then you are getting to the heart of the matter, the very spirit of this blog. What is right or wrong in English language is often not a matter of logic, of rhyme or reason. Good English is to a large extent idiomatic, and idioms are a matter of conformity, acquired by learning (aka imitation) rather than by I-too-can-improvise derring-do.
But while tinkering with English grammar and syntax is not for the dilettante, expanding the vocabulary with home-minted words is a different matter. Now and then we find new words injected into the language by some intrepid souls. Recently a blogger dismissed the contrary views of an opponent as “mere hopium” (thus fusing the two words ‘hope’ and ‘opium’ to create a neat, derogatory tag that means essentially addiction to unreasonable hope). Note that blog, and tweet and their derivatives blogger and tweeter, etc. are themselves brave recent coinages spawned by new technology (just like ‘broadcast’ and ‘broadcaster,’ which passed into Queen’s English with the onset of radio communication right after World War II).