Declining or Just Changing?



If you think you know your English, Ammon Shea’s Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation might make you question your most cherished notions. The book has a lot to offer grammar sticklers with open minds, but it will challenge—and enrage—most traditionalists.

People who care about language tend to deplore the slovenly habits of their contemporaries. The feeling persists that English is in an unprecedented state of decline. For a little perspective, consider this: “Our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.”

It has been three hundred years since Jonathan Swift wrote those words. Swift’s dismay has been echoed by grammarians in every succeeding generation. “The idea that there must be a way to get all the right-thinking people together to do something about the abuse of English,” Shea says, “is an idea that has almost five hundred years of failure under its belt.”

The point of Bad English is that despite all the wailing, “English is not dying. It is behaving exactly as it should, which is to say it is changing. [But] while many people accept that our language is subject to change, they want to dictate what sort of changes will take place.”

And this: “There is no aspect of the English language that has been immune to change. Meanings and spellings shift, word order changes, and punctuation comes and goes.” Bad English starts with the assumption that “prescribing how people should and should not use their language” is both futile and reprehensible.

That premise will upset many readers. But Shea is a language scholar of impeccable credentials, and he makes his case with daunting and compelling historical evidence. Shakespeare wrote “between you and I” (should be between you and me). Thomas Jefferson used it’s to mean “belonging to it” (should be its). And Jonathan Swift used ain’t.

Shea is an agitator. The book is peppered with seeming “mistakes” that Shea seems to have planted to provoke fussbudgets. For instance, he wastes no time using and defending the singular they, stating in the introduction, “I have opted to use the gender-neutral they in the singular.” But Shea is just getting started.

See if this bothers you: “It is hard to not admire Lienau’s rhetorical flourishes.” Note the deliberate use of the hideous to not, so beloved by grammar-challenged Millennials, so abhorred by their elders. Shea uses to not any time he has the chance, and it seems downright perverse. To not may be technically grammatical, but it is coarse and jarring. The traditional not to simply sounds better.

Shea baits the reader elsewhere with “a dog who” (instead of a dog that), “for he who utters” (instead of for him who utters), “each were” (instead of each was), among many others. To language watchdogs, these are so obviously wrong that one might wonder if Shea’s editors failed him. Alas, it’s probably worse: one gets the queasy feeling that the author is predicting what “good English” will look like in another generation or two.

Shea ends Bad English with a twenty-eight-page list of everyday words that “have been frowned upon at some point in the past few hundred years.” Some examples: anyhow, celebrity, donate, drapes, escalate, hospitalize, lesser, mansion, ovation, reliable, underprivileged. Shea’s point is clear: these words no longer bother anyone, and it seems odd that they ever did so.

We pedants have to be more philosophical and less churlish as we realize that many of our cherished rules are becoming obsolete. Like it or not, if enough people say “They is coming,” it will become acceptable and, eventually, unremarkable.

a book report by our late writer and editor Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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12 Comments on Declining or Just Changing?

12 responses to “Declining or Just Changing?”

  1. Greg says:

    Declining.

    Several of my favorites:

    Someone has gone missing.

    “It’s Morning Edition.”

    “You are listening to NPR News from Washington.” For me, that’s sometimes true as I live in Washington, DC, but I am often elsewhere when listening to NPR.

    Addressing strangers, business acquaintances, and elder neighbors by first name. You are Mr. or Ms. until you give me permission and direction otherwise.

    Changing — the stuff that youth utter: Lit. Tight. Reach Out. Touch Base.

  2. Christine says:

    Great article! As a homeschooling Mom, I used your grammar books and those of other publishers that were rigorous in teaching the rules of grammar. As I read online news reports, I notice a lack of editing of the authors’ spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Very sad!

  3. Russell T. Cross says:

    The fact that language usage changes over time is hardly a surprise to those of us who work in fields where writing is a critical part of what we get paid for – or for which we get paid. And the swing of the pendulum from Prescriptivism to Descriptivism in language is certainly more to the latter these days. But this doesn’t mean we should just “go with the flow” and accept any old string of words as being OK just because we want to seem open-minded, tolerant, and inclusive. Hey, it’s the content that’s important, right, man? I see absolutely no reason why writers and editors should toss out all the rules for fear of being labeled pedants or, even worse, Grammar Nazis. In the example of “to not” in the article, I would have no problem telling someone that “not to” both sounds better and is statistically more likely to be found in current writing. Providing writers (and I use the word in its most eclectic sense of “anyone who puts pen to paper or keyboard to word processor”) with rules on how to make their writing more readable, fluent, accurate, and likely to be read, is a good thing. This does not mean scribbling red lines through articles and forcing people to “write correctly” but it’s possible to maintain flexibility in critiquing written language use whilst offering a set of guidelines on how to do it. It continues to irritate me that in the world at large we celebrate athletes who pay attention to their craft, chefs who demand 29 seconds per side on a scallop, or indeed any expert who works at the edge of their profession, yet anyone who suggests that there is no apostrophe in a plural noun is instantly labeled a linguistic fascist who needs to “lighten up” and stop trying to be clever.

    Sure, it’s trendy and hip to play the iconoclast and suggest that rules are meant to be broken; in fact it’s pretty easy. But there’s a phrase about babies and bathwater that comes to mind when I hear folks suggesting that rules don’t matter. They do. They help. They clarify. They focus attention on the writing process. There should be no shame in referring to Strunk and White, George Orwell, or any good style guide because these continue to provide a base upon which a writer can stand until they feel ready to push the boundaries and bend the rules.

    • Tom Thomson says:

      The comment presenting the idea that “There should be no shame in referring to Strunk and White, George Orwell, or any good style guide” seems quite sensible except that there is no imaginable way in which Strunk and White can be considered sensible. It’s full of prescriptivist drivel that will encourage people to write bad English instead of good.

      • The once revered The Elements of Style has been shown to have “some problems.” To quote Eugene Volokh in an April 21, 2015, article in The Washington Post, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style remains very popular, but over the years I’ve come to be persuaded that it is, at least, badly flawed—especially if viewed as a set of rules … rather than just as advice.”

  4. Margaret says:

    I have a question. I was reading the “Caution” tips for an oven thermometer I had purchased. One of don’ts was “Do not submerse in water.” Shouldn’t it be submerge?

    Thank you.

  5. Steve Rosenberg says:

    Jonathan Swift’s use of “ain’t” was probably correct when he wrote. I think we should bring it back. “Ain’t” is the missing conjugation for the first person contraction of “is/am not.”
    We can say “He/she/it isn’t…” or “We/they aren’t…” but not “I isn’t…” or “I aren’t….” That’s where “ain’t” comes in. If Swift used “ain’t” for the first person as in “I ain’t…” then he was using it correctly.

  6. Jan Houser says:

    Thank you for this message. I agree with it. Indeed language is dynamic and is changing all the time, but “standard English” for me is the English I learned carefully in my youth and I shall be happy to continue to use it until the end of my days. Successive generations of speakers who like to be careful with their words will do the same, I am sure.

  7. Youssef oufela says:

    Amazing post about the history of grammar. Recently, I read a similar post, but this one sounds more comprehensive and clear.

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