Will simplifying English just annoy the grammar Nazis?

There was a suggestion in the Sydney Morning Herald the other week that English could happily be simplified – no more ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ confusion, no more malapropism involving their, there and they’re.

Immortal words from Iris Guiver Wilkinson - journalist and author from the 1930s, better known as Robin Hyde, a woman whose personal story was as tragic as some of the tales she wrote. Part of the Wellington Writers' Walk.

Immortal words from Iris Guiver Wilkinson – journalist and author from the 1930s, better known as Robin Hyde, a woman whose personal story was as tragic as some of the tales she wrote. Part of the Wellington Writers’ Walk.

The advent of self-pubbing, it seems, has brought with it a decline in the correct use of apostrophes – and, of course, I can hear the scream of the grammar Nazis from here.

The thing about language – and particularly grammar – is that it changes over time. Inevitably. If it didn’t, we’d all be speaking like Chaucer, or Anglo Saxon. Actually, we do the latter anyway whenever we swear. But except for the rude words we have to accept that the language has changed. And it’s continuing to change. Of late, for instance, ‘invitation’ – a noun – has been replaced by ‘invite’, its verb form.  A few years ago we would ‘receive an invitation’, and we could ‘invite people’ to our birthdays. Now, we receive ‘an invite’. I’ve even seen it in official correspondence. Technically that makes it a gerund – a verb that, in its non-infinitive form – can be used as a noun.

Should we really complain? Some people might, though such attitudes put me in mind of ‘deportment’, the middle class Victorian era conceit that etiquette, for women, was defined by their ability to walk without bobbing, as if on wheels. The conceit far outlasted the crinoline dresses into which it was born. Even into the 1920s, stern-faced tutors would make upwardly aspiring young women walk with books balanced on their heads in order to master this art. In that age of flappers, cloche hats and short tube dresses, society had moved on, but the ways in which people were judged and measured had not.

It’s the same, I contend, with language. Not that I am going to drop apostrophes or misuse homonyms in a hurry. But personally I wouldn’t complain if others do.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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17 comments on “Will simplifying English just annoy the grammar Nazis?

  1. KokkieH says:

    Simplifying language is one thing. Being lazy to master it is quite another. I think the misuse of homophones and apostrophes is usually the latter. Usually I don’t tell transgressors that in my opinion they’re just not trying, but I refrain only with great gnashing of teeth and pulling out of hair. I blame it on my stint as an English teacher.

    Sure, English is complex, at times downright counter-intuitive when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, and that makes it a bugger to truly master, but that complexity is also a great strength as it makes the language much more precise and expressive. I won’t mind simplifying of spelling (for one, it would make the lives of English teachers across the world much easier, though writing “ur” rather than “your” will probably cause something important in my brain to go boing), but do we really want to live in a world where “literal” means “figurative” and where “irregardless” is a word? I don’t know if that could be considered evolution.

  2. EagleAye says:

    There are some changes in the language that I don’t mind, and others that I dislike. ‘Invite’ versus ‘invitation’ doesn’t bother me at all. The verbal ‘akz’ versus ‘ask’ bothers me a lot. I think the forms of “your” and “there” should stay the way they are. I suppose context makes these easy enough to understand without different forms, but on the other hand I like the precision

    Sometimes I see these efforts to change the language as an effort to allow students who cannot (or most likely will not) get the forms straight in their head. In Oakland, CA, there was a push to make Ebonics a separate dialect so that those who had never bothered to learn proper English could have an excuse for being poor students. That idea died a horrible death, thankfully.

    Still, I see the language evolving. When I was in school, the phrases, “text me” and “google it” would’ve received red marks for incorrect English. Now they are an accepted part of the language. I agree with these changes. They reflect the changing nature of our society. Some changes are good, some not so good in my view.

    • It’s always fascinated me how the language evolves. As both you and Herman point out (and I agree) there’s a difference between not knowing the rules, and knowing them but changing them anyway. The curious thing is that the language doesn’t seem to change by deliberate act – indeed, I think efforts to do that are doomed. It’s a lot more organic. Here in NZ, for instance, there has been a substantial infusion of Te Reo Maori. We often say ‘did you tutu with that?’ – ‘tutu’ meaning ‘mischievously tinker’, for instance. And it’s evolving, worldwide, under the impact of technology – and the impact of our new ability to network. I think txt spk was a passing phase, purely because it was a function of those old keypad phones – we can type normally with smartphones and I think the abbreviations will pass. But other terms and usages are going to arise. The whole lot is a fascinating topic.

      • EagleAye says:

        By the way, have you heard of a, “Demonym?” According to wiki, “people of Britain is British; the demonym for the people of Canada is Canadian.” I simply thought there was an adjective form. Ah the things we learn while browsing.

        I was looking for a word (I know it exists), that describes a word, formerly slang or colloquial, that has since become an accepted part of language. Does anyone know what this word is? I can’t find it just now.

        • Never knew’demonym’! Very cool. I don’t know the word for when a term becomes accepted in language. I figure that once it’s in the OED, it’s probably ‘made’ it (and those wanting slang will swiftly move elsewhere) – but the word for such migration remains elusive!

  3. bevrobitai says:

    Let’s not simplify the language. Sometimes it’s only the incorrect spelling and poor grammar that alerts us that certain emails or Facebook posts or internet articles are spam, scams or rubbish. Those of us smart enough to master the rudiments of English have a distinct advantage over the deadbeats and dropkicks out there – let’s not give that away.

    And I can confirm that deportment with books on the head was still being instilled in young gels in the sixties (granted, by two fairly elderly teachers!) Didn’t stick though.

    • Yes – true! I periodically scan the ‘spam’ captured by WordPress – interesting introduction to English As She Is Spoke.

      As a bloke also brought up in the sixties I mercifully never had to endure book-on-head walking torture! Though it’s better not to get me started about Kiwi primary schools and what they did to left handers in the day…

  4. I have a hard time with some of the spellings. Outside a butcher shop, lam not lamb… etc. Mostly the wrong shop signs are from shops owned by Asian people. Others follow suit. (not soot). The difference between their and there, helps me understand what is being written about. Some books are very confusing. I give up on those. As far is possible, unless I am saving letters when sending text messages, I will stay with the old-fashioned way.
    Interesting topic :)

    • It’s intriguing how spellings can change, though, in common usage. Here in NZ we used US spellings and terms for much of the 19th century – clamor, honor, druggist and so forth. That became ‘Anglicised’ in the 1890s and, to this day, British English remains standard. As far as I can tell it was to do with the infusion of US-based whalers at the outset of the colonial period, followed by the massive flood of ‘forty niners’ from California, seeking Otago gold. But nobody today much remembers that it ever happened.

  5. hmunro says:

    I love this thought-provoking post, Matthew. I think it’s great — and also inevitable — that English is continuously evolving to reflect the cultures and societies who speak it. But does that mean we should dispense with common sticking points such as their/there/they’re? Nope. Grammar and proper usage still matter because they provide the fundamental framework for clear communication. Sticking with the agreed-upon-rules gives one a better chance of making oneself understood. (This is especially true as English becomes the de facto lingua franca.)

  6. I’m fine with language evolution, but find language devolution distressing. The difference? Evolution develops naturally due to advancements and need. Devolution is when we make changes because the humans speaking the language can’t keep up due to laziness and insufficient education. It isn’t necessarily simple to tell the difference between evolution and devolution, but I believe our guts generally sense the difference. Likely, too, there are those out there far more skilled in language than me who can make the distinction.

    • It’s an argument that happens here in NZ quite often, mostly because of changes in the way we speak but also vocabulary and language skills. The infusion of US teenage vocab and phrasing has become endemic among teenagers here and probably heralds a further ground shift. It’s typical of the way languages seem to change… But I can’t keep up with it.

  7. I’m not adverse to rules, so long as they are applied consistently. Change is inevitable. I just hate to see it come about because of laziness on the part of writers.

    • Yes – disegarding the rules you know, consciously, is one thing…not using the rules because you don’t know them is pure laziness. There’s a lot of it about, unfortunately. On the other hand, I suspect the social weight of the ‘don’t know the rules and don’t care’ brigade is where much of the wider change to English actually comes from, and writers end up scrabbling to keep pace. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

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