English is crazy? Grammar police? I look at both concepts with a similar disbelief. If you do too, this post may not be for you. You’re the choir, so to speak, but feel free to read along with a collective nod. That kind of agreement comes up again a little later in this post.
In one part of my life, I get emails or Facebook shares with funny language tidbits which, to anyone but teachers, indeed make English look stupid. See this famous vocabulary poem and this pronunciation poem as examples. Harmless, but not as funny as they might think.
Elsewhere, near these poetic forays into our language landscape comes a seedier claim: there is one correct unchanging version of our language. You don’t see that claim so clearly stated out loud, but it’s evident when the self-proclaimed language police quickly (selectively) point out broken rules. Doing so suggests a belief that shifts in usage occur at a distance, not within our lifetimes, as though everything that conflicts with ‘hard and fast’ language rules are temporary, bastardized, or both.
The truth of the matter is that somewhere above a basic foundational use distinguishing English from gibberish (though check out old English or middle English sometime), the rest of our neat rules are up for grabs. Change may be gradual (e.g. colonial power struggles, loan words) or quite abrupt (e.g.social media crossovers). Marek Kiczkowiak points out that had early definitions persisted, some common expressions would involve entirely different meanings now. I’ll be bizarre in the face of language purists by suggesting that correctness should be dependant on the agreement of a majority who use it in a particular context, not a stubborn minority who teach it or cherish a childhood rule. To borrow a phrase coined by Stephen Colbert (though mockingly), there is a wikiality to our language in these times of connectedness.
Yes, there are examples of carelessness that irk me too: would of instead of would have; your instead of you’re; and others like them. Rationally considered, however, a few start to persuade me of their value. For example, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the deletion of apostrophes in social media texts. Initially I cringed, but youre is the product of efficiency. Would it be so terrible if those pesky apostrophes simply became part of the past? Then the idiocy of the it’s/its rule would disappear too. That cant be bad… Then there’s that reductive because + noun. If it can be named word of the year, who am I to resist?
I’m not arguing we throw complete caution to the wind and abandon everything that helps learners be able to communicate, but as language teachers, our challenge comes in accepting that what we think we know is actually not so absolute. We must face the available evidence (check out Google’s nGram Viewer, various corpora, or just the world around us really) and recognise our expertise involves flexibility. Otherwise, we become irrelevant records of the past.
PS – Having said all this, I still want to maintain linguistic differences between Canada and the States. Read more here.
PPS – For your interest, if you haven’t seen this dandy 10-minute animation, check it out. It’s not comprehensive, but gives a useful glimpse.
PPPS – Believe it or not, Anna Loseva, this is a terribly failed attempt at #paragraphblogging. I’ll try again next time.