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I will do better in 2011

While I suggested yesterday that a resolve to wear a bow tie in 2011 would be a fully acceptable and sufficient new year’s resolution—as it is—this is basically a language blog, and perhaps some of you were wondering when I might once again write about language.

Let me help you out with the composition of your own new year’s resolutions with a few about language. Pick and choose, mix and match, as it suits your capacities.

I will not whinge* about the way the Young People talk and write. Tiresome older people have always done so, and yet the language has not degenerated into word salad. Remember that the Young People are adopting that lingo to shut you out of the conversation. If you really want them to stop, try to use it yourself, and they will drop it faster than they will block you on Facebook.

I will not talk about the decline of English, the encroachments of barbarism on the language, &c., &c. English is still doing very nicely for itself, thank you very much, and does not require your assistance or protection. It started out by discarding much of the grammar it got from Anglo-Saxon and then sluttishly appropriating great quantities of French—and anything else it brushed against over the past millennium. It goes its own way.

I will not assume that everything Miss Thistlebottom or Sister Scholastica told me about grammar and usage when I was a mere tot is permanently and universally valid. Stop parroting nonsense. Superstitions, shibboleths and zombie rules abound in classrooms (and newsrooms), and people have an uncanny capacity to forget valid information while holding the bogus in a tight grip. It wouldn’t kill you to check things out in Garner’s Modern American Usage or Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, or—I blush to suggest—this blog.

I will not make or contribute to lists of pet peeves. Is there something about peevish people that you perversely admire? Do you want to be numbered among them? Besides, indulging in many of the common peeves will violate the previous three resolutions. Stop it. Stop it now.

There could well be more, but I don’t want to lay a heavier burden on you than you can bear. The current year is just about gone, and the next one has not yet been spoiled. Lift a brimming glass at midnight and drink to the hope that in the coming months we will all speak and write with more accuracy, clarity, force, and grace.


*Also, I will not feel aggrieved at Americans who like the sound and sense of British words like whinge. It’s still a common language. Read some Wodehouse, for Fowler’s sake, and everything will be tickety-boo.


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:15 PM | | Comments (8)


Thank God. I come here to be entertained.

I will not have a heart attack when I see "10 items or less" at the grocery store, and I won't contact the manager, and I won't write an angry letter to the CEO of the company.

I will remember that native speakers of English using the dialect they learned to speak as children are not "speaking English wrong."

I will not bemoan every neologism I encounter as a perversion and a blot on the language, and I might consider -- just might -- that maybe the new term is useful, who knows.

I will not refer to people as "idiots" or "morons" because they cannot master the arcana of English punctuation, and who moreover don't even seem to care that much. (!!!)

I will try to remember that I feel like a pretty sharp fellow when it comes to that fancy talkin' and writin', but that these skills have limited value when the car breaks down or the pipes freeze or the roof starts to leak, and it turns out that I don't really care how "good" the English is of the craftsperson to whose skills I turn to attend to these calamities.

Above all, I will remember that all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about poor usage and spelling has had demonstrably zero effect, and the masses aren't getting any better at it, and they don't really care, and they find it all very annoying to have their language constantly policed by people whose opinion they did not seek.

Well, yeah, but ease up. It used to be the case that infinitive-splitters were derided as ill-educated. Now we pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness in deriding the Miss Thistlebottoms. Ease up.

To take your last point, for instance, of course everyone should read more PG, not only for the sublime strength of his native English but also for his joyful incorporation of Americana. But Fowler is a strange god to call in aid: he and his brother were energetic in their opposition to Americanisms in British English.

The differences between our different englishes are a source of pleasure and interest. You may, perhaps, like "whinge" for the charm of its onomatopoeia. But I suspect you also enjoy its weird Britishness - just as we Poms enjoy hearing its echo of an expressive Aussie sneer.

It's not surprising that some people like to observe the differences, or that some like to preserve the comfort their own english, in which much of their culture may be invested, hon.

The keenest descriptivist is not so descriptive that he doesn't have tastes in language. We all do, and for some that may include a preference for the tongue as they grew up with it. Why not? And there's no reason why they shouldn't express that, talk about it, argue about it (isn't that what this blog is?) so long as they keep a hold of their blood pressure - and so long as we don't turn our differences into shibboleths or start implying that different uses of language display different moral worth.

Ease up.

Well, yes. But John, please do maintain a light prescriptivist stance. There are so few of us championing the lingua mater, every battle lost, etc.

I'll spend 2011 battling the singular "they" as in, "whenever a person wants to unwrap a mummy, they should start feet first."

Which is how I spent 2010.

Well, no, Sir Raven. Dislike singular "they" by all means. Prefer to annoy those who would be annoyed by generic "he". Or stumble about with "he or she". But please, please, don't battle it. It's a discussion, not a battle. We have enough battles.


I am perfectly happy to ease up. However, I will continue to allow myself to be amused by the names people inflict on their children, particularly the variant spellings.

Miss Long: You must spend much time chortling at NCAA basketball teams and the names of the players. Oy!!!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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