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November 18, 2009


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The "business style" I dislike most is the overdone self-inquiry used by executives who want to sound important: "Could we have handled this merger better? Yes, but every merger has its difficulties." Why can't they just utter a damn declarative sentence?

I think that, unfortunately, the question has been answered by history itself: since the beginning of English, writers been scolded for using the language wrong or for corrupting it, based almost entirely on the scolders' idiosyncratic notions of what constitutes "good" language. The fact that (language) history marches on without being deflected in the slightest by the opinions of the mavens seems to be entirely lost on each new generation of scolders.

Because, of course, the issues at stake are almost entirely social and not linguistic.

We can't do MUCH about the language, as the mike points out, but, like us v. the weather these days, we most certainly DO have an effect. There's a huge difference between being creative with language and, in an effort to be hip, keeping your ear so close to the ground that you pick up some of the stuff that would normally only befoul your shoes.

Take the current passion for "sea change" mutations. Does anyone want to argue that the English language wouldn't be a better place if we managed to preserve the wonderment of the usage in Ariel's song?

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Shakespeare liked to use "sea" to mean "lots" ("to take arms against a sea of oppressions") , so it's not hard to see how casual readers might misunderstand its usage here. But we shouldn't abandon careful usage just because the task seems impossibly large.

A year and a half ago a young reporter friend took the degradation process another level deeper and published the following sentence:

"That 1977 line in the sand, designating some public spaces as smoke-free, was the beginning of a slow process that continued all the way through the sea-changing law of 1998, when Californians lost the right to smoke in bars, or gained the right to work in one without being poisoned, depending on whom you ask."

Notice how the original usage has now mutated so far that it's the sea that gets changed, instead of doing the changing. Indeed, it drove me near to despair. But that's one reporter who has now, belatedly, read the Tempest. If he ever uses "sea change" again, he'll use it right.

I love the selection of Bierce's pet peeves. As well as being a great name for a veterinary chain, they are something you cherish at the same time you're appalled; we should keep both aspects in mind and become less curmudgeonly advocates. "Landed estate" is redundant, probably extrapolated from landed property (related to another infelicitious usage, "real estate", which is immovable property, as opposed to personal property like clothing). I wish MORE people, not fewer, had complained about "paying a visit" while it was still possible to make a difference, because it's a sad statement about our personal relations that the burdensome aspect of seeing acquaintances now seems to feel like its most natural quality. And I don't have much use for how "afraid" has crept into our usage to express regret, or, for that matter how "hopefully" has become little more than a particle. And after the long migration of "awfully", I wouldn't mind it, from time to time, expressing a little wonderment again too.

Sure, words get coined, but the metaphor doesn't go so far as to imply that bad ones inevitably drive out good ones. Even when bad usage seems to hold all the ground, the good stuff is still hanging around, quietly continuing to make a better impression, biding its time. Two years ago I scoffed at the idea that a half-Kenyan from Hawaii would be president a scant year later; we can take back our language too.

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