Lend English an ear

Modernity is remiss not only intellectually and morally, but also aurally. How else could one explain the current profusion of ugly, jarring usages?

For example, no one with a good ear would ever use the construction to be sat, as in I was sat next to the hostess. Since this usage is rapidly gaining currency, the conclusion is inescapable: an increasing number of people suffer from a tin ear for language.

Otherwise, depending on what they want to communicate, they’d say I was seated, I was sitting or simply I sat. One could vindicate such preferences by referring to the entire history of English, especially its transition from the Middle to the Modern period.

When languishing for several centuries after the Norman Conquest in a secondary, almost dialectal status, English underwent massive changes. Most of them gradually made the language more streamlined and compact, with some grammatical categories (such as the cases and genders of nouns) becoming extinct and some others highly suspect.

One such category was the passive voice, which offended the emergent structure of the English sentence revolving around an active verb. Since language constantly interacts with the national mentality, alternately reflecting and forming it, this tendency probably sprang from the dynamic, pragmatic English character.

The same goes for the uncompromising demand for an active, rather than nominal, subject in an English sentence, one assuming responsibility for the action conveyed by the verb. By contrast, a Russian sentence can thrive without either a verbal predicate or a subject, possibly reflecting the characteristic Russian vagueness the West perceives as ‘the mysterious Russian soul’.

In English, however, these two allies, the subject and the predicate, join forces to relegate the passive voice to a suspect status. It’s to be avoided whenever possible, and only brought in from the cold in dire necessity (as in this sentence, for example).

One could enunciate one’s objections to I was sat in this rational manner, avoiding any allusion to aural acuity. But the better argument against this abomination is that it’s jarring to the ear – in the same way that a wrong note hurts the ear of anyone blessed with a sense of pitch.

In his presidential campaign of some 25 years ago, Bill Clinton asked the voters to “give Al Gore and I a chance”. That led to a lively argument on The Firing Line between the host William F. Buckley and his guest, who had just published a popular book advocating linguistic permissiveness.

The guest defended Clinton’s usage by asking a question he considered rhetorical: “Are you accusing this Rhodes scholar of being illiterate?” “No,” replied Buckley, “I’m accusing him of having a bad ear.”

Such an accusation would clinch the argument for anyone who heard language in the same tonal detail. A musician may also point out to a tone-deaf listener that the piece he has just heard is in the wrong key. The former requires no rational proof for his remark – he just knows it’s true. But the latter may wish to dip into the area of acoustics, wishing to know, for example, what frequency corresponds to D Minor.

Similarly, Buckley heard the false grammatical note, but his guest didn’t, or rather wouldn’t. He tried to excuse the Rhodes scholar’s illiteracy by offering a factually correct but conceptually irrelevant defence. Clinton, he explained, must have been taught as a child that it’s wrong to say Me and Hilary both want to be president. He should say Hilary and I

That compromised in his mind the usage of me altogether, and Clinton, along with millions of others, felt one always had to opt for I to be on the safe side. In the same vein, many Englishmen taught not to drop their aitches as children actually pronounce the tricky letter as haitch, thinking they sound ‘well posh’ thereby.

Buckley’s guest didn’t explain why Clinton’s impressive transatlantic credentials didn’t cover the difference between subject and object. To Buckley that difference was self-evident, to his guest irrelevant, to Clinton nonexistent.

I would have been tempted to backtrack even further, to the same transition from Middle to Modern English, during which the whole category of the case came under attack. As a result, it suffered attrition, but still managed to hang on in personal pronouns.

Interestingly, Buckley also tried to make his point by suggesting that no one would say give I a chance. He was using an argument borrowed from transformational grammar, a useful teaching tool if nothing else.

But his crystal ball was murky: these days one can hear many Americans, and a growing number of Britons, saying things like they invited I to a party. Tin ear is a contagion spreading as fast and wide as some pandemics we’ve grown to know and love.

Buckley’s guest then tried to unsheathe a rusty truism as his defence weapon. “Language,” he said, “is constantly changing”. Like most truisms, as opposed to truths, this weapon ought to have been decommissioned a long time ago.

We’ve known since the time of Heraclitus that everything changes, emphatically including language. Hence a modern reader finds Shakespeare hard to read in places, Chaucer maddeningly so, and Beowulf well-nigh impossible.

That language changes is indisputable. However, the pernicious presumption of progress misfires here as badly as it does everywhere else. For not all change is for the better; much of it is for the worse. Its direction depends on who initiates the change, why and on what basis.

English used to be a club with a qualified open-door policy. Outsiders could be admitted, but they had to be vetted by the club members first.

The metaphorical club included the cultured elite endowed with the education, sensitivity – and yes, ear – to judge which newcomers should be admitted and which blackballed. They managed to keep undesirables at bay, sometimes forever, sometimes at least for a long time.

That elite used to be small in number, but it was never culturally marginal. Now it is. The masses broke the club doors down and rushed inside, trampling underfoot the linguistic treasures lovingly collected over centuries.

That onrush is these days growing exponentially, especially under the influence of social media. Increasingly, verbal communication gives way to either cryptic acronyms or hieroglyphics, all those smileys, emoticons and emojis.

The prerogative of using the written word to affect the usages of millions has been stolen from the elite and usurped by our comprehensively educated masses who don’t know the passive voice from a holding midfielder.

English has never had a single regulatory body like the French Academy. In the past the speed and temperature of change were on a short lead, but the lead wasn’t nonexistent. Now it has fallen by the wayside, and a game played by loose but definite rules has given way to an anarchic free-for-all.

Rather than becoming richer and bigger as a result, English has become poorer and smaller. For anarchic change is always ugly and reductive – in language and everywhere else.

12 thoughts on “Lend English an ear”

  1. Spot on, once again!

    I place the responsibility for permitting the absorption of many such changes on a lack of insistence on prescription in teacher training and/or in schoolroom practice. Only strong prescription can hold back changes of the kind you describe and, if I am not mistaken, prescription has been unfashionable at least since the early post-war introduction of comprehensive education.

  2. I am sorry, Mr. Boot, but this is a lost cause. While I was a less than enthusiastic student, I did manage to learn a few things. It maddens me (on the other side of the Atlantic) to hear or read what passes for the English language these days. In 18 years of schooling I was never given proper instruction in our language. I remember as a freshman in high school (aged 15), watching a friend “diagram” a sentence. I was quite happy that my English class was limited to grammar school spelling tests (we were tested on: to, too, two; their, there, they’re). At my advanced age I now wish I had been taught the intricacies of language, the better to explain it to others.

    In 1976, during the celebration of our nation’s bicentennial, I am quite sure that most citizens understood the difference between the prefixes “bi” and “semi”. Today, no such distinction exists. Dictionaries have been modified so that biannual and semiannual both mean every two years and twice a year. When I invite you to my biannual celebration, I certainly don’t expect to see you again in six months, but you are well within your rights to show up at my door.

    In addition to the confusion over “bi” and “semi”, a trilateral example that has haunted me for years is: ensure, assure, and insure. Once again, so as not to offend anyone who happens to misuse the word, the definitions of all three have been modified to encompass all three meanings. Am I to suppose that when someone assures me of something I can demand recompense should it not come to pass?

    Of course, under our progressive leaders the problem has grown exponentially. In our modern age, every noun can be used as a verb and every verb a noun. Brilliant! Don’t know what a word means? Not a problem – just misuse it enough and the dictionary will be changed in your favor. This, however, was only the beginning. Today we can change the language for myriad other reasons, not least of which is offense. One take take offense at anything and thus force a change in language. I saw some funny examples of this yesterday, at Crisis Magazine. Lampooning the offense taken at the letter combination “man” or “men”, commenters came up with new words such as “womental”, “comwomenters” and “awomendments”.

    As a young man (maybe 30 years ago) I had the idea to write a book entitled, “The Dumbing Down of America.” I had no idea how far it would go (and how quickly). I am sad to admit that I cringe when I hear my own children speak. I fight the urge to slap them when I hear “these ones.” I do not see a path forward that leads us to a society that uses the reason God gave us.

    1. I’m sure your pessimistic outlook is justified, but some battles are worth fighting even without a hope of winning. It’s our duty to mount rearguard action and hold on for as long as possible.

      The other day I had an interesting conversation with a friend who goes to the US regularly (I haven’t been there for 32 years). I mentioned in passing that many people these days use ‘momentarily’ to mean ‘in a moment’, rather than, properly, ‘for a moment’. “It’s an Americanism,” he said. That may be, I replied, but even in America this usage is perceived as illiterate. You haven’t been there for too long, he said, assuring me that these days even his cultured American friends misuse the word that way. I didn’t believe him, and I still don’t.

  3. “Bill Clinton asked the voters to ‘give Al Gore and I a chance’”

    In the U.S. Army they say: “yesterday I wanted to be a sergeant, today I are one.”

  4. From the Daily Telegraph today, we had both “hence why” and “neither are”. And these were in one article – in the Business section no less.

    The barbarians are well inside the gates, it seems.

  5. Without an Acadamie Anglaise, I think you’re (courageously) fighting a losing battle, I’m afraid Mr B.

    There is a train of thought that states that, it is because English is so malleable that it has become such a success as a global language. It is able to adapt to ever changing cultures (the same goes for Spanish, incidentally which is a different language in the Americas).

    Another train of thought insists that Americans are far more conservative with language, dialects and accents and actually preserve words (‘varmint’ is an example) that we long ago abandoned.

    ‘I was sat…’ incidentally, is a recognised dialectal form and thus perfectly acceptable as standard English.

    1. A dialectal form, recognised or otherwise, can’t be standard by definition. Nor would I hold the US up as an exemplar of linguistic rectitude: solecisms are even more widespread there than here. When I lived there, I reached for my varmint gun every time I heard usages like ‘irregardless’, for example. As to l’Academie, looking at the profusion of misused anglicisms in French one doesn’t get the impression it has succeeded in its mission. I also think that its global status is one factor contributing to the deterioration of English: a lingua franca always suffers corruption and sometime extinction (e.g. Latin). But you are right: this battle can’t be won. I still think it must be fought though. Even if one can save no one else, one can still try to save one’s own soul.

      1. True. Nevertheless, I would explain ‘I was sitting…’, ‘I was seated…’ – past continuous and passive forms – to my French students, but I would also teach ‘I was sat…’ because that was what they would hear native, English speakers use (and much more commonly than ‘I was seated…’ as a passive).

        I would then always use one of my favourite French phrases whenever the inevitable questions came, from people used to a more rigid grammatical structure in their language – how could we possibly depart from the ‘rules’ in such a way…etc:

        ‘C’est comme ça!’

        1. I must say my approach to teaching would be (actually was) entirely different, and it certainly wouldn’t proceed from the solecisms widely used by native speakers. Native speakers are these days largely illiterate, thanks to our comprehensive non-education. For example, some of them are capable of saying I’s instead of I am. Would you teach that? Others, a larger group, think ‘disinterested’ means uninterested and ‘momentarily’ means in a moment, rather than for a moment. Would you teach such usages? As to ‘I was sat…’, most of the times I’ve heard it used, it was supposed to mean ‘I sat’ or ‘I was sitting’, not ‘I was seated’. We must definitely teach English as it’s spoken by native speakers – but only those who use the language properly, ideally elegantly. Otherwise, rather than trying to mitigate the problem, we perpetuate it. Once the students have learned reasonable English, then by all means let’s tell them how some native speakers abuse the rules they’ve just learned. But that should come in the very late stages, when they’ve learned to use English fluently and correctly.

          1. Yes, I think we largely agree (‘I was sat…’ would come up in my Avancé 1 class as a standard colloquialism and not before). ‘I’s’ I would regard as straying into patois – but when you are asked questions like ‘What does innit mean?’ you still have to explain!

            The ‘ly’ of ‘momentarily’ marks it as an adverb – the definition of which introduces prepositions (and their bastard children, phrasal verbs) which are a whole other nightmare to teach, being largely Germanic and thus divorced from the logic and structure of latin languages.

            The fact is though, that some students want to use their English in contract negotiations, or to read Dickens in the original and others want to understand what they are watching on Netflix. One has to satisfy the paying customer.

  6. Oh for the good old times, when youngsters were eager students rather than paying customers. I remember my students standing up when I walked into the classroom. And there was no danger of them cutting off my head if they didn’t like something I said. (That being Russia, there were other dangers, of course.)

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