Tag Archives: decline of the English language

To niggle or not to niggle?

A recent glance at a language blog stopped me in my tracks as I contemplated where I’d like my own language blog to go in the New Year.

In his December 30 post, The Baltimore Sun’s John E. McIntyre, a language blogger, resolved to not nitpick when it comes to the grammatical missteps of others. In essence, he vowed to stop doing many of the things I and those who comment on Word Nymph do on a regular basis. This made me feel a little sheepish.

McIntyre said he’d no longer “whinge” about how young people speak and write these days or lament the decline of the English language. Further, he resolved to stop making or contributing to lists of grammatical pet peeves. Alas, he appears to be a bigger person than I. I just recently engaged my readers in contributing to piles of peeves.

There was one resolution that got my attention “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.”

I confess that, in my own writing, I often draw on rules I learned in grade school, lessons I seldom questioned and have forever heeded to the letter. I do consult other sources as needed, to verify my understanding of the rules, especially when I am discussing them here.

On one hand, McIntyre appears to be suggesting that we honor the English language as it continues to evolve and not revere ancient laws as ultimate truth. I’m not sure I’m ready to do this. I’m not ready to welcome into accepted practice those errors—many intentional—that have crept into our language so invasively that to oppose them is just too much of a burden. The path of least resistance, in a sense.

On the other hand, he appears to hold dear the virtues of proper speech and writing. I like his New Year’s toast: “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.”

Perhaps what he is saying is that, as writers and speakers, we should continue to uphold our personal standards, while exploring new and clever ways of expressing ourselves, but not judge those who do not.

I agree with this in theory. However, if I follow McIntyre’s worthy example, I am afraid I will have little left about which to write in the New Year.

I never intended to be the grammar police or a word Nazi; I prefer to have fun with language, pointing out interesting rules I am still learning and coming up with interesting ways of remembering them. At the same time, it’s also nice to have an outlet.

This is as much your blog as it is mine. Where do you think we should take it?

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A reaching offense

Adding to the growing commentary on the steady decline of the English language as we once knew it, The Washington Post Magazine’s Gene Weingarten has written one of the cleverest pieces to date.

Please read “Goodbye, Cruel Words” for yourself because I will most certainly fail to do it justice here. Readers, this figurative obituary of the language is right up our alley with real-life examples of ridiculous errors in grammar, usage and syntax committed by some of the most highly regarded newspapers.

Please note: the piece calls attention to a once-trendy, now overused phrase to which I ashamedly plead “Guilty.”

I probably picked it up 10 years ago in my corporate days; my dealings with corporate clients since that time have etched it ever more deeply into my lexicon. And, truthfully, I’ve always liked it.

As Weingarten introduces it, “[no] development contributed more dramatically to the death of the language than the sudden and startling ubiquity of the vomitous verbal construction ‘reach out to’ as a synonym  for ‘call on the phone,’ or ‘attempt to contact.’” He calls it “a jargony phrase bloated with bogus compassion – once the province only of 12-step programs and sensitivity training seminars…”

Bingo.

I wonder if “reach out” started with AT&T’s tear-inducing television commercials of the 1980s, “Reach out and touch someone.” As Weingarten points out, reaching out was a gesture of sensitivity or support. It probably derived from “outreach.”

Looking back on the countless meetings I’ve attended in the last 25 years, I can almost trace the phrase’s road to ubiquity, including a U-turn in its meaning. Reaching out has gone from a gesture of good will to one of asking a favor or, in the extreme, groveling.

Come to think of it, I have “reached out” quite a bit over the years.

“We need to get Sen. Smith on board with this.” “I’ll reach out to him.”

“I’ll reach out to XYZ Corp. for a $50,000 sponsorship.”

“I’ll reach out to Mary to see if she’ll be the closing speaker for the conference.”

Guilty as charged. Not because I’ve spent my career calling people to ask them for things, but because I’ve done so using a vomitous verbal construction.

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