Sic Transit English

Frances Oliver

So – the meaningless ‘so’ now used to begin statements by anyone questioned on the BBC – I’m going to rant on again about what is happening to the English language.
I’ve already written about the absurd twists and turns of politically correct pronoun gender avoidance, which produces gems like: ‘Why would a man beat their wife?’ (Maybe because she – sorry, – they – is a bigamist?) I’ve also written about how unfettered free-market capitalism has come to dominate our figures of speech. Many have commented on the ‘grocer’s apostrophe’ and Lynne Truss has written a brilliant book about misused punctuation in general (Eats, Shoots & Leaves). I could do a whole diatribe on the unquenchable ‘incredible’ and ‘incredibly’, almost the only modifiers left, and the new BBC buzzword ‘nuanced’, meaning (I guess) detailed, or varied, or complex or – maybe just about anything. I could also go on about another new ‘verbed’ noun, ‘transition’ used for ‘transfer’ or ‘change’. When we take trains again, no doubt we’ll have conductors saying “Will you please transition to another carriage”. Its pretentiousness would be in line (or on the line as we’re on the train) with the fallacious ‘where this train terminates’ meaning ‘where this journey ends’.
Present-day English is rife with ‘verbed’ – and that’s another – nouns taking over the customary verbs. The BBC has almost given up ‘lend’ for ‘loan’. The next time we hear that famous speech Polonius made advising Laertes, it may well be “Neither a borrower nor a loaner be”, and I hope the audience will know what it means and not think Polonius is exhorting Laertes not to spend too much time alone. The very newest verbed noun I’ve heard is ‘medal’, from an athlete who said “I hope to medal in the Olympics.”
‘So’ – why does any of this matter? A living language changes and adapts. We should be proud of our ever-changing English, glad we don’t have an Academy like the French that defines correct speech. In fact, modern linguistics tells us, there is no such thing as ‘correct’ English (of which the dear old BBC was once a bastion). ‘Correct’ English is elitist, exclusive, a form of snobbery.
But using longer and more ambiguous words where simple ones will do – is that not also a form of snobbery? Or a deliberate obfuscation? And using a plural pronoun with a singular subject, which could in most cases by easily avoided by making the subject plural (i.e. ‘all who’ or ‘people who’), is that not populitism (my own new ism), snobbery in reverse – or just kowtowing to a politically powerful minority?
Anyhow, we don’t need a concept of correctness. We do need a concept of clarity. Language is communication. When communication is unclear, or the distinctions and forms available to it diminish, language is not growing but shrinking. Take, for instance, changes in prepositions. Jane Austen used ‘whisper’ without a ‘to’ as we use ‘tell’. We’ve put the ‘to’ for ‘whisper’ back. That should not bother anyone. But when we lose ‘waiting for’ and use only ‘waiting on’, what are we sure of if we hear, for instance, “The butler refused to work for the man he was waiting on”? And will we always know if ‘duty on’ is an obligation or a tax?

Then take some common words. ‘Unique’ means ‘one of a kind’. If we say ‘very’ or ‘quite’, qualifying the unqualifiable, the very idea of ‘unique’ is lost. As with ‘exaggerate’ which means what those who stupidly prefix it with ‘over-’ want to say. Then there is ‘over-interpret’ which is jargon used for over-emphasize or what could be in good simple English ‘read too much into’.
Another lost distinction I’ve noticed is that between ‘stand’ and ‘stood’. ‘I was standing’ means just that, whereas ‘I was stood’ means someone placed you there, as in ‘He was stood before the firing squad’. Should using only the passive of ‘stand’ tell us something about the standing of freedom and democracy?
And why, mysteriously, have all those words like ‘condition’ and ‘proportion’ acquired a meaningless ‘-ality’, a suffix especially loved by politicians (obfuscation again?). More mysteriously yet, ‘special’ which did have its ‘-ity’ now has an ism, ‘specialism’.

‘So’ – here, all from my radio, are a few examples of misused words and faulty sentence structure, not communicating but obscuring whatever the speaker meant to say:

‘Assuage’ instead of ‘assail, ’‘Disfunctionality’ for ‘imbalance’ (the –ality again) from the Housing Minister

‘Denigrate’ instead of ‘degrade’ (from a Ph.D. historian)

‘Entitlement’ instead of ‘requirement’ (from the Education

‘Critique’ instead of ‘critical question’

‘We are quite juxtaposed to the Lib Dems.’ (from UKIP)

‘Embalmed for months ago, designs are being drawn up for a tomb.’

‘Tributes have been paid to soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan following the release of their names by the BBC.’

‘As a stickler for law and order we are talking about a Muslim extremist.’

And my absolute favourite:

‘The doctor was struck off because he performed abortions while attending church on a Sunday.’

Volume 35 no 4 March/April 2021

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ian russo
25/04/2021 5:27 pm

Something often overlooked especially with all the abbreviations that come from cell phones usage, people seem to think that it’s ok to use in everyday writing, forgetting how beautiful our language is.

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