Wednesday on Writing: Evolving Language

A debate often comes up in writing discussions about the way the American English language is changing, and is it a good or bad thing. A lot of people tend to get defensive about additions, deletions, and changes in usage that seem to keep coming up every year. New words are added to dictionaries, old ones fall out of common usage, and idioms and colloquialisms become commonplace. There seems to be a hard line between those who think it’s okay to change and those who feel we should leave well enough alone. 

Where do I fall in that debate? Well, I think somewhere in the middle. Some things I am pretty hard line about, others I may have a preference personally but am not dead against a new(er) usage, and some I really don’t care much about. A few examples:

All right versus alright: For years, the purists insisted that alright was just plain wrong. Yet if you look in most dictionaries, “alright” is given as an alternate to all right, and the definition of alright (if it appears as a separate entry) is usually “all right”. I tend to prefer all right and use that myself, but I am not a full on hater of alright. It’s slangy, yes, and a bit lazy, but for informal writing, go ahead and use it if you like.

“Verbing” of nouns: Okay, here’s one I am a bit ambivalent about. I mean, the idea of denominalization has been around for years and many words we use regularly as verbs now entered the language as nouns. I use many of these words all the time. One common example is the use of “to medal” in athletic competitions. “She medaled in two different events last year.” If you look into the usage, the noun medal was first recorded in 1578, but the verb form was first recorded in a newspaper in 1966. My issue with the practice is that it has become too common and too quickly accepted, in my opinion. There are plenty of really good verbs out there. You don’t have to twist a noun into a new verb. We accept these “new” verbs a bit too easily, I think. It only took five years for Google to become “the most useful word of 2002” although the company had been around since 1997. That’s five years compared to 388 for medal. It’s easy in a way to just turn that noun into a verb, and a bit lazy. 

There are many more examples of slang entering common usage, and sentence structure changing. I don’t mean to imply that I think the language should never change. In that case, we’d all be using Old English still. Languages are fluid, like the people that use them. People change and so does the way they express themselves. Along with that, American English, in particular, is a blend of all the different peoples that have made up our population over the years. I don’t think we should rush adding new words to the dictionary, nor should we just accept slang usage in formal writing and speech. Let the changes happen organically and in their own time.


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