Why can English speakers no longer use their language properly?

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There was an energetic discussion yesterday in one of the dog groups I frequent about the number of dog breeders using the word weary instead of wary. As in, Boerboels need to be weary of strangers. More and more people chimed in with their pet hates:

  • loose incorrectly used instead of lose as in loose weight
  • stationary incorrectly used instead of stationery
  • no holes bared incorrectly used instead of no holds barred
  • tenderhooks used instead of tenterhooks
  • to all intensive purposes instead of to all intents and purposes
  • case and point instead of case in point
  • wet your appetite instead of whet your appetite
  • extract revenge instead of exact revenge

My own pet hates are:

  • should of/would of could of used instead of should have/would have/could have
  • discrete used instead of discreet
  • baited breath instead of bated breath
  • to peak interest used instead of to pique interest
  • people confusing their/they’re/there
  • people confusing its and it’s as well as whose and who’s
  • greengrocer’s apostrophes
  • people using different to instead of different from
  • I could care less instead of I couldn’t care less
  • people who do not know the difference between complement and compliment
  • even still instead of even so
  • people confusing countable and non countable nouns. For example saying ‘less people’ instead of fewer people
  • qualifying absolutes – most unique, more perfect
  • misusing literal – I literally died of fright.  I blame the Kardashians for this one
  • confusing your and your’re

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In a less annoying category are people who say ‘expresso’ instead of ‘espresso’, ‘axed’ instead of ‘asked’ and ‘expessially’ instead of ‘especially’. Or they say both….and…..and. For me both means two things, not more.

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THEN, someone asked me why this was. Why has English – particularly written English – become so bad?

I think it is a combination of factors. Firstly I should stress that there is a HUGE difference between the mistakes non-native English speakers make and the mistakes native English speakers make. They don’t make the same type of mistakes. And neither do people with dyslexia. The mistakes I am talking about are people with English as a mother tongue and good abilities in basic grammar. They are not typing or autocorrect errors either.

My guess is it is a combination of factors, the primary one being that people don’t read as much anymore. Reading is the best way to internalise a language and its inherent patterns. You learn prepositions, syntax, spelling and idioms without even realising it. The more you read, the better your control of the language becomes. It does not really matter what you read, as long as what you are reading is correctly and idiomatically written. This is why people know the expressions – they have heard them on television or in movies – but do not know how to spell them or even correctly use them.

The second factor is, I am sad to say, bad teachers in schools. In so many countries (Sweden being one of them), the profession is no longer a calling, being given a certain respect and status. It is a stressful, underpaid job where you are expected to do so much more than just teach. You are a parent, a social worker, a baby sitter, with less and less discipline and more and more noise among your pupils. It has come to the point in Sweden where a great number of people studying to be teachers at university are only there because they could not get into another course. It is such a worrying trend because these pupils are the future of our world. No one wants a bad teacher. Or even worse, one who hates being a teacher but is just doing it because it was the only job they could get. We all remember bad teachers, don’t we?

For me as an English teacher of adults, it is extremely difficult to reteach people that have been incorrectly taught at school. It is like resetting a broken leg that has healed incorrectly. And some of the translations (done by native English speakers) I have to fix are embarrassingly awful.

There have also been huge cutbacks in the publishing sector. The first thing to go were the subeditors. In my experience many excellent journalists could tell cracking stories but had appalling grammar. It was no problem before, because subeditors would clean everything up. Just as an editor would do with a novel. Nowadays with there being no one between writer and reader, the errors are there on full display. I have been known to delete Kindle books, no matter how good, if the grammar is bad. I cannot read a book where the grammar is terrible. A reader should not spend most of their time mentally correcting a writer’s language – nor be a way better writer than someone who is selling their words for good money. This means then that the readers are in turn internalising all the bad grammar and mistakes, and perhaps reproducing them.

A third reason could be that we rely too much on spelling checkers when we write, or that we don’t take correct grammar and spelling as seriously today as we did fifty years ago. As long as you can type it quickly on your phone, and it is understandable, that’s acceptable.

For me though, bad spelling and grammar says something about a person. I would never employ a native English speaker with lazy English.

I am good at English (not brilliant but good enough) but terrible at Maths. I know people have different strengths and that for many people, language is difficult. At the very least though, we should be correctly taught the basics of our mother tongue in school. And we should be able to read clean correct language in books and newspapers.

I can remember when I studied journalism how judgement and judgment meant different things, as did inquiry and enquiry. Those conventions have all but fallen away now, and the distinctions between American and British English are becoming blurrier by the day.

Does the internet – rather than making the correct language easier to look up and check – cause bad English to multiply, because everyone is a writer on social media, blogs, fan fiction, self-publishing?  Is pressure on the native English speaking minority by the non-native speaking majority, particularly on the internet, contributing to this development?

Another thought is, has it always been like this? Have people always felt that English is going to hell in a hand basket? That people don’t know how to use it properly any more? Is this just a feature of language – constant change? And that the way English is at the moment is the way it will be until it gets even worse? Is worse another word for different? When it comes to language, is change always development?

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Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

8 thoughts

  1. When searching for the stapler/scissors/sellotape at work, my colleague often used to wonder where they’ve been “ferreted away” to.

    I kept pointing out that it’s “SQUIRRELED away” and “ferreted OUT”. Squirrels hide things in secret caches, and ferrets are hunters who root out hidden prey.

    Now he only says it to annoy me, which is improvement of a sort. 🙂

  2. My biggest peeve, I’ve noticed, comes up more and more often on television commercials, in “professional” print, etc. The mixing of the words “less” and “fewer” makes me insane! I can be heard through the house (over my husband’s laughter) when someone on the TV says something like “less calories”, and I holler back “fewer”, “FEWER”!!!

  3. Just today, reading an old Robert Ludlam novel, I came across the phrase, ”honed in on the . . . ” instead of ”homed in. . . ”. That is a rather common misuse I’ve seen more than once.

  4. Something that I have noticed is the fact that; here in the states certain words that you use a S in it, we place a Z in it. Such as: Realizing, Internalizing, etc.
    I have to admit that I always cringe when someone wants to know if they can Axe me a question. I usually respond with: “Is it going to hurt”

  5. Language is a constant and ever changing thing. For example Knife – what’s the point in spelling Knife like that when it is pronounced Nife. The reason? It never used to be pronounced Nife – but K-nife. We said the K. The K was dropped over time.

    The King James Bible: forgive them Father they know not what they do. Today we’d say, they do not know what they are doing. The first one is much more German in structure and typical of earlier English, today it sounds old fashioned and wrong. That’s just changes over time and has been a natural process. Similarly books in the 1780s would write sevenandtwenty – not twenty seven.

    Go through early Medieval texts, when language was still being developed and people were beginning to write down sounds – the way they spelled words was different each time they spelled it because they had forgotten what they had decided on before. Take the word Bretwalda in six manuscripts only one spells it Bretwalda, others use Bryten-walda Bryten-wealda, Breten-anweald and so forth. Mistakes and errors at first then become established over time. Language is changed.

    Split infinitives also used to be a big no…To go boldly verus To boldly go. Today, to boldly go sounds much better, but 30-50 years ago people were taught never to split infinitives. One of my supervisors would always correct me and tell me not to split them. So when writing for her, I wouldn’t split them.

    Words change over time – for example the word Cunt, today is a swear word, and relatively unacceptable, in the past it simply meant lover and would appear on Streets signs. Similarly, words like Bastard have changed also from their original meaning.

    Language has never stayed static and there are regional differences to consider. For example, my dialect, my speed and my pronunciation are all different depending on if I am with native Birmingham speakers, people from the Black Country, people outside of the Midlands and non-native speakers. Does that mean that one way is the ‘proper’ (if I was in Birmingham this would be propa) way to speak than the other? No they are equally as important. Also, people with my dialect also write words down as it sounds…Owamya? How are you? My dialect is the closest to Old English compared to any other dialect in the UK. But people say it is confusing and the most difficult accent to understand. So staying rigid and strict can also help languages to grow apart and different. Look at the differences between German, Old English, Middle English, Modern English and American English.

    Take for example, hanged and hung – curtains are hung, people are hanged. Learnt and learned. Learned is only available in the US, but learnt is the past tense of to learn, and learned is a person who is extremely well educated and knowledgeable of a subject. To practise vs. practice. Again, practise does not appear in American English. In UK English, one is a verb, the other is a noun, eg. Medical Practice.

    The one thing that stays constant with English is that it is constantly changing and evolving.

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