The decline of the English language isn’t real

The English language—like every language—has been in a state of flux since its inception. And just as long, language critics have fought to keep it just as it has always been. The #JeSuisCirconflexe movement in France is evidence of how passionately we defend our established language rules. And in the United States, the pure of grammatical heart may be distressed over the fact that the noun “leverage,” meaning “influence or power used to achieve a desired result,” is becoming a verb meaning essentially the same thing.

To these language critics, I agree that change is hard. We each have our pet peeves, but regardless of how much you don’t like it, the will of popular usage means that the language will continue to evolve. Shakespeare alone is credited with creating or evolving 2,000 words; I’m guessing some of his contemporaries balked at new words like “courtship” and “majestic” and “suspicious.” Yet we continue to add new words to the English arsenal; last year alone saw more than 700 new entries, sub-entries, and senses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from twerk to FLOTUS to crowdfunding.

If the curmudgeons grudgingly concede that yes, language evolution is not inherently evil, their next argument is likely that the kids today just don’t use it right. In his 1983 book Famous Last Words, Harvey Daniels showed us how alarmist pundits of every generation tend to insist that the generation to follow is basically illiterate:

1961: “Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all.”

1917: “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.'”

1833: “Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested…there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.” (This, arguably, has happened.)

1785: “Our language…is degenerating very fast.”

Such complaints go back to the 25th century BC, when the Sumerians invented writing—and a teacher promptly complained about the sudden decline in students’ writing abilities. The grumblers of today, in turn, most often turn to technology as the malevolent force corrupting our composition classes. (Of course, that’s not true either.)

The purpose of having an organized system of language is communication; if I’m speaking to you in a dialect you don’t understand, we will have difficulty brokering a deal. If I’m composing sentences that don’t follow a standard syntax, you may not understand the relationships between my ideas. We need language rules to ensure clarity, and it is vitally important that every individual receives a foundational education in language to help them communicate. Learning to write is essentially learning to think.

But on a generational basis, our writing isn’t getting worse; it’s always been hard. Language is beautiful and complex and essential and subject to interpretation. That’s why a select few spend the time (let’s be honest: years and years) studying and mastering composition, grammar, syntax, and the like. We consult the rule books available to us—style guides and dictionaries—for the purposes of clarity and consistency. Not so we can tell others they’re wrong, and not so we can guard the precious heart stones of the English language, but so we can help others understand how to communicate more clearly, how to get their point across, how to make their argument win—and how to leverage our assets.*

In the meantime, take it easy on those who struggle to learn the mechanics of language. Someone had to teach you, too.

*It is worth noting that in formal business writing, “leverage” as a verb is still unacceptable for two reasons: 1) it’s not in Merriam-Webster (the dictionary of the Chicago Manual of Style) as a verb, and 2) it’s business jargon. A normal person probably wouldn’t use “leverage” in everyday conversation, for example, “I’m going to leverage this pizza to win her heart.” But who knows, we may get there.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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