The King’s English Is Dead: Long Live the King’s English!

I think if I hear one more highly educated, highly paid news anchor say “him and I,” I’m going to throw something big at the TV. The same is true for celebrities and print and online media. Misuse of the English language as I learned it is rampant, and the media spreads it like a plague. I’m being overly dramatic, you say? Maybe, but what’s a little hyperbole (a great word!) in order to make a point?

It’s inevitable that language evolves over time. We only have to look at the works of Shakespeare to see what’s happened to the English language over the past 400 years:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

What day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

Or we can go back farther to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

—from the Prologue

And there’s Beowulf. The words of that epic poem look foreign to us:

Hwæt! We Gardena        in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,        þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum, . . .

A hundred years from now, will students of language—if any still exist—look back on the turn of this century and marvel at our archaic English language? Will the pronoun be erased from common usage? Will all spelling be reduced to text-speak? Will books become chips slipped into a tiny pocket embedded in the skin? I hope not.

I’m keenly aware at the moment of the history of language because the novel I’m working on is set around the time of World War I. It’s essential that I capture the vocabulary and the cadences of spoken English at that time. The book is also set in the deep South, which raises the problem of dialect: how much variation is enough to suggest speech patterns of that time and place and also variations of class and race? I want to be true to the language of the time without the language itself becoming a distraction, like that news anchor on TV whose point I miss because I’m fuming over his usage error.

A long time ago, I had a teaching colleague (English) who came to be known locally as the Grammar Police. She wrote scathing letters to the newspaper and called out columnists and editors alike on their errors. The newspaper was our primary source back then. I wonder if she’s now trying to keep up with Twitter. I doubt it. I wonder if she shuts off her TV in dismay.

I’ve noticed that several of my MNIMB platform challenge colleagues are teachers. Not all of you are English teachers, I’m sure, but some of you are; I’ve noticed your paper-grading comments. What problems do you encounter with your students? Do you find that the casual language of the spoken word spills over into their writing? What standards do you apply to their writing? To your own? If you’d like to weigh in, please comment!

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