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!

Author: Gerry Wilson

Fiction writer. Avid reader. Former teacher. Wife, mother, grandmother.

14 thoughts

  1. I teach composition at a university, and have experienced so many issues with basic spelling and sentence structure. The thing that sometimes amazes me is that students recognize the mistakes they make–one girl would come to me constantly telling me she knew her essay was full of run-on sentences–but have no idea how to fix them. What amazes me even more, though, is that while I’m trying to help them improve their writing, I’m also looking at some of their other professor’s syllabi, handouts, et cetera and seeing some of the problems are the same. I had a student ask me to write a recommendation letter like one her other professor wrote, and when she showed me the first one it was mostly fragments and bullet points … I thought I would scream! I feel like some of it is thanks to the way we truncate everything these days: text messages, 140 character tweets, etc. Maybe they just don’t know how to sustain a thought for a full sentence anymore … I know I’m not perfect either, but it still makes me sad sometimes!

    1. Khara,

      (Catching up on comments.) You’ve hit on one of the reasons why I left teaching before I had to retire. I felt things slipping away from me, felt like I was always watering down and lowering my expectations. (This was at the secondary level.) Hang in there! I bet you’re a terrific teacher. Some, maybe even most of your students will be better for having had you as a teacher!

  2. I teach science, Gerry. We force…ahem, require… our students to write quite often. The best can handle spelling, structure, and usage. But the majority have trouble stringing a coherent sentence together. This is exacerbated by their entrenched belief that using a variety of words is more important than precision in language. They tell me writing for my class is “so different” than writing for their English instructors. I tell them that’s the way it should be. In science the simple declarative sentence rules, and once you have assigned a name to a concept or thing, it must not vary. In an English class, that would be dull.
    The good news is that, eventually, they catch on.

  3. Hi Gerry! The errors that I notice most in my students’ papers these days are errors that arise from spelling/writing phonetically. My students seem to understand that they’re writing for a different audience in their essays than they are in their emails or on Facebook (though I do correct their atrocious misspellings and grammatical errors in emails). And for the most part, in essays, they get case right as long as they’re not trying to remember “who/whom.” But they don’t always know how to spell phrases like “would have.” And don’t get me started on the mixed-up versions of “there,” “you’re,” “effect,” etc.!

  4. Excellent post, Gerry!

    I’m not a teacher, but I wonder if our move to primarily online communication either through email, blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. will actually result in a more literate society. There are grammar police around who will happily point out errors that someone makes in their facebook post or tweet. My local newspaper had a few grammar nazis who loved to point out the mistakes the journalists made. I seem to be seeing fewer mistakes. And it only takes a moment to fire off an email to the news anchor: “Yo, Dude, it’s ‘he and I.'”

    As for your latest project, I done lost my accent, but my people are from Northern Alabama. I have a Great Aunt who is 99, still lucid, and lives in Florence. Let me know and I’ll hook you up with her or some of my cousins.

    1. Diana, I grew up in north Mississippi, just not during WWI, so I’m pretty familiar with the lingo. Your aunt sounds fascinating! Have you written about her? Thanks for the great comment.

    2. Diana, I replied once, but I don’t know what happened to it, so you may get this twice. I grew up in north Mississippi, but not during WWI! So I’m pretty familiar with the lingo. Your aunt sounds fascinating; have you written about her? Thanks for the comment!

  5. I literally just finished a lesson on pronoun case to my remedial adult students. The fact that new anchors and other educated folk cannot grasp and use subjective and objective pronouns correctly is disheartening, to say the least. These are educational flaws, but they are also the errors of generations in trading in the simple bonding time of reading Goodnight, Moon to a child for the ease of the TV babysitter. How is an English teacher supposed to combat years of neglect?

  6. Excellent post, Gerry! I love your selection of literary pieces to illustrate how our language has changed over the centuries. I repeated that verse from Chaucer aloud as I read it! Ah, the things we had to memorize growing up.

    My undergraduate degree being in Languages, I cringe at spoken grammar errors and wince at those found in print. I do, however, give wide, wide berth to anything on Twitter or phone text. Consider it a word game to see how one might communicate effectively using the fewest number of characters! That said, I’m just as at fault as the news anchor you mentioned when I get in a hurry, get lazy or, lately, totally forget the rules and choose not to look them up!

    Success to you on your latest project and if you want some assistance with “that thar Deep South dialect”, I’m yer’ gal, Ma’am! LOL

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