The English Language Will Betray You (If You Let It)

A Quote_Peruse from Merriam WebsterHave you ever passed by a “No Trespassing Without Permission” sign on someone’s private property and felt the urge to take out an enormous red pen and cross out “without permission”? Of course, it would be vandalism, in addition to trespass, to enter the person’s property and cross the words out. It would also be a futile effort to rid the world of redundancies and other grammatical errors.

Such grammatical errors bothered Richard Lederer enough to write a couple of books about it, including Crazy English. Published two decades ago, this book is a humorous account of the grammatical aberrations and errors that make English an interesting — and sometimes frustrating — language to read, write, and speak.

The way Lederer highlights English’s craziness makes portions of the book reminiscent of the way Dr. Seuss played with words in such books as One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. For example, Lederer asks:

If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese—so one moose, two meese? One index, two indices—one Kleenex, two Kleenices?

He even includes a couple of cartoons to break up the text, though none are as fabulous as Dr. Seuss’ top hat wearing cat or twin “Things.”

Some chapters are more interesting than others, but Crazy English is an enjoyable read overall with a somewhat serious message: that, at least to some degree, we can and should rein in (not “reign in”) the improper uses of words and phrases.** While I agree that we should make a good faith effort to abide by the proper rules, those who take it too seriously either end up looking like schmucks or risk getting upset when the rules of the language betray them, as English inevitably will; ask anyone who insists that “But” cannot begin a sentence, that “peruse” is not a contronym/Janus Word, or that French spacing is required.

It is practically impossible to halt the organic evolution of English, particularly with the ubiquity and reach of the Internet. As my friend Jaclyn said in her post, On Authors and Conversations:

It’s 2013, and the world has shrunk to the size of a microchip, and in many ways, that’s a great thing.  There have never been so many conversations as there are going on right now, at this very moment.  It has never been so easy to connect with others…

These uncensored conversations are full of “incorrect” grammar, regional usages, and made-up words that can spread and take hold faster than ever before. With this pace of change, Lederer’s two-decades-old book feels dated. It contains few technology-related words and a couple of its gendered examples no longer ring true (at least to me), such as when Lederer asks rhetorically, “Why can you call a woman a mouse but not a rat — a kitten but not a cat?” I’m pretty sure men and women are equally capable of being unprincipled, and thus “rats,” and, for other reasons, probably “cats,” too.***

The point is that the rules will change on us, whether we want them to or not, and people who make mistakes will only resent us if we correct them (not that I am a grammar expert). What may seem like a redundancy today may take on a meaningful nuance tomorrow as a result of changes in technology or usage.

So, there’s no reason to commit vandalism, and, unless you’re an English teacher charged with teaching the next generation today’s rules or an editor expected to uphold a certain standard, there’s no reason to bring out the red pen or even fret about other people’s apparent misuse of the English language. We just have to learn to live with the flexible and ever-changing rules, like C.S. Lewis did.

In this 1956 letter, Lewis explains:

[T]here are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another.

The whole letter, including Lewis’ timeless advice on what “really matters” in writing, is worth perusing, whatever you think that word means.

*The image above is from Merriam-Webster

**Not in every chapter. Lederer takes offense at redundancies, certain eponyms, and certain retronyms, for example, while being more accepting and appreciative of other changes to our language and culture. He concludes, “what [words] once meant is not necessarily what they mean now. Words have life after birth. Words wander wondrously.”

*** provides “a woman given to spiteful or malicious gossip” as the fourth definition for “cat”


      1. Yes the ladies’ toilet is just before it so I have to see every time I work down the corridor. Maybe I should just shut my eyes and hope no one is walking in the other direction!

  1. Hi Amal, just wondered if you’d gotten my email. I sent it to the one on the “About Me” page. It’s about featuring blogs in April. Wondered if you could participate? If not, all good, but wasn’t sure if you got it.

    1. Hi Jae! I’d love to participate. The email had gone to my Spam folder (for reasons I don’t understand). So, I’ll answer the questions and send them back to you ASAP.

    1. Thank you! It would be easier if English were a bit more consistent. Considering the fact that Kleenex is a relatively new eponym in English, why can’t we start saying Kleenices? Maybe it will catch on (and I don’t think it’s trademarked)!

  2. I love this! When I taught English, I used to show my students how rules had evolved since Middle English and predict which rules would change in the next few decades. To my surprise, even though my students loved using “they” as a singular pronoun, they were horrified by the thought that this would ever be considered correct.

    1. It’s interesting that they were horrified by that thought. Those students are probably much older than my kids (who are only 5 and almost 2), but my children have a similar love of rules. They know exactly what to do when there is a rule, and the idea of flexibility is frightening.

  3. There are very interesting and entertaining examples in this post that makes one think and question. Unfortunately, the truncation of words in texts and the duplicity of intent and thought will still occur. I do like the observation, “There have never been so many conversations as there are going on right now, at this very moment.” I believe this and the internet makes everyone a writer, both good and bad. Technology proliferates all forms of writing and gets it out to millions. I just posted on being nostalgic for good writing. I think much of what is good is being lost to the brevity of what we write. It is nice to read thoughtful commentary. I enjoyed your post.

    1. You’re right–“the internet makes everyone a writer, both good and bad.” In light of this observation and Jaclyn’s (that “there have never been so many conversations…”), I would tweak C.S. Lewis’ comment that “‘Good English’ is whatever educated people talk” to say that English will be whatever those with access to the Internet speak and write. The Internet is a democratizing force, and less privileged individuals (though privileged enough to have access to the Internet) may have more of an impact on the development of “good” English today.

        1. That’s true. Someone still decides what words make it into the dictionary and into the curricula of English classes, but it seems a wider range of individuals may have more of a say on what the contenders are.

  4. Great post. It is true that the rules are ever-changing and it can be difficult to keep up with them. Not to mention some rules are just confusing. I do try to use proper grammar and spelling whenever I write anything, but admit things slip by me. If we spend all our time worrying about mistakes we’ll never get much of anything done. Not to mention the stress it would cause.

    1. I try not to let it stress me out. I’m not a grammarian, editor, or teacher. My goal is to write as clearly as possible and find editors who know the “rules” a bit better than I do. Thanks for the comment!

  5. A really interesting post – there are so many ways that English will trip you up! I think you just have to embrace how capricious it can be – I worked for a while as an English Language Assistant and I think I spent more time listing the exceptions to the rule than the rules themselves!

    1. Thanks! Yes, there are so many ways it will trip you up. I have my opinion on what’s “right” (based on what my English teachers taught me), but I’ve found evidence to the contrary more often than I’d like to admit. It’s a flexible language, and I just have to accept it.

  6. People should listen to what they write. For instance: “I thought to myself.” As we are not a telepathic race, “to myself” is superfluous and stupid. I hear and read this all the time and it drives me up a wall. But then, I’m an editor. A lot drives me up a wall. 🙂

    When some internet words were recently added to the dictionary, I cringed. Example: totes. We already have a perfectly good word that means exactly the same thing (totally), so why add this truncated, ugly word? Yes, language changes, and it should, but “totes” is superfluous. I like “totally” and will continue to use it.

    1. I’ve never heard of the word “totes” with that meaning. Interesting. I like it when we add new words to our language–it’s more to play with in our writing.

        1. It may make its way from the Internet to the OED! Generally speaking, I agree with you about slang, but books that don’t include any new words feel dated.

          1. 🙂 Not gonna use “totes” no matter what you say. But sure, a writer has to keep up, especially if they’re writing books for young adults.

            However, it is conversely true, if you pepper your book with current slang, that will make it sound severely dated in a few years.

            1. Yes, the converse is true! Another problem with using new or outdated words is that it can alienate readers who don’t know those words or don’t identify with characters who speak that way. Writing for the appropriate audience is tough.

  7. Fascinating post! You called to mind a story my mom once told me about one of her students. My mom was an elementary school teacher for 40 years, and one year she had a little girl in her first grade class, Masha, who had just moved to the U.S. from Russia. Masha had about 2% English language ability when she started the school year and by the end of the year she was reading well above grade level – she was a brilliant little kid. One day, my mom asked her which language was easier – English or Russian. Masha thought for a moment, then replied, “It is easier to speak English, but it is easier to read Russian.” My mom asked why it was easier to read Russian, and Masha emphatically responded, “In Russian, a rule is a rule!”

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