You have to go to the article to understand this post. It’s at
I hope that gets you to it. If not, just go to the Washington Post website and look for Gene Weingarten’s Goodbye, cruel words: English, it’s dead to me.
Very typical drivel. I’m surprised editors are letting such fundamentally flawed material through.
“English is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself.”
Compared to what? Well, to any point in the past. That’s what these writers believe: that at any point in the past, the realm of English speakers was filled with “careful” writers. (I always thought that meant they looked both ways when they crossed the street; later I came to hope they wouldn’t)
A newspaper reader is cited as complaining about using the form “youngest” daughter of the President, instead of “younger”, used when there are only two being compared. Does anyone need the idiocy of this explained. Weingarten accepts the complaint as valid and then goes on to chastize the complainer for writing “Obama’s” for the plural of Obama. Writers have been doing this for centuries when they want to make sure you know the -s is not part of the word but an ending denoting the plural.
Weingarten labels both the writer and the newspaper illiterate. This is hyperbole. It has its place, but I wonder if Weingarten wouldn’t criticize it in someone else.
A fundamental omission on Weingarten’s part is his failure to tell us how we know English is dead. Obviously, we call a language dead in the technical sense when no more living native speakers exist, like Manx. Clearly, this is not the case with English, so what does Weingarten mean, dead?
Someone used to measure the day-to-day health of English through the pages of newspapers. Who were those people? Certainly not the complainers, curmudgeons, grammar mavens, and other Prescriptivists who never found a sentence they couldn’t criticize to show off their erudition. The public, according to Weingarten, has ceased paying attention to grammar, but he never states at what time the public did pay attention to grammar. Letters to the editor on picky grammar points have always been labeled cranks.
Weingarten describes the spelling of ’pronunciation’ as ’pronounciation’ as “ironically clueless”. What’s ironic is that this writer, Weingarten, doesn’t see that this is the opposite of a spelling pronunciation, it is a back-formation (thanks to Brian Barabe for pointing that out), just like “condensate” from condensation; people base ’pronounciation’ on the verb ’pronounce’ and pronounce it, i.e. say it, that way. Therefore they spell it that way.
Nothing says snob like the highly literate, educated person who regards the mix of language features in everyday life as beneath contempt, right along with the rest of the hoi-polloi they hope to hold themselves above. Lucky Weingarten: he got a good education, reads a lot and is therefore highly literate; but why should that persuade him to ridicule people who are not so articulate and precise as he (him)?
His reference to a newspaper article writing “alot” for “a lot” makes me want to tatoo examples from the history of English onto my forearms, like the addict I am. I wish I could think of other examples where two words are written as one. The only thing that comes to mind is that an orange, an adder, and an apron were once a norange, a nadder, and a napron; not quite the same thing but close. We don’t think of the “lot” in “a lot” as in “how many lots in that shipment.” So “a lot” is one of those frozen phrases that are imbedded in the language beyond public awareness of their origins.
Another back-formation is “spading” for “spaying”. If you’ve read this far and think I am pretty good in English, then for me to say that I used to be confused as to just what this word was will be enough to point up Weingarten’s stupidity. Look in a standard dictionary under “wake”, “awake”, “waken”, etc. and you will find several choices acceptable. No, we don’t “spade” the animal but everyone knows what we mean. If not, we’d get it straight quickly. Think of lie and lay and how many people you know who can keep those straight.
“eek out a living” is lambasted. Good lord, Weingarten, if you want the average newspaper guy to know these words, then figure out a way to make them more common in the language. Even lie and lay can’t be kept straight; how much less ’eke’ (related to Latin aug- as in ’augment’), an old word in English meaning to increase.
He does get in some funny ones: a “doggy dog” world, just a mishearing that never got corrected as the person grew up. The language – and, again, I lack examples to hand – is filled with childish errors in transmission of the language that grew up with the kids to become standard vocabulary.
And, of course, “prostrate cancer”; and we still have with us the snob who refuses to recognize that neither ’prostrate’ nor ’prostate’ are common words. A few of us look up every word we have the slightest doubt about, but most people figure they know their language well enough. I wonder how many “egregious” errors these writers made? Or is just this one cited by the pompous Weingarten enough to cause the death of English?
As Weingarten moves into expressions rather than individual words, the true range of his snobbism reveals itself. He despises the phrase “reach out and touch”, made popular, I believe, by a telephone company advertisement (= phone company ad), as if a cloying phrase has never made it into the cliche class. He cites a case (the irrepressible Blagoevich) where the jury “reached out to touch” the jude; well, I’m not so sure the usage, since I don’t have the context, was all that stupid. The real point in that is that these “jargony phrases bloated with bogus compassion” were once restricted to “12-step programs and sensitivity training seminars” OH!!!!! Now I see where this ass-on-his-shoulder jerk is coming from. I have a very insensitive phrase I apply to people like him, unsuitable for a family blog. Weingarten is a jerk.
Naturally, without fail, a sine qua non, and per force, the young are accused as the hit men in the death of English. If I could, I would sentence Weingarten to finding a single period in the history of English, going back 1,617 years, where old farts like him were not condemning the language of young people. That has been one of my major bones of contention on listservs, the teachers who want to tell us that this generation of students is the laziest, most ignorant, clueless, immature, group ever. This includes their butchery of the English language (never just “English”, but, in stentorian tones, “The English Language” – why can’t people see through this cant? They can’t.)
Weingarten attacks the language of advertising – in the old days called “Madison Avenue” – and unwittingly betrays his romanticized view of the linguistic and social past, a time when damsels strolled through English gardens chatting with their beaux (always spelled in the manner of the French) and exchanging drolleries in rounded tones and perfectly articulated consonants while the servants stammered and stuttered in a comic speech know as “dialect”, suitable only for dialect humor as enjoyed by the upper crust. The language of the lowly sorts perfectly matched the low level of their thinking, thus the rightness of their domination by the elite.
Weingarten ends in a pitiful try for humor by quoting a supposed man-on-the-street saying, “Between you and I… I could care less.” Weingarten could hardly be expected to know that the use of the subject form of the pronoun after a preposition goes back at least to Shakespeare, when the language had lost most of its case distinctions, for the simple reason that Weingarten would not understand a book on the history of English. So it could not be expected that he has read The Language Instinct, the most popular book on language in recent times, where Pinker says that people who do not understand the power of “I could care less” have a tin ear.
And so we can sum up Mr. Weingarten.