If 'Bad English' Gets Your Dander Up, You Should Read Ammon Shea's Latest

by Adam Finley

13 August 2015

Sticklers, scolds, and prescriptivists beware: you aren't as smart as you think you are.
cover art

Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

Ammon Shea

US: Jun 2015

I recently heard a coworker talk about the time “when we lost literally.” He sounded like Walter Sobchack, John Goodman’s character from The Big Lebowski, talking about all the good soldiers who died in Vietnam “at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364.” My coworker treats literally like it’s Dunkirk or the Alamo—a moment when the good guys were routed and the evil hordes overran our best defenses.

By “losing” literally, my coworker of course means the shift in popular usage to mean something figurative, e.g. “when I heard Justin Bieber was coming to town, I literally died from excitement.” Many still wag their finger when confronted by this usage. But this usage has a rich 250-year history—Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Vladimir Nabokov are among those who used literally in a figurative sense without somehow bursting into flames—and the change has been codified in several dictionaries. So, whether you’re happy about it or not, the deed is done. My coworker calls this “losing”, but linguists have a more accurate term for this change: semantic drift.

Ammon Shea, author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, would have something simple to say about this change: ‘How interesting! Isn’t English amazing to be able to shift in such a strange way?’ Sadly, this is a novel sentiment among speakers of English. But in terms of simple arithmetic, if we had just one way to use a word, and now we have two, how can it be said that we have lost a word? We’ve no more lost literally than we lost run when people started using it to mean “lead a business”.

A common refrain is that we’re giving in to ignorance by allowing certain changes to happen to our language—that they are damaging English, and that we must protect it at all costs. There’s a lot wrong with that sentiment, but perhaps the biggest is the misconception that English needs protecting at all. English is not a pram-bound child drooling over itself, needing to be coddled. One could say English is more like a redwood: massive and ancient and generally indifferent to our nonsense. But even that is misguided. No matter how we wish to anthropomorphize it, English has no corporeal form. It can’t be hurt. It has weathered far worse arrows than funner without a bit of discomfort, and it will continue to do so.

Literally is just one of many current battle lines over the supposed “proper” use of English. Bad English digs deep into a few dozen of these cases, examining the position of the sticklers and then using history, grammar, logic, and a sense of humor to poke gleeful holes in their cajoling. Not only does Shea provide counter-examples that render the arguments inane, but in many cases he exposes that their basic assumption about what is “correct” or “original” is actually the result of semantic drift itself, making the sticklers into hypocrites.

A perfect example is impact, which old-school copy editors and grammar scolds love to claim is not a verb—that a new product can have an impact on profits but cannot impact profits. They blame modern business-speak for its existence, and Shea, with barely a shrug, points out that “the verb form of impact has been in use since at least 1601” while the noun form dates to “the end of the eighteenth century”. So, not only is impact a verb (which one could validate by looking in any dictionary), but it’s 200 years older than the usage touted today as The One True Use.

Even beyond the current fault lines, Shea shows the long history of others, of people vehemently denying the use of the verbs aviate and finalize on the same grounds that some today hate commentate or orientate (they’re all back formations for which a suitable verb already existed). Even things that we think of as irrefutable have had long, tortured histories. For example, for hundreds of years no one could agree on when apostrophes should be used. We have a set of widely accepted rules today, but even those are in flux when it comes to making a name like James possessive. And if you think awesome and awful are antonyms, scolds just 100 years ago would have called you an absolute moron.

Like culture and Don Henley, language can’t stand still. It would stagnate. Language exists to meet the communication needs of those who use it. As those people change, as their needs change, as technology changes, old words die and new words arise: back formations, portmanteaus, acronyms that become words, products that become verbs (“Google it!”). Those who lay claim to “defending” the language tend to view these changes as an intrinsically negative force, but the only true negative force that can work against a language is when it stops serving the needs of the many and people stop using it.

The other issue with “defending English” is this: which English to defend? As Shea points out, there has never been an etymologically or historically pure English. The belief that whatever you grew up speaking is “perfect” English is a natural one. We’re taught that evolution makes things better, but as soon as the next generation deviates from the script we’re used to, certain people suddenly turn into Chicken Little.

This reaction generally comes from one or both of the following places: 1. a narrow understanding of English grammar and history, and 2. the need to feel better than others by denigrating their use of language. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and one of the more interesting points of Bad English is that the science of linguistic study—of really figuring out what we’re doing and why—is a recent invention. As Shea beautifully puts it, “Many of the rules that we all think we should follow came from earlier grammarians, who were frequently armed with nothing more than a decent classical education and an abiding desire to correct the language of others.” So, many of the things our high school teachers told us (Never split an infinitive! Don’t end sentences with prepositions!) came not from any real rule, but from a handful of cranky old men who wanted to make English fit their particular desires—in these cases, to conform with Latin syntax.

Change is inevitable, natural, and ultimately good for a language. It’s futile and quite silly to get your dander up over “corruptions” that you’re experiencing because what you consider “proper” English is nothing but a corruption of someone else’s. Go read Lewis & Clark’s journals (“makeing a Mast fixing orning & packing Pork to day, The after part of this day Cool”) and consider that those oft-confusing constructions and variant spellings were considered proper at the time, just 200 years ago. Imagine English in 200 years—that will also be proper for its time, even if it’s incomprehensible to us living now.

Of course, Shea is not calling for immediate equal treatment of all non-standard language. What he’s calling for is perspective and a generally better attitude when confronted by it. If your friend uses a word in a non-standard sense that offends your ear, you aren’t obligated to sit quietly and view him or her as a pioneer. But, “neither should shaming be used in place of actually explaining the joys and mysteries of how the English language functions.” Of course it makes my skin crawl to read it’s when its is required. But to point out every instance of that on Twitter like I’m the Grammar Sheriff would 1. make me a complete asshole, and 2. not make a bit of difference to the vast majority of those doing it. History is littered with the corpses of those who campaigned to “fix” English to no avail. Don’t be that person. No one likes that person.

The danger of a book like Bad English is the sheer numbing weight of so many similar-yet-different case studies. Only the most ardent fan of English is going to plow through the whole thing. It helps that Shea’s writing is so light and friendly. His style makes it obvious that he at once reveres English and loves nothing more than dumping water on the torches of the finger-wagging mob. He gets downright hilarious at times, taking George Orwell’s famous English rules and showing how Orwell breaks almost every one of them within the same document.

It’s difficult to find a real thesis in Bad English, but if there’s one big takeaway, it’s this: if supposed lovers of English spent half the time expounding on the beauty of their language that they spent bemoaning every change as proof that we’re nearing the end of days, we’d have a more appreciative and less judgmental atmosphere.

English is a beautiful, glorious mess. It has been for centuries, and it will remain so. Period. One can get their blood pressure up over young people using adult as a verb if one chooses to, but that’s going to make zero percent difference to anyone but one’s cardiologist. One might as well just chill for a second and enjoy the ride. And forgive my frighteningly modern usage of “chill”.

Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation


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