Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
ask an expert

Ask an Expert!

reference books in the nyc public libraryState of American 
Is American English in trouble? Is it falling apart as some would suggest,  or merely changing with the times?
  

Dr. Edward Finegan,
Professor of Linguistics and Law,
University of Southern California,

this month's Do You Speak American? online expert has
responded to a selection of your questions and comments about the state of American English. Below is the original message from Dr. Finegan that helped get the conversation rolling, followed by your emails. 

Do you object to “gonna,” “snuck,” and “like” (in, like, “I’m like I don’t care”)? Are you one of those who from a mile away can spot a split infinitive (“to swiftly resolve”) and take offense? Or are such points of linguistic usage unimportant in the overall scheme of effective communication?

Language differences across age groups and ethnic and other social groups sometimes attract strident attention. But, truth to tell, most differences and developments occur with little notice at all. Talk about the decline of English tends to focus on pronunciations like “aks” (for ask) and “nucular,” on spellings like “would of” (for would’ve) or plurals sprinkled too liberally with parmesan apostrophes, and on miscellaneous innovations such as the handful arising for the versatile like. Only lexicographers and linguists note most innovative expressions and meanings, and they too overlook many of them. “Snuck” snuck by on the road to standard usage, even if sneaked hasn’t been deep-sixed yet. Dived and dove still battle it out for victory. Commonly today a thing that “begs the question” prompts a question (it is not something ‘assumed without proof or warrant’). Even though many dictionaries haven’t noted the new meaning, are the chattering classes wrong to use it? And if they don’t, how will it get into dictionaries? Or maybe it shouldn’t!

No slouch among linguistic conservators, Dr. Samuel Johnson knew that language change could not be halted: “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.” Still, many Americans fret about threats to “good diction,” “proper grammar,” and “standard pronunciation.” Forget mudslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes: The alleged downward spiral of English is our peril.

Are people right to worry, then? Certainly, too many high school graduates cannot adequately understand the standard English appearing even in magazines like Newsweek and newspapers like The Cincinnati Enquirer. Without access to serious discussions of important issues, events, and proposals, informed civic involvement will suffer. But the ability to read and understand is largely independent of language change and pronunciation (witness the use of characters in some Asian languages). Standard written English (the print variety used in public arenas for public purposes) and standard spoken English (heard in public forums) must be understood by all persons participating intelligently in a democracy. Such standard varieties are, however, more or less distinct from the varieties most of us use in intimate communications with family and friends.

In my view, a relatively stable (but not rigid) written standard, along with tolerance for group differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical form used in conversation would serve the nation well. Dr. Johnson recognized that “sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints.” Who would claim his “subtile” or our “subtle” is misspelled? A vital language will change as its speakers and writers live their lives.
________________________________________________________________

Nitin from North Carolina writes:
I increasingly find, in American English, this phenomenon of redundancy. For example, 'potential options', 'potential hazards', 'kitchen area'. These get clubbed together in ways that become permanent. It seems to me that too many words are used to describe what should be self evident. Is it a sign that people know fewer words and, therefore, require further explanation.

Furthermore, there is the issue of misspelling. I feel that the Internet is responsible for the growing 'alternate' spelling movement that is based upon phonetics. Here is a list 'you're vs your', 'to vs too', 'very vs vary', 'there vs their', 'here vs hear' and the list goes on. Over time the Internet English becomes ingrained into all forms of communication.

Finally, I would like to here (sp) your comments on how misspellings actually reflect on a persons thought process.

By switching the use of words 'complement' and 'compliment' does the speaker think that there is only one meaning?

Dr. Edward Finegan responds:
As you know, Nitin, English is in flux and always has been.  It’s just like every other living language in that regard.  Pronunciations, words, grammatical constructions, meanings—they all evolve.  Your example hazard entered Middle English from Middle French, and its origins being Arabic, possibly az-zahr, meaning ‘the die.’  The sense of hazard has evolved, and phrases like “potential hazards” suggest that the element of ‘chance’ is fading from the word’s meaning for some speakers, even if not for you.  Increased use of these apparently “redundant expressions” will intensify the process of semantic bleaching.  The Oxford English Dictionary contains an example of “potential hazards” from a generation ago, so it’s not quite so new.

Confusions like your for you’re and there for their are prompted not by the Internet itself, of course, but by the speed at which we compose e-mail and text messages.  From such merged spellings, we can infer that the writers pronounce them alike.  For venues more formal than e-mail, many such mergers would be caught. Complement and compliment are pronounced alike, but everyone speaking them knows they carry different meanings.  If the difference in spelling is ignored often enough, a single spelling may emerge in time, but we have lots of words spelled alike but with distinct meanings and little or no confusion.

By the way, if you examine the letters submitted to me here, a sharp eye like yours will spot similar misspellings.  They reflect a faster pace and less time for editing than you might wish for.  In haste, most writers to this forum display spellings or usages that another writer laments—and all of us care deeply about the English we use!  
________________________________________________________________

Kathleen from Nantucket, MA writes:

Is the subjunctive dying off? Or are we just dumbing down? For example, a recent epidemic I have noticed in dramas, talk shows, political pundits, talking heads, TV shows, movies, etc. goes something (alot)like this: "I wish I would've known...", or "I wish he would have written". It makes me crazy.

Dr. Edward Finegan responds:

Yes, Kathleen, the English subjunctive is dying off—but more slowly than you might think, and there’s little that “self-appointed grammar police” can do about it, except in their own writing.  As in other aspects of life, good example in language use isn’t inherently contagious!
________________________________________________________________

"anonymous"  writes:

I am puzzled by the recent use of the apostrophe for the plural, as in "the cat's and dog's were fighting!" It is fairly new but is  more and more prevalent.

Dr. Edward Finegan responds:
Sprinkled liberally over written English, these “parmesan apostrophes” appear not just on signs in shop windows, but in formal papers submitted by undergraduates and law school students alike, as well as (though rarely of course!) in memos from college deans and administrators.  So far as I can tell, the only people who prefer our pizza plain are me and my closest friends!  The profligate use of apostrophes may spell their end in English.  Tradition aside, whether their loss would do injury to communication is another question.
________________________________________________________________

Don from Kansas City, MO writes:
Why can't we replace the third person singular pronoun with the genderless third person plural and obviate all the associated potential for sexism? Let's make it correct to say "Everyone take THEIR seat." (Some already say that!)   After all, we don't assign gender to second person and no one seems to mind.

Dr. Edward Finegan responds:
You’re not alone, Don, in finding "he/she” and "his/hers" awkward, and you’re not the first to suggest “their” for singular referents.  You and those who agree with you that “he/she” and the like are awkward shouldn’t be bullied into using them.  But don’t ignore the important fact that using “he” and “his” for referents that include women is unfair and offensive.  To avoid the awkward expressions, you can risk offending the grammar police or risk offending the rest of us.  The British have chosen to ignore the grammar police in this regard, and, if we’re shrewd, we’ll follow their good example.
________________________________________________________________

Patricia writes:
Our different dialects and pronunciations make us interesting; and each generation has invented its own slang terms that are not actually correct grammar.  However, my belief is that dialect, accent, or slang are not reasons for our failure to learn correct English grammar; and to use correct English grammar in our academic, business and public service forums.

Dr. Edward Finegan responds:
You make a good point, Patricia.  It’s important to distinguish speaking from writing, especially public writing.  Our spoken English reflects a good deal about who we are—not only about regional origins, but our sex, age, and ethnicity.  One size doesn’t fit all, and I think that’s good.  In our more public writing, on the other hand—in business, professional, and academic settings, in newspapers and government documents—standardized practices can help communication.
________________________________________________________________

Edward Finegan edward finneganis professor of linguistics and law at the University of Southern California. He is author of Language: Its Structure and Use, 4th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2004) and Attitudes toward English Usage (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1980) and co-editor (with John R. Rickford) of Language in the USA (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He has written extensively on register and style variation in English and contributed chapters on grammar and usage in Britain and America to the Cambridge History of the English Language. His interests range across usage, attitudes toward language, and style variation; he also serves as an expert consultant in forensic linguistics.  Read his essay, State of American, to learn more about differing perspectives on language use.

Privacy note: The information used to identify correspondents in this forum has been posted  by permission. Due to the large volume of email we receive,  comments were edited for length. PBS does not distribute or sell email addresses to an outside party. For more information, see PBS Privacy Policy.

Back to Top

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York