Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt

People love to correct other people’s grammar, spelling, and usage. What better way to establish superiority or to discredit someone’s argument! And that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Feeling superior. Or more educated. Or just better. Never mind that a person’s opinion on a matter isn’t more or less valid because that person used an apostrophe improperly or didn’t recognize a difference between eager and anxious.

I edit for a living. I spend most of my days trying to bring out the best in the text before me, but that doesn’t mean I’m rude. An editor can’t stop editing. Try going to a restaurant with one and see if he or she doesn’t point out a spelling error on the menu. That’s worlds different, though, from correcting someone’s speech, online or off, in a shameless attempt to pat oneself on the back.

I believe that most people who obnoxiously correct another’s grammar don’t really care about the language but are simply grasping onto a means to run another down, but for people who do care about the language, I’d recommend John McWhorter’s Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally). (And I apologize for the long lead-in/rant.)

In Words on the Move, McWhorter examines how language has changed through time. He shows readers how it is changing now and why it will always change, and he makes a convincing argument that this is a good thing.

Still, language change is not going to go down easy for people who cringe when they hear someone say, “What’s the ask?” But even so, McWhorter at least reveals the mechanics behind inexplicable, or seemingly wrong, usages. Does pronouncing nuclear in a certain way (we’re looking at you, President Bush) make at least a little more sense if we understand that that pronunciation has been influenced by words such as spectacular and circular (that is, that an already existing pattern of word formation has resulted in an improper pronunciation)? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it does provide a fuller picture.

Elsewhere, McWhorter talks about the Great Vowel Shift and shifts in pronunciation today, the oddness of the phrase “used to,” grammaticalization (great word!), and backshift, which explains why compound words like supermarket are pronounced superMARKET when new and SUPERmarket when their newness wears off.

I understand that it feels good to rail against the way kids speak these days, but Words on the Move provides background and understanding that might make some hold their tongues.

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