My name is Meirav and I’m a pedant. I am that annoying person who notices typos and cringes at superfluous apostrophes and knows the real meaning of “begs the question”… and yet…
yes, I just broke a rule of punctuation right there. I used an ellipsis incorrectly. I do it all.the.time.
you see, I love words and I totally love the fluidity of a living language, a language that is constantly changing, a language with lots of different registers and dialects, including the fabulously creative ways that it’s being used online these days – the way I wrote “all.the.time”, for instance – and yes, even the much-maligned txtspeak. I see them all as part of this lovely patchwork that makes up a living language, not mothballed but living and evolving. Latin is long dead, so you can teach kids precise rules and be totally dogmatic about them – but with English you can’t do that, because English is alive and it’s doing what living languages constantly do – it’s changing.
do I love all the changes equally? no, I don’t. some of them make me cringe badly. and it’s tempting to start listing the ones I hate, but here’s what always happens when someone does that: other people chime in with their own pet peeves, and you end up with a tribal “us pedants standing against those terrible language-killers”, with people assuming that if something makes them cringe then it’s necessarily wrong.
I’ve seen this happen so often in online discussions. You start with something that actually is really, objectively wrong, like writing “their” when you mean “they’re”. And before you know it, others are grumbling about changes in word usage, or about people breaking all sorts of “rules of grammar” that aren’t real rules of English grammar (like split infinitives, for instance).
We humans just really love feeling like we’re part of a superior elite, we’re the ones who “talk proper” and we’re so much better than the supposedly illiterate youth, who are literally murdering our precious language and how dare they and yes, I did just use “literally” in its non-literal sense, oh dear, mea culpa – or not. Because seriously, was it in any way ambiguous? Did you have any reason to believe that I was talking about an actual murder there? No, you didn’t. So can we please stop making a fuss about words getting new meanings? Because otherwise, you’re going to have to stop using the word “cool” to mean anything other than a temperature reference. And maybe we should go back to using the word “quick” to mean “alive”? How far back do you want to go? At which point in time do you think we should have stopped the rot and mummified the English language?
Relax, folks. The English language is not an endangered species. It has survived centuries of change, and it will survive the current changes too. Words get new meanings, and people still get the gist of what others are saying, because context. (yes, yes, that was deliberate. it’s one of the new constructions that I particularly love.) New phrases are invented. Alternative spellings are used (for realz) and they can be such fun! Punctuation evolves – yes, I heard you gasping, but do you realise that punctuation has actually changed over time? The placing of commas has changed, and reading some old classics it looks quite weird – even wrong!
I’m a proofreader, and when a client asks me to check their text, I know my job includes not just checking for typos, misspellings etc, but making the text look professional – in other words, I edit it to make it conform to standard English (the British variety). I know the rules of standard English, and if I were to write an essay I would stick to those rules – it’s a question of using the appropriate register, depending on context. I could, if I wanted to, “talk proper” in my day-to-day life, but I’d sound weird, like a stuck-up fuddy duddy. So I choose to talk “normal” – to speak in the register that is the norm for the people I generally mix with. (And this includes using onlinespeak when using social media. Because why not.)
Knowing the rules of standard English is extremely useful. But yay for feeling free to break them when appropriate, without angsting about it. Because a living language is a literally awesome thing.