English Grammar Is Not in Decay

Geoffrey NunbergI do understand why people would have this impression of decay. And I have it too, particularly when I’m surfing the internet or reading a corporate report. But are things really worse than they used to be? Maybe it is just that I’m getting old and cranky. Complaining about English has always been an old man’s game. I say man — curmudgeon is an interesting word: it’s not a word we apply to women; only men can be curmudgeons. It occurs to me that maybe a lot of this stuff was going on when I was younger but I was too busy to notice or too mellow to care. It would be hard to prove it one way or the other. In fact, people complain about the language but they never really document the claims the way they would if they were economic complaints. People don’t say:

The pronoun “whom” was off sharply last quarter as the language was already reeling from a 37% increase in the use of “office” as a verb.

People just assume that everybody knew how to write and spell correctly until things started to fall apart about a generation ago. Partly that’s just the selectivity of literary memory. Whatever becomes of the general run of evil that men do, our bad writing is interred with our bones. So we don’t have to read the popular journalism of earlier generations. Just as our descendants won’t have to read ours. If you ever go to a garage sale, pick up a copy of Collier’s magazine and look at it. And then look at People magazine today. People‘s a much better written magazine than Collier’s was.

—Geoffrey Nunberg
City Club Presents

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