It's a sad, bad time for purists

The English language is less like a gentlewoman taking tea, and more like a pushy salesman who won't be held at bay.

hippie 88 (photo credit: )
hippie 88
(photo credit: )
Diner: "These eggs aren't fresh..." Waiter: "Don't complain to me - I only laid the table." "Lay, Lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed" (Bob Dylan song) Some time ago I took our editorial writer to task for using the phrase "lay of the landscape." "I don't think you Americans are right," I told him. "The British say "lie of the land." After all, I said, we talk of mountains and valleys and rivers and towns lying to the north or south (or east or west), and about outlying areas, not "outlaying" ones. I further pointed out that anyone "laying in bed" - as they do so dismally often in contemporary writing - must either be engaging in a sexual act, or perhaps helping the Egg and Poultry Board fill its quotas. Fairly confident, I challenged my colleague to submit his phrase, and my correction of it, to Google and see what the computer search engine made of it; which was when I landed in the linguistic soup. These were Google's results: "lie of the land" - 43,900,000 hits; "lay of the land" - 46,600,000 hits. "Lay of the landscape" turned up a mere 13,000,000 hits. My colleague, magnanimous in semi-victory, agreed that these results did not reflect correct usage, only how frequently each variation turned up in Google's documents. But I could see the lay of the land. Indeed, I've long seen it. I DON'T WANT to get too deep into the British-American thing because I have only so many words and the people whose office I share are both Americans. But America's massive influence on spoken and written English, via books and movies, TV and especially the Internet, cannot go unmentioned. And as someone who attended high school in 1960s Britain who would not have been able to graduate without a hefty inculcation of spelling, punctuation, grammar and composition, I have a large bone to pick with North American educators of the same period. In the 1960s, local schools, influenced perhaps by the hippie credo of "Do your own thing, go with the flow," felt - to quote a friend teaching in a Canadian university a decade later - "that grammar was too boring and the rules too restrictive, and that it was more important for students to express themselves. "So English teachers" - sadly misled! - "focused instead on having students write compositions in an 'unencumbered,' free-flowing way. The result was that by the time they reached university, they couldn't write papers or essays with any clarity. And their professors couldn't make head or tail of what they were trying to say." That's how my friend found herself teaching basic writing skills to undergraduate students at Concordia University in Montreal. When one asked, "Why do we have to learn grammar - why can't we just write our papers?" she replied: "Because you can't play Chopin if you haven't learned scales." THE RESULTS of that educational blunder all those years ago are evident almost every time one opens a newspaper or contemporary novel - and here, no matter how I proceed, is where I begin to sound like Miss Picky. Or picture me as Anne L. Retentive, the Dilbert character discovered in a swoon on the office floor. "What's wrong with her?" asks a colleague. Responds Dilbert: "She's in a comma." Perhaps, then, I will skip the whole ticklish subject of punctuation; likewise all clumsiness and superfluity - such as a US politician's classic "in the near-term time-frame," by which, one has to assume, he meant "soon" - and just touch on the things that cause me the most pain: • a dumbing-down of verbal forms leading, most achingly, to the disappearance of the present perfect, a tense absent from many languages, including Hebrew, via which an action done, or begun, in the past is elegantly shown to be relevant in the present; as in The situation has worsened since the '60s.
  • general ignorance of "had" plus a verb's past participle to indicate when one action preceded another, in the same sentence: I had noticed the trend, but pretended all was well.
  • wild misuse of the conditional, causing a whole forest of rampant woulds to spring up. If I knew how to stop the rot, I would do it. SO MUCH for my pain. Nobody cares, and - here's the really painful thing - that's probably how it has to be. Along with my fellow purists I have to accept the fact that the English language, spoken across vast tracts of the world, is far less like a well-bred English gentlewoman taking tea, little finger delicately extended and elbows tucked in, and far more like a flashy, pushy, fast-talking salesman of dubious connections who won't be held at bay. Just as you cannot own a person, so you cannot own a language. It can have your trust; it can accompany you through a lifetime of intimacy, privy to your every thought. But all the time forces are working on it, changing it, distancing it - corrupting it, if you want to be dramatic. And there's nothing to be done. A living language is, by definition, a dynamic one, open to influence from every quarter, high and low. Especially low. If, for example, enough people say or write "proof for" or "forbidden from" - and I wince every time they do - it will eventually become acceptable English. After all, "he don't" was once regarded as perfectly correct. Interestingly, my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary devotes 10 whole lines to explaining why "hopefully" - originally meaning "in a hopeful manner" - has come to mean "it is hoped." Highly un-dictionary-like, it murmurs soothingly, almost apologetically, that the change resulted from "a surge of popular use." More robustly, it is saying: That's how language is. Get used to it - or remove yourself to a desert island. Go with the flow. So, hopefully, I do. It's how the land lays. But the sadness lingers.