The Voice of Experience: Thx, but no thanks to changing English language

Apostrophes, correct spelling, proper grammar may be in jeopardy, says Kootenay Lake columnist Betsy Brierley...

My two-year-old grandson does not use contractions. His mother will ask, “Lachlan, do you want a fish stick?” He will answer, “No, I do not.” It’s a bit Yoda-ish, but maybe he is ahead of the rest of us, because apparently the apostrophe is in jeopardy.

Mary Norris, a copy editor for the New Yorker magazine, says: “The apostrophe is under a lot of stress, largely because in texting you have to switch screens to insert it, and who has time for that?”

The English language is flexible, one reason it is today among the three most widely spoken in the world. How much more flexible can it get? A lot more, it appears. Already there is “wer r u?” and “thx” and “lol,” which I thought meant “lots of love,” but no, it does not. Will we soon be writing contractions as dont and cant and wouldnt?

Spelling correctly may be in jeopardy. As we all know, English spelling is full of rules and inconsistencies. But, wait, now there is the autocorrect feature for your computer device. (Ms. Norris abhors autocorrect, although she admits she is free to disable it.) I suggest there is a certain entertainment value. In one of my recent emails “Nanoose” (the bay) became “nanosecond”. My son-in-law, texting his mother about taking a certain photo, wrote, “I can’t get a good shot shooting into the light.” You can guess how the autocorrect feature improved on that, and the “correction” slipped through.

Using the words “text” as a verb and “autocorrect” as a noun are examples of another transition happening within the English language. Nouns become verbs and verbs become nouns with alacrity, it seems. Annoying new words accost us: a panelist on a CBC news program uses “incentivize” when discussing how to motivate people to exercise more. “Problematize” is a verb used in academic circles. (I am not making this up. We may all now problematize the issue of people who text.)

A friend who also gets huffy when encountering grammar gaffs told me she almost drove through a red light while noting the improper use of an apostrophe in a very large soap ad. It was “insensibly possessive,” she said. “I was hoping that some marketing firm was getting royal you-know-what from an irate VP out in Mississauga. But I bet not. I bet about 14 people noticed… and like me they fumed and didn’t know what to do about it.”

Who really cares? Is not learning spelling and grammar rules akin to not learning math processes because the calculator will do it for you? In this age do we need to know the reasoning behind multiplying and spelling or simply how to apply them for what needs to be accomplished? Cursive writing is taught only at the teacher’s discretion in schools today. Is it necessary to know how to write with a cursive hand when daily lists and notes can be made on a phone and a cheque can be deposited with an online photo? Isn’t efficiency the point?

In spite of the English language being cluttered, ambiguous, irrational, irksome, as well as hard to spell, I will always be one of the 14 who notice and object when it is abused. It may just be esthetics; if you are used to seeing something a certain way for decades, adjustments can be troubling. Perhaps objecting merely problematizes the issue.

It has taken centuries for English to develop to this point, through the merging of old languages, influences of the church, the Industrial Revolution, science, other cultures, emerging issues, computer technology, not to mention linguistic elements such as consonant and vowel shifts, and inevitable errors and omissions along the way.

Words and punctuation become accepted because people use them. What goes into the Oxford English Dictionary with its 20 volumes or into a 600-page slang dictionary depends on us. Surely, there will be a texting shorthand dictionary out there somewhere.

We have always been the enablers of change to the language, and change it will. I myself have begun to say “No, I do not” to express with the authority of a two-year-old that I don’t enjoy fish sticks.

Betsy Brierley lives beside Kootenay Lake. She used to write for the Advance a long time ago. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.

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