Words, Words, Words, Oh How They Are Misused
Language changes over time, it always has and always will. So why do some of us find it unsettling? Especially, I have to admit, the older generation. Is it, as some say, because it changes too quickly?
Consider this: for all of sixty-nine years you have heard people saying, I’m bored with… but for the last ten years it’s become, I’m bored of... Not only is this irrational, (who decreed the alteration?) but the unfamiliar, bored of, sounds ugly.
But hold on a minute. What about the word tired? For as long as I can remember we’ve been saying tired of, never tired with. Is bored belatedly coming into line?
There are many reasons why language changes:-
- A smoothing out of constructions which are hard to get the tongue around.
- A dialect word or phrase spreads beyond its original borders.
- The influence of TV.
- The influence of American English, beloved by the young, disliked by the old.
- The shortening of long, complex or convoluted phrases.
- Sloppy speech slipping into everyday usage, the oldies’ preferred explanation.
My argument is that whilst language can happily go on its merry way in everyday life on the street, harming no-one, the people for whom it must hold significance are writers.
At the very least writers should notice changes and give due consideration to what each change does to meaning and nuance, however subtle.
Here’s an example I noticed recently, which members said they were unaware of, heard several times on Radio 4, and latterly twice in commentaries since the start of Euro ‘20/’21:-
Watch on. Until now the usual description of someone observing something was to say either, He watched or He looked on.
Watched implies a degree of attention.
Looked on is more hands-in-pockets and laid-back.
Now, as if to muddy the waters, and for no discernible reason, on has been added to watch, in much the same way that up is added to listen by Americans. It feels as if it’s meant to add more time to the period of watching, though whenever I’ve heard it used that was not the intention, it has merely been added to no purpose.
Could it be the influence of American English, then? And if yes, why does it irritate us oldies so?
Take the annoying phrase, ‘fess up – yes, please do, and dump it somewhere it can’t be found! ‘fess up is no shorter than either confess or own up, but my, don’t we sound cool when we use it! (Here I must own up to affectedly using the American spelling color when I was too young to know any better. Incidentally, I split an infinitive in that sentence, which to me is a matter of style, not clarity, and therefore entirely the choice of the author.)
What with song lyrics, films, the internet and TV, we’re never going to avoid American influence, so fuddy-duddies like me, I’m afraid, just have to swallow it, grumbling.
Sometimes changes have happened much earlier than we imagine. I discovered recently, the tendency to use a singular verb with a plural noun, as in there’s hundreds of people outside, is noted in my Universal Dictionary, 1998 edition. This usage is explained by the difficulty of pronouncing the words when the (correct) plural verb is elided, as in, There’re hundreds of people… etc.
In addition, it’s almost standard now to use an incorrect plural verb with certain singular nouns, as in, The Government/Council are…
But what about that bete noire of anyone educated back in the fifties and calculated to set their teeth on edge? I’m talking about a construction which, if used in a novel set any time earlier than, say, the 1980s, would lose the writing all credibility. It might have come from regional dialect, but is now ubiquitous. In other words, the dreaded was sat and was stood.
Before the world and his wife so thoughtlessly took up this version, there were two discrete ways of expressing the past tense of the verb to sit :-
He sat – the action of sitting down.
He was sitting – he has been sitting continuously for some time.
Once again the waters have been muddied, for no good reason, by conflating the two into was sat. This would seem to turn the verb from intransitive to transitive, so that logically He was sat in the armchair, suggests some other person has physically manhandled him into the chair, obviously not what was meant.
I know that a lot of what I’ve written is very contentious and will probably be thought elitist, even snobbish, and I’m prepared for brickbats. So bring it on!
Jan Cascarini, though having had a good grounding in grammar, had little other useful education beyond being taught enough to gain just six ‘O’ levels. She neither took ‘A’ levels nor went to university – 'Well what’s the point? She’ll only go and get married.' Her opinions are entirely her own.