The further decline of English -

The further decline of English


According to an article by Philip Bossert Socrates was aghast at the idea of reading and writing. He worried that these crutches would erode our memory; eliminating the ability to remember important stories and facts. In his day educated people could recite hours-long poems from memory.

Can you? Most of us can barely remember all 15 of our phone numbers let alone a short soliloquy from Shakespeare. Once we’re much past kindergarten Dad is sick of reading “James and the Giant Peach” to use for the hundredth time; after that we get about one shot at each story we read. So we memorize nothing.

But some (including me at times) complain that writing itself is degenerating as it mirrors the every-changing argot of the common person, as if there is some gold standard that statically defines a language for all time. Though the French Academy tries to keep their language in some sort of stasis, most of us accept the evolution of language over time.

But change is hard, and each generation seems to believe their version of English is the correct one. Email has devolved the language at a rapid pace; IMO this is fine; IIRC all generations change the way we express ourselves. LOL.

My father, chief constable of the grammar police, took umbrage to one of my recent emails that used a couple of ‘net acronyms. His responded that the outrage I’d perpetrated on the English language would surely lead to a general deterioration in the level of written discourse.

That reminded me of a quote from my favorite movie of all time. Topsy Turvy is about the making of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” and is set in 1895. Gilbert’s cantankerous and very muttonchoped father scoffs at his son’s use of the newly-invented telephone, sniffing that “it will only lead to the further erosion of the English language.”

Clearly the grumpy old man of 1895 was wrong. As is my dad.

But not me. Those damn kids sending IM messages devoid of punctuation and capitalization are leading to the, uh, further breakdown of the English language.

Or something.

What do you think? Can you recite any bit of literature from memory? r u .;) w/ IM’s 4matting? We already have a bilingual president; will the nation be trilingual (English, Spanish and fast e-typing) soon?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

If all things around us start talking/listening meaningfully and we have enough bandwidth, there will be no need for reading or writing skills for most people. Road signs will be replaced by talking GPS.

When my son(6 yrs)gets his spelling wrong, his teacher marks his book. I wonder what value addition is going on there. I have seen my son using the computer, word processor and printer to print out difficult words he want to stick somewhere.

– Sameer Cholayil

The English language seems to certainly be in a dreadful state of decline!

Open to Google in your browser and click on the “Preferences” link. Changethe language to “Hacker”.

This will cause Google to operate in a language called Hacksor which isamazingly butchered, yet amazingly readable with just a little practice. Asan added bonus (?) the same words can be spelled diferently each time theyappear making speed reading training nearly useless. I don't advocate youextend your torture/amusement more than a few minutes to protect yourcontinued sanity.

– p37e|2, P3t3r,
Or just simple – Peter House

As a nearly-60-year-old who attended a British Grammar School, I am appalled at the general deline in the English language through all walks of life. The Media is mostly to blame, I guess, but parents today don't really encourage their offspring to pay particular attention to grammar and spelling as they did “in my day”.

I'm not too sure if it's good or bad (after all, Americans have managed with odd spelling for decades!) but in truth I think the discipline of good spelling and grammar is helpful for us all.

– Brian Harden

Purely as a matter of interest, who proof-read your article? There are no spelling mistakes (as such), but “Dad is sick of reading 'James and the Giant Peach' to use …” and “the every-changing argot” are two examples of interesting use of the language.

Generally I can cope with 'misuse', but it depends heavily on context. I only use abbreviations in text messages if I can't fit the message into one text. I expect the grammar and sentence structure in published material to be better than that in private material. But basically, I only really object to unnecessary ambiguities, or constructs that either don't mean what the author intended, or are open to interpretation.

In the end, language is there for us to communicate with one another, and if we can still do it with shrtnd wrds, why not?

– Paul Tiplady

Brian Harden inadvertently proves his own point by beginning a sentence with, “The Media is.” The media have been treating “media” as if it were in the singular for many years, and I guess the notion is catching.

– Peter Lobban

I could not agree more.

>From an engineer's perspective,

good spelling and grammar helps

maintain clarity and accuracy.

On the other hand, isn't

ambiguity of natural language

what keeps our AI colleagues

well paid and, at least in

theory, raises all boats?

– David Liu

People have been lamenting the decline of English since Chaucer. It's a rich and extremenly malleble language that has survived barbarian invasions as well as late-night talk shows. Any new technology is bound to change our experience and modes of expression in ways we can't imagine.

Here's an excerpt from 'Everything Bad Is Good for You' by Stephen Johnson. It envisions a critique of reading by a hypothetical critic in a world where video games are the standard and books have newly been invented.

“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .

“Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . . .

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion; you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.”

– Billy Biondi

Your recent column on the decline of English struck a linguistic resonance with me. I too am divided between my prescriptivist nature that balks at the use of apostrophe's to represent the plural form and my progressive tendencies that implore me to recognize that the evolution of language is something inevitable if not always in accordance with my opinions. Sometimes, I feel like the Roman god Janus, looking back at “correct” English while simultaneously peering forward at, like, I don't know, whatever. How did he ever manage?

In any case, while I enjoyed this column, as I do almost all of yours, I must take issue with your statement that our president is “bilingual”. The president's frequent abuses of his native tongue, in the form of what have come to be known as “Bushisms”, lead me to presume that he is actually “semilingual”. But then, what do I know about language? I'm just an engineer. 😉

– Gil Glass

Or not.

Blackberry-speak is just another slang dialect born of a combination of clique action (*We* are net gurus) and the two-thumb typing. It, too will morph. OTOH (couldn't resist it), you would be foolish not to run the spell and grammer checkers for important documents such as papers and resumes. In fact, they word processor will usually show you that you have mispelled a word just after you have typed it. So, the case can be made that documents are actually improving, at least in terms of spelling and grammer.

What we really need is a paragraph-checker to tell us if the paragraph we have written is a clear and complete thought. Don't laugh too hard: this might be possible. Unless you are talking James Joyce creative writing, some low level natural language processing plus simple rules and/or templates might help a lot here. We already have the fog indexes to help keep the sentences short and the words familiar.

I know; I know; What about creativity? (all caps) Response: What about clarity? There are a lot of papers out there that have good spelling and grammar, but are completely devoid of understandable content. I would gladly sacrifice this kind of creativity on the alter of clarity, even if it were machine assisted.

– Dave Wyland

How well would most systems work without well defined protocols?

But to my mind, the worst aspect of linguistic deterioration is that we become disconnected from our forefathers for we can no longer read them. How many today understand Elizabethan English? How many can even read the Puritan divines?

This is not to put down all linguistic shortcuts; the problem is that the reference lanugage is degrading.

– Tom Sullivan

Amusing. 😉

I have read through your article and the entire list of responses, and despite many misspellings, grammatical errors, and the occassional odd word, was able to comprehend and appreciate every one. Is the English language faltering? It hasn't here!

– Paul Fischer

I recently had the pleasure of discovering and transcribing some letters written by family members in the early 1800s (yes, almost 200 years ago!). These were written by ordinary people about ordinary life, but the use of language and the expressiveness is probably a lot better than what even the typical “well educated” person of today could write. Those people sure knew how to write a letter!

What will possibly be preserved of our personal communications today for our descendants to be able to recover 200 years from now?

– Doug Gordon

what a tedious world Billy Biondi must live in if he really believes that “Reading is not an active participatory process; it’s a submissive one”. Precisely because a book “understimulates the senses” it forces you to engage that more important organ, your brain – and your imagination. Imagination, for an engineer, is of prime importance, since engineering is closer to art than many of its practitioners realise. An engineer who cannot spell or use punctuation probably writes sloppy code. An engineer who cannot communicate well in writing will be unable to write clear specifications or comment his code properly. There's nothing wrong with abbreviations, invented words, and new usage for words – you can communicate your meaning more effectively if you use modern language. However, poor grammar and spelling just communicates that you're ignorant.

– Tony Weir

You are correct in stating that English changes over time and grammatical rules may shift with the years. Nevertheless I am constantly taken aback by the poor writing skills of educated people these days. Most of the people I work with have at least a bachelor’s degree, many of them have trouble constructing readable sentences, and most of those don’t seem to care.

I don’t think technology is the problem. When I was in college back in the early 1970s, writing skills were required as part of every curriculum, including engineering and business. Basic familiarity with American and English literature was required to finish high school. Evidently this is no longer the case. As evidence I submit the following anecdote:

A few years ago I was in Alameda, California with a colleague. We were standing in Jack London Square looking at a statue of the author of “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild”. My colleague, who holds a master’s degree in telecommunications and a B.S.E.E., remarked “I should find out who this Jack London guy was. He must have been important for them to erect a statue of him and name this square after him.”

– Steve Hanka

So pathetic that we are living in a “hire” and “fire” world! In this increasingly globalised..err, I think the Americans: the media in particular should start using correct English and I am sure the rest of the world will follow.

– Vcc Ground

In Jack's missal regarding the deterioration of the English lanaguage,he misses oneo fthe truly sinister threats: spell checkers.

I am deadly serious in this. Far too many publications (online, as wellas print) have taken to relying on automated spell checkers, andeliminated the position and responsiobility of “proof readers” and”editors.”

Spell checkers can only identify words which are not included in theirdictionaries. Correctly spelled words which are grammatically incorrectare never caught as errors by spell checkers. I offer the followingexerpt from Jack's editorial as an example:

“His responded that the outrage Iÿd perpetrated on the English languagewould surely lead to a general deterioration in the level of writtendiscourse. His responded that the outrage Iÿd perpetrated on theEnglish language would surely lead to a general deterioration in thelevel of written discourse.”

Not once, buty twice in one short paragraph, where Jack clearly intendedto use the word “he,” he used the word “his” instead. And, since theword “his” is correctly spelled, out to the world this pievce of flawedprose is sent.

Our students and young people see this sort of error many times daily,in theri newspapers, their magazines, their online journals, and even intheir text books. Is it any wonder that the literacy of our children isslipping?

Is this issue a serious one? In comparison to the war in Iraq, or thereadiness of our government to assiost victims of natural disasters, no.But it is important, and since Jack rasied the issue, I wished to pointout that even those of us (yes, I include myself here) who recognize theissue are guilty of propagating it.

– Thomas Keller

My biggest problem is that people fail to proof read what they write, leading to constant grammatical and spelling errors which makes it significantly more difficult to read. It is not that they have a different opinion of what constitutes good grammar, they just don't bother to check what they've written. I just checked this paragraph and found a few errors. I would look like a dumb ass, or everyone else if you wish, if I had not checked it.

– Nick Roman

Interesting topic. I must say, we engineers look at this in a different way. And we, non-native English speaking community, look at this in a different way.

As an engineer, a language is not a mathematical system. A language has to leave room for interpretation and imagination. But the same language used for programming, law departments, insurance companies, … must exactly do the inverse. It needs to be crystal clear in what it is describing. A function name needs to represent exactly what the function does, no doubts. The comments have to be clear, no interpretation. And in this respect, my colleague and I just finished our firmware standard, where we leave no room for starters. If somebody writes a function, an application, …, all of his work (programming, comments, reports, …) has to be in English. Readable, excellent English. Period. (In our country, to receive a BSE or MSE, you have 3 foreign languages you have to pass exams for. English, French and German. Of course, not everybody that holds such a degree, masters a foreign language at the same level. That comes with the years.) Readability and clarity do not stroke with abbreviations, and certainly not with any SMS- or email-slang kind of characters. Thing is, review your work, yourself but better is to let it be reviewed by somebody else. That’s what we sometimes do.

A language lives, and will be subject to change. E.g. we recently had a change in the Dutch language, because the former rule was completely non-logical.

These recent evolutions came with email and cell phones. They are practical in this context, but even in a few decades time, I don’t see an engineer posting his/her resume sprinkled with smiley’s and other new age stuff. Or, imagine the constitution being rewritten “for dummy’s”, just because of the new progressive, secretary of justice wants to have the law book readable for everybody.

– Edwin Decoene

I feel we are dealing with absolutes here, and that's not justified. We have many levels of formality in our way of speaking (e.g. “Good morning to you, Grand-mama. Fancy a spot of tea?” vs. “Sup, G – Starbucks?”). Writing is as context-sensitive as speaking. Emails, blog posts, requirements documents, and legal forms will naturally take on their own levels of compliance and deviation to the specification for the English language. As engineers, we should know that many protocols do this. As another example, passive voice is a bad idea in most requirements documentation, but you won't ever see me complaining about a “who” where there should be a “whom,” or marking a sentence that ends with a preposition. It's not worth my time in the context of a review for a technical paper.

– Eric Uner

English was never pure. As soon as Germanic tribes migrated to Britain, they were attacked and integrated with Scandinavians; William brought French/Latin in 1066, colonialism brought Americanisms, Indianisms, other idioms. Apparently most changes were improvements, and we're left with the most wonderfully capable and expressive language on earth, a diversified blessing for a diverse people.

– Pete Secor

This thread kind of reminds me of the ongoing rhetoric that increasing use of computers and typewriting appliances will some day make handwriting extinct. Even now, there are some school districts in the country reconsidering the approach of using Denelian as a transition to cursive writing by just teaching Denelian and doing away with cursive all together. And then there is the argument I've heard lately that one of the reasons why our children often have trouble focusing is that they're swimming in a sea of electronic games and extreme sports, and are now over-stimulated.

Will the current state of affairs lead to the degrade of English language. Maybe, but I find it hard to believe that's totally the case. There is a context for every level of formal and informal language. Typically, the cellphone text messages and IM chat conversations that we think about our children using are also within a context where colorful, colloquial language like ebonics are encouraged. But there will always be a time and place for everything. I still can't imaging a near future in which it would be acceptible to spell the word straight as “str8” on a resume.

– Shawn Price

I believe you are all way off the mark! Your toolbar iCons communicate more information to you than “chat room speak”. My view is that we as a society are moving back to communicating via the ancient form of hieroglyphics (communication via pictures). We'll just use a more modern form of hieroglyphics … iCon speak.

– Steve King

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