Ed Driscoll

Politics and the Lack of the English Language

As author-screenwriter William Goldman once quipped, every Oscar night you look back and realize that last year was the worst year in the history of Hollywood. Not at all coincidentally, the same is true regarding the state of the English language, an article by Sue Shellenbarger titled “This Embarrasses You and I*” in the Wall Street Journal explores this week:

When Caren Berg told colleagues at a recent staff meeting, “There’s new people you should meet,” her boss Don Silver broke in, says Ms. Berg, a senior vice president at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., marketing and crisis-communications company.

“I cringe every time I hear” people misuse “is” for “are,” Mr. Silver says. The company’s chief operations officer, Mr. Silver also hammers interns to stop peppering sentences with “like.” For years, he imposed a 25-cent fine on new hires for each offense. “I am losing the battle,” he says.

Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. Many of them attribute slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter where slang and shortcuts are common. Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors, many managers say.

Shellenbarger concludes:

“Twenty-five years ago it was impossible to put your hands on something that hadn’t been professionally copy-edited,” Mr. Garner says. “Today, it is actually hard to put your hands on something that has been professionally copy-edited.”

But not all was rosy in the language wars 25 years ago, as noted last year in City Journal by Clark Whelton, a former speechwriter for Ed Koch, who wrote a fun piece looking back on his frustrations, which was titled “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness:”

My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.

Then came 1985.

The first applicant was a young man from NYU. During the interview, he spiked his replies so heavily with “like” that I mentioned his frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and replied, “Well . . . like . . . yeah.” Now, nobody likes a grammar prig. All’s fair in love and language, and the American lingo is in constant motion. “You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.” As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.” Even nasal passages are affected by fashion. Quack-talking, the rasping tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a misfortune.

In 1985, I thought of “like” as a trite survivor of the hippie sixties. By itself, a little slang would not have disqualified the junior from NYU. But I was surprised to hear antique argot from a communications major looking for work in a speechwriting office, where job applicants would normally showcase their language skills. I was even more surprised when the next three candidates also laced their conversation with “like.” Most troubling was a puzzling drop in the quality of their writing samples. It took six tries, but eventually I found a student every bit as good as his predecessors. Then came 1986.

As the interviews proceeded, it grew obvious that “like” had strengthened its grip on intern syntax. And something new had been added: “You know” had replaced “Ummm . . .” as the sentence filler of choice. The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end. Their writing samples were terrible. It took eight tries to find a promising intern. In the spring of 1987 came the all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to school.

“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.

“And you’re majoring in . . .”

“English?”

All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise. Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? I began taking notes and mailed a letter to William Safire at the New York Times, urging him to do a column on the devolution of coherent speech. Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.

As Shellenbarger writes this week, it would only get worse. When George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, language was still in a relatively benign state — at least compared with its current state. Today, political correctness and the poor state of English education ensure that not only can’t we express ourselves, when we do so, we’ll likely do it rather badly — and in some extreme cases, we’ll do so hyper-politically and not even know it.