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Language in the era of uncertainty

Declining Standards or a Sea Change?


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I use the phrase “Sea Change” ironically to point out the declining standards also referred to in the slug above this essay.

Although Shakespeare used the phrase in Ariel’s Song in The Tempest, the expression “sea change” is bardactually a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the bard’s greatest tragedy, Prince Hamlet of Denmark undergoes a nearly inexplicable modification of his personality and character during an off-stage adventure at sea, which is not performed, but only described to the audience by means of the play’s dialogue. Unobserved by the audience, Hamlet embarks on the adventure as the melancholy Dane, an indecisive, dithering mass of uncertainty. When he returns, he is strong, focused, stalwart, and determined. He has undergone a sea change.

That phrase is commonly employed by writers today who mean little more than a modification of the status quo; as a metaphor, it has lost its punch through misuse and overuse.

I only mention that single and not terribly important example as an indicator of an increasing degradation of the English language. Unexamined metaphors are one thing, but the erosion of the fundamentals of the language is something else again. The inclination to disregard rules and conventions of usage is a clear trend, and it is snowballing as it gathers strength and increases in acceptability. I doubt if anyone who is proficient in grammar, spelling, and word usage has failed to notice, and even decry, the way the English language has lost much of its beauty and elegance in an unequal trade for a naturalistic sound in published prose.

toystory-badwritingEven a cursory look through the Internet editions of highly respected publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, or Time Magazine will reveal typo after typo, syntactical errors, and misused words. Just today, I saw an article by a professional journalist who used the word “clique” where she clearly meant “cliché”. An error on the part of an auto-correct feature? Perhaps. A slip as a result of writing under the pressure of deadline? Could be. But the point is that errors of all types are increasingly common. What is significant, though, is not so much the frequency of errors, but the indifference displayed even by professionals to their appearance in print or online.

It is exceedingly rare to read anything online today that is entirely free of errors. What is becoming increasingly common, though, is the deliberate employment of chatty colloquialisms, Web-jargon, and acronyms. Serious articles contain expressions like LOL, or WTF, even presidential candidates rely on social media familiarity by posting phrases like “delete your account”, which would have been meaningless even a decade ago.

Now this essay isn’t intended to be a crotchety, pedantic, lament from a professional writer for “the good good-newsold days”. On the contrary. I’m writing this piece to suggest that we may just be at a watershed point in the history of the English language. Historically, it wouldn’t be the first time the language has undergone a process of rapidly overhauling itself.

The Great Vowel Shift of the 15th to 17th Centuries was a process of radical modification in the way English was pronounced; essentially, English was spoken like Chaucerian English before the shift, and like Shakespearean English afterwards. At roughly the same time the pronunciation was changing, the language itself was changing from Middle English to Modern English. A quick way to get a sense of the scope of the change is to compare the readability of something by Sir Thomas Malory from the early-mid 15th Century, to the ease of access enjoyed by the King James version of The Bible, written between 1604 and 1611.

Two great dictionariests also had marked impact on the English language. In 1746 in Great Britain, Samuel Johnson was contracted to produce a more definitive English dictionary than the haphazardly researched ones then available. Over nine years, he single handedly researched, compiled, and wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, sometimes printed as Johnson’s Dictionary. Widely recognised as being among the greatest scholarly achievements in history, Dr. Johnson’s magnum opus remained the standard English language reference until The Oxford English Dictionary was completed over 170 years later. Thanks to Johnson, spelling became standardised. Prior to his dictionary, spelling was idiosyncratic and capricious, with words being written however the writer heard it in his head at that moment. William Shakespeare famously even spelled his own name differently on different occasions. Now there was a correct and an incorrect way of writing the spoken language.webster-johnson

On the other side of the pond, in 1806 Noah Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, was published. Webster can be credited with standardising the American spelling of English language words, and formalising the differences between British and American spelling. In America, centre became center; labour, neighbour, and favour all lost their Us and became labor, neighbor, and favor; specialise swapped its second S for a Z (now called zee rather than zed) and was spelled more like it is pronounced: specialize; and so with civilize, vitalize, recognize, and harmonize.

And all of these mowilliamdifications, shifts, and changes are in the relatively modern history of the language. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, a modern English speaker would not have understood a Briton’s language at all; the introduction of Norman French to the language of the Angles and Saxons altered the language of the British Isles and sent it off on a trajectory that culminated in today’s version.

That we are in a new period of flux and uncertainty regarding English usage can be attributed to the Internet, of course, but there is also a sociological and even political component at work.

The Internet has provided an audience undreamed of by writers even 20 years ago. And that audience is available to literally anyone who has something to say and access to a computer. For those of us who started our careers in print media, we were second guessed on newsroom-old-schoolmatters of adherence to the publication’s style manual, on spelling, on usage, and our editors always had a spike waiting if we wrote crap. Nothing was set in type without having been seen by at least five sets of eyes. Mistakes in print, therefore, were rare. In contrast, for the vast majority of people who post on social media, or even personal blogs and websites, there is no third party filter; there is no editor to exercise control over content, there are no copy editors to impose style, spelling, and usage standards, and there are no proofreaders to provide a final check for errors. What they post can be stream of consciousness, straight from their keyboards to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of internet-warriorpeople. And no matter how unhinged the copy is, it can find an audience within that vast amorphous crowd who wants to read more of it. That’s how The Drudge Report and Breitbart manage to stay in business.

People are becoming accustomed to sloppy syntax, to the casual employment of neologisms, unconventional grammar, usage, and spelling. The unprofessional writing standards of even very successful Internet outlets has become the new normal. And that’s where the sociological and political component comes in.

For about 20 years now and increasingly every day, a movement within conservative circles has deliberately disparaged and undermined any hint of intellectualism, or expertise. Part of the new conservatism, especially as represented by the so called “alt right”, is an insistence that an expert opinion is just an opinion and anybody, however ignorant of the subject, can have an equally valid opinion. Scientific claims can be refuted, in the conservative zeitgeist, by anyone who makes a contrary claim; accepting an expert’s claim is seen as elitism unless even the least educated counterclaim is given equal standing.

That, of course, crosses over into the field of writing. A professional who anti-intellectual-1automatically avoids splitting infinitives, who ensures that verb and subject agree, chooses words with care, and is consistently accurate in his spelling, is condescended to as an “elitist”. The anti-elitist thinking goes so far as to suggest that it is safe to reject the arguments of someone who frames them logically, presents them with precision and care, and supports his points with factual evidence. To criticise the quality of writing in the blog of someone who is barely literate, is to invite a rebuttal that would argue that it must be good writing because of the number of hits it racks up. Popularity justifies bad writing. Bad writing is becoming standardised. But this may be the dawn of another shift; this time from Modern English to a 21st Century English language.

For a new and updated version of the English language to become the agreed upon standard, perhaps a period of fluidity, of flux, is a necessary precondition. Before a Samuel Johnson can emerge and rewrite the standards of acceptability in the new New English, it may be necessary for people to become dissatisfied with the capricious way people speak and write. If so, that probably won’t take very long. The problem with people using language willy-nilly, without reference to conventions or rules, is that communication suffers.

People simply won’t be able to understand one another clearly without conventions of usage. We have paul-ryan-trump-ap-reuters-640x480already seen the bastardisation of the English language leading to confusion in the current US presidential election. The mutability of words allows, for example, Paul Ryan to refuse to defend his party’s nominee; to acknowledge that Donald Trump is the very definition of a racist, to report being “sickened” by his misogyny, but somehow continue to endorse him. When words do not have a clearly understood shared meaning, every statement made can be weaseled out of as having been misunderstood. That’s where we are now.

But soon, one can hope, people will reject the muddy, indefinite, and vacillating use of language that is so common today. A new set of conventions will, one can hope, emerge, and lead to a comfortable period of clarity, understanding, and perhaps even elegance of expression in the English language. Perhaps then public figures won’t be able to get away so easily with claiming they didn’t say something they were recorded saying. Words have power; it’s incumbent upon us all to insist that the power be used with care.



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