At the risk of sounding like that Grumpy Guy, Andy Rooney, William Safire (I’m already dating myself), or, worse, one of those gray beards I am always complaining about, I am going to complain. Here it is: I don’t understand language anymore, and I’m talking about English. The use of words and the words themselves have changed at such a pace over the past few years that I can no longer sit idly by without, well, complaining. I’m sure you know what I am talking about, but, just in case, let me give some exempli gratia.
The problem started with people using “I” in the accusative case as in “between you and I.” I recently overheard this while waiting for a train at Columbus Circle. A woman was explaining to another, “Well, between you and I, this has been quite an ordeal, as you might imagine.” I was tempted to agree. It had been an ordeal, especially since she kept repeating the mistake with abandon.
I blame this on what I call the “turn toward the polite,” which has influenced society so much that people want to appear sensitive and intelligent (unless, of course, they’re on the Internet). People would be horrified to say something like, “between me and you,” which is grammatically correct but sounds clumsy and uneducated. Most people are terrified of sounding uneducated. This turn toward the polite I blame on the Beach Boys. In the 1960s, everybody wanted to sound as if they came from the Valley, which was thought to be the least offensive and judgmental place on earth. This might have had something to do with the weather.
Then there is the use of “like,” which is something I am sensitive to since I work on a college campus. I overheard “like” used 33 times in a conversation between two undergraduates just last week. Yes, I counted. Added to that is a condition I call “croak throat” (i.e., vocal fry) in which the speaker sounds as if their vocal cords have been scorched. I suppose that’s what I get not only for eavesdropping but counting words. Some people count cards, I count words.
I will mention a few others like “sucks” to describe something of inferior quality or disappointing effect; “literally” for an action that is metaphorical (e.g., “I was literally blown away”); and “a-mazing,” usually used with “literally” to convey something of magnitude like, “That gluten-free guava dip was literally a-mazing.” Those of us of a certain age remember what “sucks” used to refer to, which is why I prefer “stinks” or, if really bad, “stinks on ice.” I think I picked that up from my grandmother, who I’m pretty sure was referring to fish, not oral sex.
“Impact” as a direct object verb is the most glaring example of what I am talking about, since it has become official and unofficial in its use. Think of business reports, textbooks, news coverage, stories on the Internet, etc. It used to be that things could have an impact on other things or that you could assess the impact of a certain cause by studying its effects. Now, however, things directly impact other things, which, in turn, may be literally a-mazing or “sucky,” depending on your point of view. I do not like this new development, especially since people don’t even seem to be aware that there was an earlier time when impact was a noun and, if a verb, an intransitive one at best.
And don’t get me started about “went” used as a past participle as in, “Sure, I could have went to the store, but then I would have missed the game.” It makes me wince. Literally. Went is the past tense of the infinitive to go; gone is the past participle. Don’t mix them up, or you will be impacting your job prospects.
Lately I have noticed that not only the pace of change has picked up, but the pace of speech has, too. There are times when I am able to decipher only a few words of a conversation, even between native English speakers. I can hear the language changing, evolving. It’s starting to sound like a pot of boiling water, which is how one woman from Poland described English to me years ago. If this keeps up, pretty soon I will break into song like Rex Harrison lamenting the pitiable state of English, the language of Milton and Shakespeare. I won’t even be able to eavesdrop on people anymore. I’ll have to start minding my own business.
Then what’ll I, like, do?
For Portrait of Milton (1629), see John Milton. Fordham 52 Georgetown 7, Patriot League winners! Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”