Are we, like, literally ruining the English language?

'Bad English' by Ammon Shea
'Bad English' by Ammon Shea
Courtesy of Perigee Books

If there ever was a perfect person to dissect modern language, it's Ammon Shea. The man has read the dictionary, cover to cover. (The Oxford English Dictionary, if you're wondering.)

He wrote about the experience in "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages."

Now he's back with "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation."

The book breaks down some of our most common grammatical transgressions, like the war between "that" and "which," and the fact that people still say "irregardless."

Shea joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss what is and what isn't "Bad English."

On when it's "too late" to change a language trend

No matter how many people stand up and say "irregardless" is not a word, you are not going to change the tide of language. Furthermore, by the time something is in common enough usage that it is irritating you, it is too late. If you've noticed it, it means, in all likelihood, it's in very widespread use and nothing you or your sixth grade English teacher can do will ever change this.

On never ending a sentence with a preposition

The notion that you should not end a sentence with a preposition, it came up in 1646. A grammarian named Joshua Poole decided he didn't like prepositions at the end.


It really did take off and it's been going for several hundred years. The thing that is fascinating about this is that, for about the last hundred years, pretty much every single academic book on the subject, every guide on the language, they have all agreed: It is absolutely fine to sometimes end your sentence in a preposition and on occasion, your sentence will be much better for it. And yet we still all carry with us this vague sense of unease when we suddenly realize we've put a preposition at the end of the sentence.

On the fight against "literally"

Part of the problem, I think, is that many of us are searching for certainty. We want certainty in language as in life. Unfortunately, you will not find certainty in language. There is no absolutely correct or incorrect way of speaking any language.

"Literally," however, presents a fine case on which to make your stand, to draw your line in the sand, to make a final defense against the barbarians at the gate! It's becoming an auto-antonym; it's seeming to mean the exact opposite of what some people think it should mean. But it's very tricky to say that words should mean things because if we look at "literally," the original meaning of "literally" had nothing to do with what anybody is saying now. It meant "letter for letter," in terms of copying things.

On the growing use of "like"

Let's look at "like" because it has the power to stir a lot of people's passions. ...

When you use "like" at the beginning of a sentence, it's really not any different than using "well" at the beginning of a sentence, except that your grandchildren use "like" and your grandparents use "well." One hundred years ago, grammarians were complaining about people starting their sentences with "well." They referred to it as "a mere meaningless prelude to a sentence."

This is going to grate on your nerves, it's going to grate on your ears and your soul and everything else but that does not change the fact that it is functioning in a very similar way to ways that you probably spoke when you were 20 and you would irritate those people who were 20 or 30 years older than you. It's not a new phenomenon, it just happens to be a new word.

On the constant irritant of "irregardless"

It's another word that people love to hate. The reasons given for why "irregardless" should be banished from the English language for eternity is typically that it's not a real word, it means the opposite or it doesn't mean anything. But any time a word is used in a specific context, with an intended meaning, it's a word. And you have millions of people who do in fact use "irregardless." The fact that there are so many people using it means that it is a word. It may be a substandard word, it may be a dialectic word, it may be a word that is not standard English, but it's definitely a word.

Saying that something is not a word is about as effective in changing language as saying "that's not a car" when a car is coming toward you. The car will still hit you, the car still exists. You can't say something does not exist just because you don't like it.

On the trend of making up words

I think in most cases these words die out, a natural death, and will probably do so very quickly.

People are just trying to communicate to each other and they are trying to do so in a way they think they will be best understood. This may be tortured, it may be painful to listen to, but I just don't think it's irreparably harming the language. The English language is not a delicate flower that is wilting when somebody comes up with a new word.

If we look at people who are regarded as the innovators of the language, for instance Shakespeare, he is thought to have contributed thousands of words. He didn't actually, most of the words that he was thought to have invented were in fact used by other people, but if you look at the words that he is likely to have created, an enormous number of them are not actually new words. What he's doing is something that's referred to as functional shift. We all do this, the language does it constantly. Functional shift is just taking a verb and making it a noun, and vice versa. It's just taking an existing word and using it in a different part of speech.

This has been going on since the very beginning of the English language. It's one of the ways in which we get new words, and Shakespeare did this more than anybody. It's difficult for me to say it's okay for Shakespeare to do it but it's not okay for John in accounting to do it.

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