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English Then and Now

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 3, 2008, page 29)

Forty years ago, when Language Update made its debut, I was not yet a professional writer and editor. I was three. According to my mother, I ran around the house for hours and devised new schemes for parting my brother from his candy. Apart from that, not much was happening in my world.

I didn’t pose for digital photos, in an era when digital mainly conjured up images of thumb-sucking. There were no compact discs to listen to. No one ate pizza pockets or drank pop sweetened with aspartame. There was no googling or faxing, no bungee jumping or break dancing going on. No one worried about global warming or saved up for a time-share. Our lives were arguably simpler, our vocabularies indisputably smaller.

There’s no question—the English language has changed tremendously in the past four decades. New words, and new uses of old words, have sprung up to accompany developments in technology, science, economics and culture. But the fundamentals of the language—the rules of grammar and punctuation and the principles of clear style—have changed surprisingly little.

Changes in grammar

What’s striking about grammar rules from 40 years ago is how similar they are to today’s. The guidelines for subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, modifier placement and verb tense are virtually unchanged. Many of the old rules we now consider outdated (though they persist as grammar myths) had by then already toppled.

Take none, for instance. At one time considered singular, none was accepted 40 years ago as a plural when used in a plural sense (None of the applicants are qualified). The second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965) pulled no punches: "It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular verbs, etc.; the Oxford English Dictionary explicitly states that plural construction is commoner."

Similarly, rules drummed into earlier generations of schoolchildren, like "don’t split an infinitive" and "don’t end a sentence with a preposition," had gone by the wayside. Eric Partridge, in the sixth edition (1965) of Usage and Abusage, noted that we should avoid the split infinitive wherever possible, "but if it is the clearest and the most natural construction, use it boldly. The angels are on our side." (Note: A rather different celestial phenomenon has been on our side since 1966, when the original Star Trek series aired with its now-famous "to boldly go." Interestingly, Partridge’s choice of boldly in his exhortation of the split infinitive anticipated Star Trek by one year.)

Grammarians of the day were also pooh-poohing the old prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition. G.F. Lamb, in his textbook English for General Certificate (1964), brushed it off entirely: "The so-called ’rule’ that we must not end a sentence with a preposition cannot be justified in English, and is not observed by any good writer." Fowler’s, in what is practically a novella on the subject, concluded that the rule had become "a cherished superstition."

The only real change in grammar since the late 1960s comes in an area that overlaps with usage and that, like usage, has been influenced by larger forces of society and culture. I’m referring here to agreement between a pronoun and a singular antecedent like "everyone" or "each person." The rule back then was simple: use the masculine singular pronoun (Everyone must bring his own wine to the party). Since then, feminism has outed the sexism implicit in that choice and has put the old practice to rest. But we have been left with a void, one that has produced lots of rewriting (People must bring their own wine) and lots of debate about the ungainly his or her versus the (to some) ungrammatical their. This last option is gaining ground fast and will likely win the day, though for the moment authorities are still bickering.

Changes in punctuation

There was a time when English writing was scattered (some might say infested) with commas, but that time was not 40 years ago. The trend toward cleaner, streamlined prose was already afoot. Said G.F. Lamb: "The modern tendency is to omit the comma in many instances where earlier generations would have used it." His grammar book then goes on to list comma rules that are indistinguishable from our own today.

Likewise, what we think of as the "new" practice of adding -’s to names that end with "s" (Keats’s poetry, Charles’s hot tub) was already well established. In fact, it was the very first rule listed in the first and second editions (1959 and 1972) of The Elements of Style, Strunk and White’s now famous little book.

Our desire for clean prose is undoubtedly behind the one change that has affected punctuation. Four decades ago, periods were used with all abbreviations. Today they have disappeared from acronyms and initialisms (e.g., NATO, DVD, PhD), perhaps because in our time these abbreviations are so commonplace that we regard them more as words in their own right than as true abbreviations.

Changes in style

When I was three, I knew a thing or two about plain language, though in 1968, all that meant was stern talk laced with whatever mild swear words our Catholic household would allow.

Plain language as a stylistic movement really took off only in the 1980s. It gathered steam through the 1990s and is now well entrenched in the communications world. Yet the principles of composition listed in Strunk and White’s first and second editions read like the contents of a plain language primer:

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it
  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language
  • Omit needless words
  • Keep related words together

Clear, concise, accessible style was as much an objective in 1968 as it is in 2008. The techniques for producing that style were just as simple to list, and just as difficult to execute.

Changes in usage

That really leaves usage as the main hotbed of change in the past 40 years. That’s not surprising. As John Steinbeck put it, "A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator."

It’s impossible to sum up the usage changes of the past four decades. To do so would require a book—no, books. Instead, here is a random sampling of usages that were debated, shot down and at times downright reviled 40 years ago but that have since become accepted, some with little fanfare, others with the kind of grudging, simmering acceptance that concludes a battle reluctantly conceded.

Who today would argue with the following sentence?

We hope to contact a high-calibre translator, someone who can be trusted to finalize the translation with speed and hopefully with care.

Four decades ago the italicized words were all under siege.

Contact was inching its way toward acceptance, a point the 1965 Fowler’s haltingly conceded. But in 1972 Strunk and White still condemned the word as "vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him . . . ."

Calibre, in the sense of "order of merit or quality," riled up Eric Partridge, who wrote (no doubt with pursed lips) that expressions like high-calibre and low-calibre "are not absolutely wrong: they are merely ludicrous."

Words ending in -ize, the most handy suffix for verbifying, are traditionally greeted with suspicion, and fair enough, as most are neologisms for a time. Finalize was generally slammed in the 1960s, especially in British English, and has met with only slow acceptance, perhaps because it first appeared in Australia and the United States. Today, however, the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996) notes that "only elderly eyebrows are now raised when the word is used . . . ."

That brings us to hopefully. Its use as a sentence adverb, like in the sample sentence above—as opposed to its uncontested use as a run-of-the-mill adverb, to describe doing something in a hopeful manner (to look hopefully at someone)—was one of the most ardently fought, widely covered usage points in the past four decades.

The New Fowler’s gives a juicy account of the whole affair under the entry "sentence adverb," calling it "one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20c." The account goes on to say that the tipping point came in the late 1960s with hopefully. Oddly, sentence adverbs (like oddly here, plus frankly, actually, thankfully, strictly and the like) proliferated during the twentieth century without much criticism, but for some reason hopefully was a celebrated exception. It was as if every suspicion of change, every fear of the uneducated masses taking over the language, became concentrated in one annihilating ray beamed on this harmlessly optimistic word.

The battle over hopefully is done, say current authorities, and the sentence adverb is here to stay. But its journey is only a slightly more exaggerated version of what happens every time a point of language shifts. Condemnation, then debate, then allowance, then acceptance—these are the stages that result from our paradoxical need to keep language on the leash of standards while allowing it the freedom to roam.