Saturday, November 12, 2005

Grammar Epidemic?

Have English grammar and spelling been going down the loop? Last night NBC News had an unusual report on the spread of bad grammar and spelling mistakes in the U.S. as it seems that most Americans “ain't talkin' too good, don't write worth a lick and are worser with e-mails.”.
If you were in France, you’d have writers and intellectuals on national TV for this and it would be treated as a national disaster worse than the current violence in the ghettos. But in the U.S. it is not the teachers, not the writers and certainly not the 'intellectuals' (sorry for using such an offensive word!) who are reacting, it is corporate America. Some companies are actually offering a very down-to-earth remedy : business writing class!
Fortune 500 companies [are] spending more than $3 billion a year retraining employees in basic English
The blame is put on the extensive use of computers, the Internet and instant messaging but also on all of us. As a teacher of English myself, I wonder what the 500 Fortune companies manage to achieve through their writing class. What sort of English do they teach? Corporate English? It is not or should not be the business of businesses to teach English.
As a teacher of English-as-a-foreign-language, I have always wondered whether I should correct my students when they say “good” instead of “well’ (a distinction that most Americans don't bother to make).
How are you? I’m good….
... is what you hear most of the time these days. I should point out that when I first came to the States, a lot of people said that it was not so much my (French) accent that sounded foreign, but the fact that my English was 'too good' (meaning too 'proper'). So over the years, I learned to make the "right" mistakes, and this is the hardest part for a foreigner. Making the "right" mistakes, the mistakes that natives make can become an art form. It takes time, patience and hard work. Most books and teachers only teach you "proper English", but if you want people to forget about your foreignness, you need to learn to make "their" mistakes, the "right" mistakes.
So I have decided to teach my (better) students both "Englishes" (and I mean this awful plural form!)– I do tell them that there are the things that most people say and the things that people should say.
[Let our non-French speakers be relieved though, the French have the same problems, but as you can see in the news, they have had more urgent business to attend to lately].

A few more things about the NBC report :

  • Despite what Roger O’Neil said, I would think there is a difference between ‘'at this point in time” and “now”. The former connotes the notion that the situation might change when the latter is more neutral.
  • As for the ‘awfully nice dinner you just served me’, it means that it was much better than just ‘nice’. If I'm not mistaken, this inversion of meanings (i.e. using ‘awfully’ as a positive adverb) comes from the “underclass” (this is the "underclass" that both the French and Barbara Bush have become aware of this year). It is also a generational phenomenon of course. In some segments of society, there’s been this game of using a word to mean the opposite, like “it’s bad” for “it’s good”. It has been a way to find a distinctive coded use of the language. It has now passed on to the rest of the language in a milder form.
  • As for the use of “anxious” as in "the president is anxious to meet the prime minister", I don't have a problem with it. I believe “anxious” also means “be eager to” precisely because the word comes from the noun “anxiety” and you can certainly have some form of anxiety when you’re excited about something, so the use of this word in this context seems legitimate to me.
  • Finally, the possible overuse of “unbelievable” may be the a sign of our times – we need to make things look extraordinary to be listened to and the media are probably partly to blame.[but that's probably better than burning cars, would say the French.... and here's a suggestion : maybe the end of the Académie Fançaise would help the banlieues ;-)].

I think it is actually a very good thing that American English is changing (even if it is true that text messages which turn the language into phonetics may pratty bad - in the true sense of the word!). It shows that the language is alive. Languages should not be static or else they die, so a bit of change is actually healthy. Besides, I don’t think that it is quite to the point that “We simply, now, must salvage American English." This seems a bit overstated wouldn't you say Mr O'Neil?

PS: If there are mistakes or inconsistencies in this posting... I plead guilty (as I wrote it in a hurry but feel free to let me know)


At 16:07, Anonymous L. Rivlin said...

Actually, the word "awfully", as in "an awfully nice dinner" might be more closely related to the original meaning of the word "awful" (inspiring awe) than the meaning which subsequently devolved from it (inspiring overwhelming negative feelings).
It is probable that this is therefore not an example of a reverse definition like "bad" meaning "good".

At 22:50, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

Well, it may still be a reverse of definition for those who use the subsequent negative meaning associated with the adjective or the adverbe.Even if it is undeniably true that the word "awfully" comes from the word "awful" (inspiring awe), I still think that the common use today only carries negative connotations...wouldn't you say? I don't think people ever use "awful" as a positive word.
Thanks for your comment. It's a good point.


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