LawProse Lesson 421: Language constantly changes

LawProse Lesson 421: Language constantly changes

One sign that a language is alive is that it evolves. Latin, a dead language, stopped changing the moment people stopped using it in everyday life. But thriving languages change constantly, though slowly. Chaucer noticed this truth as far back as 1385:

Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thenketh hem, and yet they spake hem so.

Troylus and Criseyde 2:22–25.

That’s a self-proving statement from 639 years ago. We recognize the meaning of the passage even as we see the extent of the linguistic change.

How should we think about change? Must we accept each innovation? If lots of people begin to say, along with Bono of U2 (“Ordinary Love”), that something will take care of you and I—as opposed to the traditionally correct take care of you and me—should we simply accept it? Or even start saying it ourselves? People who oppose such “changes,” which are still sometimes called errors, are often labeled stuffed shirts, grammar nerds, and linguistic snobs by those who embrace the changes.

On the whole, language changes glacially, and Standard Written English remains quite stable—much more than in Chaucer’s day, when few were literate. But on many fronts, we’re seeing a greater change with pronouns, for instance, than ever before. What was once mistaken can come to be standard: nobody today uses the once-correct self-depreciating. Instead, the once-erroneous self-deprecating has taken the field. It can happen.

If you want to stay apprised of where Standard Written English stands today, you need the most up-to-date reference: the fifth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage (Oxford Univ. Press, 2022). In it you’ll find newly expanded essays on PRONOUNS and THEY—and you may well be surprised at the practices of today’s most respected editors. In GMEU, as it is known, Garner supplies us with the Language-Change Index, by which various expressions in transition are ranked according to acceptability, as judged by how widespread they are.

Garner isn’t an “arbiter” who declares his own whimsical judgments; rather, he reports on the prevailing practices of the best-edited journals and books. That’s what has made him, according to Business Insider, “the world’s leading authority on the English language.” Although others have said similar things, he disclaims the title: nobody, in his view, deserves such an accolade. He rather thinks of himself as a harmless drudge in the mines of English usage.a

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