Our Changing Language

Living languages change. Always. That’s just a fact of life. Words change their meaning or drop out of use altogether. New words are added. Sometimes old words that have dropped out are resurrected, perhaps with a new meaning, perhaps with the former meaning. There are grammatical changes: plural forms of nouns are simplified. Verbs change their forms, usually but not always to conform to the forms followed by regular verbs. Spelling changes, again usually but not always simplifying.

These changes have in the past occurred gradually over a considerable period of time. Now, thanks to the wide dissemination of information, both written and oral, and now the universality of the social media, the changes are more rapid. So rapid, in fact, that some of us are being left behind

I often reflect on how words and usage have changed so that grammatical structures, spellings, and word meanings I learned in school are no longer correct or preferred. For example, I still cringe at the use of “snuck” as the past tense of the verb sneak. I had learned that “snuck” was substandard and not to be used in correct speech or in written work. Now, however, “snuck” is listed right beside “sneaked” as the past tense form of the verb. It has become acceptable and is seen even in formal writing. I still cannot bring myself to use it in narrative prose, but I have and will continue to use it in dialog in my novels. My characters should be up-to-date even when I am not.

TrindeTree-final image
When I was having The Gift of the Trinde Tree read by writer friends, some informed me that the plural of octopus is octopi. It used to be, but my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, only lists octopuses as the plural. I inherited from my mother the 1927 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (unabridged). The only plural form it lists for octopus is octopi.

octopi or octopuses?

octopi or octopuses?

So the plural form that was the only one accepted then has given way to the more regular plural form. If you’ve read The Gift of the Trinde Tree, you know that Bailey Marshall calls the Sendors, an alien race, “big octopuses,” and if you’ve read the book, can you imagine Bailey saying, “big octopi”? I certainly can’t. If, however, I was writing a historical novel, set a couple of centuries ago, I would use “octopi,” because it would be the appropriate form for that time period.

I was also taught that if I was writing a date in numerical form and I wanted to make it plural, I should add an apostrophe plus s. So for example, I might refer to the flapper style of the 1920’s. No more. It’s 1920s. As, for example: My novel cover artSeduction of the Scepter takes place in the mid-1700s. The uses of the apostrophe have in general decreased, to the extent that, if you aren’t sure whether a particular construction should or should not use an apostrophe, the safest course is to omit the apostrophe.
M-W Collegiate Dictionary
I learned that it was very incorrect to use “busted” as the past tense of “broke.” Things don’t “bust”; they break or burst. Yet “bust” is defined as “to break or smash, especially with force, to make inoperative” in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I see it used with that meaning and also with the meaning of “bankrupt, broke” constantly in newspapers, magazines, and other writings. It has become completely acceptable

A word whose change of meaning I deplore is “decimate.” The word originally meant reduce by ten percent. That meaning was already giving way to the current meaning when I was in school; however, it still retained the original meaning along with the new meaning of destroy completely. Today the meaning of to reduce by 10 percent has been almost entirely lost, though still included in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I regret the change because there is no other single word with the specific meaning of “reduce by 10 percent,” while there are many synonyms for the newer meaning: annihilate, devastate, demolish, ruin, lay waste.

Speaking of “lay,” so few people still use lay and lie correctly that I predict that lay will soon be accepted as a synonym of lie, meaning recline, and its forms (lay, laid, laid, laying) will replace the forms of lie—not only its present tense but also the past tense, lay, the past participle, lain, and the gerund, lying. That’s another change I hate to see, but it is happening in popular speech and writing, and as prevalent as it has become, I fear that change is inevitable.

But should I fear it? I don’t like it, but change is a sign of life, and the English language is vibrantly alive. All these changes and many, many more that I regret are balanced by new words, phrases, and usages that are coming into the language. You wouldn’t find the new meaning of “tweet” in my old unabridged dictionary. Or “emoticon.” Or many other words associated with the social media, with new technology, or with scientific discoveries. “Robot” is in the “New Words” section of my 1927 Webster’s, but “robotics” is completely missing from it, as are laser, radar, parsec, isotope, and many, many more.
Our language is not becoming poorer. Far from it. It is growing, changing, dropping old words and forms, and adding new. It is alive and well.

And what does this mean for a writer? It means that we, too, need to adapt and change, keeping up with new vocabulary, new uses for old words, and grammatical and spelling changes. It also means that if we are writing about earlier historical times, we must be careful not to employ modern words that would be anachronistic for that time. I use a very useful reference book titled English through the Ages by William Brohaugh to tell me whether certain words were known in the period I’m writing about. I also have dictionaries of modern slang. Unfortunately, those, while helpful to a point, too quickly become outdated. The Internet is the best source for finding modern slang terms and neologisms for present-day work or a novel set in the near future. For science fiction set further in the future we must extrapolate and also be inventive in creating words and terms for discoveries not yet made and technologies not presently in existence.

As a writer we must learn how to make our changing language work for us. Do you have a special way of doing this? Are there changes in words that annoy you? New words that you love to use? Problems with knowing when to use new forms and when to stick with the old ones? Please comment.

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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4 Responses to Our Changing Language

  1. Ron Eklof says:

    Reposted on FB and will do so on PINAWOR’s pages. Miss your incisive critiquing.

  2. Bruce gunia says:

    Elenora, I was so glad Ron posted this on the PINAWOR page. It’s so good to see you again and am still grateful you stopped me using anxious for eager. I’m with you on decimate but are you saying that all those years ago I was obsessed with getting lied? Regrettably, this is no longer an issue.

  3. Liz Armstrong says:

    Elenora, what treat it was, reading your fine article this morning. I am particularly dismayed by the many business emails I receive saying, “If you have any questions please see Edna or myself”. Myself? Why not “Edna or me?” The only reason I can think of to use “myself” would be to repor events such as, “I stuck myself in the eye with a pencil” or “I shot myself by mistake or “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.”

  4. So true, Liz. That’s one I see misused all the time. People seem to think that by using myself rather than me they’re being more humble or something. Actually all they’re being is grammatically incorrect. Another of my pet peeves is the spelling “alright,” which, unfortunately, is now considered acceptable. But I had it drummed into my head when I was in school that “all right” is two words, like “all wrong.” I’ll never be able to bring myself to use alright (other than in a sentence like this.) Thanks for your comment.

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