Whenever I have lamented the poor use of English grammar, lexicon or semantics in the present age, people have told me that I was over-reacting, and that English, like all other languages, evolves, so I just had to accept that. At first, I just seethed inside, as if that facile explanation justified any vulgarity and barbarism that passed from the mouths of young people today. Then I realised something: in saying that language “evolved”, they were unconsciously using a metaphor- a metaphor which compared language with living organisms. And then this metaphor led me (to use another metaphor) to an interesting development which would justify my point of view: if language evolves without preservation or conservation of any kind, it will decay and decompose. If a food product containing bacteria is left out of a refrigerator for more than an hour, it will “evolve”, certainly, but not in a pleasant way. Likewise, language without the preservatives of grammar and sound syntax and semantics will certainly decay, and the evidence of this is all around us. Anyone who does not believe me need only peruse two or three pages of the Internet, (especially social media), turn on the television for ten minutes, or ride a bus or train after school hours.
If, as I do, your soul languishes over the lamentable lacerations to the lexicon, or if your heart grieves over the grave gashes to grammar, or if the politically correct pollutions pain you, then you have come to the right place. In this article, I intend to indicate to you how you can render your English more poetic and polished, mellifluous and marvellous.
I take as my model the style and graceful lines of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. As this literature was inspired by the literature preceding it, as well as the words of the Bible and Shakespeare, all the glories of Western civilisation can be found in it. This literature does not only include poetry and the florid prose of romantic novels, but also documents and journal entries and all manner of writing. In the nineteenth century and prior to that, people seemed to speak and write because they enjoyed using language, and they were in no hurry to finish their sentences, nor did they consider long sentences and literary or Biblical references to be too much trouble. All this I have observed after reading the countless works of fiction and non-fiction of great writers and ordinary people who communicated before the mid-twentieth century.
In the 18th century, Jonathon Swift proposed a language academy for English, akin to that of France, Italy and Spain, for the “refinement” of the English tongue. He too was grieved at the way in which the language was being degraded in his era, because there was no organisation to preserve it and to check its natural evolution towards barbarism. This is what I explained in the first paragraph, taking Swift as my inspiration.
I do not pretend to be an authority on the best English, or even competent enough to speak the best English: but one thing I do, and that is to continue to communicate in the style of the great men and women of yesteryear, taking inspiration from their works, and from the Work that inspired them all, namely the King James Bible.
So here, without any further ado, is my brief proposal for the refinement of the English tongue in the twenty-first century. If we cannot go back in time to the nineteenth or eighteenth century, then we can certainly bring the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to our time.
The Snake-pit of Slang
Let me start by clarifying an important distinction: slang is not colloquial or idiomatic expression. The latter is lively, metaphorical, friendly and pleasant, and adds salt and spice to conversation. Colloquial language is the standard language “at ease”; it is the standard language as it has come home from work (formal register), taken off its tie and dressed in more comfortable clothes at home. There is nothing at all wrong with that, as long as it remains in its correct domain. There is a time and a place for formal language and a time and a place for colloquial language, in the same way that one would never dress in casual clothes to attend a wedding, or dress in a wedding suit to go to a family picnic in the park.
Slang on the other hand, does not fit anywhere. It is a vulgar form of speech, unwelcome everywhere. It is like language going around half-naked on purpose, not for the sake of comfort or affability, but for the purpose to shock or to display one’s laziness indifferently and inconsiderately. Slang is never pleasant, especially taboo slang – the words that refer to private body parts or functions, or blasphemy.
A gentleman or a lady must therefore avoid slang –words and expressions that draw attention to private body parts and bodily functions and which offend the dignity of human beings, and those that are blasphemous, which offend the dignity of God and of spiritual entities.
Here are some of the slang words and expressions to avoid (obvious taboo and blasphemous words are not included here):
The primary meaning of this word is “young goat”, so when it is used to mean “child”, it is slang and should be avoided. It clearly offends against the dignity of human persons when they are compared to the young of a barnyard animal. Sadly, in Australia and America, this meaning of “kid” is so prevalent these days that it is making the standard word, “child” appear almost obsolete.
This word is now slang because its primary meaning, i.e. “cheerful and merry”, has now been practically ousted and replaced by its politically correct sexual meaning. In other words, until about the 1970s within living memory, the primary meaning was still in use, side by side with its slang meaning of “homosexual”. Proof of this was that dictionaries printed in that period still had the meaning of “merry” as number 1, and the meaning of “homosexual” came later, with the label “slang”. Songs, commercials and films still used the primary meaning. Then suddenly, it disappeared, sometime in the 1990s. I believe that the semantic shift was artificial, politically motivated and deliberate. It is up to the gentlemen and ladies of tomorrow to ransom this word and reclaim its pristine meaning.
As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Sleep is separate from that and I don’t know why sleep got all tied up and connected with that!” (Seinfeld: Season 2, Episode 9). By “that” he was referring to the sexual act. “To sleep with someone” is such a stupid and useless slang expression for sexual intercourse, and it should be avoided completely. It offends against human dignity to refer to private or intimate acts. And as Jerry Seinfeld implied, if the act is performed properly anyway, sleeping is not really involved!
These words are not bad in themselves, and at face level can be classed as colloquial. They become slang when they offend against human dignity by using them as egalitarian forms of address with strangers, public servants or people of higher social rank who deserve more respect. It is extremely irritating when complete strangers, some of them younger than I, accost me in the street with this title. Firstly, I am not their friend, secondly, the initial encounter requires a bit of social distance and respect until intimacy is achieved. “Mate” (or its equivalents) offend by equalising everyone and ignoring social status and the situation.
Another habit that gentlemen and ladies avoid is the obsession with truncating familiar words either to appear more friendly or down-to-earth, or just out of sheer laziness. Australians are especially prone to this habit, but the Americans and even the English do it at times. Examples are plentiful and include: Aussie (Australian), brekkie (breakfast), Chrissie (Christmas), arvo (afternoon), bike (bicycle), pressie (present), barbie (barbecue), beaut (beautiful), rego (registration), compo (compensation), TV (television), cell phone (cellular telephone), fridge (refrigerator) and the list goes on.
The Pit-falls of Pronouns (and the Pollutions of the Politically Correct)
Pronouns must be used correctly if one is to speak elegantly. Naturally, non-standard uses of pronouns are to be eliminated completely, e.g. I like them apples. Me and my friends went to the park. I am friends with him (which should be “I am his friend”- I cannot be more than one friend).
There are three major issues with the modern abuse of pronouns that I should like to address here:
I know that using “whom” in casual conversation sounds stuffy and artificial, but why should it? It is more accurate and less confusing than “who” which also serves as the subject relative pronoun. “That is the man whom I saw” makes the syntactical relationships clearer, in my opinion. Omitting the object relative pronoun altogether (i.e. “That is the man I saw”) is imprecise, lazy and clumsy, in my opinion. Likewise, when the pronoun is omitted and a preposition is cast at the end of the clause, it is far less elegant. “This is the person I was talking to” sounds less elegant than “This is the person to whom I was talking”. I leave it up to the reader to decide what is comfortable for him.
He/she, the generic use of the masculine
Until recently (the 1960s and 1970s), it was normal and acceptable in English, as in other European, Semitic, African and other languages, to use the masculine gender generically, i.e. when referring to indeterminate persons, or those whose sex is for some reason unknown. For example, we would say, “Everyone brought his book”, or “I am looking for someone who knows his multiplication tables well” or “The child should do it by himself”. Naturally, of course, we would use the feminine as the generic gender if all the people in a certain group were female. But because of feminism, some people started to object to this very convenient usage and imposed on us “inclusive language”, which included the substitution of the generic masculine with unwieldy and ugly paraphrases because they felt that women and girls were somehow excluded. So now we have to use “s/he” or “his or her” or even “they” (e.g. “Everyone brought their book”, “Every child should do it by hemself/themselves”).
Using “they” for a singular antecedent is just plain wrong, and should not be justified because of a misguided political correctness. I have actually seen a spate of lazy and ignorant misuses of generic “they” when the biological context was absolutely clear: “Every girl for themselves”, “A gentleman should have their own handkerchief”, “A mother should breastfeed their baby for a least a year.” The most brazen attack on this traditional generic use of the masculine was the use of the feminine as generic, e.g. “Every teacher should be patient with her students”. “If someone needs a hand, help her”. I suspect that this is just a spiteful or vengeful reaction to the age-old, traditional usage. Honestly, the generic masculine does not exclude women at all. If anything, it makes the masculine common or general, so as a result, the feminine is special and unique. And what is wrong with being special and unique, distinct from the common crowd?
The reason for this ugly slang pronoun is obvious: since the disappearance of the thou/you distinction in English around the seventeenth century, there has been a gap in the pronominal system. How do we distinguish between singular and plural you, as they do in many other Romance and Semitic languages? Out of all the attempts in English at bridging the gap, “y’all” or “you all” in the American south is the least repulsive. “You guys” is colloquial and common in America, but can never hope to be a standard pronoun. Either we rely on “you” alone, depending on the context to make the distinction clear, or we should return to using “thou”, but youse is just too revolting.
The Fitting Use of the Future
I refer the reader to Fowler’s Modern English Usage and The King’s English for a more detailed analysis of the usage of shall and will to express the future tense. In a nutshell, the normal or default future tense is conjugated thus: I shall, you will, he/she/it will, we shall, they will. “Shall” is used in the first person singular and plural because something will happen independent of the speaker’s (or speakers’) will. We say “I will” or “We will” when we intend or will something. We say “you shall”, “he/she/it shall” or “they shall” when we promise that it will definitely happen, or emphasise that we desire that it happen. When we ask a question such as “Shall I do it?” or “Shall we dance”, we are asking if it will happen independent of our will. It makes no sense to ask “Will I…?” because a person should know if he wills it or not.
This useful distinction is not observed in American, Irish or Scottish English, and is dying out even in England and Australia, where it is still used by some of the more conservative, formal or elderly speakers.
The Traps of Technology
We live in a very different world from that in which our ancestors lived, and we have so many devices and machines that they could not even imagine. This is a positive thing, and by these very modern tools, we can research more into the lives of people in history.
The problem is not in the technological advances themselves, but in the manner in which we utilise them. If we depend upon them for everything and turn our brains off when we turn on the computer, then we cannot hope to learn anything or communicate in an intelligent or elegant way.
Let me give you some examples: the language of electronic mail and text messages has degenerated to a point where simple notes between friends have become almost incomprehensible to outsiders. “C U L8R”, “BRB”, “WOTCHA DOIN?” “WHERE U @?”, “R U OK?” “LOL” etc. have become common ways of communicating among young people today. Anyone raised to appreciate Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the great poets and writers of the past would despair in seeing this gibberish that passes for English. The sad thing is that some people do not limit themselves to electronic media, and write this way all the time. Other shortcuts exist in the spoken language, such as “I will text you”, “I will message you”, or “I’ll SMS you.” Blends such as “blog” (from “weblog”) have been invented, and i have to say, it sounds like a combination of “blob” and “bog”; “Blogging” sounds like a person labouring with a serious intestinal problem.
Accidents of accent
In this section, I do not mean to discriminate against or favour any particular accent. Everyone has an accent, as a result of being raised and educated in a certain social environment, in a certain family background, or as a result of extensive travels or even as an act of will. An accent is a mark of linguistic and cultural identity and is to be respected.
However, having said that, there are certain “accidents of accent”, errors or habits which can be irritating to others because they breach certain lexical or grammatical rules, whether by intention or otherwise. These should be avoided if one hopes to speak elegant English, no matter what one’s native accent may be. I shall outline a couple of them here.
The first of these is the intrusive R. What do I mean by this? Well, some dialects of English are rhotic (General American, Canadian, Irish, Scottish) in that the sound /r/ is pronounced everywhere it occurs in the spelling, e.g. car /kar/, heart /hart/, teacher /ti:tʃǝr/ etc. Those who speak these dialects do not usually experience this problem. But other dialects are non-rhotic (Received Pronunciation or “British English” as it is commonly called, Australian, New Zealand, South African, American of the South and the Eastern Seaboard and others). In these dialects, /r/ is not pronounced after vowels (e.g. car /ka:/, heart /ha:t/, teacher /ti:tʃǝ/ except when it is followed by another vowel, as in car_accident, fire engine, further_on etc. Intrusive R is that peculiar phenomenon in non-rhotic dialects when such a “linking R” is pronounced even when there is no R in the spelling, e.g. “law-r-and order”, “the idea-r-of it” and even word internally as in “draw-r-ing”. This intrusive R is painful to the ears of those who cherish the correct spelling and grammar of the language and should be avoided at all costs.
The second accident of accent is a similar phenomenon to the preceding one: in non-rhotic accents, some vowels at the end of words spelled with –er, -or, -ar tend to be pronounced as /a/ rather than the weak central vowel /ǝ/. This results in some grotesque pronunciations, which are facetiously or ignorantly spelled with an A: “supa”, “betta”, “Supacenta” “kindagarten”, “gangsta” etc.
The third issue is not really an “accident” at all, because the speaker sometimes wilfully assumes an accent from a lower social class, with little or no social prestige, in order to identify, for psychological or political reasons, with a socially under-privileged group. As a result, one can hear men and women who were educated in English universities, and who have reached high professional positions, speak like uneducated tradesmen and labourers. Several Australian Labor Party politicians and prime ministers are good examples of this phenomenon, especially Robert (“Bob”) Hawke and Julia Gillard, although these are not the only people who do so.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the accent of a tradesman or labourer if one is a tradesman or a labourer; but there is something perverse about denying one’s educational or social level and distorting all of one’s vowels in order to prove a socio-political point, just as much as someone who tries in ignorance to assume the accent and grammatical competence of a higher educational level without extensive study and practice before attempting it. The latter end up sounding as ridiculous and as pretentious as the former sound dishonest and suspicious.
In conclusion, if we do our best to avoid slang, any words or phrases of a vulgar nature which offend against the dignity of humans or God, and if we endeavour never to be lazy and take shortcuts, but instead enjoy our speech, we shall be well on our way to speaking like gentlemen or ladies.
– Emile N Joseph
The author teaches the English language to adult migrants and is passionate about all things linguistic. He is also a serious conservative at heart, who treasures the beauty, the poetry and the gallantry of yesteryear. He is happily married with two young children in Sydney.
- Francis George Fowler and Henry Watson Fowler, The King’s English (Oxford University Press, 1906)
- Henry Watson Fowler, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, 1926)
- Simon Heffer, Strictly English (Cornerstone, 2010)
- Jerry Seinfeld in the television broadcast, “Seinfeld”, Season 2, Episode 9 (United States National Broadcasting Corporation, 1991)