published Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Fortune: I just ain't worried about this, dawg


by Mary Fortune

A language scold recently cornered my mother and me and began carrying on about the terrible things his students are doing to our cherished English.

"Have you heard the way young people talk?" he said, eyes rolling wildly. "The things they say? 'What up, dawg?' I am not a dog!"

I swear, if the guy had been wearing pearls, he'd have been clutching them.

It's probably reasonable for the indignant language scolds to assume they'll have a sympathetic audience in my mother and me. I'm a writer of various sorts. She's an English professor with decades in university classrooms. We do dearly love the language, and we know her well.

But all we do in these situations is nod blandly and try to change the subject. Because we've got news for the language scolds: English is too tough to be hurt by a bunch of kids.

English is flexible; she evolves and adapts and overcomes. She maintains her sense of humor no matter how weird things get. She grows older but not up. No matter how we change her, she gets the job done, just like she always has.

For as long as English has been around, she's been changing. My mother teaches classes on the derivations of words, advanced grammar and the evolution of language. She's such a nerd that she speaks Old English, which doesn't even sound like English. (Fun fact: The British upper classes in the 19th century said 'ain't' all the dang time -- because, y'all, English never stops changing.)

I occasionally teach media writing. The Associated Press Stylebook is my bible. I watch changes to that thing the way other people watch stock prices and college football. As English evolves, the Stylebook concedes the points that just don't make sense to defend any more.

For example: hopefully. For many years, the Stylebook explicitly explained that "hopefully" did not mean "I hope." It meant "a manner of being." So this was a correct sentence: He waited hopefully for the waiter to bring his sandwich. And this was not a correct sentence: Hopefully, his sandwich will get here soon.

But do you know who understood the difference in those uses? Maybe 12 people. So the Stylebook bowed to usage and changed the entry on "hopefully." Now you can use it the way you've always used it and, magically, you are right.

When the email came out about that change (I get alerts about changes to the AP Stylebook, yes I do, and no, I am not embarrassed), I said, "Well, how about that," and crossed out the part of my media writing class where I explained that obscure little rule about "hopefully."

Of course, we explain and enforce the rules of usage, grammar and punctuation in the work we grade in writing classes. Of course we do. That's the point of writing classes. But we teach and enforce the rules of now, and we know the rules of later may be entirely different.

And if students txt to tell me they will be L8, I am not going to quibble and grade their txts. I just thank them for letting me know. When we scold people who are trying to communicate with us, we embarrass and silence them. And how does that help anything, dawg?

Contact Mary Fortune at thirtytensomething.blogspot.com.

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