Other Matters: Language Progress (Hah) Report

plainlanguage_a200px“Thank you,” I said to the clerk at the hardware store.

“Hey, no problem, ya know?” she replied.

It occurred to me that she had not jumped aboard the Rifftides Department Of Language Reform (DOLR) bandwagon. Despite our periodic efforts to encourage clarity of expression, Americans and other speakers of English continue in their wanton linguistic ways. I concluded that it’s time to rerun this item from more than three years ago.

February 26, 2010

The Rifftides Department Of Language Reform (DOLR) has been neglecting its duties. Its members claim that their failure to stop the misuse of “absolutely” and “no problem” (see this archives post) discouraged them. At a staff meeting on the subject, the DOLRers moaned that they despair of succeeding where Fowler, Strunk, White, Bernstein, Ciardi and other titans of proper English usage have failed. They pointed out that people still say, “ya know” every few seconds; still say and write, “they” when they should use, “he” or “she;” millions still bloat their sentences with “on a daily basis” and “on a national basis,” wasting words when they could streamline with, “daily” and “nationally.”

“Never give up,” I told them. “It’s God’s — or Webster’s — work.”

“Maybe we’re being too fussy, too pedantic,” they said. “Maybe the language is just taking its evolutionary course, and what sounds wrong today will be right tomorrow.”

“Shut up and watch this,” I explained.

The typography is by Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

Thanks to Bobby Shew for calling this delightful wig bubble to our attention.

While I’m grumping about lousy usage, I’ll grump at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. They are among the newspapers and broadcast news outfits that seem to have succumbed to budget pressures by firing their copy editors. Folks, the past tense of sink is “sank,” not “sunk.” The past tense of swim is “swam,” not “swum.” Thank you.

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  1. says

    Thanks Doug – I am sharing this with everyone I know who has kids. At this point the best I can do with my kids is model a way of speaking without using ‘like”. It has spread into parents’ speech as well! The use of humor is critical to reach young people who really resent being lectured – and I tend to lecture… I am curious to see my kids’ reaction to this splendid vid when we watch it in the morning.

  2. says


    A friend, Joseph Byrd, a self-professed feminist, lived in a house with four females, two adults, also feminists, and the two young daughters of one of them. Joseph, an expert at almost as many things as he claims, did the cooking and when dinner was ready he would announce, “Everyone bring his plate.” A little insensitive, I guess, but correct. I told a friend at a NOW meeting about it and she asked why an incorrect number (“their”) wasn’t as good as an incorrect gender? I wonder what will happen when the battle is finally won? Does loving equality mean giving up Strunk and White?

    But what I really wanted to tell you was how much I enjoyed reading Poodie James. Beautifully written.

  3. says

    I’ve shared the splendid video, Doug. I have several of the references you mention within hand’s reach but my favorite is Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition) , which I enjoy browsing in.

  4. says

    I recall seeing that item a couple of years back…thanks for the re-introduction.

    I’ve noticed an improvement in young folks’ vocabulary in the last couple of years, maybe even a doubling. While approval was only indicated by “rocks!”, “awesome” has been added to the descriptive-arsenal. (We seem to be stuck with just “sucks” for rilly, rilly hating it, though…)

    • ed Preston says

      I’m still getting over the waitress at lunch today asking us seniors….”What can I get you guys today”? She looked to be in her ’30s…..(Hope she doesn’t have kids}

  5. Charlton Price says

    Language lapse addenda:

    “Incredible/incredibly” as all-purpose superlative: as in” he’s/she’s incredible” (in what way?)

    “I’m going to lay down” “Now I lay ME down to sleep” is okay).

    I may post others later.

  6. David says

    Lynn Truss, a very funny British writer of fiction and non-fiction, actually had a #1 New YorkTimes best-seller with her 2003 book about grammatical abuses, “Eats, Leaves, & Shoots.” She has many hilarious examples of sentences in which the meaning has been drastically altered by the addition or omission of an apostrophe, such as garbage bins marked “Residents refuse to be left here.” Several weeks ago, I saw an editorial remarking on an apparent proliferation of apostrophes in recent times. Further evidence of this trend arrived in a note that I just received reminding me to “Please tell your student’s there is no class on the November 6th.”

    I have a question about the proper punctuation of the word “hello.” In a recent letters to the editor column, I saw it written as “Hello!” Shouldn’t it actually be “Hello?” since the expression is shorthand for “Are you crazy?” On the other hand, if statements are now expressed as questions, as the above video suggests, then perhaps it is appropriate to express questions as statements (?).