If You Can’t Say Anything Nice About Contemporary English, Don’t Say Anything At All

by Mar 8, 2015Linguistics2 comments

sheaWhen it comes to our common tongue, says Ammon Shea, “there are two things that have remained constant. The English language continues to change and a large number of people wish that it would not” (Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, x).

You know those people. I used to be one. They’re full of complaints about how (other) people are ruining the language, and full of nostalgia for the golden era in which people  used to speak and write English correctly—1950, say, or even 1600.

But not one of those complainers actually speaks and writes like Eisenhower or King James. Changes have crept into their own English unawares. And not one of those complainers (among those I’ve met) seems to have anything positive to say about today’s English. They’ve wedded their linguistics to their eschatology: language change, for them, can only wax worse and worse.

Now, my mother said that people who don’t have anything nice to say shouldn’t say anything at all. I don’t trust the linguistic (or theological) judgment of someone who finds nothing worth praising in contemporary English speech or writing. Where in the Bible does it say that a language can’t change for the better? Read the best, most sparkling English prose available in contemporary books and articles, and if your ear is tuned you’ll know it probably couldn’t have been written 50 years ago, or even 30. When I read articles from the year I was born—1980—I can tell. I’m not saying writing was bad then. I am saying it can be good, very good, now. Shea says it seems “the language will not break, no matter how willfully we mistreat it” (x).

I have my own pet peeves about contemporary language. It annoys me when interview subjects on the radio begin all their answers with “So…,” and when they pepper their speech with “sort-of.” That’s faddish, infelicitous verbal clutter, in my humble opinion.

But linguistic infelicities have always existed. They’re not the special bane of our own time. And I’m willing to admit that the ugliness of “so” and “sort-of” may be in the eye of this beholder. I can grant that those expressions serve a socio-linguistic function.

Complaints about contemporary English are misdirected. Complain about an American culture that doesn’t value beautiful language—fine. But don’t think that the English language itself has suffered. There are countless people who haven’t bowed the knee to banality. There are really good English writers out there, people who write with clarity, insight, power, and verve.

I like up-to-the-minute writing styles—I don’t mean trendy, but cutting edge. I like the style generated by the possibilities inherent in HTML—like the link-fest found in many of Ross Douthat’s pieces at the New York Times. That particular style could not have existed just a few short years ago.

When I get the chance, I like to ask extreme political partisans to tell me who their favorite writer is on the other side of the aisle. To a red-meat, Fox News, Tea Party conservative: “Who’s your favorite liberal writer—someone you can’t help but have some grudging respect for?” (Mine’s Nick Kristof, definitely.) To a blue-meat, Mother Jones, MoveOn.org liberal: “Who’s your favorite conservative writer?” Partisans rarely have an answer.

So, sort-of, to those who complain about contemporary English—who’s your favorite living writer of English prose?

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  1. Bill Lowry

    Favorites? Roger Scruton, as a conservative. Steven Pinker, for more left of center. Not sure about the far left.

  2. Mark Ward

    Excellent! You combined the two questions at the end.

    Hmm… My own favorite living writer of English prose is probably Doug Wilson on days when he’s not being too snarky even for my tastes. I don’t get the same combination of insight and wit in anyone else. I like Ross Douthat, too. I frequently find myself admiring his clarity—I won’t say “in thought” or “in writing,” because it’s impossible to divorce the two. On the liberal side, I admit I think Maureen Dowd is fiendishly clever. I hardly ever read her, but when I do she usually scores at least one point with me. And this is cheating, because he’s dead, but I’ve liked the things I’ve read from Bruce Metzger. I believe he was theologically liberal, but honest about it, I guess. Clear and straightforward. I just came across some really great writing from Lawrence Principe in a book of essays. Just solid, workmanlike stuff. It made me buy a book of his that I really enjoyed. And we can’t forget Stanley Fish! I often ache for some good Fish when I’m reading a particularly dull piece.