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Books & Culture

The Petrified Forest

Our fate and our freedom depend upon our understanding and use of language.


- August 27th, 2019
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Apart from Noam Chomsky, the two forces degrading English today are ignorance and politics. From ignorance we get, among other things, the frequent abandonment of conjunctions (no better way to screw up a sentence); the sudden disappearance of national adjectives, so that we have “the France government,” presumably “France wine,” and the insane construction of the Wall Street Journal, July 3, “the Turkey’s decision to take delivery of the Russian S-400.” And do not forget prepositions used as if by men from Mars, as in “arrived to,” “specified of,” or a “study on.”

Though “on” as a universal preposition has for decades been a specialty of the New York Times, in most of the supposedly best written public prints one finds more and more the absence of even such basics as subject-verb agreement. After an apparently confusing prepositional phrase—often with the wrong preposition—you see the equivalents of “they is,” or “she are.”

It is unfortunately now acceptable in formal English to use, dredged up from other eras, words that anyone who lived through those eras knows were spoken by idiots—“rip-off,” “turn-on,” “hassle,” “into” (as in, “He’s into her, but she’s into Egyptian hieroglyphics”), to be “hip with”—and kid words and phrases such as “cool stuff” and “awesome” that make even kids sound stupid. Forget syntax. Overnight, the difference between “advocate,” taking a direct object—such as “reform,” and “advocate for” taking an indirect object—such as “my client”—has been forgotten. If “to discriminate” takes the preposition “against,” as it has for so long now, the meaning of the verb is completely changed as it is locked into a room it was never meant to occupy. One could go on, “of book length.” But ignorance is only the lesser evil.

The instant, politically motivated redefinition of words—most often accomplished by advocates of gradual linguistic evolution—takes them so far from meanings earned sometimes over millennia that it effectively removes them from the lines of their natural growth, stopping their evolution as surely as crossing horses with donkeys produces sterile mules . . .

Read the rest at the Claremont Review of Books.

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