Tuesday, June 4, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 6

More Trends in the Language

Richard Firsten

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Well, here we are at the end of my series on observations I’ve made about changes that I see happening in English. Some of them will probably become permanent and end up being taught as either the grammatically correct forms or acceptable alternatives to traditional forms. A few, in fact, are already considered acceptable alternatives in some dictionaries and grammar books. Perhaps I should have titled this “The Heads-Up Series” since my goal has been to give you, our intrepid English teachers, a heads-up on what you may be teaching in the not-too-distant future. At any rate, let’s take a look at a few more changes I’ve observed.

·        Lay and Lie

Okay, my hardliners, in case you’re not aware of it, these days it’s considered acceptable to use either  lay or lie as the intransitive verb meaning to be in a horizontal or reclined position. The traditional distinction between the two, with lay being transitive (When I set the table, I lay a napkin on top of each dinner plate) and lie being intransitive (They got sunburned because they were lying on the beach too long) is a thing of the past, for all intents and purposes. So you can lay a napkin on a plate and lay on the beach to sunbathe. It’s interesting, though, that this change is a one-way street; it doesn’t work in reverse. You won’t hear people say A mason lies bricks or chickens lie eggs, will you?

·        The Illogic of Less

I’m sure that everybody has heard all sorts of native English speakers say phrases like less calories and less accidents. Traditionally, of course, we’re supposed to use less with uncountable nouns (and adverbs, too, for that matter). As for countable nouns, we should say fewer calories and fewer accidents. Well, more and more I hear and read phrases in which less is used with countable nouns instead of fewer.

But keep in mind the basic forms and comparative forms of these words (littleless; fewfewer) and now let’s see how illogically less is being used by more and more people. We see that less is the comparative form of little, so we have little money → less money, both of which speak to how much money is being discussed. In keeping with this, if it becomes acceptable to say less accidents, doesn’t that mean we should also be able to say little accidents if we’re not making a comparison, but are only talking about how many accidents? Of course not! We can use little accidents when speaking about accidents that aren’t serious, but little accidents doesn’t mean “fewer accidents.” We can say few accidents → fewer accidents, but not little accidents → less accidents the way we can say little money → less money. You get it, I’m sure.

·     June WHAT? April WHAT??

I don’t know how long ago this started, but over the past few years I’ve noticed more and more native speakers saying things like June five or April twenty-two instead of June fifth or April twenty-second. When and why people started using ordinal numbers instead of cardinal numbers in dates is beyond me. At first I thought it might be for the sake of clarity, to make sure the listener doesn’t confuse the date that the speaker is saying, but that’s not true at all. None of the nine ordinal numbers in question sounds like any of the others. So get ready for the possibility that you’ll have to tweak that rule we always teach about dates only being made with ordinal numbers.

 ·      Mom

Here’s a prediction: The word mother may disappear from common usage, at least in American English. I can hear you saying “Huh??” but just hear me out. Even in formal situations, people are using mom much more often than mother. Here are three examples:

         “I’d like to introduce a fellow mom, Michelle Obama!” said the speaker who introduced the First Lady at the last Democratic National Convention. Not a fellow mother, but “a fellow mom.”

–    And during her speech at the convention, Mrs. Obama said, “At the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘Mom in Chief.’ ” Not Mother in Chief, but “Mom in Chief.”

–  Judge in Juvenile Court addressing a 15-year-old defendant: “Is that your mom?”  

If you’re skeptical about mother possibly taking a back seat to mom and disappearing from common usage, just start listening to how many times you hear mom compared to mother. I’ve heard mom used in all sorts of situations, formal and informal, and by all sorts of people – but not mother. 

I think there’s something psychological going on, not just cultural. Perhaps it’s tied in with something “cute,” something “homey,” “something “more adoring.” I don’t really know, but I do know that it takes me aback when I hear mom used in what I would consider an inappropriate setting, and I hear it several times every single day. This common preference now to use mom instead of mother is also likely tied in with that blurred division nowadays between what we consider formal and informal in American culture and how language is reflecting that.

Oh, by the way, the same thing is happening with dad vs. father, although it’s not as commonly heard. So listen for these changes and you may be surprised at what you hear.

 ·        Baby Mama and Baby Daddy

Speaking of mom and dad crowding out mother and father due to a cultural shift, there are two terms that seem to have taken hold in American English in the past few years which fill a gap that didn’t exist a generation ago in our culture. I’m referring to the identifiers baby mama and baby daddy.

A generation ago it was still considered taboo to have a child out of wedlock, but American culture has done a 180-degree reversal on this issue. Now it’s become so commonplace to find babies born to unmarried parents that two new identifiers, which work quite efficiently, have arrived on the linguistic scene for these new relationships. It was just too awkward to say things like the mother of my baby or the father of my baby, which can get really tiresome to say if repeated a few times during a conversation.

These identifiers were borrowed from Black English, in which the possessive marker, the ’s genitive, isn’t used (e.g., my brother car; his auntie house). So his baby mama is the woman who some guy had a child with out of wedlock, and her baby daddy is the man who some woman had a child with out of wedlock.

Aside from any cultural discussion on this issue, it’s interesting to witness once again this really marvelous feature that a language can generate new terms to fill a need whenever necessary.

 ·        In Part 2 of this series, I made mention of sentences like They saw Jim and I at the mall yesterday, in which the subject form of the 1st person singular pronoun is used following somebody and … where the object form (Jim and me) should be used in traditional grammar.

This is now being carried to an extreme I would never have thought possible – and by educated speakers, no less. The new version of this phenomenon occurs when he or she appears in a compound object (he/she and somebody). I’ve only heard this odd construction with the singular personal pronouns I, he, and she, so I can’t attest to the existence of they and somebody.

The following examples came out of the mouths of a TV news reporter, a talk show host, a lawyer, and a judge:

    • It was the same thing with she and her husband.
    • As his attorney, whatever we discussed would just be between he and I and the district attorney.
    • I saw no talking at all between she and her sister during the party.
    • You want she and her mother to be his caregivers instead of LPN’s?

I must say here that even though I’ve heard such constructions uttered by educated people, I’m going to keep hoping that it’s just an aberration, not something that will catch on!

·        It All Started with Ms.

Throughout the history of English, changes have occurred. Sometimes they’ve been accidental, such as when the n in napron got detached and was stuck onto the indefinite article before it so that a napron became an apron. Sometimes the changes have been deliberate, such as those influenced by the Feminist Movement (e.g., the creation of Ms.; firemen becoming firefighters; airplane stewards and stewardesses becoming flight attendants; mailmen becoming mail carriers).

That was all well and good. I totally agree with dropping gendered words and replacing them with neutral words for jobs that are now done by both men and women, but let’s remember that we had many of these even before the Feminist Movement, such as doctor, teacher, lawyer, and judge, to name a few. And we can find other examples of this trend, such as mankind becoming humankind. That’s great!

But what strikes me as very odd – even amusing – is when this trend went beyond job titles and the like and started adopting the male term for both males and females: actor (no more actress); murderer (no more murderess); heir (no more heiress). I just wonder why activists in the Feminist Movement are comfortable with deferring to the male forms of these words. Why did the male forms win out?  

And come to think of it, what do we do with terms like manhole, one-upmanship, and no-man’s land? Oops! Your guess is as good as mine. (Yes, I’m sitting here grinning a little.)


So there you have it. It will be fun to see down the road how many – if any – of the lexical and grammatical items discussed in this six-part series will become commonly accepted either as replacements or alternatives. One thing’s for certain, though. English will keep evolving, and if it’s still a living language a thousand years from now, it will probably be as unrecognizable from today’s English as the English of a thousand years ago is to us today. Just have a look. Our Father who is in heaven, may Your name be revered … hardly resembles how it was spoken and written a thousand years ago: Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod …

I rest my case.


Comment from Barry O’Leary
June 4, 2013 at 11:42 pm

I think it’s funny to see language evolve, init? I work with Brits, Irish, and American teachers and we’re always taking the mick out of each others’ accents and correcting what we can and cant’t say.

I wonder how much time we should spend on correcting out students and just concentrate on making them get their point across.

Language evolves, as does the world, that’s the fun part.

Great post.


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