George Orwell, the visionary author of 1984 and Animal Farm, had a real passion for the English language. Not only did he use it to great effectiveness in his writing, he defended what he considered the attack on -- and degeneration of -- the words he held so dear.His take on the issue is timeless, and worth remembering, so we'll hand it over to George to explain it.
"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
By Steve Boudreault
As proofreaders, copyeditors, and copywriters, we’re often the go-to people when someone has a question regarding the English language. And though the percentage is up for debate, I’d say a good 85% of the time, we have the answer, either because it’s something that’s been stuck in our heads for whatever reason, or because we’ve seen it in copy so many times we can rattle it off like gospel.
But then there’s the other 15% of the time. When we don’t have the answers. And the reactions we get during those times range from simple acceptance to amusement to outright glee -- the editor doesn’t know! Huzzah! I’ve stumped the editor!
So what does all of this have to do with Star Trek? The connection is actually very straightforward. There are fans of Star Trek -- folks who know the character names, the episode titles, and more than their fair share of quotes. And then there are fans of Star Trek -- folks who know how old the characters were in a given episode, which planets are in Beta Quadrant, and entire episode scripts verbatim from start to finish. Fans.
Similarly, there are editors and writers who know when to use a semicolon, whether it should be who or whom, and the common exceptions to the i before e rule. And then there are editors who know the pluperfect subjunctive, the difference between dependent and independent clauses, and what a gerund is. They tend to be former English teachers, and not only do they lord the information over regular, unsuspecting folk, they lord it over their fellow editors as well. Which is a really dick move, by the way.
I freely admit it: I don’t know what a gerund is. And I don’t care. I also don’t know which episodes Kirk wore his green tunic instead of his gold one, and I don’t care about that, either. I know what I know, and that’s always been good enough for me. The other 15% of the time, you can go ask the professor. But don’t expect to escape without a lecture on ergative verbs.
By Steve Boudreault
Most folks don’t realize what a constant battle it is to defend the English language. Typos are everywhere. New words and acronyms that make your skin crawl – I’m looking at you, YOLO – try and worm their way into the common vernacular. And texting has all but eliminated the use of capitalization and punctuation, and reduced the grandeur and majesty of the language to embarrassing stubs like “l8r” and “bcoz.”
Which begs the questions: Is it time for us to lay down our arms? And are we fighting a hopeless battle?
I certainly hope not, but perhaps the writing – poorly spelled or otherwise – is indeed on the wall. Those of you who are too young to remember can scarcely imagine the outrage when CDs first began appearing on music store shelves, threatening to replace beloved records and cassette tapes. Now even the CDs have been supplanted. Things outlive their usefulness. The world moves on. Maybe it’s ready to move on without editors.
One realm that is still a bastion of editorial bliss is advertising. Ad agencies are so afraid of looking stupid – or worse, making their clients look stupid – by printing or posting something with a typo that they keep in-house teams of language lovers handy to give everything a once-over. But if those of us who care about, respect, and love the English language are a dying breed, how long before corporate America stops worrying about errors in spelling or grammar? If they’re advertising to people who don’t see typos, then what does it matter if they’re there or not?
People who do what we do know what we mean when we say that “the radar is always on” – in other words, we can never not see an error, no matter where we are. So we will always rail against typos and errors no matter where we see them. But if we’re all eventually put out to pasture, it won’t matter what we say – because no one will care.
By Steve Boudreault
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my fiancé – a nurse – and I were strolling along the famed Strip, and I, a veteran of Las Vegas vacations, was pointing out items of interest to her.
When we reached the Treasure Island hotel and casino, I pointed to the sign out in front, which said nothing about Treasure Island, and instead featured the letters “TI.” I told her that the casino had gone through a rebranding a while back, and while most people still called it Treasure Island, they went to great lengths to remind people that it was now, in fact, TI.
“But when I see TI,” she told me, “I immediately think of the terminal ileum.” The terminal ileum, as I have learned, is the spot where the small intestine ends and the large intestine begins.
It got me to thinking about what I like to call “sub-English.” It’s still the English language, but it’s composed of very specific terminology that only certain sub-sections of English speakers understand. For example, a plumber knows that MCL is the maximum contaminant level (the maximum level of a contaminant allowed in water by federal law), but a sports therapist knows that MCL is the medial collateral ligament, one of the four major ligaments of the knee. To the rest of us, they’re just letters.
A lawyer knows that a postpetition transfer is the transfer of a debtor’s property made after the commencement of a case. An electrician knows that an electronic ballast is a device that regulates the voltage of fluorescent lamps. And an editor knows that stet means “let it stand.”
And the most remarkable thing? Each sub-section adopts its own sub-English without even being aware of it. So while two investment bankers understand each other perfectly, to an outsider, they’re speaking gibberish.
So don’t be too hasty to judge the guy who’s referencing “king stud.” He could be a carpenter.
By Steve Boudreault