English is evolving.. what to do? what to do?

Subject: English is evolving.. what to do? what to do?
From: Trey Jones <TJones -at- DATAWARE -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 5 Mar 1996 16:53:00 EST

One request: please read all the way through before shouting that I should
move it over to the LINGUIST list...

On Sat, 6 Jan 1996 01:46:15 GMT Gary Merrill
<merrill -at- HYPERION -dot- PDIAL -dot- INTERPATH -dot- NET> wrote:

>> First select "Edit", then select "Cut".
>>? To me, this screams "BAD GRAMMAR" and would have merited
>> summary execution from my 7th grade English teacher. Yet I see
>> this kind of thing more and more often (written by technical writers
>> and passed by their editors). I feel that it is both ungrammatical
>> (and am prepared to argue this with some precision) and detracts
>> from readibility.

>> [snip]

>> (When we're done with this, perhaps we can move
>> on to "Next week, she will deliver the draft to you
>> and I." (which I recently saw used by a technical
>> writer and manager with over 20 years' experience).)

Hi everybody..

At the suggestion of a friend, I was browsing some recent back issues of
this list. While doing so, I came across the quote above. This prompted me
to wonder what tech writers (and other professionsal writers) do about the
fact that languages change, despite execution decrees by 7th grade English
teachers and the never ending complaints of William Safire.

First, a little background: I'm a computer programmer at the moment, but my
highest formal education is in linguistics. I've also done a little bit of
professional writing (for a Math/Computer Science textbook, which turns to
not be written in English, but in a wholly unrelated though similar looking
language ;-)

So, the "you and I" situation exemplified above is easy to describe, and
turns out to be entirely positional for some speakers (which drives
Generative Linguists insane, I'm sure, but I'll save *that* for LINGUST)..
If the first person pronoun comes first in the conjuction, it is "me", if it
comes second, it is "I".. thus all of the following are acceptable:
John and I are going to the store.
Me and John are going to the store.
Do you want to come with me and John?
Do you want to come with John and I?

The perceived difference is one of formality, not grammaticallity, with the
".. and I" constructions being more formal and polite, or course. This
change has taken root *everywhere*.. from my 17 year old brother (who always
says "me and..") to the top execs of the company I work for (who always say
"..and I")..

Similar circumstances crop up with "who/ whom", which has also picked up a
distinction based on position, not case.
Who is it addressed to?
To whom is it addressed?

Then there's "there's", which can take singular or plural objects for many
speakers.

And, last but not least, ending sentences with prepositions. Should I have
said "the top execs of the company for which I work"?

The question is, what to do? Standard English is an artificial construct - a
collage of snapshots of the langauge - which nobody learns as a first
language. Typical spoken English is drifting farther and farther away.
Arguably, many of the constructs suggested by style manuals actually reduce
readability (particularly the use of "one" instead of "you" and the
resistance to using "they" in the singular, for gender neutrality).
Diglossia, here we come!

I realize this is a very fuzzy question. It depends to a large degree on
your audience. Manuals for computer games can be less formal than just about
anything. Another complication is personal preference (where "preference" is
sometimes better spelled b-e-l-i-e-f) - especially when opinions clash
between writer and editor/manager/random person with power over the final
document.

Hmm.. I just thought of something else: the difference between printed
manuals (more formal) and online help (less formal).

Personally, I think some technical documents are greatly improved when
readability and ease of getting information from them is put before
adherence to such an artificial set of requirements as "Standard English".
All dialects, vernaculars, and regional variations cannot be accomodated,
but a semi-standard, less stuffy version of English seems reasonable to me.

Thoughts? Experiences? Flames? (Asbestos Underware in place - fire at will.)

-Trey Jones
Evil Linguist at Large


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