How Bad English Became Good English

Monday, June 30, 2014

English dictionary The English language has evolved over time. (Copyright: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

English is a glorious mess of a language, cobbled together from a wide variety of sources and syntaxes, and changing over time with popular usage. Many of the words and usages we embrace as standard and correct today were at first considered slang, impolite, or just plain wrong. Ammon Shea looks at language “mistakes” and how they came to be accepted as correct—or not. His book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation chronicles the long history of language mistakes.


Ammon Shea

Comments [20]

Marta from NYC

As a former ESL teacher, I try not to stress out over the ubiquity of like, the misuse of mutual instead of common (as in ~ friend), nor over nauseous instead of nauseated. My toes do curl, however, when American speakers don’t properly employ the past perfect in unreal clauses (‘if’ or the verb ‘to wish’). Instead, they resort to using the simple past (if I went) or the conditional perfect (if I would have gone) when they should be using the past perfect (if I had gone). The conditional perfect should only make its appearance in the following, ’then’ clause, e.g., “If I had paid attention to English grammar lessons, then perhaps I wouldn’t have flunked the exam.” There’s also scant subject/verb agreement in many sentences I read and overhear (There's 2...!!). Many singular pronouns (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody) have plural connotations, but are singular in use. The desire/need to be PC has prompted many people to avoid defaulting to their, traditionally, masculine singular pronouns. Hence, it has become common to say things like, “Someone left their car unlocked in the parking lot,” when his or even his or her should be employed. I know foreign speakers get confused by these incongruities…I just get annoyed!

Jul. 01 2014 01:35 PM

all we need now, is for John Schaeffer to referee a smackdown between Patty'O and Ammon.

Jun. 30 2014 07:37 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I knew I forgot something--if you don't want to say "enormousness" instead of "enormity," how about "magnitude"?

Jun. 30 2014 01:40 PM
Tony from Canarsie

CaptainDrG -- ENORMITY-GHAZI!!!!11!!!

Jun. 30 2014 01:35 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Scott Needham, the pronunciation "aks" has coexisted w/"ask" since Old English. I've heard very educated people use it. I'm learning to hear it as just part of a person's accent.

Jun. 30 2014 01:35 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Estelle from Brooklyn -- Reminds me of the signs often seen at anti-busing protests during the 1970's that read "No Bussing!" Buss, of course, means kiss.

Jun. 30 2014 01:33 PM
Robert from NYC

My nails on the blackboard verb to noun are lend and loan. I grew up with loan as a noun. One takes out a loan that the bank lends. Whenever I hear loan used as a verb-and it's VERY common now for a long time-it still drives me nuts. (I posted this on the incorrect segment a minute ago.)

Jun. 30 2014 01:31 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On putting apostrophes in plural[']s, it's not the dern kids, it's the dern furriners! Especially the ones who make the price signs in front of grocery stores.

Jun. 30 2014 01:30 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I was surprised around 15 years ago to find that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary listed "forego" as a variant of "forgo." I think when the 2 words have such different meanings, it's worth preserving the separate spellings that distinguish them.

Jun. 30 2014 01:28 PM
Ruth Klein from Rego Park

How about using "zen" as a verb... it is invariably used in a way that is quite different from its traditional meaning (the practice of Zen Buddhism is the opposite of "zoning out") AND I often see it CAPITALIZED when used as a verb... comments, please!

Jun. 30 2014 01:27 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

My favorite crazy word is "bus." It is part of the Latin dative ending. It comes from "omnibus" meaning for all.

Jun. 30 2014 01:27 PM
Scott Needham from Princeton NJ

Too often I hear the phrase "I'd like to aks you a question" instead of ask.

Jun. 30 2014 01:25 PM

nouns become verbs? how about verbs becoming nouns: where I work folks more and more use "spend" as a noun. i.e. "How our monthly spend increased." Hate it!

Jun. 30 2014 01:25 PM
Fred from Queens

The word notorious is a word in flux that is losing its meaning. Many including some WNYC announcers use the word to mean noteworthy.

Jun. 30 2014 01:19 PM

what about the use of "there's" for there're or "there are" when referring to plural items?

Jun. 30 2014 01:17 PM

Barrack recognizes the"enormity" of the task before him.
Enormity: an act of extreme wickedness or evil.
Did he mis-speak?
Or was he merely giving us fair warning.

Jun. 30 2014 01:17 PM
David Zarko from Scranton

When you began the topic of words that have become to mean something entirely different from their original meanings, you used the word egregious in describing the most, well, egregious examples. Ironically, egregious is one of those words. It originally meant honorable or commendable, it became fashion to use it facetiously, and the meaning flip-flopped completely. User beware!

Jun. 30 2014 01:17 PM
Joel from Westchester

I've noticed lately that some people say, "I graduated high school." The truth is that high school graduate them, not the other way around. Shouldn't it be said, "I graduated FROM high school?"

Jun. 30 2014 01:16 PM

It seems the distinction between customer and client has been lost to the democracy of language. .

Jun. 30 2014 01:15 PM
Stew from Manhattan

I'd like to hear Ammon's thoughts re: the misused word "Peruse." While most people use it to mean "browse" or "glance over," the actual definition means "to meticulously inspect!"

Jun. 30 2014 01:10 PM

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