When everyone does their own thing

2007-12-01 00:00

I consider myself rather progressive in my political and social views. (Look to wind and waves for electrical power? Seems like a good idea to me!) But when it comes to the English language, I may very well be a fogey.

Recently, on National Dictionary Day, there was a report on the evening news about revisions being made by the Oxford University Press (OUP) to its American Oxford Dictionaries. In short, the spelling of many terms and expressions, long deemed incorrect, would now be listed as acceptable forms simply because a lot of people use them.

One example is “vocal cord”. As a biology teacher, I’ve written this on the board so many times that I consider myself an expert on its spelling. However, the OUP tells us that many, many people write “chord”. Therefore, “chord” has now been given the status of a bona fide spelling.

Another instance is “to rein in”. I am not a horseman, but I’ve always understood that this refers to a rider’s pulling back on the reins to either slow his steed or get it to stop. However, many people, it seems, like to write “reign”. And so — poof! — this is now acceptable.

Other examples reported on the show were “shoo-in” (as in, “The candidate was a shoo-in for re-election”) as opposed to the (until now) incorrect “shoe-in” (conjuring the image, I suppose, of a travelling salesman putting his foot in the door to prevent the resident from closing it and sending him on his way).

And then there was “bated breath.” Now, in this instance I admit that I often forget whether the word is spelled “bated” or “baited”. So I do what any dinosaur would do. I open the dictionary and check. (Yes, it’s “bated”.) But that’s just old fuddy-duddy me. OUP once again reports that many people write “baited”, and so this has now been granted the status of acceptable usage.

My great fear is that my students will learn of this new, official, laissez faire approach to language (not that they need formal sanction for their poor orthography) and will use it to defend the errors of their ways. Although I teach biology, I spend a good deal of my time correcting students’ grammar and spelling. Just recently, I corrected 40 tests. Thirty-seven of my students wrote “protien” instead of “protein,” because, I suppose, they never learnt the correct spelling and certainly didn’t carefully read the notes I had given them in class.

What they don’t know — yet — is that Oxford University Press now tells them not to trouble themselves with traditionally correct spelling, but rather to enjoy life and, in words the Burger King Corporation would appreciate, “have it your way”.

As a teacher, I am not in the business of giving comfort to enemies of the English language. To be perfectly blunt, I believe the job of the teacher is to dictate good taste.

The problem revisionist thinking generates is this: when one masters a correct expression, including its spelling, it represents an investment in the language, a visible sign that one has actually tried to learn something. Further, knowing the correct form enables one to trace it back to its origins (“bated” means “to hold back”). Result: enlightenment. But if one reads or writes “baited”, the image is of a worm dangling from one’s tongue. Result: confusion.

I have found surprisingly few allies to support my indignation. Even local librarians, to whom I usually appeal with my language laments, seem to feel that going up against Oxford University Press, a Masada of English language authority, is a lost cause. Perhaps. But somewhere deep in my heart, I am hoping for a counter-revolution in some future age of linguistic attentiveness, when the English language will once again be regarded as a thing of wonder, rather than the stuff that happens to dribble out when people open their mouths or put their pens to paper.

Well, I won’t wait with bated breath for that day, but neither will I rein in my standards.

There. I had the last word, after all.

— The Christian Science Monitor

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