Language changes. English changes because all languages change. No one has ever succeeded in stopping the process. You can like this fact or you can hate it, but you do have to get used to it.
Vocabulary changes: new words are invented, old words fall out of use, and current words pick up new meanings and lose old ones. That's the most obvious kind of language change. But other things also change, albeit usually at a slower pace. Spellings change (a century ago it was common to see hiccough; now hiccup is much more familiar). Rules about punctuation change (things like the serial comma and the use of other punctuation with a dash are still subjects of disagreement). Even syntax and grammar change (around 1800 the passive progressive — “the book is being printed” — didn't exist; they said “the book is printing”). And, much more generally, style changes. What was once considered first-rate prose might strike modern readers as insufferably pompous or wordy.
For some people this is a cause of much fretting; they're convinced that virtually all change is for the worse. (Okay, maybe they're prepared to accept new vocabulary when new inventions demand them, but many people draw the line there.) Some have even gone so far as to call for various academies to try to arrest language change.
But it's a losing battle. Even the Académie Française and the Accademia della Crusca haven't managed to change this simple fact of life. If they had succeeded, the French and Italian of 2006 would look an awful lot like the French and Italian of 1706. Trust me: they don't, any more than the English of 2006 looks like the English of 1706.
What to do about it? The first thing is to separate “change” from “decay” in your mind; they're not the same thing, although many people are convinced they are. But recognizing change as inevitable doesn't mean you have to embrace every neologism that comes along, or that you have to embrace the ugliest new constructions you hear. There's still plenty of room for taste to come into play.
This guide, fairly prescriptive as these things go, generally recommends a conservative approach to language change, at least in more formal settings. That's not because change is in itself bad, but because some people in your audience might find newer forms distracting or even offensive. On the other hand, some battles have clearly been lost, and sticking with outdated forms of the language will just make you look pedantic. I always think of Alexander Pope's advice:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Probably a good idea. [Entry added 6 Feb. 2006.]
English is an unusual language in that it derives from two main language families, Latinate and Germanic. Its origins are Germanic; in the fourth or fifth century, Old English or Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic dialect, a relative of modern German. (You wouldn't be able to read a word of it without a class in Old English. Here's the first sentence of the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,/ þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/ hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.” Yes, that's English. I warned you.) There was a later influx of Scandinavian words when the Vikings arrived, but the Scandinavian languages are also Germanic, so English remained fundamentally Germanic. (You can see how English is related to other Germanic languages, and other Indo-European languages generally, in an Indo-European Language Family Tree I've prepared.)
The picture changed some time after 1066, when the Normans — French speakers — invaded England. For a few centuries, the peasants continued to speak a Germanic English while the nobles spoke French (a Romance language, derived from Latin). Over time, though, the two vocabularies began to merge; and where Old English speakers and French speakers had only one word each for something, speakers of the new blended English often had two, one based on the Germanic original long used by the peasantry, another based on the French import that had currency in the court. (Later still, a great many words entered the language directly from Latin without stopping along the way at French, and sometimes we have near synonyms from all three origins: kingly [from Germanic könig], royal [from Latin by way of French roy], and regal [directly from Latin rex, regis].)
There's a moral behind this history lesson: even today, a millennium after the Norman Invasion, words often retain connotative traces of their origins. Words of Germanic origin tend to be shorter, more direct, more blunt, while Latinate words tend to be polysyllabic, and are often associated with higher and scientific diction. If you want a memorable example, compare the connotations of shit (from the Germanic scitan) with those of defecate (from the Latin defaecare).
The practical lesson: you'll sound more blunt, more straightforward, even more forthright, if you draw your words from Germanic roots. An extensively Latinate vocabulary, on the contrary, suggests a more elevated level of diction. Choose your words carefully, then, with constant attention to your audience and the effects you want to have on them. [Revised 3 August 2001.]
A frustrating pair. Here's the deal. In the present tense, lay is a transitive verb, meaning it takes a direct object: you lay something down. Lie doesn't take a direct object: something just lies there. If you're tired of holding something, you should lay it down; if you're not feeling well, you should lie down. (Of course I'm excluding lie, “tell an untruth” — this is just the reclining lie.)
Not too bad: if this were the whole deal, there'd be nothing to worry about. But it gets messier, because the past tense of lay is laid, and the past tense of lie is, well, lay. It's easier in a little table:
|Present Tense||He lays the bag down.||He lies down.|
|Past Tense||He laid the bag down.||He lay down.|
Another easily confused pair of words — easily confused because of different and overlapping pronunciations in different situations. Here's what you need to know:
Got that? The only tricky one is the second: the past tense of the verb to lead is spelled led, not lead. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]
Some people are bothered by the word loan as a verb, preferring to use lend in its place. There's not much reason for the anxiety — loan has been a verb since around the year 1200, and I think an eight-hundred-year probation is long enough for anyone — but it's now little used in Britain. It thrives, though, in America. My advice: don't be bothered by loan as a verb but, if you want to avoid irritating those who have this hangup, it's never wrong to use lend. [Entry added 24 April 2006.]
See Fewer versus Less.
The verb liaise — a back-formation from the noun liaison — is now pretty common in British usage. In America, though, it's still considered kinda jargony, common in business but not particularly elegant or graceful. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]
A yucky vogue word. Look for something precise.
I trust I needn't comment on the ignorant, slack-jawed habit of using like as a verbal crutch: “It was just, like, y'know, like, really weird, like.” (Actual sentence overheard on the New York City subway: “He was just like — and I was all like, whatever.” There's a swell taxonomy of what likes are like in Maggie Balistreri's charming Evasion-English Dictionary.) It's bad enough in speech: I encourage people to try to go an entire day without saying “like,” and few can manage. If you use it in writing, though, you should be afflicted with plagues and boils. Shame on you. [Entry revised 12 April 2001; moved 10 December 2006.]
See As versus Like.
English verbs come in several varieties. Most are action verbs, those that describe something that happens: think of hit, run, read, shoot, sleep, even prognosticate. These action verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on whether or not they take a direct object: you can read a book, so read is a transitive verb; you just sleep, no direct object, so it's an intransitive verb.Linking verbs, on the other hand, don't describe something that happens; instead, they say the subject and the predicate of a clause are linked in some way. The most obvious are verbs of being: is, are, were, and so on. But there are also verbs like look, sound, smell, feel, seem, and appear, all of which describe not an action but a state of being. When you say “She looks tired,” you're linking the subject, she, with the predicate, tired, and essentially saying “She is tired”; when you say “It sounds right,” you're linking it with right, and essentially saying “It is right.” (The links can also be negative: “That doesn't seem right,” or “He never sounds angry.”)
There are two things important to remember about linking verbs:
This point about predicate adjectives instead of adverbs will be clearer in some examples:
Just to keep you on your toes, many words that serve as linking verbs can also be action verbs. Smell, for instance, can mean both “give off an odor” (linking verb) and “sniff” (action verb). Look can mean both “appear” (linking verb) and “peer out” (action verb). When it's an action verb, it does take an adverb, not an adjective. If you're talking about someone applying to be a professional perfume tester who doesn't know how to use his sense of smell, I suppose you'd say he smells badly — he can't sniff well. But that's an obscure possibility, and usually you mean “smells bad,” not “badly”; “looks happy,” not “looks happily.”
And to keep you not merely on your toes but on your tippy-toes, some things that look like adverbs actually function as adjectives. The most important is well, which is usually an adverb (“Sarah handled the interview well”), but which can also be an adjective when it refers to health: “Because Tom still wasn't feeling well, he decided to sleep in.”
It sounds confusing, and I suppose it is. Try to remember, though, that if the verb is implying that the subject is something (rather than does something), then you probably want an adjective, not an adverb: “The idea sounds good”; “She looks drunk”; “The Chinese food in the back of the fridge smells terrible.” [Entry added 7 April 2007.]
Don't use listing as a noun where list will do. A phone book is a list of names and numbers, each of which is a listing.
Use the word literally with care, and only where what you are saying is literally true. “We were literally flooded with work” is wrong because the flood is a metaphorical one, not an actual deluge. Don't use literally where really, very, or extremely will do.
Although they come from the same root and they're both related to dislike, they're not the same. Loath (with the th unvoiced, as in thin) is an adjective; it means “reluctant” or “unwilling”: I'm loath to comment on it. (It's also sometimes spelled loth, though that's rare.) Loathe (with the th voiced, as in this) is a verb; it means “hate” or “abhor”: I loathe that sorry S.O.B. There's also an adjective, loathsome, meaning “hateful” or “repulsive.” [Entry added 31 October 2006.]
There's nothing inherently wrong with long words, but too many people think a long word is always better than a short one. It doubtless comes from a desire to impress, to sound more authoritative, but it usually ends in imprecision and gracelessness — and, what may be worse, if you use long words improperly you sound like an ass. (Look up malapropism in your dictionary, or, better yet, read Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play, The Rivals.) Words like functionality and methodology have their proper uses, but they're not the same as function and method. See also Anticipate, Utilize, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary.
The verb to lose — one o — means “to mislay” (you can lose your keys or lose your mind); it's also the opposite of to win. Loose — two o's — is usually an adjective, but it can also be a verb, and it's easy to confuse it with lose. The verb to loose means “to release” or “to let free”; it can also mean “to undo” or “to make loose.” The pronunciations are also different: to lose ends in a z sound; to loose ends in a clear s sound. [Entry added 26 Jan. 2005.]