Holding back the river

In my last column, “New York values,” I wrote that trying to stop change is a fool’s errand. It can’t be done. Never mind what I said then; today I’m going to do my bit to stop a kind of change that bothers me a lot.

In an earlier life, I was a professor of linguistics. Among other subjects, I taught English language history, structure and operational rules. A fundamental precept, universally agreed upon by linguists, was that language is in a constant state of change. And further, that change constitutes neither improvement nor degradation; it just is. I spent years propounding these two truths.

That was then. This is now. I deplore certain changes that are occurring in today’s English.

I can no more stop these changes than Ted Cruz can stop America from becoming more urban and less white. (See my last column.) But I can’t help myself; they’re driving me nuts.

Up near the top of my list is the use of adjectives that have particular meaning as vague, all-purpose intensifiers. I find that incredibly annoying. See what I mean? My annoyance is easy to believe; it makes no sense to say that it’s incredible.

Anyway, the use of intensifiers, even ones with a long history of use, such as “very, wholly and somewhat,” is usually not as effective as an apt, stand-alone adjective. Consider these sentences. “She was really, really smart,” versus “She was brilliant.” “He was very stubborn” versus, “He was intransigent.”

Ninety-six years ago, Strunk and White urged care in the use of all qualifiers, not just intensifiers. They considered words such as “little, somewhat, rather … the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.” It’s a rule still observed by careful users and cranky old geezers like me.

Failure to control intensifiers and other qualifiers not only contributes to lack of clarity; in some instances, it makes the writer or speaker sound like a teenager: “I’m totally all-in for that.”

If forms typical of teen speech would stay in teen speech, I wouldn’t be bothered. But some teen forms are infiltrating adult language. Exhibit A is “like,” as in “I was, like, you’ve got to be kidding.” Inserting “like” in that way indicates either that the speaker is young or wants to sound young. It also adds a note of tentativeness. I don’t know why it’s become common practice to speak with tentativeness. OMG, it grosses me out. Like, totally.

There is another use of “like” that is neither an age marker or cool speech, but is also unacceptable to me and a handful of residents of Will Rogers. It’s heard frequently on television in locutions such as, “States like Florida are …” What’s wrong with this? Just everything, that’s all.

There is no state that is more than superficially like Florida. Florida is unique. There are other states that have similar weather and a large Hispanic population and a seasonal influx of snowbirds. But after that, the likeness is more difficult to discern. Why should the presence of a television camera prevent (as it surely seems to) the use of the more precise “states such as Florida?” It’s one of life’s enduring mysteries.

Television speech includes another annoying absurdity – pluralization of something that is by its nature singular, as in “A Sanders or a Clinton will struggle to win in Texas.” So far as I’m aware, there is only one Sanders running, and though it may sometimes seem otherwise, only one Clinton. Exactly what a usage like that is meant to convey is unclear. Nevertheless, it’s much in vogue at present.

That leads me to a phrase I find not just grating but noxious and, when directed at me, insulting: “What he’s trying to say is …” That suggests that the speaker has been ineffective in forming his thoughts or, worse, doesn’t have any idea what he means to say. A long time ago (in 1971, actually) a priest attempted to translate something controversial I’d just said to a church group. He didn’t want any trouble, so he intervened with, “What Paul’s trying to say is … “

Since that time, I’ve not let such aspersions on my genius for clarity go unchallenged. I respond with a toned-down version of, “I’m not trying to say it, you idiot. I’m saying it. You’re either too dumb to understand it, or you don’t like it and feel the need to recast it, or both.”

I’m not finished yet. How about the current practice of using nouns as verbs. Consider just three. “During his testimony, he referenced the Iran-Contra crime.” The meaning of that is clear enough. I still don’t like it. And then there’s “message,” as in the recording, “you have reached a voice messaging system.” In no way is that preferable to “a message system” or “Please leave a message.” And last week at an airport, I got wanded. The wanding itself was not painful, but the word was.

One last one, and then I’ll make a strong drink and calm down. It’s another hideous bit of TV speak. Wolf Blitzer uses it about every third sentence. It consists of a noun subject followed immediately by a pronoun that refers to the noun subject just named, as in, “Dr. Johnson, he was …” Surely I’m not the only person alive who had that usage corrected over and over in grade school. The lesson afforded the welcome comfort of absoluteness in an increasingly relativistic world; such a construction was simply wrong.

The aged linguist, he can be, like, incredibly grumpy.

Paul Willcott has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics (so don’t think of arguing with him about the above) and a law degree. He publishes longer essays about once a month at www.geezerblockhead.com.