It’s time to defend basic language standards

The author believes written English is hurtling toward linguistic chaos, ambiguity and confusion.


English usage is always evolving, but the rate of evolution seems to be accelerating at an unsustainable pace.

Careful observers will note pervasive examples of the relaxation and shirking of standards for written English across an array of media. Following are several categories in which even professional writers seem unaware of basic precepts of good writing.

The velocity of change in what is considered acceptable written English has hastened, owing to the proliferation of resources available to the average person and the dynamics of the publishing industry. Due to the explosive increase in content produced by poorly trained writers (amateurs and professionals alike), as well as the decrease in rigorous editing, substandard writing spreads unchecked—with the following results.

Writers often, out of ignorance or apathy, close compound words that are treated as open and hyphenated in dictionaries and other linguistic resources. For instance, we increasingly see “life span” styled as lifespan and “time frame” written as timeframe, and, when mind-set and light-year appear, they’re rendered as mindset and lightyear. This rule bending has occurred for hundreds of years as a natural progression, but we appear to be experiencing multiple evolutions occurring simultaneously.

In a similar case, “all right” frequently appears as alright. It has done so since the mid-19th century, but what’s new is that it is now creeping over from lay writing such as personal blogs to professionally produced content such as online newspapers.

Amateur and professional writers alike are also increasingly failing to observe distinctions between essential and nonessential phrases. For example, the following sentence culled from a major publication is flawed, because it implies that more than one Emergency Alerts system exists. The sentence also conveys that the one in question, unlike one or more others, can send alerts about catastrophic events: “The agency sent the alert through the national Emergency Alerts system that can send alerts about catastrophic events.”

The following revision correctly observes that “can send alerts about catastrophic events” describes the system’s function rather than explains the specific function of one type of system (which is the point of the sentence): “The agency sent the alert through the national Emergency Alerts system, which can send alerts about catastrophic events.”

That type of error is a cardinal sin, because it doesn’t just “look wrong”; it affects clarity and comprehension.

I’m aware that observations such as these can make me sound like a get-off-my-lawn geezer, but cogent writing is worth defending. We need rules in place to prevent linguistic chaos and mass confusion. We must preserve time-honored standards to maintain the ability to communicate clearly.

Shifts in our language are inevitable, but as a treasure hunter tells intrepid teenage Indiana Jones when the latter fails to prevent an artifact from being sold on the black market:

You lost today, kid, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

That is not to say I don’t approve of language evolution. What I don’t like is a failure to respect and observe current standards. Just as we agree that certain letters, numbers and other symbols represent various sounds, quantities and functions, we should agree on precepts of grammar, syntax, usage and punctuation.

As a professional editor and writer, I have a responsibility to help preserve the language according to standards codified in numerous writing, editing and language guides. The job should not require anticipating revisions in future editions. Unfortunately, at the rate the language is evolving and eroding, editorial standards are very much in flux.

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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