John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, January 28, 2010

English, the slut language

Yesterday’s post on plurals and possessives stirred up some comments worth addressing.

This one, from The Ridger:

You know you can't tell them apart when you say them. Dogs, dog's, dogs'

Is it any wonder people make spelling errors? Lighten up on them. 

And please don't attack me; I did say they were errors. I just don't think they're harbingers of doom. Show a person who confuses "it is" with "its" (not "it's", "it is") and I will concede that he "doesn't know the difference" as opposed to "can't spell well".

And these two, from mike:

I would argue (and have) that it's a melancholy state of orthographical protocol that seems to require repeated tutorials to master these rules. The fact is, the system we have for when and when not to use the apostrophe is ridiculously complicated, and gets in the way every single day of what the ultimate purpose of writing is: to get information down on paper, real or virtual. If it seems that a majority (let's assume) of people who write English cannot seem to master these rules, where's the problem, with the people or with the rules? In my business (computers), if people can't seem to figure out how to use a program, you blame poor program design, not ill-educated users.

FWIW, apostrophes have been used "incorrectly" throughout the history of English to mark plurals. Dryden did it consistently, for example.* (Have a look at handwritten manuscripts from days of yore. You might be surprised at what you find for spelling and punctation.) 

As I say, it's just too confusing. More and earlier education is _not the answer_. A more logical system is the real answer. Writing ordinary English should not require a decade of study.

The root of the matter is that writing is not natural. Speech is. A child who is not impaired or kept in isolation will learn language ⎯ vocabulary and grammar both ⎯ in just a few years because the capacity for that feat is evolutionarily hard-wired into the species.

But writing has been among us for a comparatively short time, and it must be learned laboriously through schooling.

That is why, as The Ridger points out, that we generally know exactly what a speaker means, because we mastered spoken English in infancy and early childhood. But our grasp of written English, even after much schooling, is tenuous.

Add to that the kind of language that English is. For all its richness and flexibility, and its grand literature, it is just a slut, picking up vocabulary and grammar promiscuously from other languages. It started out as Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, and then slept with Norman French and Latin.

This is part of the reason that English orthography is a nightmare, some of it from Anglo-Saxon patterns and some of it from the classical languages that English shamelessly plundered. Standardization of spelling dates pretty much from the nineteenth century, so we haven’t even been at that for very long.

The hope for “a more logical system,” is, I fear, a chimera. Noah Webster wanted to reform the spelling of American English, and he had a limited degree of success (color and honor instead of colour and honour, for example. Big whoop). George Bernard Shaw campaigned tirelessly for a simplified spelling. He failed. And even the formidable Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick of the Chicago Tribune must see with chagrin from his celestial tower that the World’s Greatest Newspaper has long since abandoned his pet spellings.

No, English is, as she always has been, a wayward wanton, and we have to accept her as we find her, not as we would wish her to be.

Maddening and irregular as they are, the conventions of spelling, the conventions of punctuation, and the inconsistencies of plurals and possessives remain there to be learned by anyone who has any pretension to mastering the craft of writing.

*Be careful, mike. You will probably want to use Dryden as a bad example for his insistence that English sentences should not end with prepositions. In any event, persons writing before the publication of reliable English dictionaries or standardized orthography are not the best examples to cite in this connection.