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Do You Care When Trends Corrupt Language?


Language changes all the time because every subculture needs a trendy way to express itself. Add to this the rise of the internet, which provides instant global promotion, and you get linguistic trends that sweep the population, enter the mainstream, and establish themselves as acceptable over time though they may break the rules of grammar and use words in unusual new ways.

This is fascinating for fiction writers because we can use trendy language to give dialog the authentic flavor of certain subcultures. And sometimes slang can get very creative. Certainly I’m no language snob. Remember the Valley Girl [as in 1980s San Fernando Valley, California] expression, “Totally!” which should mean the whole or complete and absolute, but instead is used to mean, I emphatically agree? I have been saying this for most of my life even though I know it sounds silly, and I probably couldn’t quit even if I wanted to.

But it does irk me to see trends that corrupt the ability of language to communicate with precision. Take dangling participles, which result in sentences that make no sense to me. But I try to keep an open mind. Read the following examples of trends corrupting language, and see how many you care about.

Splitting infinitives. You split an infinitive such as to go when you place another word between the to and the verb form – for example, in the famous opening sequence of the television series Star Trek: to BOLDLY go. It has become increasingly acceptable to do this. What else are you going to say? The stilted to go boldly or the even worse boldly to go? I try not to split infinitives so long as I can keep the meaning clear and the cadence of the sentence flowing well, but I have had editors mercilessly split all my infinitives for me. Probably they found the result to sound more natural, and it is not a biggie to me, so I don’t argue.

Words used in new ways. All of you Germans may find this next example amusing (or irritating) but the German word über has come to mean something like “extremely” or “ultimate” or “super” when used in English. For example, he is the über-vampire and he finds the footstool to be über-comfortable. I can’t help hesitating in puzzlement when I encounter the word used like this because I am most familiar with it from the line, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles". So über really means “above” or “over,” right? I was fascinated to read in Wikipedia that the new English meaning of über as a synonym for “super” might have originated with Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch or exalted being that we are all supposed to strive to become.

Words used in strange speech patterns. Words such as like or you know are used like the syllable um as meaningless inserts within the conversation as a way to pace oneself. For example, I went, like, to the store to pick up some, you know, groceries. This has become a borderline cliché in dialog from teenage characters.

Dangling participles. This is the only language corruption that I can honestly say I dislike. I am seeing it with increasing frequency the more I read, and it always makes me want to close a book and stop reading. Here is a typically ridiculous example of the image that a dangling participle phrase can create: Stuffed in the stolen handbag, the cop found the victim’s identification. The writer of a sentence like that is trying to convey that the cop found the victim’s identification stuffed in the stolen handbag. But as written, the sentence MEANS the cop was stuffed inside the stolen handbag when he found the victim’s identification. Here the participle phrase stuffed in the stolen handbag modifies the noun the cop.

Do you have any examples of language trends or corruption of grammar that set your teeth on edge? Come to the Fiction Writing forum and post your thoughts.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Val Kovalin. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Val Kovalin. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Val Kovalin for details.

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