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Dear Professor Puzzler,

I think your "What is Wrong" game is obnoxious.  Who cares if someone gets their spelling wrong, or uses an apostrophe when they weren't supposed to?

Annoyed in Alaska


Hi Annoyed,

You're not alone in feeling that way. In fact, a few months ago, the Wall Street Journal website had an article in which the writer said (in essence), "Language is evolving. Yay! Everyone who gets in the way of language evolution is a pedantic grammar snob."

Frankly, it was a poorly thought out article, which left a giant hole in its logic. The hole is between "language is evolving" and "Yay!"

The author accepted it as a given that since language is evolving, that must be a good thing. There was no research, no exploration, no evaluation of the question, "Is language evolution a good thing?" And if you're going to be annoyed with the "What is Wrong" game, you need to answer that question.

What do I think?

I think that some language evolution is good. For example, what would we do without the word "computer" added to our vocabulary? New technology requires new vocabulary.

But there is a bad side to language evolution. I've been in a small country in Africa where from one end of the country to the other, even though they speak the same language, they can't understand each other. Why? Because in that country, language evolved unchecked in isolation, until the dialects defied mutual comprehension. It was a strange thing to realize that people who spoke the same language had to resort to using the trade language (French) to communicate with each other!

Fortunately, in our society, with written language and easy global communication, we're less likely to have isolated language evolution. But there are still concerns to be considered.

Pick up a King James Bible. Or the complete works of Shakespeare. How easy are they to understand? Not terribly. That's a result of language evolution over a few centuries. Someone once said that the English speaking world is the only part of the world that doesn't get to read Shakespeare in our own language, because the English of his day is not our language.

The more quickly language evolves, the more quickly the great works of literature become inaccessible without translation.

Is language evolving? Yes it is. Can we stop that evolution? Probably not. Should we try to stop that evolution? Maybe not. But I think that, at the very least, we should work to keep that evolution to a slow pace.

Ever seen a car on glare ice? Watch the way it slides around uncontrolled? Friction is needed to keep things running smoothly. And language evolution needs friction too, to prevent the sort of uncontrolled slippage that made linguistics such a nightmare in that African country I mentioned.

Every English teacher who says, "You need an apostrophe there," or "You should be using the word they're instead of their," or "Your subject and verb don't agree; please fix that!" is applying friction to linguistic evolution. And I say, "God bless them for it!"

So, that's why I am such an obnoxious, cranky old geezer when it comes to grammar, spelling, and word usage.

Professor Puzzler

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