Jose Carillo's Forum


This section features discussions on education, learning and teaching, and language with particular focus on English. The primary subjects to be taken up here are notable advocacies and contrary viewpoints in these disciplines and their allied fields. Our primary aim is to clarify matters and issues of importance to language and learning, provide intelligent and useful instruction, promote rational and critical thinking, and enhance the individual’s overall capacity for discernment.

What’s deemed as proper English really only a matter of fashion

In “A Matter of Fashion,” an essay he wrote for the July 9, 2012 issue of The New York Times, American linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter argues that because English—like any other language—changes and has always changed over time, it’s wrong to designate any kind of English “proper” and other kinds “bad English.” To those who insist that all people must know which forms of language are acceptable in the public sphere or else risk being unemployed or being socially handicapped, McWhorter proposes a middle ground: “We can teach people which forms of English are acceptable without thinking of the more colloquial phrases and words as errors. Rather, what is considered proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion.”

Weird Visual

McWhorter then takes a quick look at what was considered proper English at various times in its history, from Old English to the English of Charles Dickens all the way to Jane Austen’s in the 19th century and to Edith Wharton’s in the 20th century. “Certain expressions that were considered mistakes unworthy of polite company then seem utterly normal today,” McWhorter observes. “It’s almost funny how arbitrary these things seem from our vantage point.”

He says about rabid objections to present-day changes in English: “Today, we have our own fads. We’re more likely to hear about using nouns as verbs – structure a lesson, impact a discussion – or making new verbs from nouns, such as liaise. Yet the verbs “copy,” “view,” “worship” and “silence” were born from nouns to no complaint. The fashion simply hadn’t yet arisen to condemn them.”

Read John McWhorter’s “A Matter of Fashion” in The New York Times now!

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