The Ways of the Words: What Happened to Grammar and Spelling Over the Years?

By Arlyn May Bongay | Last Updated June 29, 2015

When the world decided to change with the technology it created, language took a form of its own. It adapted. Owing to slang, abbreviated words, acronyms and disregarded grammar conduct, we have added to and omitted from the dictionary. The older generation can only flinch as the “newbies” “zoosh” the global “lingo.”

Some of the new words we have come to accept and use over the time like zoosh, hacktivism, irritainment, soulpatch, tweeps, geekism, whoofy, etc.

Before I proceed to befuddle your mind with more new words and new writing styles, “zoosh” by the way means “to make something more attractive or lively.” 1 Here, allow me to zoosh your interest.

Grammar Nazis, Unite!

While not entirely murderous like the origin of the appellation, Grammar Nazis could be deadly serious about cyber grammar. Or grammar generally anywhere. It is also a new word combination defined in Urban Dictionary.com as

Someone who believes it’s their duty to attempt to correct any grammar and/or spelling mistakes they observe. Usually found hanging around Irc chatrooms hounding “noobs.”

(noobs: noun; newbie. someone new in a certain aspect or field) 2 I am a self-proclaimed Grammar Nazi myself and I can be a real Grammar Nazi up in someone’s social media post. You would be too, if you were armed with the basic knowledge that there/their/they’re, to/too, and your/you’re are not interchangeable. 3

Of course, I am not perfect. So suddenly, I am self-conscious writing about the changes in grammar, spelling and vocabulary after reading Joseph N. Bell’s “What Happened to Grammar?” in his Los Angeles Times’ post. He shares about his experience as a teacher for 20 years in English nonfiction writing. According to him, the turbulent 60s, somnolent 70s and the earnest 80s passed before his eyes (and his class) with little involvement of the true uses, usage, essence and presence of grammar. One day, he put together a quiz of six sentences. The goal is to spot the 9 grammatical errors:

At the risk of raising the ire of every grammarian–amateur or professional–who reads this, here are those six sentences:

1. Driving into town, the billboards distracted her attention.

2. If the family wants to stay, they can go to a hotel.

3. Riding a bike and the joy of a book are my favorite leisure time pleasures.

4. His early morning rising at 6:30 a.m. cleared his head for the day.

5. He seemed totally indestructible after surviving the fatal accident where two of his friends were killed.

6. Once he began to fear his opponent, it was very inevitable that he would lose.

Am I missing something here? I might have to reconsider my career as a writer and as an English trainer because I cannot spot anymore than four mistakes. I even had to consult “Ginger”, a grammar and spelling checker software to see if any of the sentences is off. Ginger wouldn’t say. The sentences appear to be without error according to the online checker. 4 Although my internal writer’s instinct is telling me something is wrong here and there, I cannot seem to pin them down. Is this inner grammatical voice a remnant of the genuine basic written language that continues to vanish with our parents or grandparents as they pass on?

Mr. Bell goes on to say that his students found the test to be unfair, being accustomed to a different test format (I know right! Why not put it in multiple choice or analogy, Mr. Bell?). So he took home the test and gave them to four of his visiting friends who were his age. Of the four who have never gone to college, three scored eight and one scored seven out of nine. Mind you, this post is dated February 18, 1988, a date nearly classic of our time. Can you image how far the changes could have gone from then to now? Mr. Bell says that English grammar was a discipline back in their generation when TV and computers have not “… so thoroughly scrambled the brains of today’s young people that they can no longer absorb basic written language tools.” 5 Although if you are willing to “faff” (verb; to fuss over something) about the traditional English grammar, the information is very much alive.

EB White’s “Elements of Style” is highly recommended by Mr. Bell, which Wikipedia names as a prescriptive American English writing style guide. It was originally composed by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 and was named by TIME Magazine among the 100 most influential and well-written books since 1923. That is “totes” vintage! (totes: adverb; a new way of saying totally, entirely, completely) (vintage: noun; evolved from the term of the same name, which now refers to something of an earlier time; rustic). The book comes in paperback, if you are still lucky to find one. More conveniently, you can always consult Google for sites that offer similar guidance. There is an English Grammar Guide at edufind.com. It even promises to help you with a triviality such as proper usage of semicolon. Why not? 6 Grammarbook.com may look like a great marketing strategy for you to buy the book itself but you will find easily categorized rules for composition. 7 The cover on EB White’s version of Strunk’s book says “With Revisions, an Introduction and a New Chapter in Writing” this means, even at that time, grammar had begun to evolve. Well, here we are in the 21st century, when nearly everything is customized to make life easier, if not better. Did we reconstruct language and writing to meet our contemporary needs?

Ask the English Teacher

Did we really? Or did we become too lazy to mind the rules set before us? That may be the case for some but not for all. Crawford Kilian has an entertaining way of explaining the inconsistencies in spelling. The dashing-English-albeit-in-his-senior-years teacher is apparently the admin and writer of Ask the English Teacher. 8 He answers a question from a reader/sender and has a fun and yet enlightening method of arriving at an open-minded and well-researched conclusion. A question goes

Please tell me the plural of fish. In the dictionary it says plural is fish or fishes. When I look in the encyclopedia they use the term fishes a lot.

The teacher answers that the word “fish” is similar to the word “deer” and in Canada like “beer” – these are words that are used in either singular or plural form. The word “fishes” is used to speak of different species of fish. However, in some countries and in some cases, the usage of “fishes” for the plural “fish” is an acceptable norm. The teacher says that there are a couple of reasons to these inconsistencies.

One, when in Rome…I mean, when in other countries it is okay to say “beers” and in others, it is just one, two, three or more “beer”. It depends wherever it is geographically allowed. We call this fine line of difference “isogloss” or “heterogloss” – a geographic boundary between the pronunciation of vowels, definition of words, and/or structure of sentences. 9 Example, California says “fender bender” while Tennessee calls it a “car smash”.

Two, social class difference. This can be thoroughly explained through sociolinguistics or the study of language according to society. It seems that there are existing speech communities when it comes to speaking and perhaps consequentially, even in writing. A speech community is said to be a discrete group of people who use language in their own unique and accepted manner. 10I can go on about this but then that is a discussion for another day.

Finally three, generation difference. He cites that during his time they would quote someone as “He said that the quiz is cancelled. Dear God, I studied really hard for that” but in the present generation, the same thought would be relayed as “He was like – quiz is cancelled. Omigod! Like I studied for that.” 11

The readers who go to the English Teacher’s site are either enlightened, engrossed, or emboldened to debate. I didn’t know something we used in our daily life could be so tedious. There could be days when they’re easily missed in their enigmatic presence in our day-to-day dealings.

Tbh, atm, I’m ltmq. Idk but afaic…

To be honest, at the moment, I’m laughing to myself quietly. I don’t know but as far as I‘m concernedacronymic sentencing came handy. They had their practical uses (especially when passing notes around with close friends). I mean, come on! Who will ever forget about My Dear Aunt Sally? Unless of course that’s no longer taught nowadays. PEMDAS or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally was a fun way of teaching Math. For kids like me who are Math averse, it has been my saving grace. The acronym stands for the suggested system of operating a problem in an organized way to get to the answer. Start with the Parenthesized operations (if any), then the Exponents (if any), Multiplication and Division (from left to right), and Addition and Subtraction (from left to right). 12

My point is that, it makes life easier. It also happens to make education way more fun. I’ve employed this coding system practically my entire life in studying and I do laugh at myself quietly because I can get quite crafty. The more creative you get, the funnier the acronyms, the better the recall. 13

That is of course, the whole purpose of the abbreviations, acronyms, shortcuts. It makes life a breeze. Similarly, the same system is used almost everywhere to make communication, studying, problem solving, memorizing, practically anything easier.

The 3 Rs of Vocabulary

Based on a comparative deduction between my mother’s time (or maybe before her), to my time, to this generation, I have observed that we have employed the Three Rs of Recycling. We have “Reduced, Reused and Recycled.”

Reduced. We have come to an era where we have taken words together, chopped some of them up, mutated them in fact, and thrown them back together. In doing so, we have created words that are brief and concise enough to describe two or more concepts invented presently. Example, mobile devices were called “cellular phones” owing to the cellular concept. 14 The terminology was first used in 1977 and it was in 1984 that the term “cell phone” appeared in record. But if you go through spellcheck now, the word “cellphone” is an accepted vocabulary. 15 Chatcronyms (chat acronyms), globesity (global obesity), edutainment (educational entertainment), videoke (video karaoke) and freegan (free vegan) are some of the combined words that mean specific ideas today, which weren’t available in previous times. 16 Thus, we have omitted letters, even spaces between words to give them a more unified look to express the marriage of thoughts.

Reused. As in the 3 Rs, “Reusing” eradicates the need to throw something while it can still be used without having to totally change its physical form or purpose. 17We have done this with words as well. Before the age of computers, the words “surf”, “virus”, and “mouse” were used in an entirely different context. But in came cable and satellite television, not to mention Youtube, we have enabled ourselves to surf through the waves of information. Pun intended. The same goes with “mouse” and “virus”.

Recycled. I wouldn’t say that some words were thrown into the trash or else considered garbage. Perhaps they have gone to some antiquity that was forgotten for awhile that when they were reinstituted in modern English, they had to adhere to the new rules. There are in fact old English words that are no longer used today as they are quite long and odd-sounding. Vomitorium for example is hardly recognized as anything less ridiculous (much more recognized by spellcheck), as well as mugwump, staddle, and pantofle. 18 But we can thank William Shakespeare for inventing a few expressions that make our contemporary life easy…and cool. I mean, did you know he coined the concept of “swagger”? The word first appeared in Midsummer Night’s Dream to mean a defiant or insolent manner or strut. He was also the forerunner of using the word “drug” as a verb “to drug”. Rant and puke are also words that sound like they were invented after his time. 19  20 Point of the matter is, over the time, owing to whenever and wherever words are appropriate or not, they are set aside until recalled.

If you ask me…

I think I made quite a few points for this post. But let me just end with a thought that my mother and I discussed what with the issue of shorthand. Clearly, what we have done to grammar and vocabulary is a form of shorthand, to make things less complicated and simple to complement our fast-paced life. What comes to mind is that eventually, we might go back in time. As our speech and writing become abbreviations and acronyms, we may be leading ourselves to modern hieroglyphics. Did the ancient civilization really lack knowledge in language to be so limited or were they too intelligent that they didn’t need so much words. Well, that is a discussion for another day.




Leave a Reply