Use a Verb!

I find it hard to watch news programs on television these days. In addition to the generally depressing nature of the content, I get irritated at the way the reporters and anchors talk. They don’t use verbs anymore. Instead they say things like, “Police looking for . . .” “The White House announcing today . . .” (Never mind that a house can’t talk.)

At some time in the past few years, somebody seems to have decided that a present participle (looking, announcing) could serve as the main verb in a sentence–a finite verb with person and number, not just tense. They must be teaching this heresy in journalism schools because I hear it on all the networks, local and national newscasts. And I keep yelling, “Use a verb!” But nobody listens.

This represents one more step down the slippery slope of the decay of the English language. The use of “reference” as a verb is another one that I fight against every time my students turn in a paper. As I point out to them, “refer” is a perfectly good verb. When you add –ence to a verb, you turn it into a noun. Why do you then use that noun as a verb? You can’t “reference” something, but you can “refer to” it.

These are just two of a plethora of signs I see that point to the slippery slope. To my great dismay, in the last few years “based off of” has replaced “based on.” And don’t get me started on “couple things.” We now pronounce it as “coupla things,” so students have completely lost sight of the “of” that has to go between the two words. I try to explain to them that you can’t say “a pair pants.” The two nouns have to be linked by a preposition. But I’m losing the battle.

People will remind me that language changes. That’s true. We no longer talk like Dickens, and he didn’t talk like Shakespeare. To save my students money, I sometimes use documents on web sites instead of requiring them to buy print copies. But those documents on the web sites are old translations that are no longer under copyright. Students today have trouble reading a translation done in the 1890s. The English of that period is virtually a foreign language to them.

There are numerous reasons for such changes. One is simply the natural tendency for a language to become simpler over time. Homer’s Greek (ca. 750 BC) sounded ancient and arcane to Socrates (ca 400 BC), and his version of the language was replaced by the even simpler koiné Greek in which Paul’s letters were written (ca. 60 AD).

Another reason for changes in English in the last 50-100 years is that Latin is no longer widely taught in high schools. Reading Cicero and Virgil accustoms you to longer sentences and gives you an understanding of case endings on pronouns (who/whom), the subjunctive mood, contrary-to-fact conditions, and other subtleties of a complex language. Lacking such knowledge, we tend to use “who” regardless of whether it’s subject or object and to fall back on present tense as our default. For example, sportscasters now tell us, after a play is over, “You know, if he slides into third, he’s safe.” What the announcer should say is, “You know, if he had slid into third, he would have been safe.” Occasionally you’ll hear one who has some vague awareness of the problem, so he’ll say, “You know, if he would have slid into third, he would have been safe.” O tempora, o mores!

One of the major reasons for changes in English recently is, of course, social media. Young people today have trouble reading anything that is more than a couple of sentences long. Recently two of my intro classes performed miserably on a writing assignment, simply because they didn’t follow the one-page set of instructions I gave them. I told them that next time I would text the instructions to them. Yeah, I know, it was kind of snarky, but it grew out of my frustration with trying to raise students to a standard rather than lower the standard to the students.

As a writer, I wonder whether I should give in and lower the bar in my own work or whether I should stand at the barricades and try to hold up the banner of correct English—and run the risk of alienating readers. I know that when I look at a page of my work these days, I get nervous if a paragraph looks too long. Some editors I’ve worked with tell me they want more white space on the pages. Go back and look at an issue of Time from the 1960s. The pages are dense with text and few illustrations. Compare that to a contemporary issue, which is basically pictures with some surrounding text.

Graphic novels are growing in popularity. The writer of a graphic novel doesn’t have to describe setting or the appearance of the characters. All of that is taken care of in the pictures. All the writer has to write is dialogue. Cue Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum about leaving out the parts that people skip.

We have to choose our battles. Perhaps, as writers and readers who love the English language, we could begin a “Use a Verb!” campaign directed at TV news media outlets. If we could gain a foothold for finite verbs in the battle against participles, we might have a chance to slow English’s slide down the slippery slope.

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3 Responses

  1. Listening to the news is maddening because these people are often only as good as their teleprompters, whose texts are likely written by young staffers who don’t read much and don’t know the language.

    But as someone who’s taught on and off over the decades, I don’t think the lack of Latin is a problem as much as the lack of grammar instruction in English. In one of the German classes I took, the hunger students had to be assigned a book called English Grammar for Students of German because they had no idea what the professor meant by indirect objects and objects, etc.

    Strictly speaking, though, The White House *does* speak. The usage is perfectly acceptable: it’s a metonymy. 🙂

  2. I’ve tried to take on sentences like, “Me and my friends are going to the movies.” I’d also like to take on the politician who recently said, “Thanks for your support of Michelle and I.” Who’s setting the bar these days? These causes may be lost in today’s sea of changing language.

    One of my current copy editors wrote in the margin of my manuscript: “This is correct but awkward,” and changed the phrase from awkward to incorrect.

    Now, you’ve gotten me started, Albert.

  3. How about “..support of Michelle and myself”? That one gets me going, and then my husband turns his hearing aid down.
    Like Albert, I have a higher standard, having taught English forever in a former life. Still, language will change. I content myself with the thought that I’m writing for my contemporaries, who might not speak correctly all the time but at least have been exposed to standard English. I doubt many twenty-somethings read my work, and certainly not news people, who are too busy climbing the ladder to network anchor!

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