If — and I’m not saying this is likely to happen — but if, somehow, I am officially given the power to reform the English language, this is how I’d start:
1. Canadian/British v. U.S. Spelling. If you live in the United States when I’m placed in charge of our semi-shared language, you’ll have to go through a transition period in which you learn proper spelling. Don’t worry, my star-spangled friends, it won’t take long to learn to replace your “flavor” with “flavour,” your “center” with “centre” and your “winter hats” with “toques.”
2. Name That Century. Even though I read a lot of history, I often get confused about the naming system of centuries. The year 1492, for example, is called the “fifteenth century,” not the “fourteenth century” as you’d expect. That’s because the century after the birthday of Jesus Christ is not called the “zero century” but the “first century.” The century that any normal person would think should be called the “first century” — the century with years like 123, 158 and 199 — is called the “second century.” Confusing! If I’m ever in charge, the century on the other side of the millennium, the century in which all adults reading this were born, will be known as the “nineteenth century” — because that’s when you had years that started with “19” — and the century we’re in right now — containing years like 2014 — will be the “twentieth century.” So much simpler.
3. Unknown Sex. Get your mind out of the gutter; I’m not referring to something erotic involving masks. I’m talking about situations where you want to refer to an individual person, but either you don’t know the person’s gender or the person doesn’t really exist — like, “If you sit beside someone on the bus, don’t rest your head on his or her shoulder.” I hate the phrase “his or her.” But it’s weird to write, “If you sit beside someone on the bus, don’t rest your head on their shoulder.” What? “Their shoulder” makes me think of two people who share a shoulder, like Siamese Twins. What other pronoun options are there? To avoid excluding women, I avoid terms like “mankind” or “manhole” and I won’t write “his shoulder” when there’s no reason that the shoulder can’t belong to a female person. (However, if the body part is gender specific — as in, “Don’t rest your head on her breasts,” or “Don’t rest your head on his penis” — then gender-specific pronouns are appropriate. But otherwise, why can’t we talk or write about a person without knowing if their DNA carries a Y chromosome or not? If I’m ever in charge of the English language, I’ll decree a new gender-neutral pronoun, “hox,” as in, “If you sit beside someone on the bus, don’t rest your head on hox shoulder.”
4. Obsessive Possessives. Let’s say that Gus owns a gopher. When referring to his pet, should we say “Gus’s gopher” (with ’s after the s in Gus) or “Gus’ gopher” (with ’ after the s in Gus)? I’ve seen both ways used and I’m really confused. So, in my fiction, I avoid names for characters that end with an s (except when writing about hypothetical gopher-owners). When I’m in charge, all possessive words will end with ‘z, as in “that is Gus’z gopher’z gnaw-stick.”
5. Foreign Influences. English is a blend of at least two ancient European tongues: Germanic (brought by the Anglo Saxon invaders of England in my “fourth century”) and French (brought by the Norman invaders of England in my “tenth century.”) English has a large number of words, more than any other language in the world, because of these invading tongues. Many common things have two English words to describe it, each from a different invader, often with a subtle difference in meaning. Compare “house” and “dog” (Anglo Saxon words) to their French-derived counterparts: “mansion” and “hound.” Invasions of England made our language what it is today. Therefore, to improve English, England needs to be invaded again. I’ll ask the Chinese first, as their language is so different and they have a big army that seems a bit bored. If China refuses to invade England, I’ll ask some other country; I’m sure that Argentina will be eager to volunteer.
6. Dangling Participles. If I was in charge, people would be free to dangle participles all day, every day, if that’s what rocks your boat. Just remember to use protection.
7. Splitting infinitives. People should also be free to split the infinitives of any consenting adult. I don’t consider it a sin and you won’t have to be ashamed anymore.
8. Gerunds. This is the grammatical name for some kind of word, but I forget which. If put in charge, just for fun, I’ll secretly ban all gerunds from the English language. If anybody notices and complains, I’ll bring the gerunds back and blame the “error” on my staff. Then I’ll go the airport with a TV crew and, as the returning gerunds enter the arrivals zone, I’ll yell, “Welcome back, gerunds!”
9. “Make No Mistake!” U.S. President Obama is a talented speaker, but he uses this phrase way too often. Is he showing opposition to the pro-mistake lobby? In a typical Obama speech, he’ll gaze intensely at a TelePrompter and say, “Make no mistake. [Dramatic pause.] We will stand by our allies!” Or: “Make no mistake. [Dramatic pause.] We will bring health care to the most needy!” As language tyrant, I would compel Obama to replace his signature phrase with — “Make plenty of mistakes, my friend, then pull your pants down.” It may complicate his foreign and domestic policy challenges, true, but I’m not the only one who’d get a giggle out of it.
10. I Before E, Except After C. This is intrusive social engineering. Under my rule, I and E will be empowered to make their own decisions, based on their own values. If C doesn’t like that, C can go live in a foreign alphabet.