English: Our Tongue Should Have Better Grammar In Them, You Know?

english speaking countries flags

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.

english grammar and words language

18 responses

  1. I’ve never even heard of toques. That sounds too French. Make No Mistake, our president has done a terrible job. I’d like to cut off his dangling participle. Sorry. Also, I have to edit all of our church outlines, and I learned that only Jesus and Moses can have the one “s” after (Jesus’ hands). Everyone else other than those two have to have an additional “s” (James’s feet). Thems are the rules.

  2. Yummy post, except for “hox.” Even WordPress rejects it. Keeps turning it into “how.” How I tricked it into staying “hox” for this reply I’ll never know. It took six tries. Twice.

    By the way, during your winter vacation from the blog, WordPress knocked you clean off my “follow” list and out of my Reader. I was wondering where you were and what you were doing. Finally, had to go back to Google and start all over again to find out. All is now well. But are you missing anyone else?

    1. I don’t think I lost any other followers. For some reason, WordPress tried to keep us apart — maybe as a divide-and-conquer policy, to keep us bloggers weak and isolated — but WordPress failed. Ha! Mark and Nina are back in communication, WordPress bosses, and we’re about to start a blogging revolution! … Or, maybe not.

  3. I grew up in the Middle East using the US system. I moved to Ethiopia where they used their own mysterious system. Now I live in a country where they use British system and half the time I don’t know what is going on. Centre sounds so wrong and so offensive to the eye. Even my computer feels offended and tells me so with a big red line.

    1. Spell-check is prejudiced against Canadians! I get the annoying red lines here too.

  4. May I assume you are British? (I am not) I had to laugh at #1. Every time I’ve have a language disagreement with a Brit, it has ended with that person saying a version of “we invented the language.” :)

    1. Actually, I’m Canadian. That means we consider the British spellings to be technically the ones we should be using too, but we often use American spellings to fit in with the majority of our continent (or because the spellcheck is American). My next book had all its Canadian spelling turned into US and most of the measurements turned from metric to imperial by the publisher, I guess in the hopes of increasing sales in the US. This is all too complicated! Thanks for your comment.

    1. So we agree. Excellent. The next step is to seize power …

  5. I’d find grammar books a lot more interesting if you wrote them!

    Heather xxx

    1. So you think I should expand the article into a full-length book and try to sell it to schools?

      1. Definitely, I think your ideas have a great deal of merit! :lol:

        Heather xxx

  6. Being a bit OCD about basic grammar myself, I’m sure this post had an abundance of valid, amazing and truly innovative ideas… but you lost me at masks.

    1. I hope it doesn’t disturb you to learn that I’m wearing a SpongeBob Squarepants mask and nothing else as I type this …

      1. Damn… I knew I left that somewhere.

  7. 1. I’m voting for the politically correct and non-committal “cent[re|er]” and “flavo[u]r”.

    2. I like the zeroth century idea, but I would prefer a system based on my own birth. That way, we can go back to programming 2-digit years, at least until the “Year 100 bug” hits.

    10. Your argument carries a lot of weight.

    1. Thanks! But you spelled “weight” wrong — it should be “wieght.”

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