Today is Labor Day in the United States, marking the end of our summer. Actually, the beginning of the end typically comes in early August — walk into any local drug store chain in August to see Halloween trinkets and fake autumn leaves for sale in the seasonal aisle. The effect is jarring, and often sad. Likewise for language change.
Grammatical change often begins as a grammar “mistake,” like “with he and I” instead of “with him and me.” But just like the jarring effect of those pre-seasonal autumn trinkets and leaves, the non-standard usage can, over years or decades, become acceptable and embraced.
Yet little did I ever expect the Prime Minister of England to be the bearer of the Language Change. Americans generally look to the educated British classes as our language superiors, and a prime minister would be considered a pretty high order of standard usage. So it was with some shock when I read her quote just days ago in the Financial Times: “What me and my government are about is … delivering a brighter future for the United Kingdom.”
This particular construction is the same as what I called “teenager speak,” referring to my own kids. As teens, they often said “Me and a friend are going …” instead of the standard, “A friend and I are going …” and they were usually required to say it the “correct” way before going anywhere.
I would not be able to impose the same requirement on the prime minister. Of course, I could joke about Prime Minister May’s future hopefully* taking a better turn than her grammar. But at this point that would make me sound like a school marm, while the prime minister (no matter what you think of her Brexit plan) is still the prime minister and she cannot, at that level of power, be criticized for her grammar. (*My use of “hopefully” would have been criticized not long ago too.)
General acceptance of non-standard grammar usage also lies (lays?) with the user.
Lie vs Lay: Confusion over these two verbs has spawned Google pages worth of careful explanations on the difference, but perhaps has now reached peak futility: A sign posted outside a fancy office building near Wall Street asks for people not to “lay down” (instead of the standard “lie down”) on the sidewalk. When I showed this usage to my mother, it received a “how sad,” but from my own very literate daughter, a “what’s the matter with that?”
Words change with the times and technology, too, albeit a bit more seamlessly. For instance, when was the last time you thought a movie should “go straight to video” rather than to some more contemporary streaming platform? Does anyone here remember the first time they said “barista” without feeling silly? (Did anyone here catch my use of the plural “they” to resolve the singular form gender issues? This has also been gaining standard acceptance.)
Speaking of gender, the legalization of gay marriage has men referring to their “husbands” and women referring to their “wives.” This may still be in an awkward stage but there is no question about its acceptance — it’s awesome!
“Awesome” itself has seen an awesome expansion of use: where it was once reserved for things like the view from the Grand Canyon, it has gradually become the go-to response for anything from, “See you soon” to seeing your subway come into the station just as you reach the platform.
Verbal tics, like “like” and “you know,” crept into the language at least 50 years ago among hippies and post-hippies, and now enters speech at about age 10 and declines, with any luck, by around age 35.
And if you feel like thanking me for ending this endlessly fascinating subject, I will reply with the newer, possibly still-jarring forms of “you’re welcome” by saying, “No worries, no problem, and sure!”
So, on this Labor Day, just as we embrace the advent of back-to-school, new energy, sweaters, and fall leaves — embrace the inevitability of linguistic change.