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What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness « Back to Story
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Has anybody thought or written about the metastasization of Valspeak? I often hear it used by women correspondents in the thoughtful media.It seems less characterized by word choice than by intonation and vowel broadening.
I can understand why this was such a big deal to this author. I find that it is super annoying that people talk that way. But, is the way the people grow up, and typically they get that from television shows that think it is funny to do that, and it is funny. The only thing is people pick up on it and then do that because they think that it is cool, then people that they talk to thinks that they have to do it too. And with 1 person telling 3 people then it spreads to 3 people telling 3 other people making it spread to 9. I know that its annoying but we are, like,
"How Maynad G Krebs changed modern English languge, like forever.
I first noticed the phrase "was like" when I employed a young lady to work in my store in 1992. She was 17 years old and used the word "like" three times in each spoken sentence. This young girl grew up in rural Northern New Jersey. She never heard of Frank or Moon Zappa, and had never seen the movie "Valley Girls". Shortly after this first exposure, I began to notice the "like" word more frequently. As my children entered middle school, they quickly adopted the "like" word. My quest was set. It took 10 years of casual research, observation, the questioning of "like" users, and anyone who would consider the question.
One friend metioned that the character, Maynard G Krebbs, from the TV series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis", 1959-1963, used the word "like". At the time I had no access to review old TV shows. BUT! After YouTube, I was able to verify that indeed Maynard said "was like" in his dialogue. Yet, how could this teenage girl be affected by a show that aired 30 years ago?
The fianl CLUE! Another friend mentioned that Shaggy, a character in the Scobbie-Doo cartoon show said the word "like" often. Great! Where's the connection? The characters in "Scobbie-Doo" were based on the characters from "Dobie Gillis". Shaggy was Maynard!
Now we have the virus and the vector!
Scoobie-Doo aired from 1969 through 1986. For 17 years the dialouge infected the entire population of children in the US. The word "like" infected every aspect of our language and communication, personal and commercial, on air and in print, children and adults.
I have not paid ,much attention to the other two language habits, "You Know" and "UpTalking".
Neither are that widespread. The term "You Know" is rather annoying. I always want to say, "NO! I DONT KNOW!" This habitual use of the term "You Know", is prominent in Caroline Kennedy's speech patterns.
I find "UpTalking" (ending each sentence in an upward inflection) rather humorous. I've experienced it mostly among young West Coast adults.
How very true. There has been a rapid deterioration in the English language, not just spoken but written. I am baffled how graduates use vein instead of vain, weather instead of whether, where instead of wear. Laziness has infested our schools. Illiterates are being let into universities due to lack of funds, these illiterates end up teaching our children and of course the internet. No longer is it cool to speak or write properly. These are all factors hastening the rapid demise of the English language. We know languages change and we need to build on what we have, but not when it means the death of a language and the loss of our communication skills.
Some guesses as to why this has happened:
o Intellectual excellence, and the language to go with it, being regarded as suspect due to concerns about class divides, inequality, and people being "left out."
o Political correctness and the taboo against "offending," which a full-throated statement might do.
Vagueness and sloppiness in speech is more than an irritating descent of communications skills. On a much more serious side, a lack of precision and discipline in speaking indicates (or is, perhaps, a result of) a lack of precision and discipline in thinking. There really is a "dumbing-down" of America.
Kudos, Mr. Whelton!
When I first arrived as an instructor @ DLI (the nation's most prestigious military language school), the PTB informed us newbies that "under no circumstances are you to teach grammar." The students would simply "absorb" that from their readings and the listening comprehension exercises. Didn't happen, and some of my brightest students clamored for grammar. (I taught it in quick surreptitious spurts, first making sure nobody was standing out in the hallway looking in the window.)
Eventually, about 2 years later, during a meeting, our team "facilitator" mentioned in passing that "Team X is laboring under the illusion that we should not teach grammar." I was flabberghasted, bec. there had never been an official reversal of the anti-grammar statute. "But, we were told NOT to teach grammar!" I exclaimed. "WHOOOOOOOOOO told you that?!?!" the Napoleonetta supervisor roared.
They could not admit that their policy had been a catastrophe, so in good Orwellian fashion, they simply pretended as though the policy had never existed.
Accurate, entertaining, but kinda, you know, sad.
UNCOMFORTABLE to read; scary, demoralizing to me as a writer and grandmother of 14.
Keep the truth coming. Thanks.
One of the teens in my church talked about his experience going to an alternative school where it was, "Cool to be smart." It's sad to see that middle/high school culture looks down on the smart.
No wonder our society is racing to the bottom and watching other cultures pass us by.
Thkanks for sharing this article. I work hard at being more specific in my articles and my descriptions. I check all my "theres" and "its" and "somethings" and ask if I can replace them with a specific noun.
Great article, Mr. Whelton! I'm posting a link to it on Northwest Christian Writer's Association blog: http://nwchristianwriters.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/what-happens-in-vagueness-stays-in-vagueness/
Pretend you are making an elevator pitch or you're on TV. You have sixty seconds to make your point. Make your words count.
This well crafted and delightfully worded piece speaks volumes about the dichotomy between 'universal education' and the near universal rejection of literacy.
In the beginning all was darkness for there was only illiteracy. And then there was light and literacy for the few, who were greatly prized for their reading and writing. And then the light grew brighter and there was literacy for all, who greatly prized it to read and write and speak. But then the light grew dim as the many declined to read, cared not to write and once again spoke in the language of the illiterate, who learn by imitation rather than education.
This is an excellent assessment of the decline of modern language!
This can be stopped. I have three teen grandkids living in California and the family collects 10 cents each time someone is called for inappropriate use of "like" just as we collect 50 cents for use of a swear word. Not much money goes into the jars in the last few months but were overflowing when the program started.
This article was like, incredible you know? Thank you for your like insight.
Excellent piece. Thanks!
Hooray! At least I know of one literate, accomplished person has noticed this trend.
These girls that talk with a nasality and their voice trails off and crackles a little bit at the end of the statement, and ,that irritating interrogative rise, when its not a question.
Oh yeah, speaking of vagueness. Nobody has problems anymore. They have issues. Jim Lovell on Apollo 13 said "Houston we have a problem". He didn't say Houston, we have an issue.
You have no idea how much i relate to this situation. I respect English badly, bordering on being a prig (or maybe I'm just being kind to myself). So seeing it get butchered and cut down to such levels is always depressing to see. I mean, what next? Actually saying 'lol' when someone makes a joke?
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I was just looking for this information for some time. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your web site. I wonder what's the Google's problem that does not rank this type of informative websites closer to the top. Normally the top web sites are full of garbage.
I think that to get the business loans from creditors you must present a great motivation. However, once I have received a student loan, because I was willing to buy a building.
Bravo! Well said. Today's colleges are turning out graduates who would not have passed my senior year high school English class in 1987.
I enjoyed this article very much. Throughout the different years the author of this article expressed the different changes in student's language patterns. This was brilliant, I laughed and remembered growing up through those years and the patterns he described were very true. Very well put, I have not laughed reading an article in years. This article brought a tear to my eye, I laughed so hard.
Thank you for your good article.
I was raised in Brazil and eventually decided to study here and was fortunate to do so at Cornell. In those days, the late 1960s, these manifestations of careless use of the English language, were not as evident as today.
Since English was a second language for me, I struggled to learn as best I could. A reason being that one must respect language and the purpose it serves. Another reason was the need to master the art of clear and unambiguous communication. Here I am, 40 plus years later, and I still strive for collecting new words and reading well written books.
I am appalled by how the younger generation tries to communicate. I don't believe they appreciate the importance, let alone, criticality of doing so. They often cannot properly structure an argument. Premises be damned. The skills of oratory are evidently lacking. The relaxed standards of our educational system must be contributors to this state of affairs.
In the firm I work, a consultancy to the banking industry, we abide by rules set forth by Barbara Minto in her Pyramid Principle. It covers logic in writing and thinking. Whether we are writing internally or for a client project, its principles must be adhered to. Otherwise, you are deemed not to be “thinking”.
I also have to believe that texting, which I refuse to indulge in, has added to this linguistic catastrophe.
I congratulate you on your laudable efforts to call attention to these issues.
Such phantic interjections were by 1981 known as "Valley talk", a la San Fernando Valley, CA. West and north (!) of Vagueness. Public/conversational speech today mirrors early-stage development in a child from mimicry and infantile solipsism and halted prior to the development of semiotic detachment. Not too vague, I hope.
Lord, this is so sad! I thought it was just my classes.
I'm a science teacher, whose courses have been affected by this problem. It takes threats and an Act of God to force students to write a simple, declarative sentence in a lab report. I blame the exclusion of Hemingway from the curriculum - those darned, old, white guys really had the knack of spewing out those grammatical, simple sentences.
Excellent article, Clark. I'm glad someone I follow retweeted it. I find it interesting how stringing together an assortment of seemingly educated words free of "like" and "you know" can produce the same degree of vagueness. And in my opinion for the same reasons!
It's like, I don't know, you know? Oh man, did you like read all this and stuff? I don't know, you know? It's like they are like not getting us, you know? Like they don't get us.?.?
I love this article. I'm a college student who has been (and still is) frustrated by the enormous degradation of our language. I wouldn't have such a big deal with it if it stayed on social media like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. but I've seen English papers written in "textese" (not sure what to call it). They have to be deciphered before you can even really start evaluating what's been said. Excellent article, I think you nailed it perfectly.
Very, very well-said. When someone uses "you know" my husband responds with "No, I don't know, that's why I'm asking you."
Whatever the cause of the deterioration
of language, I don't see vagueness per se as the result in most cases. I'm not convinced that a politically correct agenda is at work nor other cultural trends suggested in the article. But whatever the cause, the result an increasingly impoverished means of expression, using an increasingly small vocabulary and what I call language inflation, meaning that extreme words are replacing ordinary words in some common contexts. Juvenile expression and imprecision and use of words such as "like" are a part of, or accompany, these trends but they are much wider.
Here is an excerpt of an essay I hoped to have published or to serve as the basis of an essay for National Public Radio. But neither The New York Times, where I submitted it nor Public Radio were the least bit interested. Maybe some readers here will be.
Here is the excerpt:
Here are trends and examples of the destruction of English as a clear, aesthetic language. the descriptive terms are mine.
Descriptive words are loosing their power because increasingly, ordinary words are giving way to the most extreme words. thus degrees of expression are lost. You routinely hear expressions such as "Have a great weekend", and "we need great schools." chill has long replaced cool in many contexts. the word great has replaced the word good in many contexts and so we can no longer distinguish between something that we wish to be good, and something that we want to stand out and be better. Everything has to be great.
The above also coincides with a dumbing down of the vocabulary. An essence of good speaking is to use a variety of words. Increasingly, short words and less and less of those, are used. the words great, love, huge, for example, are used routinely and various other words are not. We never talk about something being of great significance. And, Heaven forbid, we use a more erudite word such as seminal. Instead, things are huge, or hugely important. Someone might say, "joining the army was huge for me. It taught me discipline. Everything which should be of high quality must now be great. I discussed the word "great" under word inflation but it also applies here. We don't have distinguished schools or outstanding schools or exceptional schools. We must have great schools. We don't look for prices we like, bargains we value, products we want. These days, everything is reduced to the word "love." Advertisements speak of "more of what you love for less." "Prices you love." Information you love." So we see that many of the monosyllabic words that suffer from word inflation, are also being substituted for longer more descriptive and varied ways of saying something. We increasingly speak in rudimentary ways and are loosing precision of language, thought, and aesthetics.
George Orwell, in 1984, described how words were removed from english by being removed from documents where they appeared. He couldn't have dreamed of the way we destroy words now. We don't attempt to remove words from the written record, we use certain words so much that they loose their meaning. Much more subtle than Orwell. but then, he was far to intelligent to conceive of such a method to destroy words. The word "basically is a prime example. Aside from constantly being used as a filler word with no meaning, it is also used in ways where it is impossible for the listener to determine if it has any meaning or is just filler. thus, statements are unclear. Educated people, including journalists, who should know better, say things like, "the court basically ruled that the law is unconstitutional." Does that mean that the entire law is ruled unconstitutional or did the court limit the ruling in one or more ways? Is "basically a filler or does it mean something in that sentence? Basically used to mean essentially. It meant that you were told the main point or points but that there was further information that was not mentioned. So what did the court do?
the word is also used when it cannot mean what it originally meant. In its capacity as filler, it is used by educated people to routinely make illogical statements that cannot be correct. Of course, it's used in this way by uneducated people as well, but the fact that putatively well educated people use it in this way is a prime example of how little people care about how they speak or whether what they say makes sense. Basically, I told him to leave." Basically, we had an accident." Either you told someone to leave or you didn't. There is no basically about it. Either you had an accident or not. Basically, I failed to graduate. either you did graduate or you didn't.
Another egregious instance is the word "actually". It is used for emphasis and has lost most of its meaning.
The word "happen" is another example of impoverishment of aesthetics, a dumbed down vocabulary and unclear expression. I heard, as one example, an educated speaker recently say something like, in ancient times, when writing happened. that's atrocious. Writing didn't happen, in the passive sense. It was developed. It did not magically come into being. Using the word "happen" in that way affects the way we think and conceive. It is destructive of proper thought and understanding. A newsletter I receive says, "Watch my show happen tomorrow morning." Happen is unnecessary and redundant in that context. Watch my show live would be a more powerful and effective way to say it or just "watch my show," would be more direct and effective. The overuse and misuse of the word "happen" is just one more example of the loss of vocabulary and increasing lack of clarity and expressivity of the language. Nothing takes place, nothing occurs, nothing develops, Everything happens and it all happens passively even if it should be in the active voice.
And finally, the disappearance of the word "as." I guess in the future, we'll have to change the name of the Bard's famous play to "like You Like it" because "As You Like It" will sound foreign. The word "like" is used almost entirely in contexts where the word "as" should be used. "Like I said", a phrase which used to denote someone as uneducated, is now in common use.
At least, in the lingo described in this article, the spellings appear to be normal. Sadly, as of even date, people have completely forgotten even their spellings. Here is an actual sample from an MBA, no less: "tis my honeymoon hun' dnt feel "j" lol".
One searches in vain for a meaning to this gibberish. One is reminded of Milton,
'...and straight behold the throne
Of Chaos, and his dark pavilion spread
Wide over the wasteful deep.'
Thank you for writing about this. It has been one of my pet peeves for decades! Along with those who cannot distinguish "they're", "their", and "there" correctly.
I was listening to you on WGN last night and looked up this article this morning. I believe that once upon a time, Elementary School was known as Grammar School. What happened to the Grammar? You, or the host, made the comment that this decline in linguistics starts in high school. I disagree with that. Proper speech needs to be stressed in children VERY early, say between the ages of 3 to 7 years old. I would love to get more information on this subject as I am building an Early Learning Campus for children between the ages of 6 weeks old through 6 years old with an advanced curriculum. You sir, are right on target with this article! Please keep expanding on the vagueness in our society so we may become more aware of the glaring problem. Like, wow dude!
Please send this article to every educator in the USA, and make certain the nitwits who run the NEA get copies of it.
While you are at it, force every parent to read it (if that parent is able to read above the level of an eight-year-old).
The communications skills of the typical under-40 American are a national disgrace and an international embarrassment.
Thanks you for a sad -- but true -- article. I hope you'll write more on the subject.
I agree with every single word you have written. I attribute these speech practices to a general dumbing-down of society and the laziness of many people to make the mental effort to organize their thoughts before they begin to enunciate each sentence.
You did not mention the use of "is" as a plural verb. It's now so prevalent that it is only a matter of time, I believe, before "are" is shoved out of the English language or used in a limited number of cases.
Please keep up the good work and continue the battle to preserve intelligent speech.
whatever . . .
Thank you for saying this. (Signed) Robert LaFrance, Kincardine, New Brunswick, Canada
Well said and so true! However, with the advent of texting, I suspect it will only get worse! :-)
I am an immigrant who has lived in New York since August 2009, and this article acutely reflects all the aspects of verbal communication that has been troubling me here. It is sad to see such a sudden downfall of a beautiful language. As a result of this phenomenon, in the international arena, most non-native English speakers now have a better grasp of the language; they may be less fluent, but with better vocabulary.
An even more disconcerting aspect of this 'vagueness' is that such abuse of language is now percolating into writing as well, be it prose, letter, or informal articles.
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Speaking and writing skills both are degenerating very fast in Western countries. One may wonder if 10 years hence illiteracy and analphabetism will not be the norm.
My favorites (usually from the media):
It is a real possibility...
It is very unique... or
The most unique...
I think it arises out of this impression that anyone educated is either a prat or a nerd and certainly not 'cool'. The last thing any young person wants is to appear educated. But that's, like, just a theory kind of thing =D
I came across a 'like, you know' in Toronto, in 1971. I asked a mid-teenager what she was studying. She never got past 'Like,...you know...Like..' Her hand waved around in agreement. I was guilty of 'You know' as a young girl. Mum ALWAYS said 'No, I don't. I'm asking you'. That wore me down. I'm aware of the overusage of 'Get over it!', 'Absolutely' and 'totally... (sick, wicked,f**ed)
How about major contributors such as KPBS and other radio and television interviewers who, instead of asking a direct question, needlessly begin the conversation with "I was wondering..." or "I am thinking that..."
If they weren't thinking or wondering about it, why ask the question in the first place?
This is so true. I am a 23-year-old college graduate, and have been disgusted with the manner in which my peers speak since I was in high school. I misused the word "like" throughout seventh and eighth grade, until someone pointed out how silly it sounded. I saw her point and immediately stopped...but I seemed to be the only one. Everyone else around me seemed oblivious to how silly they sounded.
For the past few years, I've wondered why virtually everyone I met assumed I was stupid before getting to know me, and I took it very personally. Did my attitude or manner of speaking make it seem like I didn't know what I was talking about? Did I come off as dumb, naive, and inadequate?
After expressing my frustration with my stepmother, she told me that most people my age either are naive, or they come off as stupid and oblivious to the way they present themselves because of the way they, like, you know, communicate. I am often embarrassed to be a part of my generation because of this. Someone who speaks and writes well, with a solid command of the English language, is suddenly viewed as uptight. Someone who speaks in perpetual questions and overuses the word "like" is suddenly viewed as cool and hip.
I wrote a poem about this a few years ago, deliberately misspelling words and using incorrect grammar, and I was verbally attacked for it by many. That circumstance only underscores the point of this article...which was a breath of fresh air for me. I'm glad I'm not the only one who realizes how serious this is.
OMG, you like validated my umm.. what I was like thinking. But then you totally forgot the Homeric "Doh...".
What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
This reading has helped to show that their are ways to be specific, and that vagueness has become an issue, starting in the 1980's, it was noticed as an issue. Many of the stories remind me of conversations and type of speech I have heard in my life. Using the example that students arrived juvenilized seemed accurate, showing this in their walks, in conversations, and writing. The author gives a great examples of many of the common issues found in interns speech and conversation in an interview. Explaining how some of the phrases had been replaced, "you know" had been replaced by "umm". And "your welcome" had been replaced by "no problem", though in the beginning, "like" was the most used word by interns being interviewed that this author writes about.
Grammar and usage has become abysmal. I am a lawyer and the pitiful pleadings with which lawyers and judges now have to contend is disheartening.
Whenever I say, "Thank you" and the forthcoming response is, "No problem," I always say, "I didn't think it was" -- which often makes the other person say, "Huh?"
Good article! For my 2 cents (or is it 10 cents with inflation) worth. I watch too much television and notice that the pundits use very bad grammar. i.e. One excited reporter exclaimed "The hyeneas were far too close" an oxymoron? Those reporters also start a quote and never end the quote. I'm still waiting! Oh yes; many people say "thank you" but where is the "you're welcome" answer? Another one is: "I thought to myself - - -" Who else would you think to? Now they are mixing phrases; as in "they were traveling at a "high rate of speed". Rate and Speed are the same thing. We all remember the one "the body was found missing". Another one that erks me; ATM machine, VIN number, GPS system. Do you notice the redudancy? Words that are misused: less vs. fewer, scared vs. afraid, far vs. much (the word MUCH seems to have disappeared). So many can't pronounce Brett Favre's last name. Notice the "v" comes before the "r". It is a 2-syllable word. Fav-re. His wife was interviewed on TV and was asked how to correctly pronounce her last name. How about this one: "the weather is warming up" or "cooling down". I know that warming means the temperature is going up, or cooling means that the temperature is going down. Why do they add the redundant words "up" or "down"?
There! I feel so much better having vented my frustrations. Thank you all for reading this disertation. Oh, and pardon my spelling and questionable grammar.
Good article! For my 2 cents (or is it 10 cents with inflation) worth. I watch too much television and notice that the pundits use very bad grammar. i.e. One excited reporter exclaimed "The hyeneas were far too close" an oxymoron? Those reporters also start a quote and never end the quote. I'm still waiting! Oh yes; many people say "thank you" but where is the "you're welcome" answer? Another one is: "I thought to myself - - -" Who else would you think to? Now they are mixing phrases; as in "they were traveling at a "high rate of speed". Rate and Speed are the same thing. We all remember the one "the body was found missing". Another one that erks me; ATM machine, VIN number, GPS system. Do you notice the redudancy? Words that are misused: less vs. fewer, scared vs. afraid, far vs. much (the word MUCH seems to have disappeared). So many can't pronounce Brett Favre's last name. Notice the "v" comes before the "r". It is a 2-syllable word. Fav-re. His wife was interviewed on TV and was asked how to correctly pronounce her last name. How about this one: "the weather is warming up" or "cooling down". I know that warming means the temperature is going up, or cooling means that the temperature is going down. Why do they add the redundant words "up" or "down"?
There! I feel so much better having vented my frustrations. Thank you all for reading this disertation. Oh, and pardon my spelling and questionable grammar.
I am thirty years old and I greatly enjoyed this article. I have spent twenty years being frustrated by the decline in language. I am now very grateful that as a child I had the opportunity and interest to read old college level grammar textbooks.
This really impacted on me.
Well written and sad commentary on the passing of our language.
That was like -- wow. Just wow.
U R prolly like, an ol fossil UR something, LOLZ!
Very witty, well written, and though provoking Mr. Whelton. As a child of the '80s, I find it interesting to call these ubiquitous means of communication into question; after all, they have been my reality for 26 years.
What I can offer, or speculate, is that in addition to being "a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas" and "a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge," this ever unnecessarilynarrative communication style does is allow/force people into an analytical and superficial way of connecting; a way of connecting that averts addressing emotional depth on a personal level, and emotional connectivity with others. It seems this linguistic phenomenon is a symptom of a larger cultural tragedy - the shift from respecting, even cultivating, emotional depth, to one where head-centered "knowing" and analytical thought are glorified at the expense of otherforms of intelligence, emotional intelligence being one of them.
Perhaps addressing linguistic "vagueness" is a means to correcting this end. But we should also strive for a culture imbued with depth - one where shallow narrative language could not possibly begin to describe the range of our human experience, or fulfill our desire for true and deep connection.
Another sign of the apocalypse
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This is a problem in other languages too.
Teachers should tell their students at a very young age to avoid internet chats and sms texting jargon. It should be explained to them the value of the written language and to always keep in mind the whole spelling of The Word.
Sometimes I interview people who apply for jobs at our company. If the applicant's language is too liberally spiced with "like", "you know", and especially ending statements with a question-like intonation, he or she will not get the job.
That's not because I'm a grammar fanatic, but simply because I need people who know what they want and are able to express it clearly and unequivocally. Language is the tool we use to get to know people, and, rightly or wrongly, I judge someone's determination based to a large degree on the language he or she uses.
I'm not looking for someone aggressive, just someone who knows who (s)he is, knows exactly what (s)he wants and is able to convey that convincingly.
On the other hand, quackiness, no matter how annoying, will not disqualify someone, if everything else sounds good.
I appreciate the writer's point, but I think what's even sadder is hearing people try not to fall into those traps, try to make their speech sound correct, and hearing them fail because they don't know how. For years the subject/verb agreement has been mauled, both in speech and in writing. Example: "There's problems we can't solve." There is? There are? Excuse me, I'm so irritated at that sentence I'm missing your point.
More recently, I keep hearing the improper use of the word "myself". People speaking slowly and painfully, trying to get it right, saying "if you have any information, please contact Mr. Jones or myself".
Preach it, Brother!!
Thank you, thank you, for pinpointing how sloppy and unintelligble our language has become. Yes, language grows, evolves, but...this is ludicrous
A question - has the language in other lands done the same? Is French, for example, filled with a plethora of "like" and "y'know"
Oh my - am thankful the Federalist Papers were clear, concise, and understandable.
By the way,that first word in the box is, to me, a "non-word"...I do not have thoe symbles on my computer. I wonder - will I still get through to you?
AMEN, Mr. Whelton. I first noticed this in 1983, when new interns at work were showing the first signs of this epidemic, and often could not be understood by older people we worked with. Their writing was equally obscure, bordering on the ridiculous. Unfortunately, in the marketplace these speech patterns and writing issues do not sell them well to potential bosses. But they are tone deaf, and have no idea what the problem is.
Thank you for a well written summary of the symptoms, now what do we do about the cure???
Brilliant. My sentiments exactly. And I expect, yours. You alone make up for a generation of miscreants. Hold the fort(ress)!
Well I can inform 'like' that the affliction has spread to the Emerald Isle 2...
I don't see why I can not agree 100%.
Thank you for you thoughts on current usage. It reveals how impolite common discourse has become, Consequently, "You need to" not only has replaced "You should" but more sadly, "Would you please?" Also, "No problem" has become an arrogant substitution for "You're welcome."
This article is a delight! The phenomenon has been crossing the pond, and it's encouraging to find that you are as bemused as we.
When I sort of read this completely brilliant, decisive piece of writing, I was like "WTF". Brilliant and I'm glad I have company gritting my teeth when spoken to by the Younger Generation.
(Facebook Like). Oh, and by the way, :)
I can only say that I too have been amazed at the constant degradation of the English language. Even the brightest of the bright desecrate it fairly regularly. Sad!
I'm 43, and I recall that in the second grade Mrs. Christiansen (our lady teachers were Missuses then, not Mizzes) asked if anyone could identify an idiosyncrasy in which most of the children engaged (she didn't use the word "idiosyncrasy.") One of the smart girls in the class answered, "we like to say, 'like.'" "Yes, exactly!" replied Mrs. Christiansen.
For what it's worth.
Incidentally, in the third grade, Mrs. Barber asked the same question, and the same precocious girl gave the same response. "Actually," replied Mrs. Barber, "you all shuffle your feet when you walk." Perhaps there's a connection.
Another grammatical error that seems to have become very common is to start a sentence with "Me and my dad" or "Me and my friend". Sounds, like, so juvenile . . . .
ur article rocks! folks uv not seen nothing yet! tweets will change the way we think, the way we work - soon peeps need not waste time to spell stupidly long words
Ouch. It was painful to acknowledge this article as an accurate picture of the decline of communication. It is as if we have become the mainstream equivalent of Ebonics, a dialect that depends upon face-to-face communication so that all the vaguenesses of the message can be questioned by the listener.
No more writing or speaking for an audience beyond earshot.
Michelle Obama is seriously afflicted.
This is a little insight into what is going on in our schools and homes for that matter.
My niece started talking like this in high school and it was even worse her first year in college.
New infections since the early 90’s:
If you don’t have many words at your disposal, you tend to overuse the ones that you possess. Examples:
• “Awesome”: I lament the loss of this wonderful word. It is absolutely worthless now.
• “Effing”: All purpose modifier.
• Then there’s the double irritation of words “kinda”, “sorta” and “wanna”
Here in the south (USA) preppy-type women speak with rising and lowering of pitch for no reason at all. This results in a sing-songy sound that has a little-girl quality to it. Also the drawing out of certain words, for example blah-blah was soooooo blah-blah which gives a similar effect.
Lastly I notice, particularly among young men, the rise in the loudness of speech. My theory is that there is a plague of hearing loss due to IPOD usage, overpowered car stereos and over-amplified club music.
My personal favorites are "I really sort of..." and "I sort of really..." It makes my teeth hurt.
I'm like, speechless. I mean, what is up with this? I told my wife, I said, Honey, it's like wow, you've got to read this, and she's all, what's it about? And I go, for sure this is what's happening.
Word up, dog!
How did you write this very fine article without mentioning Caroline Kennedy?
Absolutely brilliant article that captured all of my thoughts about American English. I don't speak acronym either or type Facebook. My son-in-law, who graduated from Claremont in the states, said it beauifully in the 1990s: stupidity has become fashionable. Generally, people are no longer trained to engage in critical thinking at the university level. They are trained to do what they are told,which is what pleases corporate health care and corporate America.
Same thing in Brazil. Poor portuguese, poor mind.
omg, this is, like, so true. Stuff like this is just, you know. Totally.
A friend just sent me this article. I would be laughing out loud if it weren't so sad and true. Thank you for your good story-telling and observations.
This is, like, OMG!!!
Clark Whelton should be knighted.
(Is, like, "knighted" a verb?)
The camouflage seems to be donned as a reversible cloak of denial and worn almost proudly.
As I read this, I wondered why Whelton did not make some stipulation in his advertisements to warn off adherents of Vaguesness. But then I recalled a similar experience I had years ago, back when I practiced law, and knew it would not have worked.
I sometimes needed to hire a paralegal and would place ads in the paper in which I would state that the person should submit a résumé and a cover letter. My purpose was to see whether the person could follow instruction, whether the person understood the different functions of the two papers and how well the person could write.
My ads regularly produced up to 200 applicants, the majority of whom submitted only a résumé or a cover letter. Among those who submitted both, a majority sent a cover letter that was simply a re-stating of the résumé in prose form.
And then there were those who thought using faux-parchment paper or stationery with pink frilly borders or that was decorated with cute drawings of animals was suitable for a law practice.
Shall we blame it all on television?
In an era when Stephenie Meyer can become the authorial idol of millions of adults as well as children, what hope have we?
You're totally spot-on Clark, and it's not just an American problem. We hear it in South Africa too. The big question is, "What can we do to halt this attack on our English language?"
Thank you for this insightful article. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I fear social media has further reinforced our tendency to speak in soundbites. I've noticed that we seem incapable of conveying emotion and humor in our written correspondence without the aid of emoticons or smileys. This is very unfortunate, but it might also be an effort to overcome the difficulties of having become a highly multi-cultural society in recent years, where sarcasm and colloquialisms are not easily understood. People seem to be much quicker to take offense these days as well.
As a graduate from High School in 1987, I am trying to become aware of and eliminate my own verbal ticks. They are deeply ingrained. You wondered if this devolution of language developed as a way to camouflage a lack of knowledge. My own experience as a product of the eighties causes me to wonder the opposite. I noticed a trend of anti-intellectualism among my peers. Being smart was nerdy and uncool, and speaking properly was seen as snobbish. I think this is still the case, but I care less now. My Mother has reminded me that I would make a great effort to seem dumb in order to fit in when I was younger, and your article has reminded me of the consequences of that choice. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who introduced me to the notion that the melodic sound and lyrical quality (or lack thereof) of a society's language exposes the character of the people who speak it. I hope we can recover our culture's sense of dignity.
I wonder how the trend toward communicating in text will change this. The young folk nowadays do a lot of their socializing on line and in text messages. I can't imagine that vague-speak would work in those media.
It surely didn't come from the Heart !
Is vagueness simply a form of laziness? That is the way I see it, at least in part. "[S]hifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener" definitely sounds like a form of laziness on the part of the speaker. As a child, especially a young child, a large part of the burden of communicating falls on the adult simply because the child lacks the vocabulary and grammatical finesse. But is this grammatical laziness simply the fault of the speaker or is this another failure of our educational system or is there a real social need to be vague.
The phenomenon you described is happening in Hebrew speech as well. Youth now intersperse their sentences with k'ilu (as if, like).
But like what can I say, man, when he goes and says things like that?
Heartfelt thanks from an appreciative Canadian writer
This contagion is not limited to America. Our dialect in New Zealand is founded in British English, but all the traits referred to in this article are apparent here too. The saddest thing about it is that vagueness avoids the necessity of effort in thinking. I think its appeal to juveniles is that "vaguenish" means you don't sound smart and therefore possibly nerdy and therefore definitely uncool. As we know, uncool is death for teenagers. It also becomes a form of dialect with which teenagers communicate (after a fashion with each other)
The problem is that, as you say, it is tolerated in classrooms, so that children have no venue in which they are required to think and articulate real words in real sentences.
Enjoyed the article and observations. I might suggest stepping back and reflecting on the Vagueness phenomenon from a larger perspective of how cultural changes have been affecting communication at a fundamental level. Thomas de Zengotita's book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It, comes to mind. He interprets the word "like" and the Vagueness phenom as evidence that we're moving quickly into a visual culture where we no longer narrative, describe, explain, argue, etc., but we act out what we want to communicate in order to show it, not tell it; in a media culture, words are not enough any more. We don't just want to tell you what we said, but how we said it, the feelings, facial expressions, etc. etc. Neal Gabler's book, Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, also comes to mind ...
I have worked at Vassar and lived on campus. Students there often speak with clarity and directness. The college, on the other hand, is barely able to open it's mouth without saying, "We are a highly selective institution," a statement not only vague but pretentious. The best speakers and writers of English are no longer drawn to pretentious universities or to conservative speech writing. A man drowning doesn't assume the world is drowning, but here Whelton imagines that language itself is in the grips of a fatal malaise that affects everyone, not just the people he attracts nor notices. No doubt this lament about language is as old, and as tedious, as the genealogies in the Bible, the catalog of ships in Homer, and the acceptance speeches at the Oscars.
Oops! I forgot a parenthesis...I must be as stupid as the generations who destroyed an entire continent of forests and threw away their position as the leader of the free world to "liberate themselves" with overrating, sex, drugs, etc.
Keep fighting the good fight against the enviro crowd but it really was your generation of dumb farts who put us on this unsustainable path...a bunch of idiots who thought they deserved to own everything even if to feel good about themselves they didn't think they needed to really be smart or get a very helpful job..just buy buy buy!!!
(I'm sure it's not at all our lazy hippy pervert parents who were too busy molesting and abandoning us to teach us proper grammar.)
I mean you guys aborted tens of millions of innocent children, ruined our air quality, took the most successful country in the history of the world and in less than a half a century turned it to a bloated failing pathetic mess...but we say like too much so lets just focus on your kids! (I don't think we ever have to focus on critiquing boomers..we just need more articles from them letting us know how everything is their kids' or their parents' fault!)
Yea you wrote speeches for a baby murderer but those blasted rascally kids like say like too much for your taste. (That's always the sign of a real genius right? Writing an article about how bad our grammar is yet not being intelligent enough to come up with more than three ways to put us down...WE F-ING GET IT YOU THINK WE SAY LIKE TOO MUCH YOU DON'T HAVE TO MAKE 40 CUTE JOKES ABOUT IT TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS!
And no one from your generation was stupid white trash right? I'm sure you're much smarter than me (or at least, in boomer fashion, you believe you're smarter than me and that's good enough for you...it was all your parents' and your kids' fault right bud?)
i say thanks to all the english classes that we have to take every single year of school.
i hated it! a complete waste of time.
but the point is too narrow; its not simply the english, its the whole elementary-college education system!
read Horace Mann on public education.
Terrific!! Another issue I have is "me and Mary." What happened to the rule of putting refence to yourself last? "Me first" has become the rule.
And then five years later it all started happening here in the UK. And then it got even worse - by now it was considered 'cool' not to grow up, so parents started aping their children's mannerisms, with the result that you now have to be over 70 not to use the word 'like' every quarter of a sentence or the question intonation for statements.
Like, thank you, America?
where are the rest of us who dislike "like"?
Interesting read! Would love to know more about the origin of vagueness though....anyone interested?
I, like, loved this.
i like didnt get ur artcle it was weerd evry1 taks n rites propr theez dAs that like crzy dawg so like peeceout dude so peeceout
You are like a jerk who like thinks hes better than like everyone else who doesnt like use proper grammar. "Proper grammar" like may not be like literally correct; however, if the like common population like understands and like accepts it then is it really like a big deal?? No. Your just too old to accept the changes and just write them off as nonsense. LIKELIKELIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE
This is super badass. I wanna make love to this author
I was born in the wrong century. Devolve, revolve, evolve. Oh where, oh where has my little language gone? Oh where, oh where can it be?
Vagueness is probably natural language, akin to the way prehistoric peoples spoke and thought, before Rationality was imposed by organizing philosophers.
It's the free-associative, emotional language of dream and myth. Hence the prevalence of "like:" things are like each other in some emotionally significant way, not logically derived from specific propositions.
And don't even think about texting leetspeak!
I loved the article!
Perhaps King George VI's stutter would have gone practically unnoticed had he had a 21st century 10th-grader American kid writing his speeches!! And the world would have forever lost the chance to witness Colin Firth's amazing performance...
Mr Whelton, I read your article with a sense of recognition. I taught in high school for well over thirty years, and in that time I saw the linguistic skills of my students plummet. You see, I was a French teacher, and explaining the very confusing law of agreement of past participles, I used to be able to say, "Past participles agree in gender and number with their preceding direct objects" and watch the students nod in understanding. By the time I retired, I had to set aside a large number of classroom periods to explain what a past participle was, a direct object and even a subject. My students lacked even basic knowledge of sentence structure. To them it was just "boring". They got this idea, of course, from their English teachers who themselves found sentence structure boring and, moreover, impenetrable - they had never learned it themselves. A very good friend of mine, an English teacher, a man I respected greatly (for other things), often said that grammar should be taught in foreign language courses, not English courses. I never succeeded in convincing him otherwise.
American education has worsened over the years, and now the downward trend will only increase as teachers and other government employees slowly get used to dealing with no money at all and a complete lack of anything even resembling respect for their profession. Will all of this result perhaps in education somehow eventually emerging triumphant, showing us the error of our former ways? Not a chance! If we returned in a century, we wouldn't be able to recognize the language, not because of normal linguistic change, but because it will have become merely a series of verbal (and facial) tics, like, y'know, sorta, kinda, I dunno - complete lack of any real substance.
I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am.
I wish your article were required reading among English teachers.
The evolution of language is always very painful, especially for the elders of the clan. And being an elder,I dislike the "juvenilization" of American English very much. Yet it will evolve no matter what we hope for. An example to look at,of course,is that we'd still be speaking and writing Old English were it not for this phenomenon.
Like I wish, I would've, wow to write this article, like?
The way young people speak now is a deliberate 'distancing' of themselves from the generations before them; a form of tribalism. The student's response when questioned as to why he used 'like' so frequently didn't elicit feelings of guilt; rather the opposite. In the parlance of my own youth he was saying - get with it. What is worrying is that they are not outgrowing these annoying verbal habits.
Very interesting! A related article, focusing on vagueness in THOUGHT (among college students specifically), was written by Tim Lyons, "Why Do People Vote Against Their Own Interests? Or, What Do Our Schools Apparently Not Do?" in The Vocabula Review, Feb. 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2.
Amen, Clark Whelton.
The nineteenth century saw the convergence of the illiterate into the literate. The twentieth century saw the divergence of the alliterate from the literate. The twenty-first century....?
Excellent article. Unfortunately the contagion described has reached these shores too. It's not attractive.
I laughed all the way through. This is every conversation I have with college and high school students. This year I gave up. For the first time, I refused to pay $4000 for a temporary employee who couldn't speak like an adult. Well written.
Wow. I don't get it-why didn't they welcome the soldiers home or anything?
How truly wonderful to find someone who actually feels these are matters of gravity.I thought all I could do was carry my festering emotions and useless rage to extinction one day.The world could unlearn everything and I wouldn't have to be around to see it.
After reading most of the comments on your article, I saw that some critics had reading problems, problems pertaining the understanding of the English language, even if it was about about the American substitute for real english. They seemed to be mistaken about your inability to understand people.
Good article, I enjoyed reading it so much that I have copied it to show my friends.
Brit: "Excuse me please, can you tell me the the correct time."
Yank: "I do."
That is, from my side of the pond, to say the least, amazing.
Here is an excerpt from a media report:
An illegal immigrant in Polk County Florida who got pulled over in a routine traffic stop ended up killing the deputy who stopped him. The deputy was shot eight times, including once behind his right ear at close range.
Another deputy was wounded and a police dog killed.
A state-wide manhunt ensued. The murderer was found hiding in a wooded area and as soon as he took a shot at the SWAT team, officers opened fire on him. They hit the guy 68 times. Naturally, the liberal media went nuts and asked why they had to shoot the poor undocumented immigrant 68 times.
Sheriff Grady Judd told the Orlando Sentinel: "Because that's all the ammunition we had."
Now, is that just about the all-time greatest answer or what?
The Coroner also reported that the illegal man died of natural causes. When asked by a reporter how that could be since there were 68 bullet wounds in his body, he simply replied "When you are shot 68 times, you are, naturally, gonna die."
I am a British subject, living in Germany, learning American and English grammar anew in order to be successful as an author.
And that at the age of 67.
Thought you might find this interesting
I grew up in the good grammar days. Many of the people who grew up at that time weren't paying attention. My wife, holder of a master's degree in education sounds as if she had never had a grammar lesson. Subjective and objective are almost never correct. "If I was".
The first time I heard, "No problem." substituted for "You're welcome." I inferred that if there were a problem he wouldn't have done whatever I thanked him for.
Our current Champion of Vagueness has his office in Washington D. C.
enjoyable and informative
Like is a pragmatic marker. (Google it.) It doesn't make an utterance more or less vague.
And the lack of - ly - on adverbs and the constant us of - up - as in "team up". Ye gods!
Brilliant. I want to read all of Whelton's books now.
excellent article..I am a career coach
and hear bad english all the time..no wonder no job! Rose
This is not just an (American) English issue: the same thing is happening in the Netherlands and, I presume, in the rest of Europe. The specific phrases vary, but the overall pattern is the same: where in English one would say 'like', one says 'zeg maar' in Dutch.
As to the cause: I agree that the use of sloppy language is probably an attempt to shift the burden of understanding to the reciever. From the sixties onwards, the educational paradigm has shifted in favor of liking, praising and encouraging everything the pre-adult mind produces, no matter how inept. The result is that children grow up (and have grown up) expecting to be understood, no matter what verbal diarhea escapes their mouths.
What's missng from this article, is a solution. We're already flooded in 'likes' and 'you knows' - how can we prevent ourselves from drowning in them?
In British and Australian English the questioning rise at the end of a declarative sentence is called the "moronic interrogative".
I didn't realize that anyone alive knew how to verbalize what used to be correct English as apposed to the mangled usage now accepted as educated prose. Congratulations for expressing my gripes so well.
The comment apparatus is poorly designed on this website. You should be able to (forced to) see previous comments before contributing a comment. And you should be able to comment on a comment. These changes would facilitate dialogue--of which there is currently almost none--in the comments section. I should have been able to (forced to) read the comment of Aaron Baker below before submitting my own, which makes a very similar point. Then I might have responded to him and the comments section would begin to have little pockets of dialogue, rather than just being a linear descent of isolated (and redundant) thoughts.
The author gives examples of speech patterns that annoy him. He's entitled to his own aesthetic judgment. But if the examples given are truly vague (have ambiguous meaning) for Whelton, then the problem is with his feeble comprehension skills. For any competent English speaker, the meaning of each of the following (in order of citation in the article) should be straightforward:
2010--A woman finds a squirrel in her back yard and contemplates picking it up.
1985--NYU applicant admits that he employs "like" in his speech.
1987--Applicant went to Columbia, majored in English.
1987--Someone asks his/her friend if he (the friend) wants to see a movie. The friend answers: no.
1951: (a) H. Caulfield landed on his side; his arm hurt. (b) Caulfield decided something; content/object of decision not quoted by Whelton. (c) Caulfield went to a drugstore because he was hungry.
None of these examples of spoken English contain any ambiguity of meaning (i.e. vagueness). If Whelton DID understand that the 1987 applicant majored in English at Columbia, that the friend did not want to see a movie, that Caulfield's arm hurt after he fell on his side, etc., then his attributions of vagueness are disingenuous. If he did NOT understand these things, then his command of English is seriously deficient (aural and reading comprehension being integral components of language competence). Or, perhaps, he wants to *convince* himself that he did not comprehend these things, though in fact he *did* understand them. In that case he's a paragon of Bad Faith and needs to read Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Assuming his comprehension of written English will allow for that.
So I was reading this article and, like, I thought it was totally awesome...
I see all the changes you've noted in the classes I teach, and in written work. I try to fight the rising tide, but...
Kate Middleton? She speaks English better than her betrothed. Prince William sounds like a Valley boy with an upper-class English accent. His brother sounds just as bad.
This columnist may have been an excellent speech-writer, but he (she?) appears to know little about spoken English, and does not comprehend it. How old is he(she?), I wonder?
First of all, to argue there are "rules" to the English language is a blatant fallacy: There is no formal institution, no group of officials who determine how the English language is structured like there is with French (Académie française) or Chinese (National Language Regulating Committee/National Language Committee). The "rules" of "formal" English are merely optional guidelines to sounding more proper or upper class.
Secondly, while you acknowledge the continuous evolution of the English language, you deploy cognitive bias to the masses, disregarding the fact that they (and not the sacred halls of Oxford and Harvard) are the source of any linguistic progression in the English language. Having no formal institution to oversee the language does that: It turns the language into a lively experiment developed by the people and cultures that speak it themselves themselves. Consequently, what constitutes formal and slang are different in various areas and people.
Finally, this is not the first time I have seen this. Arguably, while you were in college, there were writers and professors in your time who were arguing the same thing. Time and again, they forget that they cannot control the masses' use of the language.
The only argument you can even stand one foot on is the fact that the quality of college education has supposedly declined. How you place this here is, at best, questionable.
And if that isn't bad enough, I recently was handed an essay written in Tweet Speak. OMG!
Let me add "I mean" and "Yeah no" to the list used by students, authors, war correspondents and economists. This becomes our decent into nonsense.
That "Vagueness" has crept into spoken and written English is certainly true, and the article is amusing enough. However, it is in no way self-evident that changes in written and spoken language constitute a problem. Perhaps the author has evidence beyond whimsical anecdotes that "Vagueness" is problematic, in which case he should present it. Until then, the primary importance of his critique is that it gives anal retentive nonagenarians an opportunity to grouse about their descendants.
Thank you, this article has provided me with enough clues to finally decode the following phrase:
"Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?"
I appreciated this piece, but from whence the final right turn into blaming "political correctness"? (Whatever that is; not satisfactorily defined here.) Surely the goal of being inclusive and showing consideration for others demands that one thinks before one speaks, which can only aid precision?
Excellent article. "LIKE, WOW" you GUYS" The expression "you guys" is used consistently on every talk show on TB by comentators who should know better. Like you know, it drives me up the wall!
Here's a relatively new (and somewhat ironic) symptom of the Vagueness virus: the frequent, unprompted, and unnecessary use of the word "actually." ("I majored in English Lit, actually." "Actually I'll have the chowder.") It's an especial peeve of mine.
I wonder if others have noticed this as well.
Hmmm. That, like, made me think and stuff.
I was a wee babe when you first began noticing this shift to vagueness, so it's something I've grown up with my whole life. I'll have to pay more attention and see how vague I am when I speak.
I liked the end example, although as a wife of a soldier, I can say that I much prefer it when they don't have anything to say at those welcome home ceremonies. Because I have a whole year's worth of things to say and I can't wait to say them.
For someone who's so concerned about clear language, you don't seem focused on having a clear argument. For example, why do you call this phenomenon "Vagueness"? Having unsightly filler words such as "umm" or "like" does not make a sentence more vague, nor does repeating yourself (although it would tend to let people who didn't hear the first time more clear on your meaning rather than less). By "vague," I take you to mean "broad or ambiguous in meaning," and that's just not happening in any of the examples you give, except perhaps the increase in interrogative inflection in declarative statements.
It seems like what you want to do is to call these usages uneducated and grating to grammar scolds such as yourself. If that's the case, just go full-bore crotchety old man and own up already. If not, stop making disingenuous arguments.
Perhaps no one likes a language prig, but I proudly claim the sobriquet (I also answer to "unrepentant grammar scold"). Your article admirably demonstrates that the decline of language correlates with the decline of critical thought. I know many highly competent 40-somethings who blithely talk like teeny boppers yet somehow manage to be taken seriously. Perhaps that's because every member of every generation aged 40 and below now talks like that and accepts it as normal. It's such a shame.
"I grade bio courses..."
One can only hope that the above is the commentator's tongue in cheek attempt at vague-speak; and not, like, for real.
I'll take "no problem" over "no worries" any day.
The greater problem is that lack of clarity in language reflects a deeper lack of clarity in thinking.
Only a political speechwriter can use so many words to say nothing.
I'm a technical writer. And I don't care. The constructs of language are based in abstractions; words are symbols, and symbols only have meaning to people that share the same common background. What has happened is that while language-snobs like you were towing the Chicago Manual of Style linguistic-snob line, the world moved on and effectively discovered that it doesn't need your antiquated, Victorian, contrived sense of self-importance. People can and do communicate effectively, sending messages, and having them received and effectively understood, by people who share the common background of symbols, like 'like,' and 'l8r'. The truth of language is that language came first, and rules second. If the rules don't serve the needs of the communicator, they will be abandoned. Welcome to the 21st century. I'm so deeply fatigued by it. People don't share your values, so you call them illiterate. They're not. You are merely old, and your skills are of diminishing economic importance. The world doesn't care. Adapt.
The playback appears long before the 1980s.
"You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said."
The Waste Land (1922)
Sadly, technology has made us less literate. I'm now afraid that we're entering the era of the electronic caveman. No longer will words like "ecstatic" or "blissful" or "joyous," for example, be verbalized. Instead, we'll all be reduced to language like this,"RU:-)?"
The era of the electronic caveman is here.
The current trend in "vagueness" has lead to a disturbing reduction in vocabulary. I'm auditing a history class at a local university. It's an upper level class and I was expecting a modicum of intelligent conversation from at least some of the students. But what I'm experiencing is disheartening. They stumble and bumble their way through a question and usually end up with a trailed off sentence ending with "so, you know what what I mean?". No, we don't. Their verbal skills are appalling.
I was gonna read this, but it was too long.
I don't know where you've gotten the idea that people no longer say "you should," "no," "I said" or "you're welcome." I hear all of them frequently, and I'm both a member of the younger generation (I'm 27) and in close contact with the even-younger generation (my students are in their late teens). In every case that you mentioned, both the older form and the newer form are used, and they have different meanings.
For example, "you need to" is used when the speaker wants to convey an aggressive, domineering, commanding affect: "You need to stop talking now." "You should" is used when the speaker is offering advice in a collaborative spirit: "You should probably get that rash checked out." (The "probably" is not a sign of vagueness of meaning; it's a signal that the speaker is not trying to boss the listener around. "You might want to..." has the same function.)
Another example: "No" is much more emphatic than "not really." People say "not really" when the answer is "no," but they're not very invested in the fact that the answer is no. They say "no" when they feel more strongly. I can guarantee you, young feminist activists don't the phrase "'not really' means 'not really.'"
Similarly, "no problem" is much more casual than "you're welcome." If someone thanks you for lending them a pencil, you say "no problem." If someone thanks you for lending them a hundred dollars, you say "you're welcome." (Yes, I followed "someone" with "them" rather than "him." So did Jane Austen.)
As for people who talk as if every sentence is a question, it seems clear to me that there *is* an implied question: "Are you with me?" It's a way of checking in that the listener is engaged, and that the speaker is not just monologuing -- which makes it a form of politeness.
Er, yeah, like, whatever....
A wonderful take on this -- http://www.taylormali.com/index.cfm?webid=15
This article is as sad as it is funny. I can remember moving to New York City in 1996, my girlfriend at the time had "like" so carefully embedded into her vernacular that it was comical. I gave her the worst time about it fearing it would give us away as West Coast valley types, that is, until her classmates at the new School used the same fillers. Ed Koch was a regular at a restaurant which I waited tables in mid-town.
Strange is it not that here in the French speaking Province of Quebec our young people also suffer from this vagueness?
They speak French but display the same symptoms.
And when we see archival footage from the 1960s of French Quebecers intervied on Television, they all seem to either express themselves well or at least try.
So I know I am not imagining things.
It seems this is a problem of Western Culture or rather what is left of it ( not much in my opinion )
Liberals have infected almost everything in Western Civilization and now we are watching the slow decay of a once wonderful civilization.
PS: French is my first language. My English is self taught.
YEESSS !!! Try getting a coherent essay answer out of them either. I grade bio courses for upperclassmen at the community college and university levels. This is right on the mark. You know? I mean?
One has only to read a few pages from any Jane Austin novel to appreciate just how much language has changed. Listen to Kate Middleton , the lady who will marry William, son of Charles, Prince of Wales. Kate will , at some future date, become Queen of England In the interview with her and William after the announcement of their betrothal we heard, repeatedly, the famous ... "You know" dribbling from her mouth.
My own experience of reading mail from my American nieces is that they maintain a good standard of literacy albeit their sentences tend to be liberally laced with Americanism and construction follows accepted American styles and phraseology.
Listening to the unscripted street interviews with young people of all classes the language is inclined to drift into the area of almost complete incoherance. I mention this from the stand point of being English.
Brilliant. What I have noticed is people loosing a grip on the small words of the language, and getting lost between methaphors. So we end up with, 'going to the goal' instead of for it; as though merely approaching the goal posts is enough. Or,'under hot water' instead of being in it.
Unfortunately, these are not like the only ills of our like society. I like work in a like middle school. There is a decidedly full scale apathetic approval by parents allowing government to trample American standards by the dumbing down of its populace. Today, unlike when I was in school, a person's Id is tantamount to education, manners, and respect. Children are worshipped as small gods; they and their parents are as feared as pandemics. We do not work to educate children; we work so as not to be sued by their parents. We have allowed society to warp mores into morass.
I know I can sometimes fall victim to many flaws of grammar but hearing the juvenile and painful language of my college students and business coaching clients makes cringe.
I loved this article and am sharing it with my 90 year old Dad who always harped on me about my speech.
LIKE YOU KNOW ARRRRRRRRRRRGH?
I experienced similar experiences when interviewing interns for staff positions at a communications office in a university recently. In five years, I worked with two students who could write a complete sentence without an error. The lack of ability to think abstractly and to problem solve were common and frustrating weaknesses. kw
Some years ago I started collecting double likes. As in: "does she really, like, like him?" or (heard from some high school students in a Boston subway, as I was returning from an American Historical Association meeting: "The only subject I don't, like, like is history."
I once heard a triple like, but can't remember it.
I've wondered for years who was minding the English language. It appears that there are very few of us left...
Thank you for your article. It was enlightening, but at the same time, disconcerting. Have you considered a teaching career at NYU? This "Vagueness" or "Vague-ese" must be stopped, or how will the next generation communicate?
Let's face it. The English language as it was taught to us in the 40's and 50's is gone. I think the reason is television, and what you hear on TV today is for the most part aimed at the lowest common denominator. Most shows are just unwatchable - aimed at a lower class, lower intellect, lower aspirational audience. It's a shame that such a popular medium hasn't been aimed to elevate its audience.
This article should have been written 20 years ago so it would have more effect. Now,in 2011, it just sounds like a diatribe of a bitter man you've turned out to be.
Like, that's sooooooo true!! And, what is worse, your bastard-language practices are creeping into English English too.
Reading comments, mainly American, on Facebook and on blogs, I'm also struck by the use of "you" for "your" and "your" for "you're". "To" is substituted for "too" and punctuation appears to be a thing of the past.
I'm 64 and I'm sure that everyone who's about my age and was educated to the year 9 level or higher would agree with every word.
My contribution to the dictionary of vagueness:
"dramedy" (to me, this sounded like "dromedary" - the Arabian double-humped camel): drama + comedy
I came across this linguistic artifact while teaching Film Language 101 at UIUC. My guide, an elderly New Yorker, had warned me about nitpicking on the English usage of my students. He was funny. In my first day at office, he said he might even defend me against a sexual assault charge, but if I was hauled up for grading a cinema studies paper based on english usage, he'd certainly disown me. Undaunted, I gave low grades to anyone and everyone who used it the first time around -- to my own peril. Had to face a mass uprising against my "teaching methods" at the end of the semester. Learnt my lesson fast. Never again did I try my tough cop routine with merkin "TV-speak"!
Oh, thank you so much for putting a name to something that my, primarily British via Canada, education rails at; speech that seems more the speaker making sounds, and the listener having to interpret.
I thought that it was only me who saw this exchange as abnormal.
And now there is an appropriate name for it.
Thank you for this-like-really clear explanation
This article should be posted in every high school and college counseling office and career placement center in the country.
"Quack-talking?" An excellent description of how many women - especially on NPR deliver their reports. It seems to have an affinity for public broadcasters...At my time there (1997-2006) we called it "glottal fry" and assumed it was a way that young female reporters tried to assume broadcasting gravitas. When it was pointed out to them, they would stop speaking that way, but I notice it has begun to creep back onto the airwaves.
A few of my pet peeves relate to the bad usage by people who make their living with words, esp. journalists. There is the constant use of "there's", the contraction for there is, when the object is plural, e.g., "There's 3 ways to approach this."
Another is the use of "impact" as both a noun and a verb, where "effect" and "affect" should be used. But because few people know when to use which word, they default to impact, impact, impact!
Same with "me" versus "I". No one seems to know the rule, so they always say "I". Between you and "I", good speaking and writing is becoming rare indeed.
And if young people are less politically engaged today (and is that really true?), perhaps it is because the political system in the United States responds only to corporate interests and the needs of the wealthy.
The problem is that the article is a mishmash of familiar complaints.
"She was like" to mean "She said" is not vague. It means just that. It's definitely slangy.
"Like" as a filler, equivalent to "um," is not vague. It can become annoying, but so can the overuse of "um."
Onomatopoeia to describe an animal sound is not vague. Mimesis is about as specific as you can get. "Brekekekek croax croax!" And would you really strip the English language of "bang," "pow," "whoosh," "beep"?
And most slang is not vague. Used correctly, it can be incisive when older words have becomed dulled over time.
It's telling that so many commenters have jumped in with their own random school-marmish hobby horses. ("Guys" in a mixed-gender setting? Really? The death of the language?)
This article is so like, you know like really whatever that I thought you might like read or whatever...
Sigh ... I thought this was the domain of my communication-averse engineering students.
Thank you for exposing the dire condition of spoken American. As one who visits the US intermittently, I am assaulted each time by the deterioration that has occurred since my previous visit. Most disturbing is the hidden question mark at the end of every sentence, as though the speaker were looking for approval before moving on to the next sentence.
Although I agree with you that the problem began in the Eighties, I believe the roots of the problem began in the late Sixties, early Seventies: I remember expounding on a theory about the future to a young couple I had just met at a party. Instead of disagreeing with me or giving me their opinion, all they said was ‘Far out!’ and ‘Groovy’. Without any feedback of substance, the conversation, if you could call it that, came to an abrupt end.
It was almost as though ideas were commodies to be consumed, like canapes at a cocktail party, instead of invitations to take part in a conversation. The real victim here may not be language but the thought process itself.
So much of modern conversation seems to be an exchange of monologues, rather than a dialogue. Why we communicate may hold the key to how we communicate. But that’s another theory. . .
I'm like "whatever, man".
I have been teaching English for 34 years, not just in Canada but abroad, and I note that many foreigners maintain a higher degree of accuracy in English than my native Canadians. Unfortunately so. The question is how do we reverse a trend that is leading us down rather than up the ladder of communication and sophisticated thought?
Apart from this, I also have noted less and less interest in political or other important matters amongst our students, in N. America and elsewhere. It is as though college-aged students were reluctant to grow up and assume a degree of responsibility for their societies. This I note not only in Canada, but in other countries that I have taught in. There is simply a lack of knowledge, lack of interest, lack of thought among many college students. It is as if people were sticking their heads in the sand, pretending they are still children...
well, like, yeah.
There is also the habit of ending written sentences with an ellipsis, as if the writer dare not conclude a statement and thereby make it definitive -- there must always be an open end, so that a subsequent qualification can be added.
Perhaps it's the modern atmosphere of arbitrary politically-correct thought-policing which means that one can never be sure whether one may need to restate one's position to avoid trouble. Taking any definitive position has become politically and managerially dangerous.
Do you ever read Lucy Kellaway's columns in the Financial Times? She's a great detector and reviler of meaningless drivel at the corporate level.
Now I'm on a roll, perhaps I should also moan about American, and American-influenced companies having thousands of "vice-presidents". How come the 300 million people of the United States only need one vice president, yet every tuppeny (that's British for "two-bit") enterprise has a plethora of VPs, SVPs, EVPs and worse?
There was a time when a directorship was a high position, involving leading a large number of staff. Now I find directors of this or that who don't have any staff at all. Humbug!
"...immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of kids in ninth grade. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be fine with their high school teachers.” Where, I wonder, did Vagueness begin?"
Yes, I've noticed it too. Perhaps it began with it being fine with their high school teachers. It's all a part of the dumbing down of our educational system. I would venture that very few high schoolers could 'decode' the New England Primer that students used to learn from. The texting lingo and spelling codes, for text,don't help either.
I appreciate your response. You raise valid points.
However, I'm still not convinced. People still read and write a great deal. It's not the kind of reading and writing that I personally enjoy, but it's reading and writing all the same. Blogs, articles, etc. Perhaps these texts are as demanding as the texts that people read in the past. I don't know. I do know that trash novels and the like have been incredibly popular since the beginning of their existence. And I meet lots of intelligent people everyday--maybe fewer people are politically and socially engaged, but I think that's a different issue.
Aren't you a bit put off by any argument that talks about large scale decline (particularly about English which is growing and evolving a rapid pace)? Is the past always so much better?
Generations lose certain ways of knowing and communicating but also pick up new ways in the process (and the old ways don't ever go away completely--we can find their traces in the new forms--a crude example would be letter writing and e-mail writing).
The kind of argument put forth in this article just immediately seems wrong--even silly. I'm sorry. It's either because it is or because it goes nowhere in terms of provoking any change. If we believe the author's argument, what do we do next? The comments are largely negative (i.e. What's wrong with the world? People can't write a good sentence anymore!, etc.). The same people who complain about others' language have problems with their own language.
You would swear by reading these kinds of articles that people can't communicate anymore--as if the world has stopped and nothing worthwhile is no longer produced.
The reality is that people who have a narrow sense of what's acceptable language will get left behind. The more open you are to different uses of language, the more people you will be able to connect to and cooperate with.
I wish I wouldn't have even read this article, let alone spent time writing about it. But I suppose I appreciate the fact that it got a rise out of me!
There are real problems in this world. This isn't one of them.
This is one good article that I have read after a very long time. Made me laugh!
It is sad the way the communication medium has been changing. Instant gratification!
Well, AR, this is all off the top of my head, but I'll take a stab at backing up Whelton's argument:
1. The Federalist papers. These dense and intricate political tracts were originally published in New York newspapers to persuade the general populace to support the new Constitution. The general populace. They would have been pointless if that audience couldn't have understood them. Today, we're lucky if college graduates can understand them.
2. Read chapter four of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death for plenty of specific examples--and more circumstantial ones--of greater linguistic fluency in generations past. Please note that this material does emphasize the quality of common verbal communication, and not just writing by professionals.
3. An article in our beloved City Journal, "The Classics in the Slums," also substantiates the thesis that verbal strength was far stronger prior to World War II (as people must have had better vocabularies and the ability to comprehend and enjoy complex structures in order to so generally immerse themselves in the classics): http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_4_urbanities-classics.html.
4. Generations of American schoolchildren were educated by Webster's Blue-Backed Speller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Webster#Blue_Backed_Speller) and McGuffey's Readers (http://www.amazon.com/McGuffeys-Eclectic-Readers-William-McGuffey/dp/0471294284). Those works had rigorous grammar and plenty of quality, classical quotations for models. Clearly, the pre-20th century standards for literacy were far superior to those of today.
5. One might counter that these examples focus on overall, idealized literacy, not specifically speech and practical, personal writing/communication, which is the subject here. To the prior items I'd add any number of average, regular Joe letters and diaries from before the last few generations. Though spelling was often unstandardized, the depth of structure, the vocabulary, and the seriousness of thought were almost always at least attempting to reach the heights of style. Examples of such are often available to see in National Archives exhibits or in Smithsonian Magazine, among many other sources online.
To turn the contrary thesis around, can anyone document the widespread existence prior to the middle of the last century of the kind of degraded speech substitutes that the author criticizes? Even in the slang world of Huck Finn, we see a linguistic bar set higher than what most "educated" young people could reach today.
The author probably hated "On the Road" when it came out, too. Those dam' beatniks with their crazy hipster slang! Who can understand what the kids are talking about these days?
I tried to name this communication by sound effect and intonation Inarticulish. I'll accept Vagueness, it reads better on the page. You may bemoan this trend in college graduates, but I assure you at lower, uneducated sociology-economic levels of society it is unfortunately ALL pervasive. Question intonation is at the end of declarative statements is also the norm in Australia. Some of us are already preparing our cells, like monks in the Dark Ages, scribbling to preserve a lost, unappreciated and incomprehensible art.
After teaching elementary school for eighteen years, I suggest we take a hard look at the rise of standardized testing as an enabler, if not a cause, of the collapse of effective communication skills in schools. Writing and speech are difficult to assess objectively and do not lend themselves to a multiple-chioce testing format. Why, then, should we bother teaching such things when our administrators and the public we serve demand only higher standardized test scores? As with literature (reading, like, actual books), effective writing and speech no longer have a central place in the curriculum.
I teach college English, so people ask me why students/young people can't write and speak. The claim that English is on the decline is unfounded. There is NO evidence that past generations' wrote and spoke more eloquently than those who came after them.
I talk to older professors and high school about this "problem," and they tell me that students have always had problems expressing themselves. Textbooks spanning several decades demonstrate this as well in their warnings about clarity and conciseness.
And slang isn't new by the way. And English has spread across the globe, so we are seeing many different kinds of English.
Here's what I need to buy the argument put forth in this article (and it's a tired, oft-repeated argument--completely unoriginal):
I need lots of examples of people in similar social situations but in different time periods speaking and writing about similar issues. You probably won't find much of that.
This article provides some interesting context, but it says nothing. Deceptively selective.
Also, please spare me the lame anecdotal evidence used to support the claim made in this article. The opening example about the woman describing the squirrel doesn't illustrate anything. Common sense will tell you that inarticulate people have existed in all epochs. And to be fair to those people, we all get tripped up on our words from time to time.
And finally, the author's attempts at fairness (Now, nobody likes a grammar prig...) are quite hollow because the overall argument is not strong and is not fair.
Oh, my gosh! Times have changed while I was out on a burrito break. Like . . . well, that's sad and disturbingly so. The lack of any ceremony for a returned service man who has faced death---that REALLY bothers me. When we can't organize & articulate in any way our gratitude for a dangerous military tour of duty---that speaks dramatically---it is in effect like the dog that didn't bark. I'm sorry, as an ex-serviceman, to read this.
Vagueness is in commerce. Go into a store and ask for a certain shirt in green and the answer is often 'I don't think we have that size in green'. And, this is said hesitantly. As if they might have it, but the clerk doesn't think so, or isn't sure. Then, they stand there as if they have answered the question.
It drives me nuts.
Uh, linguists are like, so totally rolling their eyes right now. Like, this article is cool or whatever, but it totally misunderstands that "should" and linguistics are not the same, um... thing. Know what I mean? Bitterness and ignorance mixed together are like, so yesterday.
Not only do today's college students speak like elementary students, they also think and reason like children. Don't you think dumbing down with today's mainstream television offerings has been a significant source of the mental slowness?
I think it's more than the demands of political correctness. I think it goes much deeper. It's a deflection of responsibility for anything, to be held to any position -- so one can deny having actually said anything definitive about anything.
Hope and Change and expanding our moral imaginations. Winning the future.
Why do you think this meaningless mushy claptrap is working so well, especially on the younger generations?
We follow the patterns laid down for us. I noticed in the early 70s that restaurant menus spoke of 'veggie' this and 'veggie' that, as if their customers were infants, too young to deal with the coarse reality of vegetables; now the term is inextricably entwined with our cuisine. As for the Vagueness milfoil (thanks) itself, the source we can all thank is Hollywood, TV and film, which provide the models the kids follow, and our schools and the current generation of parents produced by those schools, which steadfastly refuse to apply any standards at all -- indeed, appear unaware that any standards exist.
The last part of this article gets at a big component of the Vagueness problem. Obviously, that homecoming would have been a good opportunity for a speech. But I think prepared public discourse started to appear suspect during the '60s and '70s. Given the political climate of the time, I can almost understand why. Since then, remarks that are casual and unstudied are wrongly assumed to be more authentic. It's a classic case of losing the baby with the bath water. Think about the last wedding you attended. How many of the toasts to the new couple were prepared? And how many toast-givers just stood up and "winged it?" I think this suspicion of well-thought-out speech has filtered down to the everyday encounters a lot of the commenters here describe. Taking the energy to make yourself understood to another person is looked on as something suspect.
You neglected to comment on the use of the upward inflection at the end of every sentence even though it is not a question. I call it "upspeak" and it drives me nuts.
I am in my late 50s. I taught high school in the early 80s and found most of the students were decent writers. I then stayed home with my children for 14 years and went back to teaching in the late 90s. I found that not only couldn't the students write well, but they couldn't speak properly either. I talked to other teachers and looked for reasons for the decline in the written and spoken word. The curriculum at my school had declined in the 14 years I was out of the classroom and was to blame.
The school had pushed a touchy feely attitude where each child's unique style and voice had to be appreciated and celebrated (yes, that is the word that was used) no matter how the child wrote. This attitude stemmed from the belief that honestly critiquing the student's writing would hurt the student's feelings and damage the student's ego. The concern for the ego overrode the demand for a rigorous writing program with an emphasis on grammar.
I was told when a student couldn't pass a grammar test for the 3rd time that I needed to accommodate the student's needs and let her make a poster rather than take the test again because test taking wasn't a strength of hers. Needless to say, writing wasn't a strength of hers either. She was allowed to make a pretty poster on nouns rather than having to pass a test and show mastery.
The administration also emphasized that not all children came from the same socio-economic background, so those students couldn't be held to the old rigid standards of writing and grammar. The attitude prevailed that these students' voices were correct the way they were and needed to be heard. Standard grammar study was slowly replaced with cultural slang and bad grammar. All students suffered because the curriculum had to be lowered to accommodate the lowest common denominator.
The decline of grammar in the 80s began when political correctness and the concern for the child's ego triumphed over knowledge. Many schools then began to drop teaching English classes using the established canon of English literature. Even Harvard in the last 10 years has dropped requiring the classics as a requirement for an English degree. Students across America now read John Grisham in their English classes.
How can we expect young Americans to write and speak properly when they have not been held to standards in their classes and when the body of literature that they have read comes from the current best seller? Our educational system is the main culprit here.
Loudon Wainwright: "Cobwebs" from 1995
Well it stumbles and it falls off of almost every tongue
Give a listen and you'll hear
It's workin like a landmine in almost every sentence
It's an assault to my mind's ear
Yeah it might have started back with Jack Kerouac
Probably more than likely it was Maynard G. Krebs
It's the 4 letter word that used to mean 'as if'
And the meaning's covered in cobwebs
Used to be a preposition then it was a conjunction
Now it's used as an audible pause
Oh I hate it when I hear it especially when I see it
Gotta stamp it out there ought to be some laws
College boys valley girls mall rats grandmammas
Everybody's misusin that word
I heard it four times in one poor little sentence
It was the saddest sound I ever have heard
I suppose you could blame it on my generation
Chickens from the 60s finally comin into roost
I've been sayin it myself for over 30 years now
Just to give my cool quota just a little bitty kind of a boost
But when I hear it
I can't stand it
Especially coming out of the mouths of one of my own kids
It's been taught and, God,
What have we wrought?
Give a listen here, what do we dig?
I prefer ah or er
You can rest assured
If you're sayin what you mean then it don't mean a thing
It's just an ugly little 4 letter word
Doesn't anybody care or am I the only one?
Am I just stuck back in some kind of a past?
Maybe it's harmless but it feels like a virus
And it sounds like it's catchin on fast
Great article! I have a problem with "no problem". It happens with servers in restaurants constantly. I've also noticed a trend to begin the answer to a question with "so". As in 'what do you think about the economic future?'. Answer:'So, I see an improvemnt in the near......'
Like, you know, I though, you might enjoy this
Wow, like, this was a great article. Like.
A few years ago I served on a panel to review a doctoral program in an area of biomedical science. One of our tasks was to interview the students. When we spoke to the first-year students we heard much of the incoherent babble that Mr. Whelton bemoans. But the most senior students all spoke with an impressive clarity, economy and precision. So disciplined thought and expression survive, at least in the sciences.
"Like," I love this article. Being an adjunct professor and a father of 3, 17 to 22 year olds, the "like factor" drives me crazy. In fact, I often make a "beep" sound when ever I hear them say the word.
Thanks and well said!
It gets to my blood pressure! What happened to sane ARTICULATION?!
Wow,I sorta think I think I like this and stuff...
This article is awesome and i idolize it!!
That is so, like, totally sad, ya know?
Correction: I should have written "coming OR going".
The day after I read this excellent essay, one of the members of my meetup group RSVPd to an event by saying, "I think I'll try to make it." I replied, "You think you'll try? Should we hold you a seat?" Two hours later, she changed her response to, "Think I'll stay home tonight." Apparently she's never sure whether she is coming our going! It must be hard to go through life like that!
The topic of infantile speech is another good one. Perhaps because there are so many "helicopter parents" these days, there seem to be a lot of people using baby-talk like "din din", "sammich", "brekkie", "bestie" and "jammies" when talking to other adults. I find it highly irritating.
Well said Sir!
As a woman in the last few months of her '30's
I find it heart breaking that no one seems to make the connection
between truncated speech and thought.
This is happenning in my country as well(I'm from Nigeria).
Unfortunately we have a new genaration keen to express themselves,
Syntax is virtually nonexistent, even as they seem eager to relate every aspect of their lives,
in excrutiating detail! It's bad enough that one is assaulted with boring detail
Should one have to hire a translator to decipher it all?
I mean, like, come on, whats the biggie, like, can't he understand what I'm talking about. Know what I'm talking about. Like, its important. Whatever.
Well said Sir!
As a woman in the last few months of her '30's
I find it heart breaking that no one seems to make the connection
between truncated speech and thought.
This is happenning in my country as well(I'm from Nigeria).
Unfortunately we have a new genaration keen to express themselves,
Syntax is virtually nonexistent, even as they seem eager to relate every aspect of their lives,
in excrutiating detail! It's bad enough that one is assaulted with boring detail
Should one have to hire a translator to decipher it all?
Loved the article. There may be an additional cause of vague writing that is somewhat dangerous to express. There is significant consensus that past literature was dominated by male voices. "Terse, muscular prose" and Hemingway style were in fashion. There is also some consensus today that men read and write literature a lot less than women do. Salman Rushdie's lyrical but broad brush strokes have been the rage and when Oprah admitted to Maya Angelou that she didn't understand her latest work, Maya responded aristocraticaly, "That, my dear, is why they call it lit-er-a-ture." Vague language is less captivating but sometimes perceived as less aggressive or insensitive. While my new book Sacred Ground & Holy Water received five stars from Midwest Book Reviews and Canada's Dalhousie Review called it "Gonzo, Razzle-Dazzle verbal fireworks," almost all reviewers have also felt compelled to include a cigarette-package like warning that it is written from a male perspective. Oh no! We can't have that. So, ambiguous writing is politically safer. Lyn Fuchs
Thanks for this entertaining piece. I share your irritation but just can't summon the outrage. I wrote about it today on www.317am.net.
One of my granddaughters recently graduated from Harvard. She uses "like" quite frequently and not just when she means she "likes" it. Ny grandson recently graduated from Yale. I haven't been around him much in a couple of years, but I have never heard him say "like" at an inappropriate time. I don't think it is due to the college, though.
We have the same problem in England:
I ‘erd this, like, joke.
It seems that, like, time, like, flies like an arrow
‘n, like, fruit, like, flies like a banana, like.
I don’t get it.
I am grateful for this wonderful article; The maddening 'repartee" of interviewers and interviewees makes me wonder if I am the only one noticing. I am so aware that people 'buy time' in answering by prefacing all their contributions with "I was just sittin' here, thinkin'...and I ....blah blah". Watch for it: it's everywhere!
The use of "sort of" in conversation is driving me nuts. You hear it a lot during conversations involving media people and intellectuals.
RIP Amerikan English
Perhaps there has been a juvenilization of speech and the examples given here are surely familiar. Some allowance must be made for the vernacular, of course, but if it is true that the capacity for sustained analytical discourse, or (as the final example shows) the possibility of meaningful celebratory speech is waning, we are, sort of, you know, like in trouble. It may be that Obama's eloquence is really too good for us, perhaps even the last flowering of good rhetoric before the dimwittedness of debased speech gets our next President elected. Stay tuned. . .
Have you actually read the research on the use of discourse markers and linguistic fillers? The only difference between like as a workaround so you get a bit of "breathing room" to formulate your next thought, and things like "what I mean" "what the problem is is that" one generation uses one set and one generation uses another.
You can go back literally (look! another filler word, one used by several generations!) hundreds of years and find people complaining about the death of the English language, the complete lack of grammar, and how it's all the fault of the youth.
I agree that a more formal register should be maintained during a job interview. This, however, is a failure not of grammar but of basic sociolinguistic competence.
In ten or twenty years, people my age (I'm just about ready to graduate from college) will probably be complaining about the same sorts of things our parents are complaining about today. It's just the words that will have changed.
Again, if you look into the actual linguistic research on the matter, you'll find that no harm is being done to the English language.
So, please, quit trying to blame us kids for the purported decline of the English language.
Yes, I could probably write something and make it all but incomprehensible to those of my parents' generation. This doesn't mean that my sentences lack grammar, simply that the social dialect I'm using employs a different grammatical system.
Often, kids create new words and ways of speaking as a means of identity formation. In other words, adults aren't SUPPOSED to get it. We're not being vague, we're just asserting ourselves in a manner which distinguishes us as separate identities. This allow youths, particularly teenagers, to gain a degree of independence in one area when they are denied it in so many others.
Basically, there's nothing wrong with what you call Vagueness or with ambiguity in general (and on this point I can think of a great many literary critics and rhetoricians who would agree with me, including Kenneth Burke). Language isn't supposed to be exact; there's room for interpretation.
Language is beautiful and organic, and it doesn't need us to try and force it into some supposedly ideal form.
We-- teenagers, adolescents, and young adults-- are not the problem. The problem is a failed understanding of sociolinguistic competence and the ways in which language functions.
So, like, leave us alone, okay?
linguists now think that there is no such thing as "language" as we used to think of it, only "dialects." with his dictionary, sam'l johnson failed in his attempt to "fix" the english language, in both senses of the term, "to repair" and "to set in place." don't lose any sleep over this degradation, this devolution is a part of language history. we are far less articulate than our latin-speaking forebears. as the old comic pages staple implored us, "grin and bear it."
Very interesting article on Vagueness in language. I wonder if this is an adolescent or post-adolescent phase in people's language (I can hear it in my students and young relatives and friends) or a permanent decline in our language.
A simple AMEN should suffice.
If only this infection had stayed in America! But it may not have originated there anyway. Here in Australia, not usually known for its articulate citizenry, 'like', 'sure', 'kind of', double-clutching, and the rest of those infantile habits you describe have further eroded descriptive speech. The trend in 21st century fiction towards the exclusive use of the present tense may be related to these phenomena. Whaddya reckon?
Brilliant! May I re-post this on my High School Blog? I seem to be fighting this same battle, and losing at every clause!
For musical accompaniment to this column listen to "Cobwebs", an amusing song by Loudon Wainwright III.
I am a writer who, suffered through college's verbal slings and arrows during the '90s abject vagueness. My first experience with the sadness of my generation's failing verbal standards happened almost immediately. Having misplaced my keys i knocked on a door and was greeted with this appalling sentence: Dude, your keys are so right here.
I replied, "You can't be any more right here than right here?"
To which she replied, "Like, what, girlfriend?"
Girlfriend, like, huh?
A marvelously well written article about the state of our communication and disuse of the English language. While it is laughable, one feels like we have lost a tremendous amount in our education, commom sense, and ability to express ourselves as bright cultured people. I think we have been back sliding, like everything else!
(Facial tic, lateral eye shift): "I'm going to tell you, like I'm saying, you're, wow, totally, I mean, like right"....and to compound that, especially young women now seem incapable of pronouncing the "flat" E sound...."like:" "It was the "bast" party I ever went to; "Batty" and her "frands" were there, but "Frad" did't come, because he had to "gat" some "rast" before his "tast." Please don't start listening for this little early 21st century speech mannerism or you'll "naver" hear what the speaker is actually trying to say, becoming obsessed with all the "yas"es flying around.
Thank you Toby Sternglass for supplying a name for that annoying little grate at the end of so many female speaker's sentences - the Sorority Croak!
I wonder if there's a name for the speaking style I notice from so many 20-somethings these days - hard to put a finger on exactly, but it sounds like a complete avoidance of any plosive sound, or as if they try to speak without ever letting their lips meet. Weird.
If Quack-talk doesn't grate on you enough, how about the Sorority Croak, in which the speaker drops her voice to make a gutteral croaking sound at the end of every phrase?
Here is an NPR story from last week, narrated by a champion practitioner.
Language elitist. People have been mourning the decline of language for centuries. Languages change -- they evolve just as culture does. It does not mean they are deteriorating. They are simply changing.
This says it all, but wish they had also added the one that grates on my nerves: basically
Thanks for this chronicle of a discouraging word. "Like" and its ilk may express something in the zeitgeist that we can't fight or even understand, but it's nice to know that mine aren't the only teeth on edge about it.
Vagueness -- that's it. So many of these creeping tics are meant to befog one's statements and relieve the speaker of accountability. "Like" often preceeds every description in speech -- "I was, like, frustrated that she was getting, like, so judgmental all of a sudden." To me, that means, "Here is the situation, but don't give me a vocabulary test about it."
It's a psychic pose on a massive scale, and stuff.
Well written...I kind of like, sort of ,....
Maybe Listening to good old professional radio broadcasts can help remedy this seemingly repairable malady that has crept into modern day speech.
"Verbal milfoil"... I hope you don't mind if I steal that buried gem. =)
Unfortunately this article rings true!!!!
I am an English Lit major and noticed with shock but fascination when an astute professor did a deliberate, if slight 'dumb down" in conversation with me- and it was close to Vagueness, but as it included an element of egalitarian and or non-volatile quietism I decided it wasn't all bad. This is in the same late 70's time period which was not untouched by either pro or anti-60's sentiment, as it happened. Language, it should be remembered, is more than words, and in such a litigious and/or argumentative culture, evasion can seem like a courteous side-step.
Not to say that it can't lead to more evasion, dishonesty, fogginess or slop- But if one looks at the underpinnings of speech's purposes other than the purely semantic, and notices when a vagueness might be readily countered and corrected,the speaker's confidence in precision could be shored up frequently enough to reverse the trend back to some widespread customs of accuracy.
As a writer and publisher I welcome this blast of fresh air. So insightful -- juvenile and quack-speech indeed! You pinpoint the cumulative additions to the vagueness over time, which we all noticed but felt helpless to stamp out, even in our children. I know a boy who graduated from high school speaking in mushy run-on sentences peppered with "like". He returned cured after living in several foreign countries. His social acceptance and ability to get around depended upon speaking clear English. Maybe instead of straining our ears and brains to understand young people, we should ignore them until they communicate better. I would welcome a return to recitation in U.S. schools. Thank you for this article. I'm forwarding it.
Our limping lingua franca is being polluted today not only by the Vagueness Virus that you ably describe but also its much more deadly companion, the Spinspeak Virus.
The Vagueness Virus, as you conclude, is an increasingly opaque linguistic cover for ignorance and avoidance of the metastasizing politically correct traps of our time.
The Spinspeak Virus is a virulent, offensive linguistic weapon for obscuring reality.
The cure for both is intense sunlight: a cure not always easy to apply.
Vagueness, of course, announces itself and is instantly identifiable. Spinspeak is insidious, but sometimes even its ablest practitioners offer warnings.
For example, President Obama will often begin a Spinspeak howler with the statement: "Let me be perfectly clear."
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
- James Davis Nicoll
I will ofer an interesting explanation for vagueness.
I'm reading "Hold on to Your Kids", a book by a child psyschologist. It contends that many children and youth are peer oriented, rather than adult oriented. This means that they look to their peers for guidance in almost everything.
The resulting peer culture is bland and hostile to anything that is unique or stands out. The highest value for a peer oriented child is to fit in and anything that stands out (enthusiasm, curiousity, goals) must be avoided. Anyone who listens to adults, shows interest at school or is passionate (and therefore vulnerable) about something will be mocked and ostracized. The author notes that peer oreintation is increasing, especially in North America.
In a culture like this camouflage is essential. Perhaps vagueness is verbal camouflage. Your speech doesn't say anything, doesn't risk anything.
This article is, like, totally cool.
Another example of double~clutching is a double verb, such as, "The point IS, is that there's no point." And don't forget that "I said" has not only been replaced by, "I went..." but also "I'm all..." and "I'm like..." As for, "you should" being replaced by "you need to..."
Language is changing. We are dumbing down, I think. Maybe. Sort of...
I remember hearing a comedy recording that was supposed to teach one how to speak "hip", the mother tongue of beatnicks, as if it were a foreign language. It instructed that any declarative sentence could begin with the work "like" and end with the word "man". For example, "like, I'm going to the post office, man."
Also, back in the late 1960s, my younger sister and her friends would substitute
the word "goes" for the word "said", so the reference that it started in the 1980s would be incorrect.
For sure dude. That was like, you know? An awesome story.
I have been saddened for years as I observed the demise of proper English language usage. I kept asking, what in the world is this "hang out" expression for socializing, or listen up for just plain listen, or I go for I said. People's reaction was uncomfortable astonishment at my frequent questions-as-criticism. Even journalistic writing has declined to phrases and bites. Oh, but to return to beautiful speech and writing!
I am not American. I attended a school in the colonies where English was taught exhaustively by graduates of the very best English universities.
But I now live in the US, where I have resided for many years.
This imprecision in the use of the English language in the US is best illustrated by the difference in BBC news, and CNN. The BBC can impart in 20 minutes what CNN cannot complete in three hours.
It may be a feature of the American dialect (because Americans certainly do not speak English)and the way their dialect is morphing into an exercise in obfuscation. But, in this, it follows modern American corporate and political behavior/communication, which work strenuously to obscure reality.
You are on to something very important here, because the lack of clear communication ensures that, in a crisis, the problems cannot be addressed.
And so we see the American Empire in a death spiral, economically and politically, with the leading lemmings saying "Fearlessly forward", but in a very confusing way, and the leaders at the front are not reporting back on the cliff edge they have reached, because they lack the language skills or the honesty.
By the time I attended school in the 1960s-70s, students were rarely asked to give oral presentations. I recall watching old movies and seeing young kids leap to their feet and respond to questions in full sentences, and their language and decorum were as important as the answer they provided. I also recall thinking that I would have been terrified to do the same, because it was so foreign to me. The first time I ever spoke before a group I was in my 30s, and a shaky mess, which bothered me enough that I self-trained around it and am fairly at ease today. But even a job interview is something for which the average high school or college student is unprepared.
Great article. Thank you, Mr. Whelton.
But your first problem here is that your vocabulary is, like, OMG, SO stuffy. "Locution?" What's up with that?
Fun aside, I feel there is a large cultural reason for this: anti-intellectualism. It pervades everything, unfortunately, from our conversation to our politics.
I once would have suggested a lack of pride, but I see little shortage of that these days.
Thank you, Clark, you've written a very good preçis of current English usage, including the quack talk that seems to have infected huge numbers of educated young women.
I'd like to add that there is a sort of reciprocal dumbing-down that happens when padding and verbiage are substituted for ordinary words in an effort to sound more sophisticated: "At the present time" instead of "now," and "substantive" instead of "substantial," this last being mysteriously popular among political talking heads.
For many years I've also noticed that airline cabin crews, when reeling off their preflight safety instructions, feel a need to emphasize auxiliaries ("do," "does,""will") and the word "is" in an effort to sound, I don't know, more impersonally commanding and less conversational, I suppose. But the effect is to shift the primary accent of a sentence from the main verb or the subject noun to the auxiliary: There IS a life vest under your seat, oxygen masks WILL drop down from the ceiling.
I've been teaching for 27 years and have found the majority of my students are decent in the use of English. Some are horrendous like the squirrel woman, but most just can't spell. Some of my brightest students can't write without a spell checker. Sometimes it's very difficult to understand what they're trying to say.
In the 80's there was a faux computer language VALGOL that had quantifiers such as
"like greater than"
"like equal to"
"to the max"
And a compiler was successfully written!
I relate to your article, but think there is another vagueness that you have left out: the universal use of the F-word by both males and females! In my day, this was not a common word used in normal conversation!
I have, in the past, commented in response to this sort of irritating speech that "That was a lot of similes you just used."
It seems, also, that they don't know what similes and metaphors are let alone the difference between the two!
All these verbal tics are horrid, but I have a particular aversion to the heretofor unnamed speech impediment Mr. Whelton so deliciously describes as "quack talking."
I serve on a board of directors with a young woman who sports this affectation. I'm inclined to vote against any proposal presented by her in this manner.
When quack talking is delivered by phone, my first thought is that the caller is in the bathroom. "Bowel straining" might be another fitting name for it.
Thank you very much indeed for managing to express a very real problem. I am from Australia, and the rising inflexion has risen to prominence over the past 20 years. It used to be mocked in the late 1980's by a comedic TV schoolgirl character, 'Kylie Mole': but Kylie has clearly won the linguistic battle here downunder amongst the young to middle-aged; but even older generations are infected with this bug, no doubt aurally via the mass media.
It is as if the person relating a story to another party is seeking endless affirmation from the listener, as if to suggest: "I did the correct thing, didn't I?". This is particularly noticeable in a work situation where a subordinate is reporting their actions to the boss!
Thank you also for giving a label - 'quack talk' - to a phenomenon amongst otherwise very well educated young women. I worked in the Attorney-General's Department and was often driven to distraction by such women whining and along as if they were in a Ken and Barbie Doll play! I hope you give the unsuccessful candidates some hard, but constructive, feedback. They need it!
Wonderful and insightful article. Sorry, but can Americans also be a little less nasal in their intonation
exactly;;;; use of words frequently ; like''many here used to b doing/ quite irritating to me 'Also another word not familiar in 1980s is [[[[ sort of ]]] of late only i hear each and sundry using these two words liberally [ LIKE][ SORT OF] only one from my bank called me 5 days ago said i wanted to know like whether u have like received your debit card like i wanted your like a sort of confirmation *use of #like # was so irritating this is recent experience
That was like, gnarly, dude. WooHoo
I run high school debating competitions and I agree absolutely with your observations. I deplore 'like' as well, but we need to back off. Language is alive. Expressions change. The problem is not sloppy grammar and syntax, but clarity of thought.
Gen X Y and Z use speech very differently from we Baby Boomers. As they should. Although I am friends with teenagers on Facebook, I often cannot understand what they say. How much fun is that! (For them). We who love language should love the way language grows, and be challenged not disappointed or dismissive when it's not to our taste. Our job is to reinforce that if you want to get a message through you'll be clear about what it is and choose language that works for your audience. That's the only lesson your would-be interns, and Squirrel woman need.
I'm intrigued by the idea of "quack-talking" but I can't seem to find any other references to it. Do you have (or know of) an example somewhere that you could point me to?
Increasingly, both business and academic types are delivering synergistic outcomes within a dialogue matrix. (You can't blame only the kids for vagueness.)
is it "each of you seems sad, lonely, and dead." ?
or "each of you seem sad, lonely, and dead." ?
-Terri "Tea Party" Crisp
-Patrick "If I wasn't a complete f**k head, I'd just be a s**t head" Griffin
-Robert "I'm with those a** holes" Watson
While I'm cleaning my mouth out with soap--and simultaneously learning how to act like an adult--y'all should clean the grime off of your pretentious little brains. Once you've removed all the crud you'll catch a glimpse of your true essence, I'm guessing.
Each of you seems sad, lonely and dead. But at least you have a great command of the language.
I hope I'm wrong about you guys, though. The dark future needs all the worthless pedagogy it can get. Which means, WE NEED YOU!
Happy Presidents Day!
As a professional writer Clark Whelton should learn to omit the schoolboy comma, which occurs throughout his piece. For example, "In 1988, my elder daughter graduated...". The comma is seen to be unnecessary if the sentence is reversed with same meaning, as "My elder daughter graduated in 1988".
I must say, you have managed to attract a well spring of cherry pickers and connoisseurs of confirmation bias. Bravo, Herr Whelton, bravo.
This was fine, and very perceptive. I recently read some comments by an associate English professor or two about David Foster Wallace that were utterly puerile and juvenile; shockingly so. I have given up hope. In an essay by Foster himself, within a few initial pages, I found two instances of "way better" where "far better" was indicated. Again, juvenalia. Orwell's classic 1948 essay on usage seems quaintly pollyannish today. He believed that there was hope for betterment. There is no hope in this dark age. We few, we unhappy few, we band of literate brothers, can hope only to preserve some semblance of standards in a time capsule, like a seed bank, to be unearthed in some brighter future.
Ooh, this is, like, so applicable to, you know, today.
Excuse me while my skin crawls away. Sorry.
Just imagine how the common tongue will change when the "digital natives" graduate. I already see a complete collapse in the ability to write anything beyond "text-ese."
For years I regularly supervised young uni graduates at work and I was simply appalled by their hopeless inability to express themselves, either verbally or in writing. Education systems everywhere seem to be going further and further backward.
Thank you for the apt description of the truly disheartening decline of modern English. I have worked with languages all my adult life (I am a conference interpreter) and have been watching with dismay the decline of English. Young people, especially, seem to have no grasp at all of their mother tongue. To wit: go to the comments posted beneath Youtube videos. The grammar, syntax and spelling are appalling. Most of the comments are left by young people, judging from the user names which accompany them. The teenage children of two of my friends are unable to write cursive English, and have received special permission from their schools to print their homework. Take the bus sometime in the late afternoon when school has been let out and sit behind some students, and try not to laugh at their comical, weird and incorrect English...
I have been a teacher for 25 years. I have seen the attitude toward excellence in my students steadily decline during that time. Many students wear their mediocrity like a badge of honor. They ridicule their peers who honestly try to achieve, saying that they are "kiss butts". Unless this attitude changes we will most surely lose our place as the most well educated nation in the world. We may have already lost it.
I have come to consider myself a "strong agnostic" with a sense not only of what I don't know, but also of what appears to be unknowable. The vagueness of which you speak seems to me to be a recognition of the equivocal nature of most knowledge, the understanding, and conversational recognition of this, is in itself a form of knowledge. (like)
Odd that so many readers have no idea what quack talking is, probably because most take for granted that it is normal. Quacking sounds like--for those who remember the cassette recorder--audio tape on fast rewind.
One quacks when holding the tongue up against the pallet, forcing vocal sounds through the nose. This, in combination with modern high-pitched female voices (the result, some say, of women making themselves heard over the racket of textile machinery in old-time New England) gives us these unlovely noises. Note, however, that the women in national TV commercials usually have far more pleasant, non-adenoidal ways of talking.
Speaking of noises, the you knows, kind of likes and other excrescences which upset Whelton and are defended by some, really matter little. This, because so much of this generation's talk is largely content-free, so its delivery methods matter not.
I'm appalled at these ubiquitous speech patterns. The author quotes but doesn't comment on, the constant use of the present tense of "to be" to mean "I said," or "I thought." I hear this valley girl talk from people well into middle age.
You people should be "Young people." Like, sorry.
We all speak on different levels, informal, slang, formal, semi-formal. It's natural to speak to your peers in a coded, insider language. But I have noticed that many young people seem unable to communicate in any way other than how they talk to each other.
This may be why home-schooled students usually strike me as more mature; they have spent less time with their peers and more time with adults. You people learning to speak by imitating their peers is the blind leading the blind.
Here's my squirrel story, first draft, no editing. I think it excels Ms. Vagueness.
I walked into the backyard, intent on taking the trash to the can in the alley. A rustle in the leaves caught my attention, and I noticed a baby squirrel shivering on the ground. Twigs surrounded him, and I guessed he had fallen from his home in the tree. “Ooh,” I whispered. I bent to pick him up, then wondered if squirrel mothers were like bird mothers—once touched by humans, the moms might abandon their offspring. So I set my trash bag down and watched this furry little creature. While he was classified as a rodent, and that designation carries offense, this little one spoke only of cute. Black pebble eyes regarded me with more curiosity than fear and plume of a tail swished back and forth, reminding me of my cat when unsure of a situation.
My daughter called from the house. Her brother was using her Barbies as dive bombers. I stepped inside to referee, and when I returned the squirrel was gone. I looked up and saw him sitting on a fat tree limb, his mother nearby.
And I could have sworn I saw him wink.
Like the problem with, you know, vagueness, man, is like when you sort of use like words, man, to like say someting, like it's like sort of hard, man, to know like what the f**k you mean man.
I'm like sending like links to my like friends. So yeah!
Honestly, I think the issue is that informal English is mutating rather quickly right now and that it is also becoming more widespread. What broke me out of my use of informalisms was High School debate. It's impossible to read the citations you need to read, and then to add Valley Gurl speech without sounding very silly. The hardest to break was using "like" instead of "umm..." but that small change is not as big a deal as you all are making it out to be. Most people aren't required to sound as polished as newscasters or politicians even when they are speaking formally.
I think more of this has to do with the reduced opportunities to have to present ideas in a more formal setting or to speak publicly than actual ignorance or reduced vocabulary. They haven't needed to develop this switch from "Friends/Peers/Family" speech patterns to "Authority Figures/Customers/Interviewer" speech patterns. It's something that is changeable, and if you put the young person in a professional office and surround them with people who need to speak formally, most of them quickly fall into the correct pattern.
Pure ... like .... awesomeness ... you know?
My wife is, at times, afflicted with Vagueness, and this can be madding to a guy with partial deafness, who must depend on speech ("lip") reading to understand what people are saying.
who neds englsh whn thers txting? lke, get a lfe!!
@Nyal Williams: My colloquial style? My craft? You missed the boat, the bus, the train. Nice work.
Where is your lawn so I can alert children everywhere to preemptively avoid it?
YES!!! Even here in the south, where that sugary drawl is punctuated with 'y'all' every now and then, the word 'like' is used to the point of being irritating. I will also add the annoying phrase 'you know.'
Nails on a chalkboard are preferable.
I suggest you listen to Loudon Wainwright's song "Cobwebs". It's a fun and funny commentary on the misuse of "like," that dirty little letter word.
This was like, way needed. Maybe the Brits will keep the language intact.
With three university age daughters, I, too, listen to their conversations in 'catch-up' mode. They abbreviate, jump subjects and reference unknown pop culture. While at times it is entertaining and witty, it is often real learned ignorance. Personally, I love listening to the syntax and pacing of proper English. Something is being lost. Is something being gained? Technology seems to have connected the world in 140 characters and citizen journalism. And perhaps the greater good coming out of the Middle East protests is in no small way a reflection of this shift from linguistic perfection to bigger issues of global peace and possibility. Generation gaps are never understood from within. While I, too, mourn the death of proper locution and am concerned about 'degeneration of abstract thought', I believe whole-heartedly that there is something good going on with this younger generation.
The Evasion English Dictionary gives a funny and witty taxonomy of like. There's an NPR interview with the author imitating and interpreting the different kinds of like.
Good to read that.I hate it when North Americans say "like" .I felt it shows lack of vocabulary and I see that I am right.Thanks for endorsing what I always felt.
I am an English Professor from India and I hope this does not catch on here!
If it has , I have not yet come across it in academy....maybe the Corporates allow it.
THANKYOU, Mr. Whelton!
Like, when we used to use like, it was like, this. No more 60's usage.
I applaud your insights.
My latest gripe is that 'int' has turned into 'inner' - innerational, innernet, etc.
Doesn't anyone notice these things? Like have they become, sorta apathetic? Where have all of the grownups gone?
Bravo, Clark Whelton! I was under the impression that I was the only one alarmed at the bastardization of the English language in America. My recent greatest alarm is with the use of "there's" for pural subjects and objects.
"There are" or "there're" no longer seem to exist. This has been abused by everyone from Diane Reims to Congressmen, newscasters, journalists and writers. In the future, I believe the only people who will speak correct English are the foreigners. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Living in Japan for 20 years is perhaps like those Americans who lived generations in rural Appalachia ...preserving accents, grammar and dialects of ages past.....
I feel fortunate to have regular 1950s type students studying English.
Another symptom of the Vagueness epidemic is the excessive and imprecise use of "incredible." I am constantly forced to cross-examine devotees of the word: "Do you mean incredibly good or incredibly bad?"
Excellent article. I thought I was being paranoid... Now I know it's real. Alas, some people are trying to fight a rearguard action by being excessively wordy and pedantic. There must be a middle way. Oh, and pls dont start me on speling and txt nglsh- it soooo does my head in, and stuff.:-(
Like, cheers for now, then.
It was our first encounter with Miss Young as we began our adventure in Junior High School. Once seated she asked us our names, and with each reply she asked, "Are you asking me or are you telling me?" We had no idea what this was all about and after the 35th pupil answered, Miss Young explained that all of us had RISING INFLECTIONS. She then explained the difference between making a statement and asking a question.She also taught us to speak extemporaneously, beginning with "Miss Young and fellow classmates" all using British pronunciation, and this, to girls from NY's lower East Side. The year, 1943.
I'm reminded of the spoof pet shop in an episode of the TV comedy series "Little Britain". The name of the shop? "Pets and That".
I would question whether the opening example of this piece is "vagueness". I would instead characterize it as the speaker considering that the real "story" worth telling is her own subjective experience of the event, rather than the objective external facts of the event itself. The story isn't about the squirrel; it's about her. This isn't vagueness, it's a shift in focus, and it's an unsurprising consequence of now-multiple generations being incessantly taught that what matters is what THEY think, not what is.
And what about the ability to know when to use 'lie' and 'lay'? Perhaps the most famous misuse of this would be Eric Clapton's 'Lay down Sally'- unless someone was abducting Sally, and he was ordering the abductor to 'Lay down Sally!'
Unfortunately this sea-change in language use has spread here to Britain. I teach university students who communicate almost exclusively via the medium of text messages. Mobiles and twitter allow enormous volumes of bargain-bucket thoughts and discussions to erode deep and useful discourse. I had to ban the word 'like' in my tutorials to try and impress on a few how much better they sounded without it. I recall watching a ludicrous film called 'Idiocracy' which takes the notion of dumbing down to a logical and hilarious conclusion. Now I wonder if it may one day be regarded as a documentary.
Beautiful writing style. I love the honesty with which the writer analyses the laziness in modern-day thinking and speaking. Somebody has to cut through the nonsense that is too quickly taken for granted and face us wll with truth and common sense.
I'm sorry, but I was unable to finish your article. When I saw that you had made criticism of 'you need to' replacing 'you should', I realized that I was reading degeneration within degeneration. I don't mind a person being incorrect; but I do mind it when they are correcting someone else. What right have you to look down upon others when you cannot even understand that 'you need to' is akin to 'ought' or 'must' and not 'should'? How far removed do you truly suppose yourself to be from those you have condemned?
definitely vagueness is "like" catching into the mainstream American English.
Many of the commenters on this thread seem to believe that up-talk (a phonological feature of speech, where emphasis at the end of a statement makes it sound like a question)is more prevalent among women than mean. This is simply not the case, and studies have shown this is not the case. I would also like to say that this kind of speech is not an index of intelligence or ability to think critically, nor is the usage of "like". This article is simply an uninformed rant about a generational language gap.
There is no such thing as, "decline" or a "fall" of language. He's not only out of touch, but the whole basis of his argument is mere opinion about how others should speak and a collection of anecdotes. He thinks language is becoming less comprehensible? That's a completely ridiculous idea, considering there is no such thing as a language that does not work for its users, and that comprehensibility does not lie in language itself, but in psychological understandings of meaning and grammar. There is no such thing as an incomprehensible language. If it is incomprehensible, it is not language. Even the usage of "like" and up-talk (making statements with a emphasis at the end, so they sound like questions) follow rules, and have precedents in other languages (that is, other languages have similar features). There is nothing more arrogant, out of touch, and bourgeois than prescriptive linguistics. Also, I applaud his vague and ambiguous use of the word "syntax." He obviously does not know how to apply this word, and only used to to add some superficial appeal to his writing. Finally, I would like to point out how hypocritical and comedic it is for someone who was a speech writer for Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani to attack others for using vague language. Badda-bing.
You can't expect kids to communicate in advanced English when they rarely hear or read it. The ed establishment has turned the schools into carnivals of the juvenile with their eager acceptance of the idea that anything halting, inelegant, and inarticulate must perforce be authentic, while fully formed ideas and statements must be false and artificial. www.granitesentry.com
At the age 0f 72 I seem to able to hold a conversation with those over the age of 40. Those younger speak a foreign language.
I swear if I catch another Poli or council officer saying "looking forward" I shall be responsible for a major felony.
How about these words: whatever, starting a sentence with "so"; You know what I mean!
The way these kids talk drives me up the wall. They also talk too fast. When I am talking to a young person on the phone, I have to tell them to slow down.
Perhaps the ability to speak coherently is tied to the ability to write coherently. So the slow demise of the art of personal letter writing over the past half-century foreshadowed the inevitablilty of spoken word vagueness.
So if this swing happened among college grads around 1985, then it would have happened to those graduating high school in 1981. Which is when Reagan came into office.
So-- did his twisted relationship with the truth have something to do with it? This twisting of murderous Contras into "freedom fighters"?
Thank you this essay, well written and absolutely on point. The ugliness and laziness of speech is depressing, perhaps just another form of selfish egoism, along with slovenly dress and inconsiderate behaviour. It is exactly the case that this sort of speech puts all the effort on the listener to attempt to make sense of what is being said (or not being said). Communication takes (at least) two. If the speaker cannot be bothered to express coherent thoughts, then the listener need not be bothered to listen.
I weep for what's happened to our language. I live in a town surrounded by an Ivy League school and the inane conversations I'm forced to overhear boggle my mind.
Occasionally, I cannot handle it anymore; with a gentle interruption, I will point out that the women (almost invariably) CLEARLY must be bright: they're at Dartmouth, after all, but it's hard to tell by listening to them. "You just used 'like' seven times in three sentences."
Invariably, they stare at me, blind to the reality that their inability to communicate is a crippling loss.
And don't even get me started on texting, where punctuation is viewed as an insult (again, primarily among women).
I'm sure each generation despairs over the [failings of the] one coming up behind, but rarely, I think, has one caused as much distress and dismay as this.
This is shatteringly true, and it seems to be getting worse.
lol @ Quack-talking
I think what the writer is seeing more is the overall slower development of young people today, verbal ability and otherwise. Seems like people take longer to become independent, financially. Economy sucking for the past 10 years hasn't helped this either. People have mangled language since it was invented.
OMG you are like, brilliant.
What is the point of the final paragraph in the article? A political speech writer's hangover, I suppose
That was, like, really good. Thanks. Lolspeak is also a contagion on teh interwebs. See Vicky Pollard character in "Little Brittian" -she's a bastion of vagueness-speak. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bgF_31eD5U&feature=related
I loved Clark Whelton's article on vagueness. So true. It was, like, awesome.
Did this, like, "observation" take 19 years to coalesce?
@ David Hugh Doyle:
"We have our own way of talking down here and you should be glad that we do; it's what keeps you and I segregated;..."
Keeps you segregated, and keeps me segregated becomes "keeps you and ME segregated.
If this is the way you write when you are not attempting a colloquial style, then you do not know your craft.
Brilliant and insicive!
Grammar Police. Someone has to do it; might as well be all of us who care. English is the new Latin and it might well be the West's most enduring creation if we don't destroy it.
Like, good column, dude.
I'm a little surprised at the comments in defense of Mr Whelton's targets. Setting aside the childish and casual 'ageism' implied in calling the author cranky, I think these writers are missing the larger point; as a nation we accept the lack of critical thinking, incapacity for abstract thought, and disregard for verbal precision as inevitable and excusable.
I agree that previous generations had complaints about their successors, but it seems to me that their concerns tended to resolve on issues of values, decorum, and self-discipline. Most disagreements were based on content of ideas rather than incoherence of expression, or a complete paucity.
I think the author's final story reveals a sad spread of this condition; there is a binary failing in our larger society. We don't even have the words to express our own intellectual poverty.
Let's grow and win the economy.
Why should children speak any differentlty than their teachers? Get real!
Very funny, Clark. I particularly like your term Quack Talking. On the money. I'm writing from the underside of the Earth in Sydney, and am sad to report that the vague virus has cut a swathe through this community more effectively than bird flu. I imagine that this US contagion has been spread to us by unsafe use of TV and other digital media. I'm afraid one never hears the quaint refrain of "May I have..." in a café anymore. It has been completely replaced by "Can I get...".
hey a gud article for the ones who wan to study english
I think the first example, that of the the woman with the squirrel, was actually good writing. I got her enthusiasm and her style of speaking. I do feel the danger of vagueness, but pomposity is worse.
The answering a question as a question is a form of mockery to the person asking the question. In the particular situation described in this story, the author has taken in resumes and applications. During the interview he asks the girl where she went to school, so she responds with "Columbia?" As in, "Did you read that resume I was required to send? Have you really forgotten which school I attended? Is the rest of this interview going to be this trite? Are we pretending this is the first opportunity you've had to gather information about my experience?"
Young people are not as naive as they once were about processes, about what they know their elders should and should not know. They are often annoyed at the constant lack of knowledge by their elders, for example, when using technology. "How do you turn this computer on? How can I send this picture? How do you write an e-mail?" On almost a daily basis, our youth are asked by their parents and sometimes even teachers (not as much now as a decade ago) how to complete tasks considered "basic" by anyone under the age of 35.
You wonder why the girl would respond to you as if you were an idiot when asked where she went to school. You're conducting the interview, you've requested her to sit in front of you, you probably don't know how to record a "tape" and you really don't know where she went to school? Like, do I really wanna work for this guy?
Like, ummmm, you know.....nail on the proverbial, ummmmmmm...head!!!!
This is a really important article, particularly for parents of pre-teens and teenagers. After reading this article, read elements of style. Record practice interviews so youngsters can hear how they speak. The verbal ticks and quack-talking have to stop.
'Like' is not the problem, people.
The problem is a kind of secondary illiteracy: the inability of apparently educated people to recognise, discriminate between, evaluate, pose, synthesise, or present ideas.
Pedants and linguists are, it would now appear, as susceptible to this as anyone.
Accompanying and perhaps causing this lacuna is sheer mass indifference to the value of clarity. Perhaps the alternative is more comfortable.
Good grammar ain't never been the cure to neither problem. The cure is to value, teach, and test the skills of critical thinking and of self expression, to do it well, and to keep doing it.
This cure needs to be pursued with some humility. Most people get along fine spouting apparent nonsense, as annoying as that may be. It's possible that their brains are mush. It's equally possible that they are saying something we don't quite understand.
Although Clark may be cranky, unfortunately, he has a good point, as do the writers commenting that the problem is more frequently encountered in young women. I have mentored many intelligent, well educated women who suffer from 'vagueness' speech patterns and those patterns are difficult to break. Some methods that help are sending them to speech or acting classes, Toastmasters or putting them in public speaking positions more often, etc. The most sure fire solution, though, is to acknowledge their capabilities, encourage them, and give them more authority and opportunities to speak in public. Once you recognize an intelligent woman's skills and encourage her to find her voice, she usually does.
I keep having a recurring dream that humans are now "DE-evolving" and eventually will return to grunting and cave dwelling!
I don't think much needs to be added to David's comments below. This article does, indeed, seem to be the mutterings of an old crank.
A quote that, I think, best sums up the territory from which Whelton is writing is this: "Does Vagueness offer an undereducated generation a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge?"
An "undereducated generation". Not a sub-set of a generation, not a sector of society, but an entire generation. Ludicrous.
Where is the evidence for this? No, memories from a set of interviews conducted for speech-writing interns in the 1980s does not qualify as evidence for any shift in language usage or quality. Is Whelton not aware that these types of complaints have been aired in vaguely intellectual publications for as long as vaguely intellectual publications have existed?
Mr. Whelton, your views are neither new nor particularly insightful, and your lack of willingness to back them up with any remotely robust objective data is typical of this type of piece.
William Safire must be smiling.
Surely it is a form of universal "drive to conformity" - a desire not to stand out, not to be original, not to make any observation regarded as possibly risky, but simply to melt in the background noise. A fear of being perceived as different.
To the educated ear it is quite horrible! But in a world of broken English as heard in op music lyrics, of 10 sec soundbites, and read in (especially teen) magazines, anything outside this norm is out of order. There is indeed nothing to say - it is all buried in the storm of sound and email
So I was sitting here and reading your column and I was so amazed at how right-on you are that all I could say was like wow.
It's like, I mean, you know, depressing as, like, hell 'n' stuff.
I can't help noticing that this writer seems to prefer picking on women, whether or not their offenses relate to his point.
"punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts"
What does that have to do with vagueness? The women was clearly nervous about being on TV. Haven't you ever heard of someone being nervous and tongue-tied?
Quacktalking is annoying, I agree, but even more irrelevant. And, like, the question-intonation thing? That's a classic defense mechanism used by women and girls who are afraid of being seen as overconfident.
It's hard to view these sorts of articles as anything other than the mutterings of an old crank. There are plenty of articulate and precisely spoken college students to be found on college campuses, and there are many high schools desperately trying to teach 9th graders to speak and write in clear, well-formed sentences. If he's a speech writer, he must have read Orwell's Politics and the English Language, and he must know that his complaints are not new ones. And as much as I admire both Orwell, and that essay in particular, I have to think that the constant supply of both good writing and complaints about the degradation of the English language suggests that this kind of linguistic alarmism is mostly the result of age-induced crankiness. To avoid any accusation of vagueness: Clark, I think you fail to understand how younger people switch between modes of language (from texting to email, from spoken English to academic writing); of course, many teenagers and college students tend to get a bit mixed up switching between these modes themselves--that is likely the source of your complaint. But, part of the fault lies with their teachers. Most teachers fail to understand the different levels of formality and precision that accompany texting, emailing, speaking, and writing. As a result, they fail to articulate these differences to their students, and children are left to fend for themselves.
Thank you for an interesting and timely article.
I realise, as a native Briton, that we do not speak or write exactly the same language, but I am unfamiliar with "juvenilized". Made childish or childlike are in common usage but, perhaps, this is, like, a new word?
My apologies for the overuse(!)of punctuation for my subordinate clauses.
Keith L. Hitchman
Thanks for your fine article. I think Vagueness is part of a general trend towards "whatever".
Another linguistic impoverishment has been a shift between "me" and "I" (accusative and nominative). When I was a kid, we were taught that the vernacular "me and him went" should be "he and I went". This lesson seems to have traumatized us all, with the result that now "between you and I" has become almost standard usage. Between you and me, it's a loss.
I don't know how familiar you are with British English, but we're also well along the road to the Vagueness you describe. It's the currency of the uneducated predominantly, though not entirely. That tiny minority of the privately educated are not immune either, despite the best efforts of their teachers. Our state school system, whilst apparently encouraging independent, imaginative thought in small children, seeks merely to 'train' them once they reach senior school, thus churning out a stream of totally incoherent young adults. I despair, like!
It has puzzled me for many years as to why people, especially the young appear to self censor their choice of words and limit themselves to a very restricted vocabulary. Is it that they fear being seen as different from the mob if they articulate their thoughts precisely and vividly?
I share this common gripe, albeit, English being my second language, I was shocked - surprised to hear undergraduates with appalling locution. In my country of origin the equivalent is only heard from high school drop-outs. Reasons for such a decline in writing and speech baffle me, but I'd hazard a guess that it is related in part to USA's pride in its anti-intellectualism, love of practicality with a sprinkling of counter-culture rebellion towards established mores, formality and anything that reeks of old world culture.
This was almost, like, you know, a good article.
Sounds like squirrel lady conveyed her emotional response to this encounter with a baby squirrel in a guttural way that you just were not capable of appreciating.
Well written and to the point.
The article spricht aus meinem Leben, but I don't get the last paragraph; what has it to do with the rest of the article?
I am so glad you mentioned "quack talking" . Not everyone does it, but it is becoming the norm for American women, especially in corporate life and in the media. Today it seems as if British and french women speak with "female sounding" voices (and I dont mean this in a sexist way, the basics of biology are bigger than me). Think "Kate Winslet" or Helen Mirren. I have worked for American companies all my life and I have always been amused by the way female presenters on stage at the company conferences seem to talk. Even Renée Zellweger speaks with a normal womens voice when she is playing "Bridget Jones" and then quack talks when she gives interviews as herself.
Like, this article is so, you know...
@Jim Bowman: Dude, I love Vassar girls. Perhaps you could forward my contact info to your daughter. Yeah?
"...the most revered woman scientist and programmer in the 1950s-60s computing industry..."
That's like saying the most revered railroad construction worker from the 1800's. Well done!
You're age was produced and clinked into the glass.
Observations well taken. A hint at the provenance and, then, onslaught of what Mr. Whelton calls Vagueness comes when he rightly observes how at least some of this diction hailed from the Valley Girls (who were far from unique in the era but rather existing in probably thousands of pockets of similar socio-economics and culture. I had cousins in the early 60s who lived a the lower middle class Boston suburb and well remember being startled by the frequencies of interjected "likes", "you knows" and especially, "so I go...and so he goes..." instead (so I said and then he said". This article gets me pondering whether some of the flattening of what was considered intelligence and merit for the sake of being "socially progressive" may underlie this dumbing down of communication skills. In our chronic scholarly guilt, we have wanted so badly to exalt and equate low street smarts with learnedness; to make people who never learned - for whatever reason - to think much less speak believe that anything they said (and how they said it) is not only now acceptable but admirable. Gangsta talk and vocalized back filling from texting abbreviations is already on the rise, making the old Valley Girl parlance seem almost donnish!
Unfortunately, right on. Our oldest, now 39, returned from Vassar defending "you know" as a wholly legitimate speech pattern. I dared not call it a verbal tic. She recovered nicely and is a skilled editor. But the you-know had come to her at Vassar, not in high school.
i totally get it.
Quite to the point. I cringe every time I hear one of our "leaders" start a sentence or answer to a question by saying "I don't think..." Whenever I hear that I think - "If you don't think then why are you being asked the question or giving an opinion".
I can just envision Edwin Newman spinning in his grave every time the dissolution of our language occures by our corupting of the language.
I'm an Australian and people scoff at our English but American English is like an oxymoron like airline food or military intelligence. hears sort of the reel problem Americans don't seem to know wear to go with words like where and we're and wear all rolled into one ware and your masters of you're own confusion with simplified mixups and moshings of its and it's and bits and peaces of stuff that sounds like what your trying to say but its not reely meaning much but as long as you have lots of friends on Facebook who all rite like they here its all ok and wots it matter anyway as long as the economy recovers? no problem.
Look no further than the comedy stylings of Robin Williams circa 1984. I am not kidding.
Things have been going awry for a while. Grace Hopper, the most revered woman scientist and programmer in the 1950s-60s computing industry, kept a little jar on her desk. If one of her subordinates came into her office and was unfortunate enough to utter a "y'know" in his or her conversation, Grace would point to the jar. A coin was to be produced, and clinked into the glass. DK Adams
As a bus driver years ago, I used to give out a prize whenever a high school student broke the record for the number of "likes" in a (presumed) paragraph. The record, as I recall, was 26 in a paragraph of 59 words. The prize was four lumps of bubblegum designed to shut the kid up for awhile.
Hearing the rising pitch at the end of a sentence, though, depressed me. I struck me as indicating a huge lack of self confidence, as though they could only HOPE that I liked their name. "Uh, Bob?"
Being retired, I no longer have to subject myself to as many teenagers, but my latest irritant is the opposite of vagueness and comes from TV or radio interviews: I have started to count the number of times per newscast I hear "Absolutely!" in response to an interviewers question. So for, the record is thirteen in a half-hour newscast.
Hey! How fun was that!
If you want to go nuts, visit Singapore. Singaporeans use the term "la" like Valley girls use "like", only more frequently.
The government has had campaigns to rid of "la" with absolutely no success.
I would like to receive more articles from your magazine via e-mail.
Like yeah dude. I recently agreed to cast an editorial eye over a staff member's Master's thesis and found it virtually illiterate, full of spelling and grammar mistakes ('they is...') and bereft of syntax, with rambling padded sentences whose logical structure collapsed two thirds of the way through into an impenetrable thicket of apparently irrelevant terminology. But the real nightmare was trying to explain the problems; this intelligent 25-year-old had no idea what I was talking about, and clearly expected me just to fix it and go away. This I partly did, and she is now enjoying a highly paid job and, one hopes, the services of a competent (if resentful) Administration Assistant.
Vagueness doesn't "camouflage" a lack of vocabulary -- it BETRAYS a lack of vocabulary. Vagueness isn't psychological. It results from a dearth of reading printed words, thus the inability to string together concrete words (i.e. nouns, verbs)in sentences. Vagueness is the result of a disaster in our schools, lazy teachers making lazy students,lazy non-reading parents bringing up lazy, non-reading children. Equally as debilitating to communication is the cheapening of the superlative: "fantastic," "unbelievable," "excellent." Those words now mean nothing. Children who graduated high school in the '50s were smarter and more prepared for life, on average, than today's college graduates.
Thank you Mr.Whelton for an excellent article;one small point,the habit of turning a statement into a question by raising the tone at the end is perhaps preferable to its predecessor,whereby a statement such as "I went to the movies and Jane was there" becomes "I went to the movies,didn't I and Jane was there wasn't she?". Incidentally,as an Englishman living in Canada,I have difficulty in understanding how,in TV adverts, you can power things with 'badderies'
I've noticed academics have adopted "a sort of" coupled with an absolute as a way to sound less assertive and/or, perhaps, more genteel. When I hear them interviewed on the radio, it is a constant annoyance. Whether British or American, their speech is lousy with "a sort of."
A cogent piece, Mr. Whelton, but flawed by your rhetorical question:
"Did Vagueness begin as an antidote to the demands of political correctness in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas?"
Hyperbolic, I believe.
I am not a linguist, but my theory about quack-talking and other aspects of Valspeak is that they originated with the restrictions of orthodontia, which most every teenager of my acquaintance wore in suburban Los Angeles in the Sixties and Seventies.
Vagueness? That's a tad more complicated . . .
People who decry vagueness, in matters of speech and writing, anyway, seem to do so from elevated heights. I'm not talking about language snobs or the language police. I'm talking about elitists. The elevated heights from which Mr. Whelton wields his correcting sword are mainly the purview of powerful, elite, educated types. Vagueness is less of a problem, I can assure you, for those of us down here on the lower rungs. We need rent money and food, fare for the bus, tires for our bicycles. Dealing in these exigencies, I find that I can communicate most effectively without getting all high-falutin' with my usage.
This article was written, in the main, for people who believe themselves better than the rest of us because their educations were better than the ones the rest of us had. (Sounds like something a high school kid might say, but I'm leaving it here b/c it makes sense.)
We have our own way of talking down here and you should be glad that we do; it's what keeps you and I segregated; people like me will not make your ivory towers any more hospitable. But I think you get that point already.
You educated folk seem to understand only what educated folk understand. Meaning: your problems are not mine. Nevertheless--or is it 'however?'--I still enjoy a good book, even fancy myself a writer.
I propose: You keep looking down your nose, and I will keep looking up your skirt. But just pray that I don't learn how to talk someday. Because then I might ask out your eldest daughter, the one who went to Vassar or Dartmouth or Stanford or Brown. Who knows where that might lead?
--This has been a paid advertisement for: People Who Recognize the Irony in Me Finding This Article on a Website borne of The Chronicle of Higher Education--
Whelton is in dire need of a Introduction to Sociolinguistics course.
I am so totally tweeting this.
Thank you, Mr Whelton - you make my heart glad!
Excellent article. I would like to add that no one knows what a gerund is, let alone how to use one. Has the gerund gone out of fashion? Its use has disappeared from writing and speech. I long to pick up a newspaper and see "more importantly" rather than "more important."
It was a wonderful article on the sad state of communications today. Keep up the good work.
I see there are no comments to this article. "Apparently there was, like, nothing to say."
(With corrected typos) Recently, I re-read parts of Natlie Goldberg's 1986 classic, WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The book is a sympathetic guide intended to awaken the latent writer that snoozes in all of us. It's based upon the principle of fearless spontaneity, the assumption that the freshnes of one's first impulses will overrule any flaws of syntax or verbiage and deliver pure, readable prose. The lovely book retains its charm and even its integrity, as I recalled it from my first reading nearly two decades ago. However, its premise, alas, has aged not so well. The basic tenet of automatic journal writing assumes that the scribbler has (how shall I put this?)... a VOCABULARY.
Recently, I re-read parts of Natlie Goldberg's 1986 classic, WRITING DOWN THE BONES. Th book is a symathetic guide to awaken the latent writer that snoozes in all of us. It's based upon the principle of fearless spontaneity, the assumption that the freshnes of one's first impules will overrule any flaws of syntax or verbiage and deliver pure, readable prose. The lovely book retains its charm and even its integrity, as I recalled it from my first reading nearly two decades ago. However, its premise, alas, has aged not so well. The basic tenet of automatic journal writing assumes that the scribbler has (how shall I put this?)... a VOCABULARY.
I taught math in a university that required all incoming students to demonstrate proficiency in written English or take a remedial course. Each professor had to submit writing samples from his students. Since in math I had no writing samples, I told the students to write a properly structured paragraph, using their best grammar, spelling and punctuation. It could be on any subject, but if they could not think of anything else, they could tell me why they chose to come to this university. One student, who had graduated from a public high school with all As and Bs, wrote, "I choosed to come here so I could learn to do good in a job."
Ironically, I clicked on the adjoining Facebook icon which means I, like, liked this piece.
Most of President Obama's blathering speeches are models of political vagueness. After all is said and done, they don't amount to much when it comes to enhancing the welfare of the American people.
"Quack-talking, the rasping tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a misfortune."
I have not heard anyone speak this way, nor could I find any references to it with a Google search.
What exactly is raspy "quack-talking" and where have you heard it?
When I arrived in NY to start my first year as an Au Pair, I worked for a very well educated woman who had taken her degree at Columbia. She was also very proud of her ability to communicate! And yet the word "like" interspersed very sentence! It was the first time I had ever heard the word and it made little sense to me. I never picked it up.
In general one's level of education and wealth or lack off made very little difference to how students spoke.
Parallel to the interrogatively-intoned statement is the exclamation cast as a question: “Is that cool?”. The explanation for both, I suspect, is modesty. The speaker feels a touching diffidence, as if being interrogated by an awesome professor. “Here is my answer. Will it do?” It may be the fact that so many people are students these days, and that confrontation with professorial authority has become the deference demanding situation most people are most familiar with, that explains the emergence of these locutionary oddities in the 1980s.
You think that you have problems. Scousers (that is people from the North side of the city of Liverpool in the UK) seem to make it a sworn duty to speak English in a manner that few English speaking people will recognise.
English is one of the most difficult languages to use to create rhyming poetry. Latin and Asian languages are far more fitting to rhyme as many word end in vowels. French lends itself to rhyme also. In Liverpool, however, we have a form of English which gives itself over to rhyme beautifully. This is because Scousers insist on hammering a vowel onto the end of nouns. So we have ‘postie’. Normally this is understood to be an affectionate term for a postman. To the Scouser it means ‘post office’. Christmas becomes ‘Crimbo’ (a particular irritant, I find) and so on. Added to that the normal Scouse statement will end with ‘doyaknowwarImean?’ When I first moved here I must have appeared to most Scousers as a complete idiot, because I couldn’t understand a word.
Needless to say, I don’t have many friends.
The raising of pitch at the end of a statement, making everything sound like a question is also a major irritant but the habit seems to only infect students (from outside Liverpool).
And whilst on the subject on language. I found the pronunciation of the word ‘clique’ to be extremely annoying. If one looks in an English dictionary at the phonetic spelling it is ‘kleek’ not ‘click’. I have since noticed that Americans use it a lot (or maybe just New Yorkers). Now I am aware that Americans have created their own version of English just to piss the English off. That’s fair enough. But the word ‘clique’ is of French origin and they were the good guys during the War of Independence. So the least you can do is pronounce their language correctly.
I thoroughly enjoyed your well-written, insightful article on the dreadful state of spoken and written communications. Vagueness rules. Except when political pundits tell lies with precision. As a speech and writing teacher around the world, I advise speakers to end all sentences (as well as words and phrases) by going down in pitch at the end, not up. Even questions are spoken better 90% of the time when the pitch ends down. Example: "Are you OK?" can end with a rising inflection and convey my concern about your condition. But if I go up in pitch on the word "you" and end "OK" by going down, I convey a convey a concern about you. Thanks for your article.
President, Applause Associates
To Whelton, Squirrel Woman sounded like a "high school junior."
If the historian is able to place "trite" survivors within the hippie sixties, he's able to pluck other-than-trite survivors from the same period, one of which might be the fact that Vietnamese children as young as four and five were responsible, sometimes for whole days or nights, for the care of younger siblings.
It isn't necessary--in fact, it detracts from the writing, and is abusive to the reader--to add that, in 2011, 3-year-olds are reading and mastering musical instruments and even computing, and doing all of these according to the demands of more than only one book or piece or program.
The "hippie sixties," Mr. Whelton? Come on. You didn't need to go back that far in order to say what you wanted to say.
love your article. (I dropped the pronoun for you!) As a teacher, I also lament the loss of clear straightforward speaking and writing from students and adults. Possibly vagueness provides protection for some, even if it is unconsciously done. I can even relate to this"protection" myself in this world of deep divides. Do I want to offend half of the world by being too definite? I am sure that I am not alone in entertaining these thoughts at times. However in my judgment vagueness begets more vagueness. Thanks for your article.
I think some of the blame can be laid at the feet of television. Children born in the 60s (and who therefore came of age in the 80s) grew up immersed in popular culture unlike those before. Exposure to formal English, especially through serious reading, declined. And the parents of that generation, i.e. the boomers, already had enough exposure to their own popular culture and counter culture that they stood as rather lax standard bearers.
Although I completely concur with the insights your article offers, I was, in equal part, heartened and unsettled to read it. It is always a comfort to find a like-mind, but when the trend of which you have been peripherally aware is an unsettling one, it's a mixed blessing to have it confirmed (and concisely articulated) by an independent observer.
As a freelance writer through most of the 90's, I had also noticed many of the changes that you itemize. As theorizing is my second nature, I had started to formulate the idea that the pervasive use of "like," (up here in Canada it was, in the early days, often accompanied by a gesture used by film directors to frame a camera shot with the hands) was linked to our newly visual age and the tremendous rise in popularity of observational comedy (a la Cosby, and later Seinfeld, who often framed their jokes visually, and presented multiple viewpoints sequentially).
I am now a senior high school English teacher -- on the front lines of the language wars, and I fear the problem is more serious than I had previously thought. Everything you say about Vagueness is true. The ability to show connections between ideas is very definitely under threat. Senior high school students are often shockingly unaware that linking words such as "however," or "nevertheless," have any specific meaning of their own and are not simply interchangeable. They excel at list-making but are stymied when asked to present a cohesive argument. The adverb is dead. The preposition is endangered. Both are possible symptoms of a breakdown in the ability to discern relationships.
As a avid reader and sometimes reviewer I have noticed alarming and related trends in fiction. There seems to be a rise in popularity (amongst writers, if not necessarily readers) of fragmented forms that sidestep the need to synthesize ideas into a cohesive whole. For example, relays of characters with only superficial connections, lists, letters, collage-like collections of observations and stories which simply end. These are often presented fearless forays into cutting-edge coolness, but might,in another light, simply be the end result of an inability, on the writer's part,to synthesize. If any synthesizing occurs it must come from the reader -- which explains, at least to me, the uneasy, and irritated sense of unfulfilled expectation that has so often accompanied my recent reading experiences.
Therese, you say, "He is commenting on a real linguistic shift towards fillers and hedges replacing substantives in spoken FORMAL English. And while, as a descriptivist, you have every right to claim that this is simply normal language change and shouldn't be decried, you really shouldn't deny it's happening just because Mr Whelton hasn't produced the graphs and bar-charts to prove it."
Whether or not Mr Whelton describes a real and pervasive aspect of language change in American English is besides the point. He does indeed fail to prove his case, which ought to be a prerequisite for criticizing a described phenomenon, but let us assume that his random observations correlate with reality. It is the assertions he makes about vagueness wherein his argument truly breaks down and becomes both insulting and vapid. The idea that all of the hedges, alternative intonations and modifiers described by Mr. Whelton have no communicative function is simply inane. These types of utterances have innumerable functions within a communicative context and often provided speakers with the ability to arrive at impressive levels of nuance. Far from being vague, these modifiers and alternative intonations provide speakers with tools to achieve greater specificity. Such speech also has a social function. Just as Mr. Whelton and many others bandying about their comments find these speech patterns abhorrent, many of the folks with whom I went to high school would never be caught dead talking like a "tool." Inability to clearly understand the speaking norms of a different subset of culture does not mean that those speaking norms are in and of themselves lessor. There is an implicit arrogance in this article that I find icky.
Also, Mr. Whelton most certainly is a prescriptivist. Unless a different conclusion can be drawn from his comment, "when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English." Who is defining American English here?
And to the individuals who take so much umbrage with words and phrases such as "likes, there's, gonna, etc": besides expressing a personal dislike and expecting others to fall in line with your whims about how people ought to speak, what substantive arguments do you have to offer? I have a substantive argument of my own on this point: you, like the high school student who laces their (Oh-no, I just failed to use the correction third-person possessive!) speech with 'like', is using language to establish status within a group setting. But instead of trying to include yourself in the social fabric as the high school student does, you make an effort to denigrate certain speech behaviors so as to remind yourself and to prove your own superiority. It is like soo lame! (which by the way has a different meaning than "It is lame," but I can only assume that most of the individuals here abouts honestly do not understand this difference.)
When I first started hearing valley girl speak in the 80's my first thought was that it seemed to me that some of the affectations of the gay community, that is, the way words were inflected or emphasized in the gay community, were creeping into the girlspeak of Southern California.
I cringe and try to stop my ears when using public transit - not only is the speech dreadful, the speed at which it is delivered is almost that of light.
Listen to Jeopardy Teen Tournaments - some of the candidates are impossible to understand.
But then I'm old - 79 - what do I know.
Like wow. Mr. Whelton's ability to describe the stages of this sad devolution leaves me speechless.
I had chest pains while reading this article.
I am in complete agreement with the author, and do believe that vagueness is a way of disguising the speakers lack of knowledge.
This is a fine article, but I must say, at the risk of being derided, that I enjoy having my grammar corrected.
I want to be more accurate, more articulate and avoid ambiguity when the presence of such would not be conducive to understanding.
Few seem to care when they are informed that they are in the wrong over some movie trivia, or the number of moons around Jupiter.. I see them smile and say, oh yeah, you're right...why are people so precious about having their grammar corrected?
how about defining "ketchup" as a fruit
Eric: I teach linguistics, and you're wrong. While it's certainly true that prescriptivisim is a dirty word in our subject field, Mr Whelton is not actually prescribing any particular type of speech, nor is he holding on to older forms: you've just produced a knee-jerk reaction to his article. He is commenting on a real linguistic shift towards fillers and hedges replacing substantives in spoken FORMAL English. And while, as a descriptivist, you have every right to claim that this is simply normal language change and shouldn't be decried, you really shouldn't deny it's happening just because Mr Whelton hasn't produced the graphs and bar-charts to prove it.
I really relate to your observasions. I did just that growing up in school. I thought i was just messed up because i did everyday all day long. My mother would get angry at my display of broken english. Those catchy phrases that I heard that I saw as a kid in the movies like the bad news bears. I remember practicing these short but catchy replies just like the valley girl movie. By the time I got back to the states from the navy in my mid twenties I learned to stop doing the short catchy sayings and run on sentences. I think it was Ebonics that brought the malady to my attention. I thought what a horrible program that was for black people.
I enjoyed reading your piece Clark. I would have to say its a more pervasive problem with Kids from the west coast. Today the app word my landlords kids use for tasty food dishes is that taste Dank, Ebonics for the rest of the population. I am thinking doesn't that just rhyme with rank. Two entirly different conclusions that dont reveal much more than a instant visual.
This article is, like, sooo cool. How about 'gonna' in printed form? It's everywhere.And 'quack talking,' as you label it. I think that, underneath all the vagueness and emptiness, they're trying to be cute.
I must agree with Eric, your essay is a just so story. As we say in the sciences, the plural of anecdote is not data. You are inflating one scenario (interviews for an unpaid and, in my opinion, unattractive job) a making an unfounded claim that it occurs elsewhere. While I am an unfortunate resident in the city where these incidents take place, I also have lived many other places. NYC has a diction all its own, and it appears to me to attract or cultivate a special breed of narcissist. I suspect what you observed was that pattern in motion. Note that I stated this as an observation, not a declaration.
The debut of Watson has demonstrated that machines could be exemplars of language. They will require us to come to terms with the boundary of human and machine. If people have a choice, they probably will tend to choose the former, including all its imperfections. All the 'Likes' and self-interruptions remind us of what machines are not.
As I read the article, I felt we were being scolded for being human. We may in fact opt for machines to be our mentors as they would not scold. They are still too dumb for that. It's when they get smart that things go awry.
In Canada, like, this stuff, sort of, doesn't happen. The prescription? Fulminating diatribes against the ruination of our language, at arts schools' graduations, might help a bit, sort of.
To describe any kind of music as "19 century Viennese staccato" betrays musical illiteracy and the sort of tone deafness which would lead the one it afflicts to miss the point.
But what's to be done about this sad trend? Does the author have any ideas on that?
Maybe a follow-up article?
I was an English teacher for many years, and I almost fell out of my chair laughing. I have railed against this myself for a long time.
Thank you for this. I thought I was the only one being driven crazy by these affectations of speech.
Many problems with article. 1st it reminds me of the drivel i was forced to read in college about jazz music, published in 20's (or when Hemingway won the Noble Prize for destroying literature). I think every generation has a publication with similar nonsense by someone more inclined to speak than to listen. Which brings me to the feel of the article itself, if it were music it would sound like an 19th century Viennese staccato funeral march. And to sum it up, how else would one describe en encounter with a baby squirrel than to use illustrative specifics like, "Brrrp brrrp brrrp"? And maybe Koch lost to Dinkins because, like, he just couldn't communicate with a new generation of voters. (Though there is some truth in this article, I just wouldn't say it's describing anything that hasn't been complained about before by the obsolete).
... nothing to say: a trgedy for a speech writer, like.
I've been a transcriptionist for over 30 years, and have listened to this whole horrible devolution. I am now listening to lawyers -- LAWYERS WHO GET PAID HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS AN HOUR -- talking Vague in the courtroom. It's amazingly hard to transcribe. I hope I can afford to retire before they become judges. I can hear it now: "I, like, sentence you to five years of community service, picking up trash or whatever." Gadzooks.
The syntax and the rising inflections of the Valley girl speech are now pervasive. I am an academic in South Africa and I struggle to get students to write with precision. The urban style of English is almost exactly the same as the squirrel woman in your article. Here, I think, it is now a sign of status to sound like an American teenager.
Brilliant--the best writing I've seen on this topic. It needs to be said and repeated. But it won't be heard, much less accepted by those who need to take note--the overwhelming majority of people today who have short attention spans and are conspicuously superficial and wear it like a badge of honor.
Whilst I agree with you Eric about the importance of understanding dynamic changes in language, I do feel the author of this article has a point.
Language informs thought. And it seems to me that a lot of spoken language use is very imprecise today, and this is reflected in what we are choosing to read. Most novels and magazine and newspaper articles now are very simplistic compared to novels and articles written 50 years ago. And to compare what we read now with what was read in the 19th century - it's just plain embarrassing (and, yes, I do realise that use of language changed when image based media became common).
It is interesting to hear the language used in the recently released True Grit. The book was written in 1968, and I don't know if the author was presuming people spoke like that or had historical references for the language. But it is interesting to hear presumably uneducated people speak in a way we would perhaps expect now of people whose first language isn't English. Hearing a 14yo speak the way the way Mattie speaks does indeed make one wonder how much we have lost and what we have gained.
The rising inflection at the end of a sentence drives me insane, and it is endemic in Australia, where I live. It devoices women. I am a woman with a deep voice and I have to fight to stop myself doing it if I am in a situation where I think my voice might make my presence too overpowering.
For the poster who commented on people using 'guys' as a catch-all collective term for 'people' - I don't mind that. You are right about it being common in Australia and I have to say I prefer to be called 'guys' by a waiter than say, 'ladies' if it's a group of women. What I really, really hate is 'm'am' or 'madam'. Somehow it works in America, but comes across in Australia as rude and smarmy.
"...ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise."
How would you describe the rise with which an Irishman ends his declarative sentence? - as if he leaves open a back door for a quick escape.
Like that is so...well like sortta right.
That you, as a speech writer, would so lambaste individuals for their inability to speak with specificity and yet fail to appropriately apply the neither/nor construction, surprises me only in so far as you missed out on an opportunity to demonstrate your silly and paternal pretension.
I am lucky enough to be a PhD candidate in the field of linguistics and the sorry and tired arguments that you once again bring forth have no basis in reality. While you have lots of nice and "just so" (oh gosh I just used quotes around a cliche, but wait, you never provided a reason as to why this is problematic) anecdotes to back up your spurious claims, we can rest easy in the knowledge that your anecdotes were probably misinterpreted by yourself. Individuals who actually study language in a meaningful fashion shy away from claims that so clearly lack substantiation. Rather, we actually transcribe conversations from recordings and do things like counting instances of specific utterances and comparing current data with past data. What we find, generally speaking, is that arguments such as the one that you, frankly rather vaguely present, are just so much stuff.
Instead, we find a long history that goes back multiple centuries of people in the upper-echelons of society decrying language change as language denigration. Specifically, these claims can be summed up as: some people communicate in a way that is different from the way in which I communicate and that seems bad. Language is a tool for effective communication...maybe it is time for you to learn to communicate with the individuals you decry. Or must we always accommodate the whims of the "proper" speech of the older generation?
You are so like right?
Dear Mr. Whelton:
Thank you so very much for this piece! How many times do I find myself correcting my daughter's language for this very reason? "So, is it "like" a great cupcake? Or is it actually a great cupcake?" She tires of this response, but it does the job!
I remember the first day of my freshman year at college, when one of the professors announced some rules for her class, one of which was to spell "a lot" accurately as two words, instead of the infamous "alot". I was appalled that kids my age could have gotten into university without knowing this already.
And my comment would be incomplete if I didn't mention the ubiquitous "there's", instead of the correct "there are". Drives me nuts!
Again, I have so enjoyed your article, as well as all of the comments posted. Any subsequent pieces on the English language would be most welcome! Many thanks!
A direct and incisive commentary on a contemporary problem: Students and more who can't communicate effectively. If they had the perspective of how lame they sound they might shape up but I doubt it.
I really, like, liked your article; in fact I read it to my class of students in Freshman English. I think that they, like, liked it too. In fact, what I decided to do, I decided to give them, like,you know, extra credit points for every time they use "like" in a sentence. I think I'll, you know, like pit one class against another to like see how many times they can use "like" or "you know" in a class discusson. Do you,like, think that I should sort of, like do that?
1st time: a prize for the most number of like, "likes." The second time, a price for the least number of "likes"
Thanks for like, you know, the clever idea. I really liked it!
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You! I will be reading your article to my daughter this evening. She is 15, reasonably articulate, but when talking with her friends, she definitely suffers from the Vagueness syndrome.
My father-in-law will, from time to time, start putting up his fingers to count the number of times she or one of her friends uses the word "like" during a conversation. He calls it his "Like Meter!"
I think it is more the perenially creeping, seeping incoherence about life and its values (our values, really) spectacularly revealed in the 20th century by the existential Molotov cocktail of mechanization/electrification changing people's daily lives; the ideology, planning and execution of the Holocaust; the atomic bomb; and religion's perceived betrayal.
The human condition being in the state it found itself in, the ethos became: why take the trouble if 'proper' is arbitrary? It's all 'stuff', anyway, and meanwhile let's all wait for Godot. Anyone who bothers about propriety is suspiciously not 'getting it', and is sort of a 'square'. You dig?
Several decades after the Second World War, the Beats, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and the Summer of Love, what else is there to say that has not already been said, especially by Kerouac, Salinger, Heller and Vonnegut? Maybe the pop-cultural response is appropriately poststructural: it’s all good, yo. Word up!
Being bilingual, both in American and English, I am not surprised by the changing of the spoken language. What I am surprised by is the speed in which vagueness, AKA laziness, has permeated the world. Quite honestly I blame the education system, (lack of). I am of a certain age that remembers actually being taught how to speak and be clear in what you say.
Thanks for this article.
Yeah, like, wow....
Thank you for expressing what has bothered me for years. I really don't think I'm a grammar prig, but I would really love to hear anyone under the age of 40 express him- or herself coherently. "No problem" drives me crazy, as does the ubiquitous "and stuff". Is there no hope for the English language?
I very much appreciated Mr. Whelton's essay on the decline of American English, a subject almost completely ignored. I agree with his observations on the Vagueness disease, and the hip "no problem" reply instead of "You're
welcome" which seems to have disappeared from use, as have "several" instead of "multiple," the comparative degree ("more strong approval," Washington Post, 3/29/10), "graduate high school"(NPR) instead of "graduate from high school," the subjunctive, etc. etc. My favorites, however, are grammatical monstrosities like "It's not between he and I," "she put my brother and I on a list"--this one being of such high frequency that it is an epidemic, to be found into the highest levels of this society. What a relief then to hear Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor say, on 5/16/09, that "...devoted her life to my brother and me," prompting me to think "praise
the Lord for a lawyer who knows English"! Being a grammar prig, and spelling prig, and foreign language prig, I could go on and on, but I won't.
Clark Whelton is likely aware that ‘juvenilization” and “a redcuced capacity for abstract thought” are symptoms of broader problems.
For those further interested, see: “Bad Students, Not Bad Schools” by Prof. Robert Weissberg.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I used to cringe when I heard athletes interviewed. Now I cringe when I hear most Americans interviewed.
Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
Mr. Whelton: I'm from Bridgton, and I remember that evening. The celebration involved was assembled in very short order, for a town of approximately 4,000 people. The night may have fallen short of your expectations, but it was pretty big stuff for a small village (which has no mayor to offer the ceremonial words you so missed, a fact you might have learned if you had done some research). I suggest you look at the event in context of the setting before deciding that it was so anticlimactic.
I attended high school in the 1970's. I said "like" and "you know" compulsively, although I did not realize it until a teacher (bless her!) taped me giving a class presentation. When I indignantly challenged my C grade, she played the tape back to me.
I was devastated. I had no idea I sounded like that, and I desperately wished to not sound like that. I wanted so much to sound like a mature adult. Gradually, I also realized that I used those crutches to try and hide the obvious fact that I was an insecure and rather shy adolescent. It took some time, and I can't say I pursued my goal singlemindedly, but it dawned on me during some point in my college career that I never said "you know" and "like" any more.
Thank God for a teacher who was obviously unconcerned with my self-esteem and caused a bit of short-term pain and helped me immensely in the long run.
I laughed out loud (LOL for the email challenged)
when I read the title. I would like the author to
write an article about the abuse of superlatives.
My wife calls me a curmudgeon for trying to
curtail the use of the words "cool", "fantastic", "amazing", "incredible", and of course, "awesome",
by a 4 year old! Keep up the good work.
As far as I'm concerned, the world is going to Hell, which is fine because apparently that's where it wants to be.
Yes, I believe that you nailed the offending institution nicely, viz., High School. The education establishment is responsible for this problem as well as the reluctance to be amenable to logic and clear thinking. High school teachers today likely cannot spell or think themselves, due to schools of education, and if they can they likely are reluctant to speak clearly in an atmosphere of terminal political correctness. This problem has migrated to College such that some recent report suggested that the first two years of college are essentially a waste of time since the kids do in college what they were doing in high school, i.e., nothing. That is why your Juniors from fine schools look exactly like they do. Fire everybody and just start over. Get rid of teachers unions and the bane of our existence, the School of Education.
As a history professor for 40 years, I can well appreciate Mr. Whelton's article; it is all too familiar, alas! However, I am not acquainted with the term "quack-talking," nor are any of my colleagues. I wonder if someone might describe it for me.
This is a very honest piece. I really enjoyed reading it, and found myself agreeing to it, although hypocritically I've dabbed in that Vagueness from time to time. Most recently, I have noticed it being excessively used by my friends and it has bothered me. Meanwhile, I don't realized that I use myself, as these thoughts run through my head. Maybe I don't use it as frequently as most but, having been born when it was already catching on like a wild fire, I think it's become hard to avoid it. Nevertheless, props man.
Well, I mean, like, Dude, you don't understand the hard work we students have to endure in, ah, school, like, Obama's telling us youth we are going to fix things, so, Dude, like, you are nothing but, ah, complaining, and, Dude, I like, found the spell check, too, Dude, and, ah, like, I mean, I typed this myself, too, so Dude, I like am, smart, ya know.
Ummm, like, that's so, you know, true.
Absolutely true. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I noted with dismay that both Obamas, despite their Ivy League educations, used "like" and "went" for "said." As in, "I was, like, 'No that can't be'," or "he went, 'Obama wants to take away your guns!'" At the risk of sounding like a grammer prude, it is a sad thing to witness in the President and First Lady.
Speakers of Vaugeness advertise the inanity of what they say. This built-in flag works as a courtesy, by letting listeners know that most or all of the communication can be ignored. A more insidious problem was noted by George Orwell in his timeless essay on political speech. Orwell understood that some speech, political speech in particular, sounds weighty but is in fact completely detached from the plain meaning of the spoken words.
Good article. We've been battling the 'like' syndrom in our kids, so far successfully, but it's a constant effort because many of their friends' parents are 'likers'. I'm fine with English changing but when words like 'like' (we make our kids replace 'like' with "something similar to' in order to help them see if the usage is correct - annoys the heck out of them, but works!) are overused, communication is weakened; the listener becomes distracted with all the 'likes!' Regarding the 'up' phenomenon, I remember Robert MacNeil in his "The Story of English" (good 9 part documentary) commenting on it amongst Austrailian women, saying that it seemed to be a means of their asking permission/approval for what they were saying, a reflection of their second class status in Australian culture. It's one thing to monitor/correct your own kids. How do you tell a 'strong liberated American mother' that her daughter is emulating a subservient speech pattern that does not reflect well on her? Ha! Good Luck with that! We battle on!
I am surprised no one mentioned the insidious use of "guys" when addressing two or more people --- this is most infuriating when being addressed by an individual who is supposed to be a customer contact --- a waiter, waitress, museum employee, etc. I was in Australia in September and it's usage was even worse there.
Like, Wow! Ummm you like, hit the nail on the head!
I'm a music teacher but, here the same things. They also can't read!
Thank you for verbalizing my thoughts over the past 20 years or so.
In addition to all of your great examples of "Vagueness," I have also noticed that adults, that should know better,jump into the the vagueness speech in order to sound like their kids, like its its hip or cool.Whatever!
What a sad commentary on our culture, our expectations, and our educational system!
My thoughts exactly! I can't stand the ridiculous overuse of 'like' and 'you know'. Sometimes I think the main purpose of this silliness is simply to extend the time people are expressing their thoughts, thus maintaining attention on themselves, a perverse form of verbal narcissism. This is the first article I've seen that addresses this unfortunate trend. Great job!
A text book, AMERICA AS A CIVILIZATION: Life and Thought in the United States Today by Max Lerner, was given when I was enrolled at the Orientation Program in summar 1960. It was voluminous and weighty in contents to this foreign student. The book was strikingly impressive for its well-articulated format and organization. A good companion to me, carried around,for my cultural orienation. The book remains compact, alas, I find the people and good things of America disunited and disorganized.
After I retired from my job I was invited by a local college in Mumbai to teach English to students of English Journalism. I had a similar experience. They used, what we call, SMS language: CU@8 (See You at eight) and spoken vacuities in their written essays. Since it was written English that they were supposed to learn, I put them through elementary stuff: Write on essay. Subject: "On a railway platform." There were complaints that they were being asked to handle Class VIII stuff. I told them that that was what they needed to learn first before they graduated to proper English. Today more than half the class still corresponds with me and all have got excellent jobs in the English media here in India.
I adore you, plainly and simply adore you for expressing exactly what I have been arguing for a decade. If I hear one more "like", or "you need to", or let's add to that, "he had went...blah blah, blah", OH, and then let's not forget that no one seems to know the difference between know and no, there and their, and God knows what else. It kills me to see and hear this happen to the English language. Thank you for expressing it all so very well.
i will keep this!
and share with my young friends.
Thought you'd enjoy this, and stuff. :)
Marvelous! A great lamentation on the decline and fall of American speech . . . Like "What is the meaning if IS?" Words do wear out, but if you like vagueness, you should run for public office. That's where it really counts!
..sorry -- that was supposed to be "quack talking." Paris Hilton does this, as do many others.
Qusck talking" -- At last, someone has named a language phenomenon I have been noticing for years! What is the origin of this? I hear it in the world-wearyness of young women's voices -- specifically in Hollywood women's voices. I think it's supposed to convey boredom -- as if to say, "I will now exert just enough effort to comment on this, and then I'm through." Thank you for giving this a name -- now, I know what to call it.
This sums up all that is loose, annoying and empty about the juvenile language forms we hear. Hint: it's worse than just "cool"
I'm unconvinced that this phenomenon has to do American English. To me, it seems to be a continuing feature of native Englishes around the world.
It will be interesting (in a purely academic sense) to see the effect upon those who speak English as an auxiliary language, for example educated East Indians, and upon those using English as a foreign language, particularly for communication with other non-native speakers.
Wow, I so like this post, sort of, I guess. Thank you! My aunt spent 25 years as and English teacher and would cheer this post. While I'm mid-century now as a high school or college student would be very nervous given a 500-word paper. Now I write for fun on a cooking blog. Hundreds of words are not unusual, I don't twitter but do try bad Haiku from time to time. Thank you, Mr. Whelton.
I was teaching at the College of William & Mary in the fall of 1988 when I first heard "up-talk." Suddenly it was everywhere in my classes, particularly with my women students. Before long, it spread to all them, men and women alike. When I asked folks if they'd noticed how students were suddenly making declarative statements sound like questions, nobody seemed to know what i was talking about. I was relieved when others started catching it. For a little while, I thought I was, like, crazy, and stuff.
The "rising tone at the end of a declarative statement" is indeed vagueness. It turns a statement into something less definitive, as if to finish it off by "maybe, sort of." I had thought it was a Canadian or Great Lakes regional affectation, but maybe not?
My 9-year-old uses the "is, like" for "says." I know she didn't get it from her parents, but this article is making me more determined to stamp it out, or at least get her to be aware of it and only use it among her friends. One would hope her teachers don't accept it, but that is probably too much to ask.
Jonathan wrote that "she goes" -- meaning "she said" -- is not Vagueness. I disagree. "She goes" was accompanied by gestures that demonstrated someone's physical movement or facial expression. Using "to go" to indicate spoken words is a retreat from specificity. The essense of Vagueness is to say nothing you can be held to.
Yes, of course. But the Japanese have been talking like this for milennia.
Very nice.I didn't realize that the habit of framing the answer to a question with a question goes back that far.It's quite irritating,but I thought it was just a form of teen lingo.
I suspect that the interviewees that Mr Whelton encountered may be responsible for the various toxic 'corporate-speak' expressions that have infected our discourse. 'At the end of the day','it is what it is',and the hip-hop inspired 'back in the day' hopefully will run their course soon.On the political front,'disingenuous' has replaced 'mean-spirited',and I can't wait for it to go away.Through it all, like an indestructible cockroach,'the best and the brightest' survives.-Joseph McNelis,M.D.
Certainly vagueness is a problem, certainly it is growing, and as several commenters have pointed out, it is reinforced culturally, especially through television and film.
However, not all of the examples reveal vagueness. Mr. Whelton recoils from the non-standard story tense "And she goes 'what?' and then I go 'you heard me!'" I agree, it must have been shocking to hear it in that interview. It is non-standard, and has been with us for generations. But it is not vague.
Similarly, the substitution of one inarticulate tic or another, makes the statement neither more or less vague.
Some of the word choices are regional or dialectical, and may seem annoying. But are not vague.
And the rising tone at the end of a declarative statement (upspeak) is most definitely annoying, but again, not vague.
Clark, hearing time gaps filled with you knows while a lay speaker stalls in order to think of what he wants to say next is annoying enough. But tolerating an excessive frequency of them (more than, oh say one every six weeks) imbedded in the comments of a newscaster who is being paid to speak with clarity is especially distracting. Fox News is one of the worst culprits. They eventually controlled their commentators’ abuse of “obviously” (but not, alas, “hopefully“) but now they seem obsessed with their cliché du jure which is like, you know, “conditions on the ground.”
Thanks for filling in for James Kilpatrick. I miss him like whenever I hear “only” misplaced in a sentence, which seems to be every few minutes. You’re like, you know, fun to read.
'Showcase' is a noun! 'Display' is a perfectly good verb
"Have a good day." I HATE that phrase, especially when some store clerk tells me that when handing me my change. AND especially when he/she tells me that at ten o'clock at night (I work odd hours and frequent 24 hour stores like 7-11). Hey, lady, its ten o'clock at night. Its pitch dark outside, what do you mean, "have a good day"?
And, besides, speaking of 7-11's, if they are in fact open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, why then, pray tell, do they have locks on their doors?
In any case, have a good day.
Beavis and Butthead were a couple of decades ahead of their time. Cool, dude! its like, you know? Kicks butt. Cool.
I work in healthcare and a few years ago my employer started a program to teach caregivers the "right" words to say to patients. We were instructed to replace "no problem" with "it's my pleasure" and other scripted phrases including "Is there anything I can do for you to make you more comfortable?"
What a sad commentary on the state of our language and culture when people not only have to be taught the appropriate words to say, but are coerced into using them by an employer who determines pay raises and promotions based on an employee's performance with the script.
Thanks for the thought provoking article Clark. I will be sharing the message, and you know, like, trying to live it...
At Vassar, there was an excellent teacher of English [the language, not the literature]. His method was simple. He would ask for an essay. He then corrected it with question marks, especially noting duplications. He forced the essays back onto the students, to make them think. The difference in linguistic ability was amazing.
But then ... is it the youngsters' fault? How often does one not read "I would like to thank..." [as is common in the dedication of many books] or "dumb" used as the equivalent of stupid.
Clark hasn't mentioned, "Where is it at? The final redundant at is used,
one might think, to clinch the inquiry and so avoid vagueness? But what
if 'it' is not at any particular place but 'in' something? Like, 'in' the
mail". To be literally correct one would have to reply, "I don't know where
it is at, it is in the mail".
"Like" drives me crazy.
Recently I was trapped in my subway seat listening to three young women wearing Columbia U. gear who collectively said like 94 times (I counted) between express stops.
One of my sons, a Vassar grad and much lauded young journalist, uses it non-stop, except when he is interviewed on TV. I treasure his You Tube clips - it's the only way I can hear him complete a sentence without the L-word.
The other, a graduate of another fine liberal arts school, miraculously does not have this verbal twitch.
Maybe it's something in the water in Poughkeepsie.
Amusing to read - distressing to hear this language. And you hear it among, like, politicians - many of whom suffer from the old "um" and "uh" between every other word!
Even among TV commentators - who are supposedly at the top of their game - the deterioration of language is sad, indeed!
If I had spoken like that in school, the nuns would have broken many rulers over my knuckles - and I would have had hours of writing lessons over and over - and, like, over again!
Wonderful!! Plus I came away with argot and milfoil, both new for me. Thanks for this.
Case in point-- Caroline Kennedy's painful interviews before aborting her senate campaign--- like atrocious ;)
As one who deals with the issue regularly, I commend you for your forthrightness and clarity in defining vagueness.
As a teacher of critical thinking the effort to draw students forward into abstract thought causes many of them to react as if one of their teeth is being pulled without Novocain.
In an effort to refrain from intellectual confrontation and still draw the vague into the land of specific distinctions, I define the spreading disease of vagueness as BLAH BLAH, BLAH BLAH. Usually, once they know they are on "automatic pilot" and regularly spew BLAH BLAH, we can get to the serious business of creating thoughtful argument and recognizing the logical fallacies that we are getting bombarded with each day.
Thank you for this thoughtful article. I have a warm feeling of fulfillment knowing I am not alone in the battle against vagueness.
BUT WHAT WHUT WUZ THAT GUY THAT WROTE THAT, Y'KNOW, TALKING' ABOUT???
Well crafted, like, David Copperfield, or some dumb writer that they made us, y'know, read in that dumb English class. Ciao.(Well crafted article! (voracious book devourer)
Like, thank you for putting a name on all this linguistic malaise - especially "quacktalking". It's so "right on".
You have addressed the contagion that is deconstructing the edifice built stone by stone on the gift bestowed by Shakespeare. Funny, but sad. I wonder how St. Paul, or Seneca, or even Jefferson, could have expressed their soaring rhetoric if limited to this stultifying narrowing of expression.
Excellent observation! I too have been struck by the lack of clarity and excessive use of fillers in common discourse.
I thought I was getting old!
Great Article... the same is happening with Czech and Swiss German... from what I can say.
We do not notice since we are not listening anymore... the world is becoming a way too visual... Unfortunately
Unexplainable or inexplicative?
This ain't no place for no purist to be parading his elitist opinions about a culture he know nuthin' 'bout. Know what I'm sayin'?
Students enrolled in a highly rated "college of art and design" frequent a small coffee-shop near my home. Your analysis of their speech patterns is right on the mark. Stunned by the differences from my own coffee-shop days at Ohio State sixty years ago, I have attempted to fathom the issue. Despite carrying what appear to be traditional college text-books, the students clearly prefer the shop's constantly blaring television. I have been appalled in observing that their TV fare of choice is that of juvenile cartoons and adult slap-stick punctuated by intermittant violence. I have concluded that the difference consists primarily of developmental years with TV and digital games. Sadly, these American kids have been cheated and will never become a serious threat to manipulative Orwellian propaganda and governmental controls.
First, we had "Barney," the clean-cut African-American precursor to Pres. Obama, on "Mission Impossible," who, in insert shots featuring black and pink hands manipulating alligator clips, could make Soviet-bloc elevators run sideways... and the "Poliz" on the program never, ever, wondered what a black man was doing behind the Iron Curtain.
Now, we have normal, ordinary American young people making gang signals and speaking like dopes, as the article elucidates.
Butt, iss all goots, like, yeah, homes?
The validity of the author's theme can be captured in one word, and its variations.
This paticular word is currently used as a verb, noun, adjective, adverb, pronoun and interjection.
In all cases, it demonstrates a lack of command of the English language.
Yes . . . That word begins with 'f' and ends with 'k'.
Have you noticed the "professional" news commentators? I'm no language expert, but continue to be astounded at the childish language some use. "Ton" is used often to describe more than a few.
Superb and timely! The bad news: the catastrophe is spreading. The same impoverishment has hit other latitudes. Spanish is not exempt. We need an urgent and deep reassessment of our educational systems, a new renaissance.
"Clark Whelton was..."
I like the way this man thinks and writes. I decry the limited vocabulary of many people in this day and age. Even educated adults in my age group, the seventies, have fallen into the trap of lazy language. I long for the return of correct grammar but I am afraid it's not going to happen in my lifetime. If there is one thing that is lacking in teaching grammar these days, it is that modern teachers do not teach students how to diagram sentences. And I think the reason for this is that teachers just don't know how it is done.
I am sure Mr Whelton will not be surprised to learn that these linguistic tics are just as common in British and Australian English.
We have a library copy of 'Life at the Bottom' by Theodore Dalrymple and read of your Journal through this. We'd be interested to receive online updates with a view to possibly subscribing.
Jane Robinson and Peter Strawhan
On the other side of the Atlantic, one can hear ladies (sort of) saying obscenities referring to manly generative equipment they do not possess, such as "do not break my b***s". Very curious.
Especially when this phrase is loudly broadcast to all passers-by in the middle of the street, through the virtue of a cellphone.
To be precise, there is an ethnic element to this fad. The ladies in question are usually young Muslim girls, who reciprocate the foul language they hear from their male counterparts. It's a way of rejecting the usual Muslim female submission, and trying to fit in by looking tougher than the males themselves.
Great article, Mr. Whelton. But for the full effect of the purest version of Vagueness, one must closely study the Southern California variant. This would include (with the same ubiquity as "like") both, "I'm all goin'," and liberally interspersed scatological and sexual obscenities of the crudest kind. For example, something closely approximating the following might easily be overheard on any University of Southern California campus:
"So, like, me and this other dude were, like, just fu*king sittin' 'round, and then, like, this total bit*ch that I used fu*kin' hang with; she like came up and was all goin', like, Dude, where's the fu*king money you owe me? And I'm like lookin' at her and I'm all goin', chill bi*ch!--and quit being so imma-f*cking-ture! Are you like eight years old or sumpin'? I told you you'd get yer sh*t when I got paid."
When I was in the 9th grade in the early 60s, I had to master the complex and irrational rules governing the use of "will" vs. "shall", rules which were never observed in casual conversation by anyone outside of southern England. One of the reasons for grammatical anarchy now is the long maintenance of an archaic and rigid approach to grammar up to a couple of generations ago. Young people are smarter than they sound. (Dare I say, more eloquent than they sound?) Vagueness is a strategy of caution in uncertain times. Some of the more whimsical circumlocutions derive from old Irish blarney, Yiddishisms, and other relics of cultures in which language was more playful and less utilitarian, as it was in English before the 17th century. If the Greek and Latin classics ever become an educational fad again (which has happened many times in the centuries since Rome fell), young people will once again be imitating the clever and assertive rhetorical devices of Cicero and Demosthenes, the ultimate inspiration behind the grammarians who taught the grammarians who taught me.
Viva lost vagueness!
I suspect what happened is that in 1985 you became middle-aged :)
But seriously, what matters isn't changes in language, but changes in the general ability to communicate. These changes may or may not be real. My father has, all his life, narrated conversations with 'so I said, oh, I said, I said, why's that then, and he said, well, he said...'. It didn't stop us understanding him and it's nothing new. And my late mother-in-law used direct speech without mentioning the speaker, but changing the tone of voice between speakers (one of whom was almost invariably her), which made it sound like speeded-up film dialogue. But you understood her, and she did it all her life, as far as I know, she wasn't imitating the young of today.
On the other hand, if you can't find directors of communications who can communicate well, there is indeed a problem.
Many changes in our educational system, in the name of educational reform, have sadly led to the "dumming down" of America. it will take many years to remedy this travesty.
Not long ago I was introduced to a young woman, and said "How do you do?". Immediately, her eyes widened and she turned full-on to face me, and in an exasperated and shocked tone said "What did you say to me?" This otherwise pleasant person seemed mystified, and her response brought the friendly conversation to a dreary end. I then realized that she had never heard the phrase "how do you do", and being unfamiliar with the common pleasantries of good manners in public, thought she had been insulted.
My greeting was somehow responsible for the ock shock was
Also ugly: since Pulp Fiction, pampered boys and girls have been trying to curse like they've spent years in a max security prison, and as a result have degraded that hard-earned art form. "That sucks balls" for example. Neither reading nor thinking great thoughts, they skate along toes barely touching the ground light-mindedly assuming they're worth a great deal more than they are.
Our intellectuals in the field of linguistics insist this descent into Vagueness is natural and has no negative consequences. No wonder the next generation finds itself at sea linguistically: our educated elites are sending them there.
How long will it be before Shakespeare is recited on stage as: "Friends? Romans? Countrymen? Lend me your ears?".
This is, like, a great article, lol Hits the point exactly and I think you'll find that penmanship, which is also a lost art, fell by the wayside around the same time. It seems unconnected, but it is also the time that technology & computers went mainstream in our schools - from kindergarten through high school. What do you think?
It's a shame, however .... going forward things will.......
The French version should include "enfin" !
Like, party on Wayne!
I hope it is just my locality, but sales clerks now increasingly hand me my purchase and change with a "There you go", and then pause, apparently waiting for me to thank them. Should I reply "There YOU go."?
I appreciate this article. It provides good fodder for reflection. It also makes me want to work on my grammar and language skills more.
I'm don't feel I have any substantive insights to contribute on the topic, but it does seem to me that the debasing of speech and language is consonant with the general dumbing down and vulgarizing spirit that characterizes our times.
I blame TV!
Valley speak from the out-in-the-sun-too-long L A crowd hit the airwaves as more and more TV production moved to LaLa Land.
The homogenizing impact of having a nationally shared language reduced speech to its lowest common denominator.