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Sorry, Lynne Truss, English is Not Doomed

Recently Lynne Truss, professional pedant, declared in her Telegraph column that English is "doomed."

Her proof?

Someone wrote "It maybe time to act on this" in an email to her.

Certainly there’s a genuine error in the sentence: Maybe should be may be. Maybe is an adverb meaning "uncertainly; perhaps," while may be is a verb phrase, with may acting as an auxiliary verb. What her example sentence means is "it’s possible the time has come to act on this, but that’s not a certainty."

This one email seems to indicate to Truss that "the English language as we know it [is] hereby doomed, and we might as well all go off and kill ourselves." Apparently, we are changing too many phrases into one word for Truss’s liking. While this is an "honourable tradition" in English, we must be "vigilant" against it.

She offers no evidence that the error is widespread or that joining words together is harming English in any way.

She takes potshots at American English speakers and linguists and explains that if the Brits are following this trend of combining words, they’re doing so "unthinkingly."

Truss cites a list of offending words—anyday, anyway, and everyday, for a start—and says we must continue to be able to write such things as:

Is there any way you can do this?

I will love you every day of my life.

The insinuation is that if we accept these one-word forms, we will lose the two-word form’s meanings. That is, we won’t be able to use the noun phrase any way if we accept the adverb anyway.

Let’s be clear: All that’s going on is a change in spelling. All Truss caught was a spelling mistake.

Changing the spelling of a word will not limit your ability to communicate a desired message, either spoken or written. Spelling is, for the most part, arbitrary. A word can have more than one meaning; it can even have opposite meanings if we so choose (witness cleave).

The only word in her list that is a genuine mistake is anyday, and Truss gets that wrong as well.

She claims that it is standard in American English to use anyday for any day. My fellow columnist Jonathon Owen is quick to prove that anyday is rare in American English.

Truss and other language commentators like her bug me. They make proclamations from on high that conform to their ideal of English but have no relationship with how we really use English. They make broad statements about the state of English without any evidence. They offer little to no reasoning for their preferences, and they offer no proof of their statements.

Truss may not be a linguist, but she knows how language works. She knows that language is controlled by its users. Want to prevent everyday from becoming an accepted word? Tell everyone not to use it. Scare them into believing that if everyday becomes standard, we will cease to understand each other.

Truly, I have no problem with writing advice. It’s very useful if you want to be understood by readers or if you want to be accepted by a specific group, such as publishers. But let’s label such advice for what it is: preferences for words, turns of phrases, and other style decisions.

Some styles of writing are more universal than others. In American English, we prefer to use which to introduce restrictive clauses, while in British English, using either which or that is acceptable. This is so ingrained in American English, many people don’t realize it’s not a grammar rule. Yet you are free to choose to use that in a restrictive phrase, and readers are free to think of it what they will.

Here’s the takeaway, dear readers. Remember that all language users, the advisors and the advisees, control language. You control it as much as I do. When you come across claims about language or advice on using it—no matter from whom—be critical thinkers.

Demand from the advisor evidence of a supposed change. Demand proof that such a change is bad. Ask whether such a change is acceptable in some types of writing or speaking but not in others. Demand the advisor go beyond spewing vitriol.

It’s fine for someone to demonstrate that writing maybe for may be or anyday for any day is becoming more common. It’s fine for that person to educate readers on what the difference is. It’s even fine for someone to teach their writing style to others.

What’s not fine is for them to proclaim the end of the world with no proof and demand we all do things their way.

Readers, this is your language too. Hold us advisors accountable.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 15th 2014, 1:29 AM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
I like your piece, and I think it may help me deal, at least emotionally, with being so annoyed by some forms of usage. In particular, I boil inside when I hear someone say "I graduated high school", leaving out the preposition "from". I know the usage has changed and become so common as to be widely accepted, but it's like nails on a chalk board for me. It's just a personal complaint, and I've lost the battle, I know, but that fact does little to relieve my discomfort. Every time I hear it, I have to fight the urge to correct the speaker (writer). I would have no business doing so. I'm not a language expert by any measure.
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 1:42 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Good comment James - that "from" is lost quite often!!
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 4:09 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Oh, let the lady vent the pent now and then. What's life without a little hyperbole in the papers?

You say that we users control language. No one controls it (Humpty Dumpty and his ilk may try). It is a social negotiation with social consequences.

The words you and Truss are discussing are easy to confuse, but worth distinguishing:

Brush your teeth every day. Everyday use of a toothbrush...

..any way at all. Well, anyway...

Any one of us... Anyone? Anyone?

Doom-saying about English has a long tradition. What did the Brits say when they saw Webster's dictionary? "There goes the neighbourhood."
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 7:39 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)
Anyway, I thought Americans said 'anyways'.
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
As a Brit, I would like to apologise for any pedants on this side of the Atlantic who ignorantly take "potshots at American English speakers and linguists". They do not speak for us all.

Personally, I regard American English as a fantastically productive and dynamic generator of neologisms and new linguistic forms which (by and large!) serve to enrich the English language as a whole.
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 7:47 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
Oh, and I love Phil H.'s joke about the "neighbourhood" - I'm gonna half-inch that!
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 8:09 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Neil! I, too, liked Phil H's "neighbourhood" line. Phil, if the venting doesn't bother you, great! It bothers me because so much misinformation is passed around that way.

Geoff, I'm guilty of saying "anyways" in casual conversation, but it's considered nonstandard in American English. Likely we Americans are judging each other for using it. :-)

James, I'm glad I could help. We all judge each other by how we talk and write. It's like judging someone on what they wear: it's a shortcut to figuring out the whole person. We shouldn't do it, but we do.
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 8:55 AM
Comment by: James R.
As poet John Giorno said, "Tempers flare when the stakes are low."
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Neil B. (Bedford Park, IL)
"and says we must be continue to able to such things as:" Is this a sample of a sleepy proofreader's Monday morning work? A sample of bloggers not using proofreaders? A sample of what I like to refer to as cyber-gremlins in our midst? Or just a strange way of unconsciously agreeing with Ms. Truss? :-) Thanks for your offerings, Erin!

[Sorry about that. Now fixed! —Ed.]
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Erin, you came down pretty hard on Lynn Truss!

I followed the link at the beginning of this article and read her original essay. I found it to be clever, refreshing, usefully organized, well-writen, instructive, insightful, lean and to-the-point, and brimming with good examples and fun hyperbole. Yes, she was protesting the making of one word out of what should be two separate words - I agree with her that it's incorrect and annoying when people do that. I don't think she really thinks that the English language is doomed, or that we might as well kill ourselves; I think she assumed that we would know that her tongue was in her cheek, not being used to make rude noises at other people who write words about words!

I'm with Phil: Let the lady vent! We're all in this talking-about-words thing together ... let's take turns, share, have fun and be nice!

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 1:46 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Krisitine, thanks for your comments. I agree with you and Phil that we all need to vent. A good vent can be useful to readers and refreshing to the readers.

However Truss spreads misinformation; she hasn't taken even a moment to look up "anyday" in an American dictionary. Merriam-Webster's is available free online. To me, that's irresponsible. Certainly we all make mistakes, but Truss has a history of not checking her facts.
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 7:18 PM
Comment by: Steve J.
Articles like these (more, actually, the witty comments) make whatever I paid to join the VT community seem a bargain. Thanks to all.

"Anyday now, anyday now, I shall be released."

When I listen to Dylan sing this, or to Grace Potter's delicious cover, I never catch myself wondering "how did Mr Zimmerman spell any day?"

Which really isn't much of a point, but.....it's all I got right now.

Steve Jennette
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Wednesday January 15th 2014, 9:48 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Steve, your last line made me laugh - I hope you don't mind if I use it sometime!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday January 16th 2014, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Jerry G.
Whenever I try to write something like "some time has elapsed," Word's spell-checker tries to make it "sometime." It bugs the heck out of me.
Friday January 17th 2014, 4:19 AM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom)
Recently I have been pulled up more than once for saying "less people", it should be fewer people and less coal. They are right of course, but the differences had never occurred to me before and I have been doing it all my life. But suddenly I am being told about this mistake.

Precise language is more expressive than imprecise language.
Friday January 17th 2014, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Julian, you're right: precise language is more expressive than imprecise. But I hope those correcting your speech are kind about it. Especially when it's casual speech (as opposed to, say, giving a presentation to business associates or talking to a client). We're all human and need to give each other room to be human.

Hmm. Not that I gave Truss much room this week!
Friday January 17th 2014, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom)
In visual grammar the difference between putting something in a single envelope and separating two objects is very fundamental. When there is a border between two objects they become two objects, when a border encloses two objects in a single envelope they become a single object; this sounds very obvious but it is in fact worth thinking about.

So a drawing of animal with two eyes is bounded within a single border, if I add an extra eye within that border it becomes a three eyed animal, even though three eyed animals are extremely unlikely and unexpected. If the eye is outside the border it becomes a two eyed animal and an eye object.

If I build a border inside a three eyed animal it becomes two objects with a border between them. Here is the artist Saul Stienberg playing with this phenomenon. Here is his image http://www.pinterest.com/pin/412572015835500494/ His clever use of a boundary has recreated two images, half on top of each other, and the face is no longer a three eyed monster person.

Vision and language grammar share common grammatical languages, they are both processed through the neocortex which is fairly much a single unified 6 layer sheet of neurons sharing a unified physiological mechanism. Anyway this is my theory.

Thus for brain processes the difference between Anyone and Any One is likely to be very large, although once it is familiar with both concepts the mind is likely to not take much notice of differences unless it has reason to look at them again.

This is a huge area of language studies, I expect ti has hardly been looked at?
Friday January 17th 2014, 12:28 PM
Comment by: marc E. (Pacific Palisades, CA)
The English language is not doomed as Truss hyperbolically avers. However, we should not countenance imprecise, sloppy language in written form (or simple "spelling" errors as Brenner suggests) for sake of its acceptability in colloquial speech. I agree with neither speaker.
Friday January 17th 2014, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Marc, there are different standards of acceptability (what linguists call "register," I believe) not only between speech and writing but also between different types of speeches (e.g., talking with your friends vs. talking with your boss) and between different types of writing (e.g., texting friends vs. writing for a professional publication).

To me, the key to harmony is understanding and accepting those differences. So, yes, I would have higher standards for professional writing than what my friends post on their Facebook pages.
Friday January 17th 2014, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Well said, Erin B.!
Friday January 17th 2014, 6:52 PM
Comment by: marc E. (Pacific Palisades, CA)
I completely understand your comments and the varying standards of acceptability dependent on the context of the communication, My concern, however, is that the colloquial (whether conversational or in emails, texts or social media "shortcuts") is becoming the new, de facto, dumbed-down standard. Yes, I communicate less formally in conversation or social media settings with friends and family than I do in written form in a business/professional situation. However, I won't compromise how I communicate just because it's become "acceptable" in common parlance.

A case in point. I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain of culinary, television and autobiographical fame. Unfortunately, I have heard Mr. Bourdain on more than one occasion, in his own book and conversationally, repeatedly start a sentence where the phrase "Me and John" is the subject. Now, that's clearly an extreme case of obviously improper language, but you'd have to believe that his editor or producer simply didn't either care or know enough to do something about it. It's also troubling because Mr. Bourdain is one of the countless number of people who repeat that error every day.
Friday January 17th 2014, 7:15 PM
Comment by: Jerry G.
@marc E: Have you ever tried to write to Mr. B to gently point out the error of his ways? It would be interesting to hear his response. (I must admit, however, that I have no idea who he is.)
Monday January 20th 2014, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Sue B!
Monday January 20th 2014, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
It's always interesting to me to hear the tug between change and statis in language. Language, of course, begins to die when it stops changing, but change is often scorned and denigrated, ipso facto, as degradation, as though the current state of the language is somehow the epitome of its evolution, as though speakers from centuries past would find our modern ways superior to their own.
Friday February 7th 2014, 3:48 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
I'm late to this discussion, but I'd like to add my two-cents worth on the use of prepositions at the end of sentences--specifically using the preposition "at." It grates on my ears whenever someone uses the construction, "Where are you at?"
It seems so much clearer simply to say,"Where are you?," and that flows off the tongue and into my ears like honey, rather than vinegar. John E., Pennsylvania
Sunday February 9th 2014, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Ray M. (New York, NY)
All this hoopla over a "typo"!
Friday February 14th 2014, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
Truss makes a good living in the UK out of her spleen-venting and fauxrage, so I think Erin is entitled to have a pop at her hyperbolic doom-mongering.

Anyway(s), both articles have given A level English Language classes in Essex some good material to discuss and evaluate, so thanks very much!
Friday February 14th 2014, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Happy to oblige, Merkatron!

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