Word nerds

Language, language everywhere

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor asked me what the scoop is with the phrase all of a sudden.

“I was thinking about it the other day,” she said, “because I would never say ‘a sudden.’ And I thought, ‘I should ask Anne.’”

A few days later, I was chatting with one of my colleagues over lunch, and he told me he had just learned the slang term thirstyfrom his students and was wondering if I already knew it.

And just this week, I received an email from a college friend asking if towards(as opposed to toward)  is trending in American English.

Someone asked me recently if I felt like a doctor whose friends were frequently asking for diagnoses of their personal ailments. I have a feeling it’s pretty different (although of course I can’t speak for the medical doctors).

Clearly, my professional pursuits and my social life get a bit entangled, and I love it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

A passion for words

First of all, I love talking about language. Yes, it’s my job, but it’s also my passion, so I’m as happy to talk about it off the clock as on. And honestly, as an observer of language, I don’t feel like I’m ever really off the clock — nor would I want to be.

In addition, I genuinely appreciate my friends and colleagues — as well as folks I don’t know who have read this column or heard me talk about language change — alerting me to new and interesting questions about language, from an intriguing etymology to a current change in progress. I notice a lot, but frankly, there’s much to notice. So I’m grateful for the questions that put new words and grammatical issues on my radar.

Finally, it is rewarding to me every time someone asksabout language rather than judging, no questions asked. It is a different kind of noticing.

Hear ye, hear ye

I notice language all the time in my day-to-day life and interactions. Perhaps you said, “the point is is that,” or “for he and I,” or “on accident.” Some part of my brain is making a mental note: “There’s that change in progress” or “Wait, that was an innovative way to say that — I need to watch for that.”

Is that mental note-taking distracting? Not really. I can still pay full attention to your message. It’s just that I may also notice some things about the way you said it. Not judge, but notice — in the most interested and descriptive of ways.

Part of being human is being creative with language, which means that we are forever changing the language in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. As a historian of the English language, I have excellent job security in the sense that I am not about to run out of things to study.

As I have written elsewhere, it’s not that I love every change I hear or read in the language. Another part of being human, I think, is that you are going to encounter things that are more and less pleasing to you aesthetically, logically, etc. But I recognize my likes and dislikes about new words are exactly that: mylikes and dislikes. My opinion does not make the change good or bad — or more or less likely to stick. (And as a writing teacher I can talk with students about whether certain words or constructions are currently accepted as part of standard, edited English without using terms like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.”)

That’s entertainment

As all my friends (and probably all the readers of this column know), I am fascinated and endlessly entertained by how language changes, and I am eager to share that enthusiasm with anyone who will listen.

You just have to be prepared, as many of my friends now are, that there’s probably at least a 50 percent chance I will say, “It’s a language change in progress.” (Although that isn’t all I’ll say!) One of the many things I love about studying language is the curiosity and passion that almost everyone has about some aspect of language —which means we have lots to talk about.



  1. Alan Headbloom - 1980

    Anne expresses a wonderful balance in her essay here, hopefully, one we can all take to heart:
    PROFESSIONALLY: Here’s a change going on, and here are some parallels from history.
    PERSONALLY: She has likes/dislikes based on her own set of “logic” and harmony.
    PRACTICALLY: She can tell her students what works and doesn’t work with their writing, based on current principles.
    This well-rounded approach allows us to embrace the complexity of language with our own subjective frailties in the mix. A relief to hear!


  2. Jenny Morton - 1982

    What about the questions from your friends with which you began the article?


  3. Jim Beck - 1961

    With all of the gray areas and latitude available in expressing oneself how can an English professor possibly grade students’ papers? How would a student know what words or expressions are OK and which are on the way to becoming acceptable or unacceptable?


  4. John Hanson - 1969, 1974

    I really enjoy reading Anne’s opinions of word use/misuse in English. I have a question, though, about punctuation: what’s with the authors who stubbornly refuse to use quote marks around conversation in their writing? Sorry, it’s one of my pet peeves, to the point where I refuse to read any book chosen by my book club if it has no quote marks.


  5. Kathleen Gage - 1965

    While I understand that language changes slowly over time, this approach seems more like a trend toward “anything goes.” I would be interested in seeing an article on what, if anything, is still sacrosanct regarding grammar and usage.


  6. Anna marcia Swenson - 1967 & 1980

    What happened to “take”? One never takes a gift to a party nowadays. One “brings” a gift. Not me. I still “take” mine with me from home and if there is a party favor, I “bring” it home.
    How do you account for the change? This is my second inquiry to your column about this shift. (Hint hint hint.)


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