I Was Like

With a hat tip to Laura Wood, here’s Clark Whelton on the recent descent of English into content-free moosh. An excerpt:

This deliberate descent into verbal bedlam first came to my attention when I was interviewing intern candidates for Mayor Edward I. Koch’s speechwriting office in New York City. Until the mid-’80s I had no trouble finding talented students from colleges such as Columbia, NYU, Pace University, and the senior colleges of New York’s City University system. Suddenly, however, it became difficult to recruit articulate candidates with writing ability. Even English majors had withered vocabularies and a hazy grasp of grammar. Many didn’t know a noun from verb and – strangest of all – they struggled mightily to avoid direct speech. In its place they employed self-quoting, playbacks of past conversations, “uptalking” (ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise), and run-on sentences. They seemed to be defending themselves against their own words. I called this evasive dialect Vagueness.

At first I wondered if Vagueness had escaped from the zoo of post-hippy slang. For example, the overuse of “like” as a speech particle goes back to the early 1960s and beyond. But slang usually has an edge. Vagueness was amorphous. Operating as a kind of oral anti-matter, Vagueness camouflaged meaning with childish idioms, vocal intonation, facial expressions and ambiguity. To be understood, Vagueness had to be decoded. It wasn’t as though these students were capable of speaking standard American English but, for some perverse reason, had decided not to. Extended interviews revealed that most of them had no idea how to carry on a lucid conversation.

Like Ms. Wood, I disagree with the author’s suggestion (at the end of his essay) that the decline of clarity and coherence in written and spoken English has run its course. Why would it have? It exists in deadly embrace with a decline in critical thinking generally. Clear thinking can only be expressed in clear language, and the tendency toward vagueness in language exacerbates, and is in turn exacerbated by, a deepening avoidance of, and incapacity for, precision in analytical thought.

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the contradictions and antinomies inherent in Ingsoc’s totalitarian ideology required that its subjects be conditioned to practice doublethink: the ability to hold in one’s mind whatever beliefs are necessary, espousing any or none of them as required, without regard to coherence. Because public utterance is a matter of public record, this means that language must in turn reflect the shape-shifting, foundationless irrationality of doublethink, and so it became Newspeak.

Now some of you will argue that the decline noted here might be due to our insistence on lowering academic standards so as to grant more general access to “higher” education, and no doubt this is true. But what critical analysis led to that? Anyway, one thing leads to another — and as noted below, we have already “progressed” to the point where considerable mastery of doublethink is necessary in order just to get through the day without incident.

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  1. Bill says


    This has been going on for a very long time. Fresh out of Graduate school in 1969 I drafted a letter and a secretary typed it. I was amazed at the errors. It became even worse when I was working in the late eighties and through the nineties as I saw extremely poor writing in memos and presentations. I seem to be isolated from the worst of it now, but can only imagine what so-called serious writing must be like.

    But even the authorities encourage it. The latest example I can think of is over the use of commas in series, e.g. red, yellow, blue, and green. It is now acceptable to leave out the comma between blue and ‘and’. But that can lead to some serious ambiguities or even mis-statements.

    It is worse than doublethink, it is nonthink. The pun was not deliberate, but I’ll keep it.

    Posted November 16, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    The Oxford comma, or lack of one.

    See also: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

    Posted November 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    While we’re on the topic of Oxford commas, let’s also mention, like, vocative commas.

    Posted November 16, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    “…Clear thinking can only be expressed in clear language…”

    Yeah, like I’ll be the first to see I’m like the first Arkansas guy to admit it Malcolm, but I’m like you know the first person to admit I’m like the first person to realize I’m like, getting uninvited to Waka.

    Like forever.

    Now don’t you go TheBigHenry trying to like, tell me I’m so great ’cause it was me who told you the US Mint was like, full of shit only ’cause I type kinda like I’ve seen a dictionary – but it was fun while it lasted.

    Why not just say like, anybody not teaching in a South Korean Women’s University who happens to be from the same region of Hillbillyland better not even try to explicate on this here sophistricly elocutingmost blogsite.

    I think I’m gonna pout.

    Posted November 16, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says


    The worst is “reigned in.” I’ve sent more than a few emails asking, where’s the error?

    While King Henry VIII reigned, in his younger years, fat as he was to be, he reined in his horse.

    The best of all replies came from a person with a Master’s in English, “I can’t find a single card in the library’s card file referencing Henry the 8th having a fat horse, certainly no horse he ever beheaded.”

    Posted November 17, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  6. the one eyed man says

    An example of the inapt use of commas, in the following syntax-challenged opening sentence from an article in New York magazine:

    “A little after 11 p.m. CST on November 6, I was huddled in the bowels of the monstrosity that is McCormick Place, the sprawling convention center in which Barack Obama held his Election Night party in Chicago, gamely trying to sober up after one too many tumblers of Buffalo Trace, when a text message hit my phone that spoke volumes about the victory that the TV networks had just declared for the president over Mitt Romney: ‘Reality wins,’ it said.”

    Huh? So Obama was knocking back bourbon all day and is sobering up for the victory celebration?


    Posted November 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink