The joys of changing language usage

photo of post-it notes with odd word usages. Examples: 'put a bit of mitigation in place.' All are discussed in the article
Listen to language changing from day to day in radio interviews

I want to share a couple of innovations in English language usage that I’ve heard lately. Slips of the tongue? Harbingers of change? New corporate jargon? Flights of poesy? Necessary neologisms? Or just errors? Whatever, they both amuse me in their way. They are similar in two ways. They both use abstract nouns unconventionally. And they are both a bit Kiwi, using the casual “bit of” with an inappropriate abstract noun. I laughed when I heard them, and I still think they’re funny. (Nerdy, I know.)

Changing language usage heard on the radio

  1. “I suggest they put a bit of mitigation in place.”
  2. “We’re used to doing that bit of optionality.”

Plain language? No and no. Redundant words, fancy words, abstract words, phrasal nouns, phrasal verbs and idioms. But hey, short sentences, at least! And in my experience, short sentences are a top tool for clear language.

In the context of a radio interview, the meaning of each remark was clear enough.

  1. The first speaker had just described a particular IT strategy that was not essential but sometimes employed. (Darned if I remember what it was.) I looked up “optionality” and it’s not an appropriate word here. The speaker referred to a particular option, not the quality of being optional. But hey! I got it.
  2. The second speaker was talking clearly and kindly about a rain dump forecast for parts of the North Island shortly. Advising local people to stock up on supplies for at least three days, because recent rain events had washed out roads and bridges. He used “mitigation” in a very odd way. But hey! I got it.

As Chaucer said, “Ye knowe ek that in forme of speeche is chaunge / Withinne a thousand yeer…” Yes, Geoffrey, and linguistic changes don’t always take a thousand years. Sometimes they happen under our very nose. Or ears.

Photo of vase of flowers with a cat's ears peeking up behind them.
Cat listening to the changing language of flowers

Why I’m not offended by changing language usage

Long ago I heard a comment by Max Cryer, a Kiwi entertainer and wordsmith. He said that people nearly always firmly believed the grammar rules they were first taught. If Grandpa said you must never split an infinitive, that was gospel forever.

After this revelation, I began to question my own assumptions of correctness. When I came across something that I considered wrong (and therefore ignorant) I would consult a mainstream dictionary or style guide. To my surprise, nine times out of ten the “wrong” usage or pronunciation or word was accepted by linguists and lexicographers, at least as an alternative.

Since then I treat “wrong” language in casual speech with curiosity instead of judgement. I wonder why and how it happened. Even if the expression is a slip of the tongue, it’s still interesting. To a poet, anyway! In speech I think less about errors, more about change and novelty.

I’m fiercely pro-clarity in formal written documents

I’m a plain language warrior from way back. If I found either of the above new usages in a business or government document, out they would go. Spontaneous speech is entirely different. You’re speaking off the cuff, on the go, and you generally have several chances to make yourself understood. And by I write blog posts casually: these are not annual reports.)

Automatic editing: those other post-it notes

Yep, I get edited too. Occasionally I take note of irrational auto-incorrects. You too? These ones are random edits from the Swiftkey keyboard, so my aged fingertips are partly to blame. Or perhaps the creators of Swiftkey are poet puppet-masters.

  • please became Olsen
  • alternative became I
  • unexamined became inexorable
  • Hey became Jerky
  • Eric became roof
  • delish became selfish
  • gotta became foots

Yet another quote about happiness

To lighten up, here’s a quote from Villette (Charlotte Bronte). I’ve been listening to the audio book. I think we can all agree that this is Plain English and we all understand and agree it is true.

Happiness is not a potato.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Your comments are welcome as is, where is

Say what you like, however you like. The comments field on a blog are not an English Literature exam, they are a chat session. If I don’t understand, I will ask. Feel free to speak through your keys, speak through your fingers or your voice. Yes I’m a nerdy poet and take delight in variations from the norm, love it when you send a poem, but primarily I just want to know what you think.

photo of a cup of coffee beside a plate of hot cross buns
Enough listening to the endless changing of the English language. Coffee time!
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26 thoughts on “The joys of changing language usage

  1. I share your fascination with language and find its uses interesting, particularly in spoken interviews. At Canterbury University in 1973, I was simultaneously appalled and delighted when Dr Elizabeth Gordon told our first year English class that language is organic and flexible, and communicating ideas is to be put before grammatical correctness. Since then, I’ve observed how language is changing. In fiction writing, for example, it’s okay to begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ in the narrative, and the dialogue can be fragmented. The effect is what matters! Putting ‘bit of’ in those sentences is redundant, but gives the speaker time to gather their thoughts and not to appear too pushy; to offer the listeners a conciliatory consideration of the point. It’s fascinating to look beyond the words to what the speaker or writer is trying to achieve, and we’re all armchair psychologists these days! Having said that, I would still like to take my red pen to The Press sometimes.

  2. granny1947 says:

    We hear some real corkers from our member of parliament.

  3. Cathy Cade says:

    It’s tru that what we learned in school sticks longest, even when we know tasted and usage has changed. It turns out that sometimes it was wrong when we were taught it, but my schooldays were long before the National Curriculum told teachers what to teach. I encounter the word ‘whilst’ often while I’m proofreading the reading groups’ stories for our anthologies. does anyone ever use ‘whilst’ these days other than writers of a certain age?
    I’ve learned, though, not to meddle too much; it’s their voice, not mine, telling the story. The narrator is a character in the tale as much as the protagonist.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s quite sobering at first, that realisation that what we believed was correct and indeed the only legitimate usage is no longer so. If it ever was. You speak considerately about the style of your story writers. I know my own style will never be a young person’s style — I embrace new usages erratically, idiosyncratically.

      1. Cathy Cade says:

        That’s what maks our voices different.

  4. realruth says:

    I like seeing Ursula studying the language of flowers!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      🙂 How will we interpret bouquets from admirers and haters if that language keeps changing too? Perhaps Ursula could become my translator.

  5. My banned words include: ongoing, in order to and also also when it denotes an afterthought.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  6. Fairy fluff, innit!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      If that’s what your granny told you, I’m sure it’s true

  7. Alan Ralph says:

    I’m in the process of relearning a lot of stuff around the English language in my attempt to retrain as a copyeditor / proofreader. It turns out that there’s a lot more to it than what I learned at school and through previous experience in adulthood! While parts of this retraining are frustrating — particularly where there’s no one ‘right’ way, and it’s up to you to decide which to use — I’m also pleased to see the changes in language around race, sexuality, gender identity, disability and representation of marginalised groups.

    And while it’s sometimes convenient to blame technology for some of the words that show up in the text we write, I know that those tools aren’t infallible, plus I have a suspicion that a lot of folks don’t even have those tools turned on in the first place. Sometimes I’ll wince, but after hearing from my sister about the challenges of teaching English to kids who are recent arrivals in the UK or have conditions (diagnosed or otherwise) that affect their comprehension, I won’t criticise.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a sensible and sensitive attitude for a copy editor /proofreader. Professionally, it’s a help to have your clients’ style guide on hand. If they have one…

  8. I felt like the rug was pulled out from under my feet when I noticed a trend 20 or 30 years ago. The word “trash” had always been a noun for me. The trash was over-flowing, or I should put something in the trash. A person speaking to me turned it into a verb, saying, “I am going to TRASH it.” In a matter of weeks I heard the verb constantly.

    From that point on, I was alert for this kind of change. Of course, now I can’t think of one, but it happened fairly often that a noun would become a verb.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s true. And often such an extension of common usage is really handy. To trash something, literally or metaphorically, is a strong and clear message.

  9. Pat says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s great. Come again!

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I usually enjoy watching language change and adapt. Now that my grandchildren are teenagers I am getting introduced to many more new twists. For instance “tea” means gossip and “cringey” applies to a lot of things I do in public!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank goodness for the young interpreters!

      1. Elizabeth says:

        And it gives them great laughs since I always use the words and phrases incorrectly.

  11. cedar51 says:

    this might not be “on topic”

    a few weeks ago I was messaging someone and I used the word “teef” – and I was quite happy to do that as I’m sure the receiver knew what. Instead she finally came back to me to tell me that “it’s actually teeth…” to which I wrote “I know, but I rather like it this way — teef” And she came back to me “but you always write full words, you never just put “r = are” or “u = you” – and this new idea of “teef” just doesn’t suit you!”

    I’m glad she hasn’t made a comment about grammar – as my portrayal of that is not great. I believe I missed a lot of that in school as I was often away from school, sick!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Don’t be deterred. Funny words are funny, so go with that 🙂

  12. Lakshmi Bhat says:

    This is fascinating. I too have started accepting the spellings used by money , messaging spellings but I will not use them. 🙂

  13. Lakshmi Bhat says:

    Oh God, writing about spellings, my many became money 🙂

  14. Lakshmi Bhat says:

    Sorry, that is not money but is many 🙂

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