The Language Department

It's gotten hard to keep up with what's going on in the language department. Not Arabic or Mandarin. I'm talking about our own native English.

Some time ago I began, in response to "Thank you" to hear "No problem." That seemed curious, since I hadn't asked if what I was thanking for had been a problem. The reply, origin of which who knows, continues in style today, and it still seems odd. Maybe the person is expecting me to add, "I'm glad it wasn't a problem," but I'm not going to do that.

For years I heard a cordial "You're welcome" after "Thank you." It fills the bill nicely--some people have stuck with that. So if it's my turn to reply, that's what I say. "You're welcome." It still works.

At least as odd as the "No problem" response--or maybe more--is when the called for "Thank you" is absent. In the South, where I come from, not thanking someone for, let's say, a purchase, would be unthinkable. It happens around the North all the time. A blank look comes forth instead. One might find that offensive, even when it's not so intended.

More changes to keep up with. After being served a meal in a restaurant, the standard query of "How is everything?" has morphed into "How is everything good?" I thought I heard wrong the first time I heard that, but, no, it keeps coming back. Suppose I really didn't want to call it "Good." I'm sort of squeezed in. Only the most daring would answer, "Pretty good," "Not so good" "Actually, rather poor," or "I wish you hadn't asked." I am waiting any day for the host or hostess to hand me my check with, "Your meal was better than expected?"

These are not the kinds of paths by folks who have recently learned our language and speak it better than natives. Take, for instance, "I wish he were more prompt." I've laid that on students who are learning the subjunctive in Spanish, claiming that some of us--a few of us--actually abide by the same rules in English, and the statement is correct. Students are caught looking at me with "weird" starting to be etched on the forehead.

When it comes to the world of punctuation and spelling, changes--I'd like to say errors--are so numerous that they are now as common as "How is everything good?" Long ago I worked in a major ad agency, and you'd do well not to expect a long career if you didn't distinguish between "its" and "it's" and "there" and "their." Bad enough not to worry about these missteps in emails and tweets and other social media today, but to see them plastered on billboards overlooking Times Square should be, I'd say, cause for banishment. They're there (not their).

You might think that I'm so old a codger that I don't like the cute emoticons available on the computer screen, accessible with just a click. I do actually like them, and if someone has been nice enough to attach a smiling yellow face to a message sent my way, I feel very happy. It is shorthand, I know, but we live in a shorthand world, and there are greater sins around today, practiced by a great many of us.

Stanley Ely writes about language in "Life up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.