Old English sample: Peterborough Chronicle

When does something become ‘ok’ to say?

If somebody recently invented a word, the world seems to agree that it’s ‘wrong.’ If everyone’s been using a word for a long time, everybody feels comfortable saying it’s ‘right.’ But where in that window does it gain acceptance? And what does it take for a new way of speaking to be deemed ok?

Language change is natural! If it weren’t, we’d all be speaking Old English. It might be easy to accept this conceptually, but it’s often hard for us to watch it happen in reality. Heck, I find myself trying to rebel against the forces of the inevitable. But linguistics is concerned more with a descriptive view of things than a prescriptive one; check out my article What is linguistics? for an understanding of each.

It’s not always easy to tell if a new way of speaking will become accepted broadly. There has to be some influential factor in there to push it into general use – perhaps a celebrity or other figure begins using the word or phrase in question. But if the reach doesn’t extend beyond a small circle of friends, it’s never going to be more than an inside joke.

Some changes are met with huge opposition: ain’t and y’all carry socioeconomic strings with them that get people very emotional. Acs/ax as a form of ask, shunned as it may be, has a recorded history of well over 500 years.

Others slip into our lexicons unnoticed. For example, the web created an intransitive usage of the verb to ship. Before internet shopping, nobody said, “your item will ship within 3 business days;” we only said things like, “we will ship your item within 3 business days.” And who can remember back when “access” was only a noun?

So what does the future of the English language look like? What changes will catch on? Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer. But there are some shifts happening today that may give us a hint. Some are more obvious: more and more people are using adjective forms in place of adverb forms (two examples come up in, “Can you come here real quick?”). But others are quiet and sneaky, and you probably don’t notice them.

In sum, there’s not a clear line of when a word or phrase becomes kosher. You could turn to so-called authorities: Oxford, Webster, official style guides… or you could just be satisfied with ambiguity. If something feels right to you, it’s right to you. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Why can’t that be good enough?

(Note: while writing this article, one of my relatives asked me, “why do young people think it’s ok to say, ‘I graduated college’ instead of, ‘I graduated from college’?” The very same day, a friend used the expression, ‘when I graduated college…’ How apropos!)

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