Jeanne: Keeping the Past in the Present

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in newspapers, magazines and books to simplify the past tense and past participle of certain irregular verbs.

Examples include: “kneeled” instead of “knelt”; “wreaked” instead of “wrought”, “creeped” instead of “crept”, “seeked” instead of “sought” and “ran” instead of “run” (past participle).

When I first noticed it happening, I assumed it was a result of sloppy proofreading/copyediting, but as it became increasingly pervasive, especially in high-end publications like The New Yorker that don’t generally skimp on those processes, I realized a trend was afoot.

Part of me cringes whenever I run across these verb forms. They just sound wrong to my ears; they make my teeth hurt. If the love of my life kneeled in front of me and to ask me to be his wife, I would have to think twice.

But part of me recognizes this change as a sign that English is a vibrant language, still growing and evolving, and that’s a good thing.

One of the reasons English is so difficult to learn as a second language—or to master as a first—is those irregular verb forms. The only way to know them is to memorize them, making them especially difficult to would-be speakers who arrive on the shores of English as adults. (This is no picnic in other languages, either–I’m looking at you, French.)

“Insure” is another word I’ve noticed going through a grammatical simplification. Historically, to insure something meant to purchase an insurance policy for it; to ensure something was to make certain it would happen. “Ensure” now appears to have fallen by the wayside, subsumed by the more familiar “insure.”

With the rise of texting as a primary written form of communication, I expect to see a lot more changes in the near (i.e. within my lifetime) future, especially moves toward simplified spellings that leave archaic spellings (like “donut” replacing “doughnut”) behind.

Texting seems to be having a similar impact on punctuation. I read an article recently that said punctuation in texts is interpreted as a sign of strong emotion, like anger. I have no idea about this and I will fight to the death for my periods and commas! (Hmm. Maybe they’re right.)

I have the same mixed feelings about the discontinuation of cursive writing in elementary school curricula. Today’s fourth graders have a lot more ground to cover than I did 50 years ago, so it makes sense to remove the least valuable subject from the curriculum. With typed communications replacing the handwritten, cursive writing is certainly the chief candidate for “least useful subject.” At the same time, it pained me to have granddaughter inform me that she couldn’t decipher a hand-written recipe because she “doesn’t know cursive.” Longhand has become akin to a foreign language to today’s youth.

What changes are you seeing in language and communication these days? How do you feel about them?

6 thoughts on “Jeanne: Keeping the Past in the Present

  1. I agree! I haven’t come across insure but a couple of other ‘changes’ which irritate me are: using simple past instead of past perfect, and using lay instead of lie.

  2. I cringe at some word uses as well. I find “dived” is particularly grating. What do people have against “dove?”

    As for cursive writing, learning how to do it has some very positive benefits and I’m a fan of its being taught (though more and more places don’t).

    “The benefits of handwriting, and cursive in particular, have long been documented. In addition to the effects on brain development, handwriting helps students build fine motor skills and dexterity, and leads to greater engagement and retention. In addition, research shows that cursive writing is beneficial for students with learning disabilities.”

    • I don’t disagree with any of this. My question, though, is what else could you remove from the curriculum to make room for the hour a day that we spent in 4th grade on learning cursive?

      When we were kids, typing was a nice-to-know but important only to would-be secretaries and authors. Now it is, arguably, as important as knowing the multiplication tables (which they also no longer memorize).

  3. I’m not sure that being able to write cursive is so important (I hated dealing with Palmer Method in school, and my handwriting today is printed), but being able to read it certainly is. And surely acquiring readable handwriting of some kind should remain a crucial skill. My young-adult son’s handwriting is very bad, but I think that’s personal and not a reflection on his elementary-school teachers.

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