Saturday, May 4, 2019

English Is Always Changing & Writers Must Keep Up

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

Have you noticed how our English language seems to be changing at an ever-increasing rate of speed? (My editor would have said to just use faster.) We google for information, text the message to our friend who LOL when she gets it. I know that I am quickly approaching another decade in age, but I don’t think it’s just me.

I thought that this language shift was mainly due to three major influences: a growing population (Have you checked to see the rate that it’s growing at now?), technology, and an increase in mobility. I wonder if spell check and grammar correct will have any long-term effect?

While I believe all the above have a hand in how English is changing, I’ve recently learned that there is even more involved, and that all this change is normal. Words On the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)by John McWhorter. He explains why our ever developing and evolving language is inevitable and not unlike how Latin changed into Spanish. This book should be in every word nerd’s to-be-read pile.

Although most of us are writers and readers, language is most often used in conversation. (Speakers, stand up and take a bow.) A word is churned through usage and pronunciation, changing and molding it into something that may become totally different. Look how “literally” has become a synonym for “figuratively”. (I hear the groans.)

How a word is used isn’t decreed by a college dean or, Lord help us, a committee but it develops through common usage. Which tends to work like a dispersed committee. (Oh, well. Wouldn’t you think they’d ask us our opinions?)

Putting a word in a dictionary or letting Shakespeare or Nora Roberts use it doesn’t keep it from continuing to be used and developed in the world. We find what happens in listening to a performance of Shakespeare. Without a program with definitions, we would misunderstand much of what the actors are saying. Not only because of how quickly the strange-to-us words are being said but, also, because of how their meanings have changed.

But old William can’t complain. Look up at how many new words Shakespeare gave us.

McWhorter gives us an example of how words change with the word ‘like’, originally pronounced ‘leek’. It was often added to other words, forming new words like slow-like, which became slowly. (Yes, an adverb. How despicable.)

A story that I especially like, which gives a perspective on us who are leery of having our words changed out from under us, involves Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travelsfame. He didn’t like the way people had begun abbreviating certain words. He found the abbreviations to be “such harsh unharmonious sounds that none but a northern ear could endure.” Being from South Carolina, that made me smile even though he was speaking of northern England.

So what abbreviation put a bee in his bonnet? (Guess he wouldn’t have had a bonnet, but then, who does?) Well, he was complaining about the –ed past suffix as we now use it. He was used to them pronouncing it “disturb-id” instead of “disturb’d” .

How about that “well” in the last sentence? My editor would have crossed it out in bright red ink, but doesn’t it add something in our conversations: either a pause as we think or a point of emphasis to let the listener know they need to listen. It’s also used to acknowledge a person’s comment or opinion before adding or correcting it.

Another way our language changes is in how we pronounce our words. He gives the example of Nick Charles in the movie The Thin Man.(Did I need to tell you it was a movie? I loved it. I love a story of a married couple who are in love and shows it. They are too rare in the literary world.) In one of his lines he talks about gathering not the “SUS-pects” but the “sus-PECTS”.

Today, you sus-PECT someone of doing something, making them a SUS-pect. Putting the emphasis on the first syllable makes it a noun instead of a verb. I never knew this but I hope I did it naturally because that is what I’m used to hearing. A person who re-BELS is a REB-el. You re-CORD their crimes so it will be on their REC-ord. Sometimes a word is just beginning to be transitioned into a noun and the accent may be in flux. That’s what happened in 1934, when the movie was made, the word was still transitioning from only being a verb. 

We need to keep in mind how our language is changing in our writings in a couple of ways.

1.  We need to make sure our dialogue is correct to the time period. And this doesn’t have to be only for historical. Does she use a cell phone or a cell? I still don’t know if I type, key-in, or something else on my laptop. (We call it writing, but really?)

2.  Know the words meaning and their nuances?McWhorter mentions adorable, something worthy of adoration. But, a tall building wouldn’t be called adorable. It is usually used for something like a child or a kitten. To call an adult adorable could be seen as an insult.

3.  Watch out for jargon. Have you ever sat beside a pair of teachers or nurses and not understood what they were talking about? You’re pretty sure it was English, but didn’t have a clue what they meant. They were using jargon. Historians can get drawn into that, too. There is a place for jargon, but make sure you don’t lose your readers. It is all about the reader.

Jargon is especially problematic because can change at the drop of the hat. Sales and marketing departments love to come up with new labels for the same things. By the time your writing comes out, it could be out dated.

The book is Words On the Moveby John McWhorter. I really enjoyed it.

I would love to hear from you. What are some words whose meanings or how we say them have changed?

What old movie line sounded peculiar to you?


Tim Suddeth has been published in Guideposts’ The Joy of Christmas and on He’s working on his third manuscript and looks forward to seeing his name on a cover. He is a member of ACFW and Cross n Pens. Tim’s lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, Vickie, and his happy 19-year-old autistic son, Madison. Visit Tim at and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be also reached at


  1. Fun post, TIm. As authors, we often make up words or turn verbs into nouns or vice versa. What about sending a text on a cell phone? We say texting. It still sounds weird to me.