English language constantly evolving

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 Infographic by Zachary-Taylor Wright

Infographic by Zachary-Taylor Wright

Students have a say in how English changes over time

By Valerie Champion


Millennials are going through a significant change in terms of formal language.

With bite-sized communication through the use of chat-speak, emojis and memes, students may wonder if the formal English taught in composition classes is still relevant in daily life.

“American grammar is based on usage,” said English Chair Mike Burton. “So the effect on teaching composition is huge.”

Burton said English is a descriptive language. The way we speak has the power to reflect and influence our culture and mental environments.

An example of a recent change in English is the increasingly common use of “they,” a third-person plural pronoun, to refer to a singular person of unspecified gender identity.

In the past this usage would have been considered grammatically incorrect, but in recent years it has become the standard, Burton said. The singular “they” was even deemed “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society in January.

”There’s a lot of concern with faculty,” Burton said regarding how to teach this dynamic, informal aspect of the English language.

He said the department has always asked whether it is doing students the greatest service and viewed teaching standard, semi-formal English as a way to increase the power students have as educated people, which can translate to daily life, the classroom and the workplace.

“Command of language is so important to the power one has,” Burton said.

Journalism freshman Dillon Halloway said he thinks informal English can be relevant in the classroom to an extent. “It seems pretty silly, but since it’s so prevalent, (professors) could bring it up,” he said.

Halloway said although his composition professor didn’t assign readings from graphic novels, they were discussed during class in a way he felt was appropriate. He said informal English should be taught in the same manner.

Burton said one of the most challenging aspects of English for millennials is sustained close reading, and a great way to gauge that ability is by assigning students readings of 19th-century literature.

Students of all ages know the struggle of having to reread a paragraph multiple times to retain information, but for millennials, classic literature can be particularly difficult.

Burton said If we don’t want to lose the past, we still have to learn how to read older literature, lest it become something that must be translated into modern English.

Halloway agreed it can be difficult to concentrate while reading older works of literature. He said he mostly reads articles online as well as graphic novels when he has the time.

“It’s definitely tough because the English language is so different (in older books), that it’s almost like reading another language,” he said.

Burton said political and cultural shifts can also affect language. For example, feminists in the 1960s encouraged the use of “humankind” over “mankind” to make such expressions gender-neutral.

Burton said textbooks that may have originally said “he” to refer to people now refer to people as “he or she,” and may very likely go on to refer to people as “they” in future examples.


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