The Loose Canon of English

The recently published New Oxford Dictionary has stirred new debate about language. The issue of the split infinitive - illustrated by Star Trek's controversial motto "to boldly go..." - has split word watchers into two camps. One of the critics even proposes the creation of an English Academy to rule on usage.

The French have such an institution. When a misusage - or worse, an Anglicism - makes its way into their language, the Acadmie Franaise calls together its 40 Immortals. Over brie and other native delicacies, they rule Supreme-Court style to protect French savoir-parler and -crire from the alien, or the low- and middlebrow.

Such elitism isn't for America, of course, which needs a solution squarely within democratic tradition. Instead of having experts rule on proper English, I propose an arbitration body - The Word Watch Institute. It would employ pollsters to call people at dinnertime and inquire where they stand on, for example, "between you and I." Do they find anything wrong with it, have they used it recently, and what is their zip code?

Over microwaved popcorn and other American delicacies, the pollsters would compute the percentage of the populace that has accepted this innovative version of the phrase. If two-thirds - that is, six and two-thirds out of 10 Americans - find nothing wrong with "between you and I," the powers that be would go ahead and sanction it and outlaw "between you and me."

The benefits of such a policy are obvious. It would end the uncertainty for those who don't quite know when to give up their resistance to the use of, say, "reference" as a verb, or the use of "literally" where "figuratively" is correct. While word watchers feel strongly about these issues, they don't like to appear uncool or out of touch. Good citizens would take their cue from the institute's report and bow to the majority.

Handling language changes in this way may in some quarters be decried as populist language doctoring.

But let's look at the language of American teenagers - probably two-thirds of the population right there. In US institutions of lower learning they are taught to speak and write so-called correct English, only to get on the school bus and revert to their own patois, the English of unfinished sentences, and like, um, stuff, know what I mean? Think of the trauma being inflicted on them by forcing them to switch back and forth between these two, only vaguely related, forms of English. This may be fostering a kind of linguistic schism and thereby contributing to declining SAT scores.

Then think of what America would be like if on account of the ministration of The Word Watch Institute English usage conformed to nationwide standards. Americans would all speak the same language again, and the well-educated would have no reason to look down on people who do not know when to use "whom."

"Whom" would simply be voted out, and memos would be addressed: "To who it may concern."

But perhaps most important, steering the evolution of language in this matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, takes away the stigma of corruption that language mavens like to attach to unfortunate new words or phrases. These are the people who, armed with quotes from Shakespeare to Mencken, make a comfortable living by writing scathing columns about the latest misusages, the loose cannons in the canon of English.

Under the guidance of The Word Watch Institute, this notion of the corruption of language will be a thing of the past and along with it the other notion - that the corruption of language points to the corruption of thought, as those professional word watchers are fond of pointing out. For one thing, if indeed there is a link between the two, why would anybody try to fix the language when it is thought that needs fixing?

* Peter H. Dreyer, a Westwood, Mass., professional photographer, is not a Trekkie, but favors 'to boldly go.'

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