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Thread: Decline of English Grammar

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    Decline of English Grammar

    Why is it that while most the grammatical rules of English have deteriorated so much over the past few centuries when compared to other European languages? For example, English used to respect the t-v distinction (having thou/thee and ye/you). The subjective and objective cases almost seem to be merged when hardly anyone uses the word "whom" any more (except in very formal communication).

    To give a more extreme example, my school French teacher was teaching us the subjunctive mood in class last year and started off by claiming that the subjunctive "doesn't exist in English"! Of course it does, but so few people ever use it any more that even this well-educated linguist didn't realise it.

    There are countless other examples of how English grammar has decayed that are too trivial to list here. When I read French written at the time of Shakespeare it is in some cases only slightly more difficult to understand than English written at this time, such is the extent to which English has changed over the years. Even though all languages evolve over time, is there any reason why English should change so much compared to other languages?
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Hi,

    I think "decline" and "deterioration" are rather negative ways of looking at it. If you said English has become "more simple" I think you would be saying the same thing in a more neutral fashion.

    How many English speakers lament that English lacks grammatical gender? How many English speakers wish their verb forms were as complex as they are in French, Spanish and Italian? How many English speakers wish nouns could be put in the acusative, nominative, ablative or dative? I don't think that many do.

    I don't think the English subjunctive, however, is gone. It just looks just like the indicative. I believe that when one says "I hope he comes" it's in the subjunctive except that "comes" in the subjunctive looks just like "comes" in the indicative. It's just like "cut", "put" and "hit" which look in the present just like they do in the past. I wouldn't say the past of "cut" doesn't exist just because it looks just like the present. And by the same token, we wouldn't say that the imperative in English is gone because one says "You open the door." and "You, open the door!" The latter is clearly in the imperative even if the verbal form is identical to the present indicative.

    Linguists call this polysemy and English has a great deal of it. Of course, some verbs have different forms in the subjunctive like "He is here." and "I wish he were here."


    There is some debate about why English got rid of a lot of the grammar it used to have. Some say that English is a creole, that it's the product of a pidgin language, and that's why it's so simple. Others say that English is heavily creolized and other say that English is not a creole at all.

    There does seems to be a relationship between language complexity and number of speakers (the less people speak a language the more complex it tends to be).

    There are tons of good books out there about the subject. If you are interested in some recommendations, let me know.

    Ciao for now!
    Last edited by Residente Calle 13; 8th April 2006 at 3:06 AM. Reason: to add a clarification
    The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves. -Oscar Wilde

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    I agree with many of the things you said Residente Calle 13.

    I can tell you the #1 reason I think we've declined gramatically. In the US, they've stopped teaching grammar in public schools. That makes up more than half (perhaps 3/4 -- a guess?) of the students in the US. And, I'm in a private school and they don't teach it there now either! People will speak improperly if they don't know how to speak properly. If they can speak the way they do and people understand them, why would they take the time to find out how to speak properly? (<-- their logic). If they were taught how to speak English properly, they probably would.

    I think the fact that the US alone doesn't teach much English grammar can affect other English-speaking countries in our communications (regular/business) and sharing of the arts (such as books, movies, music, etc.).

    There are many things in English grammar that are confusing but don't have to be-- people just have to be taught proper English and before it's too late and talking improperly is second nature!

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    There does seems to be a relationship between language complexity and number of speakers (the less people speak a language the more complex it tends to be).


    Either this is a strange logical deduction, or you mean fewer, rather than less.

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    I'm not sure anyone having to learn English (such as a West African friend of mine) would think English simple compared to other languages, including French.

    I think the best way to describe at least some of what has happened is just to say the language has changed, not that it has deteriorated or gotten more simple. Languages change for many reasons, and English is not the only language to have experience rapid change in the last 100 years (take a look at Norwegian, for example).

    I, like many people, find some of the changes disconcerting, but I can bring myself down to earth a bit by asking some questions. Would I really miss "whom" if it had never existed? No. Would I really miss the subjunctive? No. I wouldn't miss it if it were to cease to exist in French, either, and speakers of French sometimes neglect to use it when they "should". Yes, even native French speakers make mistakes when they use or do not use the subjunctive!

    For that matter, if English verbs didn't even change endings depending on the person of the subject (e.g. I am, you are, he is, etc.) and were like Norwegian (jeg er, du er, han er, etc.) or some other languages, would I mind? Of course I would, but only because I'm used to English as it is. Norwegians don't seem to mind at all.

    It's a mistake to think of a language at a certain point in history as a logical, good system, one that would be ruined if it were to "deteriorate".

    Change is one sign of vitality and creativity, too. Or, at least, sometimes it is. Some of my friends who speak with far from standard grammar nevertheless have and use a language filled with vitality and creativity. They rarely fail to communicate what they mean to say, and they sometimes do it far more vividly than I do.

    Change is also hard to accept. Or, at least, sometimes it is.

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by jimreilly
    I'm not sure anyone having to learn English (such as a West African friend of mine) would think English simple compared to other languages, including French.
    First, I want to say that I agree with just about everything you said. I would like, only, to clarify what I mean when I say English has "gotten simpler" or "is relatively simple."

    If your West African friend speaks Fula he might think English is very hard. But as an English speaker, the fact that Fula has sixteen genders, each marked by a different article, is mind-boggling. Chances are if your friend started to explain how his language works you would wonder how it's even possible that it's managed to be spoken. There are many factors, I think, that make Fula harder for an English speaker to learn than the other way around.

    By the same token, I have a Kenyan friend who says that the language of his village is much more complex than Swahili which is already complicated as heck to me and which is child's play to him.

    If you take a look a Finnish grammar, I think you will come to the conclusion
    that's it's a very hard to learn language compared to English.

    I think some languages are "simpler" than others. This does not mean that
    the people in my Kenyan's friend village are more sophisticated than Swahili
    speakers or that Finns are more intelligent than Englishmen. It's independant of intellect and I don't think Fula children or Finns take longer
    to learn how to talk. Pidgins are the simplest of all languages but that does not mean that people who speak pidgins are simple. In any case, vary few people have been recorded to be monolingual pidgin speakers.

    But English is, says Steven Pinker, all things being equal, relatively easy to learn; conjugations are simple, there are no grammatical genders and very few inflections overall (127).

    And the inflections have gotten "simpler" since the days of Old English.

    OLD ENGLISH ENGLISH

    1st singe I sing
    2nd singest you sing
    3rd sing he/she/it sings

    PLURAL
    1st sing we sing
    2nd sing you sing
    3rd sing they sing


    There aren't any genders or cases in today's English, except for
    pronouns (in Old English there were) so that's "simpler."

    Now I don't mean to say that the language is being "dumbed
    down", it's just getting simpler in it's inflections. But that
    also implies word order, articles, and prepositions become
    more important so in that sense, you can argue, it gets
    harder to learn for some speakers whose language don't have
    those features.

    Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Harper, 1994.
    The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves. -Oscar Wilde

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Moogey

    I can tell you the #1 reason I think we've declined gramatically. In the US, they've stopped teaching grammar in public schools.
    What do you mean when you say that we've declined grammatically?
    The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves. -Oscar Wilde

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Moogey
    In the US, they've stopped teaching grammar in public schools.
    I find myself agreeing with this gross overgeneralization. There was a sea change in the American and British school systems that occurred in the 1960's, which you can simply intuit if you talk to people who went to elementary school in the 50's and compare their experience with those who went to elementary school in the 70's. Hell, they even stopped calling elementary school "grammar school"! Hello!

    Empirically, if you compare the curriculum and the texts from the 50's with those from the 70's and 80's, there are stark differences in which grammar is covered, how deeply, and at what age.

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    I think there are two different but related topics going on in this thread. One is the apparent "decline" of English grammar, and the other is the direct relationship this apparent decline has with the shortcomings of elementary education.
    As far as the apparent "decline" of grammar, it would be fair to point out that English as a language didn't get around to standarize many of its finer grammatical features until the 18th century. So I'd like to propose that for all intent and purposes we might still be going through the last stages of adjustments to this standarization process.
    I have no further comments about elementary education in the USA, except that I have two children and almost weekly I have to fine tune some aspect or other about their use of the English language. Just imagine that: me, a foreigner, having to pick up the slack...
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by the wickerman
    Why is it that while most the grammatical rules of English have deteriorated so much over the past few centuries when compared to other European languages? For example, English used to respect the t-v distinction (having thou/thee and ye/you). The subjective and objective cases almost seem to be merged when hardly anyone uses the word "whom" any more (except in very formal communication).

    To give a more extreme example, my school French teacher was teaching us the subjunctive mood in class last year and started off by claiming that the subjunctive "doesn't exist in English"! Of course it does, but so few people ever use it any more that even this well-educated linguist didn't realise it.

    There are countless other examples of how English grammar has decayed that are too trivial to list here. When I read French written at the time of Shakespeare it is in some cases only slightly more difficult to understand than English written at this time, such is the extent to which English has changed over the years. Even though all languages evolve over time, is there any reason why English should change so much compared to other languages?
    This is an interesting question. I don't really know the answer, but here are a few ideas:

    - It's not just English. There's a general trend in Indo-European languages towards becoming "less grammatical" -- the linguistic term is becoming more analytic. For example, most Romance languages also stripped themselves of the declensions of Latin.

    - English was forged mostly in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare, who wrote in the Renaissance, is fairly readable to modern English speakers. But the British Isles had a very complicated history in the Middle Ages. They were invaded/settled by several different peoples in succession: West Germans (Angles, Saxons and Jutes), then Norsemen (the Vikings, mostly from Denmark and Norway), then the Normans (of Norse descent, but they spoke French). I've often wondered whether all these motions of peoples and cultures back and forth forced English to simplify itself.

    Note, however, that defining what is a "simplification" in linguistics is not as straightforward as one might think.
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by fenixpollo
    I find myself agreeing with this gross overgeneralization. There was a sea change in the American and British school systems that occurred in the 1960's, which you can simply intuit if you talk to people who went to elementary school in the 50's and compare their experience with those who went to elementary school in the 70's. Hell, they even stopped calling elementary school "grammar school"! Hello!

    Empirically, if you compare the curriculum and the texts from the 50's with those from the 70's and 80's, there are stark differences in which grammar is covered, how deeply, and at what age.

    I blame the hippies.

    First of all, Fenix, please don't knock the hippies. When I lived as a 'hippy' in the 60s I was in the company of the crème de la crème of hippy society. They were my voluntary archaeological assistants, mostly university students who had benefited from the 1950s' education standards which you rightly praise.

    I was educated in the 1950s, at a top rate grammar school, taught exclusively by university graduates. Correct English grammar was de rigeur - woe betide any girl whose written and spoken work wasn't up to standard, punishments were dire!

    Today, in Britain, scant attention is paid by teachers to correcting grammatical errors. In fact, scant attention is paid to the quality of teaching staff employed. I heard recently that such is the shortage of teachers (who refuse to try controlling a noisy, disobedient bunch of 'yobs' and who genuinely wish to spend their time teaching instead of filling in reams of government paperwork) that people with no qualifications or teaching skills are being recruited. Some desperate head teachers are even luring in parents, who are unpaid, to help with teaching. I did a four year stint myself when my own sons were at state primary school. They were fortunate in attending a well-disciplined school employing quality teaching staff. Parental help was required for teaching 'slow learners' on a one-to-one basis - it was very rewarding to see the progress made by my little charges, who were barely able to read at age 7.

    Every year we hear of 'even better exam results than last year'. The reason is obvious - the exams are getting easier! Back in my school days I recall, in particular, my English Literature 'O' Level exam. For five years we studied several of Shakespeare's plays, classical novels by Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Goldsmith and the like, together with in depth studies of Chaucer and the major classical poets. The exam required us to show that we had interpreted and understood the different styles of each writer using quotations to illustrate our answers. Five years of study crammed into a 3 hour exam - that's what I call 'rather a challenge'. Nowadays candidates are given a couple of pieces of unseen prose and asked certain questions about it. All the answers are there for them to see. I suppose one would call that an exercise in comprehension. Certainly not an English Literature exam. Presumably their knowledge of English grammar is revealed in their written answers.

    Summing up I would say that English grammar has declined rapidly over the last half century due to ever declining standards in teaching.

    As for the changes mentioned at the start of this thread. It is obvious that since all current languages are 'living languages' then they are constantly changing, just as we who are living beings are changing. Also, since English is the most widely spoken language, in many different countries, then its usage will naturally change in accordance with the culture of those countries. Australia and the USA are prime examples of where these changes are taking place. Many USA terms are completely alien to me and I've heard some very challenging Australian English.

    The decline in grammar could be regarded as 'regrettable' but let us rejoice in the fact that we are still able to read and enjoy English 'as she was spoke and punctuated' thanks to the vast collection of books available to us.


    LRV

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by cuchuflete
    Either this is a strange logical deduction, or you mean fewer, rather than less.
    Ah, "fewer" and "less"! And people say English is simple...
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by la reine victoria
    Every year we hear of 'even better exam results than last year'. The reason is obvious - the exams are getting easier! Back in my school days I recall, in particular, my English Literature 'O' Level exam. For five years we studied several of Shakespeare's plays, classical novels by Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Goldsmith and the like, together with in depth studies of Chaucer and the major classical poets. The exam required us to show that we had interpreted and understood the different styles of each writer using quotations to illustrate our answers. Five years of study crammed into a 3 hour exam - that's what I call 'rather a challenge'. Nowadays candidates are given a couple of pieces of unseen prose and asked certain questions about it. All the answers are there for them to see. I suppose one would call that an exercise in comprehension. Certainly not an English Literature exam. Presumably their knowledge of English grammar is revealed in their written answers.

    LRV
    Firstly let me say that I agree that higher exam pass rates are not entirely down to higher standards, although I would not say that exams are necessarily getting easier. Having taken GCSE English two years ago I can guarantee that it is barely worth the paper it is written on, and is a weird mish-mash of media studies and common sense. This does not mean that it is necessarily easier, but it was quite clear when I sat it very little knowledge of spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG in the modern exam lingo) was required. My father attended Technical School in the 1960s and looking through his first year English books I can see that he had a vastly superior knowledge of grammar than I do (and I attend a Grammar School!).

    It seems clear that there are many people who (perhaps rightly) see the regimented teaching of precise punctuation and complicated grammar as pedantry, and who prefer to see more useful skills replace those which are hardly ever used. Even the well-educated linguists on this board see the development of English grammar as the natural evolution of the language. Of course we must all be ready to accept change, as all languages change at that is part of their beauty, tracing the developments over the centuries. The problem comes when change is so rapid and incoherent that people have trouble making themselves understood. I am sure we have all read official documents from time to time where the punctuation is so bad that it is difficult to understand the precise meaning. There is much written about the poor spelling of the youth, but at least on most occasions a poorly spelt word can be understood, at its worst, poor grammar makes the written word barely comprehensible.

    On a related note, as for the reading of Shakespeare and poetry, that was covered in the English Literature exam which was much more challenging. Without this turning into a rant about how bad education is nowadays and how much better it was in my day etc., teaching methods and exam structures have changed (in some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse) and it is not helpful to turn this thread into a complaint about Govt education policy.
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    The purpose of language is to allow us to express our thoughts to ohters. They need to be able to understand us.
    Language and grammar allow us to do this with an ease we sometimes do not even think about.
    If grammar falls into disuse, or if the spoken language changes then all to the good, if, and only if, the primary purpose of langauge is maintained - that is, if A speaks to B and B understands what A is saying. A language is a living thing, it grows to meet the demands placed on it by successive generations of its native speakers. Words are "borrowed" from other languages (why do we not say "stolen", we never give these borrowings back?), jargon and slang creep into the mainstream language as their users bring them into everyday speech. This is good and natural.

    Too often I watch television 'debates' or late-night forums where people speak badly constructed sentences and then have to retract, saying "What I meant to say was....." or "What I'm trying to say is...."

    One of my favourite ways of teasing my elder brother and sister (and other sloppy speakers) is to state "I know what you meant, but I heard what you said!"

    So instead of the thread's title of "Decline of English Grammar", I would offer a kinder and broader reading of the situation - "Transformation of English", as it is not just grammar which is changing, but the vocabulary and the formatting of the language also.

    While I welcome the changes, I acknowledge that it is vitally important that the rules learned long ago are not shed wilfully, but are modified only as needed so that precision and clarity can be maintained.

    (On the topic-related subject of examinations, I would just say that when I went through school I was educated, and I had examinations at the end of the process. Nowadays pupils go through school and are educated to pass examinations which are the endof the process.)

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by maxiogee
    While I welcome the changes, I acknowledge that it is vitally important that the rules learned long ago are not shed wilfully, but are modified only as needed so that precision and clarity can be maintained.
    Shed willfully? Modified for precision and clarity?

    Whom, for example, is disappearing in the US. It might be that whom is more precise but we didn't get together and decide to get rid of it. Words go out of fashion. What was once "correct" today sounds "pedantic" and gets thrown into the dustbin of History. The grammar books, and grammar teachers, and even grammar pundtis, can try to conserve what they want. Language use, is very democratic. People vote with their mouths.

    Is asking "Who do you want to go with?" sloppy? According to some it is. But I would rather sound sloppy to some egghead intellectual than like a dork to most of the people I talk to. And I think that, in the end, is what drives our choices for words and for grammar.

    May the American whom, for who I'm lighting a candle at this moment, rest in peace.
    The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves. -Oscar Wilde

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Originally posted by The Wickerman
    Without this turning into a rant about how bad education is nowadays and how much better it was in my day etc., teaching methods and exam structures have changed (in some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse) and it is not helpful to turn this thread into a complaint about Govt education policy.
    I shall make allowances for your youth Wickerman. You have already said how much better your father's knowledge of English grammar was at Technical College in the 60s than yours is in the year 2006 at Grammar School.

    What conclusion do you draw from that? Standards have fallen rapidly (as other foreros have pointed out).

    It is very presumptuous of you to say that I am turning this thread into a complaint about government education policy. That was not my intention but if we are seeking for reasons as to why correct English grammar is in decline then we must look to the source of this decline, which is education.

    Every child is precious and to reach his/her full potential deserves the best possible education. For my children this began at home. I was in the fortunate position of not having to go out and work to earn a crust. Instead I devoted most of my time to teaching my sons in their formative pre-school years. I made it such fun that they probably didn't realise that they were being 'educated'. At the age of 5 my elder son was eagerly reading 'The Observer's Book of Birds' which he had specifically requested as a birthday present. At the same age at school he filled six exercise books with his account of Roald Dahl's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. His younger brother was equally gifted. On their own merit they both won scholarships to a leading Public School. My elder son was invited to sit for a scholarship to Eton but we declined the offer.

    Call me 'boastful' if you wish. It is the duty of every parent to assist their offspring in the learning process but these days it is happening less and less, due largely to socio-economic factors. Badly educated teenage girls are giving birth to babies and bringing them up without the support of the father. What chance is there for such infants?

    I reserve my right to criticise government education policy - it's at 'The Heart of the Matter' (to quote a TV documentary series hosted by Joan Bakewell).

    But in no way am I turning this thread into a criticism of government policy. I am merely stating the obvious - it is very relevant to the topic. Why do you think T Blair is now running scared and talking of handing over many schools into the care of the private sector. Why do he and his cronies pay for their children to be educated outside the state system? Because he has 'failed, failed, failed,' on his 1997 victory speech pledge 'education, education, education.'


    LRV

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by Residente Calle 13
    Whom, for example, is disappearing in the US. It might be that whom is more precise but [precision in communication matters more to some people than to others.]

    But I would rather sound sloppy to some egghead intellectual than like a dork to most of the people I talk to. [There is no known grammatical rule against sounding sloppy. Anyone is welcome to dumb down their speech to avoid possible offense to dorks.]
    May the American whom, for who I'm lighting a candle at this moment, rest in peace.

    The oft-reported demise of whom, as that of the novel, is a bit premature.

    In talk, who is constantly used for the objective case...This colloquialism is indeed so common that it is invading printed matter.
    That was written by an intellectual egghead named Henry Fowler, in 1926. A few years prior, H.L. Mencken, on the other side of the puddle, noted...

    ...and in ordinary discourse the great majority of Americans avoid whom diligently...
    When one is Donne braying boastfully about helping to despatch this much maligned word, one may re-issue Papa Hemingway's novel, with an updated title:

    For who the bell tolls.

    That rolls off the tongue like cold molasses. Then again, it's
    not apt to offend the dorks who wouldn't know the difference.





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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    My impression is that what we are seeing, and remarking on, is caused by a combination of factors: the ongoing evolution of English over many centuries, a significant increase from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century in the number of people effectively taught to use English, and a rapid decline in that teaching over the past 30-40 years.

    We discussed a Sunday Times feature on the latter phenomenon a few weeks ago in The writing's on the wall.

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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    I think another reason that we have the impression that there is a "decline" in the language in general is that the rules that we learned in grammar school went and changed on us. Whom is now optional, only half of the people know from posessive apostrophes, and...
    Quote Originally Posted by cuchuflete
    That rolls off the tongue like cold molasses. Then again, it's not apt to offend the dorks who wouldn't know the difference.
    I mean, didn't "dork" used to be a curse word that meant "penis"? Who changed it to mean "oaf" or "fool"? What's wrong with the world today?
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    Re: Decline of English Grammar

    Quote Originally Posted by cuchuflete

    For who the bell tolls.


    Not many people I know talk about bells tolling. Most people I know say things like "Who you wanna talk to?", "Who you going with?" and "You're marrying who!?"

    I think most Americans are in that scruffy category. We're not a people who derives its identity from language. We're not English we talk it. And we talk it they way we wanna talk it.

    Kids start saying diss and pundits start repeating it no time. As a matter of fact, the kids have to keep churning out new slang all the time because the adults keep biting it. "Lousy" used to be slang and rather vulgar. I know people who still object to it's use. Today, you can hear Senators say "that was a lousy decision" on TV.

    We're the culture that says "Say it ain't so, Joe.", "Where you at?", and "Got Milk?"

    Do we have the Canadians saying "You ain't seen nothin' yet" and the Brits saying they "Can't Get No Satisfaction" ??? Maybe. I think that's a good thing. I'm glad that what's driving the public use of the language these days, at least here, is the people who work for a living rather than mental midgets like Robert Lowth et al.
    The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves. -Oscar Wilde

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