No long ago I happened across the article What Happens is Vagueness Stays in Vagueness. In the article Clark Whelton laments the decline of the English language. Among other things, he notes the overuse of the word “like” as a sentence filler and the seeming inability of young people to answer a question in the affirmative, but rather to respond with a vocal inflection that would indicate a question.
Whelton also quotes a Vassar professor’s assertion (way back in 1988) that high school teachers seem to no longer hold their students to any sort of standard when it comes to how students speak in class. Yikes. That struck a nerve. How often have I failed to correct (or even flinch) when a student proclaimed, “I ain’t done my homework!” or “Can I borrow like a pencil?” And there is the ever-vague, “I have this sorta headache. Can I go like to the nurse?” I’ve tolerated not only the improper and incorrect, but also the inappropriate. As in, “That game last night sucked!”
According to Whelton, American speech was infected by Vagueness in the mid-eighties and by 1987 it became difficult to find college interns who could speak, much less write, in an intelligent manner. Yikes. Another nerve – because that is like totally my generation. I graduated from high school in 1987 and have to admit I am fully infected with the linguistic virus of “vagueness,” as Whelton calls it. I had no idea how much I say “like” until this article made me aware of my own juvenile speech patterns. And that’s not even the worst of it. In high school I would never ever have used the expression “That sucks!” in front of my mother, but my children say it in front of me, and (I’m not proud of this) I have been guilty of using it around them too.
Sufficiently shamed by Whelton’s expose of the raging infection of Vagueness, I have decided to disinfect my own speech and that of my students and children. In addition to not allowing “ain’t”, misplaced modifiers or subject verb disagreement, I have also banned the use of vague and vulgar words such as “like,” “kinda.” and “sucked.”
It’s not just that I want my students and children to speak correctly. I want them to know that certain expressions are off-color and that conversations with adults warrant a certain level of decorum and respect.
So, now when a student asks, “Can I borrow like a pencil?” My response is, “No, but you may borrow an actual pencil.” I’m not oblivious to the inward (and occasionally outward) eye rolling, but I think deep down they appreciate being held to a higher standard. Right? Well, maybe not now, but someday. Like many of the unpleasant but necessary corrections we parents and teachers make, this will one day make sense – and so will my students.