Is the English Language Dead?

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The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten has produced one of his trademark semi-serious humor columns, this one declaring that the English language, as we know, it is dead. He blames American newspapers, which he says set the standard for proper and up-to-date English usage, for bringing the end of rigorous writing standards by cutting their copy-editing budgets and allowing newspaper writing to get sloppy. He cites many examples.

In the past year alone, as the language lay imperiled, the ironically clueless misspelling "pronounciation" has been seen in the Boston Globe, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Deseret Morning News, Washington Jewish Week and the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, where it appeared in a correction that apologized for a previous mispronunciation.

Weingarten is especially upset about the growing use of nonsense business jargon, which he says waters down the English language to the point of meaninglessness.

Observers say, however, that no development contributed more dramatically to the death of the language than the sudden and startling ubiquity of the vomitous verbal construction "reach out to" as a synonym for "call on the phone," or "attempt to contact." A jargony phrase bloated with bogus compassion -- once the province only of 12-step programs and sensitivity training seminars -- "reach out to" is now commonplace in newspapers. In the last half-year, the New York Times alone has used it more than 20 times in a number of contextually indefensible ways, including to report that the Blagojevich jury had asked the judge a question.

The British author George Orwell raised many of these same concerns--and similar dire warnings about the impending collapse of the English language--many times in the first half of the 20th century, most notably in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." Orwell famously defined language as "an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought." He declared, "the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers." But, for today at least, Orwell has a 21st century comrade-in-arms in fellow professional writer Gene Weingarten.

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