The Decline of the English Language

Forgive me if you will the fact that I will start this article with words that would have caused me to roll my eyes had they been uttered when I was a young student-at-law a 22 years ago by my boss or my father (which may explain the eye rolling of my children and my current student-at-law when I begin conversations this way), but “back when I was your age..”. The older I get the more I catch myself beginning my rants with these words. One recent such diatribe was caused by a week of being frustrated at people around me continually using incorrect grammar and not understanding what I meant because of my choice of words- words which are obvious to me, that I knew when I was in high school, that my teenager uses in regular conversation, so I’m not just referring to some arcane legal terminology. Words most educated adults should know but too many don’t. Usually this is an issue when I am dealing with younger lawyers and staff, those in their 20s and early 30s. These are for the most part highly educated individuals, all born and educated in Canada. The fault lies with the decline of standards in our educational system; our lowest common denominator infotainment culture; and one of the few downsides to modern technological advances, namely tweet and text-based conversational shorthand.

While I concede some of the issue may be my own prickliness when it comes to language, grammar and vocabulary, the cold, hard fact is that the English language is devolving at a pace faster than reality television if that is possible. And yes, television and popular culture are certainly to blame. As is the educational philosophy I have seen in my kids’ schools over the years where they were not penalized with reduced marks for spelling or grammar (in courses other than English) as long as the substantive thoughts and answers underlying the poor writing were understandable. This decline is also a result of the lazy, abbreviated writing of text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, and email. And don’t get me started on the cocoon of self-entitlement in which that generation was raised, always being told they were great and never being dealt with honestly when they were wrong. But it is no longer, as it was just several years ago just Generation Y. The abuse of the language has now fanned upward to affect all ages. I regularly receive emails from another lawyer in their 40s or 50s (a letter which in the prehistoric days before email would have been typed and sent by regular mail on firm letterhead) that is written so flippantly that it avoids any pretense of properly using capitalization, punctuation, spelling, grammar and formality.

We now live in an age where intelligence is considered a liability, erudition is considered a vice, and the president of the United States is mocked by his critics for being an intellectual snob who can’t relate to the common folk. We live in an age where the Honey Boo Boos are lionized and celebrated, where for a politician to achieve popularity she has to dumb herself down to be “one of us”, where a book which sells 10,000 units is now considered a best seller, and where the summer’s most widely read fiction was most notable not for its erotic nature but for its semiliterate writing.

The one station in society where I would expect that language standards would be upheld is in my profession. As lawyers, we are generally paid not just for our knowledge (which anyone with the inclination can obtain) but for our ability to communicate our clients’ ideas, thoughts, positions, stories and legal arguments, better than they can, whether orally or in writing. What sets a great litigator apart from a good litigator is the ability to persuade, and persuasion is at its core about mastering the art of communication.

I still recall the days on the metaphorical knee of my mentor, the late Doug Stewart, listening to him dictate a letter, reading briefs of law he so meticulously drafted, or watching him deliver an oral argument in court. He exercised the English language as a sword to advance his clients’ interests, while simultaneously using it as a shield to protect those same clients. To him, as to the other fine lawyers of his generation, the language was a tool not just to communicate, but to communicate more effectively than others.

The greatest writers use the art of the wordsmith not just to tell a story but to have that story move us emotionally to laugh and/or cry, or to develop pictures in our heads more vivid than any celluloid screen can possibly illustrate. Language is the reason a great many voracious readers are almost always disappointed by the movie version of a book they loved.

So to end this article where I started, forgive me for sounding like some old, retired English teacher or crotchety old man, but those of my generation who teach children in our schools, mentor the younger generations in our respective professions, and all of us as parents, have an obligation to understand that the new ways are not examples of language evolving but rather devolving, and we must band together to protect our language before all of our children talk like the illiterate morons on reality television. Sadly, like it or not, our thoughts and ultimately our actions, are put in place only by the words in our heads. If the verbiage of our society is at an elementary school level, how can the thoughts and actions that follow possibly be any loftier?