In the newest City Journal, Clark Whelton, a former speechwriter for two mayors of New York City, writes despairingly about the state of American English. Poor bastard. Talk about standing out on the heath during an electrical storm and shaking your fist at the heavens! The most you can expect is to catch cold.
Here’s how he begins:
I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.
Really? Can’t you picture the scene? You can certainly hear the squirrel. Are we looking for Edith Wharton here, or are we looking for a full-throated telling of the tale? Storytelling works best when you play to your strengths, which for the woman on TV included “…self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes…[ while] punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts.” Good for her.
This is not to say that I would trivialize Whelton’s objections to the declining quality of spoken English. I’m a former speechwriter myself, and I’ve spent 30 years helping raise three daughters to speak intelligibly and avoid saying like—the overuse of which, by the way, drives Clark Whelton nuts. But he’s driven nuts by a lot of blips in the language, and these blips have something in common that should, perhaps, leaven his dismay.
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He says he began to note “the devolution of coherent speech” back in the mid-1980s, when he would interview college students for internships in his office. It was around then that interviewees began larding their sentences with you know and adding and stuff at the end. And their answers to his questions, he noted, began to sound like more questions:
I asked a candidate where she went to school.
“Columbia? She replied. Or asked.
“And you’re majoring in…”
But this was only the beginning. Like “mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today,” and then
Double-clutching (“What I said was, I said…”) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to, like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go…”), made their entrance.
So what Whelton did was, he wrote to another gent with speechwriting credentials, William Safire of the New York Times, complaining that “Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.”
And I’d call it really irritating—but that’s about it. Whelton’s objections—and mine, when I’m feeling as resentful of change as a man of my years probably ought to feel—are not about the utility of this mode of speech, but rather the aesthetics. The generations coming up behind us don’t follow the rules, and it offends our ears. Whelton writes:
At long last, it dawned on me: Vagueness was not a campus fad or just another generational raid on proper locution. It was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.
Nah. In truth, it’s exactly what he says it’s not: “just another generational raid on proper locution.” Old guys like us have been fighting rear-guard actions against these raids forever. As a teenager, I used to send my father into fits by saying “far out,” “oh, wow,” and “right on.” He hated the way my friends and I talked, in the same way—and probably for the same reasons—that he hated the length of our hair. We all grew up. I became a speechwriter and an editor and a regular law-abiding suburban dad. Go figure.
That’s how it is. The young do it their way, and the older guys see barbarians at the gates. When young, we worshipped creative types whom our parents found incoherent. Try to figure out what Bob Dylan was saying half the time, or John Lennon when he wrote “Strawberry Fields.” And here’s another bad influence: J.D. Salinger! Whelton is still seething over The Catcher in the Rye:
All the way back in 1951, Holden Caulfield spoke proto-Vagueness (“I sort of landed on my side…my arm sort of hurt”), complete with double-clutching (“Finally, what I decided I’d do, I decided I’d…”) and demonstrative adjectives used as indefinite articles (“I felt sort of hungry so I went in this drugstore…”).
The fact that the young talked this way was, of course, half the reason The Catcher in the Rye reached them by the tens of thousands. This heartens me. Holden Caulfield passed this way 60 years ago, and we’re, like, still here.
The photo at the top is of Kevin Kline as King Lear, at the Public Theater in New York.