Becoming a fuddy duddy?

in Musings

I’ve been feeling my age recently. We’ve just bought a new house and, as renovations commence, I’m acutely aware that I have less energy and stamina than I did when renovating the previous house six years ago. I also think I’m more prone to blisters. Anyway, with that in mind…

I was reading a website by a Young Person the other day. One of the things that interested me was their use of dashes.

I write dashes like this – so they’re a hiccup in the sentence

They write dashes like this- so they’re much more informal

Their way looks very strange (for which read, ‘wrong’) to me, but every time they used a dash they used it like this so it was clearly a conscious decision on their part.

It started me thinking about how fashions in grammar and usage change.

For example, it is common practice these days to use capital letters as sparingly as possible, but this wasn’t always the case.

You can see this when you read anything from the nineteenth century. Here’s the first line of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, for example:

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.

(If you haven’t read The Woman in White, by the way, I urge you to. If you’ve ever thought that Victorian literature is dull or heavy-going, this book will prove you wrong.)

And here’s what the Guardian and Observer style guide has to say about capital letters:

Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents).

A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase … in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society.

What’s interesting is how slowly fashions change and how what looks right to one person looks wrong to another.

Several clients who belong to the generation before mine (and beyond) have queried my sparing use of capital letters. I use (to my mind) misplaced capital letters for intended comedic effect (see the second paragraph).

I think that ‘The Company’s approach to the Environment’ looks like something Winnie the Pooh might have written (if Winnie the Pooh wrote corporate brochures) but other people would say different.

It’s the just the way fashions change. So while I might write blogs on where to use apostrophes and which spellings to choose when, I’m writing in my own time. Who knows what the next generation’s take on it will be? And if it’s a different take, will that be an indication that the English language is going to the dogs? Or a sign that English is a vibrant, living thing that’s shaped by those who use it?

My own opinion depends on how old I’m feeling.

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