This Columbia English professor doesn’t seem to like English
The New York Times generally produces writing that rises above most of the slop you will find today. Give them credit for adding those periods to acronyms, referring to people as Mr. Johnson, and, although they call Burma something other than Burma, Times journalists put out prose that’s perfectly palatable to a college educated, adult audience.
It’s not the Times’ fault, for instance, that the 23-year-old tasked with re-interpreting their journalism into list & slideshow form for BuzzFeed doesn’t know how to navigate the language, and instead “makes it her own.” Recall, this is the generation that assumes the default form of speaking is figurative; why else would they feel the need to randomly and repeatedly interject “literally” into otherwise perfectly unambiguous statements?
The kids these days have no idea what a preposition is, let alone where it belongs in a sentence. If someone born after the Reagan presidency is speaking, chances are each individual thought is preceded by “like” for no good reason. Surely the good people at Google are working hard to build this (inane) logic into voice recognition software via a complex algorithm. (Should “Like, OK Google” work the same as the standard “OK Google” command? Will “like” needlessly appear before every verb or just most? And what to make of sentences in which the speaker actually uses the word “like” the way it was intended?) Meanwhile, the human population in America is stuck listening and reading as the language becomes further bastardized.
Alas, some idiot in the Columbia English department* seems to think this is actually a good idea. John McWhorter, an associate professor, wrote a piece a few weeks back for the Times suggesting that adding “like” to conversation willy-nilly really makes the speaker sound more measured and intelligent. No joke! (Read the full piece here.)
Yes, sophistication — even in the likes of, well, “like,” used so prolifically by people under a certain age. We associate it with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.
“Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, “This is, like, the only way to make it work,” is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypotheticalness.
Slow down there, chief. First of all, hypotheticalness is not a word. Secondly, and more importantly, this is a rationalization, not a justification. Don’t give these people so much credit. They are not making a judgment to be considerate, they are just being obnoxious because they can and don’t know any better.
What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before. Sooner than we know it, the people using “like” this way will be on walkers, and all will be right with the world.
In the words of William F. Buckley, society needs more people standing athwart history yelling stop. Or as the kids would say, “like, totally telling guys to, like, literally stop, you know?” Please.
The item, in print and online, also included this illustration:
If anyone ever says that to you, please feel free to punch him or her in the face.
McWhorter sums up his misguided argument thusly:
We may not speak with the butter-toned exchanges of the characters on “Downton Abbey,” but in substance our speech is in many ways more civilized.
We are taught to celebrate the idea that Inuit languages reveal a unique relationship to snow, or that the Russian language’s separate words for dark and light blue mean that a Russian sees blueberries and robin’s eggs as more vibrantly different in color than the rest of us do. Isn’t it welcome, then, that good old-fashioned American is saying something cool about us for once?
Today’s “American” is telling the world that, unlike the generations that came before, we have absolutely no clue how to assemble an English sentence. And we are going to be as obnoxious about it as possible.
* Wouldn’t you agree the English department at Columbia is held in the same regard at that institution as the Math department would be at MIT, or the Theater Arts department at NYU? Tells you all you need to know about Columbia.