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TWTS: Language changes and people have feelings

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A living language like English is changing all the time. Sometimes, those changes go unnoticed.

For example, would you take issue with someone saying something like, “I have to run errands?” There was a time when we would have said, “I must run errands,” but modal “must” in the sense of obligation is falling from the language.

However, when it comes to changes like “on accident” replacing “by accident,” or “to verse” as an alternative for “to play against,” not everyone is happy.

Professor Anne Curzan actually tracks the history of people getting upset about language changes, in particular changes that now seem unremarkable.

One of Curzan’s favorite examples is the passive-progressive construction, which is an action in progress that’s expressed in the passive. For example, “The house is being built.”

Before this construction came into the language, people would’ve said, “The house is building.” If someone said that today, you’d probably want to know what kind of sorcery produced a house capable of building something.

Though it seems benign to our modern ears, the passive progressive construction was met with vitriol when it came into English in the early 19th century.

In An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language, David Booth wrote in 1830, “For some time past, ‘the bridge is being built,’ ‘the tunnel is being excavated,’ and other expressions of a like kind have pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

Not to be outdone, Richard Grant White in 1869 described the passive progressive as, “The worst of those intruders in language which, about 70 or 80 years ago, began to affront the eye, torment the ear, and assault the common sense of the speaker of plain and idiomatic English.”


These are just two examples of the strong reactions elicited by this change. It’s worth noting that even Richard Grant White had to admit that many persons of established respectability were using this construction.

When language changes, people have feelings, we get that. But the next time there’s a construction or a new word that you don’t like, think back to these examples. The passive progressive didn’t ruin English, and now, more than 200 years later, it’s hard to imagine the language without it.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.