Oddities of Modern English

Spoken language is always changing. What is normal English today would seem strange to people several decades ago or several decades in our future. There are also some changes in modern English which have occurred in my lifetime which I find odd.

That’s, Like, So Cool!

“I was, like, totally scared!”

“There were, like, so many people at the mall.”

Why do many people constantly insert “like” in meaningless places? “Like” does have some proper uses. It can express approval for something, such as “I like that music.” It can also make a comparison, as in “He stood still like a statue.” Today, however, it has invaded our spoken language as a meaningless add-on. It often serves no purpose except as a filler word. It is like people just like say the word without like thinking. It seems that the word is like there for no other reason than just to like be there. Like, you know?

To be fair, I should add that most people occasionally use filler words (such as “umm” or “uh”) when they need to think about what they are saying, but the prevalent use of “like” today sounds meaningless and weakens one’s speech. If it does not express a real concept, then give it a rest. Your English will sound better without it.

And so . . .

“It will be long test, so . . .”

“I was having fun, and so . . .”

The word “so” is a conjunction intended to lead into an explanation of the result or reason for an action. For example, “I packed last night so that I could leave quickly this morning,” or “He was distracted, and so he did not see the approaching car.”

More than fifteen years ago, however, I noticed people often ending sentences with “so.” In this usage it could indicate an implied conclusion which should be obvious from the context, but it has always sounded awkward to me. When I hear “and so,” my mind anticipates a concluding clause, and so a dangling “so” leaves me hanging.

Literally

“I was literally freezing!”

“I literally just arrived when you called.”

The word “literal” (or “literally”) refers to the basic meaning of a sentence without reference to metaphor or imposed interpretation not intended by the author(s). For example, a literal reading of a text interprets according to what the author(s) meant without imposing modern values.

“Literal” can also indicate that something is true in a real sense and is not merely hypothetical or figurative. For example, if the sentence “My office is hell” is read in a literal sense, then it indicates that the person actually works in the place of eternal punishment rather than an office with frustrating co-workers.

In modern use, however, it often indicates emphasis. The results can be strange. For example, “I literally screamed when he startled me.” Well, you either screamed or not. How does a non-literal scream sound?

The results can also be humorous. For example, someone might say “I was literally freezing” to indicate that he was very cold. Of course, if he were literally freezing, then the fluids in his body would solidify, followed by frost bite and possibly death. He means that he is freezing only in a figurative sense, which makes “literally” and odd choice of words indeed. People today greatly overuse the word “literally,” and I do not mean that figuratively.

I Could Care Less

“I could care less about the football score.”

“I could care less what they say about me.”

This one has always sounded awkward to me because of the contrast between what is intended and what is said. “I could care less” is intended to express that a person does not care about something, but the specific wording suggests that the speaker does care, even if only a little. “I couldn’t care less” expresses the intended meaning more clearly. The two expressions “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking they are not synonymous. Strunk and White explain it best:

The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted: “I could care less.” The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed. (Elements of Style [2000], 42)

Closing Thoughts

I know these expressions are popular today, but they can become excessive and awkward. As Strunk and White explain, “If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines” (Elements of Style, 52). For a humorous example of where this can lead, watch and enjoy this video.

About henrywm

I am a graduate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. I am interested in Christian theology and church history. I also enjoy science fiction and stories which wrestle with deep questions.
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2 Responses to Oddities of Modern English

  1. So, like literally, I could care less…;)

    Like

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