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First printed in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas

Aubrey's Notebook:
Language: Ever-Changing Tool of Communication

Writers, editors, teachers, dictionary-makers and grammarians have been complaining about changes in the English language for hundreds of years. Foreign phrases frequently have been added to English, and speakers of English often use old words in new ways. Most people have enough trouble trying to learn all the new words that enter the language without having to try to keep up with changes in the meaning of old words.

Changes in language may not interfere with our ability to communicate through casual speech, but changes in language can make laws, recipes and many other basic written documents useless.

Some changes enter the language only to disappear within a few months. An example in the past decade was the use of "sign off on" something to mean "agree to" something. The verb "sign off" probably originated in the early years of radio, when announcers signed off by giving the call letters of the station before turning off the power.

Early in the 1990s, someone used the phrase in a seemingly opposite way, and before long sign off was appearing in newspaper and magazine quotes usually in an illogical context. The reverse use of sign off apparently was only a fad, likely attacked by old-fashioned editors all over the country.

Now, one may read "signed onto the plan" or "signed on to the plan," but "signed off on the plan" isn't likely to be seen these days. A similar reversal of meaning appeared a decade or two ago when the clause "couldn't care" was shortened by careless speakers to "could care less" which said just the opposite of what the person meant to imply. Both the original and the backward revision have now dropped almost out of use.

The unnecessary pluralization of English nouns and adjectives appears to be the latest difficult-to-explain change in our language. Some people hope it is only a fad. One particular noun, however, has been accepted in a needlessly plural form long enough to be noted by several major dictionaries, suggesting that the trend has been going on for several years and isn't likely to end.

Dictionaries, of course, don't tell us that a change in the language is correct. They simply note that a particular deviation from established usage has occurred frequently enough to be intentional rather than inadvertent.

The word is "communication." The possibility of plurality is suggested by the word without the addition of an "s". But an s is frequently added to form "communications." In a few uses, such as saying "10 communications" to refer to five telephone calls, one letter and four personal conversations, logic requires the s. But the s often seems superfluous. For instance, reporters may speak of being professionals in the "field of communications." The s adds nothing to the meaning, but it isn't particularly offensive and has been accepted by many excellent writers, teachers and editors. When the noun "communications," however, is used as an adjective as in the phrase "communications profession" it violates the English tradition of using only singular nouns as adjectives. Purists, of course, discourage any use of nouns as adjectives and insist on the use of adjectival forms rather than nouns whenever possible. Sports teams (was it once "sport teams"?) may have accounted for some of the confusion about the form that nouns used as adjectives ought to take.

Most Arkansas residents are likely to speak of Razorback sports, although University of Arkansas athletic teams are called the Arkansas Razorbacks. About two years before the "Arkansas Gazette" ceased to publish, a young sports editor (shortened form of "editor of the sport(s) section"?) ] who had moved to the "Gazette" from some out-of-state paper owned by the Gannett Corp. issued an edict that it would forever after be "Razorbacks player,"  "Razorbacks record" and "Razorbacks stadium."

Quickly, a long-time resident of the state explained to the young man that not only was using a plural noun as an adjective bad grammar but also in this case offended the ears of Razorback fans, few of whom likely would want to be known as "Razorbacks fans." Some really old-fashioned readers would demand that the phrase be "Razorbacks" fans or even better "fans of the Razorbacks." But, given the changes that already had occurred in traditional style and usage at the "Gazette," just making it "Razorback fans" again was enough to slow change in one of the more important phrases in the vocabulary of Arkansas residents. A similar inconsistency may be noted in television talk about the Chicago Cubs. Harry Caray, a long-time WGN-Chicago television announcer, could be heard saying "Cub fans," while sportscasters on other stations were already saying "Cubs fans." Most outdoor writers and editors of outdoor pages continue to use the adjectival form "outdoor" when describing material that originates outdoors. But some who have never referred to a dictionary for guidance allow themselves incorrectly to be called "outdoors writers or editors." The difference may be minor, but it is significant to people who remember when adjectives weren't plural and when relatively few nouns were routinely used as adjectives. And it is especially important to those who would like to be identified as masters of their trade.  There is nothing more important than understanding the basic tools, regardless of what you profess to accomplish.


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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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