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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.