The Americans Are Ruining Our Language

16 Feb


First of all, nobody’s ruining the English language. And for anyone to call it “our” language is repugnantly colonial. Language spreads and language changes. English is spoken across the globe by more people (as a first, second or foreign language) than any other, and has the third highest number of native speakers (only Mandarin and Spanish having more). The United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English (the USA has almost 60%). The language has many different and distinct ‘standard’ or ‘official’ varieties (Standard British, Standard American, Standard Australian…) and innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins. Some of these non-standard varieties are spoken in England (Cockney, Yorkshire Scouse, Brummy) and differ far more from Standard British English than does Standard American. The phonology (sound pattern, including pronunciation) of some prestige varieties of British English, such as the “Upper RP” spoken by some remnants of English nobility, differs greatly from Standard British, so that much of it needs subtitles in order to be understood by speakers of ‘ordinary’ standard Englishes around the world.

Furthermore, for the English to claim ownership of ‘the language’ makes as much sense, historically or linguistically, as Italians claiming that Spaniards, French speakers, or the Romanians have “ruined the language”, in this case Latin. “But wait,” comes the riposte, “Latin is dead – Italians speak Italian, not Latin.” Yes, but a rose by any other name is still a descendant of Latin. And the English spoken in Britain today bears little resemblance to Old English. Which, in any case, was spoken by a bunch of Germans who invaded Britain, then later influenced by a bunch of Vikings, then later on by a different bunch of Vikings who’d moved to Western France and spoke a variety of French (the Normans – “norman” being a derivation of “norseman”). No Briton has ever ‘owned’ English, and there has never, since the earliest days of English (Anglo-Saxon) been a single variety of English, a ‘correct form’.

Yet despite all this, it is the Americans who bear the accusation of “ruining the language”. Let’s suppose for a moment that there was such a thing as “ruining” a language. This is where things get really interesting. The notion of “ruining” a language implies it changing in unacceptable ways. Let’s set aside the question of who gets to decide what constitutes ‘acceptable’ change (our colonial overlords?), and just look at the concept of the language changing. Which is, of course, what languages do, despite all attempts to the contrary, or to constrain their change. The further implication is that the change is necessarily negative, presumably it threatens the capacity of the language to express… something, be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument. Or that it somehow threatens the integrity of the speech community, which as we have seen was never integrated in the first place.

What I want to look at here is who is doing the changing. That is, if we make the absurd concession that the language is or has somehow been “ruined”, who has ruined it? Here are some of the changes of which American English has been accused, which are somehow responsible for degrading the great language of England, the vehicle of some of the greatest poetry, drama, and literature to grace the planet (ahem). Here they are:

 • corrupt spelling: center, honor, neighbor

• discordant sounds – post-vocalic /r/, ‘flat’ /a/

• double negatives

• ending sentences with prepositions

• singular they

• using nouns as verbs

Let’s look at these one by one. I’m going to use examples from Shakespeare to illustrate a lot of these, partly because it’s the best-known source of early Modern English, the language we speak today, but also because for many, Shakespeare represents a sort of pinnacle of English language usage. Shakespeare is not generally considered as someone who would ‘ruin’ the language, on the contrary he is generally regarded (not entirely accurately) as someone who enhanced the expressive force and prestige of English. That said, however, there was a notable late 18th century pedant, Robert Lowth, responsible for a lot of the malarkey that masquerades as “rules of grammar” today, who sought to correct Shakespeare’s poor grammar, along with that of Donne, Milton, Pope, Swift, and the King James Bible.


Changes to spelling

It is indeed true that Noah Webster, American lexicographer, introduced several spelling reforms in the 1820s into American spelling. Among these are what are now considered ‘American spellings’ such as honor, neighbor, center,  and jail. Other of Webster’s reforms are accepted in British as well as American English, such as public and mask (in place of publick and masque). Some of Webster’s suggested reforms failed to take hold even in America, such as tung (tongue) and wimmen (women).

The curious thing is that it’s only the “or” and “er” words that seem to raise the ire of anti-Americans. The British gaol has given way to jail without a whimper of protest in the UK (it remains in limited use in Ireland and Australia), and no champion of British spelling would use publick or masque today. Yet the very “or” and “er” words that draw such ire actually represent an older British spelling. The spelling honour is found 393 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (published in 1623), while the spelling honor occurs 530 times. Humour scores 47 while humor is used 90 times. The spelling center is found 9 times, while centre occurs only once; sceptre occurs 4 times, but scepter 36.

Webster chose the “or” and “er” spellings because they looked less French. Indeed the reason that, when British spelling was standardised in the 19th century, the “our” and “re” spellings were chosen was precisely because their French look lent them a certain dignity, or savoir faire. In other words, the spellings were deliberately snobby.

Those ugly sounds

Standard American English pronounces /r/ in the coda of a syllable where Standard British English does not. The difference is illustrated in words like car and farther (twice in the latter word). It should be noted that there are non-standard British varieties, such as West Country or Scots, which still do pronounce post-vocalic /r/, and there are non-standard American varieties, such as Eastern Massachusetts or African-American Vernacular English, which lack it. More to the point, though, the post-vocalic /r/ as found in Standard American was a part of Middle English, heard by all classes and in all regions, until the fifteenth century, when it started to disappear in some dialects. It is believed that it still would have been heard in the London variety in Shakespeare’s time – John Barton, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the video series Playing Shakespeare, speaks Mark Antony’s famous line as “let slip the dogs of waRRR” (with both a strongly pronounced “r” and a flat “a”). In fact the loss of /r/ at the ends of syllables was a very gradual change – it was still heard in parts of England in the 1950s where it is no longer heard today.

As far as ‘ruining’ the language is concerned, there could be case made that the loss of /r/ erodes comprehension, with pairs like father/farther, pawn/porn, caught/court and batted/battered merging. Going to the pawnshop has become potentially risky to one’s reputation.

Like the syllable-final /r/, the flat “a” that Americans use in words like bath also represents an older form of the language.

Double Negatives

Where would the Rolling Stones be if they had insisted on singing “I can’t get any satisfaction”? Of course, they were mimicking a blues style associated with African American linguistic behaviour (in a way that would probably be considered tasteless today). However, they were also making use of a pattern which is found in all varieties of English up to and including early Modern English. From Shakespeare:

Never none shall mistress be of it (Twelfth Night)

I never was nor never will be (Richard III)

Pedants claim that a double negative logically should imply the affirmative, so that “I can’t get no satisfaction” actually means “I can get satisfaction”. But a double negative has never meant this in the unmarked case, and there are many perfectly logical languages which use the double negative as a matter of course in negation. Also, the ‘logic’ applied here would imply that a double positive can never imply a negative. To which I say Yeah right.

In any case the double negative is a red herring when it comes to making an argument that “Americans are ruining the language.” Double negatives are not accepted in Standard American English any more than they are in Standard British English. When it comes to non-standard varieties, non-standard varieties in the UK are as rife with double negatives as non-standard American Englishes (watch EastEnders if you don’t believe me).

Sentence-final prepositions

We’re often told that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with. See? In fact, this is as common in British as in American English. Would you really say “From whence did you come?” Seriously? “Where did you come from?” is absolutely standard for all varieties of English. This one is just silly.

Singular they

This is often used when wanting to remain ambiguous about the gender of a singular referent, or when the gender is unknown. For example, if you had just got off the phone I might ask you “What did they want?” This is appropriate even though it’s taken as given that you were speaking to only one person. I’d have to have a pole inserted very far into my sphincter ani indeed to ask “What did she or he want?”

Furthermore, singular they has a long and illustrious English history. You guessed it, Shakespeare used it: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well acquainted friend” (Comedy of Errors) or “God send everyone their heart’s desire” (Much Ado About Nothing). We can go back in time to find it in Chaucer’s writing: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up” (Pardoner’s Prologue). Or we can come forward and find it among the Victorians, as in Shaw’s Candida:  “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses”, right up to more modern English writers such as C.S. Lewis: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

The final word on this goes to the title of an article in The Telegraph last year, which was “If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed.“


Verbing nouns

The sort of thing that gets pedants’ collective goat is the use of words like impact and action as verbs, as in

How does this impact upon your writing?

We’re going to have to action this proposal within the month.

This phenomenon is called conversion or, if you want to get really technical, zero-derivation and it’s been with the English language since at least the early Middle English period. About ten years ago I supervised an MA dissertation on the history of this kind of construction. While some rare instances of it were found in Old English, conversion became widespread in the Middle English period (1066-1500) and reached a zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries, since which time it has declined slightly. So the modern-day Americans aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shakespeare (“Grace me no grace; nor uncle me no uncle” (Richard II)).

One of several conclusions is available to us. One is that the English are ruining the language, for in each and every case the American situation represents an older form, and the Standard British is actually the innovative, the newer form. The next possible conclusion is that the language started out ruined (most ruinous in the age of Shakespeare), and Americans inherited this ruin from the British, but that somehow Victorian English “saved” the English language from ruin. If this is true, it is still not true that the Americans “are ruining” or “have ruined” the language. It was still the English who ruined it. And if you believe this one, I think you’ve got far more serious problems than worrying about language. You must be very sad to see the passing of the Victorian era and the Raj – seek help immediately.

The final view is of course that language changes, and that claims of ruin or otherwise have nothing to do with language, and everything to do with feelings of cultural superiority and bias. Many people in England will never forgive the world for allowing the sun to set on the British Empire, and will certainly never forgive the USA for being a more powerful nation than the UK.


24 Responses to “The Americans Are Ruining Our Language”

  1. johnlhadden February 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    Hey! What a fun skewering!

    An incoming Yale student asked an upperclassman, “Can you tell me where the administration building is at?” to which he replied, “Here at Yale we never end our sentences with a preposition.” She paused a moment and said, “Oh, well then, can you tell me where the administration building is at, asshole?”

    Rob, is it true that King George (Georg?) was a Hapsburg with a German accent? And that the Oxbridge accent comes from him?

    • robpensalfini February 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      Hi John, great to hear from you. LOVE the Yale story. Stepping to the very edged of my historical knowledge here, yes George may well have had a German accent. However, this being the source for the local accent is unlikely. As unlikely as the story that goes that the Castillian accent pronounces “c” and “z” as we do “th” because the King (Ferdinand?) had a lisp. Whether Ferdy had a lisp or not, this can’t be the source of the “th” for two reasons. The first is that the change of /s/ to “th” only affected the “c” and “z” spelled sounds, and not the one spelled with “s”. Selective lisp? The second, which also covers the King George story, is that across the board sound changes (indeed most changes to language) are never top-down, they don’t come from the edicts, desires, or habits of the elite few. Language is anarchistic/democratic like that 🙂

  2. chewie93 February 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    Eloquently stated. I have this discussion not only with non-American English speakers, but with Europeans who learned English non-natively. Of course, they learned British English, but they lack the jingoism you’d expect to motivate this sort of nonsense.

    It’s notable that I’ve also encountered the same phenomenon as a speaker of Mexican (rather than Castilian) Spanish. And don’t get me started on Italians who refuse to acknowledge that Sicilian isn’t “bastardized Italian.” Italiano proprio indeed.

    • robpensalfini February 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

      Nice one. Sweeping generalisation: Italians tend to be very locally snobby. When I studied Italian history as an undergrad they talked about something called “campanilismo” (from “campanile” = bell tower). It’s the need for our village to have a taller bell tower than the next village. My parents showed this kind of attitude all the time, and they were pretty egalitarian in other ways. Sicily was “Africa”, anywhere north of Milan was France, Germany, or Yugoslavia. As for their own local language, completely mutually unintellgible with Italian. For example, Italian “Che dici?” (What are you saying) is “Cu t’bagai?” and “Il ragazzon ha soldi” (the lad has money) is “El burdel teng quatring”

  3. Carey Upton February 17, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Rob, thank you for this article. Yes, the language continues to change with us all, thank god. It’s fun to list the very ways we Americans are messing up the Queen’s. If you hold that the English Language reached its pinnacle with Shakespeare, the British did their own number on the language long before we Americans got our chance to screw it up. In many ways, the Americans preserved some parts of the language and pronunciations longer than the British. The Australians also preserved other parts of the language having had the good sense to get out of England before the language was destroyed by the British.

  4. Chris February 18, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    You missed my favourite (favorite?) – the split-infinitive. Not sure if Shakespeare did any infinitive splitting, but of course ever since Captain Kirk, it’s a pretty well accepted part of the language… 🙂

    • robpensalfini February 18, 2013 at 7:18 am #

      Absolutely, Chris! I love me a good split infinitive. I only included things for which I had specifically heard people blame the Americans. I haven’t heard that one laid at the feet of our trans-Pacific neighbo(u)rs. Of course, nowadays, we not only split infinitives, but words. Absobloodlylutely! Fanf***intastic! Inconcrappinceivable! Anyonw want a blog post on that ? 🙂

  5. Raymond January 8, 2014 at 12:41 am #

    Hello Rob. I just read your edited version in The Conversation, but cannot respond there as I will not register with them. Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed it, and the responses to it in TC. I am tugged at both ways in this matter. I was brought up in an uneducated poverty-stricken family. I used education to get myself out of that an to climb the class ladder. Therefore learning ‘correct’ English, and not only from school teachers, but also from voraciously consuming Fowler’s “Modern English Usage”, Gowers’ “Plain Words” etc. as well as using the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as my guide — allowed me to be accepted as an equal in a class-conscious world (here in oz); and in turn it taught me to judge others’ education levels by their English usage. Having put so much time and effort into learning “correct” English, I am now loath to let that go, upon being exposed to the thoughts of modern linguists like yourself — and David Crystal whose works have opened my mind to alternative viewpoints on English language snobbery, greatly. So on one hand I want to be surrounded by ‘correct’ English usages, but on the other hand I am learning how so many of the rules which we were taught or learned about what is ‘correct’ are/were in fact INcorrect — most especially the no-prepositional ending bit; along with my new understandings that change in all things is constantly occurring and is desirable. Just as well that I am a gemini star-sign with a double personality to be able to take all of this in with almost equanimity. haha.

  6. Máirtín Mag Uidhir January 8, 2014 at 1:08 am #

    Really interesting article. What are the new major influences as you see it in the short to mid term? I imagine the vast numbers of Indians educated through English and doing business through English in their own country will have a major impact.

  7. Qol January 8, 2014 at 5:53 am #

    British made producers and scriptwriters are doing their part to mangle the lannguage. One example – a period series episode with an English setting in which (applying an expression commonly heard in American-made movies) the character referred to sending an ‘invite’ (verb) instead of an ‘invitation’ (noun). This abuse however is just short of many inarticulate lazy Australians including poorly educated media presenters who abbreviate so many otherwise useful English words. A country of excalating violence where fatal punches are publicly reported as ‘king hits’ could do well to re-learn the universal language of English.

    • robpensalfini January 10, 2014 at 4:17 am #

      I find it vaguely amusing that your comment bemoaning the mangling of the language includes “excalating” – apparently your very own innovation, combining ‘escalating’ with ‘excavating’.
      And we’re not a country of escalating violence. The Australian Institue of Criminology has pointed out that while the government and the media do their best to convince us that our society is getting more violent, the statistics (or stats, to abbreviate a useful word) do not support this.
      Back on topic, the “universal” language of English is now spoken as a second language by many more people than have it as a first language. China alone has more learners of English than there are native English speakers in the world. Just a curious stat(istic).

  8. Andrew Zolnai January 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    What a US-centric view of the world… The Brits are not at all bothered the the US overtook them globally. If you read your history from a non-US view, you’d know it’s not that you gained your independence, it’s that Britain had less interest in troublesome colony, when East India was making money hand-over-fist for them. And don’t get me going on the fact that the French won your independence for you by breaking the Yorktown blockade. To his credit your own Ben Franklin travelled to Louis XVI court in Versailles to get funding, something your democratic forefathers remember poorly – ” fundraising without borders” (as in Médecins Sans Frontières) started before your Constitution LOL

    • Andrew Zolnai January 8, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

      Louis XVI means Tuilleries (corrected and earlier typo w Louis XIV…)

    • robpensalfini January 9, 2014 at 12:19 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Andrew, much appreciated. However I assume from your use of the pronoun “you” in your comment that you think that I am American when you refer to “your independence” and “your Constitution”.
      I can assure you that I am Australian of Italian descent – not American.
      However you do have a very good point. I should refine what I was saying: it’s not so much British people in the UK that seem to have this attitude but rather expatriate Brits, particularly in Australia. Plenty of the comments on “the conversation” version of this article support that view.

  9. Jess Rola January 16, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    The Pilipinos contributed to changing English through the spoken word! Let’s read all about it.

    • robpensalfini January 16, 2014 at 7:39 am #

      Tell us about it! That’s not something I know a lot about and I’d like to hear more.

  10. Gerry January 17, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    I doubt that an American can defend his countrymen’s deliberate ‘conversions’ between noun and verb as being an improvement on what already is standard English usage and/or spelling. Two examples: ‘practice’ , the noun versus ‘practise’, the verb (perhaps it should be spelt -ize), which is unlikely to confuse its sense, either on paper or to the ear…whereas American usage prefers ‘practice’ (without varying the pronunciation to indicate whether the word indicates a noun or a verb) for both parts of speech – for what possible gain?

    The ‘conversion’ of the word “appoint”, derived from the noun ‘appointment’ into a verb is a lay short-cut to convey the meaning “make an appontment” – rather than saying the three-word phrase, not only sounds foreign to the non-American anglophone, but also introduces an ambivalence to that word “appoint” when intended to indicate the bestowal of a function or duty upon a person…which has no relation to the concept of allocating an amount of time for a future rendez-vous (I cound have instead written “meeting” – but incorporating foreign expressions is something English accepts easily because it adds colour to otherwise prosaic language. I suggest we Australians are particularly prone to the habit of redundancy, or rephrasing an idea until the concept has been communicated!

    • robpensalfini January 18, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Gerry. The curious thing is that conversion (noun to verb and vice versa) was FAR more common in Shakespeare’s generation and the century leading up to it than it is even today. So why would an American need to defend his countrymen, while an Englishman need not?

  11. JackP November 4, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    1] ‘If you like the movie, gratitude the makers by going to the cinema, buying the DVD or any other way of showing your support….’ [from a Godfather torrent]

    2] ‘Where Movist really outstands the competition is in file support.’


    3] Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) ‘City Hall’ (1996):
    ‘Until we can walk abroad and recreate ourselves, until we can stroll along the streets like boulevards, congregate in parks free from fear….’

    4] ‘Before…..the invent of the TV and radio, there was a crystal ball … Magic is simply a way to manifest something into the world….so what these people are doing is a form of magic…to glamour a result.’

    5] ‘If you are convicted of that….’ [‘convicted’ as in ‘convinced’ or believe]

    6] ‘I found an alternate… [alternative, not the same thing at all]’

    7] ‘The best book of instruction ever comprised…’

    You compare Shakespeare to internet shorthand borne of ignorance and impatience. You’ll end up at Harvard. I’m not sure it’s true – or logical – that if something has happened before all subsequent instances of it are legitimate. There is an aesthetic dimension to consider furthermore.

    ‘Things change’ and ‘you never complained when this gave way to that’ are just tiresome diversions. Few if any linguistic change is organic in an absolute sense these days. It’s hard to think how they might be with the all-pervasive influence of electronic media. More than ever before language is debased as a feature of population management. The technology makes it possible. Cultural Marxists use the refrain ‘its always been that way’ to promote complacency and take our eye off the ball and, shorn of proper context, it’s certainly possible to make the sort of case put forward here.

    These examples demonstrate the debasing of English, however, not continuity of usage. Read them. Do they not jar a little? If the only reply is to place an obligation on the listener to adjust rather than on the propagator of these barbarities to raise themselves from the mire of illiteracy they inhabit where does it end?

    Elizabethan literature one of England’s greatest contributions to civilization. Shakespeare was a poet. Poets invent. They break rules and make new ones.

    I read the About Me section. The only reason to avoid distinguishing between a pellucid mountain stream and a sewer outlet is because that is what liberal theology, driven in this instance perhaps by an immigrant’s emotional frailty, adoption of equalitarian silliness and a sense of entitlement that permits self-appointed victims the cultural nationalism others are denied, urge upon those they hate and wish to destroy.

    It would be a mistake furthermore to be intimidated by a bottom lip flapping in opposition to ‘repugnant colonialism’ [except where it’s American or Italian?] that substitutes emotional blackmail for discussion. English belongs to the English people. English, for the inverted commas brigade, is a category that includes what was, is or has over time become ‘English’. This an ethnic, not civic, position.

    If there are more important cultural markers than language I don’t know of any. You dislike like English cultural markers because you dislike the English. What’s more you know the purpose of promoting English as a ‘world language’, its variants sedulously documented in a way international French or Spanish seldom are [‘American Spanish’ anyone? How about ‘Ivorian French’? Me neither…], is to appropriate it for general use and, over time, dissolve ties to any specific location. Fifty years? Job done.

    Shakespeare, we are told, ‘belongs to the world’. Elsewhere links between national poets and native soil remain inviolate. That’s quite a contrast, and no coincidence, just as it is no coincidence that a country scheduled for abolition under EU regional policy is under attack in this and sundry other ways. We are all ready being written out of the historical narrative. The premises forcibly vacated, the plunderers help themselves.

    The sole purpose of coarsening public taste is to shrink our capacity to conceive of something better. It makes people easier to control. Why do threats to tribal dialects in Africa induce emotional near-collapse in those who pour solvent on England’s cultural moorings? Because their ‘reasoning’ is bluff, a disguise for chippiness and political spite.

    I apologize for writing at length. I am not an educated man and brevity is not my strongest suit, but you are a hippy doing the bankers’ work for them. How ‘right on’ is that?

    Margaret Mead famously remarked to the effect that ‘People say a small, dedicated group cannot change the world when its the only thing that ever has’. It was a truth founded on lies, and the lies she herself told, and which are still with us, that bear witness to how right she was.

    These are barbarities. All emanate from America. The question we must ask of our universities is this: why is it always the educated who clamour to de-educate the rest of us for our own good?

    • iiago November 4, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

      Sorry, is your argument that English belongs to the English, and any attempt to change it is a conspiracy by the American cultural-marxist bankers to make us all easier to control?

    • Kit Burke November 4, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

      What a very badly worded and repugnant argument. Just to get it out of the way, Dr Pensalfini was one of my main lecturers in my undergraduate studies in Australia, and technically I have a major purely from courses he convened during my studies.
      I will get to your atrocious English soon, but first let us look at your argument. You seem to be stating English is only for people of English descent living in the British Isles. If not I apologise for the next paragraph. Also if you are a troll, congratulations, you have gotten a response from me.
      I am a seventh , or third (father, mother) generation Australian whose ancestry is extremely British. I speak English, not Australian English, English because the English decided that Australia was part of their empire.
      I believe Shakespeare is the pillar of English inventiveness and beauty. You make me ashamed to share my native language with you.
      English is the official language of Australia, and you; not England, they are happy to share; have absolutely no right to it alone.
      English is a language that spread around the world because of hegemonic forces. If current hegemonic forces are changing your world, boo hoo. Have a teaspoon of cement and harden up buttercup.
      Whether you are positing a conspiracy theory or are just an uptight individual is irrelevant, you use English is for England as your thesis, and then make basic English mistakes so let us now turn our attention to that. “This an ethnic, not civic, position” dude you are looking for an “is” in there before “an” and that is not debatable in ‘correct’ English. “Because their ‘reasoning’ is bluff” well this time it is less clear cut but the indefinite article “a” before “bluff” would make that phrase ‘proper’ English. There are more, grab Fowlers’ Modern English Usage to see how mediocre your English is, especially compared to Shakespeare and Dr Pensalfini.


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