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What Changes Would You Make to the English Language?

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DynamicSpirit

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Imagine English had a body similar to - say - the Académie française for French, which was charged with regulating and suggesting improvements to the English Language, and you worked for it. Are there any changes you'd recommend or that you'd like to see? I'm talking minor tweaks here, not wholesale rewrites of the language.

The one for me that got me thinking about this is that I feel we really need to add a gender-neutral pronoun to supplement he/she (plus a form for him/her) for referring to a single human being without specifying gender. Though I have no idea what words should be used for that. Ideally something that is intuitive and has some existing connection with the language.

Any others that people would like to see?
 
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Bald Rick

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The one for me that got me thinking about this is that I feel we really need to add a gender-neutral pronoun to supplement he/she (plus a form for him/her) for referring to a single human being without specifying gender.

One agrees.
 

westv

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That works for me, but some grammar pedants and style guides still insist that 'they' can only be plural.
But how do they work it if the gender of who you are referring to isn't known anyway?
 

DynamicSpirit

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That works for me, but some grammar pedants and style guides still insist that 'they' can only be plural.

Treating 'they' only as plural would be my approach, but I wouldn't call it being a grammar pedant. If you use 'they' for the gender-neutral he/she, then you are creating an ambiguity over whether you're referring to one person or multiple people. Depending on how much the listener knows about the context, that might actually be confusing. That's why I would go for a new word - I don't think using 'they' is really good enough.
 

WelshBluebird

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What is the issue with "they"? It has been used to refer to the singular person for years and years and years, even before gender neutral issues were things that most people knew about let alone cared about.

Treating 'they' only as plural would be my approach, but I wouldn't call it being a grammar pedant. If you use 'they' for the gender-neutral he/she, then you are creating an ambiguity over whether you're referring to one person or multiple people. Depending on how much the listener knows about the context, that might actually be confusing. That's why I would go for a new word - I don't think using 'they' is really good enough.
But that is just the English language for you. Lots of things have double meanings. If I tell you "I have a date" you have no idea if I mean I have a small fruit or if I will be going to a restaurant with a potential partner. You only learn the real meaning through the context of the conversation. No different to "They" - if the context of the conversation is about a group of people then it is plural, if the context is about a singular person then it is not plural.
 

Ediswan

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Treating 'they' only as plural would be my approach, but I wouldn't call it being a grammar pedant. If you use 'they' for the gender-neutral he/she, then you are creating an ambiguity over whether you're referring to one person or multiple people. Depending on how much the listener knows about the context, that might actually be confusing. That's why I would go for a new word - I don't think using 'they' is really good enough.
The rest of the sentence should make it clear whether 'they' is singular or plural.
 

AlterEgo

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Can't agree with the proposal in the first post. The OP should know their proposal for a singular gender neutral pronoun already exists!

Personally I'd introduce flogging for people who confuse faze and phase. They'd soon learn their lesson.
 

Geezertronic

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Can't agree with the proposal in the first post. The OP should know their proposal for a singular gender neutral pronoun already exists!

Personally I'd introduce flogging for people who confuse faze and phase. They'd soon learn their lesson.

And there, their & they're etc... specific and pacific. And Angle when referring to their acute Angel :)

But the funniest one for me has to be colon vs cologne :D :D
 

westv

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Personally I'd introduce flogging for people who confuse faze and phase. They'd soon learn their lesson.
I'd introduce it for those who prefer US spellings and phrases like "I'm good" when you mean "I'm well"/ "I'm fine" and "Can I get" when they mean "Can I have"
 

ABB125

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Or use of the word “gotten”
"Gotten"'s an interesting one. I was never taught it in school, but I've come across it in various contexts. There's something about it that just doesn't quite sound right (I'd better text the BTP, who'll sorted!), but I can't work out what.

Hopefully I've gotten across the message! :D
 

duncombec

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[...] I feel we really need to add a gender-neutral pronoun to supplement he/she (plus a form for him/her) for referring to a single human being without specifying gender. [...]
Such pronouns already exist, and have for some time - Xe, Zie, ey, to name but three, all of which decline accordingly. However, there doesn't appear to be any preferential standard as yet, which is why "they" seems to be the most common at the moment.

I'd introduce it for those who prefer US spellings and phrases like "I'm good" when you mean "I'm well"/ "I'm fine" and "Can I get" when they mean "Can I have"
My US colleagues found it hilarious when I got "interviewed" for the "know your colleagues" bit of our monthly conference calls recently and had that on my list as "funny things Americans say". I blame them for the fact I can no longer spell effectively in British English!

Or use of the word “gotten”
I think this is actually the traditional "English" form that has fallen out of use in British English (see thee, thou, ye). But as most US spelling was designed to "simplify", I'm surprised that extra syllable got away. A bit like "burglarize"...

Personally, I'd like a lot of the Victorian faux-rules abolished, because they were invented on the basis of what sounded nice in Latin, rather than what was common usage then and now - The Economist in particular comes up with some sentences that defy all logic to avoid splitting infinitives and such like.

With tongue more in cheek, I'm sure we could benefit if we took the spaces out of some of our words, German style... "I asked the busdriver for a dayroverticket, got off at the railwaystation where I could only buy a thereandbackticket."
 

ABB125

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I think this is actually the traditional "English" form that has fallen out of use in British English (see thee, thou, ye). But as most US spelling was designed to "simplify", I'm surprised that extra syllable got away. A bit like "burglarize".
I'd quite like a comeback of more archaic language:
"Thou shalt pound thrice upon the hearthstone, whence a sprite shall emerge forthwith."
Giving such an instruction to most people my age would likely be met with a blank stare...

Edit: I'd have liked to include "doth" instead of "shall" but I don't think it makes grammatical sense (changes the tense maybe? The kind of thing that would've made English lessons much more fun learning about!).
 

S&CLER

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Such pronouns already exist, and have for some time - Xe, Zie, ey, to name but three, all of which decline accordingly. However, there doesn't appear to be any preferential standard as yet, which is why "they" seems to be the most common at the moment.


My US colleagues found it hilarious when I got "interviewed" for the "know your colleagues" bit of our monthly conference calls recently and had that on my list as "funny things Americans say". I blame them for the fact I can no longer spell effectively in British English!


I think this is actually the traditional "English" form that has fallen out of use in British English (see thee, thou, ye). But as most US spelling was designed to "simplify", I'm surprised that extra syllable got away. A bit like "burglarize"...

Personally, I'd like a lot of the Victorian faux-rules abolished, because they were invented on the basis of what sounded nice in Latin, rather than what was common usage then and now - The Economist in particular comes up with some sentences that defy all logic to avoid splitting infinitives and such like.

With tongue more in cheek, I'm sure we could benefit if we took the spaces out of some of our words, German style... "I asked the busdriver for a dayroverticket, got off at the railwaystation where I could only buy a thereandbackticket."
The use of gotten is a generational thing, I think. I was taught at school that got was both the simple past tense and the past participle of get in the UK, but that gotten was USA usage for the participle; I noticed gotten becoming more common among people about 25 years or so younger than I am (73) some years ago, probably through the influence of US TV and films. There may be cases in which you might want to distinguish got from gotten, e.g. if you were being very finicky you could say that "I've got the tickets" differs slightly in meaning from "I've gotten the tickets" (the former meaning I have the tickets, the latter, I've obtained them). In any case, the compounds of get, forget and beget, always formed the past participle as forgotten and begotten, so there could be a case for consistency between the compounds and the root verb.

Where English really falls short in personal pronouns is that there is no easy way of making things unambiguous in a sentence such as "He (A) told him (B) that he (who?) would have to go". Dutch can distinguish neatly in such cases.
 

prod_pep

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I wish people were better taught (particularly in the south of England and younger Brits in general) to differentiate between three and free. The eighth letter of the English alphabet is also not pronounced 'haitch'.

'Normalcy' is another horrid Americanism I've noticed Brits using.
 

swt_passenger

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Should’ve - it really does expand to should have, not should of. The big hint is the ‘ve’…
 

prod_pep

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There may be cases in which you might want to distinguish got from gotten, e.g. if you were being very finicky you could say that "I've got the tickets" differs slightly in meaning from "I've gotten the tickets" (the former meaning I have the tickets, the latter, I've obtained them). In any case, the compounds of get, forget and beget, always formed the past participle as forgotten and begotten, so there could be a case for consistency between the compounds and the root verb.

I was taught that "I've got the tickets" is poor English anyway and it would be better to simply say, "I have the tickets".

'Got' here is a redundant word and it's for the same reason why I really dislike the use of 'outside of' when people mean simply outside, e.g. "Bootle is a town just outside Liverpool".

You're definitely right that 'gotten' has long been considered archaic in British English, yet the preponderance of American English has brought it back here, mainly amongst younger people. Hearing it over here is akin to nails down a blackboard.
 
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Geezertronic

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The difference between Can and May is an intriguing one:

"Can I ask a question?" - of course you can, doesn't mean that you may

"May I ask a question?" - yes you may, or no you may not
 
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I was taught that "I've got the tickets" is poor English anyway and it would be better to simply say, "I have the tickets".

'Got' here is a redundant word and it's for the same reason why I really dislike the use of 'outside of' when people mean just outside, e.g. "Bootle is a town just outside Liverpool".
The most annoying example of this is “Where are you at?” I keep hearing it more and more, but “Where are you?” sounds much better (in my opinion).
 

duncombec

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Separate words for the plural and singular forms of "you" and "your", and the inclusive and exclusive forms of "we" and "our"
We had them! They were simplified out of English, and are now just considered something to annoy English speakers trying to learn a foreign language, Danish has also simplified them out, but in my experience there were plenty of older Danes who'd get quite offended if you spoke to them using the "impolite" form, even thought it was obvious I wasn't a native speaker.

[...] There may be cases in which you might want to distinguish got from gotten, e.g. if you were being very finicky you could say that "I've got the tickets" differs slightly in meaning from "I've gotten the tickets" (the former meaning I have the tickets, the latter, I've obtained them). In any case, the compounds of get, forget and beget, always formed the past participle as forgotten and begotten, so there could be a case for consistency between the compounds and the root verb.

Where English really falls short in personal pronouns is that there is no easy way of making things unambiguous in a sentence such as "He (A) told him (B) that he (who?) would have to go". Dutch can distinguish neatly in such cases.
My copy of Fowlers starts the section on Gotten by railing against it as archaic and having no place in (modern) British English, then ends a column later by saying it is indeed curious that it has not survived, when forgotten and begotten have.

On the basis that you can differentiate between he/him/he in German and Dutch, I'd guess that was something else simplified out of English, given they are essentially all variants of another.

I wish people were better taught (particularly in the south of England and younger Brits in general) to differentiate between three and free. The eighth letter of the English alphabet is also not pronounced 'haitch'. [...]
Except it is pronounced "free" quite appropriately in some dialects/accents, in the same way some southern dialects (e.g. East London) pronounce "the" akin to "vuh". I was always taught the only other European language to have voiced and unvoiced "th" at the start of words was Icelandic, so it is no surprise the further south you go, the more the "th" becomes connected to the Dutch/German "d", via "v".
 
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DynamicSpirit

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The most annoying example of this is “Where are you at?” I keep hearing it more and more, but “Where are you?” sounds much better (in my opinion).

I would normally understand "Where are you at?" to be referring to progress performing some task, and "Where are you?" to be referring to geographical location.
 

eastwestdivide

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To open another can of worms, I'd abolish apostrophes for possessives. Before you object to that, saying it would make things more ambiguous, consider that:
a) it's so widely misused (especially for plurals) that you can't rely on it for anything,
b) there are no apostrophes in spoken English, and we manage to communicate well enough that way, using context or additional clues where necessary.
 

ABB125

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To open another can of worms, I'd abolish apostrophes for possessives. Before you object to that, saying it would make things more ambiguous, consider that:
a) it's so widely misused (especially for plurals) that you can't rely on it for anything,
b) there are no apostrophes in spoken English, and we manage to communicate well enough that way, using context or additional clues where necessary.
If only we had cases which could be used to distinguish this (unless we do already? If so, I was never taught them!). For example, the genetive(?) in German
 

XAM2175

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(I'd better text the BTP, who'll sorted!)
I think you might mean they'll sort it, no?

I'd quite like a comeback of more archaic language:
"Thou shalt pound thrice upon the hearthstone, whence a sprite shall emerge forthwith."
Giving such an instruction to most people my age would likely be met with a blank stare...
In my final year of high school, not all that many years ago, I was told by a professor of law that my manner as a (mock) barrister was too "old-fashioned"... and even I think this sounds stupid.

Should’ve - it really does expand to should have, not should of. The big hint is the ‘ve’…
On the other hand I would very much like this added to the list of flogging offences, along with all its related variants; could of, would of, etc etc.
 

Shaw S Hunter

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On the basis that you can differentiate between he/him/he in German and Dutch, I'd guess that was something else simplified out of English, given they are essentially all variants of another.

Ask a German unfamiliar with Dutch what they think the latter sounds like and very probably they will use words equivalent to rough, uneducated or simple. In response a Dutchman would highlight the benefits of having much less complicated grammar and more flexibility in sentence construction. Then introduce them both to English and they'll probably say something like "wow, that's really pared down, but shame about the spelling, did you let the French mess you up?" Equally the US State Dept has a ranking of world languages in terms of their ease of learning for native English speakers: easiest of all is the grouping of Dutch, Flemish, Friesian/Frys and Afrikaans. Next, and by itself, is German. Yet I doubt many in this country realise just how Germanic a language English really is. There are certainly times when English would benefit from a little more Teutonic precision as already illustrated a number of times upthread.
 
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