Grading season: observing linguistic evolution in the wild

A couple weeks ago, Fr. Imbelli linked to a story about the AP style guide finally giving in to the way most people use the word “hopefully.”  It got me thinking about all the grammar I correct in the course of an academic year.  Specifically, during this “grading season” — sort of like “tax season” for accountants — when teachers across the land blearily mark stacks of final papers and exams, to eventually uncover the c45561_lohan_small_1offee-stained surfaces of their desks or, more likely, kitchen tables, I have been thinking about the linguistic errors that most intrigue me. I’m talking about the errors that become so pervasive that they cease to be “errors” at all. Grading papers year after year is one good way to watch language change.

One error that I’ve now stopped correcting is the use of the word “disconnect” as a noun. How can I correct it, when we read it virtually everyday from professional writers?  This from Peter Bergen’s NYT article last Sunday:

From both the right and left, there has been a continuing, dramatic cognitive disconnect between Mr. Obama’s record and the public perception of his leadership: despite his demonstrated willingness to use force, neither side regards him as the warrior president he is.

Students write and say this word frequently as a noun, and I see why.  First, they hear and read it all the time, not least in the Times. From my brief searches, the Times was using it as a noun in headlines about 20 years ago. Perhaps they are to blame for galvanizing the change.  But I also think the change in usage reflects the onomatopoetic effect of the word “disconnect”: truncating the word with sharp consonants at the end makes for more expressive speech. The word now embodies its referent. I’ve stopped correcting this “error” in part, then, because I think it’s an improvement. Which brings me to my next example.

Oops, that was a sentence fragment. Which brings me to my point.

Yep, another one.  OK, here’s my point.  This year, more than any before, I have been accosted with sentence fragments, especially those that begin with relative pronouns. Which used to drive me nuts. Has something changed?

Time was, when professional writers used “sentences” such as “Which brings me to my point” very sparingly. Incomplete sentences were used for dramatic effect, sentences such as:  Big mistake. Not this time. Or a favorite of some columnists: Well. (used before introducing rebuttal of an obviously in-over-their-head opponent)

For a time I thought that students were being influenced primarily by blogs, facebook messages, text messages, etc., but in the past couple years or so, I have read countless sentences beginning with a relative pronoun in our country’s top publications. If top newspapers/websites publish these everyday, I feel like I should give up. An example from an article I read a few days ago by Timothy Egan:

Of course, some terrific bookstores are still on life support. If the market won’t help them, they may need local subsidies, in the same way that cities support dance or music.

Which brings us back to Amazon. The publishing community is convinced that the Justice Department has gone after the wrong malefactor. Amazon, with its cheap pricing model, will ultimately drive everyone else out of business.

Language changes constantly, and meaning is defined by use. When usage changes so thoroughly that it happens hundreds of times per day at the top publications in the country, does that mean some critical mass has been hit, and the grammar has now effectively changed?

I’m OK with this, not least because it will mean one less thing to correct. But I’m wondering from all the teachers and editors out there: What linguistic changes have become so prevalent that you’ve stopped “correcting” them? And do you think, as I do, that the multiple media platforms through which we encounter the written word have accelerated such changes?

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