Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Like ... er ... informality

An article in The Times of Saturday 18th May states that the average English-speaking child is likely to say the word “like” five times as often as his or her grandparents.

This is based on the Cambridge English Corpus, a collection of English language in use which includes more than 75 million words of spoken English.

The article quotes a linguistics professor as saying that the corpus shows a “growth towards informality” over the past two decades.
Professor Michael McCarthy notes MPs saying “gonna” instead of “going to” in Parliamentary debates.

He also refers to an appearance on Radio 4 of The Prince of Wales. “If you didn’t know it was Prince Charles speaking, you would think it was a lazy, sloppy speaker of the language. It was because he gave a very nice, informal interview.”

Though acknowledging that he has seen weaknesses in spelling and grammar growing among students, note that he does not criticise Prince Charles’ speech here, and indeed the article contrasts his interview with “his usual immaculate speech.”

• Is our use of grammar worse than previously?

• Are we more informal in our speech than in years past?

• Why do young people use “like” so frequently?

• What does it matter?

First I would say that, like Professor McCarthy, we should avoid criticising and believing standards to be in decline. It is the role of a linguist to describe the language rather than pass value judgements. However it is certainly the case that formal grammar is no longer taught explicitly in schools as it once was.

Whereas once grammar teaching was a rather sterile business, with frameworks based on Latin grammar rather than English usage, English teaching may have moved too far away from this model with the result that grammar is now little understood. There is a good case for teaching grammar in a way that relates it to the language we use and speak (see “Awareness of Language” by Eric Hawkins) with an acceptance of different registers and levels of formality. In practice this may be happening, but because it is integrated into other class work the pupils themselves may not notice.

Language change, whether in vocabulary or grammar is inevitable in a free society and it would be a mistake to equate “change” with “decline.”

We certainly appear more informal in our speech than at any time in the last century (though don’t rely only on old newsreels, which show a biased sample). There is an acknowledged decrease in formal manners, dress and behaviour – and that is a rise in informality rather than a decline in “standards.” We are more likely to challenge the decisions of “the authorities” and to question their right to make those decisions; to use forenames rather than surnames with bosses and teachers; to wear casual dress rather than jacket and tie. This is a change that started with the First World War and continues into an age when education has brought about a degree of equality and some flexibility in our social structures.

For me, the word “like” which peppers the speech of many young people, is a token of this more relaxed form of speaking. It is usually accompanied by more direct rather than reported speech. It suggests a less pedantic, less strict and confined, less buttoned-up approach to speaking. The other side of this is that with less precision comes more vagueness, less accuracy, a less well targeted speech which sounds careless to the older ear.
Do young people know this? Are they aware that older speakers with different standards may think less of them? Does this matter? If it makes a difference in a job interview or a situation where impressions are important, then the speaker should at least be aware of the impression they are giving, to understand the grammatical structures they are using and be able modify their speech if they so choose.
I do not believe that you are “failing to be honest to yourself” by modifying your speech for a different audience or situation. Quite the opposite. Modifying our behaviour to a new situation is a sign of intelligence and sensitivity.
If you want to make a good impression when visiting your girl friend’s / boyfriend’s parents for the first time would you change your usual informal speech? How? What would you say / not say?
If you can’t answer that, shouldn’t you be asking your English teacher to help you with the answer?


 See also

Specific Domains

Speech v Writing