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The word that raises my hackles most when I’m reading a newspaper report is “expert”. It’s sometimes used appropriately by journalists to refer to someone who is a specialist in the relevant field (see ballistics experts, etc.). But just as often, it seems, it’s used to denote somebody who has an opinion but whom the writer can’t think of a better way to classify. Or worse, someone who has an opinion that wouldn’t be interesting unless they were an expert, but the story’s already written, so let’s just call them an expert.

There’s a saying in story-telling that if you have to tell your audience that something is interesting, it isn’t. That’s how I feel about experts as well. Experts should either already be well-known, or should have some sort of position or title that reflects their expertise. Academic expertise shines through in the form of prestigious positions at good universities, political expertise in important roles in major campaigns or offices, business expertise in valuable roles in good companies. In cases where the expertise isn’t reflected in one’s position, the expertise should be able to be explained with accomplishments, such as writing a dissertation on something or inventing something or founding a business. If all else fails (and even with those indications of expertise), the person’s insights ought to be able convince me that they are an expert. Otherwise, it’s an “Informed Ability”; a skill that I am told someone possesses but can find no evidence of.

There was an article in the Daily Mail recently (thanks to Stan Carey pointing it out) that basically amounted to a press release from the Plain English Campaign in preparation for their upcoming “Plain English Day”. And the author regurgitated, without anyone else’s participation, the thoughts of someone that the Daily Mail considered an expert.* Here’s how our “expert” is introduced:

Adults mimicking teen-speak are to blame for spreading sloppy English which is putting the future of the language at risk, an expert claimed yesterday. Western society’s obsession with youth has led to older people trying to talk like teenagers, warned Marie Clair, of the Plain English Campaign. As a result, it may be too late to ‘turn the tide on our declining English’, said Mrs Clair.

They don’t even give Clair’s role within the Plain English Campaign organization, asking us to trust that the appellation “expert” is accurate and sufficient. Do you want to take a guess at what her position is? Remember, before you guess, that she is an expert, presumably in the decline of the English language.

According to her LinkedIn profile, she is the “PR and Press Officer at Plain English Campaign”, a spokesperson. If she’s an expert on language, then I guess BP spokespeople are experts on oil drilling.

Former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf

"And I am an expert in military tactics!"

But, for the sake of further discussion, let’s pretend that Clair is an expert. I don’t expect experts to justify every last thing they say (especially in news articles), but they should be able to offer at least a piece or two of evidence for their views. Being able to justify and explain one’s opinion is necessary for an expert to be useful. Clair does this by offering two crummy examples of adults using teenspeak and deteriorating the language: that David Cameron used the word twat on the radio and that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall used wicked to describe the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Let’s start with the Camilla thing. Here’s the complete 15-second interview where she used wicked when an interviewer popped up to ask her about the engagement. The interview, such as it was, came as she exited a theatre and got into a car. What was she doing at the theatre? Watching the musical Wicked. C’mon, she even smiles after saying wicked! She’s making a pun!

And as for the Cameron thing, he too was making a joke with his usage. Here’s the clip of him on the radio show, discussing his concerns about the instantaneous and brief nature of Twitter messages. He says to the interviewer: “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.” And then they both laugh heartily, because he’s made a clever, if somewhat obscene, turn of phrase.**

So Clair’s evidence for the decline of English by means of new slang consists of two examples where adults use slang to complete a linguistic quip. No. These examples show, to the contrary, that they are sufficiently adept at the English language to make witticisms. These examples show, if anything, that Camilla and Cameron respect the language!

Well, unless you’re Marie Clair, in which case they show that “their language is deteriorating. They are lowering the bar. Our language is flying off at all tangents, without the anchor of a solid foundation.”

Stop. Marie Clair is not an expert. Her argument is contradictory and unsupported. It flies off at tangents, at adults making slang puns, and it misses the solid foundation that slang doesn’t weaken language. Unless I’m wrong and English died in 1823 with the publication of Slang: a dictionary of the turf, the ring, the chase, the pit, or bon-ton, or in 1889 with A dictionary of slang, jargon & cant, or in …

*: If you haven’t seen it already, Martin Robbins has an appropriately alarmed response to this article’s bibble-babble.

**: It should be noted that Cameron actually failed to use teenspeak, saying “twits” when he ought to have said “tweets”. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that twat isn’t really teen-speak. It may have had a recent renaissance, but the word itself is attested all the way back to 1656 by the OED. The relevant meaning for Cameron’s comment, described in the OED as a “term of vulgar abuse”, is attested back to 1929. And, anecdotally, this was a common term of vulgar abuse amongst my Canadian friends at University back at the turn of the millennium, suggesting that now it wouldn’t be teen-speak but rather twenty-something-speak. But these are all the sort of details that we can safely assume are irrelevant because Marie Clair is an expert and she’s overlooking them.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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