Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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Tortured words or the new way

Some Americans now say ‘I am ashamed by my behaviour’ rather than ‘I am ashamed of’, confusing it with the different expression ‘shamed by’. Is this an absolute wrong, or can we accommodate such a change? For the bigger grammatical picture, the curly question is whether to adhere to a ‘correct’ grammatical expression when most of us don’t even know why it is correct.

The choice of a preposition such as ‘of’ or ‘by’ to accompany a particular verb was determined way back, at a time we can’t pinpoint. And while the choice was probably that of an Englishman, we can’t be sure of that either. So, as people around us come up with new wording options, can we ignore them? Or do we want to stick to the decisions of time and people past?

The trick is that I will have one answer and you may have another. There is no path that will suit everyone. The Americans saying ‘ashamed by’ will continue to do so, and that wording will spread across a generation and geographically too. But I’m too self-conscious to say something that sounds so wrong to me. I’ll edit it out of my clients’ writing, and I’ll correct my children if I hear them say it. In other words, two opposing forces are at work: the nay sayers (my hand is up) and the early adopters of invented language. I know who will triumph, and it won’t be my side. That’s because all language is invented; it is a social construct. It has to change to suit its users. If you belong to the largest user group (which may be a group with less education, or a group that listens to new music by young songwriters), then you necessarily have the deciding vote.

Let’s face it. Not being bound by a grammar construct (perhaps because you didn’t learn it, or you don’t see it consistently in action) frees you to use language how you please. Even to switch prepositions. As young people enter the workforce and bring new language to their writing, their managers will struggle to accept it. And their readers may too. But the young writer’s open mindedness about language will prevail. So, while I’m ashamed ‘of’ saying I won’t yet discard the old ways, I sadly realise my vote doesn’t count anyway.