Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Language: Correct English?

English, like all languages, is slowly changing over time. Since English is widespread and absorbs other influences with a vengeance it's probably more likely to change. Some words and phrases change their meanings. Others words and phrases get changed because people aren't familiar with the words.

I came across a perfect example during a conference call recently. The call was between four groups of people spread out across half of Canada. Since this was the first meeting each group gave a quick background and rundown of their situation. The first person to speak up started by saying that she'd moved to Canada six years ago and that she was from the United States. She'd moved to the province her husband was born and raised in. Nice to see that people migrate across the border in both directions.

At one point during the call she mentioned one problem that her group was having that "wrecked havoc". In the conference room we were on mute and someone else in the room said that "wrecked havoc" was a particularly American version of "wreaked havoc".

I dug around a little. As far as I can tell the original is wreaked havoc. Wrecked is an incorrect substitution. My own guess is that wrecked is a much more popular and much more used word than wreaked so over time there's been a switch. In the long wrong "wrecked havoc" may well turn out to become correct usage. At the moment it's considered incorrect.

Which leads me to the interesting question of which errors are real and which errors are English in flux? Do we just accept errors or do we hold on to much of what makes English interesting and powerful by sticking to correct usage and correct meanings?

I don't know the answer. English will certainly change and evolve but hopefully much of its strength and power in having so many specific terms and turns of phrase will remain. I'm not a fan of simplified English.

If you want to see a large list of English errors the place to go is Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage pages. Not only is there a large list of words that are incorrectly used and a list of the commonly misspelled words but he has a list of non-errors as well. His entry on how "wreaking havoc" is incorrectly used uses "wrecking havoc" as the minor error. The glaring error is "reeking havoc".

He also has a good set of links to other resources. If you want to range far and wide wrecking/reeking and/or wrecking havoc with the English language he will give you plenty of places to start.

References like Paul Brians' may not correct English usage. They may not stop English from changing in ways many of us feel is incorrect or wrong. They will help document how the language is being misused and misunderstood now. Which may help others in the future when they try and understand what we are saying and writing now.

1 comment:

Rowdy said...

I've always thought that what you label as "wrecking" havoc is just a mispronunciation of "wreaking." I've almost never seen it written out as "wrecking" havoc.