A Dialogue on the Decay of English, by Roger McGrath and Thomas Fleming

I received this message from Prof. McGrath in response to my columns on learning foreign languages.


For what it's worth, I took French in high school and Latin in college.  I think Latin teaches one a surprising amount about the English language or perhaps reminds one of all those things that we were supposed to learn in the 7th and 8th grade--when English teachers emphasized parts of speech, diagramming sentences, tense, mood, et al.

During my years playing professor I noticed a slow but steady decline in the writing skills of the average student.  By my final days of teaching it was embarrassing how poor were the language skills of the average student.  I had to point out errors that were something I learned as a kid--at home.  A couple of examples that drove me nuts, probably because they are such young kid errors: The difference between lie and lay has been extinguished and impact is used because the distinction between affect and effect is no longer understood.  It must be 45 years ago when I heard a bimbo newscaster say to her partner on air when a helicopter was transmitting footage of the crowds on the beach, "Just look at all those people laying on the beach."  I thought now we have pornographic nightly news.  Mostly, though, I was stunned that someone on TV news, a putative professional, didn't understand lie and lay.  Somewhere along the line they didn't have a parent, an older sibling, a teacher who said to them: chickens lay and people lie--and boy do they.  The last bit may have a punning addition peculiar to my family, but certainly by the age of 9 or 10 everyone repeated lie, lay, had lain and lay, laid, had laid.  That and a hundred other such things were simply what a kid learned growing up and not even a teenager, let alone an adult--especially an adult in the communication business on TV--would make such a little kid mistake.

Several times a day I'll get reminders of the state of grammar.  One of several posters circulating today on the Internet is a shot of President Kennedy and in large upper case letters, "IF HE WAS ALIVE TODAY---HE WOULD LEAVE THE DEMOCRAT PARTY."   The subjunctive mood is not taught or understood any longer.  When I was young, I hadn't heard of the subjunctive mood but I heard adults say, "If I were to . . . I would . . . ."  Like all other young kids I simply learned language from my parents and other adults and eventually said things the same way.  Then, in the 7th grade, I formally learned--in this case— that I was using the subjunctive.

Moreover, the "other adults" were often on the radio or in newsreels at the theater or documentaries such as Victory at Sea.  Guys doing such work were expected to have perfect diction and grammar and everything else.  It's embarrassing to compare newscasters and narrators today to guys I grew up on such as Lowell Thomas and Leonard Graves.


Thanks for the response.  The decline of literacy among the literate classes is more astonishing than the collapse of English among people who watch daytime TV.  The New York Times was never the bastion of correctness people thought it was, but today it is written and edited by ignorant malevolent children.

Partly, of course, the decline is simply what happens when people don’t work at an art, but there is an agenda.  A Russian historian once explained to me that the Soviets brutally proletarianized Russian—and the Chinese have gone them one better.

The Greek left has driven out the more formal version of Greek and, almost as bad, insisted on a transliteration of Greek into English, French, etc, that obscures all connection with Ancient Greek and with its survival in modern languages.  For example, they transliterate thank you as “evharisto” which obscures the fact that the first syllable =eu, used in English in dozens of words like euphemism, and the next syllable is not recognizable as Charis—grace, thanks, charm.  So eucharist is now evharistia, the second letter of the alphabet is vita (veeta).

The objects of linguistic revolution are 1) to eliminate fine distinctions of meaning, 2) cut us off from the past, 3) to reduce us all to the lowest level—and then keep lowering that level.  All that new grammar, non-prescriptive teaching, Chomsky’s transformational grammar taught in elementary schools—it all contributes to the process.

The subjunctive has been in decline for centuries, partly because English has a rich vocabulary of modal auxiliaries that have nudged the subjunctive out of place:  words like 'ought' and 'should' and 'may' and 'might'.  Nonetheless, there remained a fossilized set of subjunctives that have not been replaced--only ignored:  "I wish I were dead,"  "If a man were smart...,"  "come what may,"   and many others.  Losing the subjunctive means we lose the distinction of meaning between, for example, an impossible wish such as "If only Jack Kennedy were alive" as opposed to "If the sun comes out..."  I do not say that this loss of precision was entirely fueled by ideology, but, in a world run by the Kennedys and Clintons and Obamas--to say nothing of Ms Ocasio-Cortez--any distinction between an impossible wish and practical reality is slated for elimination.

This is a world where the lion will lie down with the lamb, not at the end of history but today!  The socialists are right about this, of course, but what they don't tell us is that when the lions--party leaders and bureaucrats--lie down with lambs--us ordinary citizens, the lambs get fleeced, first, and then eaten.

Naturally, the teachers and journalists are not even aware of what is happening. Most of them are too stupid.  I sometimes think American “intellectuals” should give thanks every day for their autonomous nervous system that keeps their heart beating and their lungs breathing. Because if their survival depended on paying attention, they’d be dead in a few minutes.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I was never in the field of education but I think the decline of literacy is multifactorial. Two factors in mind is the government dictating how students should be taught, the other is the colloquial language of an area. For instance, I have heard educated people confuse than, a comparative word with then, a time word. I don’t claim perfect English as many of my comments have indicated.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    We find ourselves in a lull as everybody says LOL!

  3. Robert Peters says:

    I was fortunate to have attended a rural public school in the piney woods and the rolling hills of north-central Louisiana with a tradition which went back to a residential Latin school at the end of the 19th century, at a time when “public” did not mean “state.” By the time I attended, from 1955 though 1967, there were no longer any residential students and Latin was no longer in the core; but the academic rigor was still maintained. We did not have Pre-School or Kindergarten. We all soldiered into the first grade right off the farm or right out of the woods. There were never more than six-hundred of us from the 1st through the 12th grades. About 250 families contributed those 600 students. We all knew one another. which in general was to the good. There were standard expectations from the first through the twelfth grade. I used the same heading on all papers for twelve year. One earned an A between 96 and 100%; a B between 90 and 95 %; a C between 80 and 89%; a D between 76 and 79% and an F between 0 and 75%. Two to three students would be retained every year. It was school policy, regardless of subject, including vocational agriculture which I took for four years in high school, that every error in spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation would count off a minimum of one point. One could not pass the third grade unless one could write legibly in cursive. Beginning in the 4th grade, each student had to read an age-appropriate book a week from the school libraries, with the reading list determine by the teacher, and then write a formatted book report on that book for the following week as one was reading the next book. An intensive and systematic study of English grammar began in the seventh grade, although grammar had been stressed in all of the earlier grades. The most rigorous year was the 8th grade. All of the definitions of the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence were drilled, memorized, drilled and applied. In high school English, for four years, we drilled and practiced grammar for one-half of the year and read literature for the other half. In addition, we continued the weekly book reports. In our senior year, we wrote a major term paper for English IV. We had to memorize and give speeches and participate in plays. We were country kids whose intellectual abilities spanned the spectrum, but we were challenged by excellent teachers. I was privileged to have strong male teachers in grammar school and high school. Mine was likely the last generation at Pollock, which I call “my little republic – a town and its hinterland,” which had what I call “Protestant nuns.” These were ladies who remained unmarried during their teaching years. Most of them roomed with widows or with older couples. Three such teachers married after they retired. They were totally dedicated to their profession. My mother had been one of those until she encountered my father when she was thirty-tw0. She had begun teaching when she was nineteen right out of normal school. For seven of the ensuing years, she taught in a sawmill town, living in and taking her meals in a hotel with other unmarried teachers. Those of us who graduated in 1967, before the 60’s revolution reached Pollock and destroyed it, were fortunate. We had a community which supported the school, competent and caring teachers, and a curriculum which challenged our country minds and bodies.

  4. Odysseia says:

    Every time I hear someone abuse the word impact, I have the temptation to punch him. Then, I’d have an impact on him.

    The terminology “proletarianisation” of language certainly helps add vividness to our understanding of the role language plays in the degradation of culture. It would be interesting to hear Dr. Fleming’s take on what similarities there might or might not be between the decline of language today & the decline of 5th century Attic into Koine.

    This is a very small point, but it does seem a bit of a stretch to argue that the reformed transliterations of Greek are part of a process of purging the connections with Ancient Greek. Transliterations in themselves are of questionable value at best, but if one’s going to bother, it does seem reasonable to make them such that they reflect actual pronunciation. Nobody would ever pronounce ‘βητα’ ‘beta’, & it was only because of rather questionable Erasmian influences that ‘beta’ or ‘eucharist’ became the standard English spellings in the first place.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ve discussed this point with friends in Greece who mostly agree with you. They also agree that the elimination of the purified Greek is a good thing–even as they can observe the spiraling descent of their language into disintegrating demotic with no end in sight. The simplified transliteration of Greek has much the same effect–and, I suspect, intent–as simplified spelling in English: Both cut succeeding generations off from the roots and traditions of the language. The Erasmian pronunciation of Greek and Latin had its negative points, but it was an honest effort to restore something like ancient pronunciation. In both cases, the pronunciation of the vowels had collapsed several vowels into one sound, more or less diminishing the ancient music of the language. In the case of prose, the effect of the simplification was not so bad, but in poetry, there was substantial loss. On the whole, though, I think the disadvantages of the “reform” outweighed the advantage of treating Greek and Latin as living languages within a tradition.

  6. James D. says:


    Is this occurring in most modern languages? My wife is conversational in German and she said that many modern German pop songs, commercials, etc. soften the proper pronunciations to sound more “hip,” or even leave off the endings of words that sound too “harsh” to non German listeners or young people.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    James D.,

    I’ve noticed German pop singers saying “yea” instead of “Ja”, saying “love” instead of “liebe”, and other such things.

    Dr Fleming,

    Didn’t the Bolsheviks mess with the Russian language as well?

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, indeed. I had meant to include that as a prime example.

  9. Frank Brownlow says:

    As late as the earlier 17th century educated speakers in England were bilingual in English and Latin, but the humanists’ educational reforms put an end to spoken Latin, as John Skelton, writing at the very beginning of the movement in 1519, knew they would. No-one, he said, “riding by the way,” was going to be able to order fodder for his horse in Greek–or Latin. And now the educational reformers have done it again, this time–oddly enough–wiping out the teaching of grammar in order that people can once again order a meal or fill up their car in French, Italian, or whatever, but without bothering about being able to read or talk about anything serious in the language. Link the teachers up with chip-on-the-shoulder lefties who bridle at any kind of correct or eloquent speech (called in Britain “posh”), and the result is the English now spoken on TV here and in Britain.

  10. David Wihowski says:

    Over twenty-five years ago, when I was in the Republican haven of a medium-sized corporation in the upper Midwest, we had managers with MBAs saying things like: “We need to solution this issue.” As if “solve” were an archaic, hackneyed word no progressive, educated business person would dare utter. Things like this helped me begin to understand how most Republicans are just “liberals” of a slightly different cloth.

  11. Harry Colin says:

    Mr. Wihowski touched upon one of the curses of modern society; so many of our business types believe adding “ize” to any noun makes it a properly used verb.

    A couple of years ago I had some fun setting a five minute time limit to look over the morning papers and find horrible sins against proper usage and syntax. After several consecutive days of finding multiple errors I gave up the exercise – it quickly went from amusing to depressing.

  12. Allen Wilson says:

    Where does all this leave the language learner? No one here wants to learn a politically corrupted language. I refuse to learn Franglais or Germanglish, and now it appears we must search for an un-disentigrated form of whatever language we wish to study. Something tells me Italian is least susceptible to these problems, despite it’s risorgimento origins. But then where do we go for French, German, Russian?

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am in the midst of taking friends through Western Sicily but within days will turn conversation in a productive direction