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The decline and fall of American English
Author Dave Anderson
Date 11/02/12/23:31
Hit Count 223

What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
The decline and fall of American English, and stuff

I RECENTLY WATCHED A television program in which a woman described a
baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you
know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like,
you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp
brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled
on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary
substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral
eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific
about her encounter with the squirrel.

Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that
infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman
sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her
mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the
contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when
Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out
assault on American English.

My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade
when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his
speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed
the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia,
Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I
interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The
students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their
writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was
easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well
that I hired interns at every opportunity.

Then came 1985.

The first applicant was a young man from NYU. During the interview, he
spiked his replies so heavily with “like” that I mentioned his
frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and
replied, “Well . . . like . . . yeah.” Now, nobody likes a grammar
prig. All’s fair in love and language, and the American lingo is in
constant motion. “You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you
need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.”
As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.” Even
nasal passages are affected by fashion. Quack-talking, the rasping
tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a

In 1985, I thought of “like” as a trite survivor of the hippie
sixties. By itself, a little slang would not have disqualified the
junior from NYU. But I was surprised to hear antique argot from a
communications major looking for work in a speechwriting office, where
job applicants would normally showcase their language skills. I was
even more surprised when the next three candidates also laced their
conversation with “like.” Most troubling was a puzzling drop in the
quality of their writing samples. It took six tries, but eventually I
found a student every bit as good as his predecessors. Then came 1986.

As the interviews proceeded, it grew obvious that “like” had
strengthened its grip on intern syntax. And something new had been
added: “You know” had replaced “Ummm . . .” as the sentence filler of
choice. The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new
thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding
“and stuff” at the end. Their writing samples were terrible. It took
eight tries to find a promising intern. In the spring of 1987 came the
all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to

“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.

“And you’re majoring in . . .”


All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the
same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise.
Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college
kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? I began
taking notes and mailed a letter to William Safire at the New York
Times, urging him to do a column on the devolution of coherent speech.
Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of
communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body
language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to
indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign
language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything
definite. I called it Vagueness.

By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer
a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the
verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on
the march. Double-clutching (“What I said was, I said . . .”) sprang
into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events
by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to,
like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go . . .”), made
their entrance. I was baffled by what seemed to be a reversion to the
idioms of childhood. And yet intern candidates were not hesitant or
uncomfortable about speaking elementary school dialects in a
college-level job interview. I engaged them in conversation and
gradually realized that they saw Vagueness not as slang but as
mainstream English. At long last, it dawned on me: Vagueness was not a
campus fad or just another generational raid on proper locution. It
was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The
principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.

In 1988, my elder daughter graduated from Vassar. During a
commencement reception, I asked one of her professors if he’d noticed
any change in Vassar students’ language skills. “The biggest
difference,” he replied, “is that by the time today’s students arrive
on campus, they’ve been juvenilized. You can hear it in the way they
talk. There seems to be a reduced capacity for abstract thought.” He
went on to say that immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of
kids in ninth grade. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be
fine with their high school teachers.” Where, I wonder, did Vagueness
begin? It must have originated before the 1980s. “Like” has a long and
scruffy pedigree: in the 1970s, it was a mainstay of Valspeak, the
frequently ridiculed but highly contagious “Valley Girl” dialect of
suburban Los Angeles, and even in 1964, the film Paris When It Sizzles
lampooned the word’s overuse. All the way back in 1951, Holden
Caulfield spoke proto-Vagueness (“I sort of landed on my side . . . my
arm sort of hurt”), complete with double-clutching (“Finally, what I
decided I’d do, I decided I’d . . .”) and demonstrative adjectives
used as indefinite articles (“I felt sort of hungry so I went in this
drugstore . . .”).

Is Vagueness simply an unexplainable descent into nonsense? Did
Vagueness begin as an antidote to the demands of political correctness
in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking
forbidden ideas? Does Vagueness offer an undereducated generation a
technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge?

In 1991, I visited the small town of Bridgton, Maine, on the evening
that the residents of Cumberland County gathered to welcome their
local National Guard unit home from the Gulf War. It was a stirring
moment. Escorted by the lights and sirens of two dozen fire engines
from surrounding towns, the soldiers marched down Main Street. I was
standing near the end of the parade and looked around expectantly for
a platform, podium, or microphone. But there were to be no brief
remarks of commendation by a mayor or commanding officer. There was to
be no pastoral prayer of thanks for the safe return of the troops.
Instead, the soldiers quickly dispersed. The fire engines rumbled
away. The crowd went home. A few minutes later, Main Street stood

Apparently there was, like, nothing to say.

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and
Rudy Giuliani.

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