For Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, Ben Yagoda ponders why so many of his students use the archaic “amongst” instead of “among.” He notes that the 18th century term had been pretty well put to rest by 1994, but it launched a vigorous resurrection with the millennium, given new life by those born in the years before. He associates “amongst” with linguist Oscar Jesperson’s notion of “hypercorrect” usage — attempting to sound grand or official — and offers “myself,” “whomever,” “oftentimes” and “advisor” as other examples. (I learned long ago from the Associated Press Stylebook that “adviser” is correct, but I recall someone telling me once that “-or” is used if the advisee is the President. Or did I make that up?)
Yagoda says millennials write by the ton in myriad informal ways. “When they’re called upon to write in a formal or official setting—for a class assignment or for publication on a blog or in a magazine—they’re uncertain of the protocol. Amongst and other formulations represent a kind of better-safe-than-sorry strategy,” he observes.
This might explain a peculiar habit I’ve noticed in my students’ writing — the continuous future. People will not verb, simply, but will be verbing. The President will be flying to Los Angeles Friday. The mayor will be announcing his retirement, etc. Something else happening at the same time justifies the continuous — Jamar will be talking to his adviser, or advisor, while Harriett is registering for classes — but otherwise it is unnecessary, I try to explain. Without much success.
I used to think the continuous tense reflected a relationship with time that pre-millennials cannot appreciate. If you were born in the era of hyper-media, you consider all time as continuous present. What did Emily do yesterday? She was having her hair highlighted. What will she do tomorrow? She will be snowboarding with her boyfriend. You will be, and will have been, being all the time.
But I think Yagoda is onto something. It does somehow sound more impressive to be doing something, rather than to do it. This is cold comfort, however. It tells me that writing, particularly the kind of writing I teach, for mass media, is becoming (or will be) more about effect than meaning. That words aligned in certain combinations no longer tell us about things, but rather prompt feelings about them. And I doubt this will be being a good thing.