Vague-Talking and the Loss of English


In the mid-1980s, American English was overwhelmed by a linguistic mutation that transferred the burden of verbal communication fraom speaker to listener.  Because it sidestepped the need for vocabulary and clarity, and because its shapeless syntax shielded speakers from the risk of saying something insensitive or incorrect, this new mode of expression won rapid acceptance, jumping from campus jargon to national discourse with astonishing speed.  It was, like, you know, like, whoa.  I mean, I’m like omigod!  It was, hello, you know, totally amazing, and stuff. 

                                                             Nouns Are Kinda like Verbs

This deliberate descent into verbal bedlam first came to my attention when I was  interviewing intern candidates for Mayor Edward I. Koch’s speechwriting office in New York City.  Until the mid-’80s I had no trouble finding talented students from colleges such as Columbia, NYU, Pace University, and the senior colleges of New York’s City University system. Suddenly, however, it became difficult to recruit articulate candidates with writing ability.  Even English majors had withered vocabularies and a hazy grasp of grammar. Many didn’t know a noun from verb and – strangest of all – they struggled mightily to avoid direct speech.  In its place they employed self-quoting, playbacks of past conversations, “uptalking” (ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise), and run-on sentences. They seemed to be defending themselves against their own words. I called this evasive dialect Vagueness.      

At first I wondered if Vagueness had escaped from the zoo of post-hippy slang.   For example, the overuse of “like” as a speech particle goes back to the early 1960s and beyond.  But slang usually has an edge.  Vagueness was amorphous.  Operating as a kind of oral anti-matter, Vagueness camouflaged meaning with childish idioms, vocal intonation, facial expressions and ambiguity.  To be understood, Vagueness had to be decoded.  It wasn’t as though these students were capable of speaking standard American English but, for some perverse reason, had decided not to.  Extended interviews revealed that most of them had no idea how to carry on a lucid conversation.

Gibberish-Filled Job Interviews

There was another problem. Along with their lack of verbal skills, intern candidates displayed serious shortcomings in composition. They didn’t know how to write. The secrets of sentence structure and punctuation eluded them. If college students were not embarrassed about speaking gibberish at a job interview, if young women were not self-conscious about using the rasping, nasal voices I called quack-talking, they must have reached ages 19 or 20 without being corrected for writing and talking like children.  Vagueness must have been incubating for years.  

When did it begin, and why? In 1988, a professor at Vassar told me that by the time they arrived on campus, his incoming freshmen had already been “juvenilized.” He blamed their poor language skills on high schools that apparently had stopped teaching English. But why, I wondered, would secondary schools do something like that? It wasn’t until two decades later that an answer began to emerge. 


The Virus of Lower Standards

In 2009 I came across an article that had been published in the New York Times 22 years earlier, just as Vagueness was morphing from fringe dialect into mainstream speech.  The front-page story reported the puzzling failure of 1987 Scholastic Aptitude Test (S.A.T.) scores to rise above the level of 1986, even though the 1987 test takers had more high school credits.  In response, David R. Owen, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, and T.W. Teasdale, a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen, wrote a lengthy letter to the editor, which the Times published on Oct. 14th.   Owen and Teasdale assured Times readers there was no need to worry about disappointing test scores.

“…Such changes could come about, for example, because of economic circumstances, influencing more or fewer students to consider attending college and therefore willing to complete the steps necessary to take the S.A.T… Other things being equal, we should not be surprised to see scores drop when there is increased access to college (and the marginal sub-group is included in the average) and rise when access to college decreases…”

Something didn’t add up.  In the 1980s I’d been told that faculty advisers only recommended top students for intern positions.  Average S.A.T. scores might be falling, but if intern candidates were among the best of the bunch, why did it suddenly become harder to find students who spoke and wrote English fluently? 

On October 29, 1987, the Times published a startling reply from Steven M. Cahn, then serving as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the CUNY Graduate Center:


“(Owen and Teasdale) urge us not to be concerned about the fall of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores since the 1960s because decreased scores may result from increased access to higher education.  But in 1966-67, of the approximately 1.4 million students who took the verbal portion of the S.A.T. a score of 700 or higher was attained by more than 33,000 students.  In 1986-87, over 1.8 million students took the test, and a score of 700 or higher was attained by fewer than 14,000.  No appeal to increased access should blind us to this astonishing decline in the absolute number of students who possess excellent verbal skills.”


There it was: the Vagueness microbe in focus. Interns with “excellent verbal skills” had become harder to find in the late 1980s because there were, in fact, far fewer of them. Something, it appeared, really had gone wrong in American high schools.   


Are Colleges Responsible?

I decided to call Steven Cahn.  Cahn, who is now a professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, has written at length about the “eclipse of excellence” in American education.   Cahn recalled his 1987 exchange with Owen and Teasdale and the precipitous 20-year drop in S.A.T. scores that preceded it.  Citing research by David Riesman, Cahn still wonders about one of the most mysterious elements in this decline.  “Women had always done much better than men on the verbal S.A.T.s. But just as the women’s movement was finding its voice, women gave up their lead in the verbal abilities.”

“The decline must have started in high school,” I said.

“No!” Cahn replied. “The decline began when colleges made their curricula easier. Typically, colleges used to require sixty hours of core courses for graduation.  In the seventies, all that changed. No more required courses in math, science, English composition, speech, or foreign language. Brown University became the new star of the Ivy League because their open curriculum made it easier to get a degree. When other colleges and universities followed suit, so did high schools. The virus of lower standards moved from colleges down to high schools, not the other way around.”

If Steven Cahn is right, then the undergraduates I interviewed in the late 1980s – who were born after 1964 — were educated in the era of plunging SAT scores, the era when colleges radically downgraded the difficulty of getting a degree, the era when high schools lowered the bar accordingly, the era that gave rise to Vagueness.  Did college students taking easy courses end up speaking easy English? 

Today, the linguistic revolution that, like, I mean, you know, dared not speak its name, has almost run its course.  Quack-talking, a contemporary version of baby talk (last seen in the 1930s) is steadily losing status.  Playbacks and self-quoting (He was like, “Where are you going?” and I was like, “I’m going to work”) are the most durable symptoms of Vagueness, and may find permanent homes in 21st century English.  But don’t count on it.  For better or worse, language defies prediction or restraint.  Its future is forever vague. 


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


11 thoughts on “Vague-Talking and the Loss of English

  1. ” if young women were not self-conscious about using the rasping, nasal voices I called quack-talking…”
    It’s officially called “vocal fry” and it’s annoying.

  2. Great article. I would add that Vagueness emerges from fear, fear of offending someone based on race/religion/ethnicity/gender identification, etc. If you do not utter a declarative sentence, if you keep it vague with a question, you cannot be charged with offending all the sensitive groups out there. Every semester students ask me about using personal pronouns and whether they should write, “s/he” or “he or she.” I detect anxiety in those questions, and I tell them that using the masculine pronoun is perfectly acceptable. Remember the lessons in political correctness these students have had since kindergarten.

  3. I was born in 1942 and began university in 1960. I majored in English, French, & Social Studies in high school. I wrote government exams in high school because our school was not accredited and I am grateful because it meant I was prepared for 3 hour exams with multiple short essays. I completed 3rd year university and then went teaching elementary on a conditional certificate. Life then intervened and I was out of university and teaching until the 1980’s when I went back to both. In the interim the education courses had become mastery rather than grades based on assignments and exams. There were many co-operative projects and we all know how those things go – everyone is sure the others are riding on their work. My earlier grades were in the B range with a couple of C+ (I never was good at math) but all of a sudden I was getting straight As. There was now 5% for participation, which meant being there and answering or suggesting something. Only one course had an exam and I will admit that my brain freezes when faced with an exam and I second guess the examiner instead of just answering the question.
    At the same time, I found that the elementary class where grammar or spelling was taught was a rarity, that reading was all “novel study” which is one good way of killing a bright student’s interest in reading. Teaching analytical reading was not much done unless using that S.R.A. reading kit, which I haven’t found of much use, really. On the other hand, a young man teaching kindergarten in our school was teaching his children how to create a graph, what the parts are called and how to recognize data trends. These were 90% ESL students, which is another problem, of course, but they were able to explain to me exactly what the graph told them.
    My son, born in 1966, is now a very small genre publisher and is quite capable of editing manuscripts submitted. I read, although not very heavily,and enjoy discussions with friends and a group of mixed age readers who meet twice a month to exchange and talk about books. I don’t know what the language answer is. I, too, deplore the rising inflection, even though I am a Canadian, but I suggest that part of the language problem lies with people who don’t preview their comments before hitting send because ‘the reader will get what I mean.’

  4. My son lives in one of the most affluent areas of Marin County, California. His eldest daughter’s “homework” in 5th grade was filling out questionnaires with a copyright of 1982. She was never asked to read a book, analyze it, write a paper about the plot or the characters.
    The decline begins in elementary school. And it is carried throughout K-12 and into college, creating a generation of under-educated young people.

  5. I’m intrigued by the response from the Brown alumna. To answer Whelton’s criticism that vagueness in writing and speech is rooted in a juvenile need to substitute emotions for ideas, Ms. Ghoda tells us that the references to Brown university “offend” her; are “insulting;” and provoke from her “absurd and unpublishable expletives.” Sounds like Whelton got it right.

  6. It all goes back to reading, or the lack of it. I was born in 1959, taught myself to read at 5, and throughout my childhood I was a voracious reader, devouring libraries full of books. These habits continued through my teen years, and because of them I had no trouble keeping up with heavy reading assignments in college–including those in my major, history, which required 400 pages of reading per week. During my college years I read, on average, 1000 pages a week. Most of my classes were small; professors taught by the Socratic method, which meant we had to keep up with the reading in order to answer their questions.
    In contrast, my son (born in 1984), read very little during his childhood, despite the fact that he taught himself to read at 4 1/2 and was a proficient reader by 6. His enthusiasm waned early in elementary school, where his teachers did their best to make reading a chore, not a pleasure. Later, the dystopic theme of his junior high and high school literature assignments only repelled him further. My efforts to amend his reading failed utterly: my son regarded virtually ignored the summer book lists I made, never mind the essays I wanted him to write on those books.
    Part of the problem was his stubbornness, but trends in American education are also to blame. During the 80s and 90s, reading and writing somehow became passe, and all that mattered were students’ scores on standardized tests. One of the casualties of this new approach was a smart, well-spoken young man who went to college ill-prepared in reading and writing, became overwhelmed and soon flunked out, never to return. (Interestingly, my son writes far better than his college-educated peers, perhaps because I did succeed in teaching him grammar and punctuation.)
    Until there is a return to reading and daily writing assignments and a de-emphasis on standardized testing, nothing will change. Vague speech and poor writing are now the norm, while precise writing and speech are increasingly considered antiquated and unnecessary to modern life. Although I am only 25 years older than my son and share his nationality, I sometimes feel like an immigrant from a different culture because my education was so utterly unlike his, and that’s a shame.

  7. The education system has failed, primarily since the establishment of the Dept. of Education. When it started a high school student was considered an adult upon graduation: deemed worthy of getting (and doing) a job and accepting responsibility. Now a high school graduate likely has not have been taught how to learn, how to analyze, or how to spell Wednesday or February. Also, the colleage grad may not understand the following: “The niggardly professor, who aspires to become a sexagenerian, frequently masticates in public with his female students who are actively matriculating. Also, he freely and happily admits that underneath all of his raiments he is completely naked and maintains this state in every class and, indeed, all of the time he is on campus grounds. The administration condones his behavior.”
    The classics are no longer read because the vocabulary is at too high a level. The Nancy Drew books of the 50’s & 60’s also have too high a vocabulary and they were rewritten at a lower level from the earlier originals.
    It’s frustrating but enjoyable to be a dinosaur.

  8. Being an alumna of Brown University, I am more than a little offended by the insinuation that my alma mater was a leader in instilling lower standards for graduation and, thus, lower standards in the grades leading up to a university education. Brown’s curriculum is often misunderstood – there are no standard or core requirements but every concentration has a distribution requirement. If a student wishes to craft their own curriculum, they must seek approval from Brown faculty members. Furthermore, Brown’s admission standards have been and are, to this day, extremely high. Since >90% of the applicants are interviewed by alumni, I sincerely doubt that a student bordering on verbal illiteracy will be accepted at Brown. Also, applicants are required to write short essays for their application, all of which are read by admissions personnel. Thus, I am quite certain that incoming freshmen are highly capable communicators; indeed they may not require more first year college level English writing classes. In fact, Brown’s curriculum allows these very competent students the freedom to educate themselves in those areas that they choose, instead of the one size fits all approach where everyone has to take the same English writing course. I cannot speak for other colleges and universities but this notion that it is “easier” to graduate from Brown because of the open curriculum is, frankly, misinformed, not to mention insulting. And worse, that Brown led the way in spreading the virus of lower standards – absurd and unpublishable expletives.

  9. Fascinating. I would say that cultural change and language change are part of the same dance. The rise of “Vagueness” as a pseudo-dialect is part of that great shift in American life from an ethic of self-control to an ethic of expressive individualism. Oddly, the more we came to value the individual’s need to express every shade of his mood ring, the less we came to value verbal precision and clarity. Superficial empathy displaced the hard work of judging the tangled web of each other’s motives.

  10. As HR Director for a large organization, I have lamented the lack of writing skills among hopeful candidates for our positions. I had blamed the problem on the “whole language” approach that was all the rage in California until about ten years ago, and I still believe that may be largely to blame. However, it doesn’t completely explain the lack of ability to analyze data and present coherent responses or proposals.
    I read recently in the “Wall Street Journal” that the GMAT was being revamped from the standard multiple-choice questions to various series of questions that refer to a graph or table. The article had several examples of the proposed format. Although I mourned the lack of narrative, I had to admit that it did seem to provide a good evaluation of analytical skills. The comments attached to the article were most telling: I couldn’t do it; this is too hard; I don’t understand what this is supposed to prove.
    I used to hear “I weep for the future” and laugh at the sentiment. Now I share it–and I was born in 1965!

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