The other night I was out on my standard “after dark short route” evening bike ride. I go up the paved Issaquah-Preston trail to the Issaquah Highlands and on up to Grand Ridge Drive. If I’m feeling brave, I descend the front side of Grand Ridge on the singletrack trail, imagining cougars and bears hot on my heels the whole way down. Otherwise I just shoot back down the way I came up, which is boring but serviceable, and pleasantly terror-free.
Anyway, I was on my way up to the Highlands the other night when I came across a roadblock, and a fence, and a sign. The sign said “Trail will be closed.” There was another sign pointing to a detour up the sidewalk. That was it.
The thing is, the trail WAS closed. It was closed already. So why did the sign say “will be closed?” What did it mean? Did it mean (horrors!) that the trail was going to be closed permanently at some future point? Did it mean, don’t bother going past the roadblock because, up there a little way, the trail will be closed? Did it mean, simply, that the trail WAS closed?
See, this is why words matter. I was in a state of anxiety for the rest of my ride worrying that the construction “will be closed” portended something beyond the simple current closure of the trail. I tried to figure out why the trail might be closed permanently. Did someone skid out on the (mild) switchback and sue the city? Had there been a landslide on the steep sideslope? Was the slope currently intact but unstable? Had a bear made her home in the small swath of forest above the trail?
Or, did WSDOT or the city of Issaquah hire a sub-literate to compose the wording on their signs?
Defenders of sloppy usage will argue that language is an ever-evolving, organic entity and that flexibility is key to keeping it vibrant and relevant. I can agree with this to a point, because I am certainly glad that my first paragraph didn’t read the way it might have 150 years ago:
“Of a brisk evening, betwixt the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, I take my exercise upon that most trusty of steeds, the velocipede. It might seem that for one more courageous such a constitutional would, in all cases, include, nay, require a gambol along the sylvan paths, of the type which might be found in the mountainous regions of our fair state. To such a one, this gambol should be partaken thusly notwithstanding the perambulations of our ursine and feline brothers and sisters. The author, while surely acknowledging the legitimacy of such a courageous stance, prefers to continue existing in an animated, nay, a vivacious state.”
So, yes, I am glad that language evolved, but language doesn’t evolve because people just throw words up in the air and let them land where they may, as our signage-creating friend did. Language evolves when people use words creatively – coining new words, or assigning old words new meanings, that while not strictly proper, honor the eloquence and internal logic of good usage.