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Gay Apparel? Yes, Language Changes

Over the weekend I was singing Christmas carols, when I came upon a familiar line in “Deck the Halls”: “Don we now our gay apparel.”

Gay apparel? Yes. When the song was written, the word gay meant “joyful, happy” and “celebratory”–not homosexual.

Singing “Don we now our gay apparel” gives us an opportunity to recognize how language changes. These days we don’t don gay apparel. We wear something fabulous or put on our party clothes.

Language and business writing change. It is pointless to argue that we can never end a sentence with a preposition, when the sentence “What are you looking for?” makes perfect sense. It is silly to argue that paragraphs must be indented, even in email, when doing so makes an online message difficult to read. It is senseless to criticize others for using “can you” rather than “are you able,” when “can you” is clear and more concise.

As we count down to 2010, I encourage you to say goodbye to any old notions about writing, just as you say goodbye to 2009. Get a new style guide. Stop saying “This is the way I learned it.” (If you aren’t sure about a rule, ask me to address it here.) Forbid yourself from thinking that others are lazy because they don’t do things the way you have always done them. Practice acceptance.

Then don some gay apparel and enjoy the holidays!


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

11 comments on “Gay Apparel? Yes, Language Changes”

  • I was once told that I was succumbing to the influences of postmodernism for saying, “It was not me,” even though I knew the traditionally correct form was “It was not I.”

  • The Chicago Manual of Style is becoming equally flexible in their online Q&As, and I like it. Sometimes it’s better to adapt rules for the sake of smoother syntax.

    Another adaptation that seems to be catching on – I keep noticing people in their 20s saying “I’m well” when asked how they are, instead of the old standard “I’m fine.” Were they taught this, or was it in a movie/TV show?

  • Hi, Alfredo. Your excellent example reminds me that our goal is to communicate–not to be correct. These days saying the correct “It was not I” calls attention to the grammar in a way that “It was not me” doesn’t, at least for most people.

    I suppose the way to offend no one is to say “I did not do it.”


  • Hi, Val. I am not sure why the use of “I am well” has increased. Along with “I am fine,” both “I am well” and “I am good” are correct, with “well” focusing on physical health.

    Do you view the response differently?


  • I usually compulsively (and now reflexively) double space between my sentences, even though I think that’s the old type-writer style. When I read online, it’s all single spaces so this year I’m going to change my feathers!

    Regarding Val’s comments, I was under the impression that “I’m good” is actually the adaptation (since it should be used with skills, i.e. good cook) and “I’m well” is a proper response to “How are you?” I use both, but I know many more Brits who prefer to use “well.” Any thoughts?

  • I recently attended a workshop on writing. Lynn, you and the
    instructor contend the same points: language changes over time and our modern day language reflects how we talk.

    He reminded us that standard English was invented by academics who studied the classics, including Greek and Latin.

  • I am interested in your comments about “I’m well” and “I’m good.” Maybe I´m old-fashioned but I cringe every time that a guest on a talk show responds to “How are you?” with “I’m good.” To me, “I’m good” means being well-mannered— “be good.” My take may have something to do with living and working in a bilingual Spanish-English environment. In Spanish, these two phrases use different verbs and different complements: I’m well = Estoy bien, I’m good = Soy buena.

  • Thanks for commenting on the difference between “good” and “well.” I am happy to give my view although I am at home, away from my reference books.

    “Good” is an adjective; “well” is both an adjective and an adverb. In its adjective form, “well” refers to physical well being: “Mother is well again.”

    When we are asked “How are you?” the question is broader than “How are you physically?” unless we have been ill. Therefore, we can choose to answer more broadly:

    –I am fine.
    –I am good.
    –I am great.
    –I am terrific.
    –I am okay.
    –I am wonderful.
    –I am well. (suggests health)

    Dala, my Spanish is not good enough to make a valuable comment on your comparison. But I am again studying the language for a trip to Guatemala next summer.


  • You mention ‘Along with “I am fine,” both “I am well” and “I am good” are correct’ (as a response to how are you?).

    Yikes. I have to agree with Dala. I’m an English speaker raised in England, and the school system there.

    My English teacher would certainly not agree. “I am good”, means “I am well behaved” – not really the answer that someone is looking for when they ask how you are. “I’m good” is a phrase that is a perfectly common response in the USA, but quite incorrect outside (at least in the UK). In my opinion also incorrectly used in the USA, but “accepted”.

  • My dad’s response has always been “I’m nice” (and his kids got tired of hearing that long ago!). When I lived in Britain I noticed people would ask “Are you alright?” Maybe it was a northern thing, but it always struck me as if they already assumed the worst!

  • “Are you alright?” What an interesting question! In the U.S., it would typically be asked after someone tripped and fell on the sidewalk or fainted at a poetry reading. It means “Do you need assistance?” or “Do you need medical attention?”

    Thanks for mentioning it.


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