Pickiness is not perfectionism

If someone sternly insists that it’s wrong to use a certain word a certain way, many people will be inclined to believe this – even if they themselves use it that way. They vaguely imagine that some definitive set of language rules exists and that they follow maybe three-quarters of these rules – more, if they make a special effort – while the discerning few manage 95%, 99%, even 100%.

It might be a bit intimidating or even annoying to be corrected, but it’s good to have someone around with such high standards. Right?

There’s just one problem. A person’s standards may be strictly defined, boldly stated and uncompromisingly applied, but that doesn’t mean those standards are high.

Standards can be arbitrary and idiosyncratic. And there is no hierarchy of discernment: different people get twitchy about different alleged mistakes. Some people fume about restrictive clauses beginning with “which” but happily split infinitives; for others, it’s the other way round.

There’s a big stock of common complaints that these people pick from as they feel their own particular urges. But there are also some much rarer complaints. These are not signs of grandmaster-level perfectionism: they are just quirks, however confidently decreed. The pet peeves that any particular person happens to have are not a reliable guide to good English.

For some examples, see Simon Heffer’s recent list of “common mistakes”.

He makes some fair points (“acquiesce” means to agree grudgingly, not just to agree; the past tense of “earn” is “earned”, not “earnt”; a “fatwa” is any Islamic clerical judgement, not necessarily a death sentence) and he emits some of the usual howls of pseudo-rationalised outrage against perfectly good standard usages (“between” must not be used with more than two objects; “hopefully” must not be used to mean “let’s hope that”; “transpire” cannot mean “happen”).

But a few things on his list I had never seen before. So I looked them up in several usage guides (Fowler 1926, Merriam-Webster 1994, Burchfield 1999, Peters 2004, Garner 2009) and dictionaries (OED, Collins, Chambers, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage). Heffer says:

ABLE Only living beings are able. To say that ‘this key may be able to open the door’ is wrong. A man may be able to open the door using the key, or the key may unlock the door.

The only usage guide to even mention this as an issue is Peters, and she notes only a tendency, not a rule: “able to takes animate subjects much more often than inanimate ones”. Indeed, her own usage gives us some inanimate subjects. Elsewhere in the book, she writes that “software is able to identify some of the abstract language”, that free morphemes are “able to stand without any attachments” and that various words are able to do various things.

None of the dictionaries mention Heffer’s rule in their definitions. AHD gives examples including “a detergent able to remove stains” and “The new submarine is able to dive twice as fast”. And the OED shows that non-living subjects have been able to do things since at least 1551: “Neither can any Lawe be able violentlye to force the inward thought of man.”

AREA is a word that should have a specific geographical significance, but which has become a catch-all term to refer to a subject or a topic. ‘This used to be a nice area’ illustrates a legitimate usage. ‘Growing roses is an area I know a lot about’ is not.

Among the usage guides, only M-W mentions this, noting a few complaints from the 1970s and 1980s about the figurative sense. It says that this usage seems to have taken off mainly after World War II – hence objections to novelty – but that it is now firmly established. But the usage is older: Fowler, listing synonyms for “field” (an equally geographical word with an equally figurative topical meaning), gives without comment the example: “A debate covering a wide area”.

The OED doesn’t list Heffer’s hated meaning. But it also says “This entry has not yet been fully updated” and refers readers to its sister, Oxford Dictionaries Online. ODO gives us “A subject or range of activity or interest: the key areas of science”. All the other dictionaries have similar definitions.

BATTLE This is an intransitive verb. One does not battle cancer, one battles against it, or possibly with it.

The usage guides don’t mention this. The OED dates the transitive verb back to 1399: “Cristes feith is every dai assailed..and batailed.” None of the other dictionaries say that “battle” can only be intransitive. I find nothing to make sense of Heffer’s objection, let along to support it.

CURMUDGEON A curmudgeon is not a bloody-minded old man. He is a miser and subject to avarice. That may make him difficult, but bloody-mindedness is not what defines him.

The usage guides don’t mention this. The OED – quoting Samuel Johnson – gives only the miser definition. But it also gives the “entry has not yet been fully updated” warning again; following the link to ODO, I find “A bad-tempered or surly person”. Collins and Chambers cover miserliness and surliness, as does M-W – labelling the miser definition “archaic”. AHD doesn’t give the miser definition at all.

Clearly, the word’s use expanded to cover not just misers but the ill temper associated with them, and then the miser sense dwindled. I don’t know when this shift happened, but it seems to me that these three examples from the 1890s don’t easily fit the miser definition.

To summarise: one statistical tendency, one inexplicable dislike, and two lingering aversions to novelties that are no longer novel – all quixotically reimagined as absolute rules of English.

You can call it pedantry if you like; I call it pickiness. Children who dogmatically refuse to eat certain foods are not thereby gourmets. And adults who dogmatically refuse to accept certain meanings of certain words are not thereby linguistic perfectionists.

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  • Chris Freeman  On May 7, 2014 at 10:09 am

    The one that really makes me weep is the loss of ‘disinterested’

    • Warsaw Will  On May 13, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      Which, ironically, originally meant uninterested and vice versa (Online Etymology). But are you sure it’s disappearing? Funnily enough, in British English, the unambiguous “disinterested party” seems to be having a bit of a revival, according to Ngram.

  • Evan T. Konnor  On May 9, 2014 at 11:29 am

    I think it goes without saying, Tom, that some people are a little too quick to judge the “correctness” of the use of words. In fiction, for example, an author often uses words metaphorically; does that make it wrong?

    “That ancient squirrel. He’s been around my yard for eight years, hoarding his nuts and stealing seeds from my annual garden. Not to mention that the old curmudgeon squawks endlessly, chastising me for enjoying my own property.”

    You, it seems, enjoy the concept that language is a living thing. While there are some things that need to be corrected (“irregardless” is always wrong), language has to be allowed room to grow. Whether this is by adapting the meaning/use of a word or creating a new one. This is especially true in fiction where it is important to have a variety of ways to entertain and amuse the reader. Sometimes, it’s necessary to use language the way real people do, in dialogue for instance, to add a sense of realism. That doesn’t make the writing “bad” or “wrong,” as those critics would tend to point out.

    I agree with you. Pickiness it is.


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