Bryan Garner’s language-change index

One of the best aspects of Garner’s Modern American Usage is that Bryan Garner doesn’t simply judge things as right or wrong. He doesn’t shy away from condemnation, but he knows – like any genuine language aficionado – that English is always in flux and always contains grey areas.

So he has a language-change index. “Its purpose,” he says, “is to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.”

There are five stages of change that a particular piece of language may be at:

  1. Rejected. “A new form emerges as an innovation (or some dialectal usage persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage. … People normally consider innovations at this stage outright mistakes.” Examples: “unconscionably” to mean “unconsciously”; “thiefs”; “prevaricate” to mean “procrastinate”; “highjack” instead of “hijack”; “baited breath”; “brung”.
  2. Widely shunned. “The form spreads to a significant portion of the language community, but it remains unacceptable in standard usage. … Terms in stage 2 often get recorded in dictionaries as variant forms”. Examples: “simplistic” to mean “simple”; “principle” to mean “principal”; “pour over” to mean “pore over”; “fall between the cracks” instead of “fall through the cracks”; “weeped”; “between you and I”; singular “criteria”.
  3. Widespread but… “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.” Examples: “in regards to” instead of “in regard to”; “miniscule” instead of “minuscule”; “infer” to mean “imply”; “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate”; “flaunt” to mean “flout”.
  4. Ubiquitous but… “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” Examples: “regretfully” to mean “regrettably”; “fulsome” to mean “lavish”; “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”; superlatives used with two objects (e.g. “the best of the pair”); “anxious” to mean “eager”; “the reason is because”.
  5. Fully accepted. “The form is universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Examples: “none” with plural verb; “decimate” to mean “cause destruction to”; “under the circumstances” rather than “in the circumstances”; “finalize”; “you can’t have your cake and eat it”; split infinitives where they feel natural.

Even given that he’s talking about standard (American) English, I’m not sure I’d agree with all of those examples; maybe you wouldn’t either. But you see the principle.

Garner also sketches how change happens:

Many mutations never progress beyond stage 1. They stay in the shadows of the language, emerging now and again, mostly to the annoyance of educated people. Arguments frequently erupt about words and phrases in stages 2 and 3. But if a mutation makes its way to stage 4, its long-term progression to stage 5 is all but assured: it’s just a question of the passing of time…

As I say, I like his more nuanced approach. But I have three quibbles.

First, Garner doesn’t take account of change that goes the other way. For instance, he rates “self-deprecating” as stage 5. The phrase used to be “self-depreciating”, but for some reason “self-deprecating” emerged and became more popular. It drew some fire along the way, but Garner thinks it’s now wholly standard. I agree.

But what about “self-depreciating”? Until I read Garner, I would have seen it as a mistake. It has for decades been vastly outnumbered in usage and I’m sure many people other than me would find it odd if not wrong. “Self-depreciating” is certainly not “fully accepted” any more – not even “ubiquitous”. But he doesn’t give it a rating, apparently assuming its onetime stage 5 status is permanent.

Second, the fact that his language index is about change at all rather than current status is a distraction. The history of a usage’s acceptability might be interesting (I myself love that stuff), but that’s not much use for most of his readers. There’s no need for him to get bogged down in a particular (and almost inevitably inadequate) conception of language change. A language acceptability index would do the job more simply.

Third, these ratings are only his best judgements. And I respect his judgement, especially as it’s not just his personal opinion: for instance, he argues scornfully against using “which” to introduce a restrictive clause, but ends up rating it stage 4. His ratings have been informed by descriptive usage guides, panel surveys and online linguistic corpuses. But the perspective is still limited.

To broaden the view, it’d be great to have some research on how well or badly the general public accept certain disputed and problematic usages. But there seems to be little or none (although Allie Severin’s work looks intriguing).

But in general, Garner’s principle of putting his linguistic standards on a sliding scale is sound. Language is not like maths: there’s no way to justify absolute judgements of objective rightness and wrongness. Instead, the best we can do is try to assess acceptability – which is a matter of degree.

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