Monthly Archives: July 2019

How do you cope when everyone’s usage is wrong?

Princess_Bride_That_WordThe remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.

Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.

In an article in Harper’s, she wages war on what she calls “semantic drift”. Using the rhetorical style that’s obligatory for such pieces – mock-theatrical (and therefore deniable) moral horror – she rails against “decay”, “degeneration”, “blight”, “barbarism”, “mob rule” and the replacement of “civilised” with “contaminated” English at the hands of “animals”. Shriver’s a fantastic writer, but this kind of thing is just tiring.

The substance of this linguistic apocalypse is, as she sees it, the ignorant modern misuse of words such as literally, nonplussed, notorious, performative and enervated, and the blurring of distinctions such as less/fewer, as/like, who/whom and that/which.

On some of these, I think she has a point. While it’s unlikely anyone will be genuinely confused by “My head literally exploded”, the near-opposite meanings that nonplussed now has make it hard to use reliably. And it’s handy, even if only for formal occasions, to know how to whom. The that/which distinction, on the other hand, is needless. Most Brits (and a good many Americans) are indifferent to it, with no ill effects.

But Shriver’s examples of “semantic drift” also include grammar (flat adverbs and pronoun case) and punctuation (comma splices and indiscriminate dashes), so I guess the word semantic is drifting quite a bit too. She also makes it drift to include pronunciation, claiming that “‘flaccid’ is actually pronounced ‘flak-sid’”. In light of usage, which she accepts is almost entirely ‘flassid’, the meaning of actually must have drifted as well.

OK, that was cheap snark. But it gets us to the heart of the matter: what determines the actual rules of English?

There’s a view that the rules are wholly independent of the usage of English speakers, that the theory is what’s real and true while the practice is at best an approximation and more often a travesty. On this view, usage is evidence of nothing other than failure and corruption.

Nobody really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do.

The Good Book or the guidebook?

Shriver was raised as a language stickler, and the pedantry she inherited from her parents she reinforced at school. But for her, the ultimate authority, the guide to “official” English, is The Dictionary. She knows that she is fallible – her parents too – and is willing to take corrections when appropriately justified:

Hence when the copy editor on my first novel claimed that there was no such word as “jerry-rig,” I was incensed. Determined to prove her wrong, I went to my trusty, dusty-blue Webster’s Seventh (based on the august Webster’s Third), only to find she was right: “jerry-rig” wasn’t listed. Apparently I’d grown up with a garbled portmanteau of “gerrymander,” “jerry-build,” and the word I really wanted: “jury-rig.” The scales fell from my eyes.

A convert, I explained to my mother her lifelong mistake, but she was having none of it. “Oh, no,” she said gravely. “‘Jury-rig’ refers to rigging a jury, which is very serious.” Explaining the allusion to a “jury mast,” a makeshift sail, with no etymological relationship to a judicial “jury,” got me nowhere. It’s fascinating how ferociously people will cling to their abiding linguistic assumptions, however wrongheaded.

But there’s a twist: nowadays, dictionaries list the “incorrect” spelling as standard. “The mob – and my mother – have won.” Shriver, though, isn’t going to budge. Even though recent dictionaries now align with the way most people spell it – and the way Shriver herself long did – she has found her truth and she’s sticking to it, with the zeal of a convert whose prophet has snuck off to the pub.

For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.

The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.

Don’t just take my word for it, though.

Shriver’s “trusty” Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary is a 1963 abridgement based on the “august” full-length Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which came out in 1961. The Third was not seen as august at the time. In fact, it outraged many contemporary sticklers, who were appalled by its permissive, descriptivist approach. In the preface (the bit that nobody reads), its editor, Philip Gove, wrote that “a definition, to be adequate, must be written only after an analysis of usage”. He concluded:

This new Merriam-Webster unabridged is the record of this language as it is written and spoken. It is offered with confidence that it will supply in full measure that information on the general language which is required for accurate, clear, and comprehensive understanding of the vocabulary of today’s society.

Today’s society. As a new dictionary, it paid no heed to the aggrieved traditions of yesterday’s sticklers. And Gove knew that his work – his guidebook – would have a shelf-life. He knew that some of the language his team mapped would change in years to come. He wouldn’t have wanted the book to treated as scripture almost six decades later.

But that scripture is what Shriver grew up with. That book formed part of the fundamental order of the world as she was honing her command of English, so it’s understandable that departures from it seem like creeping anarchy, like the destruction of something precious – like a “bereavement”, even.

Each generation thinks it invented language change

Maybe I can offer a scrap of consolation. Despite Shriver’s fears, language change definitely isn’t her fault.

Noting that she is more liberal than her father on some matters, such as the meaning of decimate, she says: “my own generation probably instigated this decline in the first place”.

Not guilty. Decimate slipped the bounds of “reduce by one-tenth” to start meaning “destroy a large part of” as early as 1663.

And some of the recent changes that make up her bugbears are not that recent:

  • Notorious, Shriver says, doesn’t just mean “well-known”. But the word dates back to the 15th century, when originally it meant exactly that. Over the years it acquired negative connotations, and for a long time it has mostly been used negatively – but only mostly.
  • She deplores the modern use of quicker as an adverb. But here’s Tennyson in 1865: “Nature… on thy heart a finger lays, Saying ‘Beat quicker’.” Adverbial quick has been in constant use since 1300 – informal, but hardly disreputable.
  • Performative is a term in linguistics, relating to utterances that enact what they state: “I promise”, “I warn you”, “I apologise”. Nowadays most people use it to mean “relating to performance”, but the correct word for that, she says, is performatory. In fact both words have a patchy history. JL Austin coined the technical sense of performative in 1955, but for several years before that he had been using performatory that way. For the performance-related meaning, performative goes back half a century earlier and is the norm today. Despite Shriver’s pessimism, the word’s linguistic meaning is alive and well too – among linguists. Many words comfortably carry more than one meaning, depending on context. We don’t need performatory and we shouldn’t mourn it.

Change didn’t begin with the baby boomers. It’s always been happening (and people have always been complaining about it). The rules Shriver grew up with were simply the customs of the day – some ancient, some much newer. Most are still in place, but the changes stand out. And even when the changes aren’t changes, the realisation that many or most people don’t follow your preferred conventions can be disconcerting.

Our language is part of our culture, our identity. We like things to be done our way, and we like to think that our way has some objective, enduring superiority. So yes, it’s fascinating how ferociously people will cling to their abiding linguistic assumptions, however wrongheaded.