No doubt you’re familiar with the following line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. In a comment to my recent post about hopefully, Marc Leavitt quoted it in relation to the strange persistence of outdated and unfounded rules of grammar and usage.
Most people know the kind of bogus grammar rules I mean: Don’t start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction; Don’t end a sentence with a preposition; Don’t split infinitives. Usage myths are less widely known but circulate perennially in writing circles and among those who enjoy collecting pet peeves. For example: you can’t say drive slow or different than; decimate can’t mean destroy most of; aggravate can’t mean irritate; and so on.
The last two – complaints about decimate and aggravate – fall prey to the etymological fallacy: that a word should or must mean what it meant originally or long ago, and maybe in another language altogether. The fallacy does not take account of linguistic change, and rests on the false idea that words cannot or should not change their meanings.
These restrictions have no basis in grammatical correctness, yet they have survived for generations, passed on from teacher to pupil or stickler to stickler-in-waiting. They have been called “classroom folklore” (Joseph M. Williams), “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins” (Theodore M. Bernstein), and “zombie rules” (Arnold Zwicky).
We don’t have to like or use new words and usages. I don’t use literally to intensify figurative statements, because it weakens its literal sense – and what other word means literally so literally? But I don’t gnash my teeth over people using it loosely; people have been using literally non-literally, sometimes literarily, for literally centuries. Besides, it can be funny.
Growing up, I developed a temporary dislike for singular data, but it didn’t take much research and reflection (and yes, data) for me to realise that there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. So I’m fine with either form, depending on context. Notice that no one complains about singular agenda or stamina nowadays. But please, resist singular criteria for now.
Correctness is primarily a matter of convention, and conventions change. Consistency should be applied only as far as common sense carries it. If we want to do justice to words, it’s necessary sometimes to adapt to shifts in their meaning and usage, and to update our ideas of what’s acceptable, where, and why.Email this Post