A foolish consistency

Posted by on September 28, 2011

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 In a comment to my recent post about hopefully, Marc Leavitt quoted it in relation to the strange persistence of outdated and unfounded rules of grammar and usage.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 Email this Post
Comments (11)
  • “it’s necessary sometimes to adapt to shifts in their meaning and usage, ” — I, a moderate stickler, agree. The hard question is implicit in the “sometimes”. Can I raise a consciousness about precise & intentional usage? Can I help preserve a clearer or more consistent usage? Can I get students to pay attention?

    And so I stickle, although I pick my battles carefully. “Unique” or the “literally” you note are frequent targets, as well as the current vogue for longer prepositions (within, onto, &c.) for shorter ones. But different students, of course, have different needs.

    And I play “can you top my stickle?” on occasion with friends. Forte, anyone? Or banal, or post-positive however?

    Posted by Arthur Shippee on 28th September, 2011
  • Thanks for your comment, Arthur. Your rhetorical questions are well put, and echo my own feelings about the matter. As an editor I, too, find cause to stickle; though the particulars differ according to the house style, the writer’s style, and the audience’s needs and expectations. Many a within have I clipped to a third its size, and I’ve even had to turn the odd incredibly into a more sober very or extremely to preserve the appropriate tone in a formal document. But I still see much unnecessary fuss being made over usages that have been standard for decades if not centuries.

    Posted by Stan on 28th September, 2011
  • I completely agree with what is said in the last paragraph. Convention is what mostly decides whether a word is used ‘correctly’ or not. In one of my favourite language-related videos, Stephen Fry explains that ‘there is no right language or wrong language. […] Context, convention and circumstance are all.’

    The video I’m referring to can be viewed (or I should perhaps say listened to) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

    Posted by Farkas Árpád on 29th September, 2011
  • Many thanks, Farkas, for the excellent Stephen Fry link. I liked the part where he says, regarding language pedants: ‘I particularly hate the fact they assume that I am on their side’ – as if anyone with an interest in language must automatically share their outmoded views. Lexicographers have the same problem – people who complain about ‘incorrect’ usage often take it for granted that dictionary-makers must be on the same side – but nothing could be further than the truth.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 30th September, 2011
  • Farkas: Thank you from me, too, for the video. I had seen it before but gladly returned to it: the playful presentation of Fry’s thoughts is a suitable fit with their substance. You might enjoy Language Log’s discussion of the same recording, which includes a couple of other other Fry-on-language videos. (I also wrote a post recently that might interest you, about the first episode of Fry’s new documentary on language, Planet Word.)

    Michael: This is something I notice too often: that an interest in language is assumed to imply a fussiness about it and a devotion to notions that have nothing to do with how language works and delights.

    Posted by Stan on 30th September, 2011
  • Language is always in a state of flux. We do not speak English the way we did 500 years ago and we will not speak it the same 500 years into the future the same way we do now.
    From my perspective with over 1 billion people learning English as a second/foreign language vs. the 700 million or so native English speakers English is destined to be irrevocably changed just as the lines of racial purity are changing due to mixed race unions.
    Rules aside, if the object of language is communication then what is really wrong with someone saying “You go where?” vs. “Where are you going?”

    Posted by D Robinson on 9th October, 2011
  • I agree with everything but ‘irritate’ vs. ‘aggravate.’ That’s not conventional usage; that’s people confusing two words with different meanings. I understand conventional usage, and maybe in a few years I’ll give you ‘alright’ or even ‘alot,’ but ‘irritate’ and ‘aggravate’ simply don’t mean the same thing.

    Posted by Aly on 12th October, 2011
  • It is fun and righteous to gripe for and against ‘politically correct’ and egalitarian tolerance, but there is a high and unrecognized cost for all if the true meaning is lost or even just ambiguous during ‘transition’ from one meaning to another, because the author or reader were not able to share a meaning. Sometimes worse, is the effect of ambiguity, where both think the meaning is clear, but both think different or even contradictory meanings.

    Posted by jb on 16th October, 2011
  • D Robinson: what is really wrong with someone saying “You go where?” If you were to ask the question this way, you would certainly be understood, but eyebrows might be raised because it falls outside the conventional manner of expression.

    Aly: Thanks for your comment. Aggravate originally meant “make heavier”, but no one insists on this; indeed, few even know it. As Motivated Grammar has written, “The ‘irritate’ meaning of aggravate dates back to the 1600s, and it doesn’t interfere with the ‘worsen’ meaning of aggravate.” Like him, I don’t see the problem with aggravate=irritate. I don’t think it’s confusion: the word has different meanings, and that’s OK.

    jb: A good point, and it raises the question of what is the “true meaning” if the meaning changes? Is it the older one, the newer one, both, or whichever one you happen to prefer? There will inevitably be misunderstandings as words change their meanings; I wrote about this in a previous post and suggested that we take each case as it comes. By knowing where ambiguity might arise, we can avoid communicative pitfalls.

    Posted by Stan on 17th October, 2011
  • How Candide of you 🙂
    Perhaps vigilance, omnicience, and telepathy, are the price of understanding.

    Posted by jb on 17th October, 2011
  • […] of little minds.” When I read that in Stan Carey’s article on MacMillan Dictionary questioning the unfounded rules we as writers and editors impose on ourselves and others within our power, I told him he’d […]

    Posted by What Editors Really Think Of Creative Usage | Deliberate Ink on 4th November, 2011
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields