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11 Comments

  • “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?

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.