Some prescriptive usage rules seem so arbitrary and unnecessary as to be made out of whole cloth. One such rule has to do with the word collide, meaning clash or crash into each other, and with related forms like colliding and collision.
According to the rule, you can use these words only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.
Collide is also used figuratively (see Macmillan Dictionary’s sense 2 for definitions and examples). This is more common than sense 1, but when you’re talking about, say, opinions or personalities colliding, it has nothing to do with elements moving or not. So the rule is only ever invoked when the word is used in the physical sense.
How did this odd belief arise? Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says it’s a tradition among newspaper editors, and finds it in Hyde’s 1920s Handbook for Newspaper Workers: “Only moving objects collide, and with each other. A car does not collide with a fence.” Collided also appears in the 1877 Index Expurgatorius’s banned list, but without explanation.
Later, Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, among other commentators, adopted the rule. In his Dictionary for Writers and Editors, Bryson insists that collisions “can occur only when two or more moving objects come together. If a car runs into a stationary object, it is not a collision.” He says the same in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words. But in this case it’s the bogus usage rule that is troublesome: it imposes a confusing and unnecessary constraint on writers.
Experts who have researched the restriction dismiss it promptly. Robert Burchfield, in his revised edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says there is “no basis for such a belief” (Fowler’s original work made no mention of it). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the proscription is “not true” and that the unrestricted use is standard.
There is no etymological justification for it either. Collide comes from Latin collidere “strike together”, from the familiar prefix com– “together” plus laedere “to strike, or injure by striking”. But all it takes is for one authority to invent a rule, whereupon eager rule-collectors will accept it, repeat it, and proselytise for it, and misinformation will collide with the fear of being wrong.Email this Post