Gill Francis wrote a great post last week about the phrase ahead of as used “to sequence connected events”; for example, excitement ahead of tomorrow’s game. Some people reject this construction for no good reason: one blogger apparently wonders why you’d use ahead of “when you really mean before”, which prompts Gill to wonder “what ‘really mean’ really means, in this context”.
It’s a good question. Sometimes the problem lies with the etymological fallacy, which I’ve mentioned before: the idea that an earlier or original meaning of a word is the only legitimate one. Pedants tend to apply this to a select few words whose earlier meanings they’re aware of, such as decimate and anxious, while ignoring many others. They have to ignore them, or their position would quickly become inconsistent or absurd: support originally meant endure, tolerate; should this meaning also be insisted upon?
In other cases the objection seems more general: linguistic innovation, though inevitable and ubiquitous, is simply resisted. We get attached to certain senses of words, and we don’t like when they drift, inflate, or appear to infringe on the semantic space of another word or phrase. Changes like this somehow offend a misplaced sense of propriety. Non-literal literally, which Michael discusses here, is a well-known example of the difficulty.
Grievances over new or unfamiliar usages are often instinctive and aesthetic – indeed, there’s a long history in language commentary of words being denounced as “barbarisms”. Recently, a commenter on my blog objected to the word themself, calling it “stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary”, and saying it was “mutilating” the language. (It isn’t.) This week, someone left a comment that snuck for sneaked was “butchering” the language.
Linguist Arnold Zwicky has written regularly about what he calls “One Right Way” – the common but erroneous belief that an expression has only one permissible meaning, or that a meaning has only one permissible form. The principle, Zwicky says, is used to object to lexical innovations. So if you mean before in a temporal sense, you have to use before: other phrases, such as ahead of, are not allowed to mean this, and must be treated as impostors.
This rigid approach is out of step with what language is and how people use it – it’s like trying to impose a uniform on public clothing habits. One of the great things about language is that it gives us so many options. We swim in expressive abundance, often being able to choose from several ways to say more or less the same thing. The luxury of alternatives allows us to deliver particular connotations or nuances with a given phrase, depending on our practical and pragmatic needs.Email this Post