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Real Vocabulary: a few concluding thoughts

Real VocabularyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we have brought you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.



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As in our earlier Real Grammar posts, the Real Vocabulary series takes an evidence-based approach to evaluating familiar complaints about the way people use words and language. So what have we learned? In our Real Vocabulary quiz, our blog posts, and Scott’s videos, we looked at a number of well-known cases where a particular usage — though widespread in the English-speaking world — attracts criticism and is often condemned as “wrong”. What is most striking when you research people’s views on these usage questions is how stubbornly some of them cling to “rules” which they believe to be as unchangeable as the Ten Commandments. In winding up the Real Grammar series, we noted how a well-known British journalist — complaining about what he called the “incorrect” use of hopefully (in reality, the most normal use of that word) — was “adhering to prescriptivist notions which are long past their sell-by date (if they ever had any value in the first place)”.

A number of common misconceptions underlie these “prescriptivist notions”. We saw — for example in the case of decimate — how the “etymological fallacy” leads some people to believe that a word’s history determines its meaning: it must retain the meaning it had when it first came into English from another language, and no other meaning is permissible. If that were true, we’d all still be talking like Chaucer. Then there is the puzzling idea that, because a word has one well-established meaning, it can’t acquire additional, different uses — transpire and awesome being good examples. But that’s how language works (and how it has always worked). In fact, it is one of the remarkable design features of language that a single word can have multiple uses, and context always enables the reader or listener to know which of several potential meanings a writer or speaker wants to convey.

Another regrettable tendency (this one restricted to some speakers of British English) is to believe that American English is inherently “inferior” — hence the aversion among some for the American use of momentarily, for example. The fact that a usage originated in the US, as so much new language does, really isn’t a sensible reason to object to it (though that hasn’t stopped people doing so for well over a hundred years). Then there are those who confuse disliking something and seeing it as wrong. We’re all entitled to say we don’t much care for business jargon like “growing a company”. It’s not one of my favourite expressions, but that doesn’t mean it is incorrect, and its coinage follows standard conventions governing the way verbs can be used in novel ways.

Running through so many of the arguments of prescriptivists is the deeply mistaken notion that language should be “logical”. It often isn’t — but that doesn’t mean that there are no rules influencing the process of language change. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is a scene (Act 1, Scene 5) where Lady Macbeth is reading out a letter her husband has sent her about his meeting with the three sisters. At one point, the letter says:

Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it came missives from the king, who all-hailed me ‘Thane of Cawdor,’ by which title, before, these weird sisters saluted me.

We’ve often talked in the blog about the way nouns can be re-purposed as verbs and vice-versa. But here is Shakespeare, 400 years ago, creating a transitive verb out of a greeting (“All hail Thane of Cawdor”). Now that’s linguistic creativity for you, but following established conventions too. My late friend Adam Kilgarriff, a lifelong descriptivist who was always excited by the the miracle of human communication, once wrote a paper called “Language is never, ever, ever random”. The full article is here, but the title says it all.

We are left with the mystery of why some people persist in believing that rules which they learned at school must be correct, and won’t even consider the possibility that these rules may no longer be relevant or may never have been based on rational arguments in the first place. (The rule about using less and fewer is a good example: it is relatively recent, and it originated in a stylistic preference rather than anything grammatical.) The desire for certainty and for clear guidance on language issues is understandable, and many people feel the need for an “authority” who will tell them what’s right and wrong. Unfortunately this view is not compatible with the way languages work. Things are more complex and don’t always fit into a binary right/wrong model, and context often makes the difference: in one context, using whom may be the right thing to do, while in another it may be completely inappropriate. As we’ve said repeatedly, the only basis for making worthwhile statements about words and grammar is the evidence of language in use. When looking at a particular usage, people often ask “Is this correct?” or “Can you say this in English?”. A better question would be “Is this normal in English?”.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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Michael Rundell

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