Some people worry that English is endangered by misuse – or what they believe to be misuse. They may be unhappy that hopefully has gained an additional meaning, or that literally often isn’t meant literally, or that like has expanded its repertoire: ‘It’s a verb, for crying out loud!’ protested a commenter on my language blog recently, as if like hadn’t also been an adjective since Middle English and a noun for almost a millennium.
Every so often a stickler will gather a bunch of peeves together and write a whole article about them. (They may be trying to sell a book, so beware.) Journalist Simon Heffer had a go at this recently in the Daily Mail, dredging up several peeves we’ve looked at before on Macmillan Dictionary Blog, such as the use of hopefully, literally, collide and decimate.
Of alternatives, Heffer insists ‘there can only ever be two’. But a word’s Latin history doesn’t dictate modern use; even the American Heritage Dictionary’s conservative Usage Panel rejects this narrow edict by an overwhelming majority. He says access is ‘not a verb’, but it has been for over sixty years; and he says the use of transpire to mean happen is ‘silly’, to which we may apply the Lebowski defence. (The Economist style guide recently tweeted the same mistaken, and frankly silly, proscription; I dissented with an awkward fact.)
Heffer’s list of peeves, like most such lists, abounds in misinformation and etymological fallacy: a futile insistence that we use a word this way, not that way; that it can mean only this, never that. Here and there it makes useful points, but by mixing good sense with so much demonstrable wrongness, the whole package becomes untrustworthy, as the wise John E. McIntyre points out. Especially, I think, if the aim of these non-rules is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on knowing them.
Behind the anxious impulse to limit what a word can mean is the pace and unpredictability of language change. But word meanings have always drifted and spread, shifted and multiplied – change is a fundamental trait of any living language. A rigid approach to usage, as I’ve written before, cannot be reconciled with what language is and how people use it.
Usage peevers may know enough to persuade some people to listen even to their ill-judged bluster. But when they disregard evidence that doesn’t suit their pet preferences, they stand to lose whatever authority they seek to claim. Better to accept that language has no ultimate authority except its users, from whose collective efforts it derives its conventions and power.
If you advise on usage, you owe it to your readers to keep pace with language change. Otherwise you’ll end up so out of touch as to be irrelevant to the very people who might welcome your insight.Email this Post