linguistics and lexicography Love English

Many right ways

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.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan:
    The problem goes far beyond language; It’s a human nature issue. Effectively, people don”t like change, even when it might be beneficial.

  • I couldn’t agree more, Marc and Stan. Isn’t it funny how today’s language is always deemed to be a mutilated form of the “proper” language that was spoken and written when these complainers were in their 20s and 30s? It’s never 20 years before that or 20 years after that, it’s always right around when their life was in its prime. Coincidence? I think not.

    I always thought that there must be something very comforting about resisting change or believing in the One Right Way. Why else would people bother?

  • Marc: Very true. And they’re often not mad about difference and diversity, either.

    Joe: Yes, I think it comes from a mixture of several understandable feelings and needs, e.g., in-group security, nostalgia, apprehension of the future. As I said on Twitter yesterday, I look forward to the day when we can say, “Declinism ain’t what it used to be.”

  • Stan: I really like the way you’ve extended the ‘ahead of’ discussion. An attachment to ‘original’ meanings may also be behind the objections to verbing and nouning – “‘Impact’ is a noun”, the pedants mutter, when told how something will impact on their lives. And “‘disconnect’ is a verb!”, as they hear of ‘a big disconnect’ between farmers and consumers. I’d say that your ‘etymological fallacy’ also embraces a ‘word-class fallacy’ – only the ‘original’ word-class is legitimate, and we don’t want a new use that seems to “infringe on the grammatical space of another word or phrase” either (to parallel the way you’ve put it).

    Incidentally it would be good to explore further the violence of attitudes to language change – all that abhorrence and detestation, and as you say, the mutilation, the butchering, the slaughter, the daily toll of murders and assassinations…

  • Gill: “Word-class fallacy” is a good phrase for a common phenomenon. There’s a website, for example, dedicated to insisting that login is not a verb (and that workout, lockout, backup and many others aren’t either). “It’s simply not,” goes the argument. I wrote a post about the impact of impact last year that touches on some of these points. The rage it inspires is amazing, and the language of violence you refer to is fascinating.

  • Resistance to language change is a type of cultural inertia. Particle physicists have explained physical inertia with the field created by the Higgs boson. Perhaps there is something analogous to the field created by the Higgs boson in culture and language which resists change.

  • Monroe: I think cultural inertia is often a factor, yes – or a kind of neophobia. It can take several generations for a new discovery in a certain field to become part of the orthodoxy; then again, sometimes the resistance never materialises, and sometimes it lasts in perpetuity.

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