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Who’s the boss of English?

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesSome 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.

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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.


  • Good to see the word shibboleth getting an outing. I don’t think Heffer and his ilk actually want to kill those who fail to adhere to their made-up norms; unlike the ancient Gileadites, who used the word as a test to identify their defeated enemies the Ephraimites. As Wikipedia puts it: After the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:

    Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. Judges 12:6

  • Liz: Hopefully not! That would be literally awful — or perhaps not, given the etymology. And I see that Heffer does indeed have a new book out. I won’t be reading it. Also responding to Heffer, Tom Freeman has a good post (published after I’d sent my own, or I’d have linked to it) in which he writes: “A person’s standards may be strictly defined, boldly stated and uncompromisingly applied, but that doesn’t mean those standards are high.” Which is well put.

  • Heffer’s rant, au fond, is based on class; as, I submit, is most of the fustian of the peeverei. This self-congratulatory group of would-be aristos dreams a Utopia, where the subjunctive is always used correctly, lords and ladies bow and curtsy, and peasants tug the forelock as their betters roll on by in splendid carriages.

    Standard English is an intellectual construct, agreed upon by the many for the sake of clear communication. Heffer, Truss, & Co. have no fiat from on high. In the end, laughter is the best reaction to their peevish whimperings.

  • Marc: Some prescriptions from usage sticklers can certainly be amusing. But even the daftest decrees will be believed by nervous writers and language learners who know no better and misplace their faith in bogus authorities. So my amusement has its limits!

  • Sensible stuff as always and it raises an interesting point about which group of users is the boss. Not UK (and Ireland) any more (anymore) that’s pretty clear. Increasingly US-dominated social media, rather than print?

  • Thanks, Edward. I don’t think we can tell which group of users has the most influence; such a question would need more specific parameters. Editors play a significant gate-keeping role for standard English, for example, but young people everywhere fuel innovation in the language more generally.

  • Thanks, Stan, for today’s (6-12-14) Sentence First post with its link to another post that then linked to you and this post. While completing my part of stage one of a major policy review project, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the legal members of our team that we should use a style manual for consistency and, yes, recognized authority in presenting our changes to the statewide educational board that would be reviewing and approving our recommended changes. However, one lawyer waxed fondly about her preference for certain styles and usage. She then became our style manual. I see both benefits and disadvantages in that approach to making and presenting editing decisions. I still prefer the seemingly objectivity of a published style manual. Your biblical allusion reveals the life threatening potential of not knowing proper pronunciation of a word. Your discussion reveals the reality of words and usage being social constructs. I didn’t lose my life because I had no choice but to yield to the lawyers’ decisions in this matter. Please take my post as both serious and comical. Thanks!

  • Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comment, Vinetta. I agree with you about the value of style guides: consistency is important in formal publications, and in this regard a published manual is more reliable and transparent than a human is likely to be. It’s a pity the lawyer you mention preferred to impose her own preferences on the project.
    My post underscores democratic expression in general usage – not in formal English, where there are more restrictions, and rightly so. Yet certain prescriptivists claim universal validity for pet preferences that don’t even tally with today’s formal conventions; I find this sad, futile, and wasteful.

  • Does anyone wish to weigh in on the current mishmash of usage around the verbs to lie, meaning to recline and the transitive verb, to lay. I am regularly seeing “lay” used as the present tense meaning to recline and hearing it one the radio, as in “The answer lays in his hands.” Radio journalists seem scared of the word “laid” and use “lay” for the past tense of the transitive verb, e.g., “He lay the book on the table yesterday.” But in ordinary conversation, “I laid down yesterday.” seems common. Perhaps we’re moving to “lay” as the word for both transitive and intransitive expressions. “Laid” will of course retain its sexual significance. .”Lie” will mean to prevaricate.

  • Isobel: Mishmash is the word for it – usage of these verbs is well and truly tangled, and has long been so. It’s worth a dedicated blog post, so I’ll return to the subject separately. In the meantime, I would note that even some linguists are appalled by the lie/lay situation (though it is English morphology, not the general confusion over these verbs, that supposedly appals them).

  • Dear Stan

    First off: I’ve heard “hopefully” already being used in a popular US TV series from the 1990s. So, it’s nothing new. And: Popular TV series pervade “popular culture”, which, in turn, influences language use. No book or series of books will stop such a development. By the way, “such a” seems to be another example, as I’ve read people object to its use in my aforementioned context – sadly, I cannot remember the page I saw the blog entry on.

    As I wrote in response to one of your other blog posts, I do tend to contemplate my word use and may twist meaning a bit. This, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t some areas benefitting from “exclusive usage”.

    I’ve written a term paper on the use of a word in science. What Vinetta is alluding to in regard to “social constructs” can be applied here the other way around. Science desperately needs “objective” terms – or, better to say, peer-reviewed words – which have the same meaning in different studies. Otherwise, no one will ever be able to compare different approaches and methods in order to corroborate or dismiss theories and applications. Science cannot refer to “general usage” as an excuse: Such a reply would quickly turn into an “apologetic” way of handling important key words. It would broaden any word usage beyond repair (as everyone else would refer to the acceptance of different meanings) and make any attempt at comparison worth- and meaningless.

    Unfortunately, people in the social sciences haven’t come to the same conclusion yet – I have enough proof of that.

  • Thanks for your comment, Bjoern. The disputed use of hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped” (as opposed to “in a hopeful fashion”) is much older than most people think: it appears in a translation of Montaigne in the mid-17th century, for example.
    Your point about semantic precision in science is a good one; on that topic, this table is a useful set of terms that can mean different things to scientists and the public.

  • Thank you for providing the link to the table! Your readers may be interested to know that – in line with what I have mentioned before – scientists do not necessarily adhere to these word uses themselves. Some of them apparently misunderstand the words cooperation and collaboration: They use dictionaries as examples to what a word *could* mean in contrast to what it should refer to in a given scientific context. In the case I reviewed, this has, at least, been going on since the 1970s.

    Add to that the translation of earlier works written by authors from the 19th century: The translation into English in both cases included the *same* word, but with the exact opposite meaning in scientific contexts! This is something I would like to personally warn any university student about. Sure, build on the experiences and ideas of others, but try to keep in mind that even lauded scientific texts may have their fallacies.

  • I remember I was ignorant of these things until I read ‘The Unfolding of Language’ and it made the good point that today’s grammarians and linguists are always decrying the destruction of English (or whatever language) in its current form and these mistakes sound horrible until they are normalised in the next generation. It’s a fascinating topic and we should try to be open-minded about it.

  • TEFL Iberia: Quite right. What’s anomalous and non-standard for one generation may be normal and standard for the next, so it makes sense to reserve judgement. The Unfolding of Language is a very instructive book on this topic.

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