When I saw Jan Freeman’s latest (and last) language column or the Boston Globe, I feared the worst—that, like the NY Times, the Globe was turning its back on language as a regular topic. But I was quickly reassured; Jan says “I decided … that after 600-plus language columns I was ready to step off the print treadmill. The Word column will continue in these pages, written by my current coauthor, Erin McKean, and others; I’ll stay on the language beat, on a less structured schedule, at my blog, Throw Grammar from the Train” (which I urge everyone to bookmark if they haven’t already). Her final piece consists mainly of a look back at the changes since 1997, when she began the column:
Even if the questions haven’t changed, the resources available to help answer them have expanded vastly. For word sleuths and other researchers, 1997 was still the old days, a time when newspapers were just getting connected to the Internet. Staff members could search the Globe archives and occasionally the Nexis news database (I think it was charging by the minute back then). Google had been named but not launched; the Oxford English Dictionary was available on disk, but wasn’t yet online; today’s huge English corpora — collections of searchable text — were nowhere to be found. …
The Internet also allows everyone to talk back, instantly and publicly, to the usage mavens. The New York Times’s style editor, Philip Corbett, told his blog readers last year that only a disease can be “diagnosed” — you can’t say “I was diagnosed with strep.” An M.D. promptly responded in the comments, advising Corbett to forget the outdated shibboleth. (And I can add, thanks to Google Books, that we’ve been diagnosing people as well as diseases for more than a century.)
I like her conclusion:
And that’s the best part, I’ve discovered, of digging deeper into usage. Whether your source is old books (available online!) or new blogs, it’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year, long after popular usage has moved on. There’s probably no hope of teaching the world to conjugate lay and lie, but we can have a wonderful time — I promise — finding out why it’s impossible.
Erin’s still doing the column, Jan’s still doing her blog, life is good (except, of course, at the Times).