For some time, prodded by the unending debates I get into about English usage, I have contemplated writing a long entry in which I would set out the arguments on either side and steer a reasonable course between the extremes, giving such convincing examples that readers would understand at last, and hopefully even stop whining about “hopefully” (and “disinterested” and “hoi polloi” and all the rest of the shibboleths). Thinking about this tired me out, and I would read a good book instead. Now, as so often happens, procrastination has paid off, and I no longer have to do the oft-postponed task.

This is because I’ve finally gotten a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (online for free, but I always prefer physical books, and this one is beautifully produced), and discovered the brilliant essay on usage by Geoffrey Nunberg. Nunberg, whom I have recommended before, is a linguist who understands the prescriptivist arguments and even accepts some of them (at times I had to swallow hard while reading, but I never rebelled); his ideas are sensible, probably more so than mine would have been, and should convince all but the most closed-minded. The first three paragraphs should give an idea of what he’s up to:

Viewed in retrospect, controversies over usage usually seem incomprehensibly trivial. It is hard for us to fathom why Swift should have railed against the shortening of mobile vulgus to mob, why Benjamin Franklin should have written to Noah Webster complaining about the use of improve to mean “ameliorate,” or why Victorian grammarians should have engaged in acrimonious exchanges over whether the possessive of one should be one’s or his. Even comparatively recent controversies have a quaint air about them: most people under 50 would be hard-put to understand what in the world critics of the 1960s had in mind when they described the verb contact as an “abomination” and a “lubricious barbarism.”

This does not necessarily mean that there was never any substance to these controversies—or that there is nothing of importance at stake in the issues that modern critics worry over, even if it is certain that most of them will strike our successors as no less trivial than Swift’s and Franklin’s complaints seem to us. In his time, Swift may have been within his rights to complain about mob, which began as an affectation of aristocratic swells. The fact that the word later settled into middle-aged respectability doesn’t retroactively excuse its youthful flippancy. And contact started as business jargon before it was generally adopted as a useful verb. Perhaps current jargon like incentivize will develop along the same lines, but it doesn’t follow that critics have no justification for objecting to it now.

Past controversies should put us on our guard against viewing these disputes too narrowly. Disputes about usage are always proxy wars. What is important is not the particular words and expressions that critics seize on at a given moment but the underlying mental vices that they (often temporarily) exemplify—for example, foppery, pretension, or foggy thinking. Language criticism is instructive only when it takes words as its occasion rather than as its object.

I’ll add that I’ve loved the AHD since its very first edition, which came out while I was in college and just discovering Indo-European; not only did this dictionary have illustrations in the margins and helpful (if sometimes prissy) Usage Notes, it had an appendix listing all IE roots that gave rise to English words. (I still have my much-annotated original copy of that appendix.) The Fourth Edition has gorgeous color illustrations, much less prissy Usage Notes, and a Semitic appendix to go along with the IE one. (Did you know that Hebrew magen ‘shield,’ as in “magen David,” is from the same root as Arabic jinni ‘djinn, demon’? It’s West Semitic *gnn ‘to cover.’). I recommend it to one and all without reservation.


  1. The AHD has long been on my list of big, expensive books I really want, and your notice has my mouth watering.
    I like Nunberg a lot–he’s one of the best reasons to listen to Fresh Air–and his approach to usage is very nicely stated. It reminds me a bit of Sir Ernest Gower’s remarks on what he called “the proper use of words”:
    Professional writers realise that they cannot hope to affect their readers as they wish without care and practice in the proper use of words. The need for the official to take pains is even greater, for if what the professional writer has written is wearisome and obscure the reader can toss the book aside and read no more, but only at his peril can he so treat what the official has tried to tell him. By proper use I do not mean grammatically proper. It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music, merely by keeping the rules. On the whole they are aids to writing sensibly, for they are in the main no more than the distillation of successful experiments made by writers of English through the centuries in how best to handle words so as to make the writer’s meaning plain.

Speak Your Mind