Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Oh, the enormity of it all

I've written about You Don't Say, the blog by Baltimore Sun copy editor (and teacher) John McIntyre, before; it's a witty series of articles about words and language. It squares with my own sensibilities considering language (he calls himself a "mild prescriptivist"), in that I dislike seeing the language corrupted for no reason but laziness, but accept that English is a living thing that will change.

For those who don't follow the camps of language theory, there are two broadly defined camps: prescriptivism and descriptivism. The former is the idea that language should have rules, allowing mutual understanding, even across time. The latter is the idea that language develops the way that people use it, that it is a fluid thing, adapting as necessary to the needs of the person or time.

One of the great misunderstandings is when a descriptivist is asked to be a prescriptivist, as in the case when a linguistics professor (who tend toward descriptivism) writes a usage column for a periodical (the Chicago Tribune had such a column, On Language, for four years, ending only recently). The professor is asked questions such as, "When do I use 'ain't'?," clearly looking for guidance. The answer is, generally, "Use 'ain't' any time you would normally use it," which is very little help.

I personally lean toward the prescriptivist school, not because I believe that language can't or shouldn't change, but because there is value in retaining distinctions. "Legendary," in its traditional use, has a meaning, one which is lost when we apply it to any rapper who's gotten a song in the Billboard Urban Top 50. When meaning changes merely for marketing or self-aggrandizement, my sense is that we've lost far more than we've gained.

McIntytre has a good entry today on the word "enormity," which used to mean something evil, but now is more commonly used as a synonym for "something large." I'm kind of sorry to see its original sense lost, as does McIntyre:
I use the word in its strict sense; it’s a useful word to have in stock. I teach my students that there is a distinction here that fastidious writers observe. But I can’t ignore that the other sense appears to have become prevalent and that no one misunderstands it.
But I too am uncomfortable with those who leap on every example like this one and use it as a bludgeon or a class signifier. McIntyre:

Buckeye Sam posted a comment on the Words to the Wise entry: “Anyway, regarding "enormity," it's my one-word usage test.”

There, in a single sentence, you can see encapsulated what people dislike about purists and the mavenry. Someone is listening to you, not paying attention to the substance of what you say, but waiting for you to make a mistake. And it might not even be a mistake; it could be some aribitrary and idiosyncratic “rule” of which you are unaware, and about which there is dispute among the professionals. The purist is impatiently waiting to give a thumbs-up-thumbs-down judgment, and he is a hanging judge in a court from which there is no appeal.

Precision in the use of language is important. So is a sense of proportion.

I certainly agree with that last sentiment. I can be very impatient with misuse of the language by people who should know better (I just heard one of the local anchors read some copy that described our upcoming cold snap as "unbearable"; clearly that's an attempt to magnify the situation to attract those viewers who love Armageddon, but it's quite inappropriate), but that kind of judgment needs to be tempered by understanding.

And that doesn't just apply to words...

[By the way, in a later post, McIntyre recommends the blog Everything You Know About English Is Wrong. I can't recommend it yet, but I'm going to check it out.]

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