Saturday, October 12, 2013

The War on Words


I love the Language-Change Index in Garner’s Modern American Usage. The purpose of the index is to measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become. Generally, acceptance of these “innovations” is exceedingly slow, which is fine with me, a true prescriptivist.


There are five stages to the acceptance of a new meaning for a word. Bryan Garner yesterday published examples of the five stages. They are listed below, with my comments appended.  


Stage 1 ("rejected"): A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage (e.g.: *"lended" for "lent"). “Lended”? Really? C’mon, people, only in deepest Appalachia is this uttered.

Stage 2 ("widely shunned"): The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage (e.g.: *"real trooper" for "real trouper").
Have seen this. It’s not uncommon. Hoping it will remain at Stage 2.

Stage 3 ("widespread but . . ."): The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage (e.g.: "usage" misused for "use").
Sorry, folks, but I have been guilty of this myself a few times, but it is an affectation.

Stage 4 ("ubiquitous but . . ."): The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots) (e.g.: *"is comprised of" for "comprises").
I am a stickler about this, but you do see it in some respected publications. Remember, the whole comprises the parts. So, “The team comprises 24 distinct personalities.”

Stage 5 ("fully accepted"): The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics) (e.g.: "daylight-savings time" for "daylight-saving time").
I made a point of this in an early column, pointing out that the phrase had nothing to do with money – “savings” – so it is daylight-saving time. And, prescriptivist that I am, I’m sticking to that. And, incidentally, I resent the “pseudo-snoot eccentric” label.


And another thing . . .


            Today a reader sent a note calling out the Wilmington News Journal (again). In the local section, she spotted this: “Sleet eluded to potential difficulties if government . . .” This is the sign of a writer who reads very little, or who reads very little edited material. To the ear, “alluded” (the proper word here) sounds like “eluded” (meaning, of course, escaped), and the under-read not surprisingly might spell it that way. The authors, according to my reader, were Esteban Parra and Sean O’Sullivan. My money’s on the latter as the culprit, but an editor should have caught it. Amazing.

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