Letting down the side

The Baltimore Sun

Last week, when I suggested that the career/careen distinction is, for practical purposes, extinct in American English, Stephen Busemeyer wrote this response:

The words careen and career mean different things. We should choose the word that most clearly conveys the intended meaning. Why on earth would we dispose of such a useful distinction? Being "unfamiliar to most American readers" seems to me a damn fine reason for emphasizing, not abandoning, the distinction and turning to it whenever appropriate.My grammar students also struggle through the distinction between compose and comprise, but by the end of the semester, they are at least comfortable with thinking about it if they aren’t experts.You are also opposed to using "whom" -- if I remember correctly, because it's hard to figure out. Sure, it is. I've goofed many times myself. But that doesn't mean we should abandon it with the rest of the rich nuance that makes our language so lovely and useful, as if it were jetsam from a careening ship. Or is that flotsam? Or should we just say "junk" and give up on the hard stuff?

As I have been urging editors to abandon outworn and time-wasting distinctions, reproaches like this have been a common response. How could you, an editor, even suggest abandoning all the distinctions that make language precise? The all-or-nothing attitude usually manifests itself; if I take this one stone out of the dike, all Holland will be inundated and it will be my fault. The more extreme responses accuse me of being a turncoat intent on reducing the majesty of English to the mumbling of morons.

Well, chillax, dudes.

I am on the ramparts day after day enforcing meaningful distinctions. (Last week, for example, the headline in a feature supplied to The Sun that used whomever as the subject of a clause.) But not all distinctions are equally valuable, and not all of them are permanent.

I was taught all those years ago that shall is supposed to be used with first-person pronouns, will with second- and third-person pronouns: "I shall go to the movies Saturday night." (There's an allowed exception for will in statements of particular emphasis: "I will go to the movies Saturday night, by God.") Find me an American citizen who is not an egregious twit who will, in speech or writing, say, "I shall go to the movies Saturday.*

Career, in the sense of "move recklessly at high speed," looks like an error to many and perhaps most American readers, and as an editor I have an obligation to my audience to present them prose that is clear and comprehensible. That sense of career survives in British English, and if I were editing a text for a British audience, I wouldn't worry about it. It would probably be OK to use it in a post at this blog, since my audience appears to be highly literate and sophisticated about language (put your hands together for yourselves, people), but I think that careen is the better choice for a general newspaper audience.

The easy course, and I fear that many writers and editors take it, is simply to mechanically apply everything in the AP Stylebook on every occasion, or to follow every supposed rule or distinction encountered from elementary school on. Arriving at informed judgments is hard work. It involves critically examining one's own habitual practices, weighing conflicting authorities, being attentive to the researches of linguists and lexicographers and corpus analysis, and arriving at the highest state of clarity for a particular subject and audience.

I have been granted no authority to bind and loose, but the advice I offer here is not whimsical or uninformed. It represents my best judgment. Judgments do vary. Bill Walsh and I agree in principle but occasionally differ on particulars, and I give him serious attention even when he is manifestly wrong-headed. So here, as everywhere else, you pays your money and you takes your chances.



*It is instructive to look at Jan Freeman's Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right, in which you can find numerous distinctions that were being made a century ago that are extinct today, even puzzling. Or William Cullen Bryant's Index Expurgatorius, and try to figure why donate and jeopardize are forbidden words.


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