Live with it

A quarter-century ago, when I began work on the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, I was still a hard-edged prescriptivist (though not quite as great an insufferable usage snob as when I was a graduate student in English). I knew people who thought that the late John Bremner was the Received Word on English usage. I worked with people who relentlessly followed the Associated Press Stylebook, even when it was idiotic. I was of their party.

Today, not so much.

Let me quote a sentence from John McWhorter's informative and entertaining The Power of Babel: "Language mixture, then, is universal and inevitable. It often looks like the dissolution of the language when it happens, but once it happens, like people who talk on cell phones while driving and the musical scores of Andrew Lloyd Webber, it's there whether you like it or not, and it's going to keep on coming."

We ought to know that, since our own dear old slutty English is just such a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Norman French, Latin, and any other language that ever spent the night with it.

And for "language mixture," you may readily substitute "language change."

In 1747, when Samuel Johnson addressed his proposal for a comprehensive English dictionary to the Earl of Chesterfield, this was his ambition: "This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary; a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened." 

But in 1755, the great work completed, this is what he said in the preface: "Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen; conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress, are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide. ... Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice."

Ruefully, he says, "no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away." 

As with words, so with usage and, over time, even grammar.

I have been teaching editing at Loyola since 1995, and I began giving workshops on writing and editing in 1997. Over even this short span, I have had to revise my opinions. Some advice I have changed because I have been persuaded by authorities, the linguists and lexicographers you have seen quoted in these posts. Some advice I have changed simply after observing how reputable writers are using the language. Some of the things I had been taught by English teachers in school and by editors early in my career I have discovered, on examination, to be unreliable.

I'm not going to let free reign get past me, but if I want to preserve disinterested in the sense of "impartial," I am going to have to make damn sure that the sense is clear in context. You know that I am levying war against zombie rules, but I am also trying to preserve distinctions that are still resistant to the intumescence of the tide. Not all can be saved. 

On the morning of the ninth of April in 1865, Robert E. Lee said to his staff, "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths." When I see beg the question in the sense of "prompt the question" rather than the circular-argument sense of logic, I wince, and I would rather die a thousand deaths than let it pass through my hands.

But in my heart I know that the war is lost and it would be better to go home and attend to the spring planting.



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