Henry Hitchings gifts us with a fun read

The last time we encountered Henry Hitchings, he was getting flak from the New Yorker for his book The Language Wars. Now he has written an entertaining column for the New York Times about nouns that are repurposed as verbs — for example, “an epic fail.”  The process is apparently called nominalization. As in The Language Wars, he is not inclined to be judgmental about the way language changes:

Some regard unwieldy nominalizations as alarming evidence of the depraved zeitgeist. But the phenomenon itself is hardly new. For instance, “solve” as a noun is found in the 18th century, and the noun “fail” is older than “failure” (which effectively supplanted it).

“Reveal” has been used as a noun since the 16th century. Even in its narrow broadcasting context, as a term for the final revelation at the end of a show, it has been around since the 1950s.

“Ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years — though the way we most often encounter it today, with a modifier (“a big ask”), is a 1980s development.

Some grammarians are still complaining about the converse trend — nouns used as verbs, as in “He chaired the meeting” or “He gifts us” in the title of my post.  Nouns also show up as adjective, as with the “fun” in my title.  Neither trend seems terrible to me, although I wouldn’t use those particular examples in formal prose; they need to marinate a bit more.

At work, my cold-eyed editors forbid the use of install as a noun, as in “During the install you may see various messages…”  But of course lots of computer terms double as both verb and noun: “After the reboot…”, “The download may take a few minutes…”, “If the compile fails…”.    Some of those usages sound better to my ears than others.  But none of them are wrong, exactly; they are just language in the process of evolving.

In regards to the language wars

So a woman is applying for a writing job, and we ask her for additional samples. She sends an email that begins:

In regards to your request . . .

I wanted to pound my head against my monitor.  She’s a graduate of an Ivy League university, with years of experience in the writing biz.  But she never got the memo that in regards to is nonstandard.  Of course, plenty of other people haven’t gotten the memo. The usage started taking off around 1990; it’s still in the statistical noise compared to in regard to, but maybe that’s in the process of changing.

Language changes.  People who get too far out in front of the changes may sound illiterate; people who don’t keep up with the changes may sound like pedants.  At work we have our own style guide, where we have to make judgments about this sort of thing.  We certainly wouldn’t allow in regards to, but we’d probably deprecate in regard to as sounding too stuffy and prolix; why not just say concerning or about?  Every company I’ve worked for has preferred data is to data are, in spite of the grammarians’ insistence that data is the plural of datum.  Data are still wins the Ngram Viewer war, but the trend is clearly in favor of data is.

Anyway, what are we to make of The Language Wars, which is clearly on the descriptivist side of the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide?  The New Yorker writer slams the book, but I have a hard time following her argument.  At times, she seems to have read a different book from the one I read.  She says, for example, that Hitchings deplores Modern English Usage, but he does nothing of the sort.  Here is his nuanced judgment:

But while some parts of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage possess an air of both Oxonian grandeur and sub-molecular pedantry, others manifest a striking reasonableness.  He is much more flexible in his thinking than many of his admirers have seemed to imagine…. Many would demur, but Fowler enjoyable comments that ‘good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that historical grammar, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience on their side, & lack only–starch.’

He also quotes at length from Fowler’s wonderful discussion of split infinitives. His judgment of Strunk & White seems equally apt.

My judgment of Hitchings: his book gives a useful historical perspective on usage debates, and his opinions seem reasonable (although see my strongly worded dissent here).  My problem with the book is that it was often too detailed for my taste, or talked about stuff I already knew; so I ended up skimming a lot.

Hitchings is a descriptivist, in the reductive sense that he is describing something.  But theNew Yorkerwriter accuses him of some kind of hypocrisy because he knows and uses the rules he describes:

Having written chapter after chapter attacking the rules, he decides, at the end, that maybe he doesn’t mind them after all: “There are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements.” We should learn them. He has. He thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

Why is this “funny”?  The rules of English usage are historically contingent; many of them will disappear over time, and new rules will take their place.  But that hardly means that a professional writer can ignore the current state of play.

Due to inclement weather, graduation will be held indoors

The use of “due to” in this sentence is wrong, wrong, wrong. So it won’t surprise you that I misused it in one of those excerpts from my novels I posted the other day.

This brings me to an interesting essay by Steven Pinker in Slate about the latest prescriptivist/descriptivist controversy.  I’m a big Pinker fan, and I think he gets it right:

The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.


Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa.

But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.

(My cold-eyed editors would probably remove that hyphen from vice-versa, but we’ll let that pass.)

There is a bit of historical illogic in using “due to” as a prepositional phrase instead of an adjectival phrase, but it’s completely comprehensible to any reader of English.  So why should we care if it’s used as a preposition, equivalent to “because of”?  In general, we shouldn’t.  But if you’re a writer, maybe you should, because there will be a part of your audience who will think the less of you if you use “due to” in this way.  And you’re probably not good enough a writer to not care about annoying those people.

Bryan Garner, the author of Modern American Usage, has coined the term die-hard snoots to refer to the pedantic folks who care about these lost causes.  Here the Columbia Journalism Review talks about the die-hard snootiness of opposition to the prepositional “due to.”

At work recently we discussed whether we should prohibit the prepositional “due to.”  We decided that we should.  Ordinary schlubs won’t care if we use “because of” instead of “due to,” but die-hard snoots will.  And we want die-hard snoots to like us as much as ordinary schlubs; so why not make them happy?

I’ve started reading a book called The Language Wars that Pinker mentions in his essay.  I’ll let you know who wins.