I am loathe to criticize anyone but . . .

I have a somewhat respectable day job in which I’m supposed to oversee a couple dozen highly experienced writers.  In the past week, two different writers have sent me emails containing a sentence like the following:

I am loathe to make any changes to the content at this late date.

I generally don’t like pointing out mistakes in emails.  We’re always writing fast; we don’t don’t have time to go back and edit what we’ve written.  But for some reason I decided to point out to one of the writers that the word she should have used was loath.  She responded:

I’m so sorry!  I thought both words were one in the same.

One in the same!  I started to get a pit in my stomach.  Was the language changing without my even noticing?  Or should I start getting more persnickety about emails?

Language Peevery

The Atlantic reports on the latest outrage: Google recognizes that literally is often used to mean figuratively in informal speech.

In August, the outcry began. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked The Guardian. The Web site io9 announced “literally the greatest lexicographical travesty of our time,” while The Week bemoaned “the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done.” The offense? Google’s second definition of the word literally, which had been posted on Reddit: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

Here’s the offending entry.  You actually have to click the “more” down arrow to view the Informal definition.


I hadn’t realized that Google now includes a use-over-time graph, previously available only via their Ngram Viewer.  What a great idea!  The graph shows the problem: our use of the word keeps increasing, which means “incorrect” uses are increasing as well.  Which annoys the language snoots.  We like literally!

The article includes a good quote from Steven Pinker:

“There’s probably also a feeling of anxiety when a shared standard appears to be threatened,” explains Steven Pinker, a language expert and psychology professor at Harvard. “Human cooperation depends on common knowledge of arbitrary norms, which can suddenly unravel. If the norms of language were truly regulated by an authority, this would be a concern. In fact, they emerge by a self-adjusting consensus.”

These arbitrary norms persist as what Wilson Follett called “shibboleths” — norms or principles that are useful only in distinguishing the “insiders” from the “outsiders”.  We know the real meaning of literally, even if you unwashed peasants persist in misusing it.

Punctuation marks as words slash sounds slash gestures

Young people nowadays?  They end their sentences with a rising intonation?  So that every sentence sounds sort of like a question?

So, I was listening to a woman on a podcast, and she was describing her mixed feelings about a movie:

“I liked it — question mark?”

She felt the need to verbalize the punctuation mark, because her typical speech pattern couldn’t convey her doubt about whether she actually liked the movie — because every sentence she spoke seemed to convey a bit of doubt anyway.

Another punctuation mark that gets verbalized is the slash used as a conjunction, as in “I walked/ran all the way home.”  But I hadn’t realized how far this had gone until my son sent me this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Slash has become a word used in everyday writing as well as speech — a new conjunction or conjunctive adverb.  The following usage is straightforward: the word is just substituting for the punctuation mark:

Does anyone care if my cousin comes and visits slash stays with us Friday night?

But the following usage, as the author points out, is more interesting:

I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?

Or even:

JUST SAW ALEX! Slash I just chubbed on oatmeal raisin cookies at north quad and i miss you

Here slash has wandered far from the standard use of the equivalent punctuation mark.  It is introducing an afterthought or topic shift, without much in the way of a relationship to the previous sentence.  That’s super-cool and awesome!  (The word chubbed is also super-cool and awesome, by the way.)

The writer concludes:

The emergence of a new conjunction/conjunctive adverb (let alone one stemming from a punctuation mark) is like a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language. This use of slash is so commonplace for students in my class that they almost forgot to mention it as a new slang word this term. That young people have integrated innovative slash into their language while barely noticing its presence is all the more reason that conjunctive slash might have staying power.

All of this reminded me of Victor Borge’s famous phonetic pronunciation routine, which YouTube kindly provides:

Life would be much more interesting if we all talked like that.

Bad words from yesteryear

Here’s an interesting little post from the American Heritage Dictionary about words that a substantial percentage of its Usage Panel frowned upon in the mid-1960s. They include balding, choreograph, senior citizen, divorce (as an intransitive verb), and upcoming.

Reading these early ballot results has an oddly disorienting effect, standing as a vivid reminder that creeping changes in the English language have been going on constantly throughout our lives, often without our even noticing. All of the usages listed above have become so commonplace that we don’t bother to ballot them anymore, or to include usage notes for them in the dictionary. No doubt many of the usages that are widely condemned today will, in turn, quietly work their way into standard usage, until one day we’ll wonder why anyone ever objected to them.

I would just quibble with two of the words.

Balding has always struck me as an odd word; it sure looks like the present participle of the verb to bald.  But there is no such verb!  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I have used the word to describe a character–the word is useful!  But I would never do it without a twinge of guilt.

Senior citizen is, I suppose, a phrase in good standing, but it only feels right to me it in certain contexts, like TV news reports, where euphemisms are more or less expected.  You would never use it in fiction to describe a character, except maybe ironically.

I have written before about words and phrases that seem to be in the process of changing, like jive as a synonym for jibe, and “I have a pit in my stomach” for “I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.”  Let me add the transitive use of the verb graduate, as in, “When I graduate college, I’m going to become an English teacher.”  Interestingly, the battle used to be fought over the active vs. passive usage of graduate: “He graduated from college” vs. “He was graduated from college.”  Who exactly is doing the graduating?  That battle appears to have been lost, although you could still say: “The college graduated 300 seniors last Saturday.”

Is the language falling apart, or is it just changing?

Is that province “restive” or “resistive”?

A Washington Post article reprinted in today’s Boston Globe refers to Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province as resistive.  But the same article in the Post itself uses the more expected word restive.  What’s up with that?

Restive is a tough word–it provides you with two different ways to get it wrong.  Language mavens will tell us that it isn’t a synonym for restless–it means “difficult to control,” not “fidgety.”  But I’ve also seen it used as a synonym for restful.  Here, for example, we have an online thread about what to do when you’re able to get to sleep but your sleep isn’t “restive.”

The Globe seems to want to eliminate the confusion by changing the word to resistive, presumably meaning resistant, which I suppose also fits Baluchistan.  The dictionary will give you that definition for resistive, but it seems to be used that way mostly in technical contexts.  Of course maybe the Globe didn’t make the change.  It’s also possible the writers themselves used resistive; the Post corrected it, but the Globe didn’t bother.  Either way, this is probably one of those substitutions that show a word is on the way out.  The Google Ngram Viewer tells us that restive peaked in popularity around 1930 and has been on a downward slide ever since.  It’s a useful word, but it’s time may have passed.

As they are want to do

I came across this mangling of the standard “as they are wont to do” in an award-winning book published by a mainstream publisher and written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.  (On the same page “pretension” came out “pretention.”)  I don’t recall encountering this usage before, but a Google search turns up 382,000 of ’em.  Plus 2.6 million occurrences of its cousin “as is their want”–this one actually outpolls “as is their wont,” which garners only 558,000 usages. (Google helpfully asks me if it didn’t really mean to search for “as is their want.”)  So this is an idiom that seems to be having an identity crisis.  I have a pit in my stomach just thinking about it.

Marry merry Mary?

Here are some beautiful maps showing the way pronunciation and usage vary across America.

For me, the oddest result was the map showing that I live in a small area of the country that pronounce Mary, marry, and merry differently.  Can that be right?  Of course they’re all pronounced differently!  On the other hand, I can’t hear any difference between Don and dawn, which I read somewhere are obviously different.

I was also baffled by a couple of regionalisms that they omitted.  There’s a map showing regional variations in the word used for soda, but they don’t include tonic for New England.  I suppose that usage is dying out.  But the word rotary for roundabout or traffic circle isn’t dying out.  Why don’t we get credit for that? Look, we even put the name on signs:

A rotary in Lowell, Massachusetts.

(There is an absurdly long Wikipedia article about roundabouts.  Someone must really care about them.)

The bell tolls for “whom”

Here is a nice essay about the inevitable decline and fall of “whom,” a word that continues to exist only to trip people up and make them feel stupid. The Google Ngram Viewer for “whom” shows a decline of about 75% from its peak in 1820 or so to today.  But why?

One explanation is that the word has outlived its ability to fulfill the most important function of language: to clarify and specify. Another is that its subject/object distinction can be confusing to the point of frustrating. The most immediate reason, though, is that whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them. Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a “pompous twerp.”

The writer quotes William Safire about what a writer should do about the word: “The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence.”

It’s annoying that “whom” continues to bedevil us when there are so many words that we need but that don’t yet exist.  Here are just a few:

  • A gender-neutral singular word for “they” and “them” instead of the atrocious “s/he” and the wordy “him or her”
  • A word like “either” that applies to more than two choices
  • A word for someone you are living with who is more than your girlfriend or boyfriend and less than your fiancée or spouse or (ugh) life partner

These words would make a writer’s life a whole lot better.  Whom can I talk to about coming up with them?

“It changes the whole complexity.”

Recently the polling group Public Policy Polling (PPP) polled Massachusetts residents about the upcoming senate race, and threw in other random questions while they were at it.  PPP found that the disapproval rate for Red Sox manager was 1%, an inconceivably low number.  This may change if he keeps saying stuff like this (from today’s Boston Globe) about Jacoby Ellsbury’s base-stealing ability:

It changes the whole complexity. When you’ve got that kind of base-stealing threat at first, the attention is split by the guy on the mound, potential mistakes on location at the plate. We can potentially capitalize on those situations.

The baseball wisdom is unexceptionable; however, the use of “complexity” instead of “complexion” will not win him any fans among language snoots. The Red Sox had better do well against the Yankees this weekend.  Red Sox fans, as well as language snoots, are a fickle bunch.

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.