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The Word

Thou shalt not worry about it

Stern commandments of language use crumble

By Jan Freeman
June 7, 2009
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For a while there, it looked as if the Internet's chief contribution to English usage would be misinformation, spread farther and faster than ever before. Remember "Life in the 1600s," that catalogue of just-so stories purporting to explain phrases like "raining cats and dogs" and "sleep tight"? Then we had the women-talk-more-than-men myth, and now we await the "millionth word" in English, arriving tomorrow, if the often-revised prediction holds {hellip} oops, no - it's been postponed again.

More insidiously, the Web is a wonderful place to vent about language that happens to annoy you. Peeveblogging, as Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has named it, is ideally suited to the medium. Instead of boring your friends with your obsession, you put up a blog devoted to misuses of literally, or apostrophe protection, or business buzzwords. Commenters, too, now have a safe place to show off their peeves. Quote, bemoan, repeat at the next thread, ad infinitum.

No doubt this is a logical development, since peevology has long been the dominant tradition in usage advice. Since the 1860s, when Richard Grant White held forth on the evils of stand-point and aggravate, American usage mavens have been spreading the word to an insecure and socially mobile nation: avoid loan as a verb, shun contact, renounce hopefully, and you just might pass for a person of taste and education.

But the Era of Nitpicking won't last forever, and lately I've seen some signs that it might be losing its momentum. One bit of recent evidence: In April, a New York Times blog invited readers to post their pet peeves, and of course they did. But one Canadian language columnist read it, and instead of piling on, called a timeout.

Norbert Cunningham, who writes "Lex Talk" for the Times & Transcript of Moncton, New Brunswick, responded to the Times's litany of complaints with a column headlined "If you air language peeves, try to get it right." Not only were readers' nits "a seemingly endless list of mostly predictable responses," Cunningham said, but a number of them - like banning over for more than - were "demonstrably wrong! {hellip} At some time, some teacher drilled into their heads a bit of nonsense and they've never questioned it."

And as I looked around, I realized that anyone inclined to resist the crowdpeeving impulse can easily find support these days. Leading the resistance are the linguistics bloggers, doing their best to explain language change and usage from a scientific and historical point of view, rather than just reinforce readers' prejudices. Language Log, by a group of linguists, is the big cheese, but there are more than a dozen reader-friendly sites from scholars and journalists willing to take on the conventional wisdom.

The landscape is changing for the traditional usage mavens, too. James Kilpatrick, a syndicated columnist for decades, retired in January after one last go at persuading readers of the supreme importance of the placement of only. William Safire does less scolding every year, and it was never truly his shtick; he defended the sentence-adverb use of hopefully way back in 1979, when his "On Language" column was new.

Patricia O'Conner mostly hewed to tradition in her 1996 usage book, "Woe Is I," though in the second edition she reversed herself and allowed hopefully. But last month, she and her husband published "Origins of the Specious," a book enumerating all the baseless rules and legends of English usage. Mignon Fogarty, of the "Grammar Girl" podcasts, is also fairly traditional, and she deeply prefers to give one right answer (as befits a podcast called "Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing"). But she mentions dissenting views, and even footnotes sources, including the essential Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. And her text is posted, with comments, so counter-arguments can be promptly displayed.

I don't expect the nitpicking habit to disappear overnight, and I certainly don't expect teachers to admit that lay and lie will confuse humankind forever, or until some chance mutation gives us brains that can handle the distinction. Not everyone who wants to learn standard English will pick it up without a few pointers.

And it may be that our need to bond with other nitpickers is just too strong to be suppressed. In his new book "The Years of Talking Dangerously," linguist Geoff Nunberg recalls how he learned in seventh grade to roll his eyes at usage errors. There was the "chestnut about literally that my Mrs. Bosch performed for three generations of middle-schoolers: ' "The senator literally exploded with laughter." And who cleaned up the mess?' " The sarcasm is sophomoric, sure, but "it answers to a simple desire for communion with others who know better."

Still, there's no law against outgrowing this adolescent stage and moving on to a higher level of smugness. After all, you can feel even more superior when you've learned the complicated facts of English usage that they don't teach in seventh grade.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.