“Attacks” on the language are greatly misunderstood

Last Thursday’s edition of the Irish Times included an opinion piece about the English Language. When I saw the title (“Attacks on the language are rising, basically”) I wondered what the author, David Adams, might be referring to. Was his article a damning assessment of funding for education? A protest at misplaced apostrophes, those errant marks whose ubiquity some would have you believe portends an imminent apostrophopocalypse? A penetrating analysis of contemporary Newspeak, Doublethink, and political framing, such as the redefinition of “war”?

No: Mr Adams spends almost half the article complaining about people using the word “basically” too much, while the rest is a scattershot rant about the nouning of verbs, dialectal intonation, and assorted fads and verbal ticks that annoy him. He makes a reasonable point or two near the end, but along the way he takes tiresome potshots at the “blogosphere” (his scare quotes) in “cyberspace” (mine), where “words are regularly invented, mangled or forced against their will from nouns into verbs, or vice versa” (about which more below). He concludes by having another go at “basically”. His barely suppressed rage at the utterance of this word is more than a little alarming:

Only good manners and not wanting to be thought a complete lunatic stop some of us from screaming: “There is no ‘basically’ about it. . . .”

Unwilling to suppress my own more temperate feelings about the matter, I emailed a response to the Irish Times, reprinted below. My letter (which is rather long, but shorter than it was originally) does not appear in today’s Times, though there is one short letter congratulating Mr Adams “for highlighting the abuse of ‘basically’”. At this point I’d like to refer all interested parties to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage,* whose entry on basically makes the level-headed point that “the rigorous pursuit of excising ‘basically’ does not look like an important path to better prose”.

* Freely available in the dreaded “cyberspace” or for a modest fee from any good bookshop.

Partially Clips 2009.08.04 Man At Desk

[Cartoon by PartiallyClips, with thanks to Language Log and its readers for bringing it to my attention (sometimes I go a few weeks without visiting PartiallyClips; I have no excuse).]

Here’s my letter, edited to include a few hyperlinks and the name of a book, and to exclude the formal appendages:

David Adams writes that “words are regularly invented, mangled or forced against their will from nouns into verbs, or vice versa” (“Attacks on the language are rising, basically”, Irish Times, 13 August 2009). He implies that these “attacks” are a bad thing, which they aren’t necessarily. I’m confident that Mr Adams has benefited from many a lexical invention, mangling, nouning and verbing. Poetry is especially rich in novel words and usages, while many of the best prose writers throughout history have invented and mangled words with gusto; they have nouned verbs, they have verbed nouns, and they have done far worse, with good sense and imaginative flair. But as Evelyn Waugh pointed out, “everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic”.

Some people object to new conversions, and indeed to old conversions that seem new. Some of these objections are justifiable, but many conversions become standard. Nouns that are now standard as verbs include park, distance, intrigue, silence and telephone; the reverse process has given us call, save, and kerfuffle, among countless others. Good dictionaries are full of examples. Conversion is not a new phenomenon: as Simeon Potter noted in Our Language, it became possible with the weakening of inflections in Middle English, and took off in earnest with their further loss in Modern English. Shakespeare even used window as a verb, and he is famously credited with introducing hundreds of words, if not thousands, into English literature. Some of these he invented; many he borrowed from the vernacular he heard around him.

Basically has probably lost force through overuse, but it remains an occasionally useful signal of summary or simplification. Even as a filler phrase it may serve a communicative function in speech. Thank goodness Mr Adams can resist screaming at people who use the word. Perhaps this impulse illustrates the “innate tendency towards extremism” that he recently wrote about in your paper. It can be a vicious sort of fun to indulge in pet linguistic peeves, but philological scrutiny can often undermine them. For example, traditionalists might decry as faddish the current popular use of “fail” as a noun (except for the idiomatic “without fail”), but Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift used it thus; besides, its novel usage is both efficient and entertaining, and not quite synonymous with ‘failure’.

Words do not have a will of their own, as Mr Adams suggests; they are tools of our will and our making, to do with as we please. Some people might abuse this responsibility, but language was never meant to be set in stone. It changes constantly, and it does so through its users’ hands and mouths rather than through strict adherence to grammar books. H. W. Fowler knew this, and acknowledged it in his famous dictionary. There is certainly a place for sensible guidance on usage, and there is a need for greater awareness of punctuation and grammar — but their rules are also subject to gradual revision. Finally, with regard to spelling: the spoken word is the living form of a word — it is the word itself, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it — of which its spelling is but a conventional symbolisation. Samuel Butler’s remark holds true: “most men mistake grammar for style, as they mistake correct spelling for words or schooling for education”.

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12 Responses to “Attacks” on the language are greatly misunderstood

  1. herself says:

    Stan, not having read the article by David Adams I should probably refrain from commenting but I do agree that ‘basically’ is overused (as is ‘absolutely’) and once one becomes conscious of the frequency of its usage in conversation, the more it irritates. Basically, people use it as a filler, it replaces ‘um’…’eh’…and generally opens the sentence, whereas absolutely is the show stopper, used to clinch the deal, finish the sentence, argument, discussion. Absolutely.

  2. Stan says:

    Herself: Many words are overused, and it is true that once one notices a particular word, phrase or verbal tick, it becomes ever more noticeable. But I don’t think these words and expressions are attacks on language, as Mr Adams contends. This seems an unreasonable attitude to cultivate. Better, in my opinion, to acknowledge a particular usage, investigate and analyse it if so inclined, and move on.

    Regarding the use of basically as a replacement for um or eh: on this blog a few weeks ago I linked to an interview with psychologist Jean E. Fox Tree, whose research challenges our general dismissal of filler words (and whose home page I’ve linked to in the penultimate paragraph of this post). As Clara Moskowitz writes near the end of her article, “they’re such a big part of conversational language that to deny their importance seems strange”.

    To draw a comparison with genetics: “junk DNA” was long and widely regarded as unimportant, simply because it did not code for genes. That is, its functions were unknown, so it was given a derogatory name and relegated in status. Like filler words!

  3. Fran says:

    Stan, I think there’s nothing inherently wrong in the use of ‘basically’ but as a secondary school teacher, I hear it used all the time in students doing oral assessments, for instance, to cover up a lack of preparation. They’re using it as a ‘filler’ in a very definite way! I agree with you, though, that it shouldn’t have ‘moral’ judgments placed on it. ‘Absolutely’ seems to be a way of saying ‘yes’ in an enthusiastic way, and I quite like that.

  4. Tim says:

    Hmm, I haven’t noticed an overuse of the word “basically”. Isn’t it just the same kind of filler as phrases such as “at the end of the day”, “after all” or “as I see it”, and words such as “also”, “accordingly” or possibly even “however”.

    As I see it, the word basically fits a particular role. To get all up in arms about overusage only shows dottery and contempt. And contemptuous, dottering folk will fall off the grid soon enough (only to give rise to other, equally stubborn grammar nazis). ;)

    Bring on the evolution of language, with all its netspeak and shortcuts, and turning nouns into verbs! After all, where would we be if we couldn’t email or text people?

  5. PK says:

    Good post, Stan. Note also that Adams is so dozy as to include in his blitzkrieg on the overuse of ‘basically’ a sentence that commits precisely the same sort of lexical naughtiness. “Personally, I blame politicians for reducing this fine little word to no more than a verbal tic.” Yes, Mr. Adams, and who or what do you blame non-personally? It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

  6. PK says:

    Oops. Sorry. I only just clicked through to the reader’s letter you linked, Stan. So somebody else also spotted his oh-so-banal hypocrisy then. Good.

    On a different note, I find that the use of ‘absolutely’ – like, indeed, the use of all such filler terms – is either annoying or not annoying depending on how warmly you view the person issuing it. Language is one of those rare contact sports in which you always need to play the man, not the ball…

  7. Stan says:

    Fran: Thank you, that’s an interesting observation. As a filler phrase, basically is probably more likely to appear in spoken than written English (the BNC has a great many examples, complete with ums and ers), but our reasons for resorting to it vary considerably. Absolutely does often signal enthusiastic assent, which is probably why it became so popular with sports commentators and pundits. It also reminds me of “Absolutely Fabulous”, which I absolutely don’t mind at all.

    Tim: ‘Isn’t it just the same kind of filler as phrases such as…’

    It can be. I would call “At the end of the day” a cliché – and an especially meaningless one – but there is no clear definitional boundary between clichés, filler words (or phrases), and terms that are simply overused. Nobody can stop the evolution of language, thank the gods, but we can all play a small part in steering it in helpful directions.

    PK: Thanks. I noticed Mr Adams’s (basically inoffensive) use of personally and wondered whether it was intentionally tongue-in-cheek. I guessed that it wasn’t, but I decided to stay clear of his petard and focus on challenging his misinformation. Such inconsistency is interesting, though, and almost inevitable when one sees fit to defend the English language from “plagues”, “attacks”, and presumably imminent doom. You make a good point about the subjective annoyance of certain usages, but as a professional I try to be objective…

  8. PK says:

    Yes, I wondered if perhaps he was having a laugh with the deployment of ‘personally’ too, but I think it’s clear that he wasn’t – otherwise he should have had to include a few further snatches of linguistic excess to make the gag work. Of course, maybe he’s just not much good at being funny. His naff jokes directed at Gerry Adams would certainly back up that diagnosis.

    In any event, his own prose is strewn with awkwardness. There’s a fairly superfluous comma, and overall clunky construction, in the sentence “At the start, it must have…” This sentence also contains an impromptu remark contra the bogeyman of pseudo-intellectualism, which can only be understood as the return of the repressed.

    Elsewhere, he’s missing a ‘that’ in the following sentence: “I suspect, though, I’ve only stopped noticing through being distracted by another antipodean import that appears to be gaining ground.” I know the latter is now popular and generally deemed acceptable usage but in a stickler piece decrying poor grammar you’d expect someone to at least practise what they preach.

    Ultimately, though I am loath to revert to absolutist statements, the guy is just a sodding bore. He’s in good company at The Irish Times these days.

  9. PK says:

    Actually, having read that back to myself, I realise I am the sodding bore. For that I personally blame the toxic vapours of the blogosphere.

  10. Stan says:

    PK: Open the windows! I don’t want anyone poisoning themselves on my watch.

    The non-existent that you mention might have gone missing at the editing stage; I suspect, though, that it didn’t.

  11. [...] in language is set in stone. I find this awesome. So whence the joyless peevology, the empty outrage over nounings, neologisms, and colloquialisms? Frank Palmer wrote in Grammar: “What is correct [...]

  12. [...] to switch off if he (I think it’s a he) hears Ben say basically or essentially even once. (See my previous post about basically-fulmination.) Jan’s excellent language blog, Throw Grammar from the Train, is [...]

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