‘Not a word’ is not an argument

“The word is not a clearly definable linguistic unit. . . . what the word is or is not depends ultimately on our total view of grammar.” – Frank Palmer, in Grammar

“Language is a configurable space on the order of a continuum, therefore expandible in any as yet unbroached direction.” – Golem, the great computer in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude

Irregardless, supposably, ain’t, impactful, unfriend, defriend, guesstimate, disincentivise, menteeprobletunity, orientate, loginned… Do these words make you twitchy? Would you say some of them are not words?

Orientate is probably less reviled, but some people still reject its lexical status. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, a blog at Discover Magazine, writer Ed Yong began a recent post about avian magnetoreception with the following line:

Some birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and orientate themselves with the ease of a compass needle.

He goes on to describe how robins “orientated themselves” (simple past tense) under controlled conditions and “became disorientated” (participial adjective) if their right eye was covered. It’s fascinating research, and Yong does an admirable job of explaining the science behind the remarkable phenomenon of magnetoreception, but I want to focus on the bizarre and hostile reaction to his use of the word orientate. The second comment to his post is:

‘Orientate’ is not a word.

Just like that. Never mind how birds see magnetic fields — orientate is “not a word”. Comment number 8 goes beyond flat dismissal to outright abuse, calling orientate and disorientate “simply moronic”. This commenter, who uses the anonymous but revealing name “Jocular Pedant”, elaborates as follows:

Constructing a word with additional unnecessary syllables is ALWAYS awkward, and is never the preferred usage, no matter what country you are from.

This, in case you’re wondering, is rubbish. To cite one example, which was supplied in a subsequent comment: the trisyllabic burglarize is preferred to the tidy burgle in American English.

A post I wrote last year about the differences and similarities between orient and orientate shows that despite being widely censured in AmE, orientate is standard in BrE, has been around since the mid-19thC, and has been used by careful writers for decades.

But history and sense are rarely allowed to interfere with peeving. By comment 17, Ed Yong has had enough:

Robins can literally see magnetic fields with their right eye, and some people are more interested in discussing the usage of orient vs. orientate. This is like standing with one’s back at a sunset in order to stare at one’s shoes.

In his position, I’d have been impatient with some of the comments too. I wouldn’t compare an interest in usage with staring at one’s shoes instead of a sunset, but I don’t think this is quite what he meant: Ed told me by email that he finds linguistics fascinating, and that he’s happy to have errors pointed out — but not to be told he’s wrong when he has used an accepted usage, and when erroneous nitpicking hinders discussion of exciting scientific research.

.

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If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s “not a word”, you can reasonably assume that they mean it’s not a word they like, not a word they would use, not a word in standard usage, not a word in a certain dictionary, not a suitable word for the context, and so on. There’s a difference, and it matters.

In a rousing rant at Language Log some years ago, linguist Arnold Zwicky emphatically denounced this form of dogma:

I’ve been hearing this “not a word” bullshit since I was a kid, usually applied to non-standard ain’t and taboo fuck . . . . It mystified me then, and it angers me now. It’s (literally) superhyperbolic, two steps of exaggeration beyond reality, and it’s insulting.

If you’re thinking, “superhyperbolic isn’t a word”, you’re losing ground. Take a deep breath, then take irregardless. Some people will tell you it’s not a word, but of course it is; it’s just currently non-standard. A word might be considered awkward, confusing, silly, or likely to discredit its user, but these criticisms warrant reasoned arguments to back them up, not dictatorial denial. I don’t care for irregardless, but I’ll defend its right to be said.

Along similar lines, a more elaborate web page is ‘“Login” is not a verb’. Again, login is not a verb I would use — log in seems better formed and less susceptible to problems with conjugation — but absolute pronouncements on what is or isn’t a verb are ill-judged, because every word can potentially be verbed. For a more nuanced and commonsensical look at login as a verb, see Mark Liberman’s dose of perspective that’s in striking contrast to the peevers’ invective:

I probably wouldn’t use “loginned” or “loginning” myself, but not much in the fate of the world seems to depend on the question of whether these usages catch on or not.

The not-a-verb template is extended here. Readers are introduced to a list of other “words that are not verbs”, and are invited to “pick one of the non-verbs about which this site knows”. I can’t decide whether this phrase is deliberately ungainly or a good example of how people forsake clarity to avoid breaking what they imagine to be important grammatical rules (in this case stranding a preposition). As I’ve shown before, automatic deference to dubious pseudo-rules is associated with substandard prose and a penchant for dogma.

The “not a word” brigade are legion. Browsing the internet, I see countless examples of peeving, pouting and petulant proscribing: ain’t is “not a word”; funnest, “not a word”; mentee, umm, anyways, misremembered, even blog: “not a word”. These judgements are sometimes underlined with definitely, obviously and their weasely ilk. Weaselly, if you prefer; both are words!

There’s a Facebook group called Chillax is not a word for a reason (“Chillax promises to be the new milleniums [sic] most embarrassing invention”), and one called Guesstimate is Not a Word — for “the enlightened class of people who realize that there is no middle ground between a guess and an estimate”.

That sudden whiff in the air is not the subtle aroma of enlightenment.

Word aversion and word hatred are an aesthetic indulgence; word denial is a different beast. Why the cranky resolve to outlaw disliked words? From what imaginary realm do people conjure the authority to decide what’s acceptable? And how do peevers cope with the Nadsat in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, or the idiosyncratic hyperinvention of Joyce’s later novels, to name just a few well-known literary examples?

Wordnik, by contrast, has “all the words”. Type in a clump of letters, be it a valid construction or not, and you’ll arrive at a page for that word. If you enter a made-up word, you’re unlikely to find information on it, and it probably won’t become part of the common lexicon, but who knows. In a casual conversation last night I used the word judgy, meaning judgemental. I’d never used or thought of it before; it just came out mid-sentence and made convenient sense (I hope). Nor, having said it, did I think I was the first to use it, and I’m happy to confirm this. Whimsical affixation comes naturally to us, and the effects can be morphogasmic.

Neologisms, jargon, and words that shift function (e.g. verbings) attract particular condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by tolerating them long enough to assess them without prejudice, we can reorient(ate) ourselves to new linguistic possibilities. Peevers: criticise pet-hate words if you must, but don’t assume that you’re right and that people who use them are lesser beings. Repressive lexi-quibbling overlooks the fact that language is fiercely playful and productive. It invites our creativity. Wordnik’s Erin McKean put it succinctly: “If it seems wordish, use it.”

* * *

Updates:

Johnson, the excellent language blog at The Economist, has followed up on this post, noting my “defiant evocation of Evelyn Beatrice Hall” and explaining that The Economist maintains a strict style guide primarily for consistency and because expressions in new or niche usage might not be understood by a wider audience. This makes perfect sense. I’m fully in favour of style guides: they promote a degree of internal uniformity that helps reduce both confusion in readers and headaches in editors. Incidentally, you can compare advice between various style guides on this handy website.

Johnson finds that I “[skate] over the fact that such debates are most often just a proxy for ad hominem attacks”; that “when people criticise non-words, it’s usually just a lazy way to criticise their users”. Fair point, though I don’t know if I agree with the “usually” bit. I’ve ranted along these lines before — such as in this post about peeving and its possible motivations, where I investigated the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ language, and suggested that dubious usage advice springs from laziness, triumphalism, social anxiety and snobbery, automatic deference to tradition, and so forth. Some of that might apply to the not-a-word crew too.

Finally, at least for now, Johnson wrote a subsequent post in which it describes Wordnik memorably as “the dictionary of pure existence”, a site that provides “a wonderful view of what a living, breathing thing the English language is”. Maybe it’s not a word, but to this I say: +1.

Mark Peters, in GOOD magazine, concurs:

Even if a word bugs the living crap out of you, it’s still a word. Just ignore the small percentage of words that are annoying and focus on the enormous, fertile possibilities of English to create new words in any given situation or sentence. The fertility of English should be enjoyed.

Update, Feb. 2013:

Revisiting this post a few years later, I find a lot of it holds up but I think I erred on the side of leniency. So I’ve written a little more on the topic, in ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways:

Typos can become real words, as teh and pwn did, but more usually production errors are too infrequent to become even quasi-normal. A string like, say, errorw is not a proper word, and whether it’s “real” is a semantic/ontological side-issue. Qkrghrbgyw is not a word and is unlikely ever to be.

[Cartoons by Hans Stengel and Doug Savage; more on avian magnetoreception & peevology.]

82 Responses to ‘Not a word’ is not an argument

  1. ALiCe__M says:

    “Just like that. Never mind how birds see magnetic fields.” AHA ! enjoyed this, all the more so as, with its latin root, it does not annoy me in the least : orienter, s’orienter, in French, *are* words. So “orientate”, not a word ? why ? Oh and I love “savage chickens” cartoons too.

  2. fuzzarelly says:

    I have already forgotten where I found your blog, but I am enjoying it a lot. I love words, and I love the history of English, and I was delighted some time ago to discover the two, (are there more?) types of linguists; the descriptive and the proscriptive. I tend to be more descriptive and am glad that you are, too.

    I have wondered about “orient” and “orientate.” Thank you.

    Oh, and being southern by birth, I sometimes make up words. Unmessify, for cleaning. Sometimes, it just sounds perfect to describe the situation.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Yes, this is all very well but how do you cover a robin’s right eye? With a patch?

  4. John Cowan says:

    And here I thought chillax was going to be not-a-word because it was the trademarked name of a drain cleaner or something. ~~ sigh ~~

    Insert how -ate is not-a-morpheme here (or is a morpheme with zero semantics): there simply is no reason why we have prepare and not *preparate in English, or per contra separate and not *separe.

  5. Gabe says:

    But Stan, it’s still not a word! I’m going to ignore all of the interesting points you’ve made until you admit this completely absurd claim I’ve made!

    Kidding, of course. Amazing stuff you’ve done here, as always.

  6. Stan says:

    Alice: I think orientate annoys people who want to be annoyed, or who live in a dialectal echo chamber. Savage Chickens can be very funny; I had a great time going through the archives recently.

    fuzzarelly: Welcome, and thank you. I think there are as many types of linguist as there are linguists, but descriptivism and prescriptivism are a useful rough division of people’s attitudes to usage. As I wrote elsewhere, I incline towards descriptivism but I have prescriptivist tendencies that I apply as appropriate. When I’m editing, for example. Unmessify is a fine word! Looking around me, there are parts of this room that could use some unmessification.

    Jennifer: Ha! Sort of: the researchers used goggles with clear foil on one side and frosted foil on the other. Ed Yong describes them as “unflattering”.

    John: It sounds as though it could be! Drain cleaner, I mean. I don’t much like chillax or chillaxin’ but I couldn’t justify banishing them. Thanks for the *preparate and *separe examples; I’m surprised that I haven’t yet seen either of these in the wild. When I do, I’ll be sure to conversate about it.

    Gabe: Thanks very much. You almost had me going for a moment.

  7. Thought-provoking as always, Stan! I was taken aback in the first paragraph by the presence of ‘probletunity’, though. Ugh! I have a suspicion that there are people, primarily American, who seem to love jamming words together (‘frankensteining’ them, if you will) to create ungainly hybrids to be used in Management Speak. And “chillax” is bloody awful. I think there’s a difference between new words or usages, like ‘texting’, that arise natural out of slang or a new form of technology or whatever – words that evolve organically – and words that sound like they were contrived by a committee to fill a gap that wasn’t there in the first place

  8. It;s oretty pathetic to focus on a word (which is fine by me for what it’s worth) and ignore an important discovery.

    Then again when someone talks about DNA and doesn’t mean Deoxyribonuclic Acid and I am ready to to tell them to go forth and multiply even if the person has just proposed an easy solution for all of the world’s ills!

  9. Anne says:

    What a great post! Truly enjoy your blog!

  10. Ed Yong says:

    Superb job, Stan. I drank in every word, real or not ;-)

  11. I rather like “chillax” and “probletunity” in casual contexts — but that’s probably because I’m an American and therefore lack taste or judgment (“judgement” is not a word!) ;)

  12. Tim says:

    I think it is still more common for us to use login as a verb, but to break it apart again for different tenses; as in: logged in, logging in, etc. In English, when we form new verbs, they tend to follow regular rules. Take, for example, the verb “to text” (to type and send a text message via cellphone). It should ultimately follow regular forms: texted, texting, texter. And yet all too often I hear people use the infinitive form of this recently coined verb for past tense usage (“I text my mum”). In my eyes, this is wrong; and yet perhaps as the word embeds itself deeper into our language, the irregularity of it will become the more accepted use.

    In Japanese, to form a new verb, you simply add the verb for “do” – the action verb, suru. This follows set rules and is considered by itself to be one of the three irregular verbs in the language. It makes it very easy to determine how to use a verb in any of its forms because you are simply tacking “suru” onto a noun. Going back to the login example, in Japanese you could say, “login shiteimasu”, meaning “logging in” (they adopt many foreign words into the language – especially computer terminology and the like – and are big fans of portmanteaus). It could also, technically, be literally translated as “loginning”.

    Things make a bit more sense in Japanese when it comes to adopting new verbs into the language. And it doesn’t sound strange at all to change the form of a verb that has not had much time to settle into the language.

    I seldom write “ain’t” like that. Since it is such a mutilation of the original form, it’s easier (more facetious) to just drop the apostrophe anyway. Aint gonna bother me, irregardlessly, yo. :p

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    The truthiness of your post delights me as always. I had a nitpicker friend who would constantly stop my midflow mutterings to tell me I had ill-used “hopefully” as usual and it was ‘not a word’ when I so abused it.
    Alrighty then.
    And on a similar vein I have done public readings and it never fails to annoy me when people tell me they just love my Oirish accent and could I say something else, please? Ask them what I read and they haven’t a clue.
    XO
    WWW

  14. Stan says:

    Doubtful: I enjoy frankensteining words, but I try not to overdo it or to take Dilberty coinages like probletunity too seriously. This example remains rare, thank goodness, though somehow it doesn’t sound as bad as it looks. Meant jocularly, it can be fun; spoken in earnest, it more easily grates. In an earlier post, I described management jargon’s effect of leaving me torn between fascination, mild horror, and the urge to fall suddenly, disgustedly asleep. That’s productivity meetings for you.

    Jams: Yes. To me it suggested a mean-spirited pettiness and a screwy sense of priority. I think your aversion to figurative DNA must be in your genes!

    Anne: Thanks very much — I’m glad you enjoy it!

    Ed: I appreciate that, and I liked your defenderises.

    Andrea: :-) Context seems to have a lot to do with it. Used light-heartedly among friends, chillax and the like are more likely (though far from certain) to provoke a grin than a groan.

    Tim: I prefer your “tend to follow regular rules” than your later “should ultimately follow regular forms”! Sometimes a word bucks the trend, as snuck did, and it doesn’t do the language a bit of harm. For more on login as a verb, the discussion at Language Log is very sane and interesting. Some people I know say text where I would say texted, or sent a text message, etc., but after a little deliberate adjustment I was fine with text. Ben Zimmer wrote an excellent article about it at Word Routes.

    WWW: Hopefully you two are still friends, despite the inane interruptions. If you have the time and inclination to read more about hopefully, you’ll enjoy Gabe’s post and the entry in MWDEU. It must be frustrating to have people so charmed by your Corkness that they overlook the content of your readings, but I imagine it’s also flattering in a way. Maybe you could turn it to your advantage?

    rudhro: Thanks for reading!

  15. Brian Harris says:

    Beautitudinous post. The glorious thing about language is the manner in which it is always evolvulating, including not just neologisms but words that shift their meaning (nice, wicked etc). I am particularly amused by those words that are used incorrectly so often that their definition has shifted to accommodate the wrongfulness (for example disinterested to mean neutral, and hopefully to mean “with luck”). If enough people are wrong, does that change a word’s definition?

    Pedants demonstrate a certain lack of imagination when confronted with such cases. All words must have appeared at some point in history, and no doubt for each one, there was someone on the sidelines carping that “that’s not a word.”

  16. Brian Harris says:

    Oops. In my post above: Obviously “disinterested” does technically mean “neutral” rather than its common usage to indicate apathy. D’oh. (And d’oh is most definitely a word)

  17. goofy says:

    Great post. I love that cartoon by Hans Stengel.

  18. Stan says:

    goofy: Thanks very much. I love the cartoon too, for its style as much as its message.

    Brian: Well said. Semantic drift fascinates me too, and you’re right that it can be a major sticking point for sticklers. For example, some people keep insisting contrarily that decimate can only mean kill one in ten and cannot mean destroy or destroy most of. They’re overdue an update.

    Your question, “If enough people are wrong, does that change a word’s definition?” gets to the heart of the matter. My short answer would be ‘Yes’, with a few caveats concerning the why, where, and how many. I’d like to think this is common sense, but compare my position, for what it’s worth, with the exclusivity of the Queen’s English Society:

    ‘At a conservative estimate, it can be said that some 90% of the English mother-tongue people who use this word [different] use it wrongly. Even if that were to rise to 100%, their use would still be wrong because there are some very basic and logical reasons why that is so.

    Most British people say “different to” and most Americans say “different than” and they are all wrong because the ONLY correct form is “different FROM”. We shall now explain why “from” is the only correct preposition to be used with “different” and why “to” is wrong and “than” is ridiculous.’

    It continues along those pompous lines. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the Queen’s English Society’s extreme prescriptivism, so I’ll not do so again now, except to say that the passage I’ve quoted strikes me as absurd and antisocial — and unimaginative, as you say of anti-change pedantry in general.

  19. Kcecelia says:

    Excellent piece. I have been distressed by the tendency to proscribe rather than describe new words in our language. I am interested in when those who reject a word in use in a changing language feel it is legitimate for the not-a-word to matriculate to full word status.

  20. Szwagier says:

    Surely all this newordification is just the trickle-down effect of wrathful dispersionism.

  21. Stan says:

    Kcecelia: Thanks! In many cases the proscription of new forms seems to be a knee-jerk reaction without a sound basis in reason. As John E. McIntyre puts it, “You know damn well what that word means; you just don’t like it.” I understand this attitude in a way, because I used to be rather less tolerant, linguistically speaking, than I am now.

    Szwagier: Perhaps it is. And thank you — I enjoyed that piece.

  22. jessamyn says:

    Indeed! Though I will still rely on this argument for Scrabble.

  23. Carina says:

    I really appreciate that you make the distinction between disliking a word as an aesthetic choice and denying its validity. As a former writing-tutor-grammar-nitpicker turned descriptive linguist, I used to get a lot more het up about “incorrect” usage than I do now. There are still things I *dislike*, because I think they sound ugly, or because they are imprecise without (I feel) just cause, but that’s my personal taste and should not have any bearing on how I assess a person’s ideas, intelligence or character.

  24. shinobi42 says:

    I often think that people like to claim that words are not valid because it makes them feel somehow smart. One party has used a word that the other party is unfamiliar with, and since the second party is obviously an individual of high intelligence they are forced by their own vast intellect to inform the first part that the word that has been used is in fact somehow invalid.

    I think the only time that language in a colloquial context is truly wrong is when the audience for a given statement are unable to understand the precise meaning of what is being said. I think the relevant question in all instances of word use quibbling is the following: “Was I able to grasp the meaning of what was being stated?”

    If yes, then who cares if it is a word or not. The purpose of words is to convey meaning, not to exist as a vehicle for our own egos or as a celestial vessel containing the essence of a finite meaning.

  25. I don’t frequently say “not a word”, but I often think it.

    I believe there are two categories of word that you have identified here. ‘orient’ and ‘orientate’ are different words with established histories. Phonetically there is even a case to be made that ‘orientate’ might be *more* expressive when describing what the robins are doing, since they are establishing their http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientation_(mental) rather than simply pointing at something.

    The etymology of “log in” is antiquated. There is no longer a “log” somewhere which you are putting your signature in. “loginning” sounds awkward to my ear (I wouldn’t use it) but it is semantically aligned with the activity of “logging in” as a verb by itself, untethered from any superfluous noun. “unfriend” also falls into this category: there’s an activity that needs describing, that is a new and unfamiliar part of daily life in our modern society, and so a new word crops up. That’s fine. (What’s the alternative to “unfriend” anyway? “Remove the connecting edge between myself and so-and-so on a social networking website”? Who on earth would expect kids to go around talking or writing like that?)

    But then there are words like “supposably” and “irregardless” which are, honestly, not words. (I hope my beginning of a sentence with a conjunction establishes my anti-prescriptivist credentials.)

    The problem with these morphological turds is not that I don’t like their meaning, or that they’re redundant, but that the speaker or writer frequently does not know exactly what they mean by them.

    My experience with “supposably” is that it is often expressed by someone who has misheard or is mispronouncing “supposedly”, but equally often expressed by someone who has heard the other variety of speaker and believed that, since the word sounds different, it means something different and therefore carries a subtly different implication. Your of interpretation “irregardless” as a portmanteau of “irrespective” and “regardless” is intriguing, but it seems unlikely to be true. If anything it is probably a portmanteau of “um, uh, err” and “regardless”. I seriously doubt that most users of “irregardless” have such a nuanced interpretation, or indeed, any interpretation at all. (It doesn’t help that both of these are words are often used by people use to try to *sound* smart because they think that they’re long, vague words like the ones that “smart” people use, or like they’ve thought hard and considered what they’re talking about, when they actually haven’t.)

    When I use the “not a word” admonition, what I mean is “I don’t know what that sound or sequence of letters meant in that context, and I seriously doubt you do either”. If a speaker uses a vague word or a redundant word or a dumb-sounding word then I’ll say so, but a real unword is not one that I’m having a hard time with, it’s one that I think the speaker doesn’t really consider to express an idea either. Have you ever heard a sentence that would be made *less* clear, or less expressive, by just getting rid of the “supposably”, or “irregardless”, or “probly”, or “anyways”? I don’t think I have.

  26. ACLS says:

    This is a great post, but the bit about “blog” not being a word was so strange that I had to click through to the Google query, and most of the results are complaints about slow-on-the-draw spell checker word libraries. I don’t doubt that people have challenged the validity of the word on account of it being new and them not liking it and all, but it seems like a hard case to make, since it uniquely describes an important thing that didn’t exist before. If it isn’t in all the dictionaries yet, it will be soon.

    If you haven’t seen Conan O’Brien’s hilarious comeuppance of Rebecca Romijn over the validity of the word “snuck” I highly recommend it! It’s at the 2:04 mark here.

    Also I found Jennifer’s attempt to derail a conversation about word legitimacy with a question about the eyesight of robins to be wonderfully ironic.

  27. Stan says:

    jessamyn: That’s entirely fair. Scrabble and other games rely on explicit rules of acceptability.

    Carina: This matches my own feelings about it quite closely. I used to be more inclined to nitpick, but I wised up. Emotional and aesthetic reactions to words are natural; the trouble arises when these feelings are mistaken for rules or truth, and used to belittle or abuse people, or for dispute’s own sake.

    shinobi42: Yes, communication is key. Language peeving seems to result from psychological hang-ups more than from linguistic data.

    Glyph: Some people prefer defriend to unfriend, but the latter seems likely to prevail. I’m not very fond of irregardless, but some people find it more emphatic than regardless. It has never interfered with my understanding of what’s being said, and I don’t see how it might. Nor do I understand how you get from disliking it to deciding that it’s not a word, when it most definitely is.

    ACLS: Blog‘s right to exist is rejected less than the other words I mentioned, but it happens. I’m sorry that the Google-search hyperlink was more noise than signal. See here for a good example: ‘”Blog” is not a word. I have no idea what it is, but the sound hurts my ears.’ This limber leap in logic is from a comment on a blog, and the infrequency of this particular peeve doesn’t make it less remarkable.

    Thanks for the recommendation regarding snuck. I included a short video of Conan’s triumph in a recent post about snuck, to which I also linked in the final paragraph of the post. Jennifer’s comment made me giggle.

  28. d_Taoist says:

    I agree with what you say here, but I have a question that goes to the other side of the argument: if we don’t keep the language to some standard, don’t we run the risk of making the language kind of useless? (if by useful I mean intelligible and able to communicate).

  29. [...] Neologisms, jargon, and words that shift function (e.g. verbings) attract particular condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by tolerating them long enough to assess them without prejudice, we can reorient(ate) ourselves to new linguistic possibilities. Peevers: criticise pet-hate words if you must, but don’t assume that you’re right and that people who use them are lesser beings. Repressive lexi-quibbling overlooks the fact that language is fiercely playful and productive. It invites our creativity. Wordnik’s Erin McKean put it succinctly: “If it seems wordish, use it.”(From ‘Not a word’ is not an argument « Sentence first) [...]

  30. There is such a thing as a blunder — for instance, using “supposably” instead of “supposedly.” But the error is one of usage. “Supposably” is a word — but it means “arguably,” not “supposedly.” Yet I probably wouldn’t be understood if I used it that way. Hardly anyone uses that word correctly, and everyone knows what it means when used incorrectly.

    That doesn’t mean editors shouldn’t be scrupulous in weeding out mistakes. It’s our job, after all, to keep writers from looking stupid — whether through ignorance or typographical error. But “not a word” isn’t a proper editorial comment. It’s an accusation, and often more biased than true.

    If it’s in use, than it’s a word. It may not be a proper word. It may not be used by educated people. But in the long run, the best-educated aren’t the ones who get to decide whether a word becomes part of the language. The masses do. Language is probably our most democratic institution.

  31. Stan says:

    d_Taoist: Language evolved in intimate association with our minds; it’s not about to go rogue and stop making sense to us. At the same time, language maps only loosely to our thoughts, so there’s a lot of room for vagueness, ambiguity, and misunderstanding. When mutual unintelligibility occurs, it’s usually surmountable with little effort. As an editor I’m well aware of how turbid and obscure writing can be, but there are far fewer unbreakable rules than are commonly presumed to exist, and once you try to nail down any standard as an absolute, you run into endless trouble and inconsistency.

    Andrea: I don’t recall ever hearing supposably, but I’ve come across it online. Technically I understand it to be the adverb from supposable, “capable of being supposed”, but I find it used as a variant of supposedly. So I suppose it’s what Bryan Garner would call a skunked term: its misuse (or shifting usage) is likely to distract readers or listeners, even if only momentarily.

    I agree entirely with your points about editing: it demands levels of rigour and care that don’t apply to everyday communication. But people merge categories in their minds, extending the restrictions of one context, where they’re useful, to another, where they’re inappropriate or ludicrous.

    In The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell wrote: “It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value.”

  32. Mignon says:

    The only article I’ve written that made the front page of Digg was something that said “irregardless” is a word–a word you may not like, a word you probably shouldn’t use, but a word nonetheless. People freaked out.

  33. Stan says:

    Mignon: It doesn’t surprise me — they’re still freaking out! By denying the validity of these words, people give them a peculiar kind of power. Tolerance seems a far healthier attitude to cultivate.

  34. Wizard Prang says:

    Whether or not “irregardless” is actually a word is not as important whether “regardless” is a better one.

    Since the “ir-” prefix is usually a negation (irreverent, irregular etc), this raises the question as to what “irregardless” actually means.

    As a Brit living in Kentucky, I mentally translate “irregardless” as “I’m an idiot”… but that’s just me.

    Let the games begin.

  35. [...] But, when you’re having that terribly deep argument about the Platonic underpinnings of Batman Begins, make sure you don’t make this mistake. [...]

  36. Claudia says:

    I can’t tell you enough how enjoyable, and informative, your posts and comments are. You have such an interesting group of readers. And you reply to all with so much kindness and thoroughness. Your blog is priceless, Stan. Very often, it answers questions which I wouldn’t know how to ask, and clarifies dark areas which had been puzzling me for years. It’s truly worth visiting you even if it would be to discover Hans Stengel…À ta santé, mon ami!

  37. Stan says:

    Wizard: The in- prefix (here in ir- form) doesn’t always imply negation. You acknowledge this yourself. Even allowing for the possibility that it does so in irregardless, multiple negatives often lend emphasis or nothing at all — they don’t automatically cancel one another out or form nonsense. When you hear people say irregardless, you look down on them; that’s your business. The word remains non-standard, but I’ve yet to see or hear it misunderstood.

    Claudia: Et à la tienne, mon amie. Tu me fais rougir! I’m grateful that anyone reads this blog, even more so when they comment. I thought you’d like the Hans Stengel cartoon. I’ve seen it in a couple of places online, but I don’t know where it first appeared.

  38. Sean Jeating says:

    As heatwave and draught seem to have dried up my garrulousness, neither I shall indulge in picking nits, nor in knawvshawling, nor shall I sentence purists’ crowning glory to at least thirteen minutes of severest swearboarding, but – praised be taciturnity – let Karl Popper speak for me:
    To attack a man for talking nonsense
    is like finding your mortal enemy
    drowning in a swamp and
    jumping in after him with a knife.

    The peace of the night.

    PS: Enjoyed reading this plus all comments galore, Stan. Thanks.

  39. John Traynor says:

    Great post: I was delighted to stumble upon this blog.

    I’m reminded of a young girl named Leah who, before going to dance class, would put on her leotards. She was 5 years old. One day she asked her friend Sarah, who was in the same dance class, if she was going to put on her saratards. Logical use for a 5 year old developing an understanding of English, but I don’t think anyone would defend saratards as a word.

    There is obviously a grey area between the intentional creation of new words (such as emailing) and the unintentional error which derives from misunderstanding the construction or generally accepted use of a word (such as utilitizing rather than using, or the creation of saratards).

    Certain usage inevitably derives from misunderstanding and, as such, the misused word may not enjoy full wordhood (!) until, through convention, it does.

    Likewise, someone once reported to me that “for all intensive purposes this project is complete” rather than “for all intents and purposes this project is complete”. She wasn’t trying to create a new phrase, she had misheard the original. While both certainly convey meaning (and you couldn’t assert that one of them is “not a phrase”), one is conventional use, the other is not.

    Is it thus not important to make the distinction among an original unintended error (truly “not a word”), a repeated error which becomes conventional, and the intentional expansion of a language?

  40. Stan says:

    Sean: Thank you for the visit, the comment, and the laugh. That’s a great line by Popper. Let’s hope your drought ends soon, preferably with the help of some of Ireland’s overactive rainclouds (but not enough to create a swamp).

    John: Thanks very much. I love the saratards anecdote, and I would definitely defend the word! At least informally. Kids’ linguistic logic is a constant delight.

    You make a good point about the difference between deliberate and accidental neologisms. I don’t know if it’s important to make the distinction, but it can certainly be helpful and interesting. Whether or not a word’s origin is the result of an error doesn’t decide its eventual fate, but it can play a significant part.

    “For all intensive purposes” is a very common variation on the standard phrase; it has a reasonably sound sense of its own, hence its inclusion in the Eggcorn database.

  41. [...] Carey at Sentence First, with the smart post, “Not a Word is Not an Argument.” He writes, “If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s ‘not a [...]

  42. “Normalcy.” Don’t forget that one. Makes me want to puke when I hear it.

  43. jdmimic says:

    Nice! I am glad to see someone standing up for a reasonable approach to pretentious language nazis in a well articulated manner that I can now shamelessly steal:)

    Where would we be if people kept telling Shakespeare that the many words he created were not words and he accepted it? Language evolves.

  44. Raj says:

    I checked the word, zeroise, and I got the following result:
    http://www.wordnik.com/words/zeroise

    So, the question is, is this a word?

  45. Stan says:

    Robert: I hope you don’t have to hear it regularly, then. Normalcy entered the English language not long after normality (1857 and 1849, respectively), but it hasn’t made the same leap to widespread acceptance.

    jdmimic: Nicely summarised, though I tend to be wary of extending the word nazi beyond its directly political sense. Shakespeare did indeed coin many words and phrases, but he probably borrowed a lot of them from the vernacular of his time and place. By the way, stealing with credit is the modern approach. :-)

    Raj: Yes it is, and it’s been with us since the early 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both zeroise and zeroize, and defines the word as: “Adjust (an instrument or device) to give a zero reading, esp. in order to calibrate is; assign a value of zero to.”

  46. Steve Bell says:

    About the only occasion I can say exactly when I first heard a word: Floyd Pattterson, then world heavyweight champion, was “disorientated”, said a radio broadcast, after a blow from Swede Ingemar Johansson, who became champion in that fight. It was June 26, 1959 (I was 11). My father said it was the first time he’d heard this ugly word, but he had no doubt it wouldn’t be the last.

    I’m sure Dad was primarily resposnsible for my love of (and critical attitude to) language.

    A lot of the supposed non-verbs (“checkout”, “startup”) register with me as nouns first. Are they more acceptable in that role?

  47. “Check out” and “start up” are phrasal verbs. As such, they should always be spelled as two words. “Checkout” and “startup” are indeed the noun spellings.

    Phrasal verbs are idiomatic but perfectly acceptable. They pose problems for non-native English speakers, however. The combined meanings of “check” and “out” don’t suggest the same meaning as the phrasal verb “check out.” For information, see Grammar Girl’s post on the subject:
    http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/phrasal-verbs.aspx

  48. Stan says:

    Steve: I think it’s natural to dislike a new word at first, especially if it seems superfluous or sounds ugly. It used to happen me occasionally but I talked myself out of it. (Too far, some might say.)

    The solid compounds listed, like checkout and start-up (with optional hyphen), are generally more acceptable as nouns or adjectives. As phrasal verbs the convention is to keep their parts as separate words.

    Andrea: Thank you for the explanation and the link.

  49. Stan: Normalcy gets much play in the US media. It is one of those things that stems from the political system and history.

    The use of normalcy as a replacement word for “normality” (that is, the singular state of being normal) as opposed to normalcy (a scalar indicating the level of ‘normal’) comes from 1920 and the Harding campaign for president. “A Return to Normalcy” being one of his campaign slogans.

  50. mflow says:

    Great post!

    I’d just like to propose a new word: wnaw. That would be a recursive acronym (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursive_acronym) for “wnaw’s not a word”. Of course, instead one might opt for wtowtnaw (wtowtnaw’s the only word that’s not a word). Then, one could tell all the not-a-worders: Sorry, you’re mistaken. The only word that’s not a word is wtnowtnaw ;-)

  51. Tim says:

    mflow: Sounds much like the old Linux emulator to run Windows applications on the OS: WINE (WINE Is Not an Emulator).

    Acronyms whereby the first letter represents the word formed to represent the phrase are not new. But interesting, they definitely remain! Seems rather paradoxical to me, actually.

    TINAA: This is not an acronym. :p

  52. Stan says:

    Robert: Yes, Harding helped popularise normalcy, or at least nudge it towards notoriety. Robert Burchfield writes (in his revised Fowler’s) that “normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE as legitimate alternatives. In BrE […] normalcy is widely scorned.” Some authorities say normalcy is fine and standard; others reject it. I neither use it nor object to it.

    mflow: Thank you! I like wnaw, and I would like it more if I could defend what it stands for. How about BERALBAW: But Even Recursive Acronyms Like Beralbaw Are Words.

    Tim: Winjae would have been more accurate. The paradox of these coinages is part of the fun, as Douglas Hofstadter showed in his investigations of self-referential contradiction in Gödel, Escher, Bach.

  53. mflow says:

    Tim: The Linux/Unix world is where I first encountered that kind of construction, you’re right.

    Stan: Thanks for reminding me of Hofstadter’s book(s). I’ll definitely have to look into those again. Anyone ever played ‘Nomic’, by the way?
    I like BERALBAW but I somehow miss that contradictory flavour ;-)

  54. [...] Twitter makes it so easy to favorite tweets that I’m surprised more people don’t use them. Favorites have to be right up there with text commands in terms of underused Twitter features. Sometimes, before deciding whether to follow someone, I take a look at their favorites to get a sense of the things they’re interested in. A lot of people, I’ve found, haven’t favorited anything. Note: If your Twitter account is public, so are your favorites, and anyone can see what, if anything, you’re favoriting, save for any protected tweets you may have favorited. (Now might be a good time to say that if you’re bothered by my cavalier use of the word “favorite” as a verb, I refer you to “‘Not a Word’ Is Not an Argument”.) [...]

  55. [...] The editorial was tellingly titled “A non-word deluge”, revealing both a prejudicial stance against non-standard terms and a paranoid fear of being somehow overwhelmed by them. (Irregardless remains non-standard, but it is a word, and whether it’s monstrous or not is a matter of opinion, not fact. For more on the alleged non-wordiness of certain words, see this post.) [...]

  56. Ladygragra says:

    If the word is not a word, then you do not know the intended message of the messenger. I do not know what ‘orientate’ means, therefore I do not understand what the messenger is stating.

    And the usage of irregardless is evidence that the speaker of that word has not considered the actual meanings of many words. ‘Ir’ and ‘less’ in one word is extremely redundant and one who has been speaking our language for, let’s say, 18 years, ought to know better.

    Either way, it is rude to point out others mistakes. Sometimes people get nervous or flustered and just say the wrong word, even when they know the correct one.

    Also, it is optimal to go for less syllables when possible. For example: The baby elephant was gigantic, but his mother was more gigantic/giganticer?

  57. Stan says:

    Ladygragra: It would be unfortunate if someone used orientate correctly and the listener didn’t know what the word meant. Since you say you don’t know what it means, I’ll refer you here for a selection of definitions.

    Redundancy is built into language; it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Multiple negation is common in other languages and in some non-standard English dialects. Negatives in language don’t automatically cancel each other out, though it’s a widespread misconception that they do. And why is it optimal to use fewer syllables when possible? Instead of gigantic, why not say huge?

  58. There is a tendency in the US to plump for the more complicated word. “Orientate” over “orient” is a good example. Managementspeak is also full of it. And hands up anyone who was surprised the first time they heard “oftentimes” and wanted to point out that it hasn’t been used for three centuries. Except that it is, of course. It is nonetheless a waste of five letters, as “often” is always time-related (unlike “sometimes”, as compared to “something” or “somewhere”).

    Apart from the new invented words, Fowler’s Modern English Usage has a perfect reply to most of these issues!

    “Irregardless” is not just not a word, it also doesn’t mean anything. Zeroise could conceivably become one.

  59. Let me count the ways in which this post totally rocks! Thank you – fascinating.

  60. Stan says:

    ‘There is a tendency in the US to plump for the more complicated word. “Orientate” over “orient” is a good example.’

    The Write Stuff: You might want to read paragraph 4 again, the one that begins: “This is rubbish.” Orientate is sometimes considered non-standard in U.S. English; it is well established in British English. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – assuming you mean the first edition (1926) – has much to recommend it, but it is also idiosyncratic, and inevitably out of date in some respects. Irregardless is a word, and its meaning is quite clear; denying this won’t change a thing.

    wildmanwrites: Thanks for your visit and comment.

  61. Kokopuff says:

    Ok, but how do you feel about “comprised of” since I’ve seen it in books, newspapers, etc.

    It’s like saying “included of” and it gives me a twitch.

  62. Stan says:

    Kokopuff: In my own writing, I tend to avoid “comprised of”; it would be asking for trouble, because too many people strongly object to it. Using comprise in almost any form is likely to offend someone. There’s more to it than is generally acknowledged, though, as Wishydig has ably shown.

  63. [...] Oxford University Press USA got the party started with refudiate, the word everyone loves to hate. (This would be a good time to share the excellent post by Stan Carey at Sentence First, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument.”) [...]

  64. Jack says:

    So how about the sentence: “OMG LULZ wut r u goin to do? ur jk rite?” All words? I’m sure very few people had trouble understanding its meaning.

  65. Stan says:

    Jack: Some are abbreviations, and most of what remains is non-standard. I’d imagine some people would struggle with at least a couple of those terms, but it made immediate sense to me even though I don’t use much textspeak.

  66. As a copyeditor, which is coincidentally not recognized as a word (indicated by the red squiggly line that is now appearing under it), this makes me think that my job is gonna (technically not a word either) be a lot tougher. Someday I’ll fix a word and someone will tell me that just because I don’t think it’s a word doesn’t mean it isn’t. Otherwise, I have no problem with made up words. I do it all the time. It’s funner (haha) that way. :)

  67. Stan says:

    It is funner, Meghan – much funner than simply disallowing disliked words. Of course, context is critical: gonna is perfectly cromulent in informal chat and writing, but inappropriate in, say, a corporate report. It makes editing more interesting, because we get to learn about all these shades of grey (or gray, if you prefer).

  68. Matt says:

    Glyph Lefkowitz, you are bang on in your assessment.
    i think a lot of people using uncommon words use them confused for other similar words and that’s what gets the word-nerds angry (i’m sort of a member of the latter group). for example, “irregardless” is (i think) carelessly used in place of regardless. but what the hell is “irregardless” supposed to mean? is that sort of a double negative meaning “with regard”? or are we to guess that the person using the word “irregardless” actually meant “regardless”?

  69. Stan says:

    Matt: I’ve never seen or heard someone using irregardless to mean anything other than regardless. I don’t use it myself, but its meaning is obvious. Also, two negatives don’t necessarily become a positive. Language is not like maths that way.

  70. Matt says:

    I agree with you Stan, but I think that the meaning isn’t completely obvious only all of the time. Used verbally, it doesn’t seem to create as much confusion because it’s so much easier to understand exactly what someone means given other non-verbal cues. On the other hand, when used in writing I find it sticks out because of that negative connotation of ‘ir’. I’ll admit that I haven’t ever heard of someone pushing the double-negative meaning, but then why have 2 words that appear to be different but with an identical meaning? In common conversation or writing it’s fine and the word police probably don’t need to make an arrest, but if your written communication needs to be perfectly clear (eg: work reports, arguing about pointless things on the internet, etc), why use a potentially confusing or even ambiguous word?

    ps: loved the use of the word cromulent a few posts back!

  71. Stan says:

    Matt: Since irregardless remains non-standard (for now), it has no place in formal writing. But in a generation or two, who’s to say it won’t have become significantly more acceptable?

    English is full of near-synonyms; they lend richness to the language. Precise synonyms are rare, so if irregardless prevails, it may develop a slightly different sense to regardless. I think some people already use it as a more emphatic way of saying regardless, so it might begin to be used like that more often. I prefer to wait and see than rush to judgement.

  72. [...] there, made of letters, and we all know what it means. It’s non-standard and much scorned, but “not a word” is not an argument. The article also wades hopelessly into the that/which morass, claiming that [...]

  73. [...] mutate from “X is worse than Y” to “X is invalid” (see, for instance, Stan Carey’s posts on “not a word”). Some committed descriptivists overreach as well, arguing for a pure [...]

  74. [...] been here before, or near enough. Some people, if they don’t like a word, simply say it’s not a word, when it very obviously is. Not a word! and Burn it! Ban it! Denial and repression. We can do [...]

  75. [...] to an assertion that funner isn’t a word. But as Stan Carey so excellently argued, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument“. And even the grammatical objections are eroding; many people now simply assert that funner [...]

  76. […] the old “X is not a word” non-argument. Hatred of proactive is even a song, and presumably a T-shirt. All we need now is a […]

  77. […] a word” doesn’t even make sense anyway — see discussions by Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey. A word is a word if it is used with a consistent meaning by some group of language users. For […]

  78. […] I gotta protest the claim that irregardless is “not a word at all”, regardless of how much you might wish it. Ongoing is not a word you need to “run a mile from”, though it was probably superfluous in […]

  79. […] be appropriate for use in formal registers, and you certainly don’t have to like them, but as Stan Carey says, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument” […]

  80. […] few years ago, in a hastily written polemic called ‘Not a word’ is not an argument, I think I erred on the side of leniency. Typos can become real words, as teh and pwn did, but more […]

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