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.
[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”.