On linguistic pruning and peeving

I have two new posts on language at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First, Linguistic botany looks at metaphors that draw parallels between language usage and gardening, beginning with Otto Jespersen’s famous comparison of English with a park “laid out seemingly without any definite plan”:

Jespersen was not the first to draw this analogy, and he won’t be the last, but it remains a fruitful comparison. We wander the park of language at will, speaking more or less like those around us. We can stick to the established paths, or we may forge new byways and see where they take us. But despite the great scope for variation in expression, we can take idiosyncrasy and experimentation only so far before communication begins to falter.

There is some discussion in the comments about why usage attracts such intense acrimony compared to gardening. Your thoughts on this would be welcome, in either location.

The title of my next post, Many right ways, is a reference to what Arnold Zwicky has called “One Right Way”, a prescriptivist principle used to object to language change and innovation. I find such a rigid approach

out of step with what language is and how people use it – it’s like trying to impose a uniform on public clothing habits. One of the great things about language is that it gives us so many options. We swim in expressive abundance, often being able to choose from several ways to say more or less the same thing. The luxury of alternatives allows us to deliver particular connotations or nuances with a given phrase, depending on our practical and pragmatic needs.

A familiar example of One Right Way is the etymological fallacy, which I discuss in the post. Gill Francis, in a comment, suggests another: what she calls the “word-class fallacy”, e.g., insisting that impact or contact is a noun only and shouldn’t be a verb. I think it’s a handy coinage.

Lots more in my Macmillan archive.

5 Responses to On linguistic pruning and peeving

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    “We swim in expressive abundance, often being able to choose from several ways to say more or less the same thing”

    What a wonderful turn of phrase you have Stan!

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    In keeping w/ the “linguistic pruning and peeving” theme, from this inveterate nature lover, slightly lapsed home-gardner, and word nut’s perspective, I was always under the impression, from this side of The Pond, that most so-called English country gardens were those colorful, slightly disheveled, modest-sized, homey plots displaying a mixed medley of varied flora; giving off an overall air of a not-too-fussily tended, overly-manicured slice of Mother Nature’s splendid handiwork. (With a minimal assist from the gardener.)

    But then there’s the horticultural polar opposite, namely the almost pristine, every-selected-plant-flower-shrub-tree-piece of statuary-cobblestone-in-its-proper-place private estate garden, typified by those sprawling, verdant grounds of the über-wealthy British nobility, rock stars, and royals, w/ their fanciful topiary marvels, amazing mazes, and the almost fetishistically tended flower-beds, arbors, and ponds; seemingly nary a twig, or blade of close-cropped grass out of place.

    Perhaps a bit of a stretch, yet the aforementioned divergent styles, or approaches to English gardening could, respectively, serve as apt metaphors for the descriptivist vs. the prescriptivist mind-sets, re/ reasonable copy editing—- their contrasting approaches, and degrees (figuratively speaking) in pruning, weeding, and watering row-upon-row of virtual ‘fields’ of ‘untilled’, yet perhaps potentially ‘fertile’ copy.

    ‘Gardening’ (read copy editing) from the descriptivist’s perspective might be viewed as more forgiving, more flexible, and less regimented than the strict, play-by-the-rules, more blinkered diehard prescriptivist’s lexicographic view.

    Hopefully, there is ample latitude in play to accommodate both the less tame, less finicky, versus the more exacting, specifically defined, controlled approach to gardening… and likewise, to the noble craft of copy editing, and proper language usage.

    In my view, neither camp should push their individual agendas too stridently. Each has its place in the ever-evolving language words-scape.

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks, Shaun!

    Alex, you’re welcome back. Meticulously kept gardens can be pretty, but they unnerve me a bit. I’m reminded of a poet’s account of being ordered as a young boy to cut his family’s suburban lawn with a scissors, the better to ensure that each blade was the same length; anything less than perfect uniformity would have invited paternal wrath. All this on account of neighbours who – I hope – would have been far less bothered by an imperfect lawn than by the unnecessary fear instilled in a child.

    The parallels with ‘proper’ English education, at least in some places and at certain times, are clear. Give me a natural, rough garden any day over such pathological fastidiousness.

  4. Eugene says:

    Oh, verbing is a terrible thing. Once we accept that it’s OK for people to paint their house, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll want to wallpaper the dining room and sheetrock the basement.
    Homeowners aren’t the worst offenders; carpenters are even worse, always nailing and screwing and hammering things.
    Our office culture also makes many negative contributions such as to staple papers, stamp envelopes, and xerox documents. Recently they’ve even begun faxing each other.
    It’s not only at work where the assault is ongoing. Even at leisure we paddle boats, pedal bicycles, and backpack in the mountains. Nobody complained when camp was first used as a verb, but look at how far we’ve slid since that insidious beginning.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  5. Stan says:

    Vent away, Eugene. That was a most entertaining riposte, and it shows clearly the foolishness of the word class fallacy.

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