English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.
These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*
So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.
Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.
You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.
A is for ALTERNATIVE. Peevers say you can’t have more than two alternatives, because Latin. This is the etymological fallacy.
B is for BEG THE QUESTION. Pedants say it can’t mean ‘raise the question’, but the data beg to differ.
C is for CONJUNCTIONS or COORDINATORS. Because sticklers say you can’t start a sentence with them. And that’s just plain silly.
Anyone who says DECIMATE must mean ‘kill one in ten’ should also call October ‘December’. That’s the rule.
E is for ENTHUSE, a back-formation in long, useful existence. Some purists consider it ‘wrong’ and ‘stupid’. It’s neither.
F is for FLAT ADVERBS, like ‘drive SLOW’. Peevers think they’re adjectives used wrong(ly). Doubly false.
G is for GRAMMAR: applied unhelpfully to spelling, punctuation, diction and random bugbears, seldom – outside linguistics – to syntax and morphology.
H is for HOPEFULLY. Die-hards say it can only mean ‘in a hopeful manner’. Hopefully they’ll cop on, because frankly that’s daft.
I is for IRREGARDLESS. Haters say it’s not a word, because that’s their wish. It’s nonstandard, but it is a word. Look it up.
I is also for INVITE. Peevers irrationally hate nouning and verbing. This one’s unsuited to formal use, but colloquially it’s OK.
J is for JEOPARDIZE. Webster 1828 called it ‘useless’; a later critic found it ‘foolish and intolerable’, jeopardizing his cred.
K is for KEY = ‘vital, essential’. Prescriptivists even in the 21stC reject its status as an adjective. The usage dates to 1832.
L is for LESS. Pedants loathe its use with count nouns (‘less pedants’) despite 1000 years of regular use in literature and speech.
L is also for LITERALLY. Some hate its non-literal use, but it’s been around for literally centuries.
Also: ‘literal meaning’ is literally a contradiction in terms. The peeve is (figuratively) hoist with its own petard.
M is for MAN. Reactionaries say it’s fine as a generic term for people. No: it’s sexist and insidious.
N is for NONE. Peevers say it must take a singular verb, ignoring a thousand years of common use with singular and plural verbs.
O is for ONGOING. Haters hate it; style guides try (and fail) to ban it. There’s nothing wrong with it.
Q is for QUOTE. Purists say it can’t be a noun. They confuse formality with correctness and overlook the benefits of brevity.
R is for REASON WHY. Sticklers hate its redundancy but not that of ‘place where’ or ‘time when’. It’s 800 years old and standard.
S is for SPLIT INFINITIVE. The bogus rule against it is based on Latin-fetishism and leads to mangled English.
T is for TRANSPIRE. Peevers say it can’t mean ‘occur’ – a usage centuries old and standard. There’s no sound basis for the objection.
U is for UNIQUE. Pedants insist that it’s absolute: that nothing can be ‘very unique’. Their argument is illogical and spurious.
V is for VERBING. Peevers hate it, but only when they think it’s new – they constantly use verbings that were established earlier.
W is for WHICH in restrictive clauses. Peevers insist on ‘that’. The so-called rule is a useless upstart.
W is also for WHOM. Pedants say it’s obligatory in object position (‘who to follow’), but normal English is much more flexible.
X is for XMAS. Traditionalists abhor this short form, unaware of its thoroughly traditional use. X for Christ is a millennium old.
Y is for YOU, singular, once decried the way singular THEY is nowadays. Why accept one and not the other?
Z is for ZOOM. Theodore Bernstein said that this term, being from aviation, should only mean ‘upward mobility’. English went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
A few readers were happily on board until they reached a particular bugbear. That’s fair enough. I should say, for the record, that I had to remove my editor’s hat for certain items. I’m not advocating for irregardless, despite what some inferred: I’m just saying (uncontroversially and irrefutably, I’d have thought) that it is a word. Yet even this observation drew real hostility.
Nor am I saying these usages are all hunky-dory: some are unsuited to formal or standard English. This brings us to a central problem in popular conceptions of language use. The belief that standard English is ‘correct’ and ‘proper’ and other varieties are therefore substandard or illegitimate is widespread, wrong, and destructive. Different forms of language are appropriate in their own domains. Standard English is socially privileged, not linguistically superior to any other dialect.
Less for count nouns drew a mixed reaction. I’ll be addressing this item in a future post. Someone said they despise all flat adverbs. That must be awkward. The tweet about man provoked some defensive reactions (from men). Beg the question was bewailed and lamented. My post on it suggests solutions.
There were a couple of queries about the December thing. It was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar, and the word has the same root (Latin decem ‘ten’, from PIE *dekm-) that we find in decimate. The etymological fallacy produces no end of absurdity like this, but people resist information that contradicts their old beliefs; they’ll conjure up all kinds of nonsense to avoid changing their minds.
One reader balked at unique and found, in Oxford Dictionaries: ‘Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else’. He concluded, prematurely: ‘That’s the definition.’ But the same page, same source, offers sense 1.2: ‘Particularly remarkable, special, or unusual.’ Here’s a tip for using dictionaries: Read past line 1.
Gradable unique cropped up in the comments here before, and recurs in collections of peeves. Purists assert that being unique is like being married or dead or pregnant: you either are or you aren’t. They make similar hyper-literalist claims about perfect, certain, equal, and other adjectives, even though all these words have been modified by great writers for centuries (a more perfect union, anyone?).
Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style, defends gradable unique:
Here is the flaw in the purists’ logic. Uniqueness is not like pregnancy and marriage. It must be defined relative to some scale of measurement. I am told that all snowflakes are unique, and so they may be under a microscope, but frankly, they all look the same to me. Conversely, each of the proverbial two peas in a pod is unique if you squint hard enough through a magnifying glass. Does this mean that nothing is unique, or does it mean that everything is unique? The answer is neither: ‘uniqueness’ is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying. . . .
Calling something quite unique or very unique implies that the item differs from the others in an unusual number of qualities, that it differs from them to an unusual degree, or both. In other words, pick any scale or cutoff you want, and the item will still be unique. This ‘distinctive’ sense has coexisted with the ‘having no like or equal’ sense for as long as the word unique has been in common use.
MWDEU, after surveying the history of the word and the commentary thereon, concludes: ‘Those who insist that unique cannot be modified by such adverbs as more, most, and very are clearly wrong’. This is not to say that you should say ‘very unique’: neither Pinker nor M-W recommends this. But the purists’ claims reflect only their wishes, not the reality of English or the world it seeks to describe.
Intransigence over language use is a recipe for irritation, given how inexorably it keeps changing. Everything about language use changes: meanings, sounds, structures, spellings. Wishing this would stop is like wishing the clouds would freeze in place or the tide would leave your sandcastles alone. A lot of usage myths arise in the gap between the true nature of language and sticklers’ false beliefs about it.
Peevers who are not satisfied with grumbling to themselves become language police, ‘grammar’ cops playing inept games of gotcha with other people’s speech. They don’t stop to think they may be wrong and rude, or that their targets might use a different dialect or have learned English as a second language or have been blessed with less education. They forget their privilege and their manners.
Linguistic fault-finding gives language lovers a bad name. We end up characterised as intolerant fusspots obsessing over ‘correctness’ and pedantic niceties in every human interaction, silently judging our peers’ speech. On the contrary: linguists (and linguistic dabblers like me) love language in all its diverse wonder. We are infinitely more likely to be intrigued by error and delighted by variation than irritated by usage.
Usage myths, on the other hand – don’t get me started.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the aim of many of these myths is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow in-group members to feel pleased about knowing them, to present as authority figures, and to stigmatize other groups. Thus they preserve – or imagine they preserve – their status and power in social hierarchies.
You don’t have to recognise it. Language has no ultimate authority except its users, and your vote is as important as anyone else’s.
[Previously: A to Z of linguistics in rhyming couplets.]
* Not just linguistically, you may have noticed.