If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?
The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:
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.
There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.
For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.
One of the most interesting authorities on English usage is not a person but a collective: the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. It is a group of almost 200 language professionals who answer a regular survey on hundreds of usage items; the results are compiled as percentages cited in usage notes that appear below the relevant entries in the dictionary, print and digital.
Look up impact or bemused, for example, and you’ll find a note sharing the Panel’s views over time. The Panel is by its nature conservative, linguistically, but it becomes a bit less so in progressive editions. In its first incarnation its membership was heavily dominated by older white men. Browsing the list in the fifth edition, I see more diversity.
Earlier I said that the Panel answer a survey, but in truth they answered it: the Usage Panel was unfortunately discontinued in 2018, after 54 years in operation. The main purpose of this post is to direct your attention to ‘The Dictionary and Us’, an article about the Panel by David Skinner in the Weekly Standard.
Skinner, an author, journalist, and editor, joined the Panel in 2004 and quickly experienced ‘performance anxiety’ – itself a reflection of our vexed relationship with authority. His article is an engaging, insightful look at the activities of the Panel and its role in the American Heritage Dictionary and in lexicography generally. It also offers a brief history of the AHD since its emergence from the furore over Webster’s Third.
From its first ballot in 1964, the usage panel survived through February of this year, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the dictionary’s sole publisher since the second edition, announced that it was ending the usage panel, citing the “continuing decline in consumer demand for print dictionaries.” This news caused hardly a yawn, even in lexicography circles, yet it marks the end of a striking episode in the history of American English when the idea of organizing a distinguished group of expert users to provide guidance on disputed usages was put to the test.
It’s a long article, so get comfy. Frankly I would read a book-length account of this story, if any publisher were tempted. And if you want an answer to any of the items up top (refute, snuck, etc.), let me know and I’ll provide a link or an answer.