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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Why All This Verbal Pickiness?

Descriptive linguists are fond of accusing prescriptive language mavens like me of being “opposed to change.” That’s just silly. I’m not opposed to change in language any more than I’m opposed to change in the weather. You can’t be against change, and you can’t be in favor of it. Change is inevitable.

But language, unlike weather, does not change by itself. Language is a human creation subject to human influence. It is a work-in-progress, and we are all party to its development. We change the language, for better and for worse.

Generally speaking, change keeps a language vital. But not all change serves the best interests of all the people who use a language. Change that springs from creativity, that is advanced by need, and that is reinforced by utility is unobjectionable. But change that results from ignorance, pomposity, eccentricity, a mania for fashion, or a desire for novelty is suspect. That’s the kind of change we prescriptivists are concerned about.

I’m not some zealot who wants to take away your language license just because you’ve made a few mistakes. You don’t need to be a language expert to use language competently. But I think people who consider themselves educated have a responsibility to know something — or at least to try to know and remember something — about the words they choose to use. Does the person who says “I have infinitesimal respect for you” deserve your respect? If you don’t know enough about the word infinitesimal to avoid a gaffe like that, then you shouldn’t use that word. Unfortunately, too many people lack the requisite qualifications in too many instances. (And I mean instances, not — as you too often hear — incidences.)

When people use the word reticent (which means reluctant to speak) to mean reluctant, when they use everyday and every day interchangeably, when they misspell minuscule as miniscule, and when they use i.e. when they mean e.g., what do we gain? (And, for that matter, what have we lost?) There is no justification for these changes. There is no legitimate need for them. They have no utility. They muddy the waters of our discourse. To embrace them would be like installing a sink with two taps for cold water and calling it home improvement.

The polemical question is often posed: “What difference does it make as long as we communicate”? I think that sets the bar for all communication at the level of a boor. It’s like taking someone out to dinner and then announcing, as the food arrives, “Who cares what your meal tastes like as long as it fills you up.”

There is something to be said for aspiring to eloquence, even on a practical level. If we all had richer and more versatile verbal toolboxes we could spend less time deciphering sloppy, inarticulate communication and more time understanding and enjoying each other.

When Douglas Martin of The New York Times asked the late etymologist David Shulman (who is credited with finding the earliest citation of the nickname "the Big Apple" for New York City) what difference "all this verbal pickiness" makes, Shulman responded, "Why, the same difference as being literate or illiterate, accurate or inaccurate, telling the truth or spreading yarns." ("About New York," The New York Times, February 1, 1989, p. B1.)

Shulman the etymologist, a scrutinizer of words, would not have taken kindly, I'm sure, to being called an entomologist, a scrutinizer of bugs. Saying, spelling, and writing it right does make a difference, and often a meaningful one.
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