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

Passionate Preferences

I recently received an emissive from Emily, an appreciative reader of my new book The Accidents of Style. At the end she noted that in my discussion of the misuse of disinterested for uninterested “you admit that the mistake has become so common that dictionaries are including it. I have to ask: at what point do you accept the mistake as an irreversible step in the evolution of the English language? Once a mistake is included in dictionaries, is it reasonable to expect it to ever come out?” This was my response:


Thanks so much for writing. Yours is the $64,000 language question, whose answer will vary from person to person depending on age, education, and temperament.

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (I was a consultant for the first edition) takes an interesting approach to the problem. Garner constructed a five-stage Language-Change Index that he used to rate each entry in his guide so readers could see where in the spectrum of acceptability things currently stand. Stage 1 is “rejected”; Stage 2 is “widely shunned”; Stage 3 is “widespread but . . .”; Stage 4 is “ubiquitous but . . .”; and Stage 5 is “fully accepted.”

The late William Safire, the longtime language guru of The New York Times, once quipped that "when enough of us are wrong, we're right." You can’t argue with that, but it's a one-dimensional answer that I think yields too easily to the tyranny of the majority. It lacks the nuance and cultivation to be found in my favorite answer, which is from the poet, teacher, and etymologist John Ciardi.

"Are there any enduring standards of English usage?" Ciardi asked. "I think there are only preferences, 'passionate preferences,' as Robert Frost used to say, the level at which any English-speaking person chooses to engage the instrument—the orchestra—of the language. In the long run the usage of those who do not think about the language will prevail. Usages I resist will become acceptable. . . . It will not do to resist uncompromisingly. Yet those who care have a duty to resist. Changes that occur against such resistance are tested changes. The language is better for them—and for the resistance."

When a blurred distinction or slipshod extension gets into dictionaries it rarely comes out, though dictionaries can vary considerably in their treatment of usage, with some being more accepting of questionable or criticized forms and others less so. (For more on this, see “Charlie’s Dictionary Recommendations” under Articles in the right-hand sidebar.)

I hope this answer is helpful to you. Oh, and by the way, Garner ranks the misuse of disinterested for uninterested at Stage 4: "virtually universal but . . . opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts." Count me among the stalwarts.

As John Ciardi used to say, good words to you.
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