John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
It is better to be understood than to be correct.
As the language changes, no one has more than one vote.
These are salutary cautions for anyone tempted to pedantry about language and usage. Not that Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are of the anything-goes school, but they want you to know what is reliable about language and what is not. To that end, they present in Origin of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (Random House, 267 pages, $22) a catalogue of shibboleths and superstitions.
Predictably, they include the nonsense that both linguists and sensible prescriptivists have been attacking for generations: the bogus rules against splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, using none with a plural verb, and the like.
But there is a lot of error to be cleared away. Rule of thumb comes from a workman’s using his thumb as a rough measuring tool, not from a legal right of a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. No room to swing a cat has nothing to do with flogging with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Xmas includes an abbreviation of Christ using the Greek letter from Christos; there is no atheistical war on Christmas involved.
They advise that it’s time to give up the struggle over gauntlet and gantlet, data as a singular, decimate as strictly meaning a tenth (though not as equivalent of destroyed), beg the question as solely a term of logic, hopefully as a sentence adverb, bemused as meaning only muddled or confused. I share their regret over the last count, but, you know, it is more important to be understood than to be correct.
There is a great deal of information in this book, and the tone is relaxed rather than formal. (I did occasionally think that the authors might have occasionally suppressed the impulse to end nearly every section with a piece of wordplay.) You may already be familiar with the work of Ms. O’Conner from her previous books, Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, as well as the popular language blog Grammarphobia. Her advice should be taken seriously.