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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, 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/.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You get one vote

Language is perhaps the ultimate expression of democracy.

In her Boston Globe column on language last Sunday, Jan Freeman wrote about the shift in meaning of chauvinism in American English from mindless nationalism to male sexism:

People who object to such language changes sometimes say, “Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it right.” But what's true about speeding or tax fiddling does not apply to language change; if everyone does it, that does, eventually, make it right.

To shift to the obverse, from the many to the one, keep in mind what Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman point out in Origin of the Specious:

As the language changes, no one has more than one vote.

It is true that, as in a democracy, someone occasionally has disproportionate influence. But even that is limited. Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 changed colour and honour to color and honor in American spelling. But tung for tongue and soop for soup didn’t take. Generations of English teachers have flailed away at ain’t, achieving no better than a draw; the word remains lodged in the language, though discouraged in formal usage.

Language becomes what its users collectively make of it. That is how Anglo-Saxon was transformed into English, mainly by a rabble of illiterate peasants, and no one should be sorry about that.

But this is a hard truth for the class of people whom the linguists at Language Log call peevologists — the teachers and editors and columnists and bloggers who trumpet their disdain for this word or that usage. (People who insist on flaunting their “pet peeves” might keep in mind that peevish — querulously fretful, like old Mr. Woodhouse in Emma worrying whether the carriage will get him home through a light fall of snow — is not an adjective to inspire admiration.)

The linguist Arnold Zwicky has remarked in his personal blog on his reaction to people who think that their individual tastes and preferences should have the force of law:

People send me e-mail saying that they dislike some usage in my writing, and people insert comments in other people’s blogs objecting to the bloggers’ usages. That is, they say, I don’t like this.

At which point, I ask: why are these people telling me what they don’t like, and doing that in my e-mail and blogs? Perhaps they just want to demonstrate their superiority, but the message I get is: Don’t offend me; stop doing this. And I resent this imposition, bridle at it. Where do you get off, telling me to write and talk the way you’d like?


I, like you, have one vote in English, and the reason I write this blog is not to attempt the bootless task of legislating for the language. Instead, if you merely wish to write a little more clearly, more precisely, and even, God save the mark, more elegantly, I will give you my best advice, along with the reasoning behind that advice. Take it or leave it. It’s your language as much as mine.