Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Benefits of Linguistic Prescriptivism.

I recognise that language in general and English specifically is by its very nature a fluid thing. I am all in favour of introducing new words, phrases and expressions to the language. English has, probably deservedly, been described as the sort of language that "takes other languages down back alleys, beats them up and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary". Native words change meaning all the time, and words that were obscene or insulting even within living memory are used as terms of endearment — and vice versa.

There remain three travesties up with which I simply refuse to put. The first: nonsense. I couldn’t care less makes logical sense. I could care less, when taken literally, means “I do care”, yet for some reason is used in place of the proper expression to mean “I don’t care”. I have heard the expression I could care less used correctly precisely once: on Green Day's American Idiot where it's used to emphasise the difference between the narrator and his apathetic community.

The second: deliberate inefficiency. Why do people feel the need to invent the word burglarize (which I spell with a z in contrast to my usual near-pathological aversion to that form, as I do with Americanize and novelize, to show my disapproval of the word in question) when we already have the perfectly serviceable, shorter, and more pronounceable burgle? (The original root word is burglar, which is why it's spelt with an A: burgle is a back-formation.)

The third: confusion of words such as alternate and alternative, being informed of your confusion, and subsequently refusing to use the correct word. It's this refusal that bothers me, because it amounts to deliberate muddying of one's language — and quite apart from the obvious question as to why you'd want to do that, it can, over time, eradicate what was once quite a useful distinction from the language. I can understand such a misuse in the mouth of someone who doesn’t know any better. The words are similar in form and meaning, which makes them easy to confuse — but this makes it especially important to make the effort to distinguish them. “But everybody does it” is not a valid reason to continue to be sloppy and careless, confusing, and potentially downright misleading. It’s not that hard to remember the difference, especially when the endings on the words make it clear that one is either a verb or a verby noun and the other is either an adjective or a descriptive noun.

I'm all in favour of being creative and flexible with language. My favourite writers all have something in common: they knew their language well and didn't just follow the rules; they were able to bend the rules to make it express things it was not necessarily designed to express. The same goes for good poets and lyricists. But this sort of rule-bending differs from the forms of laziness mentioned above in three important respects. Firstly, it is creative, designed for a specific expressive purpose (even if that purpose is a single joke). Secondly, it respects the principle that one can and should bend the rules only when one understands why those rules are there in the first place (more on this, in the wider sense, another day). Thirdly, if it sticks around, it can enrich the language itself (Shakespeare is the textbook example of this; scores of forms and constructions which we consider natural today were if not invented then certainly codified in his work, though the claim that he invented thousands of words is hyperbole), whereas the examples of bad English above can only diminish it.


  1. Rather than illustrating "the benefits of linguistic prescriptivism", this does more to illustrate the disadvantages of not owning a dictionary and thesaurus! :-)

  2. I never said otherwise, or that this is a bad thin. I merely thought that the title could be more accurate ;-)