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Not to rouse bad memories, but you may recall that my last column contained a list of complaints regarding the misuse of certain words. You may also remember other things about it: Cuchulain battling the sea, mention of “psychotic episodes,” uncongenial dictionaries described as “scented and brilliantined degenerates” . . . Or perhaps my assertions that grammatical laxity leads to cannibalism, that an unchecked solecism may betray us to the Visigoths or get us eaten by our neighbors, that the use of avocado in sushi is worse than cannibalism . . . .

Well, I assumed the spirit of the piece was obvious. (Dare I call it whimsical? Mercurial? Puckish?) But apparently I was mistaken. One web columnist vehemently denounced me for spreading “fatuous” superstitions about some golden age of correct usage, and condemned my claim regarding bad grammar and cannibalism as “a silly overstatement.” (I stand duly chastened.) Another columnist began by bizarrely describing some etymological argument I had supposedly made about the Latin word parts of “transpire,” which manifestly I had not done, and then proceeded to heap caustic scorn upon my “etymological fallacy.” (Being contemptuously denigrated for an argument one has never made, by the way, is unpleasant. I responded testily to the latter column”called it “dull-witted,” cruelly mentioned endive salad”and then later apologized so as to avoid going to hell. I freely admit it: that guy could acquit himself magnificently against any salad out there.)

Anyway, I’ll take it all as a challenge to clarify or redact my earlier remarks. My column was just an elaborate flippancy, but it did express certain convictions regarding language that I do truly hold, if only with variable earnestness. Most of them require no defense. If you can find a dictionary that, say, allows “reluctant” as a definition of “reticent,” you will also find it was printed in Singapore under the auspices of “The Happy Luck Goodly Englishing Council.” Moreover, I eschewed artificial grammatical “rules”: no coordinating conjunctions starting sentences, “however” only as a post-positive, “which” only before a non-restrictive relative clause, etc. But I did perversely raise a few genuinely controversial issues, to which I shall shortly return.

The opposition between “precriptivists” and “descriptivists,” let me note, is easy to state in the abstract: The prescriber believes clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness need to be defended against the leveling drabness of mass culture; the describer believes words are primarily vehicles of communicative intention, whose “proper” connotations are communally determined. The one finds authority in the aristocratic and long-attested, the other finds it in the demotic and current. The one sees language as a precious cultural inheritance, the other sees it as the commonest social coin. The one worries about the continuity of literature, traditions, and the consensus of the learned; the other consults newspapers, daily transactions, and the consent of the people. For one, a word’s proper meaning must often be distinguished from its common use; for the other, they are identical.

In practice, however, no one occupies either position completely. Everyone who cares about such matters engages in both prescription and description, often confusing the two. So does every dictionary. Everyone, moreover, knows words shift in meaning over time. The real question, at the end of the day, is whether any distinction can be recognized, or should be maintained, between creative and destructive mutations. Now, I stand fairly far over on the prescriptive side, for many reasons, but I am not an absolute extremist.

Take my patently subjective preference for the typical British pronunciation of “idyll”—which, incidentally, applies to both syllables. Regarding the initial vowel, the old OED recognizes only the long pronunciation and The Oxford Dictionary (a different thing) only the short. Good dictionaries now list both. The OED’s editors, however, were classicizing prescribers, swayed not by prevailing practice, but by the syllabic quantities of the Greek “ eidyllion.” I, by contrast, defer to the preponderant testimony of generations of English poets and versifiers.

On “intrigue,” however, I take the hard line enunciated in Fowler’s English Usage (the Bible of prescriptivism).

Of “restive,” I was stupid to say simply that it does not mean “restless,” since “restless” means not merely “constantly moving” or “unresting,” but also “impatient of constraint” or “fidgeting.” Rather, the words are not synonymous. To quote Fowler’s: “ Restive implies resistance. A horse may be restless when loose in a field, but can only be restive if it is resisting control. A child can be restless from boredom, but can only be restive if someone is trying to make him do what he does not want.” Thus “restive” can describe a stubbornly inert parliament (Robert Browning), but not Odysseus or Neal Cassady. Restless hearts seek God; restive hearts often reject his call.

Now, regarding “transpire,” I am as inflexible as adamant, as constant as the coursing stars: it does not mean “occur,” no matter how many persons use it that way. This is an old quarrel, true; but its very longevity is instructive. And, curiously enough, it is not only those who reject the “occur” usage in theory, but many who accept it, who proscribe or discourage it in practice.

Traditionally, there has been a divide between Britain and America here. Chambers, the best one-volume dictionary from the wrong side of the Atlantic, did not (does not?) admit the “occur” definition at all. The OD traditionally called it “vulgar” or “colloquial” (that is, “wrong but prevalent”). The brothers Fowler regularly abominated it. Webster’s, however, admitted it as a fourth sense in the nineteenth century, while marking it as disputed. American Heritage also used to include it only hesitantly, noting the overwhelming disapproval of its usage panel.

The current Merriam-Webster’s, however, claims that the older Webster’s “Sense 4” goes back to the late eighteenth century, and even quotes a 1775 letter by Abigail Adams as proof: “there is nothing new transpired since I wrote you last . . . ”; it notes that the word was popular in nineteenth century journalism, and claims critics began attacking it only around 1870, on etymological grounds; and it says that the usage is now well established in “serious prose.”

Twaddle, alas—and partisan twaddle, at that. Even the Abigail Adams quotation is a blunder, as many have noted: it probably means not “Nothing has happened,” but only “Nothing new has come out” or “There is no news.” It was principally in nineteenth century journalism that the new definition took hold, and it was attacked as soon as it became common, on many grounds. As for “serious prose,” the best writers now tend to avoid the word altogether.

There’s the galling hypocrisy of Sense 4’s educated champions: They discourage it as cumbersomely, ineptly Latinical, but let pass other words of which the same is true, because really they see it as uncouth: vulgar, graceless, fine for the many, unfit for the few. Poor Sense 4: an awkward foundling, admitted into the house of English usage, but denied the love accorded the entitled children. Wouldn’t it be more merciful just to drive this pale waif, with his sad opaline eyes and damp ivory brow, out onto the heath? If he cannot be an heir, why condemn him to mere tenancy?

Anyway, seriously, Sense 4 is still not universally accepted after two centuries; many of its advocates recognize it only reluctantly and shun it vigorously; and it still strikes sensitive ears as ungainly jargon, even after all this time. For those, like me, who think the distinction valid, its usage as jargon is still not what it really means.

This is an aesthetic prejudice, perhaps, but also a coherent principle. The analytic, lexically antinomian line is that, in themselves, words mean nothing; persons use them as instruments to mean this or that. But, conversely, persons can mean only what they have the words to say, and so the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean. Hence “prescriptivism,” however hopeless it is, has a rational and moral worth that “descriptivism” lacks. (But the point can be debated without resorting to inflammatory words like “fatuous” or “endive.”)

All of which emboldens me to add: In the present tense, “lie” is intransitive and “lay” is transitive. “Aggravate” properly means “exacerbate,” not “exasperate.” “Unique” admits of no comparative or superlative degree. Don’t say “enormity” when you mean only “immensity.” And, for God’s sake, don’t say “fundament” when you mean “foundation.” Some dictionaries allow such a definition, most do not, and the one definition upon which all agree is something very, very different.

David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.


David Bentley Hart, Le Mot Juste

David Foster Wallace, Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage

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