Words, Words, and More Words (concluded)

William and Mary Morris in their book the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage promote standards for the English language that were unknown to me and are likely to fade from my memory. For example, the “fine distinction between completely and wholly should be observed in formal writing.”  While they sought to preserve many seemingly arcane distinctions, the Morrises surprisingly concluded that some standards had passed away. (“Pass away/pass on. Euphemisms for ‘to die.’ Both should be avoided.”) Most surprising: “The subjunctive mood of verbs is used to express hypothesis, supposition, contingency. You don’t hear or read the subjunctive much any more. Nowadays the way language is used by educated, literate speakers and writers is the final criterion, and, by this standard, the subjunctive is today just about dead.”

The subjunctive continues to bedevil me. I have read several language “experts” on the topic, and they seem to be inconsistent upon when it should be used. Perhaps it should be abandoned simply because of the trouble it presents. (Mark Twain said: “Damn the subjunctive. It brings all our writers to shame.”) Perhaps I should totally abandon its use, but in spite of what William and Mary wrote, I know that many people, including “educated, literate speakers and writers” continue to struggle to use it correctly. Perhaps I should accept what they say and give up the burden of trying to get it right.

All this highlights the difficulty for those trying to identify what is appropriate English usage. The language is not static; it changes, and no one can know the precise point when some substandard usage becomes acceptable. That is also true for the creation or new use of words. William and Mary Morris refer to vogue words that crop up suddenly, get attention, but “soon become debased by overuse and lose their initial sparkle and freshness.” They gave a list from thirty or more years ago: “input, output, hangup, freak out, flap, camp, kitsch, watershed, bench mark, overview, empathy, infrastructure, phase (in and out), ongoing, seminal, in depth, feedback, escalate, relevant, generation gap, clout, biodegradable, interface, parameter, ingroup, outgroup, peer group, synergy and synergistic, and longuette.” Presumably the authors thought these terms would largely have disappeared by now, but many of them are still in frequent use. However, I would like to banish some of them. I just turned off a TV show about cars during which the voiceover told me about driver inputs. I would have been embarrassed to have said that, but there it was. But some of those vogue words–even those that are cringeworthy–have not disappeared but have settled into secure and useful places in the language. It is hard to predict the development of English.

If the language is constantly changing, why try to promulgate standards of what some maintain is correct usage? A century ago Ambrose Bierce would demean such a standard bearer as a “lexicographer”: “A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.”

In an epilogue, panelists for Contemporary Usage commented on this tension between correct usage and ongoing language development. Frances Fritchman said, “We are not just quaint antiquarians opposing progress. What we are really fighting for is clarity, accuracy, exactitude—qualities never more needed than now!” Of course, every age probably says that clarity and accuracy are essential, but it is correct that standards can help assure proper communication. (Some would, however, vehemently object to that exclamation point.)

The panelist Vermont Royster also makes that point: “What I deplore is the debasement of the language, whether from violation of the simple and logical rules of grammar or from using good, useful words wrongly. . . . The consequence is a breakdown in communication. Not only are subtleties and shades of meaning lost, but in some cases there is actual misunderstanding between writer and reader, the writer intending one meaning, the reader receiving another. This occurs no matter whether it is the writer or the reader who is using the language wrongly.” However, in spite of what Royster says, the rules of grammar are often not simple and logical. For example, even though recognizing its illogicality, William and Mary Morris maintain that the “preferred usage is ‘two times two is four,’ not ‘two times two are four.’” But why does it matter for accurate communication whether is or are is used?

Similarly, should there be a concern if a subtlety or shade of meaning is lost if the communication is still clear? The panelist Earl Ubell wrote: “When someone says ‘I am nauseous’ rather than the correct ‘I am nauseated,’ I have to learn to hold my tongue because if I make the correction, no matter how gently, my respondent responds with a grimace that say ‘Pedant! Elitist! Nit-Picker!’ and worse.” (Wasn’t it condescending to write to William and Mary Morris and the other panelists that “nauseated” was correct?) Who doesn’t understand me if I say “I am nauseous” or “A nauseating smell came from the rendering plant”? If the communication is clear, when is it pedantry to say the “wrong” word is used? Since I learned at about the age of sixty-five the difference between the two words, I have tried to use them correctly, but I believe that I was understood perfectly well before then. (The Morrises, unwittingly anticipating and differing with Royster, say about the increasing misuse of “nauseous,” “it seems reasonable to infer that we may be here considering an instance of gradually changing usage.”)

Correct usage, however, can also help the struggle against pomposity and euphemisms. Elizabeth Hardwick, another panelist, wrote, “I feel a great many of the barbarisms are an expression of distrust of simple language, a fear that the simple words are not refined enough. . . . Bureaucratic, Latinate words are preferred to old root words of common speech. All of this depresses me.” Clear, simple language is worth promoting, but I also like Hardwick’s openness to new formulations. She also said, “On the other hand I love new coinages from ‘street language’ when they are imaginative and fresh. I like ‘split’ for going away quickly. . . .”

Her comment made me think of when I first heard dissed, as in, “He dissed me.” When I understood that coinage, it conveyed in a succinct manner something meaner than “He insulted me” or “He ignored me.” It had value. Promoting English language standards should not stand opposed to all changes in speech and writing.

 As I write this, I wonder why I read style and usage books, and I realize that mostly I hope to make my speech and writing clearer and more precise. But I also realize that there is something more at work. I like words. They are fascinating and magical. I simply like learning about them. The use of some words can make me cringe; the use of some words is befuddling. However, the use of some can please and delight. I read the guidebooks in hopes of being better able to use words well. I agree with Evelyn Waugh who said, “Words should be an intense pleasure just as leather should be to a shoemaker.” I have never made shoes, but I like both words and leather. So, I read on.