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The Biblio Files
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We (Steve and Helen) irresponsibly gave up our promising careers in aviation and bookselling over ten years ago. Now books seem to have taken over our lives. We frequent libraries, bookstores, and thrift shops in search of interesting books. We buy/swap/sell, but mainly, we read. We both wear glasses and have been mistaken for librarians.

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SEPTEMBER 9, 2008 6:26PM

Verbing Weirds Language

Rate: 18 Flag

calvin

 

An opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post had the language world spouting off on one of its most divisive topics: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.


Jonathan Yardley, the Post's book reviewer, wrote a loquacious paean to the Strunk and White book. The response was immediate. Geoffrey Pullum, in his excellent Language Log blog, was rendered nearly speechless with outrage, and referred readers to the response from Jan Freeman, who writes a language blog for the Boston Herald.


Freeman pulled no punches. She pointed out that one of the authors, E.B. White, noted essayist, poet, and author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, regularly violated the rules set out in Elements of Style, and called the book 'laughable.' Pullum, linguist and debunker of the myth that Eskimos have thirty (or fifty or a hundred) words for “snow,” called the Yardley piece “pompous, sentimental mush.” He went on to describe Elements of Style a “little hodgepodge of bad grammar advice and stylistic banalities.”


The Elements of Style is only one of any number of guides to using English correctly. The trouble with most of these is that they are prescriptive in nature, that is, they seek to keep language from changing. Languages change, though. They all do. All the time. The only thing as inevitable as language change is our desire to stop it.


In some countries, notably France, there is a panel of learned scholars who pretend to dictate how the language should be used. They have little effect on how language is actually used, regardless of their pronouncements. In German-speaking European countries, the government-mandated spelling reforms of 1996 have yet to be adopted by most people. America has a history of ambitious people attempting to reform English spelling. Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, librarian Melvil Dewey, all tried and failed to simplify American English. Attempting to stop language from changing would be just as futile.


In Lonnie Lazar's impassioned post today about the use of the word “impact” as a verb, he links to a page citing the American Heritage Usage Panel's overwhelming disdain for verbing nouns. Even as they proscribe using “impact” as a verb, they note that it has been used as both noun and verb since before the year 1601. Then they remind us that the word “contact” has only been commonly used as a verb for some thirty years, but that no one considers that a no-no anymore.


Note to Strunk, White, Fowler, and Lynn Truss: Verbing Happens!

 

 

  verb is a noun

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Great post!

I haven't had a chance to read all the links yet but I will. I don't know why I find all this stuff so interesting but I'm sure it's connected to why I was an English major.

I loved the nod to Calvin & Hobbes. I miss that comic.
I LOVE y'all!

Yes, you are correct, verbing wierds language and we are powerless to stop it. However, I maintain that some breaches are of such a magnitude that it becomes incumbent upon linguiphiles to point out the absurdity of non-mellifluous usage.

Despite its having come into popular usage after my personal age of majority, I find the desire to contact others quite a natural thing. As I admitted in my post, I lay myself bare to the charge of pedantry when I declaim against verbing "impact".

Words R Fun, innit?
So "impact" was not a verb, how weird indeed.
irregardless...?

...is the ironic name of a (good) restaurant in my town.
I could have cared less and yet I couldn't. ;)

I can't lie. (Well, I can but ...) I love Strunk and White. And Calvin & Hobbes. Especially the snowmen.

But, the language must grow or it will die.

However, the mix-up of possessive and plural ... I can't stand it.

Jesus Save's, ya'll.
Thanks for your post Lonnie, it really got me thinking.

Irregardless...? RCMoya, you had me going over my post word by word to see where I had used it. I find 'regardless,' which my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate 11th edition prefers to 'irregardless.' Webster's New World College 4th Edition takes a dim view of 'irregardless.' I can't imagine that using one or the other would "impact" one's understanding of the meaning, though.
odetteroulette, do not (DO NOT!) get me started on apostrophes.
I mentioned you on roving reader.

search "9/09/08" in header to see it.
Comrade Lonnie and I stand shoulder to shoulder. Futile quest? Indeed! But one that must be undertaken!

I remember that Calvin & Hobbes cartoon well. I'm pretty sure about a dozen people called my attention to it over the years as this is one of my, um, "issues." Verbification can sometimes benefit understanding, and I am not inalterably opposed to changes to language. I just hate it when people use words incorrectly in a pompous effort to puff themselves up.
My favorite word to hate for odd usage: interface.
'Irregardless'. Oy vey.
I do love Strunk and White, although I realize that language will change whether we like it or not. As long as we don't all end up talking like the people in 'Idiocracy', I'll be fine.

"Electrolytes: it's what plants crave!"
Wee! I love words, and weirding language. Wonderful post, and great links.

I'm a word geek, this sort of article makes me giddy.
Loved the post. A really great essay that touches on the debate between the prescriptivists and descriptivists is: David Foster Wallace's review of Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

In it, he uses a term that I have come to love: grammar snoot. This can be used perjoratively or as a compliment.
My favorite usage to hate: oversight

oximoronish, no?
Thanks. I feel much better telling this to someone who cares!
I live in France and I have to say, though people don't listen to every minute proclamation of the Academie Francaise, in my opinion, just their existence has severely slowed the evolution of the French language. They cast this ghoulish shadow over the whole country and people are really hysterical about proper language use. People who speak in French ebonics ("verlan") are basically seen as the second coming of satan (though that could be a race\class issue too). I think the French language has suffered because of this inflexibility.

Even though I'm anal about spelling and grammar I think that languages should be able to evolve freely. Although hypocritically, mistakes bother me. Maybe I only like mistakes if they are intentional.
Also iIwas not trying to invent the word "raceclass" there was a slash between those words I swear.
Wonderful post! I'm always glad to see passionate responses to language, even if they are wrong-headed criticisms of Strunk and White. Coincidentally, I just purchased the new paperback edition of Strunk and White with the illustrations by Kalman. I'm not sure that I approve of all the new examples in the text, but I do like her illustrations.

My personal hobby horse is serial commas, which I adore. I'm losing the war, but enjoying the battles. Though lately I've been discouraged by the number of writers that seem to think that articles are optional.
ePriddy, thanks! Your new blog looks like it may be the answer to keeping up with good posts.

Alexandria, thanks for the link, it took a while, but it's worth the time to read.

oversight. snoot. idiocracy. interface. electrolytes. inalterably.
raceclass n [CBMN race/class, L classis, OIt razza] (2008) 1a: racial or social rank; esp as one relates to the other b: a collection of adjacent and discrete divisions of social order c: an explanation of prejudices with various origins
cuteboys - Judging from all the English words in the popular French press, I thought no one even paid attention to the Academie. Thanks for the view from the banlieue. And I completely agree with you about being correct. On one hand I know that what is *correct* is ever-changing, but some things just hurt my ears.

sanjuro-san - Optional articles? I don't like the sound of that. My current pet peeve is using the present instead of future tense. News readers do this a lot: "We're back after these messages." I want them to say "We WILL be back."
Perhaps English is developing its own gerundive style?
The Académie française is losing authority, it seems. They tried to take a step toward simplification by abolishing the circumflex accent (ê, â, etc.) in most cases. Everybody ignored them. The parallel authorities in Belgium and Quebec refused to play along, and the French themselves paid no attention. Actually, as somebody who learned to write French mostly as a teeenager, I never felt that accent as a big problem, irrational though it may be.

Similarly, many native speakers of English seem to believe that the irrational spelling must be a big problem for second language learners. I've been teaching second-language students for 25 years, and I don't remember any who felt spelling as a major stumbling block. Compared to our irrational uncountables like 'furniture,' or the use of articles, spelling is as nothing.

Oh, and I'm quite in favour of verbing nouns. I don't think there's an older verb that means what 'impact' means. Essentially, it contracts the older expression 'have an impact' into a more economical package.
"Nothingness itself nothings"
I'll just say I have nothing of substance to add to this discussion and leave it at that.

Excellent work. Especially using Calvin & Hobbes and Family Circle.
While I understand that language is an ever-changing entity, some things are just ridiculous. Case in point - impactful. Who in the heck decided that this should be a word? Wasn't it bad enough when we "verbed" impact?
In New Orleans, some people refer to the apostrophe as a “comma to the top”. These tend to be people who randomly insert them when not required. This annoys my mother, but I try to save my annoyance for bigger things.

Shakespeare used new words like crazy - some caught on in common use, some were forgotten and never reused. Yes, language changes. I say, take advantage of this if you can. I, personally, use the word “coolth”. Can you tell me why we have a word for “warmth” but not a corresponding one for when it is cold? We should.

Also, we need an accepted term for the plural “you”, as other languages have. I know that, “you” is plural as well, but no one recognizes that. Obviously people are searching for one with “you guys”, “yous” and “y’all”, among others. Then people laugh at the plural “you” used by other groups.

I so love Calvin!
As an English professor I've been outed by students for verbing. I like to use the invented verb "calendaring" when discussing due dates for assignments. I'm not mentioning this movie because it was entertaining or particularly well-made but Idocracy which came out in the last year or so had a grim view of language use in the future. In the movie's dystopia spoken language is much like our texted language now and it's dismal. However, the movie made me wonder how educated speakers of say English in the 1800s might feel if they landed in 2008. They might feel just as worried as I was when I saw that movie.
Anyone who’s written for publication has experienced the excruciating process of editing and being edited. After banging on a sentence, rearranging every which way, removing the words that don’t do real work ("omit needless words!"- S&W"), eventually the sentence kind of just *pops* into place, as if it had always existed. And you know what? At the end of all that pain and sweat, the sentence usually conforms to S&W and Fowler and the general dictates of grammar in more ways than not.

At the risk of seeming cranky, most people writing either for business or casually have not read deeply or widely enough to know their alternatives as far as craft. They are not actually making conscious choices in their writing; they just do what feels best out of a limited toolbox. And they never revise, so they never realize how much better their sentences can be, how much clearer the thought, and why “the rules” are the rules because they generally work.

Verbing does indeed weird language, and good writers avoid it not because they are going to get a ruler smack, but because in most cases it is sloppy, vague, and inaccurate, and the writer has better alternatives.

The professional writer tells friends they just spent three days writing 1500 words, and their companions are astounded at the lack of productivity. But the writer may write that 1500 words over again completely from scratch 5 times, triple-spacing the copy and line editing brutally between. Every word pleads for its life, and often gets the axe anyway. It’s messy, and the writer learns not to buy expensive shoes.

Take me: As is plainly evident from this post, my first drafts are crap. But I am willing to claw my way across the ice with my fingernails. And I get paid as a professional writer.

Now I think I better get some coffee and start revising…. :-)
Love words, love the post!

You know the one I hate? "Incent" as a verb. Ugh. My husband uses it all the time. But, yeah, language is alive!!
Incent. It's a back-formation from incentive, I guess. I've never heard anyone use it, but my first thought is that it's better than 'incentivize', which I have heard. Not sure why either is necessary when 'motivate' would do.
If I recall my theater history correctly, The Académie Française also tried to rigidly regulate 17th c. stage productions in a way that seems hilarious now. They declared that all productions had to meet their established tenets of verisimilitude. Any play that didn't seem REAL to them was given the axe. Anyway - obviously that didn't work....
When I was in composition class in college, I told the teacher I was having trouble remembering modifiers from something else. She said, "Don't worry about it. You already know how to write. "

Spelling and punctuation are the only things that have to be learned by route. We learn how to write from listening and reading. Who needs a book on grammer or diction, when it can be absorbed naturally anyway? Then again, depending on where people pick up language, they might not even get exposed to proper English. It's all just a form of communication. As long as you get a point accross, I suppose it doens't matter how it's done. Style is not that important except for professional writers. And too many writers confuse style for substance. There are a lot of eloquent people making irrational, illogical, or disengenous points. Just listen to politicians or lawyers.