Words & Stuff

J: Unleashing the Prescriptivist Within

(7 September 1997)

I've got my prescriptivist hat on this week. Although I'm fully aware that language changes over time, and that linguistically speaking an utterance is grammatical if a linguistically naive native speaker says it's grammatical, I grew up with a strong grounding in correctness of language -- correct speech and correct writing. And sometimes that background shows itself when I see or hear people misusing words. (Note: I'm not talking about speech errors or typos here; I'm talking about cases where people believe they're using the correct word but aren't.)

I knew someone once who frequently said things like "We've given you new computer systems in light of the old ones" and "In light of a manager, the acting manager is in charge." At first I just couldn't figure out what ta was talking about. Eventually I realized that ta used the phrase "in light of" where most people would use "in lieu of." I speculated that ta just didn't know the word "lieu," and so confused the two fairly common phrases.

Of course, if such misuse becomes widespread enough, it enters the language and becomes an accepted alternative. But for the moment:

Similarly, misspellings of words can come into use based on misunderstood (assumed) etymology. People on the Net frequently refer to "copywrite law" and ask if something is "copywritten"; that spelling seems to make sense because a lot of copyright has to do with written material. The spelling is nonetheless wrong; copyright really has to do with who controls the right to copy something. (I've also seen "copywright," a nice image (perhaps a cross between a scribe and a blacksmith?) but equally incorrect.) I've seen at least one person call an action "foolhearty" when ta meant "foolhardy"; it could just have been a typo, but I suspect ta really believed that was the correct spelling. And a friend of mine didn't know the word "vying" for a long time and thought that a power struggle involved "buying for power."

And then there are the misspellings (and mispronunciations) which don't seem to be based on a mistaken idea or an unknown word; they're just wrong. Common items in this category include "withdrawl" for "withdrawal," "obscentity" for "obscenity," "pentultimate" for "penultimate," and the ever-popular pronunciation /'nu kj@ lR/ for "nuclear." (I've heard everyone from professional physicists to newscasters use this last one; I suspect it's not far from becoming a secondary standard pronunciation.)

We all make mistakes in learning to spell or pronounce words. For probably five years I believed that "stasis" was spelled and pronounced "statis"; when I first consciously noticed the actual spelling I was certain it was a typo. Two friends of mine who are very good with words once firmly believed that "sordid" was spelled and pronounced "sorrid." And nearly everyone I know, including quite a few mathematics and computer-graphics professionals, believes or once believed that "frustum" is spelled and pronounced "frustrum"; I was shocked when I first saw the correct spelling of that.

Of course, language one-upmanship is a game every pedant can play. I'm certain to have committed several errors against pure English in this column (not the least of which is my idiosyncratic approach to gender-specific pronouns). And I know plenty of people who adamantly insist (for instance) that "hopefully" cannot be used to mean "I hope," an insistence that seems a tad old-fashioned to me because I grew up with that usage. Then, too, I use "nauseous" synonymously with "nauseated," a usage many people object to (though my dictionary supports it without so much as a usage note). All us prescriptivists have our own pet peeves, and many of us find each others' silly. All I can say about that is: If you disagree with me, you're wrong.

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>