Word Watch – August 2010

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Two months ago, Leland Yeager commented in this place about the virtues of prescriptivism — the act of prescribing grammar and diction, not just of putting up with them. He made a brilliant defense of the practice. Now I want to take another step, and comment in favor of purism.

That’s where prescriptivism leads, because there’s no point
in prescribing something if what you prescribe is adulterated. Imagine a doctor telling you that you need 5 mg of benazepril, but writing you a prescription for 3 mg, with a little sugar coating. No, you want the pure dose.

And please don’t tell me that people who believe in liberty and individualism should be above the rules of usage. This is like saying that Tiger Woods would be a better golfer if he refused to play more than 15 holes. No, Tiger’s task is to assert his individual significance by showing that he can win a game that has certain rules. There’s nothing offensive to the cause of individualism in conceding that golf courses have 18, rather than 12 or 19 holes. There’s nothing offensive about conceding that pronouns in the English language have distinctive case endings, and that “just between” is consequently followed by “you and me,” not “you and I.” Individualism doesn’t mean illiteracy — that is, ignorance of such rules.

I need to stipulate that “pure” does not mean prissy. A real purist doesn’t prescribe the same thing for all occasions. A doctor doesn’t do that, and neither does a decent rhetorician. The immortal couplet from “Buttons and Bows,” “East is east, and west is west, / And the wrong one I have chose,” would not be improved by substituting “chosen” at the end of the second line.

One of my jobs at the college where I work is training new teachers. I spend a lot of time telling them that students need to know specific reasons for the advice we give. I apply this principle especially to the supposed rule against “colloquialisms,” especially contractions. So far as I know, there’s only one English-language venue that has ever banned contractions, and that was British parliamentary reports. In those documents, people were always saying things like, “So we are being asked to believe, are not we, that you were in Bessarabia at that time? Or were not you?” Unfortunately, the result of my advice is that the new teachers go off and write in the margins of their students’ papers, “Avoid contractions!”

Nevertheless, the rule is: use contractions when you want a slightly informal tone. Putting contractions into the Gettysburg Address wouldn’t increase its effect; keeping contractions out of a popular song — or out of this column — would probably destroy its effect.

Now here’s another problem. Suppose you’re a purist, and you’re giving purist advice . . . And why the hell would you give advice if you didn’t intend it to be purist advice? Fine, fine. But to whom are you giving this advice — dude?

Clearly, you’re giving it to other purists, or would-be purists.

You’re not giving it to the vast throng of writers and speakers who want to express themselves only by means of the “thoughts” they want to “communicate,” without any desire to communicate themselves as knowledgeable and discerning people in the way they convey their thoughts. For these writers and speakers, it is perfectly good enough to say, “Hopefully, we’ll share some facetime in common, just between you and I” — despite the case error in “I,” the redundancy in “share . . . in common,” the ungrammatical substitution of “hopefully” for “I hope,” and the repulsively dehumanizing image of “facetime.” It’s good enough, because they got their “message” across — not noticing that their request for “facetime” will be eclipsed, for all recipients who have ever read a good book, by the realization that the writer or speaker has not read any such book.

It’s really a question of whom you want to address. If you address an audience of purists, you’ll be able to communicate with everyone else as well. If you address an audience of everyone else, the purists will get the message you intend — and they’ll also receive the message of your disregard for the words you’re using.

So far, though, I’ve been choosing easy examples. So far, that is to say, I’ve been intellectually dishonest.

A comparison: one can’t establish the virtues of libertarianism by contrasting it with the philosophy of the concentration camp. One establishes them by contrasting it with things that aren’t so far away. One shows that although modern liberals agree with libertarians on the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of the internet, they miss the importance of a free economic life. One shows that although modern conservatives agree with libertarians about the value of capitalism, they don’t agree with libertarians about the individual’s right to decide what he does with his body. In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Dido’s Carthage is contrasted with Aeneas’ Rome, not because they are so violently different, but because they appear to be so similar. That’s where the intellectual quality of
the argument comes in. Anyone can see that aardvarks and zebras aren’t the same — but literate people and pseudoliterate people? Ah, that’s different.

So let’s look at a set of words that seem to make sense, but don’t.

Here’s the headline on a sad news item from Time magazine’s online service, dated April 10: “Poland Mourns a Plane Crash That Decimates Its Government.” Well, what’s the matter with that?

One thing is the word decimates, which now crops up almost everywhere as a default term for “does something bad to.” Originally, “decimation” meant selecting one-tenth of a troop of soldiers who deserved punishment (usually for rebellion or losing

a battle), and killing them, so as to inspire the others. Surely this is a resonant image. Picture a Roman army; picture one-tenth of them being chosen by lot. These men are clubbed to death by the others. That is decimation. But that is not what happened in the Polish air crash.

I recognize the objection: no intelligent person would argue that the original meaning of every word ought to be restored.
But sometimes the original meaning is distinctive and resonant enough to merit reverent identification and preservation. “Decimate” meets that criterion. It’s a vivid, dramatic word. But fairly late in the history of the English language, “decimate” developed
a broader and weaker meaning. It came to mean “destroy some significant portion of something.” The something didn’t have to be one-tenth, or anywhere near it: “Napoleon decimated the armies of the Papal States.”

That was a loss of distinctiveness. But today, “decimates” means almost anything, so long as it’s bad. Consider the Polish
air crash. What happened was that the plane went down, killing everyone on board, including the president of the republic. The plane hit the ground and dissolved in a million fragments. It was a scene of complete and senseless destruction, not of partial, selective, purposeful execution. The two may seem similar, when you describe them from a sufficient distance; but they are different.

Why didn’t Time’s writers choose a different word from “decimates”? Why not “destroys,” “devastates,” “slays”? You know the answer. None of the writers knew what “decimates” means or suggests. Perhaps you’re thinking that only a purist would notice this; but if that’s true, then only a purist understands the range of literary effects that the English language affords. Shouldn’t all writers be purists?

But purists aren’t concerned just with distinctions among words; they are also concerned with whether words are successful at communicating the author’s meanings. Success can generally be measured in terms of truth and ease. Truth: do the words convey the intended meanings and suggestions? Ease: does the reader have to stop and wonder about some obstacle that could be removed, without impoverishing the author’s meanings?

“Ease” isn’t dumbing complexities down; it’s expressing them as easily as they can be expressed. For example: the purist doesn’t worry about the fact that “medium” has two plural forms in English; indeed, the purist insists that “media” be used for newspapers and broadcasting and other means of communicating with the public, but that “mediums” be used for people whose profession is the alleged communication with spirits. Why? Because if I said, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consorted with spirit media,” readers would stop and wonder whether they were sure of what I meant; and the same would happen if I wrote, “Charles Foster Kane owned many American mediums.”

But our headline from Time asserts that “Poland Mourns a Plane Crash.” Is that literally and plainly true, or did you have to translate its words into something that made sense? Is it true that Poles attended the funeral of (“mourned”) a plane crash, or that they mourned the victims of the crash? The latter, of course — but you had to translate the headline into that meaning, or the words would have made no sense.

A minor problem? Yes, but it’s typical of the root problem
to which only purism provides a solution. The purist asks, of everything one writes, “Can you visualize this? Can you see what is meant, without having to translate the words you see into some other terms?”

Further examples of the problem appear in the same regrettably typical news story. “Poland,” it says, “launched a week of national mourning.” “Launched”? Really? You launch a ship; you don’t launch a week. Well, you say, that’s just a dead metaphor: don’t worry about trying to visualize it. But it’s not so dead as to have lost all connotations, or else it wouldn’t have been chosen as a colorful word for a news report. And “launch” connotes constructive beginnings, not horrifying ends. It’s the wrong image. Again, to get the intended meaning, you have to translate it.

Read on. Referring to a Polish and a Russian leader, the Time report says, “Tusk and Putin showed solidarity in the face of the tragedy by holding a joint press conference at the place of the catastrophe.” I’ll lodge a small objection to the unfortunate rhyme: “solidarity . . . tragedy . . . catastrophe.” Obviously, no one tried

to read this aloud. But the big thing is the equation of “tragedy” with “catastrophe.” The words are as similar, and as different, as Dido and Aeneas. Here they are an instance of what “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” sarcastically names “elegant variation” — the substitution of one word for another, just to prevent a verbal repetition.

Repetition of words is sometimes necessary. It isn’t here. Something bad happened to the government of Poland; that we know. But must we go on saying it — “tragedy . . . catastrophe”? And if we’re embarrassed about repeating our concepts, must we try to cover ourselves by varying our words? Here’s where pomposity takes precedence over ease of reading. The reader is supposed to see that “tragedy” and “catastrophe” are the same. But intelligent readers know they are not the same. They know that a lot of catastrophes aren’t tragedies, and a lot of tragedies aren’t catastrophes. A loss of 100 seats in Congress would be a catastrophe for the party that lost them, but it might not be a tragedy. It might be a comedy. On the other hand, the death of someone’s spouse might be a tragedy, but it wouldn’t be a catastrophe, at least for anyone else.

When you shuffle words about, like marbles on a Chinese checkerboard, pretending they’re the same, you make your reader pause and perform a kind of verbal algebra: “Ah, I see. ‘Tragedy’ and ‘catastrophe’ are ordinarily different, but here they must refer, symbolically, to the same thing.” Why not write, simply and clearly, “Tusk and Putin showed solidarity by holding a joint press conference at the place where the plane went down”?

Ah, but when did it go down? And what does “going down” really mean? These are problems introduced, quite by accident,
in the unfortunate Time account: “When descending, the plane clipped the tree line and broke in two, resulting in the deadly crash that has sent Poland into mourning.”

When I read that I thought, Yes, thank you for wasting my time once more. The report laboriously assured me that it wasn’t starting to discuss some crash other than the deadly crash that has sent Poland into mourning — but what’s the good of that information? I never thought it was some other crash. Now: when did the plane “crash”? According to Time, the plane “broke in two,” and then it “crash[ed].” Very interesting. It gives me hope that, the next time I’m on an airplane that breaks in two, there may not be a “deadly crash,” because the crash and the breaking in two will be two distinct and separable things.

All nonsense, of course. The Time report is literal nonsense: read literally, it makes no sense. But that’s the weird thing about purists: we actually object to using words without making sense.

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