Our changing language: When does wrong become right?—James Harbeck (EAC conference 2014)

“My head literally exploded.”

Does that sentence drive you crazy?

It reflects a change in the usage of “literally”—one that not everyone accepts. The history of English, though, is replete with examples of usages and syntax that were once considered wrong but that we now accept unthinkingly. “Our job as editors is to be bouncers at the door of our texts,” said James Harbeck. We have to decide which changes to our language to let in and which to keep out.

Language changes, said Harbeck, and we take part in that change. We can’t always predict or control how it will change, and we’re usually unaware of how it has changed in the past. Some people fall into what Harbeck calls the “etymological fallacy”—the belief that if a word used to mean something, that must be its true meaning.

Change happens at the word level—as we gain or lose words or parts of words or as words change in meaning or spelling—and at the syntactic level. (Language also changes at the sound level, but those changes don’t affect us as much in editing.) “Change at word level is like getting new books or rearranging them on a shelf,” said Harbeck. “Change to syntax is like rebuilding the shelves.”

Change comes through invention, borrowing, reinterpretation, or gradual shift. But why does it happen?

  • To make life easier: We often find new ways of expressing ourselves that take fewer words or syllables (e.g., “gonna” for “going to”) or that add clarity (e.g., “you all” for the plural “you”).
  • To feel better: “It’s fun,” said Harbeck. “We enjoy wordplay, clever slang, and cute turns of phrase.” We especially like borrowing words about food. “It’s like borrowing something else to eat,” said Harbeck. “Words go in your mouth, just like food.” Slang and jargon also help us build an in-group identity.
  • To control: Because our language use creates in-groups, we inevitably judge other groups based on their language, which can lead to class-based deprecation. “The poor raise pigs and cows; the rich eat porc and boeuf,” said Harbeck. Efforts to control our thoughts through marketing may also introduce new words and syntax into everyday speech. But “The most insidious kind of change is the change that pretends to be preserving the language against change,” Harbeck said. The grand prescriptivist “rules” that define “proper English” are all changes introduced in the last three centuries.
  • Things slip: Words can broaden, narrow, or shift in meaning. “Basic phonological processes can lead to reanalysis of word boundaries,” said Harbeck. And the people who introduce a language change may not be its vectors. For example, marketing invents while consumers carry.

How do we editors decide what to go with? Harbeck suggests we evaluate each situation as follows:

1. What is the change? Really?

Has a word leaped across a word-class boundary to become a different part of speech? Has its meaning changed? Its spelling? Try to pinpoint exactly what has shifted.

2. Where did it come from? When?

“The Oxford English Dictionary is honestly my favourite swimming pool,” said Harbeck. Use the OED online to trace the history of an innovation in English. You can also look at usage manuals, sites like the Language Log, and Google Ngrams, which can give you good historical information.

3. Where is it used? By whom?

Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English can give you information about collocations, and Google Ngrams can let you see what texts were using them when. Also refer to texts that are similar to the one you’re working on.

4. Who is your text for?

This is where register comes in. Are you writing for the business world? A magazine? A newspaper? An academic journal? Your Twitter followers? “When you’re deciding on register,” said Harbeck, “you’re really estimating your audience’s LCI—Linguistic Crustiness Index.” How will your audience receive and react to the usage?

5. What are the gains and losses?

When you use an expression like “most unique,” what are you gaining, and what are you losing? You are diluting absoluteness, but you may be gaining a way of expressing a quality that a synonym of “unique”—say, “unusual”—may not capture. If a change adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping.

Where is our language going? With the caveat that you can’t necessarily predict how it will change, Harbeck expects the following trends:

  • Greater flexibility in crossing word-class boundaries, which may start out as deliberate play but will seep through to everyday language.
  • Influence from second-language speakers. “Expect Chinese to have a perceptible effect,” said Harbeck.
  • Use of “they” in the singular. “Singular ‘they’ will prevail. The battle is over. They’re picking up the dead bodies right now,” Harbeck said. Expect a clarifying “they all” or “theys” to develop in parallel with “you all” and “youse.”
  • Acceptance of certain kinds of danglers as sentence adverbials.

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