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Strike the colors

Like General Lee, an editor has to know when it’s time to surrender.

But not without a fight.

Fourteen years ago, a memo from the editor of this paper deplored the persistence of the word host as a verb in our pages. So the copy desk included it in the house stylebook’s prohibitions and rooted it out of copy.

But, despite being dismissed by purists as a vulgar vogue usage, it persisted elsewhere. A couple of years ago, the Associated Press Stylebook changed its entry on host to permit its use as a verb, and The Sun’s copy desk grudgingly gave way. If host as a verb grates on your ear, you don’t have to use it, but you can’t deny it to anyone else.

A similar pattern occurred with contact. In the 1940s and 1950s to contact, emerged as a vogue in advertising circles and among other captives to fads. It, too, failed to sink under the scorn of purists, and, as the means of getting in contact with one another — telephone, fax, computer, cellular phone and others — multiplied, it became increasingly common. Today even mossbacks allow it.

The writers who wag their heads and bewail the decay of the English language might fasten on these examples. But it is probably more sensible to see them as evidence that the language simply changes, as it always has. Nouns become verbs, and verbs nouns. Words shed old senses and put on new ones.

Like the tectonic plates in geological theory whose shifting and grinding explain volcanoes and earthquakes, the language we speak and write is moving beneath our feet, sometimes slowly, sometimes explosively. Whom may vanish from the active language altogether except as an archaism, as some grammarians have forecast (though not while I’m alive). Everyone … their appears to be moving toward acceptance in standard American English, though against considerable resistance.

But since we cannot tell with any certainty where the language is going, it is left to us to exercise judgment, individually and collectively, about what constitutes clarity and precision. We resist when we judge it right to do so, and we surrender when it is prudent.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

I'm going to resist "gonna" till they slam my fingers in a desk drawer, though.

John: Second your motion on prudence and caution, but may I recommend Allan Metcalf's "Predicting New Words" -- a pretty decent formula for predicting some elements of change?

As for "gonna," that's a different category from "host" or singular "their." It's a very widespread speech feature that says a lot more about people who write it than people who say it. It's probably equally widespread in trailer parks and English departments, but guess which one shows up in the paper?

I'm with Peter. Fight this one until the guns flood out.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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