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The war on error

As in the U.S. government’s war on terrorism, the war on error in English usage has been marked by vehement pronouncements, miscalculations and attacks on the wrong targets.

This has been going on for some time, as can be seen in a book that a reader, Bill Walderman, has kindly brought to my attention. English Usage: Studies in the History and Uses of English Words and Phrases was written by Professor J. Lesslie Hall of the College of William and Mary and published by Scott, Foresman in 1917. An examination of its chapters — it’s readily available, having been digitized by Google Books — shows that reason, scholarship and appeal to the idiom of the language have long been slugging it out with superstition and uninformed fiats.

Professor Hall took up the cudgels on the former side. He says in his preface: “I have long felt that not only purists but a far better class of men were putting us, teachers and pupils and general public, in strait-jackets. Distinguished grammarians and eminent rhetorical scholars condemn in their works many words and phrases that we see all through the literature. They seem at times to combine to expel from the language some locution that we have heard frequently from attractive speakers and have seen often in the works of eminent writers.”

There are, no surprise, entries on not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. But it is interesting to see, in addition to these hoary superstitions, entries on usages once scorned by self-appointed authorities whose objections today seem quaint or beside the point.

I look forward to reading about the debate over gotten, over graduate as an active verb, over pretty and such as adverbs. I long to discover why it was objectionable to use execute in the sense of put to death, why one cannot catch a train, why editorial should not be used as a noun. I’m keen to find out what is wrong with talented.

But see for yourself, and hope that language authorities may yet learn humility.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:24 AM | | Comments (4)


>hope that language authorities may yet learn humility.

Alas, this seems to be telling us that 100 years of considered examination of actual language use among "attractive speakers" (what a great phrase) has not made much of a dent in the desire among the ranks of peevologists to wield their cudgel of prescriptivism on their fellow speakers (attractive or otherwise).

Great headline, Mr. McIntyre. (When copy editors write themselves, do they get to write their own headlines?)

Our bloggers write their own headlines. But when I write for the print edition, my work is edited by other copy editors, and they are responsible for headlines.

Glad you liked this one, though I can make no claim that it is particularly original.

Thanks for the link. I'll have to browse through it sometime.

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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
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