Bind and loose
The first edition is in, I’m fighting off a cold, and there’s no prospect of a toddy for four more hours. Still, there’s you, my faithful audience.
The Subversive Copy Editor posted a truly subversive editing quiz the other day. Make a good-faith effort to complete it before you turn to the post with the answers.* Never forget that editing, properly understood and conducted, can foster humility.
John Cowan, whose comments I always take seriously, pointed out, responding to my post on refute, that the OED shows the word in the sense of rebut back to 1895 and said that it’s too late to go back now. He may be right, and I may be standing at the barn door more than a century after the horse has run off, but I still think that the distinction is worth considering.
The thing about the OED and the historical record of English—both of which I have cited freely in argument—is that you can use them, like Scripture, to back up any point you like. Jane Austen wrote every body … their; which I have come to think is fine, but she also used an apostrophe with the possessive pronoun hers.
Probably a majority of English speakers use refute in the loose sense; I am, of course, free to use it myself in the strict sense, but what am I to make of widespread practice when I edit or instruct my students?
I’m still trying to steer a middle course between fussy hyper-precision and Anything Goes.
If you are, or aspire to be, a reasonable prescriptivist, you can’t ignore widespread usage. At some point, it sweeps away the previous senses of words. Not even a hard-shell representative of the peevery would insist on nice in its original sense of “stupid” or “foolish” in a contemporary text.
But a reasonable prescriptivist takes to heart H.W. Fowler’s advice that useful distinctions of meaning ought to be maintained. Loath and loathe may derive from the same Old English root, but they have developed useful distinctions in meaning. I won’t insist that decimate can mean only to reduce by a tenth, but I won’t let it mean “destroy” or “annihilate” or whatever else they intend it to mean on sports pages.
Fowler’s advice, however, also means that when distinctions cease to be meaningful, there is no point in struggling over them. You won’t find me in the last ditch if the skirmish over career/careen should ever be renewed.
So you, you aspirant to reasonable prescriptivism, make your judgments, based on how you see the language used by the most effective writers you encounter. Just keep in mind how humble you were after taking Ms. Saller’s quiz.
*All right, go ahead and cheat. But you won’t get the full benefit.