Shampoos and Language Usage Reviews

This week, reading English Usage Book reviews, sociological issues to do with language communities, and a couple of blogs on Americanisms/Britishisms, I noticed two things: one is that, for the most part, commentators on the correct usage of English, despite (or perhaps as a result of) being necessarily finicky over small details, have in general a well-developed sense of humour (my patronizing tone denotes a ‘well done’ here). The second is that, when writing a usage guide for the enormous breadth of a language (and the equally broad potential for error), how does one decide which wrongs are the most worthy of comment? Here comes the shampoo cliche: it must be like standing in front of the shampoos in the personal hygiene aisle and debating the age-old question; which one is going to make the biggest difference? Although for language Usage Guide writers, the question is more likely to be along the lines of: which errors are the most intolerable?

fowler in his wimsuitIt turns out that this truly is the most complex of questions, and I (Alas!) am not the first to ask it. Deborah Cameron has dedicated an entire book to the question ‘How do we decide what makes language good, bad or indifferent?’; Milroy and Milroy warn of the dangers of over-prescriptivising –  at best leading to isolation and segregation within the education system, and at worst (heaven forbid!) making a fashion-feature out of a defective dialect; and even the famous Fowler admits the challenge to himself of limiting his scope in the preface of the first edition of his Modern English Usage in 1926. Given that the issue has never been out of print since, whatever choices he made then, he obviously chose wisely!

Stephen Fry online

The reason for the interest is that language, as it turns out, is something almost everyone has an opinion about. From academic (see Geoffrey K. Pullum’s  50 years of stupid grammar’); to the well-known (such as Stephen Fry’s trendy kinetic typography on ‘5 items or less’); and the just plain frustrated (Strunk and White; Lynne Truss; Ruffled in Tonbridge).  In fact, there are records of language-usage complaints going back as far as … (well, I don’t know, actually, do you?)

The problem is that we will keep changing what we do with it. Two recent examples of language usage which tickled me were the following:

1. The British obsession with the deplorable number of Americanisms in parlance – like – is matched only by the Americans’ equal disdain for Britishisms in their own speech – piffle and toff! (read about both here, and here).

2. The good old British Broadcasting Corporation, taking seriously their responsibility to uphold the British Language, has spent twenty-five years prescribing a course of action on the slippery collocation ‘to concede defeat NOT victory’. Even though, as Anya Luscombe tells us, this is not a standard replicated in other news bulletins, dictionaries or even the British National Corpus, and neither was it thirty years ago!

So who’s right and who’s wrong? And even if you might have been right once, at what point must you respectably hand over the gauntlet and say ‘We’re just going to have to concede defea-, no, admit victor-, no, wait hang on… give up, in over (?) … well, anyways, you get the point, don’t you?

Luscombe, A (2009) BBC Style. A look at the Style Guides and language of BBC Radio News bulletins.

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