Friday, February 7, 2014

Keeping up with changes

Language is changing, but this is nothing new for writers. We know this, and for us the struggle is which side to stand on when the issue is any one particular word. For instance, I have a few pet peeves when it comes to writing, and I know I’m not alone, but am I right to want certain words used in certain ways? Or am I merely recording my resistance to a change in progress?

When writers get going on what bugs them, the list of pet peeves ends up longer than the telephone book. (Remember those? No? They were long.) Anyone who follows the discussion on word usage, either by lurking or sharing, is sure to find one of his or her own quirks on the list.

I know one of my writing habits annoys other writers. I have taken to using then as a conjunction. For example, “Anita directed the driver to pull up at the next stop sign, then gave him a new set of directions.” In this sentence I omitted the conjunction and and let then serve as the conjunction. This is an error according to some other writers. My Webster’s (2d College edition) does allow one usage of then with conjunctive force, but the manner in which I use it may go farther than that allowed. But the use of then as a conjunction is clearly the sign of a word in transition. Nevertheless, I was pondering correcting this error in my own writing and enjoying The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© by Carson McCullers when I came across not one, not two, but three sentences in which then was used in the sense of the conjunction and. What’s a writer to do?

Of course, I have a few pet peeves of my own. I cannot hear the word humble without thinking of Uriah Heep, who was anything but. Furthermore, when I hear or read it today, I think the writer must mean modest, moderate in one’s behavior or opinion of oneself, not boastful, rather than humble, not proud, aware of one’s defects, and even a lack of self-respect.

Another word pairing that comes to mind regularly is enormous and enormity. The first, enormous, suggests great size. The second, enormity, suggests great wickedness or outrageousness. Only recently has the dictionary come to recognize that enormity can be loosely used for great size.

Back in the dark ages, in the late 1970s, I carefully read the instructions for preparing a dissertation to be submitted to the graduate school office, not my professors or a panel of academics, but the secretary of the department. One requirement concerned the word none. The word none was to be treated as singular throughout. “None was available” was required, not preferred, usage. Students were warned that no exceptions would be made on the issue of this word. Apparently, the office grammarian could overrule the dissertation committee on a technicality.

Less troublesome but still startling for me is the overuse of the word hero when the word winner would be more appropriate. Indeed, I see the word hero applied to instances of simple good behavior when the person might simply be called decent.

Last, I offer up the fading use of disinterested to mean without bias or interest for personal gain; objective and fair minded. It is not synonymous with indifferent, which can mean neutral but generally means lack of interest. These two words are like ships passing in the night.

The words I have examined here are words in transition. Their meanings are changing, and purists pounce on examples of the new usage as though by correcting one writer we can stem the tide of change. We can’t. We can no more make ain’t acceptable usage for the first person contraction “I am not” than we can change other points of grammar and word usage. Our lectures to our fellow writers are really records of our response to the change happening around us. And sometimes (note the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence, another no-no in the 1970s), we’ll be on the wrong side of the change, and sometimes on the right side. And I personally never know which side I’m on.


Jacqueline Seewald said...


You are right about the changing world of grammar. Perhaps we must simply accept that there are no absolutes. Now so saying, I will admit that certain things bother me as well. One example: the use of "alright" for "all right".

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, Yes, your example is a good one. It makes me wince. As writers I think we try to hold what we regard as the line around proper English, but we can't stop change. Thanks for commenting.

Alice Duncan said...

Sob! You've hit on a topic near and dear to my heart, Susan. As I tell EVERY author whose books I edit, all right is now, always has been, and always will be two words. And . . . but it's not worth going in to here. I'm just a dinosaur, I guess.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Alice, perhaps we should call this site the Dinosaurs Club. Thanks for commenting.