Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Word Usage: Optional, not Compulsory

Yesterday we heard from University of Illinois English professor Dennis Baron on the announcement of new words added to Merriam-Webster's dictionary. Here is another perspective, from Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, who argues that journalists reporting on new words often misconstrue the purpose of dictionaries.

Here's a tweet from a Reuters story:

"Crowdsourcing tweeters bonding in bromance and tracking cougars earned an official place in the English lexicon Thursday when Merriam-Webster announced the addition of 150 words to its 2011 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary."

It apparently stuns journalists to discover that lexicographers put words into dictionaries. Publishing houses know this, and their marketing departments regularly fling this sort of chum onto the waters.

The key word in the sentence from Reuters is, of course, official. Stories like this are written for people who think that dictionaries license language — like the schoolteachers and others horrified fifty years ago when Webster's Third International included ain't. Lexicographers, to them, are inviting the children to play with matches.

There is an error in thinking in this attitude, the same error that confuses people about the work of linguists. To say that a word or usage is current and that a fair number of native speakers find it apt in some contexts does not mean that its use is compulsory.

Dictionaries are simply published to inform you about words that are in use and what their meanings are. Words don't get into dictionaries until they have already been out there in the language for a good while. Samuel Johnson thought when he wrote his Plan for the dictionary that he would be able to make English static, to fix it in place. Years later, when he came to write his Preface, he acknowledged ruefully that no such immobility of the language is possible. The only fixed language is a dead language, like classical Latin. English, while it is still alive, cannot be made like Latin.

There is, I think, another and allied attitude, the desire for purity, that leads hard-shell prescriptivists astray.

People who major in English get a dose of this: Spenser calling Chaucer the "well of English undefiled," Dryden writing about the purity of the language, Johnson trying to establish a canon of the best English through the examples in his dictionary. And all this coalesces in the mind of the unreflecting prescriptivist as the idea that there is a pure English, an ideal English, with fixed meanings — typically the vocabulary and usage of the prescriptivist himself — from which any deviation is corruption.

Stated baldly, of course, it's nonsense. We have Chaucer's vigorous and earthy English, Spenser's antique style, Shakespeare's expansiveness, Dryden's classicism, Macaulay's sonorous periodic sentences, Austen's irony, Twain's colloquialism, Hemingway's laconic masculinity. Just look in more recent times at the New Yorker plain style exemplified by Thurber and White, contrasted with the anti-New Yorker roccoco effects of Tom Wolfe. It's all English, to be sure, and you can name any number of additional writers with distinctive effects, but it's all too protean to be pure.

So calm yourselves. The dictionaries add new words. Old words shift or fall out of use. There are people who do not talk like you but yet are completely understandable, and often a good deal less stiff and fussy. There are more urgent concerns than the listing of bromance in a book.

John E. McIntyre is a veteran editor and teacher. He worked for nearly 23 years at The Baltimore Sun, for 14 of those years as head of its copy desk. He has taught copy editing at Loyola of Maryland since 1995. He was the second president of the American Copy Editors Society and has been a consultant on writing and editing at publications in the United States and Canada. You can read more from McIntyre at his blog, You Don't Say.

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Dennis Baron considers the annual lists of new words trotted out by dictionaries.
John E. McIntyre has some pointed words on the craft of writing.
Reactions to the addition of words to the Oxford English Dictionary were overblown.