Are You in a Subjunctive Mood?

In response to my "She Says That as If It's a Bad Thing" post (the "that" referring to calling something the "Boston Tea Party"), a commenter writes:

How can someone say, "She Says That as If It's a Bad Thing"?

In English, we say, "She says that as if it were a bad thing."

"As if" should alert the writer that a "contrary-to-fact" construction, requiring the subjunctive mood, will follow.

A few thoughts in response.

1. In English we generally (though I acknowledge not always) say "we say" to mean "we say." The commenter seems to mean by it "we should say according to the rules that I think we should follow." But looking at what we really say (for instance, by using google) reveals that English speakers use both "say that as if it is a bad thing" and "say that as if it were a bad thing" — and apparently use the former more often than the latter.

So say what you will about what we should be saying, but don't dress it up in the supposedly objective garb of what we actually say and don't say. And, yes, this is a prescription, but one with a sound semantic basis: My claim is that "we say" generally comes across to readers as a descriptive claim, and it's therefore confusing and misleading to use it when one can at most support a prescriptive claim.

2. Even if the commenter is talking about what should be said under the "rules" of the language, I'm not sure that he would be right. To begin with, the subjunctive is largely dying, as various usage dictionaries (such as Merriam-Webster's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage) attest. Even if we take a prescriptivist approach, we would have to identify some reason to think that it is still obligatory, and I don't know of such a reason. Surely even hard-core prescriptivists must accept that at some point their prescriptions stop being obligatory — or else we'd have to keep using "thou" / "thee" / "thy" for the second-person singular familiar.

3. On top of that, I'm actually deliberately not trying to make a claim about whether "[the Boston Tea Party] is a bad thing" is "contrary-to-fact." My point is precisely that this view of the Boston Tea Party may well be perceived as a sound evaluation in some places (chiefly east of the Atlantic) and as unsound in others (chiefly west). Even when the subjunctive was more common than it is now, I'm not sure that the subjunctive would have been used in such contexts. Perhaps it would have been, but again that requires evidence and not just assertion.

But in any event, if I can just get prescriptivists to carefully say "we should say" rather than "we say" (when "we should say" is what they really mean), I'd be happy.

The Trouble with Some Prescriptivist Claims:

One thing that bugs me about many prescriptivist claims (not all, just many) is that they just don't do much to prove that the prescription on which they are relying is indeed in any meaningful sense authoritative. Even if one accepts that "proper English" is to be defined by The Authorities, one needs to further show that The Authorities indeed frown on the particular usage. Instead, one often (again, not always, but often) gets a mix of the following:

1. Bare assertion: Someone says "forte," in the sense of "strength," as "for-tay." Wrong, someone else says, because the right way of saying it is "fort." But even a prescriptivist has to explain why this common pronunciation violates some particular prescriptive rule. Yet often prescriptivists don't point to any such rule — in this instance, for instance, the person who made the objection didn't point to the rule, and I doubt that she could have pointed to such a rule (judging by the sources I've consulted).

In conversation, of course there's no time to look up the term and to give a more complete argument. Some people, though, avoid that by not correcting other people's pronunciation — whether as a matter of good manners or just as a matter of caution, since there are lots of usage and pronunciation myths out there (and I mean myths that even many prescriptivists, I'd wager, would acknowledge as myths). Unless you're very sure of yourself, there's a good chance that the complaint you're about to make is unfounded even for prescriptivists.

In writing, there often is time to check one's claims, and find support for them. Why not do so? If you're going to argue that someone got something wrong, why not make sure that it is he who is wrong, and also find a source that you can cite supporting your claim? In some situations, the error may be so uncontroversial that just pointing out will lead the reader to realize that an error has been made. (I'm happy to get e-mails pointing to typos and other errors, since then I can correct the post; and the great majority of these messages point to mistakes that are entirely uncontroversially mistakes.) But if there's some controversy, it seems that it would be helpful to figure out for sure if one is right, again by prescriptivist standards.

2. My teacher said so: A commenter writes,

Though I recognize that English is a living therefore mutable language I find that I remain a prescriptivist. I had a strict 7th grade English teacher who would never have permitted, " carefully say...". Split infinitives warrented rewrights of entire paragraphs. Perhaps we need to asssign some linguistic norms to "cultural literacy" in addition to correct or acceptable grammar.

The trouble is that not everything your 7th grade English teacher told you is necessarily so. As it happens, many eminently respected usage commentators — such as Fowler, for instance — have challenged the claim that split infinitives are wrong, and have argued that there is no basis for thinking that "no split infinitives" is a legitimate prescription. Perhaps they are the ones who are mistaken; but your 7th grade English teacher's say-so shouldn't be the deciding factor. More broadly, keep in mind that your teacher (1) might have been trying to teach you what she thought was clear or elegant usage, even at the expense of mislabeling as "wrong" usages that were grammatically sound but unclear, (2) might have been oversimplifying complex rules for the purposes of teaching you more effectively, (3) might have been a partisan of one side of the debate, and not told you that the "rules" she was teaching you were controversial, (4) might have been repeating usage myths that were passed along to her by her own teachers, or (5) might have been misremembered by you. Certainly her say-so isn't enough to define "correct or acceptable grammar" or "cultural literacy."

3. I am a language maven and I say so: One commenter, who has firm views that the subjunctive remains obligatory in prescriptive English in a certain context, reports that he is "a language maven with a stack of style manuals on my desk, paid to edit medical and technical literature and to coach students in taking the SAT." His view is that those who disagree with him on this must therefore be "ignoran[t] of simple, straightforward language rules," and is "a challenged speaker of English who writes as if he had never studied, let alone mastered, another language" (or so judged by "the erudite," apparently a category in which the commenter fits). Oddly enough, the commenter does not actually quote the manuals from the stack on his desk.

4. Your style manual is descriptivist bunk: I actually like to look things up in style manuals, and quote them. Thus, for instance, when writing about whether the subjunctive remains obligatory in English, I looked it up in Merriam-Webster's Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Ah, some object, but that authority is descriptivist. Very well; Fowler reported the subjunctive to be generally dying, and while it is alive for "if ... were clauses expressing a hypothesis," he does not report is as obligatory. Burchfield's third edition of Fowler reports that it has enjoyed a resurgence, but it too does not claim that it is obligatory. The American Heritage does say that "According to traditional rules, you use the subjunctive to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact," though this doesn't resolve whether the traditional rules still remain the rules — and, more importantly, it doesn't resolve whether the subjunctive is obligatory in the context in which I used it, where my point was that the presupposed occurrence was not contrary to fact, but rather that its accuracy was controversial. The Columbia Guide isn't clear on this, but it does report that there is "much more divided usage and much more argument about the appropriate usage" on the was/were subjunctive than on the "finite verb" subjunctive ("In conditions contrary to fact, for example, finite verbs such as arrive are rarely put into the subjunctive, except in the most careful Formal English.").

So what we have is disagreement among respected authorities, with at least a good deal of acknowledgment that there is "argument about the appropriate usage." Doubtless the descriptivist sources are the most accepting of a broad range of common usage. But either some prescriptivist sources do at least acknowledge the uncertainty, or the bulk of the authorities has become descriptivist. (Both might also be true.) What basis is there for those who look to the Authorities to simply disregard so many sources? Sure, if all the authorities become descriptivist, then that makes it hard for prescriptivists who care about the authorities. But that's part of the problem with prescriptivism: If you think the prescriptions of the authorities should define the language, you're in trouble when the authorities disagree with that view.

5. But we need rules! Some prescriptivists at this point turn to a general defense of prescriptivism, and of the importance of rules. Very well; at some point, even descriptivists agree with this — rules of grammar are important, and there are plenty of rules that actually do operate in the speech and writing of the great bulk of English speakers. You'll never hear someone saying "I have write to an e-mail" instead of "I have to write an e-mail." There surely is a rule of grammar related to infinitives in play here.

But that there should be rules — and even that there should be rules condemning common usage as well as descriptively highly deviant usage (a matter on prescriptivists and descriptivists do generally disagree) — is not much of an argument in favor of this particular rule. Accepting prescriptivism in general doesn't entail condemning split infinitives as wrong unless one can point so some binding prescription about split infinitives.

6. And we need clarity and precision: Some prescriptivists at time defend prescriptivism on the grounds that certain prescriptivist rules foster clarity and precision, and avoid ambiguity. But, first, not all unclear or imprecise usages are wrong, even if a clear or precise one is better. And, second, many of the often-condemned usages are not at all unclear or imprecise. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is no less clear or precise than "Boldly to go where no man has gone before." And in fact, sometimes split infinitives are clearer and less ambiguous than the unsplit ones. "To [adverb] [verb]" makes clear that the adverb modifies the verb; in "[adverb] to [verb]" and "to [verb] [adverb]" the adverb might apply to the preceding or following verbs. Consider Garner's example, "she expects to more than double her profits next year," or Fowler's, "modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India," and see what happens when the "more than" or "better" gets moved outside the infinitive.

7. If you violate these rules, you'll annoy your prescriptivist readers: Finally, some readers argue that splitting infinitives, putting prepositions at the end of sentences, or violating various other supposed prescriptions simply annoys some readers, and makes them think the less of you. This is the argument I most sympathize with, because it's a descriptivist argument: Though a usage may track what many people, and maybe even almost all people, say and write, it may annoy the remainder so much that cautious writers ought to avoid it. And that's true even if the prescription is utter myth — for instance, if, as with the claim that it's wrong to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, virtually no major reference work accepts the prescription (or at least so my research has led me to conclude). So long as the myth is prevalent enough, one should take it into account, an odd analog of the descriptivist claim that once a usage is prevalent enough, we cannot condemn it as "wrong."

Yet while careful writers should think about this — in fact, I warn students whom I'm advising when they use words that arouse hostility, even if I think the hostility is unjustified — this is an argument about what's prudent, not about what's right. That people are hostile to prepositions at the end of sentences, and believe that there's a rule of grammar condemning them, doesn't make such placement of prepositions wrong as a grammatical matter.

So if you're a prescriptivist, I might not be able to persuade you to convert to descriptivism. But at least I hope that some prescriptivists may be convinced to be more careful about the prescriptivist claims they make. If they argue that the rules of good grammar should be set by authorities, they ought to explain which authorities support the rule they're invoking, and why those authorities — as opposed to whatever rival authorities there may be — are the ones that we should see as binding.

What Do Descriptivists Teach Their Children?

A commenter asks a good question: "What do anti-prescriptivists tell their own children?"

My children are 2 and 3, and I'm told that at those ages it's more effective just to speak around your children the way you want them to speak, rather than setting rules for them. But I've certainly thought about what I ought to tell my children eventually; here are a few thoughts, with the understanding that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

1. Be age-appropriate. A nuanced rule that may work for an older teenager might not work well for a younger child.

2. Teach children to speak and write in ways that will serve them well. My goal isn't to make sure that my child follows the technical rules of grammar. My goal is to make sure that he can speak and write in ways that are clear, that make him look educated, and that will make him seem pleasant and careful rather than pompous and offputting.

There's nothing wrong with the word "ain't," which has been used for centuries, and which I can find no abstract logical reason for condemning. It's just that today using it will lead quite a few people to think the less of you -- much more so than splitting infinitives would, for instance -- and the safe bet is to avoid it, except in fairly clearly jocular contexts. Likewise, there are lots of sesquipedalian words that aren't "wrong," but that one generally shouldn't use (though one should know in case others use them).

3. Teach older children to be skeptical of language myths. I plan to teach my children to be skeptical generally. But language is one area where I've come across especially many enduring myths, including myths -- about grammar, usage, etymology, and more. Children should learn that, so that they can develop their skepticism, and so that they can better learn what the actual rules are (and of course there are rules, just rules that are dictated by actual usage).

4. Explain to older children that English is a grown order, not a made order. This is itself an interesting and useful observation, but it may also help them think about how other things (such as markets) are largely grown orders.

5. Try to get my children to be interested in -- even fascinated by -- the language. I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking, reading, and talking about language, and I hope they will, too. And I think that thinking and caring about language will make one a more knowledgeable, careful, and effective user of the language.

6. Teach children not to correct others' grammar and usage, except in certain contexts and manners in which such correction is socially acceptable. As I noted before, that's both a good way of avoiding social friction, and a good way of avoiding the embarrassment of finding that the speaker you're correcting was actually quite right, and that your correction was incorrect.

Descriptivism and What Words Mean:

A commenter asks, "Why is it OK to prescribe, and indeed proscribe, vocabulary, but not syntax?"

My sense is that descriptivists — and certainly this descriptivist — think that the guide to vocabulary is usage: An English word means what English speakers use it to mean. Dictionaries that reflect a word's meaning also tend to preserve that meaning, because they tend to lead people who consult the dictionary to use the word the same way.

Consider an example: Many English speakers use "presently" to mean "at present" and many use it to mean "in the near future." I see no basis for saying that one or the other usage is "wrong." One or both usages may be dangerous: People who want to avoid puzzling some listeners should probably avoid the "in the near future" usage, and people who want to avoid alienating some listeners may want to avoid the "at present" usage. What's more, the danger may be unnecessary: One can usually just say "now" or "soon," as the case may be, instead. But while there may be reason to avoid one or both meanings, I see no reason for calling either incorrect.

Of course, this doesn't mean that anything goes: If I use "presently" to mean "with presents," as in "I'm coming to your birthday party presently," I've made a mistake, because I've departed from the norms of actual usage. Likewise if I write the word as "presenly," or pronounce it with the emphasis on the "sent."

But to a descriptivist, the test is actual usage. If some self-appointed language policeman insists that "presently" can only mean "in the near future," the descriptivist will demand to see a warrant. And since the descriptivist respects no warrant other than the grown order of the English language as it has in fact grown, the descriptivist will ignore the policeman's complaint as being the policeman's private prejudice rather than an obligatory language rule.

What means this "English"?:

Eugene and I think fairly similarly in matters of language, and I don't disagree with anything he's said so far. However, I want to make a more radical statement. Perhaps Eugene agrees with it, but I want to express it more nakedly. There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying, and the meaning he's trying to convey is more or less the meaning they get. It's just an empirical statement about the degree of overlap between each person's "language."

This is all well and good, and we can keep using the shorthand of talking about "speaking English" for most purposes. Where the shorthand reveals its sloppiness, though, is when we see different people using different forms, possibly mutually incomprehensible forms, and say that one of them is "right."

But whenever we say that something is "right," we have to know what it's right for. "Right" can be meant either (1) as "proper to achieve a particular goal" or (2) as "inherently good." Now (2) seems implausible to me. Because when different people are speaking mutually incomprehensibly, this is as if one were speaking German and the other were speaking Spanish. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If these different people are speaking differently than each other but they can still understand each other, it's like a German speaker and a Spanish speaker who each understand both German and Spanish -- like when my father talks to me in Russian and I answer back in English. Nothing inherently wrong with that either. So the only way I can understand "right," in matters of language, is in the functional sense -- "proper to achieve a particular goal."

So to say that a usage is "right" or "wrong," you have to specify what goal you want to achieve. If I'm living in the inner city and my goal is to blend in, talking like a college professor is incorrect. Speaking African American Vernacular English (as the kids are saying these days) may be correct, though perhaps not if I'm white, and perhaps not if I seem like an outsider. Likewise, if my goal is to persuade people in the inner city, talking like a college professor may be incorrect -- just as it's incorrect to use a libertarian argument in support of policy if you're talking to a Marxist. On the other hand, if I think talking like a college professor will give me an air of authority that will make people do what I say, then talking like a college professor may well be correct. If I'm trying to get a job at a prestigious New York law firm, speaking Southern American English may be incorrect; but it can be correct if I have a radio talk show in Alabama and want to get my ratings up.

These are all different languages -- not "correct" and "incorrect" versions of some mass of dialects we sloppily label "English" -- and any one of them might be appropriate to know for a particular social situation. To say that a particular usage is "right" -- without, at least implicitly, having a "right for what?" in mind -- is like saying that a particular government program is "effective" without specifying a criterion of effectiveness.

But ah, one may validly ask, what do you teach your kids? What should we teach in schools?

In the first place, our kids should learn that with language -- like with all other tasks -- you should use the tools appropriate for what you're trying to do. Just as people might learn Spanish if they want to communicate with (what we might sloppily call) "Spanish speakers," they might learn Cajun English if they need to do social work in the bayou.

In the second place, we should usually spend most of our time teaching our kids to talk like rich and educated people in the United States. Not because that dialect is better, but because our kids will tend to be more materially successful in life if they know how to speak that dialect, and that's part of what most of us want for our kids. This is classist and elitist, and we might as well admit it; our kids should learn the dialect of the elite class, no matter how irrational it is, so they, too, can someday join that elite class. (Even if you would like to overthrow that elite class, wouldn't it be more effective to have a mole working on the inside?)

Thus, we can say "ain't" is "incorrect" for the simple reason that it'll make people less likely to give you high-paying jobs and positions of power -- assuming that you want those high-paying jobs or positions of power. Nonetheless, someone who knows many different versions of (so-called) "English" for many different social situations -- even if he doesn't know any of the (so-called) "foreign" languages -- is a true polyglot.

Recovering the lost English language:

In my last post, I quickly pooh-poohed the idea that, when someone talks about "correct" English, they mean inherently right (as opposed to good for a particular goal):

Because when different people are speaking mutually incomprehensibly, this is as if one were speaking German and the other were speaking Spanish. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If these different people are speaking differently than each other but they can still understand each other, it's like a German speaker and a Spanish speaker who each understand both German and Spanish — like when my father talks to me in Russian and I answer back in English. Nothing inherently wrong with that either. So the only way I can understand "right," in matters of language, is in the functional sense — "proper to achieve a particular goal."

Commenter Obelisk18 suggests that I dismiss the "inherently right" possibility too easily. An excerpt from him (slightly altered):

For instance, it’s plausible that one of two dialects, both of which are posing as "English", ought to be preferred (or thought "inherently good"), because it’s closer, in various ways, to what was originally meant by the word "English". Assuming of course that we can date the word "english", in relation to language, historically, and assuming that there was a general agreement on it’s meaning (i.e, a common usage). These are by no means easy assumptions, and based on what I know of history, the latter at least seems especially bold. But, I don’t think either is, on it’s face, unreasonable. After all, the word "English" did come into usage at some point, and the person, or persons, who first employed it, meant something by it. I’d [contend] that this is a plausible way of defining "inherently good".

Excellent, this has always been a long-term goal of mine. Because, you see, as I remarked once before on this blog, I actually know some English as it was originally meant. Let's all recite together:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah,
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád,
wéox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan, þæt wæs gód cyning.

O.K., I hear you cry, not that far back. Sure, the word "English," in one spelling or another, was used way back around 880, Alfred and Guthrum's Treaty referred to the English and the Danes ("Engliscne & Deniscne"), and around 1000, Ethelred's laws talked about what would happen "gif Ænglisc man Deniscne ofslea" (if an English man slays a Dane). And the word was also used to refer to the language (c. 1000, "Ðu bæde me for oft Engliscra ȝewrita."). Nonetheless, we are, after all, Normans.

O.K., so let's all recite together (Chaucer is soooo 1387!):

Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydeȝ were,
Quere-so-euer I jugged gemmeȝ gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle wythouten spot.

Start talking like that, and:

  1. you'll be welcome at my medieval reading group (Fridays in my office at noon), and

  2. I'll take you seriously when you say it's inherently better to use English to exclude new forms because the word "English" ought to refer to what it referred to originally. I'll laugh at you, but I'll take that particular argument seriously.

I'll still say:

  1. What if "English," at first, only referred to "the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be among all the different dialects spoken by Anglo-Saxons in Britain"? I will bet good money that the first people who talked about the English language were not grammar purists. (Perhaps, however, they complained about how far Saxon had diverged from the original Saxon they spoke back in Saxony!)

  2. What if "English," as it's always been used, has always been a dynamic term, meaning the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be, at whatever time is relevant from context, among some of the different dialects spoken in Britain? (Only some — mind the Celts!) (Obviously now we would include places outside of Britain where people speak in ways that are comprehensible to people in Britain who speak English under this definition.)

  3. And, most importantly, I'll say: O.K., suppose I buy the idea that "correct English" should mean "English as she used to be spoke." That's fine, I don't insist on labels. But if we define correct English that way, then I deny that there's anything necessarily good about speaking correct English. The point in my post below is: Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals, regardless whether it follows anybody's stated rule. There are rules of good and bad speaking — there are objectively better and worse ways of pursuing particular goals — but you can't figure out what they are until you figure out what you're trying to do, and in particular who you're trying to speak to.

The Danger of Unverified Prescriptivist Complaints:

A commenter provides the following:

Back to the subject at hand: One of my own pet peeves is the use of "insure" where the writer clearly means "ensure". "Affect" for "effect" is just as bad, but not nearly as common; these days, it seems like everybody and his dog misuses "insure". I'd check a dictionary or style manual for support, but I'm worried that the new usage of "insure" has become so common that they may consider it correct.

Oh, buddy, it's worse than you can imagine. Much worse. From the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "insure" (definition 5 is the modern one, but I include #1 because of the back-reference to it in #5):

1. trans. To make (a person) sure (of a thing); to give security to (a person) for the fulfilment of something: cf. ASSURE v. 9, ENSURE v. 1, 2. Obs.

c1440 Promp. Parv. 262/2 Insuryn, or make suere, assecuro. 1681-6 J. SCOTT Chr. Life (1747) III. 21 Thus Christ..hath taken the most effectual Care to insure the mutual Performance of this everlasting Covenant to both insure God of our performing our Part..and to insure us of God's performing his Part....

5. trans. To make certain, to secure, to guarantee (some thing, event, etc.): = ASSURE v. 5, 7a, ENSURE v. 8, 9.

1681-6 [see sense 1]. 1809 W. IRVING Knickerb. VII. xiii. (1849) 450 Such supineness insures the very evil from which it shrinks. 1821 MRS. SHERWOOD Hist. Geo. Desmond 19 He had insured for me the situation of a writer on the Bengal establishment. 1849 RUSKIN Sev. Lamps vi. §8. 170 Want of care in the points which insure the building's endurance. a1862 BUCKLE Civiliz. viii. (1873) 462 An ardour which could hardly fail to insure success.

It's not that the new usage of "insure" has made it "become" correct. It's that "insure" to mean "ensure" has been standard English since the late 1600s. "Insure" to mean "secure the payment of a sum of money in the event of loss of or damage to property" is attested in the OED only fifty years earlier (1635), and even that quote uses "ensure" and "insure" interchangeably: "Authorising your petitioner to ensure all your majesty's subjects whatsoever for soe much of their estates combustible as they themselves shall conceive in danger of Fire, not taking above 12d. per centum yearly for soe much soe insured."

Now as it happens I don't like "insure" to mean "ensure," either. Using "insure" may lead the reader to think of insurance, which may thus be slightly distracting. Such usage would almost never be ambiguous, because the following word or words will make clear which sense of "insure" is meant. And English is so full of words with multiple meanings that English speakers are unlikely to be much distracted by another such word. Still, I have an esthetic preference for limiting "insure" to situations involving insurance, and perhaps there's some practical benefit for following such a practice.

But it's one thing to say "potentially needlessly distracting," "esthetically displeasing," "inelegant," or "pet peeve[]" -- it's another to say "misuse[]" or "[not] correct." When current dictionaries report that this usage is common today (see, for instance, this Usage Note, this definition, and this definition), and when the usage has been attested in the Oxford English Dictionary since the late 1600s, how could even a prescriptivist credibly argue that it's wrong?


Alan Gunn comments:

It's not possible, or even desirable, to stop English from changing in this way, but why should we encourage it, or think it always a good thing? I'd just add that changes like this not only make understanding more difficult during the transition, they end up making older writings hard for modern readers to understand. And some of the changes are downright ugly: to me, at least, an ordinary English word like "happen" sounds better than "transpire." (And I suspect the people who like words like "transpire" of trying to talk down to people who use normal English words. Lots of them seem to have gone to expensive schools, and to talk about their schooling at length.)

As it happens, I don't like "transpire" to mean "happen" for reasons similar to Alan's: "Happen" sounds simpler and less Latinate. But claims about how some new usage is supposedly a "change" -- especially, by implication a recent change (since all usages are novel if you go back far enough) -- always make me want to go check, preferably in the Oxford English Dictionary. And here's what I see in the OED:

b. Misused for: To occur, happen, take place.
Evidently arising from misunderstanding such a sentence as ‘What had transpired during his absence he did not know’.

1775 A. ADAMS Let. 31 July in J. & A. Adams Familiar Lett. Revolution (1876) 91 There is nothing new transpired since I wrote you last. 1804 Age of Inquiry (Hartford, Conn.) 46 When..the reformation transpired in England..almost the whole nation rejoiced. 1810 F. DUDLEY Amoroso I. 14 Could short-sighted mortality..foresee events that are about to transpire. 1828 WEBSTER, Transpire..3. To happen or come to pass. 1841 W. L. GARRISON in Life (1889) III. 16 An event..which we believe transpired eighteen hundred years ago. 1848 DICKENS Dombey xxxii, Few changes{em}hardly any{em}have transpired among his ship's company. 1858 HAWTHORNE Fr. & It. Note-bks. I. 225 Accurate information on whatever subject transpired. 1883 L. OLIPHANT Altiora Peto I. 277 His account of what transpired was so utterly unlike what I expected.

A few thoughts: First, the OED does say that the word is "Misused for ... happen," a rare bit of what looks like prescriptivism. Second, the "change" seems to have happened at least two centuries ago; the OED doesn't tell us how common a usage was, so maybe it's become much more common recently, but there certainly are plenty of attributions -- and not from obscure sources -- going back to the 1800s.

Third, the misusers include, among others, Dickens and Hawthorne. So the word has commonly been used in a particular way. It has been used this way for a long time. And it has been used this way by some of the leading English-language writers. How then can we report this as a "misuse" as opposed to just a use (or perhaps a use that originated from a misconception, though that hardly makes the use a misuse today)?

Those Illiterates -- Chaucer, Sir Walter Scott, and Ruskin:

A commenter writes:

Baloney, we should not accept the degradation of distinctions, clarity, etc., that illiterates introduce into the language. To grill is not to barbeque. At present does not mean presently. Anxious does not mean eager. And to beg the question does not mean suggests the question. Except to people who have no concern for communicating clearly.
OK, that's what the pseudonymous commenter stubbs reports. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary reports:
3. a. At the present time; at this time, at present, now.
Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects and by Scottish writers; revived in the 20th cent. in the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid 20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous.

?a1425 (c1380) CHAUCER tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. V. pr. vi. 122 The science of hym..lokith in his simple knowynge alle thingis of preterit ryght as thei weren idoon presently ryght now. c1450 (1410) J. WALTON tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (Linc. Cathedral 103) 325 {Th}e estate of souereigne god on hye Is stondyng euere in one..All-gates in hym-selfe presentlye. 1489 CAXTON tr. C. de Pisan Bk. Fayttes of Armes I. v. 11 Charles the fyfthe..fader of this that presently regneth. a1533 LD. BERNERS tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. Marcus Aurelius (1546) G g ij b, Dedes done presently in our daies. 1563 L. HUMPHREY Nobles of Nobilitye sig. vii, Wherfore the quaffing of the dutche Nobilitye is presently haled through al realmes. 1637 R. HUMFREY tr. St. Ambrose Christian Offices I. 31 A reward to be rendred hereafter, not presently. 1697 tr. C'tess D'Aunoy's Trav. (1706) 191 It is, says he, too long and melancholy a Mischance to relate presently. 1740 J. TULL Horse-hoeing Husb. Suppl. 257 Enough to make the Horse hoing common in Time to come, if not presently. 1764 T. REID Inquiry Human Mind vi. §17 The question presently under consideration. 1826 SCOTT Provinc. Antiq. 85 Sir William Rae, Baronet,..presently Lord Advocate. 1849 J. RUSKIN Seven Lamps Archit. vi. 171 Our presently disputed claims. 1897 A. GEIKIE Anc. Volcanoes Brit. I. I. i. 5 The presently active volcano must be the basis and starting-point of inquiry. 1901 Leeds Mercury 4 July, A young man belonging to Rotherham and presently staying with his parents at Bridlington. 1939 Topeka (Kansas) State Jrnl. 20 Feb. 12/1 Sunner is presently minister of interior and one of the outstanding leaders of the Falangists. 1957 G. MARX Let. 12 Apr. (1967) 213, I am presently building a house and doing my own show, but sometime within the next two months I'll make it. 1958 Economist 9 Aug. 433/1 The praise presently being heaped upon him seems to be..a consequence of the recent recovery in the Conservatives' fortunes. 1971 Nature 2 July 23/1 The Caribbean area is a subplate presently attached to the South American plate. 1997 Independent 5 May (Media Plus Suppl.) 4/1 Good Housekeeping..presently makes a tidy sum selling cookery books and kitchenware.

My question: Even if you are a prescriptivist, should you trust the prescriptions of "stubbs" and those who take his view, and treat the "at present" sense of "presently" as having been "introduce[d] into the language" by illiterates? Or should you take the view that what Chaucer, Sir Walter Scott, and Ruskin -- as well as many other users of the English language -- have written is actually quite literate?

More broadly, how can you, in the face of this evidence, claim that "At present does not mean presently"? What odd meanings of "does not mean" and "illiterates" would you need to use to make such claims?

Against descriptivism and prescriptivism:

This whole series of posts just underscores why I don't like the words "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism." When one says one's a descriptivist, this immediately makes people think one doesn't want to prescribe. This is of course completely false, and I would have thought that my posts (and Eugene's) would have put that idea to rest. But no, this misconception dies hard.

Am I a descriptivist? Yes! Because I think usage is the ultimate guide to what English means. I'd think that even self-described "prescriptivists" would say the same thing if, as anthropologists, they encountered a new tribe in the Amazon and tried to describe their language. To know what the language means, you have to observe its practitioners and see what rules they themselves follow in speech.

Am I a prescriptivist? Yes! I've been an editor of a journal in the past (and so has Eugene), and I still act as editor when I read friends' drafts and my students' work. When I write an article, I send it to Eugene, who tells me how I should rewrite it. Heck, Eugene has even written a book called Academic Legal Writing, in which he gives the reader expressions to avoid!

And it's clear why we're interested in prescribing usage: In my case, my only rule is to speak in ways that make you best able to accomplish your goals. Since my goals are usually communicative, I believe in speaking in ways that are clear and comprehensible to my target audience. (And since my target audience often changes, the content of "clear and comprehensible" also changes.) Anyone's "rules" are only valuable to me insofar as they serve my goal. But once I've stated a goal, for instance effective communication with and persuasion of legal academics, there is probably an objectively best way to pursue that goal.

Therefore, to the extent a particular phrase makes my thought unclear, marks me as uneducated and therefore reduces my credibility with my readers, or something else along those lines, then using that phrase is a mistake — because it's a less effective way of pursuing my goal. (When people correct language mistakes in my posts, most of the time I myself would agree that it's a mistake!) The best way to pursue my goal might even be formalizable by means of rules — and most of these rules are indeed the ones we learned from our 7th-grade English teachers — but there's no necessary relation between the one and the other, and of course, in case of conflict, it's the English teacher's rules that should go out the window.

So the notion that I don't think there are better and worse ways of speaking — that I wouldn't teach my kids how to talk and how not to talk — is silly. The difference between self-described "prescriptivists" and "descriptivists" isn't that the first gang prescribes while the second gang describes. When I say that my students are speaking or writing incorrectly, I mean that they're expressing themselves in ways that I don't think are likely to achieve what I think their goal might be (and of course I have to explain why the words they use are ineffective). And when I choose how to speak, I likewise choose the words that I think are most likely to achieve my goal.

This "functional prescriptivism" business is a difficult exercise, and miles away from the "anything goes" that some people use as their caricature of descriptivism.