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Evolving Usage: Deplorable to Acceptable
H. W. Fowler was made of sterner stuff than most. The eminent and opinionated usage authority resigned from a long-time teaching position after a dispute with his headmaster; lied about his age at 56 and enlisted as a private during World War I; followed a strict running and swimming regime throughout his life; and at 68 declined his publisher’s offer of a servant, attributing his continued physical vigour to having had "no servants to reduce me to a sedentary and all-literary existence."
Yet even the redoubtable Fowler admitted that those (like him) who guard the English language are powerless against the invading forces of popular usage. "What grammarians say should be," he wrote in his original Modern English Usage, "has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes."
Here we will wade into the onslaught of changing usage and examine where some contentious words and expressions currently find themselves along the evolutionary chain.
Those of us who like the certainty of "dos" and "don’ts" can take comfort in knowing that some usages are still plain wrong. Here’s a handful of downright errors.
- Incomplete as far as structures.
NO As far as developing story leads, finding new patterns and managing the publication process, Sharon takes on more than anyone else at Knotty Knitting magazine.
This misuse sends the more grammar-minded of us into paroxysms of frustration. As far as must always introduce a clause, a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. But in the example above, where, oh where is the verb? Far and wide, people are carelessly leaving out the go or are concerned that should complete the as far as statement. No doubt this omission stems from some vague notion that as far as is a preposition and can be completed by a noun alone. Wrong.
- Centre around.
NO This week’s program will centre around the history of K-Tel, the hard-sell company that in the 1970s marketed everything from wonder slicers to disco compilations.
Imagine a circle, then picture its centre, a single point. Common sense tells us why the correct wording has to be centre on. Similar geometrically correct expressions are focus on, revolve around and circle around.
- Many -wise compounds.
NO Skills-wise Boris is perfect for the undertaker position, but personality-wise he may not fit in with the staff.
Some -wise compounds are sound choices. Clockwise and lengthwise, for instance, are perfectly fine. So are streetwise and worldly-wise, where the suffix roughly means wise in the ways of. But steer clear of hasty concoctions like careerwise, gender-wise and moneywise, all non-standard shortcuts for saying concerning or with regard to a certain thing.
- Dilemma to mean problem or predicament.
PROBABLY NOT Angela’s dilemma is that her credit card payments, her spa membership and her BMW lease exceed her disposable income.
A dilemma is a choice between two unpleasant or difficult options, and most usage authorities recommend keeping it that way. The increasingly loose use of the word to mean a general problem or difficult situation has been captured in the latest Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed., 2004) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed., 2003), but until other dictionaries follow suit and usage guides begin to relax, we’re better off sticking with the traditional two-pronged meaning.
- Fulsome to mean full or abundant.
PROBABLY NOT The committee’s fulsome study of the old Young Offenders Act ushered in sweeping changes to the legislation.
Traditionally, fulsome has meant overly abundant or offensively excessive. To careful English users, fulsome praise is overblown praise that verges on obsequiousness. But this negative connotation is now lost on many, who use fulsome praise to mean generous or lavish praise. This shift has stirred up so much turmoil that Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009), has declared fulsome a "skunked term," a term that’s so unsettled in its meaning that it’s bound to raise someone’s hackles somewhere. For now, the safest course might be to avoid the word entirely.
- Beg the question to mean invite or raise a question.
PROBABLY NOT His decision to leave Grunge Dungeon after five years and three platinum albums begs the question—was he ever truly happy as a rock guitarist?
Usage commentators are divided on whether we should confine this expression to its original meaning or release it to the masses, who use it in a different way. Properly speaking, begging the question means basing a conclusion on an assumption that itself needs proving. As an example, Garner offers the statement "Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life." But most people think the expression means to raise an obvious question, as in the music sentence above. This new meaning is overtaking the old, until the takeover is complete, we should keep to the traditional meaning, at least in formal writing.
- Alternate as a synonym for alternative.
YES I know you’re counting on a week of camping in the open air, but do you have an alternate plan in case the weather turns bad?
In major Canadian and American dictionaries, one definition of alternate (as an adjective) is alternative, in the sense of available as another option. As long ago as 1995, the British Concise Oxford (9th ed.) listed the two as synonyms in North American English, though not in British. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 1997) recommends keeping the adjectives distinct in formal writing, not all modern authorities back that view. Most Canadian writers and editors side with the dictionaries on this one.
- Hopefully as a sentence adverb.
YES Hopefully, we can buff out the scratch on Mom’s new convertible before she sees it and disowns us forever.
Who knows why, but the innocuous adverb hopefully attracted virulent criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Objectors insisted that the word could only mean in a hopeful manner ("The starving man looked hopefully at the tray of sandwiches approaching him"). But nearly everyone else used the word as a sentence adverb meaning it is to be hoped, as in the convertible sentence above. In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed., 1996), editor R. W. Burchfield notes in a level-headed overview of the debate that many -ly adverbs have morphed into sentence adverbs. In fact, while commentators were busy belittling hopefully, other sentence adverbs slid in under the radar, among them frankly, fortunately and seriously. Today only the crankiest pedant insists on the original, narrow meaning of hopefully.
- Presently to mean now or currently.
YES Dawn is presently employed at the Snake Eyes tattoo parlour.
Presently as a synonym for now also drew many barbs in the late twentieth century. Presently means soon, said the authorities, not now or at present. Yet the latter meaning—curiously a revitalized fifteenth-century sense of the word—has rapidly overtaken the former, to the point where most modern commentators and nearly all dictionaries accept it without question.
In 2003 one David Armstrong, a former English teacher, took on the Coca-Cola Company for misusing the word everyday in an ad for Dasani water: "Treat yourself well. Everyday." Everyday, he pointed out, is an adjective that describes common or routine things, such as everyday concerns. Coca-Cola’s campaign should have used the phrase every day, meaning each day. A company spokesperson replied that Coca-Cola had settled on the single word everyday because it was a more "impactful" form. Naturally, the entry of impactful, a most unfortunate neologism, into the exchange fanned what had been a moderate parlour blaze into a full-on house fire.
It all goes to show that, as H. W. Fowler acknowledged long ago, there’s little we can do to keep our language at bay. New words emerge, old words change, battles are declared, debates die down. All we writers can do is read and assess—and occasionally cave.
Copyright notice for Peck’s English Pointers
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada
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