Usage Determines Meaning no. 15

by May 8, 2009Books, Humor

Sidney Landau, lexicographer, has a firm handle on one of my favorite near-inspired dictums, “Usage determines meaning.”

He devotes some space in his book Dictionaries to covering the history of English usage disputes. In the 18th century, grammar “errors” provoked moral outrage and an explosion of books offering corrections! I found this little anecdote about Goold Brown, author of The Grammar of English Grammars (!, 1851), quite amusing:

Brown cites innumerable examples of actual “incorrect” usages from Lowth’s and Murray’s grammars as well as from the great writers of English literature, such as Addison. From any rational view he would seem to have collected a vast body of evidence to refute his own argument, but to Goold Brown the usage of the greatest writers was of no account compared to his own peculiar appreciation of the logic underlying grammar. p.246

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