The Degradation Of Language And Why We Should, Such As, Care

by Sep 8, 2010Linguistics4 comments

A teacher of mine heard me expounding my Usage Determines Meaning doctrines and sent me a courteous e-mail in which he offered one rejoinder to my laissez-faire attitude toward usage.

He pointed to a sentence he had just read in a student paper:

At the extreme were men like Alexander Campbell…

He objected to the student’s use of “like” instead of “such as,” saying,

I know exactly what [the student] means. And from my reading experience, it’s a widely used expression. Am I wrong for marking this and insisting that it should be “such as”? I’m with you on the basic concept (obviously), but some examples demonstrate that [usage determines meaning] can be (may be?) easily abused and/or subjectively applied; can usage sometimes undermine meaning?

Here’s my answer: I put “like” vs. “such as” in the category of language’s social function. Using “such as” shows that you are one of the initiates into the club of people who know “the rules.” That has a not insignificant value, because if I live in a world where most of my readers will tsk-tsk me if I violate a supposed rule, I might as well not cause them to demote me by my employment of usages they don’t approve of. So a teacher provides his students a useful service if he is telling him: “Most educated people don’t think you should write this way. You must prove to me while you are still in training that you are able to heed them, no matter what you choose to do later.”

But a teacher does his student a disservice if he says, “You can’t use like here because that word means ‘similar to’ and therefore excludes Alexander Campbell, the person you actually meant most to include.” The fact that the teacher understood his student perfectly shows that this line of reasoning doesn’t work. If everybody understands a usage and uses it, it’s acceptable English. It’s not “wrong.” Usually I find that such rules have been around for many decades, often even centuries, and that both usages were used by premier writers of English before the rule even existed. That’s the way “peruse” is, I believe, according to the OED.

Sometimes enough of a chorus arises from little boys that the emperor has no clothes that a rule fades mostly away. I gather that “split infinitives” have gotten there, or almost. So has the putative rule proscribing sentences ending in prepositions (“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put,” Churchill is reported to have said in the mid 40s, showing how long educated people have seen through this silly “rule.”)

There are a few times I feel sympathetic to those demanding a stop to the supposed relativism of descriptive lexicography. One example is this website, which notes that “begging the question,” a technical term in philosophy/logic (known in Latin as petitio principii), is now commonly used to mean something like “raising the question” instead of what it has always (?) meant. But the website is fighting a losing battle, and there will always be alternative ways for them to get their idea across.

It’s a losing battle because we can’t insist that all speakers of English remember and use arcane rules. We can insist that Ph.D. students and grammar teachers hold on to the rules, but they’re a limited lot. What’s more, language just refuses to be as precise as scientific modernism wants it to be, because it needs to serve people who simply can’t maintain such precision—namely us. We’re limited, finite. And God Himself is fine with this finitude. He’s the one who chose not to make language perfectly precise; even in His Word there are instances of ambiguity. Does Christ’s love for us constrain us, or our love for Him? No one will ever know for sure until glory, and I’m convinced God meant it that way. The Bible is absolutely true without being exhaustively precise.

The best stuff I’ve read on the English side comes from John McWhorter (though he uses a title I don’t want to put on the blog), and the biggest advance I ever made in the field came from reading a BJU-required writing textbook, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Joseph Williams, one of the authors of the how-to-write section at the beginning of the latest Turabian manual, discusses “like” vs. “such as” explicitly in that work. Vern Poythress is also really good, and his book is free online (see especially chapter 6, “Words and Precision“).

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  1. DCrooks

    ‘Here’s my answer: I put “like” vs. “such as” in the category of language’s social function. Using “such as” shows that you are one of the initiates into the club of people who know “the rules.”’

    I was talking to Wes B. about this part of your post tonight at church. I was glad that you made this observation and that you were careful not to discredit the rather large club of people who don’t know the “rules.”

    I think about many friends of mine who are both Godly and passionate for ministry but who most likely will never know “the rules.” It doesn’t make them any less Godly, just puts them in a different club.

  2. DCrooks

    Oh yea, I have a related question: What would you say about usage determining pronunciation?

  3. Mark L Ward Jr

    Good question, Dave. I think that calls for another post sometime.

    Would you care to write a guest post? =)

  4. DCrooks

    Maybe, but not on this topic…