Skunked Expressions

by Jan 25, 2011Uncategorized2 comments


I’ve finally found the answer, the right name for a particular problem I face often due to my chosen line of work, Stalwart Opponent of Lexicographical Prescriptivism (SOLP).

The problem is this: I happen to know that there’s no “rule” against splitting infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, or using “hopefully” the way all of us do—the list could go on. Who has the authority to make such a rule? The President? (If so, grammar would change every four to eight years!) But I’m afraid of appearing not to know to educated people out there who, having once been enlightened in grammar school, have yet to be enlightened again—to the true truth about what is permissible in language. I know these things I’ve listed are okay, because most educated people use them. But they—you know, those people—think I’m breaking imaginary rules handed down by the founder of English. What shall I do?

The name for words, phrases, and constructions that fit into this forlorn category is this: skunked. And I got it from The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner.

In Garner’s discussion of the word hopefully, he points out that opposition to its usage in sentences like “Hopefully it won’t rain tomorrow” arose mainly in the 1960s. But, he says, everyone knows what people mean when they use the word. The battle is now over.

Except with people who don’t know it’s over. (That was a fragment—but it’s okay, truly.) Garner writes,

Though the controversy swirling around this word has subsided, it is now a skunked term. Avoid it in all senses if you’re concerned with your credibility: if you use it in the traditional way, many readers will think it odd; if you use it in the newish way, a few readers will tacitly tut-tut you.

I think “skunked” is a helpful category. My arch-nemeses, those terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad Stalwart Opponents of Lexicographical Descriptivism (SOLDs), periodically elect certain expressions to Defend At All Costs. (Lanham tells of a usage panelist who placed “a sign on her door prohibiting entry to anyone who misuses ‘hopefully.'”) They are effectively stealing those expressions from we the people; and few SOLDs will ever be won over to the light and freedom of SOLP. It’s like trying to combat an urban legend. It’s like whack-a-mole. It’s like getting most husbands to notice without being told when laundry needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer.

The best I can do is take care for the civilians in the middle and try to pull some of them to safety. For the time being, hopefully, I’ll avoid skunked expressions when I’m writing formally. No need to get those nemeses riled up. They might start their own blog and steal half my readers. But I’ll still have one left!

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  1. Todd J

    Lots of things besides expressions face similar dynamics, right? Thinking of skunked ecclesiastical practices…

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      That, Todd, is an excellent point. It brings up what I call the “aetiological fallacy” (as opposed to the “etymological fallacy”). Customs have their meaning determined by usage, not by their origins—just like words. And if enough people misread the usage or attribute to the custom the purposes it had at its origin, they can ruin that custom for everyone else. Christmas is a sort of example. There are Christian people who won’t celebrate it because it was supposedly a pagan holiday way back when. But that matters nothing when no one in the real world knows it.

      I would be much more receptive to a Christian case for avoiding Christmas celebrations because it’s a pagan holiday now.