Love Makes the Top Ten

Love is the third most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster.com.

The editors note wisely, “We’re guessing that many people arrive at our site with a question—‘what is the meaning of love?’—that actually requires answers beyond a dictionary definition.”

Kudos to the editors at M&W, who know the important difference between the meaning of a word and the thing or idea it denotes.

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

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“).

“Decker,” Etymologically Speaking, Means “One Who ‘Decks’ Linguistic Errors in Exegesis”

decker Rod Decker nails it in this brief paper he delivered at the recent Bible Faculty Leadership Summit, a get-together of professors from Fundamentalist Protestant schools. Decker knows whereof he speaks, having published a work on linguistics (pictured) in Carson’s Studies in Biblical Greek series.

His comments in the article are all worth reading, but perhaps especially these:

Unfortunately, much conservative theology of the past century focused on word studies, probably due to a truncated understanding of verbal inspiration. Yes, the words are inspired—the exact words God wanted used and all the words of the original texts (i.e., verbal plenary inspiration)—but those words are only the building blocks for the syntax and the larger literary structure—which are equally inspired. Words, syntax, and structure are essential to communicate propositional truth. Yet theology is too often done by discussing individual words. This methodological error is perpetuated and encouraged by the frequent citation in the theologies of individual Greek words, usually parenthetically and seldom with comment. Doing so contributes to the perception that theology is based on the individual words.

. . . .

I would make one final appeal to my friends in the theology department: stay reasonably current in discussion of the languages. Don’t rely on your seminary training from many years ago. If you get the impression somewhere that you missed a relatively recent grammatical revolution, be advised that there have been no revolutions in the understanding of the languages in the last 50 years, but progress is steady, if slow. But progress it is. We do understand the languages better than did the generation before us, for by standing on their shoulders, we can see just a bit farther—enough farther in some cases to avoid some mistakes and misconceptions of our fathers. We are also a bit more modest these days (or at least ought to be) in what we can “prove” with the biblical languages. In a sincere effort to reflect an inspired, inerrant text, our predecessors sometimes overstated their case with a maximalist approach to grammar and word studies. Though grammar and lexicon are indispensable, we must be cautious not to push them beyond what their weight will bear.

I couldn’t say a louder amen. Read the whole thing.

One More Excerpt from Alan Jacobs’ Latest Book

Jonathan Swift, Jacobs says, looked for “some method . . . for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever.”

Jacobs comments:

This is a recurrent theme among linguistic academicians and their allies: a deep conviction that the dominant usage of their own time—or, more precisely, the usage into which they were educated, the usage of their youth and young adulthood—is a pure or ideal form of the language, any deviation from which marks a decline.

Language is a living entity. You can’t force it to stay the same anymore than I keep my baby from growing.

Such a comment, of course, calls for a baby picture.

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Alan Jacobs: BBEdit Freak, Essay Master

jacobsbook

I keep insisting to my wife that I’m not a real reader. I play at it. I pretend by force of will to be a reader. I wanna be one when I grow up. That’s all.

But there are those writers who turn me into a reader by their force of will, their skill and verve and depth. Alan Jacobs is one of those.

On his blog, Jacobs reveals his night-time identity as a word-processor control-freak who actually uses BBEdit to write everything because it gives him complete layout mastery.

But in his books—like The Narnian, Original Sin, and A Theology of Reading—and essays—like this new collection—Jacobs is an insightful prose master and illustrator. Yeah, illustrator, I think that’s it. He finds the best stories to tell, but they are there to make his points.

My all-time favorite is in Original Sin: A Cultural History. You have to read the one about the two-headed cow. It’s a striking and abiding illustration of total depravity (without in any way being defiling).

This excerpt from his new book is another good example. He tells a few stories from the field of lexicography—a field most people would consider the definition of dull. But everyone who reads his essay should come away knowing otherwise. Jacobs is a powerful ally in my quixotic battle against lexicographical prescriptivism.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

Twenty years before [the great Samuel] Johnson began his dictionary a lexicographer named Benjamin Martin wrote:

The pretence of fixing a standard to the purity and perfection of any language is utterly vain and impertinent, because no language as depending on arbitrary use and custom, can ever be permanently the same, but will always be in a mutable and fluctuating state; and what is deem’d polite and elegant in one age, may be counted uncouth and barbarous in another.

These words should make the epitaph of all Academies of language, and all forms of classicism as well — meaning by classicism what C. S. Lewis calls “the curious conception of the ‘classical’ period of a language, the correct or normative period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent.” . . . .

This is not to say that there are no excellences or barbarities in language. There are both, as Lewis well knew. But this grasping at past excellences as a means of preventing future barbarities is a mug’s game. To steal a line from William F. Buckley, Jr., there are certainly times to stand athwart history yelling Stop, but not in the Linguistic arena; yelling there is “utterly vain and impertinent.”