Stephen Carson has pointed me to a very useful page:
I make regular use of Professor Paul Brians’s “Common Errors in English” web pages, but I had not yet encountered that one.
What Brians calls “hypercorrection” — when someone is so anxious to get something right that they “over-apply” (misapply) a rule — is similar to but distinct from a phenomenon I label “incorrection” (whose verb form is “to incorrect”). Incorrection is when I use a non-error and you tell me I’m in error.
More than once, I’ve said I felt bad about something and someone has incorrected me: “You mean you felt badly!”
Or when I say that something is between my wife and me, and I am incorrected: “‘My wife and I!’”
Or when I use the word “girl” and a feminist tells me that I mean “woman” — and yet I’m referring to a female minor.
However, I think many of the distinctions that Brians labels as “Non-Errors” are nevertheless quite useful distinctions:
- Using “between” for only two, “among” for more
- Gender vs. sex
- Using “who” for people, “that” for animals and inanimate objects
- Lend vs. loan
- Regime vs. regimen
- Don’t use “reference” to mean “cite.”
- Persuade vs. convince
- “Preventive” is the adjective, “preventative” the noun.
- People are healthy; vegetables are healthful.
- Dinner is done; people are finished.
- Crops are raised; children are reared.
I was raised … ahem, I mean reared to believe that grammar and meaning were established by usage. My father, the former English prof, used the term “prescriptive grammarian” only as a derogative.
I think descriptive grammar and semantics are critically important, as is distinguishing the prescriptive from the descriptive, but it now strikes me as absurd to prescribe away prescription.
If the purpose of language is thought and communication, then it certainly follows that there will be better and worse uses of language, just as there are more and less successful approaches to thinking and communicating.
Any distinction that communicates useful information is a distinction I want to promote, and it’s silly to imagine that mass-usage will reflect the most important distinctions. Usage will reflect conflations. Grammar and vocabulary that mirror those conflations are only “correct” in the purely descriptive sense, and again, pure description isn’t the only useful job for people who focus on the mechanics of language.
The distinction between “ain’t” and “isn’t” is purely cultural and stylistic — semantically arbitrary at its foundation. But the pure descriptivist would tell us that “liberal” means socialist, that “United States” is a singular noun, that “coin” means token, and that “inflation” is the general rise of nominal prices.
Most of us equate prescriptive linguistics with social conservatism, but I think my examples should show that descriptivism reflects the real conservative impulse: an implicit defense of the status quo — any status quo.
In our statist culture, the implicitly prescriptive form of descriptivism is a stealth defense of the most insidious conflations. (Try saying that 10 times fast.)
Freethinkers need the discipline of linguistic distinctions, whether or not the conflations count as errors.
you might object (as one comrade already did after reading a draft of this post), you’re not trying to blur the distinction between errors in speaking and writing and errors in thinking! Brians is concerned with the former; you are discussing the latter.
What I’m trying to say, actually, is that errors in thinking, when they are built into language usage, should count as errors in speaking and writing.