Imagine you were charged with keeping English tidy for users and had to follow these rules:
- A word must have only one meaning.
- It must have only its oldest meaning.
- It must have only the meaning related to its etymology.
- It must not be a synonym.
- Its prefix and suffix must not duplicate meaning.
- It must not shift its meaning.
- It must not shift its part of speech.
About now, you’re shaking your head, thinking, “That’s impossible! Of course a word can have more than one meaning. Of course its meaning might shift over time. Of course we can have synonyms.” And on and on.
When you start looking at all the rules peevers have proclaimed over time, you start to see how ridiculous it all is. You might even identify a rule or two that you follow in editing and wonder at its validity.
There’s no shame in such a discovery. We each learn as we go, often from trusted people, who themselves don’t always recognize that what they’re passing on is faulty. The shame is in not being willing to revise our opinion when evidence is presented to us.
Ammon Shea presents lots of evidence against many common peever rules in his new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Shea takes on batches of peever rules, studying them by category (e.g., “Words That Are Not Words”) and individually (e.g., irregardless is not a word). He looks at how these rules came about, what we currently think about them, and whether you should follow them (the answer is usually no, but there are exceptions).
Shea writes for the layperson, with little jargon and lots of style. In telling the history of contact, Shea writes:
But then we Americans got our hands on the word and began to use it in an entirely inappropriate manner, referring to the practice of initiating contact with a person. After this, all hell broke loose. Well, not quite, but a number of people became upset. …
I will cheerfully confess to using contact in this unapproved sense on occasion, without ever giving it much thought (which may be testament to either the increasing acceptance of the word or my own lack of standards).
While dismantling peever rules, Shea builds up genuine rules of English, which help readers understand how our language truly works. For example:
- A word can have several meanings.
- Consistent, persistent use of a word by a language community gives a word its meaning.
- You don’t have to need a word for a new word to appear and gain acceptance.
- Words sometimes duplicate meaning in their prefixes and suffixes (e.g., inhabitable, invaluable).
- By consistently using a word in a new way, language users can change the meaning of a word.
- It’s a feature of English that nouns can become verbs and vice versa.
Despite a slam against copyeditors in chapter 4, in which Shea paints all copyeditors with the same peeverish brush, Bad English is an enjoyable, illuminating review of some of the language’s most quoted peever rules. It would be a shame if you didn’t read it.