Becoming a Grammar Jedi
Joining the Ranks of the Usage Elite
There are days when you need a pick-me-up, and I was having one of those days last July when, to my great surprise, that’s exactly what my email inbox offered. Would you please consider accepting a nomination to the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel? My heart almost rattled out of my ribcage.
The United States and its English has nothing like Académie Francaise or the Real Academia Española looking over the shoulder of its language. There’s no secret cabal of language pundits, splitting infinitives gleefully over drinks named after Safire and Chomsky at password-only bars in Manhattan. As close as American English comes to an official body that’s entitled to pronounce on Right and Wrong in the language is the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) Usage Panel. Which I had been asked to join. It was as close as I would ever get to feeling like a Jedi knight.
Robert Lane Greene is a journalist based in Berlin. He is a business and finance correspondent for The Economist, and he writes the "Johnson" language column for The Economist online. His book on the politics of language around the world, You Are What You Speak, was published by Random House in 2011.
I had to refrain from replying in all caps: YES.
American Heritage was first published in 1969 as an explicitly conservative response to the famously wide-open Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which had ignited a furor over its permissiveness starting in 1961. It included entries for “ain’t” and “irregardless,” and even though it labeled them as informal or nonstandard, purists were outraged. In a highly-competitive dictionary market, AHD sought to distinguish itself (and righting perceived language wrongs) by assembling a group of worthies who would vote each year on controversial usages. The votes are tallied and are used to inform small usage notes next to the words in question. What the reader of AHD gets is uniquely nuanced; instead of licensing or banning a usage—say “He hopes to grow the company,” which gives some people (including me) hives—readers are told that 73% of the usage panel disapprove. It’s a good way to avoid making black-or-white pronouncements about the language, because some writers prefer—and some assignments call for—a conservative style, others for a more contemporary one. AHD’s usage notes show how far along an acceptance curve a given usage has moved.
My beloved old 1992 3rd edition of the dictionary—a high-school graduation gift from my mom—records Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, William F. Buckley, Ted Sorensen, Carl Sagan, Charles Kuralt, James Michener, Arthur Schlesinger, and other greats. Now I was being asked to be one of their successors.
There was just one problem. Philosophically, I am mostly a “descriptivist” in the famous language wars. That means I’m convinced that “rules” about the language must be based in actual usage, something that shifts over time. Syntactic structures change, and grammarians deal with it; words’ meanings change, and lexicographers deal with that. Given those beliefs, it suddenly felt like a contradiction to join a panel the entire existence of which was organized around telling people what to do with their language. Up until now, I had thought of myself as an advocate of a bottom-up approach to standards for the language, of conventions for aspiring writers to learn. Now I was going to side with the more-enlightened-than-thou crowd of teachers, parents, and pundits who drill inflexible rules into their charges, no matter what the youngsters’ own feel for the language tells them.
But what if—a small knot formed in my throat—I wasn’t sure about the rules myself?
The ballot came. To my minor disappointment, it was not printed in a classy ornate font on fine parchment, to be filled out with a silver quill pen. It was a link to a SurveyMonkey online poll that asked us to rate sentences on a four-point scale: completely acceptable, somewhat acceptable, somewhat unacceptable, or completely unacceptable.
Some of the questions were easily dispatched from a descriptivist stance. What did I think about the sentences “He compared the runner to a gazelle” and “He compared the runner with a gazelle”? Some style books make a distinction, I knew. To compare with is to emphasize commonality; to compare to is to emphasize difference. Or so say the sticklers, anyway. Shakespeare wrote “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and went on to highlight the difference: “Thou art more lovely, and more temperate.” My intuition and a lifetime’s reading immediately told me that this is one of those “rules” prized by a few style-book writers but ignored by actual writers. Without a second thought, I rated both “completely acceptable.”
Then came the marginal cases. I feared these, because I had learned most prescriptivist “rules” as correct once and only later came to see them as unfounded. Some usages, in other words, were still in the middle of my own acceptance curve. “We were anxious to see the new show of British sculpture.” Oh no. I know many sticklers don’t like anxious for eager. I also know many quite intelligent and articulate people use anxious for eager. My thoughts chased each other around as I wondered: do they want me to be conservative, advising readers of the AHD on the usage that will earn them the least opprobrium? That would mean rejecting the sentence. Or do I let the strictest sticklers win, when the demotic answer is “Of course anxious can be used for ‘eager’”?
The ballot gave me a way out: “somewhat acceptable.” I later checked my 3rd edition (1992): 52% of the panel had approved of the sentence, and my 5th edition (the only swag I was given for agreeing to join the panel, by the way) reported that a decade later, that number had refused to budge.
Next came two sentences, contrasting only in one word: homogeneous and homogenous. I know I have heard both, read both. Considered both acceptable. But the mere fact of being on the ballot must mean that one or the other was disapproved of. But which one? I honestly had no idea. In a moment of weakness, I turned to my computer and began typing homogen . . . into Google. It autocompleted homogeneous. I tried again with homogenous. The results indicated that it was dispreferred.
Yes, I had cheated. But we’d been given no instructions to the contrary, and who doesn’t go to Google to resolve such questions? At any rate, I knew that homogenous was common in speech, if not writing. I ranked it “somewhat acceptable.” Looking now at my 3rd edition of the dictionary, I see that I need not have panicked. Homogenous is listed, without further comment, as “Alteration of HOMOGENEOUS.” I could have just followed my instinct and rated both as “completely acceptable” without having Googled.
Fellow Jedis, please don’t kick me off the council for admitting my panic in public.
As I finished typing this, my thoughts wandered to the Académie Francaise. Unlike the Usage Panel, the Académie Francaise really does have the authority to rule on what is correct French for all of France. (Unlike the AHD Usage Panel, they meet often in person, behind closed doors, except for an annual public meeting in which they wear special green-embroidered suits and swords. Much more Jedi-like.) The academy always has 40 members, a new one appointed when one dies. The new member begins his tenure with a speech eulogizing the departed one.
The AHD panel is much bigger (over 180 members), and so far as I know, isn’t kept at a fixed size. But members must be added in rough proportion to those who had departed. A number had died during the preparation of the 5th edition. Whom had I replaced? David Foster Wallace, the beautifully soulful novelist and linguistic conservative? William F. Buckley, the charming political and linguistic conservative pundit? Ted Sorensen, who put “Ask not what your country can do for you?” into the mouth of John F. Kennedy? Had any of them known what to do about homogenous?
I could only return to my own descriptivist principles. If all English speakers get a “vote” in what English is, then of course I qualify. I’m an English speaker. I just got to “vote” in a particular way, to be recorded in a book. Jedi Council, Schmedi Council.
I remembered the words of Isaac Asimov, who wrote at the bottom of his Usage Panel ballot in the 1960s: “My opinions are strong, but not necessarily authoritative. Please remember that.” Alas, I can’t comment on my Survey Monkey ballot. But I’ve committed thousands of words to the proposition that no individual’s word, and no single book’s judgment, is authoritative. But I had forgotten the first half of Asimov’s statement. I get a vote too.
I finished the survey and pressed send.