Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

victorian_teacher_postcard-r54cfbbfd3f9b4af68a22d15a9b640f1a_vgbaq_8byvr_512So my daughter is home for the summer, bringing joy and great conversations and taking over my kitchen. I really enjoy both my daughters, but Younger Girl is such an emphatic presence in the house that you really know she’s here. And we talk. Oh my God do we talk.  And there are some tics in her language that drive me a little crazy.

Such as? “I’m really excited for this vegan dinner.”

The way I understand my language, the sentence above suggests that my kid is excited on behalf of the vegan dinner, which is not what she means (I asked). Once I started hearing her use this particular construction, I realized that it was everywhere.  What happened to about? For the life of me, I can’t see a reason for the shift in prepositions. And that’s what annoys me every time I hear it.

I’ve become, in my own way, a language crank. My daughter calls me on it.

She says at college she’s the one who corrects her friends. She sends me every single paper she writes for me to vet for style and grammar. She also says (and I agree) that English is a living construct, and changes constantly. I’m generally on board with neologisms, and I try not to be too twitchy about the erratic use of spoken grammar (I live on the internet; I have stopped worrying about there/their and your/you’re). But language is also the tool of my trade, and some of the things the kid thinks she’s saying are, well, not.

When the subject comes up my daughter suggests that I’m the problem, that I’m being prescriptive and exclusionary. It’s almost a social justice issue to her. But in my head, I’m like a carpenter that doesn’t like to see the side of a hammer used to sink a nail–what’s wrong with using the tool the way the tool is supposed to be used?

I forget sometimes that I’m part of a continuum. I wake up each morning at the very end of evolution, and language (maybe even humans) have reached a point of perfection where there’s no need for further change. So a change that makes no sense to me (like “for” for “about”) feels like a step backward. But in thirty years it’s likely that “about” will feel as awkward to casual English speakers as “for” does to me. So I’m trying to curb my prescriptivist ways. Or at least restrain my flinching.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist — 14 Comments

  1. I’m not a native speaker; having learned my English from books I know my sense of the language and way of expressing myself is a bit formal. Still, in this case I think that using the same preposition to mean two different things would not improve clarity and consistency (nor expressiveness, the third good reason I acknowledge for changes in a language).
    Saying “I’m exited for Marion about Fred” is clear on who you are excited for,;and who is the cause of that excitement. Using “for” twice in that sentence doesn’t make it clearer and doesn’t make the sentence flow better, either.
    Learning how to speak and write clearly and unambiguously does mean paying attention to the rules. Even if I don’t know the verbal rules and terminology to express them, I’ve absorbed quite a lot of them subconsciously from my reading.
    Most books use correct grammar etc. in most of their text, which probably make it easier for me to pick up the dissonants than for someone who learned the language as everyday speech, which is a lot more sloppy. So if people tend to follow bad examples of sloppy language because that’s what they hear around them, it serms logical to me that clarifying the issue might be useful. That prescriptiveness isn’t always bad, it seems to me.
    That doesn’t mean the language should be frozen. If the change is useful, like singular they to avoid “he or she” or “(s)he” constructions, I’ll adopt it and adjust.

    • I’m not a native speaker; having learned my English from books I know my sense of the language and way of expressing myself is a bit formal. Still, in this case I think that using the same preposition to mean two different things would not improve clarity and consistency (nor expressiveness, the third good reason I acknowledge for changes in a language).
      Saying “I’m exited for Marion about Fred” is clear on who you are excited for,;and who is the cause of that excitement. Using “for” twice in that sentence doesn’t make it clearer and doesn’t make the sentence flow better, either.
      Learning how to speak and write clearly and unambiguously does mean paying attention to the rules. Even if I don’t know the verbal rules and terminology to express them, I’ve absorbed quite a lot of them subconsciously from my reading.
      Most books use correct grammar etc. in most of their text, which probably makes it easier for me to pick up the dissonants than for someone who learned the language as everyday speech, which is a lot more sloppy. So if people tend to follow bad examples of sloppy language because that’s what they hear around them, it seems logical to me that clarifying the issue might be useful. That prescriptiveness isn’t always bad, it seems to me.
      That doesn’t mean the language should be frozen. If the change is useful, like singular they to avoid “he or she” or “(s)he” constructions, I’ll adopt it and adjust.

  2. Sorry about the double post, I’m typing on my phone and thought I was just checking for errors. Please throw out the first comment if it’s convenient.

  3. It sounds like sloppy language to me. So does “you’re not the boss of me,” and “I’m bored of that.” And “I was laying in bed” is like fingernails bending backward to me.

    But sloppy teaching and TV writers ignorant of grammar prompt these changes, and . . . the language changes.

  4. One of my many linguistic allergies is to the appending of ‘ize’ to various words, especially as there are perfectly satisfactory alternatives that are being ignored. (Major irritation is the use of ‘incentivize’ -what ever happened to good old motivate?)
    It strikes me as lazy and an indication of a limited vocabulary.

  5. The thing is, right or wrong, the language is going to change under us. I’m trying to walk a line between being flexible and not giving a damn. For a lot of my daughter’s friends I suspect that using certain constructions correctly is considered to be aligning with an oppressive society (albeit perhaps unconsciously).

    Also, aside to the young woman sitting across from me on BART, speaking loudly into her phone: “I could care less” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. I’m constantly flinching from the awkward and just plain wrong constructions that my students and editing clients provide. Sometimes I feel we are headed for the Tower of Babel. Okay, change happens, but we still need some common ground rules in order to communicate clearly.

  7. It occurs to me that “that doesn’t mean what you think it does” is the root of my problems with some language shifts. At some point many words do shift (when was the last time you saw “nice” used in its original sense of “choosy”?). But until they have shifted, a speaker risks losing meaning by using those words in their newer sense. Lost meaning = risk of not being completely understood.

    At root that’s it for me: the idea of not making myself understood gives me the screaming collywobbles. But as with so much else about life, Your Mileage May Vary.

  8. I’m still sorry I never took a photo of a poster I saw in a local post office a little while ago (it has since disappeared). It was something exhorting the populace to turn tattler on anything they observed which they might think was nefarious. Unfortunately what the poster said was, “If you become suspicious…”

    Inquiring minds want to know. What do I have to do to qualify as “becoming suspicious” and who will be the judge of that? Are they trying to get me to dob myself in? And what happened to grammar?

  9. I expected eleven cents change from a purchase this morning. The young man said: “And your change be eleven cents.”

    I am suddenly in a Ye Olde Movie…