The Grammarphobia Blog

When abusage becomes usage

Q: I came across your blog for the first time today. After scanning the entries, I came to this conclusion:  No usage is wrong if your research shows it has been used before. From this brief exposure to your work, it seems your entire focus is to find some way to justify questionable usage.

A: We’re sorry that you interpret our judgments as ways “to justify questionable usage.”

When the two of us make a judgment about a usage, we consult many sources, including these:

The Oxford English Dictionary; current standard dictionaries (and sometime older ones, for historical perspective); old and new usage guides; scholarly studies, and articles in journals like American Speech.

This gives us a feel for whether educated opinion about a usage has changed.

Many times, we’re chagrined at what we learn. But as former journalists (we were once editors at the New York Times) we report what we find, painful though it may be!

English is well over a thousand years old, and it has adapted itself to common usage century by century. Some 19th-century usages are almost unrecognizable today.

The underlying grammar, of course, is much slower to change, though change it does.

Use of the subjunctive, for example, is rapidly slipping away in Britain. We no longer hear “thou sayest” or “she cometh” or “doth,” and English speakers on both sides of the pond seldom use “shall” in place of “will” any more.

Changes in usage – for instance, in spellings, pronunciations, meanings, and choice of vocabulary where no new grammatical function is involved – are more readily observable over time.

And the choice of preposition (as in “wait on line” versus “wait in line,” or “wait on the weather” versus “wait for the weather”) is often idiomatic and does not involve a change in grammatical  function.

Many people ask us, “When does something ‘incorrect’ become ‘correct,’ or at least grammatically acceptable?”

This is the million-dollar question! Any linguist who could definitively answer this question would deserve a Nobel Prize (that is, if the Swedes decided to give one for linguistics).

If you wouldn’t mind reading another blog entry, here’s one we wrote not long ago to a reader who had a similar complaint: 

Even if you never read us again, thanks for letting us hear from you.

Check out our books about the English language