Madeleine Robins

August 5, 2016

Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 7:55 AM
Tags: , , ,

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?

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. And 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.

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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2 Comments »

  1. May I chime in on something that bugs me? When did people start saying that a film was based “off” a book? Didn’t we always say that x was based “on” y? Maybe I’ve been mistaken my whole life?

    Comment by queendiem — August 5, 2016 @ 10:52 AM | Reply


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