I was scanning through Paul Yeager’s book, Literally, the Best Language Book Ever, and, as with most all books of peeves, I found myself at times slightly at odds with the author. It wasn’t that I thought his preferred usages were wrong, or even that they weren’t my preferred usage (they often were), but that I felt like he never bothered to explain what was wrong with his dispreferred usage.
And then I read one claim that made me understand his linguistic philosophy, revealing that the incompleteness of his arguments was intentional, and indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of language. The claim was in a discussion of how one should make the past tense of forecast, and in arguing that only forecast (not forecasted) is correct, he reveals a crucial (and misguided) assumption in his argument:
Language doesn’t work like the local supermarket; there are no buy-one-get-one-free deals: one word, one past tense.
I immediately thought of an exchange from Arrested Development, when Lindsay Bluth, rich philanthropist, tries to convince Johnny Bark, a nature activist, to stop protecting a tree from her family’s bulldozers:
Lindsay: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
Johnny Bark: You don’t really get nature, do you?
This is the problem with many peeveologists; they don’t really get language. In Yeager’s case, he adheres to the axiom of One Right Way: there is a single correct form of each word, a single correct way of saying any given thing. Once you determine that one usage is right, all the others must be wrong by extension. But any linguist can explain to you that is one wrong way of looking at language. Just to hammer home the point, let me offer some examples of Multiple Right Ways:
Pronunciation. People will pronounce some words differently depending on context. For instance, I vary my pronunciation of either and neither and route and homage and caramel, because sometimes one way sounds better than the other in a given situation. Most people, I would wager, have a set of words with similarly variable pronunciation. I’ll bet you do.
Numbers. This is really a subpoint under pronunciation, but how do you say 1387? “One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen eighty-seven”, and “one three eight seven” are all standard in some contexts.
Word choice. There are tons of these. One example: kid and child are two words for the same thing, differing primarily in tone. Or damp and moist, or bother, annoy, and irritate.
Morphology. When I was a math major, I had to write a lot of either formulas or formulae, and my choice of plural varied with the context. People and persons are each acceptable in different contexts as well. Looking specifically at past tenses, I wrote a few months ago about variation in the past tense of shine, and similar variation appears in dreamed/dreamt, dived/dove, and lighted/lit, among others.
Syntactic structure. Syntactic alternations give you multiple ways to say the same thing. The dative alternation lets one say either I gave him the gift or I gave the gift to him; the genitive alternation offers the friend of the president and the president’s friend; the needs doing alternation yields the house needs to be cleaned and the house needs cleaning. Because in some cases one sounds better than the other (e.g., I gave John the gift he always wanted vs. I gave the gift John always wanted to him), this sort of alternation is really useful.
It’s essential to note that in these alternations, the alternate forms are not identical in meaning or use. The point is instead that in many situations, one form is no more right than the other(s). In other situations, one form might be more right than another, but the other(s) still might not be wrong.
Sure, there’s something to be said for consistency, for using specific words in consistently prescribed ways. And sometimes you can do that, but not always. The trouble is that the world rarely submits to sharp definitions. The world rarely has one right way to do something, and so neither does language. That’s a fact that every language commentator needs to understand. Unfortunately, few of them do.