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It’s time for another entry in the intermittent S-Series, which looks at words that exist both with and without an s, and tries to figure out what motivates the choice between the options. Today, we’ll look at toward and towards. (I wanted to make some sort of “untoward” joke here, but it’s not coming together, so let’s just jump right in.) Brian Clark at Copyblogger, in a post listing a bunch of warmed-over peeves, confidently informs us that

Towards is wrong in American English. It’s toward. I went 41 years not being sure about this one.”

(h/t Stan Carey) Unfortunately, Clark has replaced his 41 years of uncertainty with a foreseeable future of misplaced certainty, hardly a worthwhile trade. Toward is more common in American English, but towards is by no means incorrect. It’s simply fallen out of fashion in American English:

You can see it yourself. Towards used to be the standard, but starting around 1840, it began a major decline that has persisted to the present day. Toward gobbled up towards‘s usages, and is now about 3 to 4 times more common than towards in American English. (Interestingly, although probably coincidentally, this is approximately the inverse of the ratio that existed back in the 1800-1840 steady-state period.)

Does this make towards “wrong”? Of course not, no more so than the fact that large is a more common word than big in written English makes the latter wrong. Towards is less common, and perhaps even non-standard (given that it’s still appearing more often than huge in writing suggests that non-standard is an overstatement), but by no means is it wrong.

No, the more appropriate position to hold is that of Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, who considers two forms interchangeable, or John Lawler, emeritus from Michigan, who finds the difference to be limited to an abstract sense.

Meanwhile, you non-American readers may be wondering what all this hubbub’s about, because towards is the clear standard in British English. But watch out; a time of troubles may be approaching, as it looks like the long dominance of towards may be coming to an end for you as well:

Toward has almost doubled its market-share in the last ten years. Just do me a favor, Brits, if you would: as toward becomes more common, can you not grouse about it as a pernicious Americanism? I’ll do what I can over here to get us to stop calling your towards wrong.

Summary: Toward is more common in (modern) American English, and towards is more common in British English, but neither is wrong. Use whichever you feel fits better in your sentence.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

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According to some people, the first of these sentences is perfectly fine, while the second has a common but nevertheless gutting mistake in it:

(1a) His romp through the woods was pleasant enough, but ending up in poison oak again aggravated his rash.
(1b) The constant itching over the next week left him quite aggravated.

That’s because these people believe that aggravate to mean “irritate” or “annoy” is a newfangled and improper meaning. To them, aggravate has but one meaning, and that is its earlier meaning of “to worsen”.

However, it turns out that neither of these are the original meaning of aggravate, which was “to make heavier”. In fact, this was the meaning with which aggravate was borrowed into English from Latin in the 15th century. That meaning has been all but lost in contemporary English — one can’t say “I aggravated the pick-up with my moving boxes” and expect people to make sense of that. So if you think you’re defending aggravate by sticking to its original usage, you’re doubly wrong.

Well, you might say, the “worsen” meaning is old enough, and the “irritate” meaning is still pretty new, so that’s why I’m against it. But that argument doesn’t hold water either; the first attestation of the “irritate” meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary is all the way back in 1611, only 15 years after the first “worsen” attestation.

The “irritate” meaning is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning; “make heavier” gets metaphorically extended to “add mental burdens” (think of other weight/thought/concern metaphors such as “weigh heavily on one’s mind”, “heavy thinking”, “weighing options”, etc.). From there it’s only a short hop to “irritate”, and we made it.

There’s no real loss in doing this. No significant ambiguity is gained by having these two meanings of aggravate. One can’t irritate an inanimate object, so (1a) is clearly using the “worsen” meaning. One can’t worsen a person, so (1b) is clearly using the “irritate” meaning.

The antarctic explorer aggravated the sled with his heavy supplies, which had aggravated his shoulder injury, which had aggravated him.

There’re a few other complaints I’ve heard about the “irritate” meaning of aggravate. One is that there are too many words to mean “irritate” and not enough to mean “worsen”. But that presumes that the “irritate” meaning is eliminating the “worsen” meaning, and I don’t think that’s the case. Anyone who follows sports is familiar with the crushing feeling of their favorite player aggravating their existing injuries. Is this meaning losing ground? Probably. Might it disappear eventually, leaving behind only idioms like “aggravated assault”? Possibly, but that’s what language does. Why isn’t anyone shedding tears over the loss of a good word meaning “to make heavier”?

Another occasional argument I see is that aggravate meaning “irritate” is “less precise”, and I’m not really clear on what that’s supposed to mean. Less precise than using irritate? Irritate can also mean “inflame” (as in eye irritant) and has an obscure legal meaning of “make void”. The example I always give for how this “imprecision” problem is not a problem is mean. The word mean can mean so many things (average, grouchy, etc.), and yet we somehow encounter no problems from this lack of precision. In fact, the imprecision of language can be beneficial; compare your imprecise conversations with your friends to the precise language of your favorite legal contract.

The final objection is that aggravate meaning “irritate” is informal. (Jan Freeman discussed this in her column on aggravate.) This may have been the case at some point, but I am unconvinced that it is currently true. The Corpus of Contemporary American English provides various examples of this usage in modern formal academic writing, and Google Books can provide formal usages back into the 19th century. I suspect that the perceived informality is due the tendency of discussions of one’s feelings to be informal.

Summary: The “irritate” meaning of aggravate dates back to the 1600s, and it doesn’t interfere with the “worsen” meaning of aggravate. Neither is the original meaning of aggravate, either. There’s just no good reason to object to the “irritate” meaning.

Racing around the web in a frantic but doomed attempt to escape writing a very large and very significant paper that has held me in its grasp for the better part of a year, I happened upon Rachael Cayley’s discussion of a review of the re-release of the original Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Why does the re-release matter? Well, Fowler’s Dictionary has had three editions, the second revised by Ernest Gowers* and the third by Robert Burchfield. The revisions, especially Burchfield’s, have drifted afield from Fowler’s original prescriptivist viewpoint to a descriptivist viewpoint — much, I think, to the betterment of the work.

But, of course, my opinion is mine alone. Many grammarians rue Burchfield’s involvement as the ruination of a classic. One of these mourners is Barton Swaim, who wrote a review in The New Criterion that Cayley summarized with:

“Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists.”

I can’t convey over text the specific face I was making in response to this summary, but it involves eye rolling, a sarcastic smile, a little head nod, and a few muscles moving to places I didn’t know they moved. Ha ha, yeah, sure, that’s a real argument there. We should totally accept a philosophical position about language because it’s what people want to do and it’s fun. Yeah, that’s an opinion worth publishing.

Gimme some more of that prescriptivist fun! (from Abstruse Goose)

But the joke’s on me, because it turns out that is what Swaim’s arguing. I thought that it was the role of the educated expert to see through pomp and circumstance and to analyze claims on their merit. But Swaim is enamoured of the idea that experts are there only to give the people what they want.

And what the people want, according to Swaim, is dictations about usage, like those Fowler gave out. Whereas those idiot descriptivists, here’s what they want:

“The job of somebody compiling a dictionary of English usage, in their [descriptivists’] view, is to tell us what most people say, not to exercise a fictional authority over the language by inventing reasons why this or that usage is ‘pedantic’ or ‘monstrous.'”

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t apologize for holding this position. Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules? I stopped playing Simon Says when I was in grade school, thanks.

But you see, Swaim worries that in the course of doing away with that fictional authority, the descriptivists are missing out on important information about English usage, like Fowler’s opinion that orotund is a “monstrosity”. Swaim writes:

“Surely, though, it would be useful to know that even in the late twentieth century there was something faintly ridiculous about the word orotund. But that’s the sort of usefulness descriptivists have no use for.”

I stopped and checked, and not one of the other usage guides I have on my shelf mention orotund. Apparently, it’s the sort of usefulness prescriptivists have no use for either. And I don’t blame them. The word orotund, according to Google N-grams, is now used slightly less often than the word apiary. I do not need to know that a dead guy disapproved of it 85 years ago.

Enough of this. I’m going to skip ahead through Swaim’s distaste for David Crystal’s introduction to the reprint, past Swaim’s claim that prescriptivism is “an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society,” and is not an “ism” at all. I want to address one final part that really got my goat. I hate it when someone tries to ascribe underlying motivations to me, to psychoanalyze me from a distance with no idea why I do what I do. So I’m more than a little cheesed at Swaim’s armchair analysis of what makes us descriptivists tick:

“To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they [descriptivists] argue further, is to engage in class prejudice. And here, I think, is the real reason for the intense dislike descriptivists feel for the older attitudes. The idea of “correctness” is linked in their minds with snobbery.”

No. If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.

And even if we descriptivists were all a bunch of communist Levellers who were motivated entirely by a desire to bring down the edifice of class structure and create a new egalitarian society, it wouldn’t change the fact that Swaim’s arguing that we should enforce rules with absolutely no basis in the language they supposedly protect!

Swaim’s society is a bunch of stressed imbeciles who are so scared of making a writing mistake that they need to have someone tell them exactly what to do in every situation. Nuance? Analysis? Facts? DAMMIT I AM A BUSY MAN, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE!

Maybe Swaim is right, and society is like that. But that doesn’t mean that this is something we should be encouraging by writing what society wants. Maybe it means instead that we’ve collectively done a poor job understanding language. Maybe we’ve done a poor job teaching people that language doesn’t work like that. Maybe it’s something we should work on changing rather than writing about how much we miss having someone enforce their opinions of language upon us.

And that’s the point that Swaim totally misses. Cayley calls him out for it:

“[…] a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.”

To conclude, let me put it this way. Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.


*: whose great-grandson later taught me my first undergraduate mathematics course and is awesome.

The last Sunday night I spent in Pittsburgh this Christmas found me at the McDonald’s where my cousin once worked, flaunting to Mother Nature that even though she insisted upon setting her thermostat at a level that could charitably be described as frigid, I would have no problem drinking a frozen caramel frappe. My parents had coupons, expiring that night, that granted us two frappes and two mochas for the price of one frappe and one mocha and the ten minutes it took for the guy behind the counter to understand what we wanted and how to make it.

Pretty frappes

Our frappes looked pretty much like this, except fluorescently lit, without the caramel, chocolate, and coffee beans props, with an irregularly-patterned and only half-hearted drizzle of syrup on top, and placed on a beige table that was hideous even back in its birthtime of the 70s.

There we were, the seven of us — if one accepts the argument that their long development makes the drinks full characters in this story — when an eighth character appeared to offer us his newspaper as he left. We readily accepted, looking for any excuse to linger away from the cold of the outdoors (and our house, where we save money by relying primarily on warm feelings and layers of sweaters to prevent hypothermia)

Finding two crosswords in the paper, we divided them; I taking one, and my parents sharing the other. We switched off on occasion, with each switch bringing another admonishment from my dad for me and my mother’s habit of neglecting to cross out clues as we fill them in. I tried to explain our negligence as a result of our finely-tuned crosswording minds: having only pens, we hesitated to commit to a word until we confirmed that another connecting word or two fit the first. As a result, we tended to have word cascades, where several clues came together at once, and it was difficult to find all of them to mark off. I even coined a phrase for it: “The spirit catches you, and you fill in.” (My conscience is forcing me to reveal that I coined this phrase only now, making it significantly less clever than it would have been had I coined it at the time.)

After one of the exchanges, I noticed that I now had enough letters to figure out a seven-letter word that would spring me from the prison of the upper-left corner. “Ersatz frisbees”, read the clue, and I had P I E _ _ _ _. Pie tins, of course. I filled it in, only to find a few minutes later that something was wrong. For a “quick trip”, I was getting jiunt, instead of the obviously correct jaunt. But that would mean that ersatz frisbess were pie tans, and that was clearly impossible. Then I realized that “don’t take no for an answer” also made more sense as press than tress, I realized that the crossword constructor was calling them pie pans, a phrase I’d never seemed to have heard in my life.

So I, in an allusion to my younger years in Pittsburgh, whined to my parents. “Pie pans?”, I asked incredulously, “What a huckster, trying to make this crossword more difficult by intentionally using the wrong word. It’s pie tins, right?” And my parents, no longer at an age where they had to pretend that their son was always right, said, “Maybe that’s how they say it where they’re from.”

I felt like Medusa gazing into a mirror, or whoever it was who was hoist by his own petard. I was gobsmacked. I exist on the Internet as a set of words lambasting others for doing what I just did — calling someone a lunkhead for having done nothing more than using the form most common in their dialect. I stewed for a second, and then muttered something about how this was totally different, because in a crossword you ought to stick to the more standard form, and everyone calls it a pie tin. My parents were too busy arguing over whether 99-Down really needed to have been crossed out to notice.

I had put this ugly episode out of my mind until this morning, when I found myself idly thinking about baked goods and suddenly the matter popped right back up. I was gentler now, as we had answered every last clue in both of the crosswords, and so I could afford magnanimy toward the crosswords’ designers. I now regarded pie pans as a delightful little trick, tripping me up momentarily with its uncommon usage. So I figured I’d assess how devilish a trick it was by seeing how much rarer pie pans is than pie tins:

Oops.

The lesson: each of us is fluent not in English, but in an idiolect of English. When you encounter someone who deviates from the form of English you use, don’t be too quick to assume that it’s them, and not you, who deviate from Standard English. And never start complaining about it until you’ve checked the facts. I’m just offering this story as a reminder that even if you, like me, haughtily think that you never fall into this fallacy, you probably still do.

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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