Language Always Changes—But What Does That Mean for Editors?

Written by David Marsh; copy edited by Stella Du

It was about 10 years ago that I fully confronted the idea that language always changes. I remember my stubborn reaction: Ugh. Does it have to?

It’s not much fun to go back and revisit grammar rules and word definitions we adopted as absolute a long time ago. The easier solution is just to complain that English is going to the dogs—and, for centuries now, many have done just that.

The trouble is, shouldn’t the dogs have gotten it by now? And torn it to bits? Yet somehow people are still communicating with each other.

Over time the logic of this point made me tame my objections. Then they got tamer still as I came to realize that inflexibility isn’t the only type of irrationality that the language-grump mentality produces.

Many of the so-called rules we internalized didn’t make much sense in the first place. Nevertheless,  this strictly traditional, rules-based approach often lends itself to elitism: non-standard usages come to be scorned as the misadventures of the lower classes, despite the inability of the self-appointed arbitrators (known as prescriptivists) to make a logical argument for the standards. Most discouragingly, old style guides like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—often panned by linguists—are still widely relied on despite pushing many discredited rules.

And as for changes in word meanings, well, nice used to mean silly, silly used to mean worthy, and it would be silly (not worthy) to try listing the countless other examples.

As editors, then, we need to take a page from the work of modern linguists, who have made such a convincing case that resisting language change is futile. That means a decent understanding of prescriptivism’s opposite, descriptivism: the idea that language is not a top-down system ruled by decree, but more like a “wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers” and “the ultimate participatory democracy.”

But there’s a hitch here. In its purest form, descriptivism dictates that there’s no such thing as right or wrong in language. If a native speaker says something, it’s a contribution to the pool, so it must be right.

If editors buy in to this entirely, how are we supposed to do our jobs?

Fortunately, there’s no law that says you have to be strictly on one team or the other. There’s an argument for a less-reactionary, tempered brand of prescriptivism too. 

For one thing, the “wiki contributors” themselves often want to know what’s right and wrong. They are more likely to ask, “what is the rule for this?” than “do you think my rule might go viral?”

Probably their intuition is that, because language change just inches along over time, there are standards and conventions that prevail at any given moment, and not all of them are just dumb. Keeping the more sensible ones in mind is essential to a common understanding.

And it also means that some recent changes in meanings and usage have not yet stood the test of time. Some might prove to be merely fashionable, and overusing trendy terms can seem like the writer just isn’t trying very hard.

A couple of quick examples that still bring out my inner grump:

  • Impact as a verb. It’s very heavily used, it does little that affect doesn’t, it’s rivalled by a vast number of alternative verbs where a broad meaning isn’t necessary, it still carries ill-fitting connotations of car crashes, and it has a bureaucratic flavour to it (i.e., cardboard-ish to my taste buds).
  • Arguably, whose usage has spiked in recent years. In most cases it’s just a weasel word, and it’s particularly indefensible in constructions like “arguably one of the best films of the year.” This is so watered down as to mean little more than “I liked it.”

What I’m trying to do is not just reflexively hate on anything new, but see whether a case can be made for or against it. Not that it’s easy: a good ear is a must, and that demands a steady, eclectic reading habit as well as a solid grounding in grammar.

Overall, the trick for approaching these questions is to think more in terms of better or worse, rather than just right or wrong. Then to be ready to provide the reasons for the conclusions, which aren’t always a matter of enforcing laws like a traffic cop.

“To enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength,” the lexicographer Samuel Johnson famously said in 1755.

No, we can’t lash the wind and shouldn’t try. But by balancing standards with flexibility, we can help writers adjust their sails so they can harness the wind more effectively.

David Marsh is a freelance editor and writer based in Vancouver. David worked as a newspaper journalist in Canada and Asia for many years, and more recently graduated from SFU’s editing program. He has a habit of delving into questions of language, popular science, and other curiosities. Find him on Twitter.

Image by Canva

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