Category Archives: The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: Final Reflections

This post is the final one in a series about The Negative Canon.

That’s about it on the Negative Canon. I don’t suppose it’s comprehensive, and there have perhaps been some items I shouldn’t have included. I’m also aware that this little exercise has not got even close to tracing the origin of each candidate and analysing why it is singled out. I can only suggest that the reason that the examples which the Negative Canon contains are so selective is that those who peddle them find them easy to understand. Few any longer object to due to instead of owing to because, I suspect, it’s just too difficult to appreciate any difference. Having instead a handful of banal points that you can confidently trot out as having the truth of holy writ can make you feel a superior being to those naive enough to believe you.

Many of these items are aired frequently and at great length in several Facebook groups and elsewhere. They are even – God help us – featured on a set of mugs. Mugs for mugs, you might say. Those who comment have typically done no research, cite no references, don’t seem to have consulted a reputable dictionary or examined a corpus or ever picked up an introductory  book on linguistics. They are long on opinion and short on fact, yet they consider themselves to be greater authorities than those who have spent their careers researching, teaching and writing about the subject. As Geoffrey Pullum has written:

Metallurgical claims are treated as needing at least some kind of fact-checking with metallurgists: you can’t just assert that lead is highly brittle at room temperature or that vanadium explodes if put in contact with water. But linguistic claims are left to the same sort of uncontrolled mouthing-off as totally subjective opinions about food or fashion.

The basic misapprehension seems to arise from a failure to understand that English comes in many varieties, and that even a single variety can vary according to the context in which it is being used. All varieties of the language, whether regional or social, have a consistent grammatical system and their own vocabulary. When native speakers of English are accused of using ‘poor grammar’, what they are normally doing is using one of the many varieties of English, of which most are nonstandard. It shows a fundamental ignorance of the facts to think that Standard English is some kind of idealised form of the language and that all other varieties are corruptions of it. The dialect we know as Standard English was adopted as the most prestigious not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. Had history been different, what we call Standard English, if it had survived at all, would now itself be the object of scorn.

Joyless souls, the self-appointed guardians of the language appear to take no delight in the language of which they claim to be such proud and vigilant speakers. But those who are convinced enough of their own righteousness to go into print are, to quote Geoffrey Pullum again, hopeless at making their own case:

I’d say the problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others by writing books on how to write is that they are so bad at it . . . they actually don’t know how they do what they do, and they are clueless about the grammar of the language in which they do it, and they offer recommendations on how you should write that are unfollowed, unfollowable, or utterly insane.

What, ultimately, is being judged is not language at all, but the socio-economic status which language represents. To judge someone by their use of language is no different from judging them from their clothes, where they live, how they spend their leisure time, what they do for a living, and how they use their knives and forks. We are all entitled to do that, of course, however unworthy it may be, and no doubt we do all do it. But we should be in no doubt that those who use language differently from us are, within a given context, communicating no more and no less competently than we do.

Organisations which have presumably paid large sums of money for their less than felicitous corporate publicity material are perhaps fair game. More often, however, jibes about language use are directed at those who may have had little education and as a result are among society’s disadvantaged. They often seem to include those who don’t have English as their native language. Such attacks are deeply unappealing and reminiscent of social, racial and sexual discrimination. They deserve the same contempt, particularly when it is suggested that those who express themselves differently are mentally deficient.

Next time you come across someone who thinks they know what’s wrong with English and how to put it right, ask them these questions:

  • What are your linguistic qualifications?
  • How will you go about accomplishing your mission?
  • Do you think anyone will take any notice?


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The Negative Canon: Apostrophe’s

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

As with spelling, a standardised system of punctuation  in English began only with the introduction of printing. For centuries before, English was written with little or no punctuation, and there has always been variability in its use. Whatever its original purpose, it exists now principally not, as some seem to think, to show where the reader should pause, but to help the reader understand the structure of sentences.

There is one punctuation mark above all which the tut-tutters love to point out when it is not placed in accordance with their wishes. It is, of course, the apostrophe, against whose usefulness Peter Harvey has already argued here and here. When James Harbeck’s article in The Week in September claimed that ‘The English language would be better off without apostrophes’, it gave rise to much comment on both sides of the argument, as Louise Barder reported on Glossophilia.

Printers imported the apostrophe from Europe in the sixteenth century as a mark to show that a letter had been omitted, perhaps because there wasn’t space on a line to fit everything in. It was subsequently used to replicate the way contractions were spoken. This is the use we find in don’t, isn’t and I’m (and in French in C’est, l’homme and n’est-ce pas?). Such use isn’t particularly troublesome. Where there is confusion and controversy is in its use in certain plurals and as a genitive marker.

When it is used before the plural inflection -s it is sometimes called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ because displays of fruit and vegetables are sometimes accompanied by signs inidcating apple’s and cabbage’s. The easily amused like to ask questions like ‘The apple’s what?’ The apostrophe is also found in the plurals of abbreviations (DVD’s) and years (1980’s). This use is arguably unnecessary where the -s appears in lower case. But even those who insist on its absence there acknowledge that it serves a purpose in (admittedly rare) cases like p’s and q’s.

It is, however, the absence of the apostrophe as a genitive marker that most upsets people. In Old English, some, but by no means all, nouns had their genitive singular in es. This became contracted to plain –s with no apostrophe, as in this couplet from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende

I don’t see that shire’s would have been any improvement, but seventeenth century scholars felt a need to indicate the lost letter, even where there was none, and the –’s marker was born.

On current practice, Pam Peters writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, :

As applications of the apostrophe begin to shrink, expert writers and editors are also less certain about its use, hence the many details of this entry. Burchfield [chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971 to 1986], quoted in a 1985 news article,  . . . commented that the apostrophe had probably reached the limits of its usefulness, and might only be retained for contractions. A return to C17 simplicities with the apostrophe might not be a backward step’

There are indications that this is already happening. Pam Peters sets out a number of cases where apostrophes are not now obligatory. They include:

  • plural nouns in phrases which express affiliation, for example, teachers college and senior citizens centre. The trend is widespread in the English-speaking world. Robert Burchfield noted it in corporate names and titles such as Diners Club and Farmers Weekly.
  • plural expressions of time and space, such as five weeks leave (but a week’s leave), and three kilometres distance (but a kilometre’s distance).
  • placenames involving possessive forms.
  • company names such as Harrods. A British book chain fairly recently changed its name to Waterstones.

As confirmation of this trend, I can report that a road near my house bears the sign Sprats Hatch Lane, that a sign in the village points to Doctors surgery, and that at least one branch of a leading British department store has in its restaurant a counter labelled CHILDRENS.

The possessive apostrophe won’t be preserved by the efforts of the likes of the Apostrophe Protection Society, and it won’t be abolished by people saying it should be. It will disappear, as it is already disappearing, when enough writers find that it serves no useful purpose. Its absence in URLs will doubtless have an effect. Those who object are entitled to do so, and they certainly make free use of that entitlement, but they should remember King Canute.


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The Negative Canon: More On Singular ‘They’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In my post of 18 July, I discussed singular they. Mark Liberman had an interesting post on Language Log yesterday, showing that those who take some trouble to avoid singular they then go on to use singular their. Anyone who thinks there are clear rules governing the use of English pronouns is mistaken.


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The Negative Canon: Spelling

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

There are perhaps aspects of spelling that deserve a place in the Negative Canon, but they’re hard to pin down with any precision. Instead, I’ll make some general observations, and just mention at the end a couple of spellings which are sometimes the targets of the tut-tutters.

Spelling is important. It helps communication enormously if we all stick to the conventions that happen to be current at the time we are writing. Deviant practices take attention away from what we are saying, and lead our readers to give their attention to the way we are saying it. Careless spelling risks misunderstanding, or at best makes reading more difficult, and will, if nothing else, undermine readers’ confidence in our credibility.

It’s necessary to say this to ward off the tired old charge that those of us who try to take an objective  look at language use think that anything goes. I say no such thing, and nor does any serious linguist. However, there are those who seem to think that all you have to do to write effectively, apart from conforming to their own personal ideas of grammar and word use, is to spell according to the accepted norms. On the contrary, getting spelling right is the start of the process, not the end. Concentrating on spelling alone creates the impression that nothing else much matters.

There’s no reason in principle why we shouldn’t spell words in different ways. In fact, there once was variation in spelling and no one worried much about it, but that was when few could read and write. When printing made mass written communication possible, it was clearly helpful if everyone tried to observe the same conventions of spelling found at any one particular time. It still took a long time before the conventions we know today were standardised, and even now they are not essential and unchanging components of the language. As Simon Horobin tells us, ‘we should accept changes in spelling as part of the natural evolution of our language.’

This idea seems to bother some people. For example, there are pairs of words which vary their spelling with a single vowel letter. The spelling sometimes shows the difference between the noun and the adjective, as with dependent and dependant. Others indicate a different meaning, as with stationery and stationary. The pair most often picked on seems to be affect and effect. Very generally, the first is a verb and the second is a noun, but in some contexts effect can be a verb, and in some contexts affect can be a noun. For the time being, writers must observe these distinctions if they are not to be thought incompetent, but if they are lost there will be no need to mourn them. Anyone who claims that ambiguity will be the result needs to explain why there is no ambiguity with the many homophones that already exist.

Finally, as promised, here are two fairly trivial spelling points that sometimes provoke comment.

Alot. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters reports that:

There are some 50 instances in British data from the BNC, almost entirely from three sources: e-mail, TV autocue data, and TV newscripts. Citations obtained by Webster’s English Usage (1989) are mostly from memos, private correspondence and draft prose. The occasional instance of alot might be just a typo, a failure to press the space bar on the keyboard. But its recurrence in typescript or in handwritten manuscripts makes it more significant, as the shadow of things to come.

She notes that alot lacks real analogues, but comments that ‘the nearest is awhile, also compounded with the indefinite article, but sanctioned by centuries of use.’ There are those who love to take photographs of instances of alot, seeking to establish, here as elsewhere, their intellectual and social superiority, but I suspect it will be decades, if not centuries, before it has the same sanction as awhile. It seems in any case too trivial to worry much about.

Alright. I have always written it that way rather than as all right, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it, when we write already, always, almost, also, although and altogether. As Pam Peters writes:

At the turn of the millennium, alright is there to be used without any second thoughts.

Apart from anything else, alright allows us to distinguish between ‘The answers were all right’ and ‘The answers were alright.’


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The Negative Canon: Literally

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

It hardly seems necessary to comment further on literally, but I do so for the sake of completeness. It’s been covered by CNN, the  Daily Mail and The Guardian, Ben Zimmer on Language Log, John McIntyre in the Baltimore Sun and by various other blogs including, YouGov, The Web of Language, The Drum and The Hot Word.

All this comment arose when a few months ago someone discovered that definition 1c of literally in the online OED was:

colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

That had actually been in the OED for nearly two years, and is only slightly different from definition 1b which was already in the 1989 revision as definition 3b:

Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense, usu. to add emphasis.

Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.

As an example of how the word is ‘improperly used’, the note draws attention to a citation which read:

For the last four years . . . I literally coined money.

The interesting thing about that is that it dates not from the wicked modern age, but from 1863. Any who thought it might have been otherwise are prone not only to the Etymological Fallacy, but also to the Recency Illusion. More than 150 years before that, Alexander Pope had written this, which appears in support of the current definition 1b :

Every day with me is litterally another yesterday for it is exactly the same.

The earliest citation of all in the current revision is this from 1769:

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

In ‘Mind The Gaffe’, R L Trask, like many others, takes no notice of this long-established use, claiming that:

Something which is literally true is true in fact: you can only write ‘She was literally foaming at the mouth’ if there was indeed foam coming out of her mouth.

Neither Peter Harvey in ‘A Guide to English Usage’, nor Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to English Usage’ covers the point, but Pam Peters is rather nearer the mark than Trask when she writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

In grammatical terms, it’s an intensifier or emphasizer like “really” – whose use as such is registered in the dictionaries.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ takes a similar line, but with a sensible reservation:

Now a word about the critics. The chief assertions they make are that the hyperbolic use of literally is a misuse of the word or a mistake for figuratively. As we have seen, it is neither; it is an extension of intensive use from words and phrases of literal meaning to metaphorical ones . . .

If the hyperbolic use of literally is neither a misuse nor a mistake for some other word, what is it? The point to be made here is that it is hyperbolic, and hyperbole requires careful handling.

Even if it does not always receive careful handing, ‘it seems odd,’ as Pam Peters writes ‘to censure the word on the basis of its less responsible users.’

Ben Zimmer commented back in 2008 on the ‘Visual Thesaurus’ blog:

Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free.

Later in his post, he asks why we don’t hold other intensifiers such as really, truly, absolutely, and positively to the same standard as literally. ‘Is “really bored to death”, he asks, ‘only acceptable when boredom is indeed fatal, or “truly angelical” when actual angels are being described?’ Would Trask have said that you can only write She was really foaming at the mouth when foam was really coming out of her mouth? I suspect not.

Literally, then, gives us a good example of the way in which words are selected from the Negative Pool to form the Negative Canon. Other adverbs which can be used hyperbolically, but without censure, are completely, utterly, totally, and even very. Hyperbole is widely understood and accepted as a figurative use of the language, and it’s all perfectly normal. You don’t have to use literally this way if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to like it. What you cannot do is deny that it is part of the language and that others use it in this way for a particular communicative purpose. Whether or not it is effective can be determined only by the context.


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The Negative Canon: Imply / Infer

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’, Peter Harvey states the standard position on the use of imply and infer:

To imply something is to suggest it indirectly.
To infer something is to deduce or conclude it from evidence.
Native speakers sometimes use infer to mean imply.

That is a fair enough comment in a guide destined for foreign learners. By contrast, both Harry Blamiers’s ‘Penguin Guide to Plain English’ and R L Trask’s ‘Mind The Gaffe have native speakers in mind, and their approach is rather more dogmatic. The first baldly states:

What goes generally wrong is that the word infer is used as though it meant the same as imply.

Trask writes, with little further comment:

When you imply something, you suggest indirectly that it is true. When you infer something, you conclude that it is true.

The OED, to be sure, gives the ‘imply’ sense as its fourth definition of infer, but cautions:

This use is widely considered to be incorrect, especially with a person as the subject.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) article on the subject is comprehensive. Drawing on the OED, it records that in 1528 Sir Thomas More introduced infer with the meaning given by Harvey, Blamires and Trask. Five years later, however, he used it to mean ‘imply’, but not with a human subject. Both uses continued, apparently without disapproval, for around 400 years. The OED’s citations supporting this use include those from Milton, Scott and Mervyn Peake. MWDEU also gives citations from James Boswell and Jane Austen.

The use of infer to mean ‘imply’ with a human subject first occurred, according to MWDEU, in 1896. Then, and subsequently, its use was oral. It was only when, in the 1950s, that infer came to be used in print with a human subject that the controversy appears to have arisen. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters also discusses the case when the subject of infer is impersonal, concluding that:

The shift from nonpersonal use of infer (“indicate”) to personal use as “imply” is no great move.

Her comment is, as usual, balanced and pragmatic:

In conversation and debate many people do not distinguish between these constructions; and in context it’s usually quite clear whether infer is intended to mean making an active suggestion (= “imply”), or a deduction made from something else. As often, the distinction is more important in writing, and writers may be reassured . . . that the word they need most of the time is imply. Like other shibboleths of language, the issue needs to be defused.

Corpus evidence confirms the claim that imply is indeed most often what is needed. Imply is nearly three and a half times more frequent than infer in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, four and a half times more frequent in the British National Corpus, and just over four times more frequent in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

In fact, the problem, if there is one, may be more imagined than real. MWDEU observes that:

. . . our evidence shows a marked decline of occurrence of personal infer in edited prose . . . It has  been the chiefly oral use of  infer with a personal subject that has been under attack all along, and that seems not to pose much of a problem for writers.

Careful writers will still, no doubt, maintain the distinction, but criticism of the use in speech and, these days, in informal prose, of personal infer where others might prefer imply is more likely to be a sign of bigotry than of learning. MWDEU describes one of the objections to personal infer as social in that ‘the personal infer has been associated with uncultured persons.’ That might be said of many usages in the Negative Canon. If so, it ignores the fact that the language of ‘uncultured persons’ is just as capable of serving a particular communicative purpose at a particular time and in a particular place as that of the culturally sophisticated.


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The Negative Canon: Less / Fewer

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Condemnation of the use of less in reference to things that can be counted is not far to seek. It’s a staple of maven discourse.

Among those who have published on it, Harry Blamires predictably states in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’:

Fewer refers to number, whereas less refers to bulk or amount. One rarely finds fewer where the word should be less. But the converse error is still very common.

‘If public transport were better, there would be far less people going about in cars.’

The word should be fewer. Less people would be people of smaller stature.

R L Trask is hardly less unequivocal in ‘Mind the Gaffe’:

Though colloquial English is different, standard written English uses fewer with things that can be counted and less with things that cannot be counted.

In ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’, (intended, it is important to say, for foreign learners of English), Peter Harvey also shares the view of many:

Fewer is used with countable nouns and little/less is used with uncountable nouns. However, native speakers sometimes wrongly use less with countable nouns: less books, people, years. When it refers to a quantity rather than to a number, it is acceptable in forms such as (No) less than fifteen minutes, 200 miles, £3000.

And yet, and yet . . .

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) traces the origin of the objection to less where many might prefer fewer to Robert Baker who, in his ‘Reflections on the English Language’ in 1770 commented:

This word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would be better. No Fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but more strictly proper.

MWDEU points out the guarded nature of Baker’s words in the use of ‘I should think’, ‘would be better’ and ‘appears to me’. He is expressing a personal view, rather than a fact. By the twentieth century, however, that view had for many become an absolute truth, as my earlier quotations show. But as MWDEU reminds us, the OED shows that less has been used for countables for more than 1000 years, since King Alfred wrote in his translation of Boethius’s ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’:

Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma (with less or more words)

MWDEU goes on to record, with examples, the way in which less rather than fewer tends to be used in certain common constructions, particularly less than, noting, as Peter Harvey does, that:

The countables in this construction are often distances, sums of money, units of time, and statistical enumerations, which are often thought of as amounts rather than numbers.

In assessing examples showing less used with countable nouns, MWDEU concludes that:

. . . native speakers and writers of English [use] less of count nouns in various constructions. Fewer could have been used in many of [the preceding examples] – at times it might have been thought more elegant, as Robert Baker thought – but in others no native speaker would use anything but less.

Those who make a fuss about it might like to ponder why we are content with a single word, more, to describe both greater quantities and greater amounts. The day may yet come when we are all equally content to use less for both smaller quantities and smaller amounts. Meanwhile, Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ makes the pertinent point that:

. . . it was and is essentially a stylistic choice, between the more formal fewer and the more spontaneous less. Fewer draws attention to itself, whereas less shifts the focus on to its more significant neighbours.

That makes supermarket signs such as ‘Five Items Or Less’ entirely appropriate. Sharpie wielders take note.


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The Negative Canon: Hopefully

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

The OED’s first definition of hopefully is ‘In a hopeful manner; with a feeling of hope; with ground for hope, promisingly’, and the earliest citation is from the seventeenth century. The second definition is ‘It is hoped (that); let us hope.’ The earliest citation in this second sense is from 1932. The OED comments that it is of US origin and that it is ‘avoided by many writers’ (but doesn’t say that it should be avoided).

The OED’s contemporary cousin, Oxford Dictionaries Online, has this fuller explanation of what it is now the word’s most frequent use, but adds a note of caution:

This second use is now very much commoner than the first use, but it is still believed by some people to be incorrect. Why should this be? . . .  Part of the reason is that hopefully is a rather odd sentence adverb: while many others, such as sadly, regrettably and clearly, may be paraphrased as ‘it is sad / regrettable / clear that . . .’, this is not possible with hopefully. Nevertheless, it is clear that use of hopefully has become a shibboleth of ‘correctness’ in the language – even if the arguments on which this is based are not particularly strong – and it is wise to be aware of this in formal contexts.

I don’t suppose many who obect to this use of hopefully do so on the grounds that it lacks the potential for paraphrase on the lines of other sentence adverbs. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters suggests that:

Objections to this usage are based on the assumption that hopefully is and can only be an adverbial adjunct of manner . . . Yet no-one would seriously doubt that the word hopefully in such contexts expresses the hopes of the person speaking or writing. It is an attitudinal adverb (or ‘disjunct) which contributes interpersonal meaning to the statement. It takes its place beside numerous others.’

She continues:

. . . this use of hopefully is very common. Amid hundreds of BNC examples of the word, more than 75% make it an attitudinal adverb. The ‘Longman Grammar’ (1999) finds it in news reports and academic prose, as well as conversation. ‘Webster’s English Usage’ believes that the high tide of objections to it in the US was about 1975. High time to cease making a fetish of it!

Neither R L Trask in ‘Mind The Gaffe’ nor Peter Harvey in ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’ can see any objection to it, and, after considering the objections, even Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ concedes that ‘it has a certain usefulness.’

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ perhaps best sums up all these views in commenting:

You can use it if you need it, or avoid it if you do not like it. There never was anything really wrong with it; it was censured . . . because it was new, and it is not very new any more.

If objections to this perfectly normal use of a sentence adverb are on the wane, it is another instance of the way in which a new feature of the language is first criticised, and later absorbed into the language, when, after a decent interval, it is no longer thought remarkable.


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The Negative Canon: Disinterested

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’, Harry Blamires confidently writes:

The word disinterested is more often used incorrectly than correctly. It does not mean uninterested . . . To be disinterested in any matter is to be in no position either to benefit or be disadvantaged by whatever transpires. Disinterest is impartiality.

R LTrask takes a similar line in ‘Mind The Gaffe’:

. . . standard English makes a clear distinction. To be uninterested is to be apathetic, to have no trace of enthusiasm, while to be disinterested is to have nothing to gain or lose from any outcome.

However, the OED’s first definition of disinterested is ‘Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned.’ It notes that it is ‘often regarded as a loose use’, but there are citations showing this use from John Donne in around 1631 the ‘Daily Telegraph’ in 1970. The definition which Blamires and Trask seek to defend comes only second historically:

Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ confirms this historical order of use in the final sentence of this extract:

Disinterested carries the bulk of use for all meanings; uninterested is much less frequently used. In current use, disinterested has three meanings: an ethical one, “free from selfish motive or bias”; a simple negative one, “not interested”; and a slightly more emphatic one, “having lost interest”. Of these the simple negative is the oldest, the ethical one next, and “having lost interest” the most recent.

Oxford Dictionaries Online gives ‘not influenced by considerations of personal advantage’ as its first definition and ‘having or feeling no interest in something; uninterested’ as its second. A usage note reads:

Nowhere are the battle lines more deeply drawn in usage questions than over the difference between disinterested and uninterested. According to traditional guidelines, disinterested should never be used to mean ‘not interested’ (i.e. it is not a synonym for uninterested) but only to mean ‘impartial’ . . . Ironically, the earliest recorded sense of disinterested is for the disputed sense. Today the ‘incorrect’ use of disinterested is widespread: around a quarter of citations in the Oxford English corpus are for this sense.

Pam Peters, writing in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, admits that:

. . . with all the controversy, it may be better to seek a synonym for [disinterested] if you aim to communicate clearly and directly.

That is undoubtedly good advice, and for those simply seeking pragmatic guidance on usage no more need really be said. But for those of us who like to dig a little deeper, her preceding words deserve attention:

Given that disinterested carries several meanings, we effectively rely on the context to show which is intended – as is true of many words.

Indeed it is, and it is context that the language mavens so often seem to ignore. They also generally prefer earlier meanings of a word over later ones (see decimate). The fact that they do not do so in this case illustrates the arbitrary nature of their choices. That in turn suggests that their predilections are social as much as linguistic.

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The Negative Canon: Decimate

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Some of those who like to show that they recall a little of the Latin they may have once been taught love to tell us that decimate should only be used to mean ‘reduce by one tenth’. If they are particularly zealous, they will tell us that we should even reserve the word for killing every tenth soldier pour encourager les autres.

The first definition of the first conjugation Latin verb decimo in Lewis and Short’s ‘A Latin Dictionary’ is, indeed,To select by lot every tenth man for punishment, to decimate’, with the comment that the word is post-Augustan, but that the practice itself occurred much earlier. This, too, is the earliest meaning in English attested in the OED:

To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

It’s supported by this citation from John Dymmok’s ‘A Treatise on Ireland’ published around 1600:

All . . . were by a martiall courte condemned to dye, which sentence was yet mittigated by the Lord Lieutenants mercy, by which they were onely decimated by lott.

Subsequent meanings are given as ‘To exact a tenth or a tithe from; to tax to the amount of one-tenth’, and ‘To divide into tenths, divide decimally.’ These are consistent with Lewis and Short’s further definitions of the Latin word ‘To cause to pay tithes, to collect tithes from a person’ and ‘To select the tenth part as an offering, to pay tithes of anything’, supported by references, among others, the Vulgate Bible.

The OED’s definition 4a, however, is:

To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of

and 4b is:

(rhetorically or loosely) To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.

This doesn’t go quite as far as the OED’s contemporary companion, Oxford Dictionaries Online, where the first definition is ‘Kill, destroy or remove a large proportion of’ and ‘Drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness (of something)’.

It is this more general use that some object to. In ‘Mind The Gaffe’, R L Trask advises unequivocally ‘you should never use decimate to mean “annihilate” or “destroy”’, while in ‘The Penguin Guide To Plain English’, Harry Blamires writes of the ‘misuse [which] occurs when the word decimate is seemingly confused with some other word such as devastate.’ (He is also concerned that decimate is used to mean to reduce to one-tenth rather than by one-tenth, but I’ve not seen anyone else make that complaint.)

What all this amounts to is that those who want decimate to have something to do with the number ten fall prey to the Etymological Fallacy. A word rarely means now what it once did. Those who want decimate to remain faithful to its Latin root, or at least to its earlier meanings in English, are extremely selective. Why do they not insist on using complexion to mean ‘temperament’ rather than ‘skin’, or strange to mean ‘foreign’ rather than ‘unusual’, or cretin to mean ‘(Christian) creature’ rather than ‘idiot’? Vocabulary in particular seems to show the arbitrary nature of those items that are picked from the Negative Pool to enter the Negative Canon.


Filed under The Negative Canon