Usage Wins (or, 'I give up')
Greetings. As a young adult I used to get really exercised at how popular usage of English so often
changed the meaning and even spelling of words; I saw it as a form of erosion, a departure from 'better times'. I
was also scornful of errors in grammar, examples of which are strewn throughout English, especially American English,
and are certainly prevalent today, although offtimes the errors are those of English as a second language, so that's
not even in the discussion. Props to anyone who can get around in a second, or in many cases, third, fourth, etc.
The punctilious outlook toward language purity of my youth probably reflected, in part, my own lack of confidence,
and desire to stand out from the crowd, and perhaps a nascent snobbery, although my background did not predispose
me in that direction. Fortunately, there is no trace of snobbery in the current version of me, and will not
be lifelong now.
What I have come to learn is that changes in language, in fact all languages, are continuous, and meanings shift
all the time, so rather than being angry and supercilious about any 'decline', I'm just amused, bemused, and amazed
at the flexibility, quirkiness and organic nature of language; I have learned to let it go (with a cleansing breath).
No less an American luminary than Thomas Jefferson has said:
"Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to. But where, by small grammatical
negligences, the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt."
All this doesn't mean I can't use popular usage as grist for my mill, however, for your enlightenment and, hopefully,
entertainment, for there are circumstances where a more 'proper' use of the language still is important, and there
are some people in the world who know the difference between the preferred and the popular forms of expressing oneself,
so it may be good to know that difference. Some examples, offered in loving review:
- Stink/Stank/Stunk, Shrink/Shrank/Shrunk
I remember reading in the New York Times some while back of yet another example of how the past tense of two
common verbs has withered away (or has shrunk) over my lifetime, to a comical extent. I think the dam(n) broke
with the Disney movie, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and after that, it appears the battle was over.
Well, shrink-causing parent, if you had reduced the stature of your offspring and you remembered your conjugation
as well as your conjugal, you would properly have said to your spouse "I shrank" the poor creatures.
This is so endemic now that it no longer causes much of a hiccup, for Usage Wins.
- Words (don't) failure me now, nor feets
Twitter friends: Like the page title says, "usage wins", but 'fail' in place of 'failure'? Let's press the honorable
verb into noun service, right? But it's all good (another recent addition to the language). Here, I'll type it
in for you: ure; #Failure. But I love ya; Twitter can be an interesting community, depending
on your connections.
- Their you go again
The two words 'their' and 'there' are being conflated more and more, which tends to deflate me. I usually don't
care about the slippage, but this still rankles a tad.
- Fun, Funner, Funnest
I admit that 'fun' as a way of describing an experience has always been a bit unusual. It was not (originally)
a normal adjective (was it a noun in apposition?), but common use now has made it like an adjective. The introduction
of 'funner' some years back was the key change. Have not heard 'funnest' yet, but I don't hang with the young
folks, so I cannot rule it out. Usage wins, again.
This used to mean solely 'in regard to', as: "This is a matter concerning your frequent ungrammatical constructions ".
Now, it's also used to describe a state of mind induced by a matter, as: "This is concerning to me".
I only mind about some of these things because in the transitional phase of usage, those who are not familiar
with current usage might be confused, but what the hey, as some say.
- I could care less - or COULD I?
If you are showing your disdain for something, and wish to say that you have zero interest in that matter, wouldn't
you say that you couldn't care less? I mean, come on, give it your best and 'max out' your lack of
concern. If you 'could' care less, then press on to victory and CARE LESS; again, no biggie, for Usage
- Whose on First, whose to know?
The possessive use of 'who' is 'whose', as in: 'whose mess is this?'. Lots of times now you will see the
newer "who's mess is this?". (It's still a mess) The apostrophe does normally, properly indicate
possession, as in "This suitcase is Jane's". People are understandably taking that apostrophe and assigning
it to 'who', so it's a mild transgression, but finally, it's OK. Who's to get upset at this, as long as you can
communicate; Usage Wins.
- Hopefully moving into new territory
The adverb 'hopefully' simply meant, in the past, 'in a hopeful fashion', as in: 'Hopefully, we entered the treasure
cave.', or "We advanced timidly yet hopefully into the treasure cave." Now, hopefully has been extended
to imply something like "I hope, we hope". Hopefully, you will find this instructive. No, really
- It's different now, it is
When I was a kid, the word 'its' was the way to say 'the thing owned by it', the relative of his, hers, and theirs.
It is also true that now, in addition to being the contraction of 'it is', the word it's is now also used for
indicating possessive case. It's OK with me, to each
his/her/their/its/it's own, (and own and own) .
- Up, up and away --- from proper usage (props to The Fifth
In this sentence, note the words 'setup' and 'login': "Due to improper setup, the login
Now stay with me on this example: "Because we had not yet set the system up,
the users were not able to log themselves in." This example seeks to remind us all that the
noun and verb forms are not the same. For example there is a gerund form of set up and log in, as: "We
were still setting the daggone system up, and the end users were already logging in." This
merging of the noun and the verb in common usage became apparent to me around 10 years ago; it's interesting
to watch the organic nature of language. It's fun, and if you're into it, it's fascinating,
and you see how it is constantly changing. In the final analysis, you-know-what wins.
- Your up to you're neck
I wanted to juxtapose the two above because another Kudzu-like growth in American English is the gradual decline
of the contraction for 'you are', like "y'all", another contraction, and a chance to get two
Southern references in this short screed. Anyway, 'your' indicates possession (not by demons, but of something). "Where
the heck is your valise?" would be a good example, if you knew what a valise was. Sigh. ANYway,
'your' joins 'her', and 'his' and 'its' in the possessive set of words. You are up to your neck means
that currently you are in a certain predicament, but maybe you might be up
to your neck later, or you could be up to aforesaid neckal area, or you were up
to your neck, or so on. This is a different part of speech.
- I'm having Contractions, three paragraphs apart
'You are' and 'They are' are different from 'your' and 'their'. 'Our', 'your', 'his', 'her', and 'their' are
possessive pronouns, but if that name doesn't automatically stick in your memory, just remember 'possessive';
frankly, I had to look it up myself just now to remind myself of their full name. (Unintentional use of possessive
conveniently located at end of previous sentence.) Anyway:
- Different than the way I learned it
The standard construction has been 'different from', but that is being joined by 'different than'. The word 'than'
is used in similar constructions for the comparative form of adjectives, as 'better than', 'smaller than',
'smarter than'. The word always connotes a comparison between two things or people. Different is not something
that works on a sliding scale, so it is not used with 'than'. Again, usage wins, so I hear people on the TV
that I respect using 'Different than', and it's no greater a sin than other changes in our dynamic English
language; in fact, notice the first sentence in this paragraph, as it implies the on-going evolution of the
language, namely the 'has been', reaching into the past, and 'is being joined by', the -ing ending
making an action phrase leaning toward the future. And just because I am not prone to that particular non-standard
usage does not mean I think I'm better from you; I prove this on almost a daily basis.