Giving up on Prescriptivism

December 1, 2007

Lately, and mainly through reading posts on “The Language Log” website, I’ve become even less of a prescriptivist than I was before. I’ve long maintained that, when indicating a photo of yourself (for example), you should say “That’s me” rather than “That’s I.” No matter how much you love the nominative case, the latter sounds weird.

I’ve recently declared a truce on “begs the question” as well. Yes, I still undergo some reflexive cringing when I read a sentence like: “All of which begs the question, ‘When is Britney going to release another album?'”, but that’s just residue; I’ll get over it eventually. Yes, “begging the question” has a technical use in logical argumentation, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the common usage of the phrase, but that common usage is now so widespread that one would have to be pretty stubborn about language to insist that it’s a mistake. So, I give up. We’ll use it for both.

“Nonplussed”, for the time being, is another matter entirely. M-W says it means something like “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do”. I agree. If you’re nonplussed, you should be astonished and not know what to say. Nowadays, I seem to be seeing more and more people acting as if it means “unimpressed”. Take the following from cato@liberty:

“Ted notes correctly that we already spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, but Sen. Talent is nonplused [sic]”

I don’t sic people just for the heck of it, and the misspelling is not meant to imply anything about the person who wrote it, but that’s the kind of usage I’m talking about.

“Nonplussed” as a synonym for “unimpressed” definitely sounds right, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this definition gained enough usage to become another acceptable use of “nonplussed”. That will present a problem, of course, as the current definition is a near-opposite to “unimpressed”, but English has survived worse.

Anyway, I’m holding the line on this word for now.”Nonplussed” means “speechless”.

P.S. The Language Log has an excellent essay on this subject

“Everything is Correct” vs. “Nothing is relevant”

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3 Responses to “Giving up on Prescriptivism”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Well, where do you think the dictionary definitions of words come from? They come from usage. There is no original source or “logos”. Which is why atheists are in fact smarter :p

    psyche, I’m just playin’

  2. Thomas Says:

    or is it psych? or simply sike? let me look in the dictionary…

  3. William Says:

    That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, though. I’m certainly not suggesting that whatever the dictionary says is right, case closed. However, it would be silly to say that words don’t have any definition at all, and thus there is no such thing as an error.

    You should read the essay I linked to, it’s pretty good.


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