Thursday, October 18, 2007


Flat out acceptance of emerging variant forms is always a little tricky. My last post contained the line (regarding the spelling of vocal chord): "What makes it acceptable? Well ... the fact that it's accepted" and I knew right away it was too broad a statement. Too broad for me even. Perhaps my follow-up line "Sometimes linguistics is just that simple" unfairly overshadowed the fuller claim that there are always complicating issues and linguistically relevant inquiries involved in the discussion of spelling and semantic change.

Nancy Friedman rightly notes:

But teaching, writing, editing, and proofreading are not "that simple." Those of us who ply those trades can't afford to be descriptivists. We need guidelines.

The discussion of usage will responsibly call attention to the important difference between a mistake and a variant form. And variant forms may or may not belong to different registers. And those forms that belong to different registers can be either conspicuous or inconspicuous. And of course we can investigate to which groups they are and are not conspicuous.

So writing guituar instead of guitar is pretty clearly an error. There may be a jocular or purposeful use of the extra 'u' but I would bet that most people that choose to include it know that it should be recognized as a mistake. And it's not that common anyway. It gets fewer Google™ hits than a lot of other likely mistakes.

And writing kewl instead of cool is rarely a mistake but it is probably a purposeful use of a nonstandard spelling convention meant to capture a pronunciation. Those who use the spelling probably intend it to be noticed but they probably don't intent to appear unaware of the standard spelling, nor do they intend to appear to be pretending to be unaware of the standard.

By the time we get to cord and chord it's hard to know what awareness there is of the standards. Friedman asks in her post "[Does] Michael Covarrubias write vocal chords and free reign?" There's a wonderful nuance to her point with this question. I have spoken flatly and openly about descriptivism as a necessary approach to language analysis but what changes when I move over to language use?

Now I may be somewhat of a smartass with a lot of my writing. I knowingly write 'tho' instead of 'though'--I avoid commas as much as possible (which really frustrates Buffy)--I often switch back and forth between -or and -our in words like colo(u)r hono(u)r humo(u)r--I'll put metre and center into the same sentence and 4 pages later I'll use meter and centre if I can fit them in.

I don't know if Friedman remembers but a few weeks ago she noticed that in a post I had written "vocal chords" when reporting a Jeopardy! clue. She asked if the spellings were now "interchangeable" and I had to admit that I added the 'h' unwittingly. So I changed the spelling to "cord". And I will right now admit that I'm splitting hairs when I argue that even tho the spellings occur with almost identical frequency they are not truly interchangeable. There are people who notice the difference. There is a historical emergence of one form. There is an incongruity between the use of 'cord' as the conventional spelling for a cable or rope or rope-like structure comprising several strands, and the use of 'chord' when that type of structure is described as part of the vocal apparatus in humans. I've long been aware of that incongruity and yet I overlooked it when I chose the latter while writing the post in September.

When Friedman called it to my attention I called it a typo and I changed it. And now the fine folks at OUP have chosen to report and represent the equal occurrence of the two spellings. Will I go ahead and leave the 'h' in there when I notice it before publication? Probably not unless I'm talking specifically about the spelling.

It's not fair to say that I don't judge differences in usage. Let's agree for the sake of my current point that judgment does not equal derision. By being aware of forms there is some judgment going on. I'm certainly not impartial to variations in pronunciation and usage. There are many phenomena of language production that fascinate me and which I admire. Every language and dialect has some impressive phonotactic features and constraints. Whenever I hear about or learn a new one I judge it and then appreciate that the differences exist. That doesn't mean that I consider one language or feature or dialect or phoneme or construction a superior form.

But I also know that choices and variations in spelling, pronunciation, syntax, semantics, volume or font size communicate various things to various groups. So I do have to judge the ability of any word, phrase or passage to communicate what I hope to say.

Friedman asks an important question. "[I]f we can't find [the guidelines] in respected dictionaries, where shall we turn?" A good dictionary that earns your trust by giving as much relevant and reasonable information as possible is a treasure. Find a dictionary that lists variant forms along with information about each form including which is an emerging and which is traditional. Such a dictionary will also include information regarding register and common regard.

And of course there are also style guides. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage may share its view that dichotomy is overused and bifurcation is preferred while most of my favorite dictionaries don't see that as their business. And the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook have interests in affecting usage that Merriam-Webster doesn't have. Style guides are concerned with the language choices made by writers over whom they preside.

A good dictionary is having too much fun trying to figure out what is happening to spend too much time arguing about what should be happening.


  1. Excellent post, Michael. I think it's going to take a while for us non-academics to catch on that dictionaries are becoming more and more descriptivist. Since kindergarten we'd been told that dictionaries were arbiters of usage, but that's less true nowadays. Personally, I like the trend toward exclusion, but it's tough on writers and editors in the trenches.

    By the way, I'd noticed your use of "humour" and "colour" and assumed you were Canadian! So yes, I do make judgments--not judgements, 'cause I'm Murrikan--based on spelling.

  2. Thanks Nancy.

    When I was doing my masters I has a brief Anglophile stage where I chose to use all British spellings in my papers. One professor just shook his head and said 'We're in America and you don't even speak with an accent. Stop it.'

    Another professor noticed the spellings (she missed the -our spellings but the -tre spellings were more obvious) and simply told me to choose one system and stick with it. (She's Canadian--otherwise I don't think I could have gotten her to abide by checque.)

    I decided to split the difference and ignore both bits of advice.

    But they both know that I do respect them and admire their scholarship.

  3. Michael and Nancy, I've greatly enjoyed your colloquy, and I hope my column following up on the ABC News piece (and the reactions it has provoked) is a useful contribution to the discussion. As Michael observed, even if a dictionary decides to include an emerging variant, it can still provide guidance about how to judge the appropriateness and acceptability of its use. In the case of NOAD, the descriptivist/prescriptivist divide has been bridged by including usage notes derived from Garner's Modern American Usage.

  4. Sorry, the correct link to my column is here.

  5. It makes me wonder how much influence institutions can really have on language. I'm thinking of the attempts to Latinize certain aspects of English grammar, but also of a hundred million Mom's admonishing their children that "ain't" isn't a word. While these efforts change our ideas about what's "correct," the language, in usage, seems to march along merrily oblivious.

    I think this effective powerlessness ("Language speaks us," as the old man says) might be why you see such vain and virulent attempts to exert control over language.

    Also, I like the idea of Michael as a "grammar-jammer," fighting the powers that be with inconsistent spelling. Now, just start intermittently replacing your S's with F's, and you'll be a force to be reckoned with (end-of-sentence preposition).


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