A Different Kind of Great Divide

By Rob Kyff

November 22, 2017 3 min read

During the past few decades, our nation has been ripped in two by extreme partisanship. One side blasts the other as "bleeding hearts," "permissivists," "panderers." The other side calls its opponents "reactionaries," "protectionists" and "troglodytes."

And, no, I'm not referring to our intense political divisions. I'm talking about the battle between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists. This is, quite literally, a war of words.

Prescriptivists (Ps), like diligent doctors, prescribe how people should use language: Take this medication twice daily to clear up that "flaunt"ulance — using "flaunt" (to show off) to mean "flout" (defy).

Descriptivists (Ds), like resolute reporters, describe how people are actually using language: Many people are using "flaunt" to mean "flout," as in "the renegade flaunted the rules," so you can too.

Are you a P or a D? Where do you stand on these hot issues?

—Enormity: Ps insist that it refer only to an outrageous, vicious or heinous act, as in "the enormity of the hurricane's destruction." But Ds say it can also be used to mean "enormousness," as in "the enormity of the Great Plains."

—Reticent: Ps decree that it refers only to an unwillingness to speak, as in "Andy is reticent in class discussions." But Ds say it can be used as a synonym for "reluctant," as in "The town council is reticent to approve a tax increase."

—Fortuitous: Ps command that it mean only "occurring by chance," as in, "Being struck by lightning is a fortuitous event." Ds say it can also mean "fortunate," as in "Our meeting in college proved fortuitous; we became lifelong friends."

For many of us, the pull of the Ps is strong. Let's face it; certain usages just freeze our blood. Sometimes it's because a teacher or parent permanently installed a usage rule in us, like a computer chip. And, of course, no one wants to be ridiculed for making a grammatical or usage "mistake."

On the other hand, who wants to be seen as a grammatical fussbudget, slapping the wrists of spouses, friends and colleagues with our rigid rulers? We want to be hip and trendy Ds, not persnickety Ps mired in the past.

Truth be told, most of us are Ps at some times and Ds at others. Like sneaky double agents, we regularly move back and forth between these two opposing camps, depending on the case at hand. Call it situational linguistics.

Now, if only we could apply some of that same flexibility to our politics...

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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