Myth-Bashing as a Substitute for Thought

Several times within recent months, kindly correspondents and critics, worried about my persistently reactionary and unenlightened attitudes toward language, have recommended a course of reading that would help me recover. The most frequently mentioned and praised of the books prescribed for me was a collection of essays by various authors titled Language Myths (Bauer & Trudgill 98), and a monograph titled Language Change: Progress or Decay? (Aitchison 01). I have now read them—at least as much as seemed relevant—and find myself not only unredeemed by the experience, but more confirmed, if possible, in my benighted views. I find the writings that were to instruct and enlighten me had just the opposite of the effect they were supposed to have, and have even given me fresh reason to reject the views of the linguistic orthodoxy of the day.

Each of the essays in Language Myths deals with what its author regards as a myth that needs exploding. I am concerned here with just the two that deal directly with language change and usage, the subjects I have concerned myself with in my own writings on language. The rest deal with such “myths” as “Women Talk Too Much” and “Italian is Beautiful, German is Ugly”; such notions, however foolish, have to do with language only in the sense that practically all human affairs have to do with it, and the essays that attempt to refute them would seem more in place in books about the gender wars or social prejudices. But the two essays that deal with language change and usage—Peter Trudgill’s “The Meaning of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change” and Jean Aitchison’s “The Media Are Ruining English”—are indeed useful to me; they come down, however unintentionally, on the side of the angels by giving me more evidence with which to fight the wrong-headedness of the academic linguist.

I. Peter Trudgill Generously Allows Other People to Make Fools of Themselves

Trudgill’s essay begins, as do so many by linguists, by setting up as its opponent a rare and strange creature: a person who believes that the language he speaks should be absolutely fixed, and no change permitted. There probably are such people; I understand that there are still people who believe that the world is flat, and others who are still trying to achieve perpetual motion. But whether such doctrinaire conservatives in matters linguistic exist or not, they are not the real opponents of the academic linguists. When the linguists get around to naming specific opponents, those most frequently mentioned are Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787), H. W. Fowler (1858-1933), and—among the living—Jacques Barzun, William Safire, and John Simon. Not one of these men believed or believes that no changes should ever be made in their language. Unfortunately, these ‘prescriptivists,’ as they are called, are roused to action almost exclusively by those changes they deplore; they seldom bother to mention changes that they regard as harmless or useful (although they would all agree that there have been many such), and thus make it easy for the careless or disingenuous to call them enemies of all change. Another source of ammunition for the linguists is the typical letter to the press complaining of what the writer regards as solecisms and illiteracies; such letters are frequently distinguished more by indignation and alarm than by careful reasoning and clarity, giving the linguists another easy target.

The first point that the linguists invariably try to make is that language has always changed, is changing today, and—presumably—will continue to change forever, despite what anyone may want or do. They delight in pointing out that a usage that some prescriptivists want preserved (such as the meaning ‘having no personal stake in the outcome’ for disinterested ) is itself the result of change, and not the meaning that the word in question bore when it was first recorded. From a purely logical standpoint, it is a mystery why linguists bother to do this; how could prescriptivists oppose specific changes, or change in general, if they hadn’t noticed that changes are always occurring in their language? But the purely logical standpoint isn’t relevant here; this demonstration of the obvious is required to support the linguists’ contention that their opponents are unaware of the fact that changes have always occurred—and perhaps to suggest, however illogically, that that which has frequently occurred must continue to occur forever.

Trudgill is no exception to the rule, and his first few pages duly go through these standard motions—the Ruy Lopez opening of the classic anti-prescriptivist argument. But having done this, he goes on to do something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, at least never so explicitly: he offers a defense of lexical ambiguity. He deals with the ambiguity of disinterested first, then goes on to defend the promiscuous use of infer and imply —in almost every case, he claims, context makes it perfectly clear what is meant, so why make such a fuss about using these terms “correctly”? He does, to be sure, see one potential inconvenience in flouting the purists’ definition: “Now, it is undoubtedly true that if you use infer in this way [i.e., to mean imply ], there are people around who will infer that you are uneducated or careless.” Having made this small concession (about which I will have more to say), he goes on at once to point out the saving grace: “But it is very unlikely indeed that there will be any actual confusion of meaning.” A few paragraphs further on, perhaps afraid that he has left the opposition too big a loophole with his mere “very unlikely,” he puts it even more strongly: “But, once again, it is clear that absolutely no confusion of meaning can result…”

But it is by no means clear that Trudgill’s claim is valid; on the contrary, almost everyone has experienced instances of real confusion due to the use of ambiguous terms. If what Trudgill means is that any such ambiguity will eventually, somehow, be cleared up, the answer is, first, that “eventually” is often sadly too late, and “somehow” too costly; and second, that there is no certainty that all misunderstandings due to ambiguity will ever be cleared up, even “eventually.” Such extreme and implausible assertions as this of Trudgill’s are bad enough, but he makes matters worse by failing to differentiate between spoken utterances, where cues like body language, tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, and immediate feedback are available to prevent or remedy misunderstanding, and written utterances, where there is nothing but words on paper to tell us what the writer meant. Nor does he consider brief, isolated utterances, spoken or written, for which there is no context to resolve ambiguities.

The explicit and categorical defense of lexical ambiguity and of generally loose diction is, so far as I know, Trudgill’s personal contribution to the linguists’ war against prescriptivism, but he closes with another standard component—his end game, like his opening, is right out of the handbooks. I call it Linguistic Triumphalism; it consists of pointing out that if a change is accepted by all speakers of a language, it becomes part of the language, and those who opposed its acceptance have lost. Like other tautologies, this one is hard to argue against; but it remains to add that if all speakers do not accept a change, it does not become part of the language, and those who opposed it have won . Lexical changes—the changes under discussion here—do not occur instantaneously; they start off slowly, often in some remote and marginal part of the cultural arena, and are quite vulnerable during their infancy and minority. During that period they are subject to criticism and defeat, and indeed the infant mortality rate among neologisms and other linguistic innovations is quite high, as is clear from a glance at yesterday’s slang and catchphrases and smart talk, much of which is now incomprehensible, and all of which strikes today’s ear as quaint. Linguists are fond of producing lists of words that are now accepted parts of the language despite the efforts of purists to kill them; what they fail to do is acknowledge all the words that purists opposed, and have since passed into oblivion1.

“When is misuse not misuse?” Trudgill asks rhetorically, and answers, “When everybody does it.” Agreed; but what about when only some are “doing it”? Is it futile, or in some sense improper, to oppose a usage that only a few have so far adopted? If not, at what point does it become futile or improper? Starting in the last quarter of the 20 th century, a use of reticent to mean what reluctant has traditionally meant has popped up from time to time; it is not limited to the uneducated (the first time I heard it, it was spoken by a computer-industry executive who had been a professor of computer science at the University of California), but is still far from widely accepted; may I oppose it without incurring the scorn or exasperation of linguists?

The concluding passage of Trudgill’s essay is a rather patronizing reassurance offered to prescriptivists that all will be well with the language, even without their ministrations. Language has, he tells us, some sort of homeostatic mechanism within it that guarantees that it remain a usable vehicle of communication, and Trudgill even gives us a glimpse of that mechanism’s nature: “[Languages] are self-regulating because their speakers want to understand each other and be understood. If there is any danger of misunderstanding, speakers and writers will appreciate this possibility and guard against it by avoiding synonyms2, or by giving extra context, as in the well-known


I mean funny ha-ha, not funny peculiar.

I find it less than comforting to be told that there is no reason to concern myself over ambiguity, because people will always come up with some sort of work-around, however verbose and awkward, to remedy it. Nor do I think that makeshift ad hoc explanations are normal context, any more than surgery, however successful, is health.

For one thing, people do not always recognize that their words are ambiguous until their audience has reacted in a way that they did not intend. When I shout “Fire!” it’s rather important that my audience know immediately whether I mean “Run for your lives!” or “Pull the trigger!”, for by the time I’ve noticed that their reaction is inappropriate, and supplied them with sufficient context to clarify my meaning, certain untoward events may already have occurred. And in some cases an ambiguity will cause unintended consequences that cannot even be traced back to the original misunderstanding, let alone remedied. But even disregarding such dire cases, why should we willingly put up with situations in which dozens of words have to be rushed to the scene to solve a problem that needn’t ever have occurred? Even if waste of time and energy were the only penalty for lexical ambiguity, why accept it so cheerfully? Time and energy are the most valuable resources we have, and what wastes them wastes us.

Trudgill does deserve gratitude, though, for explaining the way languages are “self-regulating”; as I noted, he says “their speakers want to understand each other and be understood. If there is any danger of misunderstanding, speakers and writers will appreciate this possibility and guard against it…”   So the way in which languages are “self-regulating” turns out to be that we, their speakers and writers, regulate them—Trudgill seems to have a taste not only for tautology but for Irish bulls. And he seems wildly optimistic, as I have argued, in thinking that all dangers of misunderstanding will be foreseen and forestalled. But I think he is right in ascribing the regulation of languages to those who use them, and I would suggest that prominent among them are the “journalists, editors, poets, and psychologists” who, Trudgill and his co-editor Laurie Bauer tell us in the Introduction, cannot tell us “how language works” (perhaps because expert craftsmen usually have more interesting things to do with their tools than explain how they work). And note that the process of linguistic “self-regulation” described by Trudgill comes dangerously close to the dreaded phenomenon of ‘prescriptivism.’ (Jean Aitchison, in her essay in the same book, echoes Trudgill, referring to “some inbuilt property in the human mind” that “maintains all languages, everywhere”; could this mysterious property be what is sometimes called critical intelligence?)

None of Trudgill’s strange views, however, strikes me as so bizarre and harmful as one that he seems to take so much for granted that he doesn’t even bother to state it explicitly, but merely alludes to it. When he says, in words I quoted earlier, that “if you use infer [to mean imply ], there are some people around who will infer that you are uneducated or careless,” and then passes on without further comment, as if this were some petty detail, he speaks not merely with the standard loftiness of the academic, but with such remoteness from ordinary human concerns as to suggest he is a member of some other species. And he positively forces this on our attention, going out of his way to show that while he is content to see others pay the penalty for misusing infer, he himself, of course, knows perfectly well how to use the word.


By coincidence, I am writing this critique as a kind of momentary diversion from creating an on-line course in editing, and in the introductory lecture for that course I wrote, long before reading Trudgill:


But even if the imperfections in his document aren’t serious enough to prevent the writer’s audience from understanding him, there is still another important objective that is likely to be lost if he is allowed to get by with noticeable faults in his work: the reader’s respect. It’s not enough that readers be able to understand the document, they must also finish reading it with respect for the author. The editor’s job is only half done, then, when the document she’s working on cannot be misunderstood by its readers; it’s also her job, and sometimes the harder part of it, to see to it that her author’s message is not effectively cancelled by the scorn readers will feel for him, and therefore for his message, if he writes clumsily, uses a word that’s clearly not quite what he means, makes mistakes in grammar or spelling. A recent Vice-President of the United States may have lost his chance at the Presidency because he publicly misspelled potato.

Of all our possessions, the most precious may be the respect of our fellow men. And this is what Trudgill is content to let others forfeit, if that’s what it takes to avoid having to concede that some usages are simply wrong. As Trudgill either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care, we speak and write not merely to be understood, but to win respect as well—respect for ourselves and for what we are saying. Even if we are so selfless as to care nothing for our personal standing, we must seek respect for the sake of our message. To somehow make oneself understood while losing respect in the course of doing so is not merely to fall short of success, but to positively damage one’s cause or message; the thesis whose champion betrays ignorance or carelessness is itself betrayed.

Perhaps Trudgill will say that we ought not to judge the message by the skill of the messenger, but we do so judge (and I think not entirely unjustly), and to ignore that fact in a display of academic high-mindedness is simply to show that one regards oneself as a being of a higher order than the great majority of one’s countrymen, or indeed the human race. When Trudgill mentions so lightly that there are “people around” who will think less of you for using infer for imply , he is closing his eyes to the fact that those people—the educated, the articulate, the influential—are just the ones the writer will most want to impress and win over to his point of view. In refusing to help him, but instead coolly observing him while he alienates the very audience he is trying most to reach, Trudgill does him a great disservice—and doesn’t help the rest of us, either.

II. Jean Aitchison Defends Journalists Against the Language-Wrecker Charge, and Champions Change in General

Jean Aitchison is the author of both the book Language Change and of one of the essays in Language Myths whose topic concerns me, and also of The Language Web (Aitchison 97), which I will lump together with the other two in commenting on her ideas. Where it seems useful, I will indicate the source of the passage or notion under examination as Change or Myths or Web ; otherwise I will treat the three as one continuous work, as indeed they are for all practical purposes. Professor Aitchison—I cannot deny myself the pleasure of reproducing her title in full: she is the Rupert Murdoch Professor Emerita of Language and Communication in the University of Oxford—is quite simply in love with language change, and springs to its defense in general in Change and Web, and with special reference to journalism in Myths . (She is also a gracious lady, who sent me an inscribed copy of Change when I wrote to her some time ago, but one who seems to have no stomach for controversy—a sad trait in any thinker because, as Socrates noted, controversy is the mother of intellectual progress.)

Aitchison on Language Change in General

Aitchison is more tolerant of resistance to change than most academic linguists, allowing that it is sometimes, at least in principle, to be respected, but nevertheless she is, like virtually all her colleagues, fundamentally a cheerleader for change. The tenor of all three works is clear: change is natural, inevitable, healthy, and to be welcomed; those who oppose it are generally fearful, ignorant, and futile. I think that her view is as irrational as that of the putative frightened people who think that all change is bad and to be resisted. The attitude I think correct is that change in itself is without moral quality; each change is to be judged on its merits. (I am personally so far from being an anti-change ‘conservative’ that I would, if I could, initiate quite a few changes—that’s why I call myself a linguistic activist.)

She offers no reasons whatever for being generally in favor of language change; what she offers instead is what I earlier called the linguists’ standard opening: evidence that there is and always has been a lot of change; that many changes have been resisted when they first appeared; and that many changes have overcome that resistance, and become accepted features of the language. And, as I also noted, this is simply to miss the point. Of course there has been, and is now, a lot of change—what we linguistic activists claim is not that change doesn’t occur, but that it’s not always good, and that we should be prepared to resist it when it’s not good. But every time Aitchison seems to be about to address this argument, what we get instead is yet another demonstration that there has been a lot of change in the past, and that it’s still going on. One begins to wonder if linguists suffer from a déformation professionelle, some kind of learning disability or hearing defect.

(Aitchison’s discussion of the causes of language change is too extensive and wide-ranging to be dealt with conveniently here—in Change alone she devotes pages 133 to 197 to that topic—but I note in passing that much of her discussion is vitiated by a failure to distinguish clearly and consistently between sound changes and semantic changes. In doing so she is falling into a pattern common among today’s linguists, who always have in the back of their minds the great work of the pioneering linguists of the 19th century, the Rasks and Bopps and Grimms, whose triumphs lay almost entirely in phonology. Because their findings about sound changes constitute the basis of linguistics’ claim to be a science, there is always a pull in any linguistic discourse toward that theme, even when phonological considerations are far from the true subject of the discourse in question. Insofar as Aitchison does deal with the causes of semantic change, I think she misses some important points; I will risk the charge of immodesty by suggesting that she might profitably re-read (Halpern 01).)

Aitchison expresses a guarded tolerance of Safire and his followers, but warns that they may be harmful in distracting attention from more important language issues, the deliberate corruptions of language by means of which wicked politicians and the like seek to delude us. But that’s exactly the kind of offense that we linguistic activists are most sensitive to; we don’t get much worked up by silly little solecisms, we reserve our main strength for the kind of thing that I’ve dubbed ‘mindshunts’ (Halpern 01). If we take the trouble to oppose such innocent errors as the notion that reticent means reluctant, or that disinterested is (today) just a synonym of uninterested, we do so for reasons analogous to those behind the ‘broken window’ strategy of crime prevention: conniving at minor offenses leads to a breakdown of respect for law in general, and encourages the commission of more serious offenses. The strategy certainly works in crime control, and it seems to me reasonable to apply it to deviations from desirable language usage. Sensitizing people to mere solecisms sensitizes them to language in general, and is a big step toward getting them to detect and resist dishonest and tendentious language.

Aitchison on Early Enemies of Language Change

Like Steven Pinker (Pinker 94, pages 402-403), she quotes Johnson’s melancholy words about the state of the English language from the preface to the Dictionary as if they showed that he shared her views about the folly of resisting change (Web, page 19).  I think I have shown (Halpern 00) that he did no such thing. Johnson is deeply pessimistic about our chances of preserving the language—but he does not yield, as his final words show, in thinking it desirable that the language be regulated and stabilized; he does not expect to succeed, but he never changes his mind about the importance of trying. When she, like Pinker, in effect claims him as an ally, she is misreading him; but what she does with Johnson’s words is more complicated than mere misreading: she portrays him both as one of the ‘complainers’ who try to fight change (Web, page 4), and as a former silly who has now seen the light and joined the change-welcoming linguistic sophisticates (Web, page 19). In Change she treats him consistently, and rightly, as an adversary.

Her attack on the supposedly narrow, pedantic grammarians of the 18th century, as typified by Bishop Lowth, had on me the opposite of the intended effect. Never having read Lowth, I had taken the modern linguists’ view of him (and his kind) as gospel; now, thanks to her quotation from him (Change, page 11), my respect for him rises greatly. It’s clear that she selected this passage of his to illustrate how wrongheaded and inflexible he was; what I read is a very moderate, tolerant, almost apologetic suggestion:


The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs, and is joined to the verb at the end of the Sentence … as ‘Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with’ … This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style of writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.

So Lowth finds ending a sentence with a preposition quite acceptable not only in speech but even in writing “of the familiar style”; only in what he calls “the solemn and elevated style” does he find it inappropriate, and even there he hardly calls down hellfire on anyone who disagrees. If this is the worst that the narrow, bigoted pedants of the 18th century could do, I’d say that the language would have been quite safe in their hands. (A friend of mine, a writer on the subjects of grammar and rhetoric, has had the daring idea of preparing for his discussion of the traditional 18th- and 19th-century grammarians, British and American, by actually reading them instead of simply rehashing received opinion about them; he will enjoy her Lowth quotation if he doesn’t already know it.)

Aitchison Makes an Exception for George Orwell’s Rules

There isn’t much to get one’s teeth into in Aitchison’s essay in Myth; the text is only seven pages long, and most of that little is fluff—but there is one point of substance in it, and a most surprising and revealing one: Aitchison comes out in favor of a body of usage rules. Virtually all the usage rules proposed over the years, whether by private grammarians or national Academies, have been disregarded and even derided by the writers and speakers who were supposed to obey them; the very idea of rules has been discredited among most intellectual workers of the Western world. The rejection is particularly drastic in the English-speaking countries, where it is led by academic linguists like Aitchison. So it’s most remarkable that she should quite happily make an exception of one set of rules—that proposed by George Orwell—and it is instructive to see what kind of usage rules win the approval of one who would normally be among their most implacable enemies. In her essay in Myths she reprints those rules in what she calls “slightly rephrased” form; it may cast some light on Aitchison’s scholarship to compare her version (see Appendix) with the original form (from Orwell 46):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It is an example of the justice—or perhaps the sense of humor—of Providence that those who generally disdain rules should tend, when making their one exception, to fall victim to one of the weakest sets of rules ever proposed. I much admire Orwell, and I think that his instincts about language are as sound as his political instincts—indeed, they are both aspects of the same good sense—but even his rules, I observe, are useless or worse. And as implied at more than one point in the critique that follows, Orwell himself may be forgiven for some of his excesses; for Aitchison and others who today cheer for his rules, there is much less excuse.

The first of Orwell’s rules, trying to prevent us from sounding “bookish,” forbids us to use much of what we have seen in our reading. (Aitchison, in her rephrasing, makes his prohibition even stronger; she simplifies it to “Never use a metaphor you’ve seen in print.”) But what if we have been reading books by authors who write clearly and simply—books like Orwell’s, for example? And if we read widely, there are very few useful figures of speech that we are not used to seeing in books—this rule would make it virtually impossible to write at all. What he is doing here is using his own youthful experience as the basis for a far-reaching rule, and that experience is much too narrow to support the rule.

He was an Edwardian by birth, and with his interest in the rough side of life, would have found little of interest in the kind of heavily “literary” writing that was the staple of the period. But by the time he formulated his rules, Modernism had been in full swing for a generation, and the leading writers much preferred being thought barbarians to being thought genteel—it was early in the ’20s that the literate began to prefer Caliban to Ariel. Accordingly, his prohibition against using the figures of speech found in books was even when he issued it an anachronism; if he were living today, he would be appalled at how few are literate enough to write bookishly or in any other intelligible way.

His second rule sets up a spurious opposition between “a long word” and “a short word”—spurious because what one meets in practice is virtually never a choice between a long word and a fully equivalent short one, but between one long word and a string of short ones—and there’s no way of saying, in general, which is best; each case is unique. And even in the uncommon case when we do have a long and a short word that are close enough in meaning to make either acceptable, the choice is not automatic. It is not true, despite what Orwell seems sometimes to suggest, that the short word, of good old Anglo-Saxon stock, is always more pungent and effective than the long Latinate word, even though the long one may have been adopted originally as a euphemism.

When a euphemism has been in use long enough to take on the connotations of the simpler, shockingly direct word it replaced—which it inevitably does, even although it was adopted just because of its freedom from those connotations— it becomes the term of power, the term that reaches our gut. Tell me that Marie Antoinette or Jayne Mansfield had their heads chopped off, and I remain unaffected; your expression is so crude, so cartoonish, that it leaves me untouched; tell me that they were decapitated, and I feel that frisson that means I have fully taken in the reality. In a world where the fearful and the shameful are regularly described in euphemisms and bland circumlocutions, it is euphemisms and circumlocutions that terrify us; a simple blunt word is almost a relief.

The third is Occam’s Razor, applied to words rather than concepts, but just as useless: when is it possible to cut a word, assuming it had some function to begin with? Another rule that requires so much interpretation that it becomes mere excess baggage.

The fourth advises changing the passive to the active voice whenever possible—which is to say, always. But as writers keep discovering, the passive has a unique and important function: it is the voice that meets our needs whenever we want to focus attention on an action or its object rather than the actor or subject, and to force such an utterance into the active voice is to distort and falsify our meaning. It’s true that the passive is to be used with discrimination—but then, what feature of the language is not?

To understand why Orwell formulated so silly a rule, recall that he was writing in an era that was, and not only to him, one of unparalleled deceit and muddle.3 Torrents of governmental lying and evasiveness during the years leading up to World War 2 had driven him to propose extreme measures in his campaign to restore decency and clarity to public discourse. One of the standard devices of politicians and bureaucrats seeking to evade responsibility is the passive voice, with its reticence about just who said or did the thing in question; ”no names, no packdrill”, the civil servant mutters as he issues a press release saying “mistakes were made.” Orwell, in his zeal to end the abuse, suggested the drastic measure of rejecting the passive voice altogether. But this is the remedy that kills the patient along with the disease: the passive is an irreplaceable resource of the language; forbidding it will not diminish human dishonesty or muddleheadedness; and the maxim abusus non tollit usum holds in language as in law.

The fifth mixes several quite different things: for real scientific words there are no everyday English equivalents—that’s why scientific terms are coined. Jargon?  Sometimes quite in place, as when one is talking shop with colleagues, or even for some special rhetorical purposes when writing for a more general audience.  The foreign term?  Sometimes pretentious verbiage, sometimes the mot juste. Here as elsewhere, Orwell is so determined to get rid of impediments to clarity that he throws out baby, bathwater, and the tub as well.

The sixth, which some admirers of Orwell’s rules think his masterstroke, is the final seal on his failure; all the rules just given, it turns out, are to be ignored if they violate an implied Rule Against Barbarousness—a rule about which we are given no information whatever.

If even so admirable a writer, critic, and moralist as Orwell cannot state a rule that is of much use, are we to conclude that there are no good rules, and that the effort to formulate them is simply a waste of time?   I think not; I think that rules are in fact of the highest importance, and that the effort to formulate good ones should never cease. (Some good ones are to be found in Graves & Hodge 43.)   I will not pursue the topic any further here, profoundly important though it is; I have dealt with it to the extent I have only because I think it important to show how, on the subject of rules, an eminent academic linguist is at least as lost as the typical layman, and far more so than the working writer.

Aitchison’s Politics as an Influence on her Linguistic Views

Aitchison examines some expressions popular among the Politically Correct, and concedes (Web, page 82) that many are awkward or otherwise unsatisfactory, but lets their users off with a fond pat on the head; their hearts, she tells us, are in the right place. So they may be—but what is such a remark, true or false, doing in an introduction to linguistics? Are we, in judging the desirability of any language change, to inquire into the voting habits of their champions? Investigate their attitudes toward trade unions, their views on abortion, their treatment of their pets, their compliance with re-cycling programs?  I think she should in the next edition acknowledge that the book is a collaboration between two people: Jean Aitchison, Professor of Language, etc., and Jean Aitchison, Thoroughly Nice Person. Then obiter dicta like her remarks on PC expressions could be signed “J.A., T.N.P.” and we’d know where we stood while reading such passages. In fact, many PC expressions, like euphemisms in general, are not motivated by simple human kindness and decency, but by far more problematic motives, including guilt and fear. And such euphemisms are often loathed by the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly deployed; many of the physically handicapped hate terms like “differently abled” and “visually challenged” and so on.

After such an exhibition, it takes one’s breath away to hear Aitchison declare (Web, page 103) “My professional views about language have nothing to do with politics”; this is so blatantly untrue that I wonder that her word-processor didn’t automatically correct her words, as it would a typing error like hte. I’ve already given a counterexample: what is it except her politics that causes her to be indulgent to PC expressions that she concedes “sound very bureaucratic” and are the result of tongues or pens that are “twisted up in sesquipedalian words”? Her political views and her linguistic views are in fact cognate, springing from the same set of values. There’s nothing wrong with that—at least I hope not, because my own political and linguistic views are likewise cognate—but her blindness toward her own thinking would be astonishing if it were not so typical of modern, leftish academics.

Her views are so de rigueur in academia and among the intelligentsia generally that it is easy, perhaps even unavoidable, for her to see them not as personal views like any other, but simply as the starting point of all decent thinking, deviation from which is a sign of ignorance if not pathology. I don’t doubt that she is being perfectly honest in claiming that her politics has no effect on her linguistic views, and that’s what’s so disturbing—it’s difficult to have a rational discussion of politics or language with someone who sincerely believes that her views on politics are not propositions to be supported, but just simple decency, or that those views have no effect on her thinking about language.


Aitchison 97: Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The power and problem of Words . Cambridge U.P., 1997.

Aitchison 98: Jean Aitchison, “The Media are Ruining English,” in Bauer & Trudgill (1998), pages 15-22.

Aitchison 01: Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? 3 rd edition. Cambridge U.P, 2001.

Bauer & Trudgill 98: Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, eds., Language Myths. Penguin Books, 1998.

Follett 66: Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide . New York: The Noonday Press, 1966.

Graves & Hodge 43: Robert Graves & Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder . The Macmillan Company, 1943. (Do not accept any of the abbreviated later editions; demand the original, or one of the unabridged reprints, containing the full 446 pages.)

Halpern 00: Mark Halpern, “Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage,” The Vocabula Review ( ), September 2000.

Halpern 01: Mark Halpern “The End of Linguistics,” The American Scholar (Winter 2001), pages 13-26. Available also on the Web site of The Vocabula Review ( ), July 2001.

Orwell 46: George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell , ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), Volume 4, pages 127-140; rules stated at page 139.

Pinker 94: Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct . NY: William Morrow, 1994.


It is a pleasure to thank two reviewers of earlier versions of this paper who have offered useful comments and corrections: Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of The Vocabula Review , and Bryan A. Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage . And I thank those critics who directed my attention to the writings I’ve discussed here. These texts did not have their intended effect, but they did something I think even better: they prompted me to analyze them, and to initiate what I hope will be a useful debate.

Appendix: Professor Aitchison’s “slightly rephrased” version of Orwell’s Rules

  1. If it’s possible to cut out a word, cut it out.
  2. Never use a long word where a short will do.
  3. Never use a passive if you can use an active.
  4. Avoid foreign and technical words.
  5. Never use a metaphor you’ve seen in print.
  6. Break these rules to avoid something outlandish.

Aitchison has not only reordered the rules for no obvious reason, she has also made them yet more sweeping and dogmatic—hence useless—than Orwell made them. The criticisms I make of Orwell’s rules apply with even more severity to Aitchison’s version.

Article Footnotes

1See, for example, the brief list offered by Jacques Barzun (Follett 66, page 13).

2By "synonyms" Trudgill apparently means even single words like disinterested, because it has two senses today, as well as pairs like imply and infer, which he considers-at least for others-interchangeable. Give him full marks for consistency: he not only preaches looseness in diction, but practices it.

3Winston Churchill, writing in 1932: "I cannot recall any time when the gap between the kind of words which statesmen used and what was actually happening was so great as it is now" (from his Arms and the Covenant, page 43, quoted in A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, page 317); also, Auden's "low dishonest decade," and from Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (NY: Knopf, 2000), pages xvi-xvii: "… the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale."