Whose Language Is It?

I've got ink in my veins from both sides of my family. My mother's father, Joe Wheeler, ran the paper in Trinidad, Colorado in the first half of the twentieth century, and in the second half my own father, Hank McKee, was pretty well known around papers in the Southwest, starting out in Lubbock, Texas and finishing his career on the city desk at the Denver Post.

One of the things Dad was best known for was his unwillingness to compromise on certain subjects. These subjects extended to diligence, honesty and thoroughness, though my impression is that spelling, grammar and punctuation were pretty close to their core. And diction, in its right sense, that is, choice of words. His line on all of these topics was pretty conservative.

In fact, it wouldn't be far-fetched to suggest that he saw himself as a guardian of the English language. I often saw his disappointment when discovering faults in his own newspaper. Other written (or worse, broadcast) material, over which he had no chance to exercise his influence, could provoke brief tirades. Late-night TV ads for cheap glasses were the worst, because nobody else ever learned how to spell "ophthalmologist," and nobody ever bothers to look it up.

Spelling, well, you could look it up, mostly. Mostly, because there are fads in that regard too. Where the dictionary gives you a couple of choices, a newspaper makes a rule in its style sheet. While he would toe the company line regarding "cigaret" vs. "cigarette," for instance, there was no difficulty in getting him to tell you what the real spelling was.

But even where there could be no question concerning the spelling of a word, there could be a question about its existence. Dad was sure that, whatever the circumstances of an arrest, there was no such thing as a "bust;" and well into the Eighties, after Kojak and his imitators had come and gone, after just about everybody who was ever going to be charged with possession of marijuana already had been, he swore that the word "bust," in that sense, would be used only over his dead body. Writers want to use it. Readers want to see it. What's the problem?

Speakers with a big investment in a language may not welcome change. The value of their current stock would decline. As a newsman, part of Dad's worth was in knowing, at least briefly, things that other people didn't know. This is a pretty simplistic explanation and doesn't sound very flattering, but I know that knowledge of English was a source of pride for him.

One night I mentioned that I thought the weather would be more clement at a later time, or something like that. Dad didn't want to let me think that "clement" was a word. "Inclement" doubtless was, but the notion that a negative prefix could simply be removed leaving a recognizable root and suffix -- well, that doesn't mean you can make up a word.

If I could have that moment back, I'd like to ask him, "Just whose language is it, anyway?" Isn't language like geology; that is, aren't the forces that shaped the language that we speak still at work? If that development is to be frozen at a certain time, why the time of your youth and not some date with wider significance, like Chaucer's death or the time of Shakespeare's plays? Was it not by insistence on that kind of formalization that Charlemagne turned Latin into a dead language? Is that the fate you'd want for your own language?

There are a number of sensible goals for an editor. One is to help other people who may not have the same language skills, or who have simply made errors because of haste or other pressure. Another is to help present a polished, consistent product: if you spell a word two different ways on the same page, even if both uses are recognized, it's obvious that you're not very well organized. Just having another pair of eyes look at a work is a good thing: climbers check each other's knots. It may be important to give free rein to creativity in writing but to exercise a bit of criticism when publishing.

The temptation for an editor is to try to preserve the power of a language by enforcing consistency. Here's an example. "Begging the question" is a logical fallacy (or a rhetorical device, depending on intent). Enough people have heard the phrase without understanding that meaning that it is now used for "asking a question." Does a writer use the phrase in its original sense and be misunderstood by many (but perhaps hoping to educate a few); use it in its current popular sense and be thought a fool by a select group; use it and explain it; or avoid using it altogether, reducing the chance that any reader will be misled? My vote will usually be for the last, at least until it is clear that acceptance is complete. The situation is different with a new word, where there is no distinction to be lost. Remember when newspapers always said "Ms. Smith, who prefers that designation"?

Language is a way that people express themselves -- like dress. The difference is that, for language to work, we all need to show up at the party with similar outfits. No two are exactly alike, but having yours suddenly go out of fashion would be a real threat. One response to that threat is to make and enforce rules about what can be worn. Another is to have a keen eye for style.