The five stages of language change

When I am in doubt about a point of style or grammar, first I always see what Pam Peters has to say. Her Cambridge Guide to English Usage miraculously foresees almost every question I want answered, and offers sensible suggestions based on Australian usage.

But I am also a big fan of Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, the third edition of which I received last week.

The most useful addition made in Modern American Usage‘s 3rd edition is its rating of evolving words and usage not as correct/incorrect but on a scale from new usage to universal acceptance:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.

Stage 5: The form is universally accepted.

For example, Garner rates using ‘reticent’ as a synonym for ‘reluctant’ at stage 4. When authors mean ‘reluctant’ I will keep removing ‘reticent’ for as long as I am an editor, but I accept that this distinction is almost lost. ‘Alumni’ as singular he puts at stage 2 (an error that occasionally appears in U of M material). ‘Hopefully’ meaning ‘I hope’ Garner puts at stage 4; I use it this way in speech and casual writing but avoid it elsewhere. ‘Populous’ (adjective) for ‘populace’ (noun), which I’ve seen twice this month, Garner puts at stage 1.

I would put incorrect apostrophes at stage 2. It is too common a mistake by Gen Y writers to be a stage one variation. Putting footnote numbers inside punctuation is at least stage 3 – while all professional writers and editors still put the numbers outside the full stop, self-publishers like interest groups, consultants, and government departments frequently put them inside.

Of course there are legitimate debates about how much de facto arbiters of usage such as editors should resist language change. But I think the five stages approach is a good one, as it acknowledges that language conservatism (and most editors are language conservatives, because rules make their jobs easier) is more appropriate for some audiences than others.

41 thoughts on “The five stages of language change

  1. I can deal with alumni, hopefully and populous, but reticent for reluctant does my head in. I’ve seen quite senior people do this and it’s hard to avoid thinking these people must be dumb. Another one in the same class is ‘infer’ for ‘imply’.
    I’ve often thought that making people sit SAT/GRE-type exams for entry into uni/graduate degrees would have the salutary effect of forcing them to spend a few weeks learning proper vocab.


  2. Another one is ‘fulsome’ for ‘expansive’. I think I even heard John Howard use it this way once. Stage 4?
    And does Garner cover expressions? I’m thinking of people using ‘begs the question’ to mean ‘asks the question’.


  3. He says beg the question in the meaning you suggest is at stage 4.

    He has an entry on fulsome but does not give the ‘expansive’ meaning a rating, describing it as dominating today (presumably stage 4 or 5). However he gives ‘fulsome’ in a positive sense (eg ‘fulsome praise’) a stage 4.


  4. One of the favorite ones for university marketing gnomes is a confusion between capstone vs. cornerstone, which are different in English English and American English. Where I work, we have the former (I complained, but no-one listened). It makes me think of Tomb Raider and Lara Croft whenever I see it, or the university where you get to put the final stone in your own tomb.


  5. ‘Capstone’ at unis usually means some final major project, and I think that is a correct metaphorical extension of a stone of slab on top of a wall or building. Graves have their own words (gravestone, tombstone).

    A cornerstone is quite different; literally a stone or brick connecting two intersecting walls, metaphorically a basis for something. ‘This maths subject is the cornerstone of your degree’.


  6. Another incorrect but nearly universally accepted usage is data as singular. Since fulsome means insincere, its use in most contexts is not just wrong but ironic, especially when someone delivers what they describe as fulsome praise. Can’t say I am surprised about the apostrophes. Is the correct use taught in schools any more? The nadir of backwards evolution will come when youse is universally accepted as the plural of you. It is only a matter of time.


  7. “Another incorrect but nearly universally accepted usage is data as singular.”

    Part of the reason for the change is that the ‘correct’ singular, ‘datum’, sounds pretentious. Also ‘data’ can be used in ways that make it a mass noun, which have singular verbs, eg ‘The data on the ABS website is free’.

    It will go the way of agendum/agenda.


  8. some of you language mavens are just too uptight.

    I’m perfectly aware of the rules of grammar, learnt it at school. Nonetheless I have occasionally used ‘youse’ in email to some friends at first ironically but recently I think it has merit at it conveys a certain intimacy in addressing a collective of people i.e. I recognise that all of ‘you’ are not an amorphous mass. The American version is y’all. Language is dynamic and is meant to change. True, some changes make more sense than others. Apostrophes serve a useful logical function and it would be a net loss to see them go. But you mavens get too precious about slight deviations,


  9. Here in Dubai, the word ‘prepone’ (meaning opposite of postpone) gets a good run. I”m not sure it is in any good style guide, but it seems like a logical and efficient way to describe changes in schedules. I’ll bring this one back to Australia with me.


  10. “Nonetheless I have occasionally used ‘youse’ in email to some friends at first ironically but recently I think it has merit at it conveys a certain intimacy in addressing a collective of people”
    It could be like the French past historic tense, except for muzzas and idiots (you excluded of course 🙂 .


  11. I prefer percent to per cent but loathe %.
    A previous VC used to have ‘advances’ instead of ‘retreats’ because retreats were defeatist. I recently discovered that program was the more correct version of programme.


  12. ‘Percent’ is stage 5 in the US; I prefer it but Pam Peters says that in the mid-1990s it was only about 20% of Australian usage of the word.

    Errol – A good word, which I had not heard before. My Oxford Dictionary has it, saying it is Indian in origin.

    Cathy – A stage 3 mistake.


  13. Don – you’ve got me worried now. Two of my three home dictionaries don’t have the word in them, while the third does. I’ll check my office dictionaries tomorrow and see what they say.


  14. These comments infer that youse guys have foreshadowed a fulsome problem that Sincs will have to apologize for to militate the % of a chance that he is wrong, which I would think is the capstone of humility.


  15. Another example is ‘legend’ e.g. Shane Warne is a legend of cricket. But Warnie, unlike, say, King Arthur, is not a legend, because he is a real person.


  16. Don – he does too. Although Fowler was first published in 1926 not 1927. I checked Fowler earlier on and he doesn’t have ‘foreshadow’ as word, but as you suggest does suggest it as an alternative for ‘Latinless’ barbarians who misuse ‘predicate’.

    Given that the student managed to write his thesis without ‘foreshadow’ and passed nearly ten years perhaps he’ll have forgotten the pain and angst he esperienced at the time having to substitute some other term for ‘foreshadow’. But it is predictable that he’ll refer to me as being the son of an unmarried woman.


  17. experienced not especienced.

    Of course this brings us back to the trials and tribulations of unreasonable PhD supervisors. 🙂


  18. ‘Latinless’ – There’s a word you don’t see much of today.
    GRIZZLED OLD TEACHER: “That girl at the back with the Nintendo she thinks I can’t see … yes you! Use the word ‘latinless’ in a sentence.
    GIRL AT THE BACK WITH NINTENDO: “Um … Last night’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance was totally latinless — there was no rumba, samba, salsa, mambo or merengue anywhere.
    GRIZZLED OLD TEACHER: (to class) Yes, hilarious isn’t it. (turns to Nintendo girl) Now spell merengue.


  19. Hi XXXX

    You may recall when doing your PhD that I said you shouldn’t use the word ‘foreshadow’ as it was a slang term and inappropriate for usage in a PhD thesis. It has been drawn to my attention that ‘foreshadow’ is in fact a perfectly good word in the English language. So feel free to use it at any time and rewrite your thesis, if you wish, foreshadowing to your hearts content.

    Regards, Sinc

    XXXX arrived in my office asking, ‘What are you talking about?’. So much for a lasting influence… 🙂


  20. Around London legal circles, “revert” gets a good run in place of “respond”, i.e. “We will discuss your proposal with our client and revert tomorrow.”


  21. I still think the real issue is the point where deviation from linguistic rules gets to the point where it obscures the meaning of what is being communicated. An example of this is the late Stan Zemanek’s insistence that the “hoi polloi” referred not to the common people but to what others describe as the “elites”.

    Almost none of the examples given (except the misuse of “fulsome”) do this. SOTR@22 seems to believe that an understanding of grammar gives him a licence for snobbery. If not “percent”, then why “today” or “teacup” or any other compound word?

    There is an argument to be made for importing words from other languages but leaving the grammatical structure intact: thus ‘forums’ rather than the more pretentious ‘fora’. I had an argument with a classically educated person about datum vs data on the extent to which you have to break down, er, the content of a given data field for it to be considered ‘datum’ rather than ‘data’. This is before you get all po-mo and question whether one, uh, piece of information can truly only have one meaning.


  22. My last contributions on this topic: the ubiquitous use of “absolutely” when the user means “yes”; relatedly, the incorrect use of “absolute” (“the car crash was an absolute tragedy”); come to think of it, the use of tragedy to mean a sad event rather than one that results from human failing; and finally, the incorrect use of ‘ultimate’, for example, s holiday resort which is advertised as “the ultimate holiday destination”.


  23. Andrew E – I agree, that is the most important threshold. But while most people can extract at least some meaning from even very poor English, precise and clear writing is much easier to read and leads to less misunderstanding. At the start of his book Garner has several paragraphs of text littered with common errors. You can work out what the passage is trying to say, but you have to read slowly and think about it.


  24. Last week’s Entourage showed an evolution of ‘coagulate’ to mean ‘confabulate’. In the first instance, the inappropriate use was remarked upon by another character. In the second instance, the character making the correction used it inappropriately himself. Boom!


  25. Just watched it again. The first use of ‘coagulate’ was to mean ‘commiserate’. It was used the second time to mean ‘confabulate’, which doesn’t seem that far from Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘to gather together or form into a mass or group’. News to me.


  26. Andrew N – clear and precise writing is the ideal but it is possible to be perfectly grammatical while writing in a dull way. Two things can be said about such a writer: first, that they are trying to dissuade involvement in the subject matter which might come with lively, understandable and engaging prose (a common feature of government reports); and second, that they haven’t really thought about what they’re trying to say, and therefore you needn’t either (or that you might use it as grist to write something else on that topic).


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