LawProse Lesson 347: My Father’s Dream

LawProse Lesson 347: My Father’s Dream

My 90-year-old father, bless him, got upset yesterday upon reading a Washington Post piece saying that the Trump campaign is careening toward election day. He was incensed because he thought it should have said careering toward election day.

Career, you see, has traditionally meant “to move wildly at full speed,” while careen has meant “to tip to one side while moving slowly.” He looked up the distinction in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed. 2016), which gave him the bad news: careen has predominantly meant “to move swervingly or lurchingly” since the mid-1900s. It is now at Stage 5 on the Language-Change Index, meaning it’s fully acceptable as Standard Written English.

So what began as a lapse is no longer a lapse. If everybody’s wrong, we’re all right.

But Dad wanted to know how words can possibly change their meanings this way. “How do these errors get entrenched?” he asked. “Is this a failure of pre-college education? Or perhaps just indicative of the trend to dismiss the importance of teaching standard usage? To what extent is the decline of copyeditors responsible? And does it all really matter?”

Of course it matters, I told him, but the linguistic tug-of-war between career and careen is over. Traditionalists will often lose in some struggles to avoid linguistic drift. You have to pick your battles.

Then came his fanciful-dream text message: “In my dream, we return to a world in which Standard English is not only taught in our schools, but expected in newspapers, magazines, and public discourse. It would be a world in which print media would once again employ copyeditors to ensure proper usage, spelling, and punctuation.”

That would be a cultural shift—and an unlikely one at that. English usage has long been an individual endeavor. Even half a century ago, you couldn’t depend on other people or on institutions to give you good training in speaking and writing well. You had to train yourself.

It’s a tough problem, too. On the one hand, some people claim that Standard English is discriminatory—that people should be encouraged to use whatever dialect is spoken in the home. On the other hand, their intellectual adversaries claim that Standard English is quite the opposite of discriminatory—that the idea of not requiring it is simply a way of keeping disadvantaged children disadvantaged.

In an era in which such divisions are rarely bridged by consensus, the idea that people will endorse a disciplined pedagogical approach to “good English”—however humanely it might be implemented—seems quite implausible. And so we career along toward linguistic entropy.

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