Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Careering through our changing language

Saw this in the NY Post today, and as many of us head back into the classroom for a new year, thought it was good as a starting point for a riff on our changing language:

So much for Sam Zell, newspaperman.

The developer, who arranged a controversial $11.7 billion employee buyout of newspaper giant Tribune only to see the company careen into bankruptcy a year later, is on the verge of giving up his claims to buy a huge stake in the company and, according to a source familiar with the matter, is ready to walk away from the company.
How many of you would have changed "careen" to "career"? I probably would have (though, I suppose, the case could also be made that "careen" was used in the sense of "tip" here -- but why not just say that), but reflecting on that on some other commentary led me to send this e-mail around our j-school today:


As we look at redoing curriculum, etc., there are likely to be calls for some kind of testing/screening students for their "language skills." But you should read the following and consider the "distinctions that are dissolving."

I suspect a few of these might come up on a test or screening. I know many will make more than a few of us grind our teeth. Yet a check of my references shows that, as John points out, most are in transition (check out careen/career in your dictionary, for instance, or in most modern usage guides). McIntyre, until recently head of copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, is one of the most astute observers of the language out there. (Just two years earlier, for instance, he was firmly in the "career" camp.) http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/11/snap_decision.html)

This is why you will often find me dissenting when such tests, screening, etc. come up. Too often we confuse grammar with usage and style.

Language has always changed. What has happened, of course, is that in this digital age the pace has careered/careened almost out of control. I suspect we might have a little teaching envy for the math and science profs who can always walk into an intro classroom knowing 2+2=4 (until Wikipedia, of course, challenges that {grin}).

We could do worse than each of us taking a "reality check" survey of the state of usage at the beginning of each term and asking where it is truly worth planting and defending the flag and where the skirmish is lost and it is time to move on. It is not unusual these days on some points for me to have to consult five or six reference books to fix usage. I'd also recommend that anyone who feels deeply about this order a copy of Garner's latest Modern American Usage, just out this summer. Garner is probably the premier authority on American English at this point, and what he says may surprise you.

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