Inside a Survey About What Is Acceptable in English, Literally

Each year editors at the American Heritage Dictionary survey experts about what's kosher—and what ain't

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RyanJLane

Certain language usage causes this face among more conservative types.

For nearly 50 years, editors at the American Heritage Dictionary have been sending out ballots filled with questions about exactly what is acceptable in the English language, and what requires correction—or at least a forceful eyeroll. The people who get those ballots make up the dictionary’s “Usage Panel,” and they’re among the most prominent pen-wielders in the United States.

This week, ballots were shipped to the likes of crossword editor Will Shortz, writer Jonathan Franzen, author Amy Tan and journalist Michael Pollan—as well as nearly 200 other souls who somehow make their living off the written word. Before the year is out, they will have their say about whether pet dogs should be referred to as “who” or “that.” They will weigh in on whether one should pronounce harass as huh-RASS or HAIR-uhs. And they will have given us one more batch of insights about who English speakers were at a given point in time.

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One of the best things about American Heritage’s annual poll is that it’s been around long enough to give us cold, hard numbers showing how vastly attitudes toward language change. Today’s continuous squawkfest about the use of literally had parallels from the ’60s to the ’90s, when meanings that are widely accepted today were new or uncomfortable. “People have been complaining about language going to hell as far back as Cicero,” says Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of American Heritage dictionaries. “Language changes and people complain about language changing at pretty much the same rate.”

His team, including editor Peter Chipman and editorial assistant Emily Neeves, dived into their archives to provide TIME with examples of disapproval from past decades that might surprise today’s most persnickety pedant:

  • Era: 1960s
  • Question: The construction sick at one’s stomach is defined by most dictionaries and usage manuals. Can “at” be replaced by “to”?
  • Consensus: 53% said no.
  • Era: 1970s
  • Question: Is [this new coinage] used acceptably in the sentences or fragments given? Prioritize: “to establish priorities among; arrange according to precedence,” as in “a first attempt to prioritize the tasks facing the new administration.”
  • Consensus: 96.7% said no.
  • Era: 1990s
  • Question: Please indicate whether the italicized words and phrases are acceptable in the following sentence: Let’s find a quality restaurant to take them to.
  • Consensus: 58% said no.
  • Era: 1990s
  • Question: Please indicate whether the italicized words and phrases are acceptable in the following sentence: One of our strategies is to grow our business by increasing the number of clients.
  • Consensus: 80% said no.

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Editors will sometimes pose the same question again years down the line, like in 1997 when they revisited prioritize—a verb panelists had almost unanimously disapproved of 20 years before. The second time, only 47% disapproved and, one imagines it would be closer to nil today. When panelists were again asked about quality five years later, the disapproval rate had dropped from 58% to 29%.

Such shifts might seem just right to some and deplorable to others. There are conservative types who believe language is a precious, stable thing to be guarded like a princess in a tower, above a moat filled with toothy change. Other wordsmiths view English as a barometer of culture that is extremely fluid and meant to evolve rapidly. When TIME first wrote about the Usage Panel in 1969, it was clear in which camp the author had pitched her tent:

Lately [English] has been polluted by creeping neologisms and solecisms, many of them spawned by military jargon, television clichés and youthcult dialects. Should lexicographers rubber-stamp the linguistic junk or rear back and proclaim standards? The American Heritage Publishing Co. has steered a canny middle course. To preserve an elegance of sorts, it established a new kind of court …

Being asked to serve on that court is something of an honor, and panelists rarely retire; Kleinedler says that turnover is almost exclusively the result of death. What the panelists say doesn’t strictly determine what the dictionary will publish, though it does guide the editors in making updates and give them telling notes to add among their entries. For many questions about what’s kosher to say or not to say, the jury will be perennially out—but the Usage Panel at least gives us clues as to which way modern English speakers are leaning.

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3 comments
Kate-Gladstone
Kate-Gladstone

Those who denounce the use of "literally" to mean "not literally" recognize a serious wrong — using the word in this way deprives us of a way to say "literally" and to mean it.

That great wrong, though, isn't righted by objecting to any lexicographer's observation that this word is being used in this way.

To those who wish they could prevent all makers of dictionaries from recording that confusing use of this word, I ask — would you prevent the makers of maps from recording the existence of any building whose architecture is ugly or unsafe, any road whose route is ill-planned, or any city whose location was ill-chosen? Would you forbid the makers of atlases to depict any nation that is badly governed, or any coastline upon which a ship has been wrecked?

Dictionaries map our language. Those who decry as inaccuracy any record that "literally" is often used figuratively — and has been so used, often, for over two hundred years — are themselves insisting on literal inaccuracy.