Sunday, October 16, 2011

Noah's not the boss of me!

In the waning hours of Dictionary Day, I want to briefly advocate for the locution "advocate for." I was sorry to see Lucy Ferriss, over at Lingua Franca, conceding the point to a critic who told her advocate could only be a transitive verb -- that she could advocate the use of the Oxford comma, but not advocate for it. Says who? Says her dictionary, whichever it is.

Well, dictionary shmictionary. No lexicographer wants you to lie down and roll over just because the phrase you use is not recorded in his or her latest tome. If we say advocate for, the dictionaries will recognize, soon enough, that the intransitive form ("she advocates for abuse victims") is standard -- and in this case doing useful work, not just padding out the transitive verb.

And advocate for is not some bizarre new aberration; the OED calls it obsolete, but gives citations from the mid-17th to the late 19th century, the last from the language scholar Fitzedward Hall:  "I am not going to advocate for this sense of actual." And Google's Ngram viewer shows "advocated for" rising steadily since around 1840, so maybe the OED editors weren't as observant as they might have been.

I doubt, though, that people who dislike the revival of advocate for give a damn whether it's "officially" transitive or intransitive; I think they connect it with social-worker jargon from the touchy-feely era, and despise it for class reasons. Yes, it's true (as I noted in a column* four years ago) that advocate for  sometimes shows up where advocate alone might be more appropriate (and elegant). But (as I wrote then)
advocate will hardly be the first switch-hitting verb. Do you baby-sit the twins, or baby-sit for them? Shop [Filene's] Basement, or shop at the Basement? Graduate college, or graduate from college? A century ago, when approve of was new, Ambrose Bierce tsk-tsked: "There is no sense in making approve an intransitive verb." [I wonder how he would have liked the British transitive agree: "Heineken UK have agreed a contract extension."] 
This isn't the first time advocate has attracted critics. The OED quotes a 1789 letter from Ben Franklin to Noah Webster (happy birthday, Noah!) complaining of several new verbs (as he thought) based on nouns, including advocate. Milton and Pepys and Burke had used the word, but Franklin wasn't having it. "If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations," he wrote, "you will use your authority in reprobating them."

But Webster (whatever his private opinion) recorded the facts: advocate was a verb, like it or not. And any minute now, his heirs at Merriam-Webster -- hi, Peter! -- are going to notice that it's also an intransitive verb, and add that description to the record. Because we're the boss of dictionaries, not the other way around.

*Probably behind a paywall, but I can't tell for sure. 


Elaine said...

Adding 'for' after advocate is redundant in most correct usages of the word.

Your example of babysitting is a great example of how adding 'for' changes meanings and leaves certain strategic portions implied. You babysit the children but you babysit [the children] for the parents.

Using 'for' after 'advocates' implies another verb before the noun. It's shorthand (or shortspeak).

If you really listen to what someone says, if they say "I advocate for victims of violence," what is actually implied is something along the lines of "I advocate change in the legal system for victims of violence." Were they to actually just say "I advocate change", the use of the word 'for' is completely unnecessary.

However, most advocates use the implied meaning and say 'I advocate for victims of violence', and I look at them and say "Really?". People should really pay attention to what they say.

Fritinancy said...

I'm happy to say that the 2007 column is not behind a paywall.

Ø said...


It seems to me that "I advocate for victims of violence" conveys essentially the same information as "I am an advocate for victims of violence" or "I work as an advocate for victims of violence". If you want to call it "shortspeak" for the latter, I won't argue (except when you say it "implies another verb"--your example has the noun "change").

The work might consist of trying to effect legislative change, or trying to effect change in law enforcement procedures. But to me the statement conveys a slightly different meaning than "I advocate change ...". The latter sounds like a simple statement of opinion, whereas "I advocate for victims of violence" says that the speaker is actually doing some work.

(I also point out that "I advocate for victims of violence" or "I am an advocate for victims of violence" could equally well mean "I assist individual victims of violence in dealing with the existing legal system".)

Allen Garvin said...

'If you really listen to what someone says, if they say "I advocate for victims of violence," what is actually implied is something along the lines of "I advocate change in the legal system for victims of violence."'

Sure, it implies that. It also implies more. Instead of an impersonal "advocating change in the legal system for victims violence", it can also imply solidarity with the actual victims, giving a voice to the voiceless. "I advocate change" is such a bloodless way of putting it.

I pay attention to what I say, and when "advocate for" better expresses the meaning, I'll use it. Of course, I may just use it in other circumstances because it "sounds right."

Richard Hershberger said...

"It's shorthand (or shortspeak)."

But... But... But... I thought that the highest form of correct usage was to "omit needless words"!

Vincent said...

You have given me a satori moment, dear Jan, in your phrase "despise it for class reasons". This is what I have been doing for years, mostly silently. It is one of life's great pleasures, and I won't relinquish it.

My wife, who was educated in Jamaica, where they continued to teach proper English long after they ceased the practice here in the language's birthplace, is now consulted on correct spelling and grammar by all in the office where she is departmental secretary.

Here in England there has always been the sport of being amused at people for the way they speak, whether for being ignorant, for being "toffs" (an abbreviation, I think, for toffee-nosed), or merely for speaking the dialect of a different part of the country.

Anna McFall said...

Your last sentence is perfect!