Friday, June 14, 2013

Fine distinctions: careering, fearing, recollecting

Last week at You Don't Say, John McIntyre responded to one of those true believers who think that so long as they still distinguish between overlapping words -- career and careen were the pair at issue -- everyone else should too. "Why on earth would we dispose of such a useful distinction?" asked the commenter.

This rhetorical challenge is a perfect example of begging the question, in the old sense. Who says it's "useful"? If I found it useful, wouldn't I be using it?* In any case, Gabe Doyle gave this issue the full treatment way back in 2009, so I won't dwell on it. 

As John kindly mentioned, my annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's "Write It Right" includes abundant examples of similar alleged distinctions. In the case of remember vs. recollect, for instance, Bierce says the difficulty governs the verb choice: "We remember automatically; in recollecting we make a conscious effort."

This seems to be an uncritical borrowing from Richard Grant White, whose 1870 "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present" is the earliest source of the "rule" I've found. There are few later sources, presumably because the rule is so pointless. Why would a listener care if you were recalling something with effort or not? And wouldn't the rule make it incorrect ever to say "I can't remember X"? At any rate, the distinction never took hold, even among sticklers.

Another Bierce bugbear was discussed at Arnold Zwicky's blog the other day: "I'm afraid" vs. "I fear." Bierce says "I fear that it will rain" is correct, though he gives no reason. He may have swiped this one from an 1855 handbook by one Walton Burgess, grandly titled "500 Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, in Speaking, Writing, and Pronouncing the English Language, Corrected." Burgess uses the same "rain" example, and he does give a reason: that "afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety."

But as Arnold noted, there's no historical support for banning "I'm afraid" in the polite/apologetic sense. And even if Burgess's distinction once held, today we hear "I fear" as quite formal, and freely use "I'm afraid" to express both fear and mere regret or anxiety.

I leave for another day Bierce's attempts to differentiate between necessities and necessaries, coat and coating (of paint), trifling and trivial, custom and habit. Suffice it to say that a century later, we're doing very well without them.

*Of course there are always distinctions that remain "meaningful" for some of us even when Those Kids have dropped them; I still think "he may have survived" and "he might have survived" mean different things, but lots of people no longer read the verb as I do. 

4 comments:

cucaracha said...

It reminds me of my father who was very pedantic - he hated people using 'surprised' when they meant 'astonished'. But i got him over 'mend' and 'repair' saying that they actually meant the same thing but their roots were different OE v/s OF!

Sue Dunham said...

I had 2 alternate meanings in mind, and couldn't understand the confusion between tilting a ship to clean the barnacles, and one's job path in life.

Gregory Lee said...

And if remember doesn't take effort, it should have been:

Try to recollect the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

Jonathon Owen said...

"Who says it's 'useful'? If I found it useful, wouldn't I be using it?"

Exactly. The distinction is being lost precisely because it isn't useful, or at least the majority of users don't find it useful. In the free market of language, speakers invest in the meanings that are useful and abandon the ones that aren't.