Don't skunk me, bro!

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At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change? [NG: "raising a stink" heh.]

In my own writing, I tend not to avoid usages merely out of concern that some people disapprove of them. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that one should never worry about how readers might react to one's choice of language. It's certainly a legitimate concern when it comes to the issue of slurs—not the offensive use of a slur as a label for a particular person or group of people, but the mention of the slur qua linguistic unit (as in, It is offensive to call someone a [slur]) or the subversive repurposing of the slur, as in the case of The Slants). And my views on that subject are changing. For a long time, I thought that such mentions and uses shouldn't be regarded as offensive, and I acted consistently with that view. However, I have recently had second thoughts about my own usage; hence the circumlocutions in this post. (For some interesting observations about the issue, see The conventions for expressive content words.)

But when Bryan Garner talks about words or phrases as being skunked, he's not talking about anything like that. He's just peeving. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he's concern trolling. Because he's saying to the people using the skunked expression in the disapproved way, "Even if you may be right that there's nothing really wrong about the usage, you should avoid it because otherwise you will risk distracting your readers and therefore make your writing less effective. So what I'm telling you is for your own good. And I feel so strongly about protecting you from yourself that I am willing to give the same advice to the people who use the expression in the way that I think is correct."

As I've suggested, it's not necessarily a bad idea to consider following that advice. And maybe in some cases, following the advice might be a good idea. But also keep in mind who the advice-giver is. In advising against the use of expressions that he thinks are skunked, he's not acting solely in the interests of those who think the expression is just fine, thank you. He also wants you to avoid the expression because he thinks it's wrong. It's a fallback position: even if he fails to convince you that the usage is wrong, he tries to get you to stop using it anyway. He's got a hidden agenda. So beware of language geeks bearing gifts.

 



24 Comments

  1. Lukas said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

    "In my own writing, I tend not to avoid usages merely out of concern that some people disapprove of them."

    Why not? It seems to me that you're harming your ability to connect with your readers out of a, I guess, moral conviction that your ability to communicate with your readers is less valuable than your, well, I'm not even quite sure what you're defending.

    "But I wouldn't go so far as to say that one should never worry about how readers might react to one's choice of language"

    Isn't your readers' reaction to your writing the *only* thing you should worry about? If not, why are you writing in the first place?

    But worse, the larger problem with these terms is not the fact that people might dislike them, and dismiss your writing merely because they don't like your word choice, but rather that people might simply misunderstand what you're trying to say.

    In other words, you're harming your own ability to communicate with your readers by using terms whose meanings have become ambiguous through misuse, and whose new meanings haven't yet settled enough to displace their old meanings. If context doesn't provide enough information, it might simply not be clear what you're trying to say, and if context *does* provide enough information, you'd still be better off using terms that need not rely on context to establish their meanings.

  2. Jonathan said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    Such profound indignation in the face of the fact that language is a social interaction involving (at a minimum) two people.

  3. Lex said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 5:30 pm

    It seems like a silly debate, as most of the time one might describe an argument as “begging the question,” he would be communicating to an audience (judges, linguistics, etc.) that would understand the usage and not be confused. (Jury trials would notable exception.)

  4. Bloix said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 7:34 pm

    "He's just peeving. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he's concern trolling."
    Garner writes primarily for lawyers, who often write for an audience of one (or sometimes three.) When your reader can put your client in prison, or deprive it of $100 million, you take pains to do nothing to diminish your credibility. And you never want to lead your judge to think about usage. Your judge is very busy, and reads your filings with a metaphorical stopwatch in hand. You don't say "beg the question" because you don't want your judge to spend a second thinking about the idiom. You don't assume that an elected state court judge in suburban San Antonio knows what it means. And you avoid things like none with a plural verb because you may well have a judge who is a peever.

  5. Bloix said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

    PS- I don't even think about singular they.

  6. Brett said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    @Bloix: And yet you've said that you once had an opposing counsel describe your argument as "thixotropic."

  7. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

    "Garner writes primarily for lawyers…"

    Not necessarily. He has a prominent (by the standard of such things) usage manual aimed at the general public.

  8. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 11:30 pm

    @Lukas:

    "In my own writing, I tend not to avoid usages merely out of concern that some people disapprove of them."

    Why not? It seems to me that you're harming your ability to connect with your readers out of a, I guess, moral conviction that your ability to communicate with your readers is less valuable than your, well, I'm not even quite sure what you're defending.

    I’m defending my freedom to write in the way that I think will best achieve whatever effect that I’m trying for. When I use an expression that I know will make peevers to peeve, I generally do so because I think that that expression is preferable on balance to the alternative expression that would keep the peevers at bay. Is that really so hard to understand?

    Although I don’t (usually) try to deliberately annoy peevers, I’m generally unwilling to use an option that I think is in all other respects not as good a choice. In such cases, I don’t think the benefits of placating the peevers are sufficient to outweigh what I think are the disadvantages of settling for what I think is the second-best option. And I’m confident that my usage is well within the mainstream of standard American English, ’ceptin’ when I wanna be, like all nonstandard ’n’ shit, ya dig? [This paragraph has been revised to correct a misnegation that is noted further down in the comments.]

    "But I wouldn't go so far as to say that one should never worry about how readers might react to one's choice of language"

    Isn't your readers' reaction to your writing the *only* thing you should worry about? If not, why are you writing in the first place?

    Yes, but I generally have communicative goals that go beyond merely managing to annoy peevers. I generally write for some broader communicative purpose: to inform, to educate, to explain, amuse, to challenge, to insult, to ridicule, to arouse, to reassure, to praise, to obfuscate, to mock, and on and on. [On edit: Revised to substitute "and on and on" for something that didn't really make sense. And yes, I realize that there's some irony in coming back to make changes here given what I was talking about.]

    In the scheme of things worrying about what the peevers might think isn’t that high

    But worse, the larger problem with these terms is not the fact that people might dislike them, and dismiss your writing merely because they don't like your word choice, but rather that people might simply misunderstand what you're trying to say.

    In other words, you're harming your own ability to communicate with your readers by using terms whose meanings have become ambiguous through misuse, and whose new meanings haven't yet settled enough to displace their old meanings. If context doesn't provide enough information, it might simply not be clear what you're trying to say, and if context *does* provide enough information, you'd still be better off using terms that need not rely on context to establish their meanings.

    Apparently you haven’t read the post that Jonathon Owen was responding to, because if you had, you’d have seen my statement that I had changed “begs the question that…” to “takes it for granted that….” You might even have inferred that I did so in order to avoid the risk that some readers would otherwise be confused.

    But worse, the larger problem with these terms is not the fact that people might dislike them, and dismiss your writing merely because they don't like your word choice, but rather that people might simply misunderstand what you're trying to say.

    In other words, you're harming your own ability to communicate with your readers by using terms whose meanings have become ambiguous through misuse, and whose new meanings haven't yet settled enough to displace their old meanings. If context doesn't provide enough information, it might simply not be clear what you're trying to say, and if context *does* provide enough information, you'd still be better off using terms that need not rely on context to establish their meanings.

    Thank you ever so much for making that important point, of which I was previously unaware.

  9. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

    @Bloix:

    Garner writes primarily for lawyers, who often write for an audience of one (or sometimes three.) When your reader can put your client in prison, or deprive it of $100 million, you take pains to do nothing to diminish your credibility. And you never want to lead your judge to think about usage. Your judge is very busy, and reads your filings with a metaphorical stopwatch in hand. You don't say "beg the question" because you don't want your judge to spend a second thinking about the idiom. You don't assume that an elected state court judge in suburban San Antonio knows what it means. And you avoid things like none with a plural verb because you may well have a judge who is a peever.Garner writes primarily for lawyers, who often write for an audience of one (or sometimes three.) When your reader can put your client in prison, or deprive it of $100 million, you take pains to do nothing to diminish your credibility. And you never want to lead your judge to think about usage. Your judge is very busy, and reads your filings with a metaphorical stopwatch in hand. You don't say "beg the question" because you don't want your judge to spend a second thinking about the idiom. You don't assume that an elected state court judge in suburban San Antonio knows what it means. And you avoid things like none with a plural verb because you may well have a judge who is a peever.

    The attitude you describe is common among lawyers, especially lawyers who like to talk about usage and such. But I'm a lawyer, too—a civil litigator—and I think that for the most part, my practice has been pretty much what I describe in the post.

  10. Christopher Barts said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 3:23 am

    More evidence that all prescriptivism is bunk, and, at root, classism: It's always couched in terms of correctness, but it always demonizes and marginalizes the underclass' language. It equates talking like a poor person with talking incomprehensibly, which takes on a particularly sinister twist when you realize the neurological basis of language. In short, the human brain has whole regions devoted to producing and understanding grammatical language, so stating that poor people don't speak grammatically is strongly implying that poor people have malformed brains.

  11. Derek Higgins said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 3:45 am

    >"Garner writes primarily for lawyers…"
    >
    >Not necessarily. He has a prominent (by the standard of such things) usage manual >aimed at the general public.

    And sadly he's also infiltrated the Chicago Manual of Style.

  12. bratschegirl said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 3:46 am

    Mr. Goldfarb, I'm genuinely confused by this: "Although I don’t (usually) try to deliberately annoy peevers, I’m generally unwilling to use an option that I think is in all other respects the better choice." So if there's an option that is the better choice in all respects, except that it won't annoy "peevers," you won't use it?

  13. Andrew D. said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 5:19 am

    Regarding skunked words, the example that immediately springs to mind is "niggardly". And it hasn't even undergone semantic drift!

  14. languagehat said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 9:24 am

    An excellent post — I am always in favor of calling a peever a peever, and I totally agree with your feelings about "skunked."

    Garner writes primarily for lawyers, who often write for an audience of one (or sometimes three.)

    This is nonsense, and I'm not sure why people keep saying it. If it were true, Garner would be known only to lawyers (and would be a lot poorer). He's successfully leveraged his undoubted excellence as a specialist in legal usage into a career as a peever of global reach, whose magnum opus on usage ("American usage," not legal usage) is issued in large quantities and frequently updated. You might as well say the current US president is "primarily" a real estate magnate.

  15. chris said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    @bratschegirl: That's one for the misnegation files, I think. I suspect he meant something more like "I'm generally unwilling to be intimidated out of using…"

  16. bratschegirl said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

    @chris: that was my thought as well, thanks

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    @Chris: "That's one for the misnegation files, I think"

    Yes! And kids, let this be a lesson to you, don't blog or post comments when you're sleepy.

  18. Bloix said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    "This is nonsense,"
    You can see a list of Garner's books at his Wikipedia page. As anyone can seem his books are directed primarily to lawyers and to some extent to business people.
    He is a professor at Southern Methodist Univ's law school and has taught at several other law schools. In addition to his books, he is responsible for editing amendments to the Federal Rules (Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Appeals, and Bankruptcy) – the very complex sets of rules that govern practice in the federal courts, for which concision, clarity and lack of ambiguity are crucial.
    He has written two books for general audiences but everyone knows he comes to writing from a lawyer's point of view.
    With that said, the overwhelming majority of writers are writing to persuade, and that means their goal must always to be to keep the focus on the argument and away from the writing. Not only lawyers, but business people, administrators and the like are well-advised to avoid anything that would distract the reader, even momentarily, from the argument by diverting it to the writing.

    PS- Bratchegirl, you ask, "So if there's an option that is the better choice in all respects, except that it won't annoy "peevers," you won't use it?"
    Well, that almost never happens because there is almost always a way to avoid annoying peevers without harming the flow of the narrative or argument. But if there isn't one, then hell, yes, I will do my best to avoid annoying peevers. If you are writing a grant proposal that might be read by a peever who has the power to fund your lab for a year – or an admissions officer who is going to decide whether you get into a graduate program – or anyone else you urgently need to persuade – wouldn't you?

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 7:17 am

    I think the skunking concept may be heard and understood in different ways by different audiences. If you are a descriptivist and/or user of the deprecated innovation, it just sounds like a mild rehash of the old notion "well, maybe there's nothing wrong with splitting infinitives but some people think there is so you should avoid doing it to avoid rubbing them the wrong way." That seems to be the reading driving the criticisms of Garner in this thread. But perhaps one should focus more on Garner preaching to his own choir, i.e. those who think that the way they understand the controversial issue is The One Right Way and everyone else is Wrong Wrong Wrong. I take it the function of the "skunked" concept, at least in part, is to tell those folks "look, of course we're objctively right about what The One Right Way is, but in these decadent times too many prospective readers just don't know that, victimized as they are by bad teaching and moral relativism, so in the interests of clear communication maybe we ought to dial back actually fighting this fight and continuing to use the controverted expression in The One Right Way and blaming our readers for failing to understand. Let's find another way of expressing the same point that will actually be understood." It's in that context perhaps a way for the prescriptivist/fuddy-duddy faction to beat a strategic retreat without admitting they were wrong on the merits.

  20. languagehat said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 7:45 am

    Huh. I hadn't thought of it like that, but that's a charitable analysis and I'll try to remember to keep it in mind.

  21. bratschegirl said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:58 am

    @Bloix: Of course I'd avoid annoying peevers in the circumstances you outline, which is why I pointed out that the misnegated sentence as originally constructed actually said the opposite. It's since been edited, but the original actually wound up conveying "I won't use a better option unless it *will* annoy peevers," which isn't what either he or you actually wants to do.

  22. jjwk said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    I had not heard "skunked" used this way before, but I apply the same concept in teaching writing to journalism students. I'm not trying to bring prescriptivism in the back door; quite the contrary.

    I tell students that the generally perceived "correctness" of certain pieces of language is changing, but tell that that for now, they're better off avoiding them. That advice is aimed at allowing them to understand why some other profs may insist the old "rules" still apply, and to produce copy that will be acceptable to hidebound editors. I consider that the most practical approach I can take to balance my own descriptivist philosophy with the students' need to work with others who are, shall we say, less linguistically accommodating.

  23. ajay said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 7:04 am

    I had not heard "skunked" used this way before, but I apply the same concept in teaching writing to journalism students.

    Good for you. The rule should be: if you're thinking of using a word or phrase that is ambiguous, and there's another one that gets the message across and isn't ambiguous, use that one instead. And that should hold whether the ambiguity is because the meaning is changing over time (like "begging the question") or because the meaning differs over space (like "table the discussion") or whatever.

  24. Glen said,

    March 16, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    The only way I have previously heart the expression "skunked" is to describe a nasty defeat in the game of cribbage. If one player reaches 120 points, the end, before the opponent gets 90 points, the defeated player is skunked. If one person gets 120 before the opponent gets 60 points they are said to have "double skunked" them.

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