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Visigoths vs. Weirdness

Redundancy and usage have been on my mind since one commenter pointed out that I used “advocate for” and “advocate against” in a previous post. This grammarian pointed out, correctly, that the verb “to advocate” is defined purely as transitive. Thus, one should either advocate a thing or oppose it. Without such distinctions, my worthy respondent proclaimed, “Civilization is over, it’s all Goths and Visigoths.”

I took this question to a group of clever nonacademic friends. When I tried out the phrase, “I advocate universal day care,” one of them frowned and said, “You don’t want to talk that way. You’ll sound weird.”

One could write a book, I imagine, about the ways in which language evolves to become less rather than more precise. In the short time since I began to ponder the intransitive use of “advocate,” I’ve run across umpteen uses of “center around”; “more unique”; “propel forward”; “ascend up.” “Advocate for” and “advocate against” each gets more than 100,000,000 hits on Google. Another verb defined as transitive, “cushion,” gets more than 42,000,000 hits when coupled with “against,” as in the apparently intransitive clause “Brazil used output to cushion against the drastic fall in prices.”

These idioms, of course, differ from one another. “Advocate for,” “propel forward,” “ascend up,” and “cushion against” are redundant, in that at least one definition of the word in question includes the action indicated by the word placed after it. “Center around” and “more unique” are paradoxical, since centering implies a point in the middle and “unique” implies the existence of only one.  “Advocate for” and “cushion against” both trespass into the territory of the intransitive, though English is notoriously lax in its definitions of transitive and intransitive, and the usages I’ve cited could be cases of object deletion rather than intransitivity per se. (Think “I advocate a position against the use of the serial comma” or “Brazil used output to cushion the economy against the fall in prices.”)

But I am less interested in the technical labeling of these misuses, or in the arguments whereby an apparently “improper” use” becomes “proper,” than I am in the choice between becoming a Visigoth or sounding weird. I like to think that I favor precise language. At the same time, in an extraordinarily long discussion last night over the possible difference between, say, advocating the occupation of Zuccotti Park and advocating for the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, I had to admit that a difference in meaning emerged when we employed the less correct usage. Similarly, when a headline reads “Why Collaboration Should Center Around Email,” I might wish for a more logical phrase, but I know what the writer means—and it’s not that collaboration should center on e-mail or that it should revolve around e-mail.

Some days, I suppose, I am a Visigoth. Most days, I sound weird. In correcting student papers, my tendency is to encourage them to sound weird rather than become Visigoths, but I have let slide the occasional “less unique” and “descend down” in favor of helping the student develop his or her argument. Meanwhile, I am making a little hobby of discovering these Goth-producing idioms as they lurk in everyday speech. Contributions welcome.

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