Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman

The title of this post is not the name of a new cop show, but an acronym I just invented. It stands for “Changing Usage Impulse,” and it refers to the urge you (or at least I) get to perpetrate a usage that isn’t standard yet but, because it’s popular and fills a need, is well on its way to becoming so. Another name for the phenomenon might be Ergative Yearning, the ergative being the kind of verb used when one says “the car drives smoothly” or “the wine drinks well.” These expressions and words just want to be used.

I don’t use them, because I know they’re wrong, at least according to the current edition of my own internal style manual. But that feels bad, as if the release of some dreamy endorphin had just been cut off. The physical sensation is as palpable as when you pass by a donut shop and can’t or don’t sample its wares. I suspect that this feeling is connected to the way in which the language ultimately does change. That is, for a new usage to become accepted, somewhere along the way, CUI must infect some proportion of the populace; then it spreads until resistance would be equally difficult and futile.

I offer this up as an area of research to any psycholinguistics graduate students seeking same. The key to the experiment would be finding the right subjects. They couldn’t be Edwin Newman types, sticklers whose endorphins (if any) would be released when they uttered a supposedly correct usage. Nor could one use undergraduates, who wouldn’t realize that there might conceivably be anything dodgy about saying, for example, “not too good of a thing.” No, the investigators would need somebody like, well, me. And if anybody ever decides to do such an experiment, I hereby volunteer. (My only conditions are red M&Ms in the snack room and first-class airfare to the lab.)

I can imagine sitting in a chair and having electrodes strapped to the appropriate places on my body. A screen in front of me displays a sentence like:

“The fact that we are increasingly prepared to fling out details of our lives  __  the question of what, exactly, we fear when we rage about a loss of privacy.”

I am asked to fill in the blank, and I feel CUI coming on. “Begs” wants to be written. As I experience this, the electrodes crackle and a line appears on the monitoring device roughly in the form of an Everest ascent. But I know begs is wrong, so I instead write prompts (also the choice of the New Yorker writer who composed this sentence).

I’m sure I would also register CUI for all sorts of currently trending but still not accepted usages: fortuitous to mean “fortunate”; calling an experience “very fun” or even “funner”; and even no-doubt-about-them mistakes like writing “it’s” instead of “its” and “lead” for the past tense of to lead. These things want to be written, and they’re constantly showing up in the first drafts of my work.

Hopefully (to use a word that triumphed thanks to killer CUI), I spot and change such solecisms during revision. And that suggests another research area. I suspect that resisting CUI also precipitates a somatic response, this one not so pleasurable. Thus writing prompts in the above example is a downer, the clumsiness of the word (it’s even difficult to say silently to oneself) nowhere near made up for by any feeling of Edwin Newman self-righteousness. Of course, if this response exists, it needs it’s its own acronym. Call it OUR—Old Usage Regret.


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