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Do We Really Hate That?

220px-Richard_Grant_White_-_Brady-Handy

Richard Grant White didn’t like the verb “donate.”

It was the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave about “language pet peeves” (presenting a linguist’s view) a few months ago at a city club. One woman in the audience immediately raised her hand and asked, “Why do people insist on using impact as a verb?” She then added, “I hate that.” There were assenting murmurs around the room: “Ridiculous,” “I hear that all the time,” and, echoing the questioner, “Oh, I hate that.”

Hate? A noun like impact coming to be used as a verb — is that really enough to inspire hatred?

I recognize that it’s hyperbole. But I’m also struck by how frequently that verb comes up when I’m talking with people about language pet peeves.

I realize I’m probably setting people up to express these kinds of sentiments when I put “peeves” in the talk title. That said, peeves seems to me a much weaker word. Peeves are inherently small things, perhaps even trivial things, that irritate or annoy us. Irritate and annoy are weaker verbs than hate.

As I have written about before, I have my own language pet peeves. As readers of this blog know, I’m not a fan of the word impactful. And the line “And say a little prayer for I,” in Paula Cole’s song “I Don’t Want to Wait,” strikes my ear like a bad chord every time. (At least one lyric website transcribes the lyric as “say a little prayer for right,” but it sure sounds like “for I,” and that is how I usually see the lyrics written out.)

But all things considered, these are minor occurrences in my very happy linguistic life. As many of us have written about on this blog, these changes in the language do not portend the downfall of “good English” or of the English language generally. Impactful is a perfectly logical adjective, formed in the same way as hopeful and wishful. And the mixing of I and me in subject and object position is part of a bigger change that has been happening in the language for centuries: the loss of distinction between subject and object forms, first for all nouns (a word like queen used to have distinct forms for subject and object) and now for some of the pronouns (e.g., the pronoun you no longer makes the distinction, and whom has been on the decline for centuries; the pronoun it has never made the distinction).

Perhaps you’re thinking right now, “But I like the distinction between subjects and objects in the pronouns. It seems useful.” Fair enough. It was very useful — in fact, critical — in the language back when English had much more flexible word order in sentences. But if and when the subject-object distinction fully disappears from the language (it will take a while to work its way through the pronouns, if it does), the language will be fine. Because English is now so highly reliant on word order, we will not be confused about who or what is the subject and the object.

And the folks who say and write impactful have already made that a successful word in the language. I’m getting over it.

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t notice these kinds of changes; I think that noticing them demonstrates a real love and care for the language. We are paying attention to the details of language. That’s a great thing. It is a question of the emotion that we attach to that noticing. We may choose to make sure our pronouns distinguish subject and object, and we may avoid the word impactful. But is there good reason to “hate” the language changes we hear?

It wouldn’t matter as much if language weren’t so tightly attached to the people who speak the language. It’s one thing to say you hate lima beans. But to say you hate a word or a grammatical construction that real people use in real time — perhaps even people you love — can make those people feel bad. And I don’t think most of us mean to do that when we’re talking about a language pet peeve.

I love talking about the changes people are noticing in the language, and I know too that for most of us, there are ones that are like fingernails on the chalkboard. That said, as a linguist, I also know that most of our peeves will fade away and look as quaint as Richard Grant White complaining in the 19th century about donate as an ill-formed verb from the noun donation. With that perspective, hate seems like too strong a verb, even hyperbolically, to refer to the changes that we, with all our creativity, are making in the language.

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