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A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singular they (a topic on which I have many thoughts, as Lingua Franca readers know). It is hard to capture how much fun it is to be in a full auditorium of people who care so deeply about language — who audibly groan, clap, and boo in response to slides that simply present sentences with funner or impactful.

Through historical examples of peeves that now seem quaint (e.g., Benjamin Franklin’s concerns about notice as a verb, and Richard Grant White’s condemnation of donate as a verb and of partially to mean “partly”), I tried to provide some perspective on new — and some not so new — bits of usage that we may not favor. And we talked about how some grammarians’ personal preferences or desires have sometimes become canonized as hard-and-fast “rules” (e.g., not ending a sentence with a preposition, the distinction between that and which for relative clauses, and the distinction between less and fewer).  I made the case, as I have done here, for distinguishing the usage rules and recommendations that are genuinely useful — for example, those that reduce ambiguity or strengthen the rhetorical force of the prose — from those that seem to serve primarily to distinguish those who have been educated in the rule from those who have not.

At the end of the lecture portion, more than a few hands shot up. People asked questions about usage I had not discussed: What is going on with like? Is using pension for penchant an eggcorn? (I had not heard that one before.) And they shared their peeves: for example, the weakened and slangy use of awesome, and the use of more equal and more full when at least, by one theory, equal and full are not gradable and should not have comparative forms. (But, let’s think about, for instance, wealth distribution: If wealth is unequally distributed in problematic ways at a moment in time, we might be trying to make it more equally distributed, knowing that we are far from making things fully equal.)

Near the end, I got to one woman whose hand had been raised consistently throughout the Q&A. She spoke passionately about her frustration with television and radio, which, she noted, have been proliferating recommendations to “eat healthy food.” You could hear in her voice how much this phrasing grated on her nerves. I could also sense in the room that the majority of the other language enthusiasts were drawing a complete blank: They did not know why this phrase might be a problem. They did not share her passion on this one.

As this passionate audience member was setting up her peeve and then got to the punchline (“eat healthy food!”), my mind was racing. Where were we going with this peeve? Wait, what was wrong with “eat healthy food”? I felt grateful that somehow, some way I was able to dredge up from somewhere in my memory bank the historical concerns about healthy versus healthful food. This was the first time in the many years that I have been giving talks about pet peeves that this one had come up.

I briefly explained the healthy/healthful debate, which is very well summarized by Grammar Girl (I wasn’t able to do nearly that well off the top of my head). Starting in the late 19th century, grammarians latched onto the idea that healthful should mean “conducive to health” and healthy should mean “experiencing good health” — and that each word should stick to its territory in complementary distribution, even though if we look at the historical record, even by the 19th century healthy had long also meant “conducive to health.”

I then asked how many people in the audience felt that healthy should not be allowed to mean ‘conducive to health,’ that we should say “eat healthful food” rather than “eat healthy food.” About seven people, in addition to the original questioner, raised their hands.

It was a very telling moment about how passionate peeves may not be universally or even widely shared, even among people who admit to having a good number of grammar peeves. It should also remind us how general usage can trump any grammarian’s strictures.

This question also got me wondering about how healthy the word healthful is. I know that I don’t use the word, but I also know better than to trust my intuitions or my own patterns of usage without further investigation. Grammar Girl nicely shows that “healthy diet” has dramatically outpaced “healthful diet” since the 1970s (according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer). A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English pulls up 27,340 instances of healthy and only 1,182 instances of healthful. Is healthful on the way out?

And it turns out that many of us are not saying the word healthful. More than half of the instances of healthful in COCA are in magazines: Vegetarian Times, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Consumer Reports. There are only 36 instances total of healthful in speech — and two of them are “misused” for healthy (e.g., in reference to a man who stayed active and “healthful” his entire life).

I’m not counting out healthful yet, though. According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, healthful is enjoying if not exactly a resurgence at least a healthy equilibrium in frequency of use in the early 21st century.

healthful copy

I think healthful may be on the path to technical jargon, distinguishing not those who know the historical usage rule from those who don’t but instead those who know their cooking magazines from those who don’t.

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