Arrant Pedantry

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Overanxious about Ambiguity

As my last post revealed, a lot of people are concerned—or at least pretend to be concerned—about the use of anxious to mean “eager” or “excited”. They claim that since it has multiple meanings, it’s ambiguous, and thus the disparaged “eager” sense should be avoided. But as I said in my last post, it’s not really ambiguous, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply being uncooperative.

Anxious entered the English language in the the early to mid-1600s in the sense of “troubled in mind; fearful; brooding”. But within a century, the sense had expanded to mean “earnestly desirous” or “eager”. That’s right—the allegedly new sense of the word was already in use before the United States declared independence.

These two meanings existed side by side until the early 1900s, when usage commentators first decided to be bothered by the “eager” sense. And make no mistake—this was a deliberate decision to be bothered. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage includes this anecdote from Alfred Ayres in 1901:

Only a few days ago, I heard a learned man, an LL.D., a dictionary-maker, an expert in English, say that he was anxious to finish the moving of his belongings from one room to another.

“No, you are not,” said I.

“Yes, I am. How do you know?”

“I know you are not.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“There is no anxiety about it. You are simply desirous.”

Ayres’s correction has nothing to do with clarity or ambiguity. He obviously knew perfectly well what the man meant but decided to rub his nose in his supposed error instead. One can almost hear his self-satisfied smirk as he lectured a lexicographer—a learned man! a doctor of laws!—on the use of the language he was supposed to catalog.

A few years later, Ambrose Bierce also condemned this usage, saying that anxious should not be used to mean “eager” and that it should not be followed by an infinitive. As MWDEU notes, anxious is typically used to mean “eager” when it is followed by an infinitive. But it also says that it’s “an oversimplification” to say that anxious is simply being used to mean “eager”. It notes that “the word, in fact, fairly often has the notion of anxiety mingled with that of eagerness.” That is, anxious is not being used as a mere synonym of eager—it’s being used to indicate not just eagerness but a sort of nervous excitement or anticipation.

MWDEU also says that this sense is the predominant one in the Merriam-Webster citation files, but a search in COCA doesn’t quite bear this out—only about a third of the tokens are followed by to and are clearly used in the “eager” sense. Google Books Ngrams, however, shows that to is by far the most common word that immediately follows anxious; that is, people are anxious to do something far more often than they’re anxious about something.

This didn’t stop one commenter from claiming that not only is this use of anxious confusing, but she’d literally never encountered it before. It’s hard to take such a claim seriously when this use is not only common but has been common for centuries.

It’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s ambiguous when nobody can manage to find an example that’s actually ambiguous. A few commenters offered made-up examples that seemed designed to be maximally ambiguous when presented devoid of context. They also ignored the fact that the “eager” sense is almost always followed by an infinitive. That is, as John McIntyre pointed out, no English speaker would say “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us” or “I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that” if they meant that they were eager or excited.

Another commenter seemed to argue that the problem was that language was changing in an undesirable way, saying, “It’s clearly understood that language evolves, but some of us might prefer a different or better direction for that evolution. . . . Is evolution the de facto response for any misusage in language?”

But this comment has everything backwards. Evolution isn’t the response to misuse—claims of misuse are (occasionally) the response to evolution. The word anxious changed in a very natural way, losing some of its negative edge and being used in a more neutral or positive way. The same thing happened to the word care, which originally meant “to sorrow or grieve” or “to be troubled, uneasy, or anxious”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet nobody complains that everyone is misusing the word today.

That’s because nobody ever decided to be bothered by it as they did with anxious. The claims of ambiguity or undesired language change are all post hoc; the real objection to this use of anxious was simply that someone decided on the basis of etymology—and in spite of established usage—that it was wrong, and that personal peeve went viral and became established in the usage literature.

It’s remarkably easy to convince yourself that something is an error. All you have to do is hear someone say that it is, and almost immediately you’ll start noticing the error everywhere and recoiling in horror every time you encounter it. And once the idea that it’s an error has become lodged in your brain, it’s remarkably difficult to dislodge it. We come up with an endless stream of bogus arguments to rationalize our pet peeves.

So if you choose to be bothered by this use of anxious, that’s certainly your right. But don’t pretend that you’re doing the language a service.

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This Is Not the Grammatical Promised Land

I recently became aware of a column in the Chicago Daily Herald by the paper’s managing editor, Jim Baumann, who has taken upon himself the name Grammar Moses. In his debut column, he’s quick to point out that he’s not like the real Moses—“My tablets are not carved in stone. Grammar is a fluid thing.”

He goes on to say, “Some of the rules we learned in high school have evolved with us. For instance, I don’t know a lot of people outside of church who still employ ‘thine’ in common parlance.” (He was taught in high school to use thine in common parlance?)

But then he ends—after a rather lengthy windup—with the old shibboleth of using anxious to mean eager. He says that “generally speaking, the word you’re grasping for is ‘eager,’” ending with the admonition, “Write carefully!”

But as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, this rule is an invention in American usage dating to the early 1900s, and anxious had been used to mean eager for 160 years before the rule proscribing this use was invented. They conclude, “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

Not a good start for a column that aims for a grammatical middle ground.

And Baumann certainly seems to think he’s aiming for the middle ground. In a later column, he says, “Grammarians fall along a spectrum. There are the fundamentalists, who hold their 50-year-old texts as close to their bosoms as one might a Bible. There are the libertines, who believe that if it feels or sounds right, use it. . . . You’ll find me somewhere in the middle.” He again insists that he’s not a grammar fundamentalist before launching into more invented rules: the supposed misuse of like to mean “such as” or “including” and feel to mean “think”.

He says, “If you listen to a car dealer’s pitch that a new SUV has features like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo, do you really know what you’re getting? Nope. Because ‘like’ means similar to, but not the same.” The argument here is simple, straightforward, and completely wrong.

First, it assumes an overly narrow definition of like. Second, it pretends complete ignorance of any meaning outside of that narrow definition. If a car salesperson tells you that a new SUV has features like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo, you know exactly what you’re getting. In technical terms, pretending that you don’t understand someone is called engaging in uncooperative communication. In layman’s terms, it’s called being an ass.

And yet, strangely, Baumann promotes this rule on the basis of clarity. He says that if something is clear to 9 out of 10 readers, then it’s acceptable, but if you can write something that’s clear to all your readers, then that’s even better. While it’s certainly a good idea to make sure your writing is clear to everyone, I’m also fairly certain that no one would be legitimately confused by “features like anti-lock brakes”. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but it lists several examples and says, “In none of the examples that follow can you detect any ambiguity of meaning.” The supposed lack of clarity simply isn’t there.

Baumann ends by saying, “The lesson is: Think about whom you’re talking to and learn to appreciate his or her or their sensitivities. Then you will achieve clarity.” The problem is that we don’t really know who our readers are and what their sensitivities are. Instead we simply internalize new rules that we learn, and then we project them onto a sort of perversely idealized reader, one who is not merely bothered by such alleged misuses but is impossibly confused by them. How do we know that they’re really confused—or even just irritated—by like to mean “such as” or “including”? We don’t. We just assume that they’re out there and that it’s our job to protect them.

My advice is to try to be as informed as possible about the rules. Be curious, and be willing to question not just others’ claims about the language but also your own assumptions. Read a lot, and pay attention to how good writing works. Get a good usage dictionary and use it. And don’t follow Grammar Moses unless you like wandering in the grammatical wilderness.

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