Right, Wrong, and Relative

A while ago at work, I ran into a common problem: trying to decide whether to stop editing out a usage I don’t like. In this case, it was a particular use of “as such” that was bothering me. To me, “as such” is a prepositional phrase, and “such” is a pronoun that must refer to some sort of noun or noun phrase, as in “I’m a copy editor; as such, I fix bad writing.” In this sentence, “such” refers to the noun phrase “a copy editor”; in other words, it means, “I’m a copy editor; as a copy editor, I fix bad writing.”

But most of the time when I encounter it nowadays, it’s simply used to mean “therefore” or “consequently” (for more on that, see this post I wrote several years ago for Visual Thesaurus). And when I encountered it on that day, I changed it, as I always had before. But this time, I kept thinking about what makes a usage right or wrong and how we as editors decide which rules to enforce and which ones to let slide.

“As such” may be a simple transitional adverb for most people, but I still reflexively look for a noun phrase for that “such” to refer to. And I do this even though I know I’m in the minority. I can look at the evidence and see that the shift has happened, but it hasn’t happened in my own mental grammar.

And I think this tells us a lot about why it’s so hard for us to change our minds about usage. Knowing that I’m in the minority hasn’t magically changed how the phrase works in my head. Some things are so habitual that it’s hard to root them out. And of course there’s more than a bit of snobbery at work too—the adverbial use of “as such” sounds less educated to me, so I don’t have much incentive to give up my meaning for the new one.

Sometimes editors insist that it’s our job to preserve older meanings and slow language change, but I don’t believe it is. Nobody hired us to preserve the language. We’ve simply been hired to fix errors and make text clear and readable. And anyway, changing “as such” to “therefore” might make me feel slightly less annoyed, but it’s not going to have any measurable impact on Standard English. Even if all the copy editors in the English-speaking world were to edit it out, it will likely continue to thrive in speech and unedited text. The rest of the language will keep marching on without us.

Some editors might say that even though usage is changing, the new meaning isn’t correct or accepted yet, as if there will come some point at which it becomes correct or accepted and then everything will magically change. But the question of what’s correct or accepted is much less clear than most people realize.

What makes a particular usage correct? Is it official sanction by usage commentators? Inclusion in a reputable dictionary or style guide? Usage by well-regarded writers or some other elites? A critical mass of popular usage? Some combination of the above? And even those questions raise other questions. What if one usage commentator accepts it and another doesn’t? How do you know if a dictionary or style guide is reputable? How many well-regarded writers need to use it, and for how long? How big a mass of popular usage do you need before you decide it’s a critical one? Is it a simple majority, or maybe 75 percent or 90 percent? Does it matter if the rule in question has some sort of history behind it or if it’s a pure invention? Does it matter if the allegedly incorrect usage arose from ignorance or by some other means? Does it matter how vociferously people object to the allegedly incorrect usage?

The questions go on and on. And my answer is that, honestly, I don’t believe it’s possible to come up with any reliable test for deciding which rules to enforce and which to abandon. Even if you can answer all of the questions above, there is no formula that you plug them into that will tell you what’s correct. And even though it’s sometimes said that language is the ultimate democracy, with every user casting a vote, the truth is that there isn’t really a vote either. Nobody every tallies up the numbers and declares a winner.

That is, the answer is that there is no answer.

This doesn’t stop people from trying to come up with answers, of course. The American Heritage Dictionary had its usage panel, but that was just an opinion poll of mostly older, mostly male, and mostly white scholars and writers. Some usage dictionaries have relied on corpus data to find out what actual usage is, though finding out what usage is doesn’t tell us which usage is right. Bryan Garner gives some first principles in his usage dictionary, but they’re not true first principles—they’re inconsistently applied and occasionally contradict each other, so it often feels like they’re applied after the fact to justify the desired judgment.

This is one reason why I love Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage so much. It mostly doesn’t attempt to declare what’s right and wrong. It basically says, “Here’s how this word has been used, and here’s what people have said about it; now make up your own mind.” It embraces the relativity.

A lot of editors find that approach frustrating because they just want to know if they should leave the word or phrase in question or change it, but I find it refreshing. It doesn’t try to pretend that there are objective answers to questions of opinion. That is, when you’re asking if you should accept a usage, you’re not asking a question that can be answered with facts.

Is it good to know what people’s opinions on usage are? Absolutely. But opinions can’t tell me what I should do. They can’t tell me whether I should accept “as such” to mean “therefore” or whether I should keep editing it out at work. Ultimately, I have to decide for myself what to do.

So the next time a new “as such” came across my desk, I made a decision: I let it go.