Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Not getting the concept

Well, here's a guy I want to kick in the face: some copywriter named Ray Del Salvio who’s started a campaign to get “concept” listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a verb. (Here’s a Slate article on him, and here’s the hub of his linked blogs promoting his campaign.) As Bill Watterson said, "verbing weirds language," and it always seems to be the people in marketing who weird the language the most. But in this case, according to the Slate article, even other copywriters frown upon his use of "concept" as a verb and deny that it's common practice. (One senior copywriter says if he heard a junior writer use it, he'd take that person aside and explain that it wasn't proper English.)

And moreover, it seems the rest of his writing skills aren't up to snuff either. The Slate article quotes him as referring to his correspondence with a Merriam-Webster editor as "Kory and I's conversations". It's depressing to think that this guy introduces himself at parties as a professional writer, and yet, is apparently unaware of the pronouns my or our. "Kory and my conversations" would probably be more on the mark, since the possessed entity is shared by both people, but I could also see the argument for "Kory's and my conversations." It's much more elegant to recast the sentence into something like "our conversations" or "my conversations with Kory", though. Don't try to use I's as a word, kids, unless you's the b'y that builds the boat and you's the b'y that sails her.

(However, on a related note, don't be afraid to use the word me. A lot of people say things like "The b'y caught the fish and brought them home to Lizer and I." These are people who got their knuckles rapped too many times for saying things like "me and Lizer", and now they're overcorrecting, based on the idea that "Lizer and I" is the polite and correct form in all cases. You and Lizer are the objects in this sentence, so "Lizer and me" is in fact correct, as is "me and Lizer", if you want to be a little ruder about it. When in doubt, check by taking the other person out of the sentence. Is it "to I" or "to me"? It's obviously the latter. And while you're at it, don't be overusing myself under the misapprehension that it's a more elegant form of me. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. What that means is that the only person who can do something to yourself is you. Can the b'y catch the fish and bring it home to myself? No. However, I can give myself a headache worrying about these things.)

Anyway, what this jobber Del Salvio is missing, as the Slate article observes, is an understanding of how dictionaries work. You can't campaign to get something in. Dictionaries are descriptivist. They describe how we use words, without making much judgment on whether or not we're using them correctly. (That's what usage guides are for, and Merriam-Webster publishes one of those too as a separate book). So, don't worry, Ray. If enough people are using the word as you say they do, it'll eventually get in and prescriptivists will be a little sadder about the inexorable weirding of the language. But for God's sake, don't get pushy and try to shove English downhill with a petition, you tool.


Anonymous Nick Iannitti said...

It's strange that you and I should write a post chastizing those who misuse I almost simultaneously. To be fair, you can definitely take credit for making this a "grammar day" for me, but only society can take credit for the increasing "overcorrection", as you put it, of that sweet sweet word "me". Thanks for holding up the front lines on your end.

5/16/2006 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

So basically, Pete? What you're saying is that you're a wrathful grammar god? Like an old testament grammar god?

5/16/2006 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger The Fed Ex of Funk said...

... or unless you's B'y Bad Boy Bailey.

5/16/2006 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

I'd be uncomfortable calling myself any kind of god, even a grammar god. First, it's hubris. And second, making a claim of divine infallibility just invites closer scrutiny of one's own work, and considering how I dash off clandestine entries at work, I'm going to make the odd error myself.

But wrathful? Yeah, I'm definitely wrathful.

5/16/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

That last paragraph paragraph reminds me of an argument I had in the campus cafeteria a few weeks ago. One of the smartest girls I know, about to graduating two years early, spent fifteen minutes tring to convince me that it is perfectly correct to pronounce the word creek as "crick" based on the supposition that all pronunciation is subjective.

That conversation left me with quite the headache.

5/16/2006 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

Well, pronunciation may not be subjective, but it is regional, and "crick" is pretty common, even if I don't care for it.

5/16/2006 05:22:00 PM  
Anonymous The other Pete said...

Whether you're a Grammar God or not Pete, I've got risk your wrath. I'm a copywriter and I've used concept as a verb. In fact I've heard it numerous times from various ad people. You know I'm great believer in the skills of copy editors, but language is a evolving thing. Language's sole purpose is to express ideas. If I say something that isn't proper English, but I still clearly get my idea across, language has done its job. I'm thinking about an ongoing "eat healthily" vs. "eat healthy" argument we used to have. I'm not saying people should try to wrongly class their writing up with a smattering of 'myselfs', but who made Merriam-Webster God?

5/17/2006 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous The other Pete said...

'Course I should have proofed my comment better before I posted it. lol

5/17/2006 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

You should go read the article, though, Other Pete. The senior copywriters are rolling their eyes at the young whippersnappers using "concept" as a verb.

I agree that language is an evolving thing, of course. If it weren't, we'd still be speaking Proto-Indo-European. However, that doesn't mean we should let fingers evolve into flippers, as I believe someone on the Testy Copy Editors board once said. If a change to the language enables greater precision of meaning, I'm all for it. But if we already have the right tools for the job, let's use them. Use a hammer to drive that nail, not the heel of your shoe; it does a better job, and it doesn't get uglified in the process. Don't settle for "good enough". Make the precise and elegant choice.

As for Merriam-Webster being God, I'm agnostic on that point. There are much better dictionaries out there.

5/17/2006 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Dickolas Wang said...

Even though I am a Grammar God, I have no idea how one might use "concept" as a verb? Would someone use it in a sentence for me? How would it differ from "conceive"?

5/17/2006 03:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

Regional, yes, and I have no problem with her usage of the word "crick" (of course, if I'm ever caught using it, I'd like to be shot), but to try to justify it as correct? I can't even concept that.

5/18/2006 12:02:00 AM  

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