Lamenting the merging meaning of words that used to mean something different

Arguments of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in linguistics have been going on for many years. And certainly the pure prescriptive approach is untenable. To argue that today’s version of RSE (Received Standard English) is simply “correct”, and any deviation from it is “incorrect”, is absurd. Same goes for any other language. For example, the French police their language closely, even using a nearly 400-year-old quasi-governmental group called L’Academie Francaise to guard the “purity” of French. Yet French would not even exist if Latin had not been “corrupted” to a degree that would have horrified the prescriptivists of 2,000 years ago (and I’m sure there were some even then).

On the other hand, I think pure “anything goes” descriptivism misses an important point. I don’t see anything wrong with grammatical rules evolving, new words entering the language, or the meaning of words shifting over time. What does bother me, though, is when two words that once had at least subtly different meanings converge in meaning and become pure synonyms, but no other words emerge to convey the distinction. This leaves the language both less enriched with ways to convey meaning, and more needlessly difficult for children and non-native speakers to learn. (They may only need to learn one of the two words to make themselves understood, but they’ll have to learn both to understand others.)

And it ensures a confusing transition period during which it is likely that older speakers will be confused, or at least annoyed, without any corresponding compensation in terms of enriching the language. Therefore I do think it’s warranted to at least attempt to be prescriptivist in a narrow sense when you see this beginning to happen. If there’s an overwhelming tide, you might as well not even try: at a certain point you’re just a “get off my lawn” crank tilting at windmills. But I think these things can and should be nipped in the bud if enough people jump on them early enough. The naggers (or “S&G Nazis”) may still annoy a lot of people, but they are doing good work if they specifically target the kinds of words I’m referring to, and avoid being needlessly prescriptivist just for its own sake.

What’s an example of this, you ask? Well, there are two that come to mind at the moment, although over time I have noticed scores of examples at the very least. But these two came up quite recently in different podcasts I was listening to regarding TV shows. The people talking otherwise came across as educated and well spoken.

(1) “Murder” as a synonym for the berb “kill” or the noun “homicide”. The context: Character A killed Character B in what was quite clearly self defense (I’ve also read or heard it in contexts where you might, at the very most, be able to charge someone with something like second degree manslaughter or negligent homicide, but certainly not any kind of murder).

(2) In a similar vein, “rob” as a synonym for “steal” or “burglarize”. If someone is unarmed and sneaks into an empty house and takes the jewelry, it’s not a robbery!

Other examples are welcome. And feel free to push back if you think a broader descriptivist stance is warranted.

There’s no debate in linguistics.

You’re overselling the level to which french speakers care what the Academie says.

If you think descriptivism means “anything goes”, then you don’t understand descriptivism.

Infer and imply have virtually opposite meanings; blurring the two makes no sense.

Yes, good one! Generally, I think “infer” is drifting toward being a synonym for “imply”, which leaves us no word for what “infer” traditionally meant.

Great example.

Okay, ya got me.

“Podium” used to mean a thing you stood on, for instance if you were conducting an orchestra or getting an Olympic medal. It still means that.

“Lectern” was a thing you stood behind, for oratory or whatever. It might or might not be on a podium.

Now a lot of people use “podium” where “lectern” would be more understandable. “He stood behind the podium.” People think it means that, and if enough people use it, it DOES mean that.

But we’ve lost the specific meaning. With context you can usually tell what someone means, i.e., if someone is hiding behind a podium, it’s probably really a lectern and not raised bandleader’s platform. But otherwise you just don’t know.

Also, not the same thing but lately I’ve been frothing at the mouth about “alright.” It sort of seems like people think, “Oh, we have all ready and already, so we can have all right and alright.” Why take two words when you can use one amirite?

But all ready is a two-word construction that means something different from already.

All right is a two-word construction that means exactly the same thing as alright. Okay for emails and message boards and IMs and even tweets, I would say, but when I see it in a book published by a Big Five (Four, Three, whatever) publisher I want to throw the book at something.

Great example. I confess I was already unclear on that distinction.

I see your complaints about “already”. But I’m not so sure about that last sentence. What if someone just took a test and is asked how they did and they respond “I’m pretty sure I got them all right”? Surely you can’t substitute “alright” there?

I will push back against your entire preamble about prescriptivism/descriptivism. That’s not to say that I think the discussion you want to have is without merit. It’s just that it should be characterized correctly, as a discussion of subjective opinions about good writing style.

It does undermines your apparent endeavor to present an even-handed stance between descriptivism and prescriptivism when you don’t understand what descriptivism means. It does not mean anything goes, and it’s a tiresome prescriptivist trope to claim that it does.

Descriptivism is scientific, and it is synonymous with linguistics (there are, by definition, no prescriptivist linguists). Linguists try to work out the consensus rules of grammar and syntax that speakers actually follow. They do this empirically by observing how people speak. But this does not remotely mean that anything goes, because huge social groups spontaneously follow exactly the same rules. And in fact, the rules of all languages are incredibly strict: the vast majority of strings of words in any language are ungrammatical. The fact is, however, that most of us are not consciously aware of the rules that we follow when using our language, because we absorb the rules spontaneously and unconsciously as young children; and because the rules are never brought to our conscious attention - we do not experience divergence from the rules when there is a spontaneous consensus among our peers.

In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb that the only rules that non-linguists ever become consciously aware of are almost by definition non-rules. No prescriptivist advocacy ever arises unless something is not actually a spontaneous strict consensus rule of the language. That is to say, prescriptivists only ever argue over situations where multiple variants are prevalent, or where a prior strict rule may be in flux. If prescriptivism were actually based on some deep linguistic logic rather than subjective whim, why don’t we prescriptivists arguing for more logical or useful ways of speaking that nobody currently uses? In fact, the only thing we ever see prescriptivists arguing for is the primacy of one existing variant, or for strict application of an existing rule that seems to be empirically flexible.

And so, prescriptivists ignore the vast coherent set of consensus rules of a language that we all follow unconsciously but flawlessly every day when we build and parse sentences in order to communicate. Instead, they focus on the periphery of language, obsessing aver the importance of trivial non-rules.

As a discussion of good writing style, the points you raise may be worthwhile. But please don’t try to make the case that there is some deep philosophical descriptivist/prescriptivist ideological battleground here. All descriptivists appreciate good writing style too. The important distinction is that descriptivists recognize that this kind of issue is no more than a subjective discussion of preferred writing style, and should not be aggrandized as some kind of deep philosophical argument over the nature of language.

I think you misunderstood what I meant by “anything goes”. I was intending an implicit caveat of “as long as the vast majority of a language’s users form a consensus, however unwittingly, around the change”. So part of our disagreement is really a misunderstanding.

But part of it is not. You say the complaints I and a couple others have had here are just subjective feelings about good writing style. I disagree. I think it is objectively bad to take a word that has no commonly used synonym (like “infer”) and continue to use it, but as a synonym for another word (like “imply”). I don’t see how anyone could subjectively or objectively prefer the latter state for the language. You didn’t simplify anything, because you still have just as many words in the lexicon. You lost a way to precisely describe something with one word, which now can only be conveyed with some wordy explanation. And you certainly did not gain any new way to express something.

At the very least, I don’t know how you could dispute that it would be better to make “infer” archaic, and keep only the word “imply” (or vice versa I guess). That doesn’t solve the problem that you have lost a useful word, but at least people don’t have to learn two words where one will do.

You chose the exact misleading bogey words that prescriptivists always use when painting a false caricature of descriptivism. If you were unaware of that, fair enough. But it wasn’t a misunderstanding on my part. Nobody would take your intended meaning from those words.

It’s a common claim among prescriptivists that if some fine semantic distinction is lost, we will subsequently be unable to communicate clearly. It’s a sub-trope of the “language in decay” trope. My reaction is to shrug. Do you have any evidence to support that?
Has the language been in decay ever since caveman grunting? Since Shakespeare? Since last week?

It seems to me that if the distinction between “infer” and “imply” were lost, we would not just keep both words and pick one at random, we would probably lose “infer” completely. If that happened, can you give examples of common sentences where the meaning is ambiguous? Just how often would such a loss really create ambiguity?

I’m not saying the loss would be a great tragedy that would destroy the language. Nor am I saying that the language as a whole is decaying, because there are so many ways in which evolution of language is improving it. All I am saying is that these specific changes by themselves are not improving the language, and are making it worse, even if only marginally, and even if there are two steps forward happening elsewhere.

And my point is not at all to cluck my tongue and shake my head at how everything is going to hell in a handbasket these days. It is to try to keep this particular kind of change from happening (or even delay it slightly) whenever I see it in a nascent stage.


I’m not sure how to answer this part, as I don’t think such a change would lead to ambiguity at all. Maybe you meant a different word? Or maybe you meant that we would lose “imply” altogether?

In the context of “infer” hypothetically being lost, you had said:

I’m asking for evidence of that. If the current distinct meanings of the two words were merged into “imply”, please give some examples of sentences where the intended meaning is not conveyed accurately by context. I’ve just gone through about 100 example sentences on grammar pages that explain the difference between the two words, and I can’t find any sentence where there’s any ambiguity if you use one word to represent both meanings. I’m sure there must be one or two such sentences if we’re creative or convoluted enough, but suffice to say that they are rare.

That may be why there is little “natural selection” pressure to maintain the distinction in colloquial speech.

WTH, I wrote a whole reply to this, but it’s nowhere to be seen. Okay, let’s try to reconstitute it, although that’s never satisfying.

First, I don’t believe the current distinct meanings would be merged into “imply”. I’ve heard people use “infer” to mean “imply”, but never the other way around. I do however agree that if one were to disappear, it would be “infer”, since that is further out in the concentric circles that represent vocabulary size at different intelligence/education levels. So we’d be left with “imply” in its current meaning, and no word for “infer”. People would have to use lengthier explanations, perhaps an idiom like “read between the lines”. Instead of “Jill inferred from Andy’s stilted greeting to Jane that they had once been an item”, we’d have something like “Reading between the lines, Jill decided that Andy’s stilted greeting to Jane was a likely sign that they had once been an item”. Just not as good IMO. And again, nothing has been gained.

But to go with your thought experiment: if the two meanings did actually merge into “imply”, I can easily think of ambiguous sentences.

“Johnny refilled his drink and rejoined the conversation in the living room. His judgement impaired by the vodka, he inferred that the partygoers were eager to turn this relatively staid affair into a swingers’ orgy.”

Did drunken Johnny get the wrong idea inside his head, and hopefully keep it to himself? Or did he just say something that may have offended several of the guests?

Speaking of ambiguous words: although this is a little different from the neo-synonyms we’ve been talking about here, I’ve noted that the word “nonplussed” has been pretty much ruined by ambiguity as to whether people mean the traditional sense (“utterly baffled; taken aback”) or the new one (“unperturbed”; I’ve also sensed that it sometimes is intended to mean “mildly annoyed”). I often see sentences where the ambiguity is not clarified at all by context: “Annie was nonplussed by the news that her sister was coming for a visit.” In fact, that’s probably how the ambiguity arose to begin with: people were unable to divine the meaning from context. Oh well.

One new question for you: does your “natural selection” comment imply that all languages are equally well evolved at present? Do you not believe that some languages have developed either more efficient or more elegant ways to communicate ideas than others? Because I absolutely believe that, and also that they may have individual strengths and weaknesses depending on the topic.

Conscious and conscience. Particularly basketball announcers who claim that a hot shooter is unconscious when that clearly is not possible. He is stabbing the dagger in your heart and twisting it over and over, so clearly he has no conscience.

LOL :slight_smile:

I don’t accept that this hypothetical is plausible. I can’t imagine that a common and useful meaning would just vanish entirely from the language. The dynamic is that the distinction between in meaning between two words is blurring, not that one possible meaning is starting to disappear.

The question then becomes, is this sentence ambiguous?

“Jill implied from Andy’s stilted greeting to Jane that they had once been an item.”

And no, it’s not, just like most sentences of this ilk. And that’s precisely why the distinction is blurring. The two words are aurally fairly similar, they have related meanings, and perhaps to many people it seems rather pointless to think too hard to remember which one to choose when the intended meaning is obvious from context.

I agree that this is a confusing sentence. But I think you’ve had to work pretty hard to manufacture a situation where there are two different parties who might be doing the inferring, while withholding enough context to create confusion. Although, in fact, the sense of “imply” doesn’t work here, so it’s not really ambiguous, just confusing.

Don’t get me wrong, my personal preference is to keep both words. But I don’t think you’ve met the burden of proof that merging the two meanings together creates ambiguity except under rare circumstances; and I think that’s precisely why the distinction is blurring.

No I don’t. Nor does the term natural selection imply anything like that in biology, so I don’t think my use of the loose analogy is inapt. To refine the analogy, the comparable form of natural selection would be purifying selection, where deleterious mutations are removed by natural selection. My argument is that linguistic “purifying selection” against the blurring of the imply/infer distinction is weak precisely because the error so rarely creates actual ambiguity. Contrary to your claim, we can get by perfectly easily without two different words for these related concepts.

To add: It think this is confusing even in current English, because you have deliberately engineered the sentence to withhold context. He inferred based on what? As it stands, your intended meaning would be clearer if you substituted “misconstrued” for “inferred”. And the same would be true in the hypothetical where the meanings imply/infer are merged. The substitution of misconstrued is hardly a major circumlocution.

I hate the way so many use impact and its variants instead of effect and affect and their various forms. It sounds so uneducated.

I also fall firmly into the “a historical” camp.

I wish people would go back to telling and thinking instead of sharing and feeling.

More like jarring, because I’ve *never *seen the conflation go in this direction. Whereas I’ve frequently seen something like “Michaela went over and started talking to Jason, strongly inferring that they should go home together”.

Can you give an example?

Obviously in current English it’s a mistake. I think whether it’s subjectively “jarring” is irrelevant. Most teenage slang is jarring to most old men on lawns, along the lines of your comment above.

But in my experience both errors are quite common. Hard to get data on this.

It’s been more than 40 years since I graduated from journalism school. Back then we wrestled over the difference between"shall" vs. “will” or to be exact, whether anyone other than a contract lawyer would care if we used one instead of the other.