Review – The Heritage of American Heritage by Don Bush
TheÂ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,Â Fourth Edition, 2000, is a massive, 2074-page volume with fascinating articles on the roots of the language and current usage.
The First Edition appeared in 1969, only eight years after the Merriam-WebsterThird New International DictionaryÂ aroused a storm of protest that resounds to this day. Philip Gove, Websterâ€™s editor, had reduced the number of entries from 600,000 to 450,000, but included 100,000 new definitions, many attached to words likeÂ beatnik. He had also used sources like Art Linkletter and TWA timetables, maintaining that not all language is formal. He had decreased use of the â€œslangâ€ label and banished â€œcolloquialâ€ entirely, relying instead on quotations that gave a feel for words in context.
Gove was denounced as â€œpermissive.â€ He had even includedÂ ainâ€™tÂ in the dictionary (with a note â€œdisapproved by manyâ€). AÂ New YorkerÂ cartoon depicted a Merriam-Webster receptionist responding, â€œDr. Gove ainâ€™t in.â€
But Gove was largely backed by the academics. After all, 300 scholars had labored on the dictionary for 27 years, exercising the new science of linguistics, which examines how languages are actually used and how they change. STC has a ringside seat for this phenomenon in high-tech.
Among Goveâ€™s defenders was Bergen Evans, host of a 1950s prime-time TV show on grammar (!) and co-author of â€œA Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary American Usageâ€ (Random House, 1957). In â€œBut Whatâ€™s a Dictionary For?â€ (Atlantic,Â May 1962), Evans argued that â€œcorrectness can rest only upon usage, for the simple reason that there is nothing else for it to rest on.â€ He had historical precedents. Samuel Johnson in his epochal 1755 dictionary wrote, â€œthe pen must at length comply with the tongueâ€; Herbert Coleridge, helping conceive theÂ Oxford English Dictionary, wrote collaborator Richard Trench (1860) that a dictionary should not just â€œselect theÂ goodÂ words.â€
EnterÂ American Heritage
Nevertheless, people attacked the1961Â Websterâ€™Â with a fury akin to that of right-wing radio. Articles described it as â€œcheap,â€ â€œcorrupt,â€ and â€œa linguistic junkyard.â€ Noting this response, American Heritage Publishing decided that what this country needed was a new dictionary.
The First Edition, in 1969, achieved gratifying sales. It assayed toÂ prescribeusage, not justÂ describeÂ it, and it introduced a popular Usage Panel of â€œabout 100â€ writers and speakers (today 200).
Unfortunately, such processes are inherently biased, as lamented by our own Lola Zook, the late STC Fellow. Lola would complain that whenever she polled STC members on â€œacceptableâ€ usage, respondents viewed it as a grammar test and righteously showed off their knowledge of â€œthe rules.â€
Change Through the Years
Amazingly, however, asÂ American HeritageÂ (AH) published editions in 1982, 1992, and 2000, it edged away from its disagreements with Webster. Incidentally, it always includedÂ ainâ€™t ,Â labeledÂ nonstandard..
Here are abridgedÂ AHÂ opinions from 1969 and 2000. Note, though, that the devil is in the details! Please read the full Usage Notes.
AnxiousÂ Â forÂ eager.Â Rejected by 72 percent of the Usage Panel in 1969. But in 2000 rejection slipped to 52 percent andÂ AHÂ acceptedanxiousÂ â€œas a means of adding emotional urgency,â€ like â€œI amÂ dyingto see you.â€Anyone.Â Takes a singular verb. â€œAnyone is entitled to changeÂ hismind.â€ (1969). By 2000 plural usage was still rejected by 82 percent, butÂ AHÂ argued that it was more convenient thanÂ hisÂ orÂ his/herÂ (SeeThey.)Data.Â In 1969Â AHÂ said,Â â€œIn formal usage, the plural construction is more appropriate.â€ But in 2000, the Panel accepted singular usage in one sentence by 60 percent and in another by 72.Different than.Â â€œThis book isÂ different thanÂ thatâ€ was rejected by 89 percent in 1969 but â€œHowÂ differentÂ things seem nowÂ thanÂ yesterdayâ€ by only 56. (The devil is in the details. — db). In 2000Â AHÂ said the usage â€œis well attested in the works of reputable writers.â€Due toÂ as a preposition. â€œHe hesitated due to fearâ€ was rejected by 84 percent in1969. But in 2000 AH said, â€œSinceÂ due toÂ is widely used and understood, there seems little reason to avoid using it as a preposition.â€Finalize.Â Rejected by 90 percent in1969 and 71 percent in the late 80s, but only 28 percent in 1997. In 2000Â AHÂ said, â€œOnce considered objectionable because of associations with bureaucracy, it is steadily gaining acceptance.â€HopefullyÂ for â€œlet us hope that.â€ Rejected by 56 percent in 1969 and 73 percent in 1986. However, the 2000 dictionary called it â€œusefulâ€ and surmised that prohibiting it has become a grammatical shibboleth.NoneÂ as a plural. Approved by 72 percent in 1969. No dispute in 2000.Nouns as Verbs. â€œThe singerÂ debutsÂ here tonight.â€ Rejected by 93 percent in 1969. But in 2000Â AHÂ said, â€œDebutÂ is widely used as a verb, both transitively and intransitively,â€ citing some exceptions.Percent.Â AHÂ itself changed in 2000 fromÂ per centÂ in 1969.More Perfect.Â In1969Â AHÂ said that the comparative and superlative cannot be used when perfection is â€œabsolute,â€ although maybe in cases thatÂ approachÂ the absolute. In 2000 it quoted â€œa more perfect unionâ€ and evokedÂ ideal,Â which can be modified without objection.Shall.Â In 1969Â AHÂ said that in formal usageÂ shallÂ is employed in first person for simple futurity and in second and third persons for determination and other intents. But the Panel approved â€œWeÂ will beinÂ LondonÂ next weekâ€ by 62 percent. In 2000Â AHÂ said that inAmericaÂ people who adhere toÂ shallÂ Â rules â€œrun the risk of sounding pretentious.â€ThanÂ .Â In 1969Â AHÂ deemed it a conjunction, not a preposition. â€œHe is taller thanÂ I.â€ But in 2000Â AHÂ disagreed, evokingÂ than whom.Most unique.Â Rejected by 94 percent in 1969 and 80 percent in 2000. However,Â AHÂ said, â€œUniqueÂ is widely used asÂ worthy of being considered in a class by itselfÂ and thus may arguably be modified.â€Very.Â Historically an â€œintensiveâ€ that should not modify a past participle directly. In 1969 the Panel rejected â€œWe wereÂ very inconveniencedâ€ by 80 percent but accepted â€œWe wereÂ very discouragedâ€ becauseÂ discouragedÂ was considered adjectival. This devilish detail was expounded on in 2000.WhichÂ in restrictive clauses. Approved by 56 percent in1969. In 2000Â AHÂ said, â€œThe use ofÂ whichÂ with restrictive clauses is common.â€ (SeeÂ That.).
One appeal: Please donâ€™t accost Don Bush. I am only the dutiful messenger.