December 18, 2004

Prescribe Away

It's always a little disappointing to have to say that I agree with Geoff P., not because he isn't much more often right than wrong (or for that matter than I am), but because the linguistic discourse is invariably more engaging when people leave a scrap of red meat outside his office door and quickly move out of the way. But Geoff and Mark are right to say that there's a difference between saying, say, "relationship is a verb" to suggest metaphorically that a relationships require constant work and saying "baptism is a verb" under the belief that verbs are "words that denote things that happen or are done," as Geoff puts it. Not that it isn't prescriptivism to condemn such usages, but it's prescriptivism of an entirely appropriate kind, the same way it's appropriate for economists to get on the case of conservatives who say that social security will become "insolvent" in 2019, the year the program begins to run a deficit. Linguists own the word verb; others are only borrowing it.

And while there's no easy way to know how often statements like "Baptism is a verb" are offered in a spirit of figuration rather than out of ignorance, it's clear that these metagrammatical howlers often testify to a deplorable level of general linguistic knowledge, which can sometimes cause real mischief in the world.

In a piece I wrote a few years ago for American Lawyer, I mentioned a decision by a Florida district court in a patent infringement case that turned crucially on the claim that the decoder key to a cable TV subscriber box was "not subject to revision or change." The court concluded that subject was used in the claim "as a verb (in the passive tense)," and identified the relevant dictionary sense as "to cause to undergo," as in "He wouldn't subject himself to any inconvenience." And on that basis, the court ruled that "not subject to change" meant that the decoder key could be changed but would not be changed. (See TV/COM International v. MediaOne of Greater Florida, No. 3:00-cv-1045-J-21HTS (M.D. Fla. Aug. 1, 2001)).

Judicial incompetence doesn't come much grosser than that: it's fair to say that someone who doesn't know how to read a dictionary entry has no business adjudicating cases that call for interpretation of language -- which is to say, damn near all of them. But courts are full of judges who have no more knowledge of grammar and meaning than the half-remembered dicta they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. Let's by all means continue to flog these things, even at the risk of sounding like pedants.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 18, 2004 02:18 PM