December 24, 2006

Panel discussion

I was generally pleased with Andrew Newman's New York Times piece yesterday about the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, of which I bear the august title of chair (or as I like to put it, Chair). Apart from a few minor misquotations, there was only one point -- albeit an important one -- where the article might have left things a unclear: what exactly is the usage panel for?

As the article explains the panel, it's made up of "200 established writers, artists and thinkers":

Every year, panelists complete a questionnaire with a number of emerging and evolving linguistic issues. For instance, whether "domestic partners" is an acceptable term for same-sex couples (75 percent approved) or whether "factoid," as in "each issue of the magazine begins with a list of factoids," is acceptable (only 43 percent approved). . .

Their tallies are cited in more than 500 usage notes that accompany the dictionaryís definitions and are online at yourdictionary.com. [They're also available at Bartleby.com -- GN]

But can a panel whose vote is often close really be relied on to pick the seasonís hottest intransitive verbs?

Not necessarily, said Erin McKean, editor in chief of United States dictionaries for Oxford University Press, which publishes The New Oxford American Dictionary. Ms. McKean pointed out that the panel is often nearly evenly divided.

"Where the usage panel gets less than helpful is when it is split, when it is 49 yea and 51 nay," Ms. McKean said. "Someone who had a bad cup of coffee that morning could have pushed it over to nay."

Such a split does not unsettle Barbara Wallraff, a panel member who writes the syndicated column "Word Court." "It doesnít mean half of us are right and half are wrong," she said. "It means that educated opinion is divided and you wonít look like an idiot either way. And if you want to be more traditional, that will be pretty clear; if you want to be in the vanguard, that will be clear."

Let me explain why I think Barbara Wallraff got this point right, and Erin McKean got it dead wrong. Linguists and lexicographers who take an assiduously descriptivist approach to usage sometimes find the very idea of the panel uncongenial, as if it were an attempt to establish a kind of academy that would lay down the law on usage matters. And if you take the panel in that way, you'd find its members opinions interesting, as Erin does, only when they speak with more-or-less a single voice, decisively ruling a usage in or out as "correct English."

That may in fact have been what the American Heritage company had in mind when it published the first edition of the dictionary back in 1969 as a reaction to the "permissive" Webster's Third. But over the last few decades -- really, since Houghton Mifflin acquired the dictionary in the early 80's -- we've thought of the panel simply as a source of valuable information about the linguistic attitudes of a selection of well-known writers, editors, linguists, and others those who take a professional interest in language.

The idea -- and I would assume this is unexceptionable -- is that this is the sort of information that a dictionary user ought to be provided with, and that it can't always be deduced simply from the facts of usage. It may be, for example, that the majority of educated writers use enormity these days to mean simply "great magnitude," but a writer might also want to know that there are many people who still feel the word should be reserved for things of particular horror or monstrousness, or at least who restrict the word to that meaning in their own usage. (I'm in the latter group, for what it's worth.) And while of course you can simply make that point in a usage note by saying "some people insist that such-and-such word should only be used to mean such-and-such" or the like -- most dictionaries do that -- those reports don't give you any idea of how widespread or insistent the objections are. That's where the panel's votes can come in handy.

For example, it can be instructive to know that only 29 percent of the panelists have a problem with saying "more equal," whereas 59 percent still hold to the older use of enormity and fully 98 percent disapprove of the use of dialogue as a verb, as in Critics have charged that the department was remiss in not trying to dialogue with representatives of the community. Not that those reports are the only information a reader might want in the course of deciding whether to venture the usage in question -- in fact the dictionary's usage notes also provide information about how the item is actually used, the history of the objections, and the linguistic fact that bear on the problem. And often, the panel's votes shed light on the changing acceptability of a particular usage -- as the Times article observed, for example, prioritize was rejected by 97 percent of the panel when the item was first polled back in 1976, but was acceptable to almost half in a survey 20 years later. The idea, in short, is simply to give readers the resources they might want in order to make up their own mind about a controversial usage, and the panelists' opinions are one useful part of that. (For more background the role of the panel, you can read my introductory essay to the dictionary here and can find a list of all the usage notes here.)

A couple of minor points. The Times's editorial process being what it is, there were a few errors and misquotations, which I mention not out of captiousness, but because this is, after all, the linguistic blog of record.

A sidebar to the piece, for example, gives three usage questions that were submitted to the panel and quotes several members about the usages in question. The first asks for the pronunciation of niche, and quotes me as saying "Neesh. What else do people say? Pronunciation is about being as good as your neighbors and not better." A reader might come away from that thinking that I was unaware that people said anything other than "neesh." Since I helped to write the ballot item in question, which asked about three variant pronunciations ("neesh," "nitch," and "neetch") that would be a misapprehension.

A second item gave the question

Is this sentence acceptable? "Members of the League of Women Voters will be manning the registration desk."

The sidebar then quoted me as saying "I wrote that. I'd probably avoid it." That answer might seem puzzling or contradictory if you took the reference of that to be the sentence Members of the League of Women Voters will be manning the registration desk. As it happens, though, what I actually said was that I had written

Is this sentence acceptable? "Members of the League of Women Voters will be manning the registration desk."

Or more broadly still, I wrote both the ballot item on this issue and the 500-word usage note on the use of man that included it, which you can find here. (File under "pronominal reference, pitfalls of, iia. importance of context").

Finally, the article referred to some of the members of the panel as "Mr. Nunberg's choices." Actually, the panel members are selected by the editors of the dictionary, under the direction of Joe Pickett -- I have input, but don't make the decisions myself.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 24, 2006 12:31 PM