So, what is good usage? For that matter, what is good English? What newly-coined words are okay to use, and who’s to judge? Following are some thoughts on your choice of what words to use in your writing.
Back to the first question: What determines whether one word is good usage, while another word isn’t? There’s really no objective way to answer that question, because usage has no fixed rules. A living language may change from week to week or from one generation to another. Such changes include losing some words (e.g., twattle, meaning “to gossip, or talk idly”) and adding new ones (e.g., protential, meaning “the potential to become a professional athlete”).
But, who decides that a word leaves or enters a standard dictionary. When so-called word experts argue this question, their decisions are often reached on a wholly subjective basis, such as taste. In other words, it becomes a matter of opinion.
We could apply a test of necessity—does the word fill a specific need? If it does, it’ll probably stick around for a while, maybe forever. If it doesn’t, it’ll probably go into the wastebasket of latest jargon. In other words, usage is relative, bending with the times.
Is there such a thing as “correct” usage? In the US, we don’t have a king, so there’s no one to guide us on the “King’s English”. And we don’t have the equivalent of the French Académie française (French Academy), to guide us on matters pertaining to the English language.
Webster’s Third Edition (1961) stated that almost anything goes, as long as somebody uses it—which ain’t a bad rule. Though “ain’t” is frowned upon, it’s used orally (though less so in writing) ln most parts of the US, even by well-educated speakers.
Another example is the famous, or infamous, prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition (note: This sentence ended in “a preposition”). The most often stated example is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. Supposedly, an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, and the Prime Minister scribbled this note in reply: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Again, there’s been a change in using a split infinitive. For example, years ago the following sentence would have been corrected: Terry agreed to not attend the meeting versus Terry agreed not to attend the meeting. The reality is that, in either case, we know that Terry will not be at the meeting. And the key point is, which sentence is the writer more comfortable “saying” and which will be more comfortable for the reader to “hear”.
So then, how does a writer decide what is good usage and what’s not. One way is to try to separate usage from jargon. Jargon is a special word or phrase that’s used by a particular profession or group, which may be difficult for others to understand. For example, sweat equity “getting a stake in or working in the business instead of pay” is jargon (not used in common parlance). But, bottom line, “the final total of an account, balance sheet, or other financial document” has come to mean, in everyday usage “the underlying or ultimate outcome or criterion”, and conveys an image anyone can picture.
Incorrect or inappropriate usage will lose you the very readers you’d most like to gain. Good usage, on the other hand, means using good existing words to share your message clearly and simply to your potential readers—a win-win deal.
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