How far do we push the language envelope?

To describe or to prescribe, that is the question linguists and users have to face when dealing with language.

HAVE you ever felt like you are the only one left in the world who thinks the phrasal verb “impact on” should not be used? Do you cringe each time you hear someone say: “this action impacts (on) the bottom line negatively” instead of “this action has a negative impact on the bottom line”?

If so, welcome to the club of English language users on the more prescriptive side fighting a losing battle against the more descriptive users who believe that it is the job of linguists to document the language and not to dictate what people say or write in a language.

In other words, if large numbers of people began to use “impact on” as a phrasal verb frequently enough, descriptive linguists will include the meaning of the verb impact as “having a strong effect” in the dictionary, acknowledging that common usage is the rule of thumb.

This is on top of the usual meanings of the word as a verb of “coming into forcible contact with another object”, as in “the shell impacted only metres away from him”, and of “pressing something firmly”, as in “human feet impact and damage the soil less than the hooves of horses and cows do”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the usage of “impact on” as a phrasal verb began in the 1960s; this relatively young pedigree is one of the reasons it is frowned upon by some.

The OED added that another reason is the dislike by some of the practice of forming verbs from nouns, and this is the issue that raises the hackles in me and a small minority.

While forming verbs from nouns is common in English, the process takes quite a while. So a fax is a noun that means a picture or document we send by means of signals over telephone lines. However, through regular usage over the years, fax is also a verb as in “I’ll fax you the documents as soon as I can.”

The process seems inevitable as even some pioneering brand names have, over time, become verbs, such as Google as in “to search via Google” and Xerox as in “to photocopy”. Technology is responsible for many new verbs in our vocabulary that began as nouns, such as e-mailing, blogging and SMS-ing, which are all common verbs today.

But not all nouns are verbs, and some nouns do not sound as good when used as verbs. Users who have a habit of making verbs out of nouns whether it exists as one or not are following a tendency among many to take short cuts in their speech and writing by cutting down on the number of words used.

I believe that it won’t be long before people start saying they are Interneting instead of being on the Internet, and rubbish will be a common verb instead of the trashy noun it is as in “don’t rubbish my ideas all the time please”.

Advertisers, for instance, have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of “verbing a noun”, perhaps hoping to achieve a similar iconic status as Google and Xerox. Chocolate biscuit maker Bueno, for instance, has a series of ads in which the characters are “Bueno-ing”.

So in the case of the indiscriminate changing of nouns into verbs, I am all for being prescriptive.

However, it would be wrong to be entirely prescriptive or descriptive in language use. This is so as otherwise, among the former, users will be unable to accept any addition of new words while among the latter, users will have to accept that there is no wrong usage of language as long as a substantial number of people are saying it.

Go too far in the prescriptive direction and one becomes pedantic. Go too far in the descriptive direction and one will end up spending too much time having to learn the burgeoning number of new words and additional meanings of others to communicate well.

The descriptive-prescriptive divide is the fodder for much active and often contentious discussion among English language users about what is right and wrong in what they are saying or writing.

Our reliance on dictionaries sometimes add to the contention as they are far from being standardised in their definitions of words. The Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries are more prescriptive in approach, differing from corpus-based dictionaries such as the Collins Cobuild Dictionary which adopts a more descriptive approach by defining the meaning of its entries with the aid of a collection of actual human speech or writing.

This is happening partly because the English language does not have a central authority determining matters related to it the way the French language has a French Academy, which has since its inception in 1635 been an influential organisation that publishes an official French dictionary and is recognised as an authority on the usage of the French language.

However, adopting an approach that contains elements of both the prescriptive and descriptive theories of language is essential when it comes to living languages, and we are far from the days when one man, albeit an educated one, could dictate what the people said and write the way British intellectual Samuel Johnson did with his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

It is a sign of the better education we have received that many of us question our sources, argue among ourselves about what’s right or wrong in usage, and attack those who would cast themselves as language experts.

These are all healthy developments, and our command of the English language can only become the better for it.

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