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Graduate school in expensive places often means having roommates. One of my roommates at Rutgers was a grad student in linguistics. He used to hold forth on the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist views of language. The former holds that there are right and wrong ways to use words, and that the job of academics is to stamp out errors. The latter simply accepts that people use words as they use them, and the job for academics is to analyze rather than judge.

I’m realizing that I’m in the awkward spot of wanting to agree with the descriptivists, but at some level, some common linguistic choices just sound so off-key to me that it’s hard not to cringe when I hear them. They may not be wrong in some absolute sense, but they’re awful, and in practice that’s much the same thing. My inner prescriptivist may have lost the war, but nobody told him, and he still takes potshots from time to time.

For example, calendar is an inoffensive noun, but it has no business being a verb. One should not calendar. One might schedule, or put something on a calendar, but one should not calendar.

Summer is only a verb if you’re outrageously wealthy: “I summer in the Hamptons.” For most of us, it’s just a noun. Yes, spring and fall can be verbs, but with meanings that have nothing to do with seasons. Nobody uses autumn as a verb, and I think we can all agree that’s for the best.

By contrast, learning is a perfectly fine verb that even works as a participle. As a noun, though, it’s ghastly. “Among my learnings were …” Is there really no other way to say that?

Some idioms come and go with generations. Years ago, at a previous college, someone a generation older than me referred to hanging fire. I had no idea what that meant. (Apparently it means something like waiting aimlessly.) In college, variations on the void were popular: “I had an idea, but it got sucked into the void.” I hadn’t heard it before, and I’ve barely heard it since. My kids have asked me why I refer to ending a phone call as hanging up: given their experience of phones, it doesn’t make any sense. (They have the same question about dialing a number.) I used to have a similar response when older people referred to dungarees (jeans).

I’ve had to relearn some punctuation rules. I’m told by reliable young sources that ending a text message with a period implies that you’re yelling. Now I punctuate differently depending on the intended recipient. I’m told that question marks are okay, though. Honestly, if it were up to me, English speakers would adopt the Spanish convention of prefacing a question with a question mark. It makes a lot of sense, it prevents awkward misreadings and, if you’re reading something aloud, it gives valuable information about intonation. I’m a fan.

The Southern pronoun y’all has grown on me, too. It serves a purpose that nothing else quite does. It’s less accusatory than you, and it retains the singular/plural ambiguity. (Sometimes it becomes plural as all y’all, which is even better.) The singular they has been a struggle for me, but The Girl pointed out that my old standbys he/she implicitly erased nonbinary people. I couldn’t argue, though it’s still a conscious effort to form phrases like “they is …” That’s OK; they is worth the effort.

If pressed, I’m not sure I have a grand unified theory of why it’s OK to adapt to y’all and they is while still holding the line against “learnings.” The erstwhile roommate is long gone, so I don’t have a linguist handy to see if the field has settled that question in the last few decades. For lack of any better ideas, I’ll go with moral weight. If what’s at stake is the erasure or exclusion of people, as in the singular they, then asking some of us to make linguistic room seems only fair. In the case of calendaring, though, there’s no moral principle to redeem the awkwardness. Without one, judging it on aesthetics seems reasonable.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have lingering bits of prescriptivism that you just can’t shake? I suspect there are some good ones out there.

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