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PLEASE:Don't second-guess your best instincts

A WORD,

October 18, 2006|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

Often, people send me e-mails to ask whether I'll use this column to write about their personal grammar peeves. These readers all have one thing in common: They all assume that I know what they're talking about.

But just between you, me and the several thousand others reading this, reader e-mails are actually how I've learned a lot of what I know. Someone writes to ask me to explain something, I dive headfirst into a pile of books, then eventually I know enough to explain it.

A recent e-mail from a Burbank reader is a case in point.

"Could you discuss the word 'peruse'? I am surprised at the number of people who think the word means to skim, rather than examine thoroughly. Why, a couple of months ago I actually hiked in our own Burbank hills with an un-named 'English' professor who chose the 'skim' meaning when I offered him both definitions. I told him not to be too sad, most people make the same mistake. However, he then said that usage trumps definition. I couldn't believe that a college English professor would say that. So we can all toss out our dictionaries and make up our own definitions? What say you? Looking forward to perusing your next column, Reid Pressley, Burbank."

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Yes, Reid. I will discuss peruse, just as soon as I can figure out the answer for myself. In the meantime, let me answer your question about the grammar camps called prescriptivism and descriptivism.

I usually stay out of this fight. Let the professors duke it out, I say. But in terms of my general sensibilities, I'm a little more conservative than the "usage trumps definition" crowd — just not much. I believe that usage eventually determines definition. Therefore, there's no use fighting because eventually "nauseous" does, in fact, mean "nauseated," and "healthy" does, in fact, mean "healthful." Such dying rules, in my mind, work like religion: If you want to be devout, by all means, practice them. Just don't preach or judge.

Many linguists now accept "could care less" instead of "couldn't care less." Many experts accept the plural pronouns "they" and "their" for singular antecedents like "anyone."

It's how the language evolves. As to when a previously incorrect usage becomes officially correct, I leave those questions to the lexicographers and PhDs.

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