Tuesday, January 17, 2006


A curious thing happened at Language Log the other day. Geoffrey Pullum, one of the descriptive linguists who regularly posts there, submitted a thoroughly prescriptivist rant, the kind of testy complaint about improper word usage that descriptivists deplore in principle, and that the contributors to Language Log deplore frequently in practice.

Pullum pounced on The Smoking Gun for using the word "acronym" to describe the inventive memoirist James Frey's now-notorious tattoo. That's wrong, Pullum said. "FTBSITTTD," the tattoo in question (it stands for "Fuck The Bullshit It's Time To Throw Down"), is not a pronounceable word; therefore it's not an acronym. The proper term is "abbreviation."

He's absolutely right, as any copy editor knows. Or is he? I've become wary of pronouncements like this about the correct use of words, partly as a result of reading the posts of descriptivist linguists like . . . well . . . Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log. So I checked my usual dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. Under "acronym," it says:

: a word (as NATO, radar, or snafu) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also : an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters

Look what it says after "also": Maybe The Smoking Gun wasn't wrong to use "acronym" after all. On the other hand, as usage aficionados know, M-W's dictionary is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it isn't the place to go for an authoritative ruling on "proper" usage. For that, you might turn to the relatively prescriptivist American Heritage Dictionary. And indeed, there we find support for Pullum's pronouncement; the AHD doesn't acknowledge that "acronym" can mean anything other than a pronounceable abbreviation.

M-W's lexicographer's provide access to their inner thoughts in M-W's Dictionary of English Usage,which can be thought of as the descriptivists' usage guide, since it tends to be guided by the way writers actually write rather than by how self-appointed usage experts say they should write. Here they report "A number of commentators (as Copperud 1970, Janis 1984, Howard 1984) believe that acronyms can be differentiated from other abbreviations in being pronounceable as words. Dictionaries, however, do not make this distinction because writers in general do not." Maybe the next edition of the book will add "Pullum, 2006" to their list of sticklers for distinction.

Speaking of self-appointed usage experts, let's see what one has to say. The consensus authority these days is Bryan Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Garner's book is what you consult when you want some firm prescriptivist advice. Well, it turns out that Garner is a little lax about the meaning of "acronym." He says an acronym is "usually read as a single word, not letter by letter" (emphasis mine). And then, in a discussion under "Redundant Acronyms," he includes "ATM machine," which implies he thinks "ATM" is an acronym. So it would appear that the descriptivist Pullum is acting more prescriptivist than the prescriptivist Garner.

It's all terribly vexing. I've been relying on the professors at Language Log to uphold the descriptivist position ever since posts by Pullum like "More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron" prompted me to start a process of questioning that ultimately led to this blog. But if the "wrong" usage of "acronym" is established enough that the lexicographers at M-W decided to include it in their dictionary, what justification is there for objecting to it, as Pullum does? Of course, linguists are entitled to their pet peeves and annoyances, just like any other user of the language. But this is just pure prescriptivism. What The Fuck Is Up With That?


At 1:49 PM, Blogger rw said...

So here’s a question: What about those cases when an abbreviation is not an obviously pronounceable word – but language users turn it into a pronounceable word anyway? The best example I can think of right now is RBI (Runs Batted In). Many baseball fans and sportscasters refer to an RBI as a “ribby.” As in: “Berkman’s having quite a night; he’s three-for-four with a homer, a double, and three ribbys.” (Or “ribbies,” I guess. And here of course I’m going with the typical usage of RBIs as the plural of RBI, even though of course it stands for Runs Batted In, not Runs Batted Ins; every baseball fan with a pedantic friend has been told at some point that “RBI” should be used as the plural form, but “RBIs” is still the dominant plural usage.) Anyway, what would the “prescriptivist” judgment in such cases be? “Ribby” is pretty widely used, but it’s not universal, and it’s sort of slangy. There must be a variety of cases that I can’t think of right now -- with a spectrum of levels of acceptance -- of abbreviations that that get converted into words unexpectedly.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

rw, Merriam-Webster online is way ahead of you. They list two pronuncations, one of which is is "ribby": "Pronunciation: "är-(")bE-'I, 'ri-bE". And you can also hear the lady say both if you click on the sound clips. I can't even begin to answer whether that makes it an acronym in the pure sense—we're getting into a realm of lexicographical instability that rivals that of certian kinds of quantum-mechanical particles. But I'm sure there are baseball purists somewhere who find the latter pronunciation deplorable and would have a fit if anyone called RBI an acronym.


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