That's What They Say
9:00 am
Sun October 7, 2012

Dictionary notes suggest grammar usage, acceptability

Open The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and you will inevitably find Usage Notes under certain words. These notes warn readers there might be problems or controversies involving grammar, diction, or writing style.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics is 1 of 200 panelists asked to comment on the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

“It involves writers, so Rita Dove is on it, Tobias Wolff, Margaret Atwood. There are some people who would be familiar to NPR listeners, Garrison Keillor, Frank Deford, Nina Totenberg, along with Antonin Scalia, we’re all on the panel together,” said Curzan.

About once a year the panel gets a survey asking about the acceptability of certain grammar constructions. For example, whether or not the word “irregardless” is okay.

“There is a question about which proposition should come after bored. It is bored with, bored by orbored of,” Curzan said. She found that speakers mostly use bored with and bored by, and only sometimes use bored of.

“So what I’m being asked to do is say okay what point does usage govern correctness.” And she adds:

“It’s not that we on the panel are right, but we are giving you a sense of how the language might get judged when you use it.”