Saturday, September 25, 2004

Verbal Inflation/Deflation

Why use ‘reference’ as a verb when ‘refer’ is available? Why not save bytes? Why say that Poindexter referenced Wittgenstein when you can say that he referred to the philosopher? After all, we do not say that X citationed Y, but that X cited Y. (And please don’t confuse ‘site,’ ‘sight,’ and ‘cite.’)

You will not appear learned to the truly learned if you use ‘reference’ as a verb; you will appear pseudo-learned or pretentious. Of course, if enough people do it, it will become accepted. But what is accepted ought not be confused with the acceptable in the normative sense of the latter term. Admittedly, using ‘reference’ as a verb is no big deal. But it is uneconomical, and linguistic bloat, like other forms, is best avoided. This rule, like all my rules and recommendations, is to be understood ceteris paribus. Thus there may be an occasion on which a bit of bloat is what is needed for some rhetorical purpose. Good writing cannot be reduced to the mechanical application of a set of rules. You won’t find an algorithm for it. Language Nazis like me need to remind ourselves not to become too pedantic and persnickety.

Curiously enough, the same people who are likely to engage in verbal inflation will also fall for the opposite mistake. They will speak of Nietzsche quotes when they mean Nietzsche quotations. ‘Quote’ is a verb; ‘quotation’ a noun. ‘Nietzsche quotes’ is a sentence; ‘Nietzsche quotations’ is not. Perhaps I should be grateful that no one, so far, has used ‘quotation’ as a verb: Poindexter referenced Nietszche in his footnotes, and quotationed him in his text.

Now consider ‘criticize,’ ‘criticism,’ and ‘critique.’ One verb and two nouns. Don’t say: She critiqued my paper; say she criticized it. And don’t confuse a criticism with a critique. A correspondent once made a pusillanimous criticism of an article of mine, but referred to it as a critique. That’s a case of objectionable verbal inflation.

On a more substantive note, realize that to criticize is not to oppose or contradict, but to sift, to assay, to separate the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the true from the false, the demonstrated from the undemonstrated and the indemonstrable.

Note also that the Left does not own critique. There is critique from the Right, from the Left, and from the Middle. Resist the hijacking of semantic vehicles. We need them to get to the truth, which is not owned by anyone.