A Few Words of Introduction to PRINCIPLES OF ENGLISH USAGE: STANDARD WRITTEN AMERICAN ENGLISH by Joseph Suglia
Since there is confusion around the term “usage,” let me write a few words of introduction here.
Usage covers three areas:
a.) whether certain words should be used at all
b.) when certain words should be used
c.) where words should be used
The language of choice is Standard Written American English not because it is the only form of English or because it is the best form of English. It is the language of choice because it is the form of English that is political and institutional. Standard Written American English is no better than, for instance, Spanglish or Chinglish. It is simply the form of English that has been, by a series of historical accidents, politically and institutionally accepted.
Is “lightning” a verb? Is it acceptable to write, “It is lightninging”?
According to Standard Written American English, it is.
Is “you guys’s dog” Standard Written American English?
The descriptivists would say that it is, since the descriptivists believe that a community of language users does not need to be told how to use “their own” language. Descriptivists believe that language is a game without any rules. Language, according to the descriptivists, is a game of tennis that is played without a net, without a court, without a ball, and without rackets.
I would argue, on the other hand, that every language has its own set of rules already. It is absolutely fine to write, “you guys’s dog” in colloquial English. It is absolutely wrong to write, “you guys’s dog” in Standard Written American English.
What determines acceptability? The boundaries of acceptability are set by that which one can explain. All I am arguing for is a greater consciousness-in-writing. I wish that today’s writers would become more conscious writers.
When there is a question of meaning, instead of looking to the dictionaries, one should look at etymologies. The verb peruse is a good example of an amphibolous word. To peruse means, according to most dictionaries, both “to read carefully” and “to read carelessly.”
If one knows that the prefix per- means “thoroughly,” the choice becomes clear: To peruse means “to read carefully” in Standard Written American English, despite what dictionaries might tell you.
Dr. Joseph Suglia