600. Precision and Obsession

In school and elsewhere, we learn. Some learning is thoroughly enjoyable, and some isn’t so enjoyable. Some is easy and some isn’t. Some of what we learn turns out to be quite useful later on, and some doesn’t. If we’ve learned skills, concepts, or information that were hard to learn, and/or that made us feel as if we knew more than the average person, naturally, we want what we’ve learned to be useful – to give us some sort of advantage.
That often does happen. What people learn can make it more possible for them to get fame, wealth, and/or happiness points in life. They can get into the colleges they prefer, get the jobs they want, hobnob or hang out with people they want to be around, and more. And if those things happen, people can end up glad that they did whatever they had to do to learn what they learned.
Sometimes, though, what we’ve learned doesn’t do much for us. I learned to be precise in some ways. My parents are both sticklers for accuracy. They often corrected my use of words as I was growing up, and unlike many children, I enjoyed being taught and required to say EXACTLY what I meant. Some of my teachers also emphasized the importance of precision, and some didn’t.
So I grew up to be someone who, for example, knows the difference between “anxious” and “eager,” and who mentally winces when someone says, “The children are ANXIOUS to open their presents.” I know that children are usually EAGER, not ANXIOUS, to open their presents. Anxiety is a feeling that is not fun, and children in general DO enjoy opening presents.
My parents, my daughters, and I occasionally correct each other when one of us makes factual mistakes or grammatical errors, or uses a word wrong. It’s a family tradition. But recently, one of my daughters made another kind of correction. As I was offering her a word usage correction,
she corrected my correction. She reminded me that language evolves through a democratic process – that errors cease to be errors if they become common enough.
Edwin Newman, Harry Reasoner, and others have written and spoken about the demise of good English. When I first started hearing and reading such lamentations, they rang true. But not now. Now I think that my habit of mentally wincing at “misuses” of the English language is born of elitism; I’ve been thinking I’m somehow ABOVE the people who don’t use language “correctly.”
I still think it can be useful to be able to be precise when we write or speak. But I think it can become an obsession. Language is supposed to communicate, and if it does, it’s all right if it doesn’t stick to old rules. We sticklers have got to stop being so anxious to show how precise we can be.

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