That’s one of the most debated questions in terms of language, in my experience. It’s an important question because there is at least a general consensus that there is good language and bad language – acceptable and unacceptable language – and a common question because everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, although they tend not to be exceptionally informed opinions. It’s also important because there are plenty of people – some who have knowledge of language and some who really don’t – who have decided at some point that they are the arbiters of what is good and true and what is not and dispense advice (often unsolicited) or make disparaging comments about language use, be it word usage, grammar, mechanics, or style.
I don’t consider myself an expert on language use by any means, but I think my interest in language is perhaps greater than the average layperson: I have studied writing theory, I have read grammar texts critically for personal edification, I regularly read blogs about language and try to keep up with what people are talking about regarding language, and I’m a certified English language teacher. I don’t claim that my advice on language is gospel, and I stress to my students that comments on written language especially are mostly tentative (even though I think it would be prudent for them to take my advice). Generally, I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m open to correction from people who know more about the subject, primarily linguists.
This in mind, I’m pretty used to people making comments about language when they lack relevant training, like that old proscription against terminating prepositions. But I still confess that it puzzles me when I see people who are qualified in the area of the English language railing against things about which they really should know better.
The comment that sparked these reflections in my mind was one made by a writing professor at my alma mater on facebook, one who I never had a class with but who I still respect greatly nonetheless, and it was
Okay, “gift,” “doctor,” and “dialogue” just shouldn’t be verbs. Ever.
[If that weren’t bad enough, several other English professors chimed in to agree with this sentiment!]
The ensuing comments to this made it somewhat clear that these verbs (along with “friend” and “unfriend” as verbs) were really fine exemplars of word aversions, words that just – for whatever reason, or perhaps none whatsoever – drive certain people nuts (see this classic Language Log post for some examples). I’ve had this conversation with some of my own students, and I find the phenomenon absolutely fascinating, mostly because there are really no words that just strike the wrong chord for me most or all of the time. (Oddly enough, I started reading the book A Mind Apart very recently, and the author, who is manic depressive, talks about this phenomenon of getting stuck on certain words as an example of her own neurodiversity. I wonder if there is any relation between individuals who suffer from word aversion and other neuro-atypical* conditions.)
But here are professors of the language, saying some words “just shouldn’t be verbs”? What?
I’ve mentioned it before, but in terms of the descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate, I lean toward descriptivism; yet I acknowledge that more experts probably favor prescriptivism as a way of making others conform to their vision of proper language use. These are the people who tend to get moralistic about using certain words in a certain way, like decimate (for just one example of many).
And so we return to the question at the beginning: What language is good? Perhaps a better starting question is What makes language good?, a necessary question if we are to figure out how to determine the answer to the first.
Forgetting other potential answers for now, here’s mine: Good language is language that can be used effectively for a purpose. In my opinion, language – perhaps like people, in a way – is neither good nor bad considered in a vacuum, only effective or ineffective in accomplishing some intended goal. Context is vital to knowing whether or not language works, and only then can we say that any given example of language is good or bad. There really are no words that come to mind for me that I can say are good or bad in any sort of absolute way; language is relative to contexts and audiences, and so even the words and phrases most reviled among language elitists (such as “ain’t”) have their uses in certain situations. Even the most ardent opponents of mixed metaphors should acknowledge that they can be used excellently for evoking irony, which itself can be incredibly effective.
Thus, bad language is that language that does not further a rhetorical goal, and I would even claim that any of the language that endures must be effective for some purpose or it will eventually be culled from the language. Slang is an excellent example of how language changes regularly; using words like “rad” or “gnarly” in the ’90s would have evoked tones of hipness, but they would have the inverse effect now (which might actually be desirable in some limited contexts, which is why those words have lasted despite their diminishing use).
So if it’s useful to use verbs like dialogue (or even podium), then they should be used (or should at least come under consideration); if not, then they shouldn’t. And I will admit, as I did to these English professors, that if understanding that gift as a verb is a common word aversion, then it would be useful to know that it might not be the most effective language to use for communication that is going to be highly scrutinized and/or read by an audience that might be more prone to these types of word aversions (a group I have perhaps unfairly called ‘language elitists’).
And ultimately, no amount of moralizing about the way language should be is necessary, only knowing what works when and for whom.