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What's the Use?
I’m driving along last Thursday, listening to public radio, and I hear Robin Young, host of WBUR’s “Here and Now,” tell me that the Senate Armed Services Committee is “zoning in” on Chuck Hagel’s record. I feel the gorge rising in my throat. My cheeks begin to burn; my breathing turns rapid and shallow. I am having an episode.

These are typical symptoms for people with my affliction so I am not alarmed. In these situations, I usually take a few deep breaths and try to find my happy place. Once there, I remind myself that Robin Young seems to be a pleasant, bright, and well-informed person. Unfortunately, that knowledge only heightens my anguish. She is in the communication business; she should know better than to use this kind of mushy, meaningless terminology.

To make matters worse, the phrase “zoning in” appears to be a confusion, on her part, with another phrase, “honing in,” which is in itself a garbling of the correct term —“homing in.” Homing pigeons, for example, home in on their homes as a destination; homing devices focus on a homing signal to carry them toward their intended targets. Honing, by contrast, is about sharpening, as of knives or arguments. Zoning is about land use restriction. Neither is about focusing or targeting, which is what the committee was doing with Chuck Hagel; the word in that case ought be homing, Homing, HOMING!

Okay, I’m starting to hyperventilate again. Got to get centered, or I’m liable to have a stroke, and then I’d be homing in on that bridge abutment. This is the nature of my affliction, you see: obsessing over English usage to such an extent that it begins to affect my health. You might ask, Who cares what word she used? Everybody knows what she means — the committee is focusing on Chuck Hagel, targeting him. So what difference does it make? Why be a slave to a bunch of tight ass rules? Why not just let the rules reflect how people actually speak and write?

This is the argument of the Descriptivist camp on the battlefield of English usage. Under its flag, the rules should reflect actual usage and simply describe the state of the language as it is rather than demanding adherence to outmoded standards. In other words: whatever. If enough of us use zoning or honing to mean homing, then that is what those words will mean. Under this construction, I would argue, cloning could also mean homing. So could phoning, gloaming, roaming, moaning, or any-old-word-I-like — as long as I can get enough of my fellow talking monkeys to buy into the usage. New meanings can be added to words willy-nilly, hilly-billy, and even Milli-Vanilli. It’s chaos, I tell you.

Across the battlefield from the Descriptivists is the cranky, fussbudgety camp of the Prescriptivists. These pains-in-the-ass insist that English usage should follow a set of prescribed rules. Words should have meanings, they say, that are certain and coherent within the context of all other words. Words are tools of clear communication, precise instruments honed (yes, honed!) by centuries of use to have very particular meanings. The more misusage and bastardization is allowed, the duller these tools become and the less useful.

It may be apparent that I prefer to encamp with the Prescriptivists. I have no doubt that Descriptivists are more generous in spirit and gentle of nature than Prescriptivists and that they live longer, happier lives. So be it. I break rules, including rules of grammar, but I try. At least I goddamn try. If I thought other people were trying too, I could probably be generous and gentle as well. It is not to be. This planet, it seems, has been zoned for mushy imprecision.

So what’s the use? Why even bother? It has been suggested that all of my fancy reasons for being a stickler are just a transparent effort to make myself feel smart and superior. Maybe, but what good is that? The world couldn’t care less about my futile quest. And if I’m so smart and superior, then how come all I get out of it is blurred vision, hyperventilation, and these shooting pains in my chest?
Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon