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For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study in Academia

The previous two posts on linguistic kindness and sanity focused on case studies from politics. An area that, for its public nature and its public "wordiness" and its strong emotions, is highly susceptible to linguistic unkindness and linguistic insanity. Today we turn to a case study from a very different domain, one inhabited by folks who really should "know better": academia.

The Story
It is not exactly a story, more of an example. Alan Jacobs, who has written many fascinating books, is a professor of English. In December of last year, on his blog The American Conservative, he wrote the following regarding the word extrovert (or extravert, if you prefer): "FYI, [extravert is] the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix."

Linguistic Sanity
Those of us who study and teach language have to call each other out at times: what Jacobs wrote is wrong. The only accurate part of the sentence is that "extrovert is common." So why is this our example of questionable linguistic sanity in academia?

  1. Often, though not always, what is common determines what is conventional (i.e., acceptable), whether the issue is one of grammar, spelling, or orthography. Very few English speakers use, or even know, the word extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually "proper."
  2. Calling any usage "wrong" is in itself problematic. If it's used, it's "right," though maybe not conventional or generally acceptable. Again, though, most English speakers use the word extrovert rather than extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually conventional.
  3. All English dictionaries [ALERT: unproven assertion [because I haven't actually bothered to check all English dictionaries]] list both extrovert and extravert as acceptable (usually in that order) or else list only extrovert. Thus, given that the standard of up-to-date dictionaries at the very least accepts the common usage, the usage extrovert is "proper."
  4. Since when was Latin etymology the standard for 21st-century English usage? Answer: never. Thus, extrovert is quite proper and acceptable.

Linguistic Kindness
All that said, it is totally fine for Jacobs himself to use the spelling extravert and even to alert us to the fact that it is an alternative to extrovert and perhaps a purer form. But telling us that extrovert is improper, particularly in a parenthetical introduced by a condescending "FYI" does not come across well. This attitude of your-usage-is-wrong-and-I'm-here-to-enlighten-you is what turns some students off when it comes to grammar and English in general.

At the same time, even when we see something we disagree with (in my case, Jacobs' questionable linguistic analysis/explanation), we must be gracious in our critique. Perhaps I have not been--you are the judge.

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