Wednesday, 1 July 2015

When precision become pedantry

But it's a TV programme! It's not made from grapes.
Being a science writer puts you at the intersection of two very different disciplines. Scientists know too well the importance of precision, but writers have to be aware of the nature of language - how it changes and evolves - and to be aware that following 'the rules' can be the enemy of good communication.

One thing scientists sometimes struggle with is that 'the rules' in English aren't some universally agreed set of standards but rather an untidy mix of what has been used for a while and what's coming into use. There is no body setting the official version, though personally I do tend to consider the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) to be pretty much the definitive arbiter on words. It doesn't help, though, with grammar. And so, for instance, some continue to insist that we shouldn't split infinitives, even though people have found it acceptable to boldly split the 'to' and the 'verb' where it works well for decades. Even the fusty old Fowler guide, which must be about 90 years old, says it's ridiculous to apply a concept from Latin (where you can't split the infinitive because there is no 'to') to English.

I recently came across this kind of thing on Facebook, where someone was blaming supermarkets for using the term 'elderflower wine'. I couldn't see anything wrong with this, but I was told you can't have elderflower wine because wine, by definition is made from grapes. To me this is out and out pedantry of the 'can't split infinitives' type. But let's be fair and examine the arguments. (I ought to say I'm playing devil's advocate here, because the person complaining couldn't come up with an actual reason not to do this other than 'only applies to grapes.') So here we go:

  1. The term 'wine' only applies to the fermented alcoholic drink made from grapes. I checked the OED and although it obviously does say that wine is a fermented alcoholic drink made from grapes, it also says that the term (usually with a qualifier, like 'elderflower' in this case) applies to all sorts of fruit, flowers etc. etc.
  2. It's an irritating trendy new usage. The OED lets too much through - they've even included twerking. Well, it's true they have included twerking, but why shouldn't they? As mentioned above, a language is not set in aspic. It changes year by year. Anyway, in the case of using 'wine' to refer to fermented alcoholic drinks made from something other than grapes, the first example in the OED dates back to the fourteenth century. It's not exactly a trendy new usage. This use of the word 'wine' is solidly established and has been for centuries.
  3. But the word 'wine' comes from the same root as 'vine' and 'viniculture'. It specifically refers to grapes. So what? A vast number of words no longer refer to their original root meaning. This is not an argument.
  4. It will confuse people. How? If there's no qualifier, it's made from grapes. If there is a qualifier, it's made from that source. Are you honestly saying that someone will hear 'elderflower wine' and think 'Hmm, because it's called wine it is clearly made from grapes'?
  5. They should use a more appropriate term. Like what? Short of using a EU style 'non-grape elderflower fermented wine-style beverage' there isn't a more appropriate term. That's because it has been called elderflower wine for centuries. But even if there were an existing term, again this is trying to apply rules that don't reflect the way that English works. We don't say 'it's confusing to use the word "sofa" because we already have the word "couch" to use.' There can be more than one word to describe the same thing. 
All in all, this is probably a storm in an elderflower wine glass. (Hang on, am I allowed to call it a glass? Someone might confuse it with a window, or the plural with spectacles.) But elderflower wine is what we call it in English, and it's not going to go away.

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