It is not uncommon for me to run across people who are of the belief that liberal art degrees of various types are worthless, or that they are not very difficult. A common punching bag tends to be sneers about “English majors”. This confuses me on one level, because these are the very same people that can’t grasp the distinction between “well” and “good”, and that only people who are grammar authoritarians care about such things but think that if someone remembers the Pythagorean Theorem*, they must be very smart. Yet, if you are the average American English-speaker, you will use the words “well” and “good” hundreds of thousands of times more than you will use the Pythagorean Theorem (if you ever use it outside of a math class at all. In my experience, I have used the PT exactly twice outside of school; both times for moving furniture**).
Now, to be perfectly clear, people should learn the math and that includes a formula that is very basic to geometry. For some people, learning this formula may be the spark that ends up a burning passion for mathematics. If one was looking for simple, self-containing, universal elegance one would be hard-pressed to find anything as perfect as mathematics. Under these conditions, a squared plus b squared will ALWAYS be c squared. What other discipline could boast something without exception? Even physics will require some exceptions; the laws of physics are based in ideal states that don’t happen in the “real” world. But mathematics is it’s own self-contained universe; it is perfect.
Yet, language is the equal to mathematics in beauty and importance, and in some cases, I feel it surpasses math in its necessity. Without understanding mathematics, you are flat-out not going to understand engineering, and the ability for a person (or a group of people) to produce to a skyscraper is functionally impossible. But, without language, how are you going to coordinate with everyone to make the sky-scraper at all?
Language is a symbol that we have created because we cannot peer into someone else’s mind and hear, see, and know what they are thinking. And since language is a symbol, it only functions if we all agree what that symbol means. “Well” is an adverb (with the exception of when it is used to describe health); it modifies a verb or an adjective. “Good” is an adjective; it modifies a noun (with the exception of when it is a noun). Without these distinctions, language becomes more ambiguous. If you say “Bryce is doing good”, a literal reading of this draws the question “A good what?”. If you say “Bryce is doing well” you know that “well” is modifying “doing”. Even “Bryce is well” means “Bryce is healthy”.
“So what?” asks Hypothetical, Doesn’t-care-about-English-person. “EVERYONE understands that ‘Bryce is doing good’ means the same as ‘Bryce is doing well’. You are making a distinction without merit.”
Not so, my hypothetical, hopefully-not-a-strawman friend. The distinctions between different kinds of words build up. It is true that the distinction between “well” and “good” will probably be a half-a-second misunderstanding. But what about other words? Hubby is fond of using the phrase “I’ll borrow it to you”. What he means is “I’ll lend it to you”. Again, someone may say this is without distinction. Okay, fine. Now think of a contract where we are lending money. Think about how much easier it is to have the words “borrower” and “lender”. Think about how confusing it is if you had “borrower” and “borrowee” would be***.
Then, think about when words start to be sacrificed for propaganda. Think about terms that used to be fairly benign, or even had pleasant connotations, which have now been have been co-opted by specific groups, so they no longer have the same meaning. How many people seem to think that “facist” or “communist” means “Generic phrase for someone who has different political opinions from me, so I think are bad”? How many people have heard (or been guilty of) using the words “racist” or “sexist” used as “generic word meaning bad”. This is because we don’t consider it important to be rigorous with our language.
Additionally, when we start sacrificing precision in language, we start sacrificing our ability to communicate complicated thoughts. George Orwells 1984 spoke to this; why have the word “bad” when you can just have “ungood”? Why have “great” when you can just have “plusgood”?
And I am firmly convinced that sloppiness with “meaningless” distinctions makes it easier to abuse the definition of more important words. In martial arts, you don’t let someone with a sloppy stance get a pass because they land punches. In basketball, if you toss by taking swinging your hands like a pendulum you don’t get to evade criticism because, hey, the ball still gets to the person your passing it to. So, why would ignoring the foundations of language be acceptable?
Language is a dynamic, fluid thing. I don’t expect (or endorse) laws to be passed mandating English to remain static, and indeed, that would lead to greater misunderstandings. But, language cannot just be noise. It has to mean something, and it has to be something we can all agree on. Communication is hard enough with out further handicapping ourselves. An English major is not a simpleton, or a loafer, but a person who wants to be a rigorous guardian of our communication medium. This should be a position of respect, not a position to be denigrated.
*For those of you wishing to avoid the 30 seconds of googling, but can’t grope back to your last relevant math class, the Pythagorean Theorem states: in a right triangle, where the hypotenuse is c and a and b consist of the remaining sides a^2 + b^2 = c^2. (Side not: the hypotenuse is the side opposite of the right angle.)
**If you ever want to know how much space you’ll need if you want to put a couch in the corner of the room, PT is your friend.
***I should know; I’ve had to read contracts where they put those words in instead of “lender” and “borrower”.