Precision... we can and must achieve it

Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it correct. I'm referring to the sloppy use of "can".

A senior writer in our care presented the magazine's comment piece this morning, including the exhortation: "We cannot let this affect our decision". This was changed to "We must not...". Why? Because the OED defines "can" as "be able to". The writer did not mean "We are unable to let this affect our decision" so she shouldn't have written it.

And yes, I do know that recent editions of the OED give credence to sloppy usage by admitting "be permitted to" as an alternative meaning of "can". Even Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition) accepts this usage "in informal circumstances". But the 2nd edition on JD's desk doesn't, and neither do I.

English abounds in such subtleties as the difference between "may" and "can". We should not sacrifice precision simply because a generation of schoolkids (and graduates) have not been taught to pick their words carefully.


JD said...

I was wondering when modal verbs would come up! Apus, I have to disagree with you slightly on a couple of points.

Firstly, you say that "just because everybody does it, doesn't make it correct". Really? I'm increasingly of the opinion that language is never right or wrong, just appropriate or inappropriate – and if everyone else does it, it may be appropriate that we start doing it too (so to speak).

Secondly, the phenomenon Fowler's and the OED are referring to (and which has been noted for well over a century) is the use of 'can' for 'may', not 'must' (ie permission, not obligation) - so it is not relevant in this case.

terrycollmann said...

"Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it correct."

Well, yes, it does make it correct, that's exactly how language works. It's a consensus thing. You won't alter that by trying to be rigidly prescriptivist. Check out the excellent Language Log blog, which regularly rails against pointless prescriptivism of the kind you are offering, and in particular this entry

for a fine rant against people who needlessly edit what is perfectly OK.

As for the example you "corrected", is there anybody who would have misunderstood exactly what the writer meant? No. So leave it alone. Sub-editors who interfere unnecessarily are the worst sort, because every interference increases the likelihood of introducing an error that wasn't there before.