views updated May 21 2018

USAGE The way in which the elements of language are customarily used to produce meaning, including accent, pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, words, and idioms. The term occurs neutrally in formal usage, disputed usage, and local usage, and it has strong judgemental and prescriptive connotations in bad usage, correct usage, usage and abusage, and usage controversies.


The first citation of the term usage in the OED in a linguistic sense is from Daniel DEFOE in 1697, referring to the proposed English Academy to monitor the language, on the model of the Académie française: ‘The voice of this society should be sufficient authority for the usage of words.’ Before the 17c, the concept of usage or custom in English was hardly known: individuals spoke and wrote largely as they wished, and each printer had his own conventions. During the 17–18c, however, writers and leaders of society were concerned to codify the language in grammars and dictionaries, usually drawing on principles established in Latin and Greek. Defoe, Swift, Pope, and others held the view that usage should be monitored; but this notion failed along with the attempt to set up an Academy, and guidance about usage became largely the concern of teachers, publishers, and self-appointed usage guardians.

The present-day scholarly concept of usage as a social consensus based on the practices of the educated middle class has emerged only within the last century. For many people, however, the views and aims of the 17–18c fixers of the language continue to hold true: they consider that there ought to be a single authority capable of providing authoritative guidance about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ usage. For them, the model remains that of Greek and Latin, and they have welcomed arbiters of usage such as Henry Fowler who have based their prescriptions on this model. In spite of this, and although public opinion responds to arguments that the language is in decline, no nation in which English is a main language has yet set up an official institution to monitor and make rules about its usage. New words, and new senses and uses of words, are not sanctioned or rejected by the authority of any single body: they arise through regular use and, once established, are recorded in dictionaries and grammars. This means that, with the classical model of grammar in rapid decline, the users of English collectively set the standards and priorities that underlie all usage.

Standard usage

Guidance tends to centre on standard English, a form assumed to be shared, used, and accepted by educated speakers throughout the English-speaking world, despite great variety in accent, grammar, and vocabulary; it is based partly on intellectual argument and partly on received opinion. STANDARD usage is taught in schools on the assumption that students should speak and write English that is acceptable across a broad spectrum of society. The forms of standard usage correspond to the major national standards of English, such as those of BrE, AmE, and AusE. In Britain, and especially England, CORRECT usage has long been identified with the form of the language in use among the educated middle and upper classes in southern England, and surveys carried out in the US also suggest a class orientation. In both countries, a desire for guidance tends to predominate among the linguistically less secure, especially the lower-middle classes, while demands that ‘good’ usage be maintained may come from all levels of society, but particularly from those who feel secure in the prevailing standard forms and look to authorities on usage as much for reassurance and support as for guidance. Guidance is therefore based on what is thought to be acceptable to educated users of English, and is often reinforced by the institutional authority associated with a famous scholar or publisher ( Webster, Fowler, Merriam Webster, and the like).

Criteria for criticism

Criteria traditionally invoked in the criticism of usage include analogy (or precedent), logic, etymology (usually Greek and Latin, rarely Germanic), and questions of taste and social acceptability:


Reference to ANALOGY is the most influential criterion, because analogy underlies the working of all language. Often, proponents of a particular usage tend to choose the analogies that suit their preference: for example, the stress patterns conTROversy and forMIDable are widely deplored and CONtroversy and FORmidable favoured, following the analogy of MAtrimony and MANageable rather than orTHOgraphy and aMENable. KiLOmetre/kiLOmeter follows the analogy of speeDOMeter rather than that of KILogram and CENTimetre/CENTimeter. Inflection also follows analogy: reference to two Germanies follows the example of Ptolemies and Maries and the behaviour of countable nouns in -y generally, but the form Germanys also occurs.


Appeals are regularly made to LOGIC: for example, in determining what a group of words ought to mean from its constituents. Such appeals work when logic and standard usage happen to coincide, but can often fail because the use of language is not always amenable to logic: for example, Aren't I as a TAG question is widely regarded in BrE as the proper form, and Amn't I, though eminently logical, is discounted as childish, while ain't I is considered either slovenly or archaic. The double negative, as in I didn't do nothing, has been condemned since the 18c solely on the ground that two negatives make a positive; before the 18c, the logic worked the other way in regarding the succession of negatives as cumulative in effect. Similarly, the grammatical treatment of collective nouns (committee, government, etc.), if based on logic, should require a singular verb, but usage often favours a plural verb to emphasize the collective sense of the word: The committee have not yet reached agreement.


Appeals made to ETYMOLOGY to defend the language against change rarely satisfy by themselves, because they fail to recognize the independent development of words: for example, Latinate words such as formula and stadium have vernacular plurals formulas, stadiums that are often rejected by purists in favour of formulae, stadia, as if origin should be the predominant consideration. These are, however, adopted words, and may be treated on the analogy of words in English rather than Latin; ultimatum is so treated and few propose ultimata as a plural rather than ultimatums.

Personal preference.

Criteria based on intuition, personal preference, or what one thinks educated users prefer, are common and may be supported by appeals to such further criteria as euphony (‘Biofeedback sounds ugly and clumsy’), good taste (‘No literate person says irregardless and for free’), and chauvinism (‘Our language is rich enough; it doesn't need words like chutzpah and shlep’). Attitudes towards, and avoidance of, clichés such as conspicuous by one's absence and at the present time are a highly subjective matter that belongs in this category.

For all these reasons, it is difficult to evaluate usage objectively. In the view of linguists and lexicographers, evaluation must depend on sound evidence of what constitutes current established use; if not, it tends to become an argument for individual custom or preference. Establishing current majority usage is not as straightforward as it sounds, even in the age of mass media, because it rests on the need to be sure of what constitutes currency and majority. Until the development of databases, scholarly evidence consisted of collections of citations, generally from printed sources. Depending on the range of sources studied, the evidence has tended to have a literary or formal bias; usage criticism based on it does not therefore take adequate account of ordinary English spoken and written in everyday communication. Even computer corpora are collected mainly from the language in print, although conversational texts do exist, notably in the Survey of English Usage at U. College London, which aims at a million words available for online analysis. Grammars based on this kind of evidence have been published, but in general the traditional sources of usage prevail.

Usage controversies

There are always issues of special concern; these do not, however, remain constant. The SPLIT INFINITIVE has been a controversial matter since the 18c, but is now of less importance; ending a sentence with a preposition was once considered a grave offence in formal writing, but is now generally accepted as a common feature of informal usage. Other controversies prove to be ephemeral, usually overwhelmed by the weight of actual usage: for example, nice was once strongly deplored in the now dominant sense ‘agreeable’, ‘pleasant’, in favour of the sense ‘precise’. On the other hand, the double or multiple negative has long been deplored and is generally still regarded as uneducated, although it is used by many speakers of English throughout the world. A good example of the unpredictable and often capricious nature of usage controversies is the current issue of hopefully as a sentence adverb: Hopefully, it won't rain tomorrow. Well-established uses of other words as sentence adverbs, such as Clearly, there is no case to answer, and Generally, the weather is fine in July, are by contrast hardly noticed. So a particular use has been singled out for disapproval while others like it are passed over, and this is typical of many controversies. Usage controversies fall into several categories, with some overlap: pronunciation, including accent, stress, and the relationship of sound to spelling; grammar, including collocation, concord, and word order; spelling and morphology, including problems of inflection and confusable words; and vocabulary, especially with regard to the choice and meaning of words.


Most pronunciation controversies concern stress, such as the examples controversy and formidable mentioned above. An older example is abDOMen (the second syllable stressed and pronounced like dome), now resolved in favour of ABdomen. Other current examples are dispute (where stress on the first syllable of the noun is deprecated but common), harass (where the same applies in BrE to stress on the second syllable; this however, is standard in AmE), and kilometre, which is pronounced in AmE and increasingly in BrE with stress on the second syllable, by (false) analogy with speedometer and related words. Problems also arise with vowel quality in words like deity, spontaneity and homograph, homosexual. In general preferences are based on what educated speakers are thought to prefer. The pronunciation of foreign words also causes difficulty, as with garage and apartheid. Recourse is often had to the pronunciation in the original language, but this can be a misleading criterion because the original pronunciation is usually based on rules and procedures that are inherently different from the phonology of English. Examples of loanwords now fully absorbed phonetically into English are cadet and coupon; sometimes a ‘foreign’ pronunciation is revived, as with turquoise and valet.


Two grammatical categories account for a high proportion of disputes: COLLOCATION (the constructions with which words are assembled into phrases and sentences), and CONCORD (the way in which words of one part of speech agree with others). Among the most troublesome collocational issues is the word that follows different. In recent years, advice in usage guides has moved from prescribing from exclusively (as the traditionally preferred educated usage) to allowing and even advocating from, to, and than. The evidence suggests that different than is now the majority usage in North America, different to the majority usage in Britain, while different from retains a powerful influence on more conservative speakers and writers. This is because, with a classical model, different is seen as an extension of differ, and thought to require the same construction (differ from, and so different from). The same classical model applies to the construction required with none. Traditionally, none has been taken to represent no(t) one and should therefore be followed by a singular verb, as in none of them is here rather than none of them are here. This position is not, however, supported by actual usage over several centuries nor by many current usage guides, which advocate a choice of singular or plural according to sense: none of them are here when the sense is collective, none of them is here when the emphasis is on individuals.

Many grammatical problems have to be seen in the context of REGISTER or the kind of language being used. In formal English, especially in literature and official documents, grammar is usually given a higher value than idiom and ease of communication; in informal English, especially everyday speech, established custom is more predominant, because fluent and easy communication is the main consideration. None the less, the more prescriptive guidance on usage still tends to give insufficient weight to this factor. Especially relevant are problems of word order, where there is less scope or need for precision in ordinary spoken English. The position of only has been the subject of much comment over many years. In formal and precise English the difference between I only found them by chance and I found them only by chance may be significant, but in speech it matters less, because intonation will usually clarify the sense.

Spelling and morphology.

The role of usage in spelling is complex, and forms the basis on which dictionaries assess and record variants and stage preferences, as well as the basis of approved practice in matters such as inflection and hyphenation, where English is unpredictable. The 8th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990) records many changes in hyphenation practice, including benchmark, birdsong, figurehead, lawbreaker, and scriptwriter, all previously hyphenated. These changes have been made on the basis of usage, and there is no theory of hyphenation beyond what is discernible in the evidence. This shows, in particular, that there is an increasing tendency to put two single-syllable elements together as single words, as with benchmark and birdsong. In other cases, practice varies and defies attempts at classification. The rules of inflection are also based on established practice, which is unpredictable, as in the matter of doubling a final consonant in forms such as budgeted and travelled (but paralleled). On the other hand, usage has to be critically assessed and tempered by considerations such as analogy and patterns of form. Variant spellings are not admitted in dictionaries simply on the grounds that they are known to be used; that would admit forms such as *accomodate and *mischievious, which are regarded as incorrect. They are rejected because they do not have sufficient authority in sources deemed to conform to standard English. On the other hand, Samuel Johnson's deviant spelling despatch for dispatch was established by its inclusion in his dictionary, and rapidly confirmed by usage afterwards. Borderline cases are alright (for all right; compare altogether, almighty), nearby (still resisted in its one-word form, especially as an adverb), and onto (resisted in printed BrE, despite its frequency in casual use, the analogy of into, and its standard use in AmE).


There is a long-established, widespread belief that words have a ‘true’ meaning, usually based on etymology. If this were so, the earliest senses of all words would be the only proper senses: a camera would denote a room, not a machine, and a doctor would be a learned person, not a physician. Change in the meaning of words is the signal most clearly discernible to ordinary users that the language is changing. This is generally recognized and accepted as a historical phenomenon when the results are convenient to present-day users, but change as it happens is often resisted: anticipate in the sense ‘expect’, aggravate in the sense ‘annoy’, and transpire in the sense ‘happen’ (all disapproved of in current guidance on usage). Resistance is particularly strong where change occurs, or is perceived as occurring, in confusable words, such as disinterested (impartial) and infer (deduce). The senses just given are regarded as standard, while other senses (uninterested, imply) are often deprecated, despite equally sound historical credentials. Maintaining the distinctions between disinterested and uninterested and infer and imply is considered useful, in the same way as preserving the distinct senses of childish and childlike, alternate and alternative, and regretful and regrettable is useful. Usage guidance also deals with more accidental confusions of unrelated words, such as sinecure/cynosure and prevaricate/procrastinate. In all these cases, the purpose is to retain a distinction in the interests of clear meaning, and this is arguably the most sound basis on which any usage guidance relating to words can depend.

Social and cultural factors in usage

An important element of usage is the degree of social acceptability of certain terms and uses; these vary from age to age, and are matters of social or moral concern rather than of linguistic correctness. In the 16c, titles and forms of address such as gentleman, master, and woman had to be used with care because of the sensitivities arising from social status. Chinaman, once standard, is now regarded as offensive, as are Eskimo and Mohammedan. The preferred terms are now Chinese, Inuit, and Muslim. A far-reaching contemporary concern arises from the feminist movement and its wish to avoid the perpetuation of sex-based prejudice in language: for example, in the titles Mrs, Miss, relating to marital status. The neutral replacement Ms was originally based on the prescription of a social group on moral grounds, was taken up by some style guides in the US, and came to be widely endorsed as socially convenient. Such prescription succeeds only rarely. Despite the invention of a variety of experimental forms, there is still no widely agreed gender-neutral third-person pronoun to replace generic he or stand for the often awkward he or she. In informal spoken English, and in some written English, the plural form they has emerged (or re-emerged, having been common though non-standard since the 16c) to fill the need, as in If anyone calls, tell them to come back later. Received opinion may regard this as bad grammar, but it shows that as grammar changes with usage a new model of grammar has to emerge.



views updated May 29 2018


A reasonable and legal practice in a particular location, or among persons in a specific business or trade, that is either known to the individuals involved or is well established, general, and uniform to such an extent that a presumption may properly be made that the parties acted with reference to it in their transactions.

The term usage refers to a uniform practice or course of conduct followed in certain lines of business or professions that is relied upon by the parties to a contractual transaction. A court will apply the usage of a business when it determines that doing so is necessary to resolve a contractual dispute. Ignoring usage may result in the misreading of a document and the intent of the parties who signed it.

The law has developed different forms of usage. Local usage refers to a practice or method of dealing regularly observed in a particular place. Under certain circumstances it may be considered by a court when interpreting a document. General usage is a practice that prevails generally throughout the country, or is followed generally by a given profession or trade, and is not local in its nature or observance.

A trade usage is the prevailing and accepted custom within a particular trade or industry and is not tied to a geographic location. The law assumes that merchants are aware of the usage of their trade. trade usage supplements, qualifies, and imparts particular meaning to the terms of an agreement for the purpose of their interpretation.

The term custom and usage is commonly used in commercial law, but "custom" and "usage" can be distinguished. A usage is a repetition of acts whereas custom is the law or general rule that arises from such repetition. A usage may exist without a custom, but a custom cannot arise without a usage accompanying it or preceding it. Usage derives its authority from the assent of the parties to a transaction and is applicable only to consensual arrangements. Custom derives its authority from its adoption into the law and is binding regardless of any acts of assent by the parties. In modern law, however, the two principles are often merged into one by the courts.


views updated May 23 2018

us·age / ˈyoōsij; -zij/ • n. the action of using something or the fact of being used: a survey of water usage the usage of equipment. ∎  the way in which a word or phrase is normally and correctly used. ∎  habitual or customary practice, esp. as creating a right, obligation, or standard.


views updated May 11 2018

usage habitual use, custom, or conduct. XIII. — (O)F., f. L. ūsus USE; see -AGE.
So usance †usage XIV; period allowed for the payment of a bill of exchange XVII. — OF.:- Rom. *ūsantia, f. *ūsāre (see next). user (leg.) continual use or enjoyment. XIX. Evolved from †abuser, non-user (XVII); see -ER5.