Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Very essential and a bit unnecessary

I spotted on the Voices page of yesterday's i newspaper (5 August 2013, #840) a letter that exemplifies a few linguistic phenomena of the more tiresome sort.

A Mr Neville Denson of Cumbria wrote in with a complaint about the usage of Professor Sugata Mitra, who was in the news recently for saying that:
"This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now."
- Rise of text messaging ‘has made English lessons unnecessary,’ claims leading academic, Tom Foot, The Independent, 2 August 2013, www.independent.co.uk
Mr Denson objected to the phrases "very essential" and "a bit unnecessary" on the grounds that:
I'm confused. When I was at school, admittedly a long time ago, the words "unnecessary" and "essential" did not need to be qualified.
   Now, it seems, things have changed. I accept that a living language will change, but I worry when a professor ... tells us he finds grammar and spelling were "very essential" a hundred years ago but are now "a bit unnecessary".
   Perhaps essential no longer means essential, and unnecessary no longer means unnecessary ...[remainder snipped]
- Neville Denson, St Bees, Cumbria, i, 5 August 2013, #840
This looks a shining example of a couple of errors of prescriptivism. One is recency illusion: " the belief or impression that something is of recent origin when it is in fact long-established"; the other is belief in counterfactual rules that aren't supported by evidence of educated usage.

Take "very essential" first. A look at Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows normalised frequency of print use, shows that it's certainly not new. The earliest example I can find in Google Books is 1612 (in A Discussion of the Answere of M. William Barlow, D. of Diuinity, to the Booke Intituled: the Iudgement of a Catholike Englishman Liuing in Banishment for His Religion &c. Concerning the Apology of the New Oath of Allegiance. Written by the R. Father, F. Robert Persons of the Society of Iesus - page 21).

The overall pattern is that its print use peaked around 1780-1820, then has continuously declined ever since. Unless Mr Denson went to school in the early 1600s, the idea that it's new is a clear case of recency illusion.

very essential, UK English 1600-2000 - click to enlarge
As to its correctness, even a cursory skim of Google Books finds "very essential" to be a frequent and highly mainstream usage, found in the most formal and respectable of texts. It's not difficult to find its use by generally acclaimed authors:
  • "... a pupa, probably differing in no very essential respect from the pupa of other cirripedes "- Charles Darwin
  • "Another circumstance very essential for her to know ..." - Jane Austen
  •  "... whose names, quality, and experience, were very essential to the success of the undertaking ..." - Oliver Goldsmith
  • "Margaret was not yet mistress of two very essential qualifications ..." - Elizabeth Missing Sewell
  • "... and told her such particulars as are very essential to the good of the family ..." - Daniel Defoe
  • "... a ceremony, no doubt, very essential to discipline ..." - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
    I do hold it very essential that the family with which you connect yourself ..." - Charles Dickens
  • "... it is a very essential part of it" - Virginia Woolf.
Now to "a bit unnecessary". This too is demonstrably mainstream, with the proviso that it's an informal usage that appears mostly in dialogue (see Google Books). It has a shorter pedigree than "very essential" - the earliest examples I can find are in the first decade of the 20th century (see Google Books again). However, this cut-off probably reflects not the use of a modifier on "unnecessary", but the usage of "a bit" to mean "somewhat". Skimming comparable examples (e.g. "a bit odd", "a bit strange" etc) suggests this use of "a bit" only took off at the beginning of the 20th century. It is, however, easy to find other book examples of constructions that qualify "unnecessary": for example, "slightly unnecessary", "rather unnecessary", "a little unnecessary", and "a trifle unnecessary".

In both cases, Mr Denson's objection looks to be a close variant on the belief - one that unfortunately has taken root in ESL teaching - that 'extreme adjectives' aren't gradable (for instance, the idea that you can't say "very ancient", because extremity of age is already inherent in "ancient"). But as with that supposed rule - see Very extreme adjectives - there appears to be no evidence in educated usage of anything being wrong with applying modifiers to "essential" and "unnecessary".

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. As you know, my feelings on the importance of standardised codings in language don't wholly map onto yours ... but there's probably better than 90% agreement.
    One criticism I frequently attract is use of "almost exactly" (as it «it was almost exactly thirty years ago that I first met Filkins»).

    The mathematician in me agrees with my critics that something is either exact or it isn't ... but the part of me which is a vernacular user of a rich language vigorously rejects the idea that this can be carried over into general applicability. (As you once said, and I have often borrowed: «language is not algebra».)