This morning, Paul Krugman posted, Questions About Student Writing. These are questions that I feel confident that I can school the Nobel laureate on. This last term, he has been doing something that I suspect he does not often get a chance to do: teach a great big class. And now he is grading papers at the end of the term. I feel for him (a little): I used to teach classes of a couple hundred physics students and my tests were quite involved and never multiple choice. (Actually, when I first started, I gave multiple choice tests—an act of educational malpractice that I greatly regret.)
Krugman’s first question is, “How can we incentivize students to stop using ‘impact’ as a verb?” Krugman is setting up a joke, but I’ll leave that until he gets to his punchline. It is very easy to get students to stop using “impact” as a verb: don’t allow them to read economic and business books. That’s where this usage comes from. Elizabeth Bennet never tried to impact Mr Darcy’s behavior, even though she had a profound impact on it. But interestingly, “impact” as a verb is actually older than “impact” as a noun. But in the 1960s, its became something of a vogue word in the business world, and stopped meaning “to make contact” and began meaning “to have an effect.” May I humbly submit to Professor Krugman that he is part of the problem. I do, however, have an answer for him: teach them about the word “affect,” which can almost always be used instead without annoying readers.
Krugman’s second question pays off his first in good George Orwell style, “How can we impact their writing in a way that stops them from using the word ‘incentivize’?” Get it? He broke both his rules. But okay, the word is overused. Again though, what does Krugman expect? He’s teaching a bunch of business and economics students. But I don’t have a huge problem with the word “incentivize.” It is a very useful word. There are two reasons people have a problem with it. First, grammar pedants don’t like to change nouns into verbs by adding “ize” to them. Check out this amusing passage from the Grammar Cops blog:
The second reason is that “incentivize” is a young word—first sliding into our vocabulary in 1970, and from the business community that grammar snobs, like all normal people, hate.
My answer to Krugman is to give it up. There is nothing especially wrong with incentivize. But if we must, we could incentivize the use of the words “encourage” and “motivate.”
Finally, we get to the crux of the matter for Krugman, and his third question, “Can we make it a principal principle of writing that ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ mean different things, and you have to know which is which?” Well, it had to come out sometime: Paul Krugman the pedant. Homophones are just the worst thing about the English language. And in defense of the professor’s students, misspelling one does not necessarily mean that the writer is unclear about about the distinction. Speaking is fairly natural for our brains, but writing is not. My first drafts are not only filled with homophone mistakes, they are filled with assonance and rhyme errors. Words that simply sound similar cause my fingers to type them. It doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between “fat” and “that.”
As to the issue at hand, it’s very easy. “Principle” is a rule or similar. “Principal” is the main or dominant whatever. And thus, you have a high school principal, because he is the dominant administrator. Apart from Krugman’s cute “principal principle,” I don’t see a situation where anyone is confused by misspelling either of these words. And in fact, if you heard Krugman’s sentence, you wouldn’t be at all confused.
Here I have a very good answer to Krugman: stop the world. Everything happens so fast. Not only are blog posts filled with errors because we are all so determined to get things done fast, the level of copy editing in printed books is abysmal. It takes time to copy edit. And no one feels like they have it to spare. But of course, we are not going to stop the world or even slow it down. So the proper response is to assume that people (Especially students at Princeton!) know the basics of grammar, and stop bitching.
The principal means to incentivize a principle that impacts the error rate in student papers is to relax.