Answering Krugman’s Three Questions

Paul KrugmanThis 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:

Some words ending in -ize have been widely disapproved in recent years, particularly finalize (first attested in the early 1920s) and prioritize (around 1970). Such words are most often criticized when they become, as did these two, vogue terms, suddenly heard and seen everywhere, especially in the context of advertising, commerce, education, or government—forces claimed by some to have a corrupting influence upon the language. The criticism has fairly effectively suppressed the use of finalize and prioritize in belletristic writing, but the words are fully standard[ized] and occur regularly in all varieties of speech and writing, especially the more formal types.

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Answering Krugman’s Three Questions

  1. The ongoing ize-ization of English is one of the ways that it precisionizes subtle distinctions in meaning. "Incentivize" doesn’t mean [i]exactly[/i] the same as "encourage" or "motivate", so there is a legitimate niche for it to fill (though "incent" as a verb is a competitor for that role).

    Standardized different spellings of homonyms, on the other hand, are an essential part of how written English conveys meaning. English orthography is not purely phonetic, instead deviating significantly in the direction of the morphemographic principle embodied by scripts like the Chinese character system. To some extent this is just to preserve etymological relationships which are obscured by pronunciation (for example, spelling the root morpheme in "[u]nation[/u]hood" and "[u]nation[/u]al" the same despite different pronunciation), but as in Chinese, having a different written form for homonyms (your / you’re / yore, for example) contributes to ease of reading. They’re an integral part of the way our writing system works, and well worth preserving.

    The errors made by people who confuse homonyms, do, at least, often have the virtue of being funny ("heroine addict", "horde of treasure", etc.).

  2. One thing about how economists and econ/business students use the word "incentive" or its variations; it’s almost always in a right-wing context. As in, cutting taxes incentivizes job creation, welfare is a disincentive to work.

    It becomes one of those magic words economists use to pretend theirs is a field whose immutable laws were discovered ages ago, and they merely have to keep explaining these laws to idiots who don’t understand — as if they are Copernican astronomers and the rest of us believe the world is carried on the back of a giant turtle.

    Many scientists who write general-interest science books use this same condescending tone (Richard Dawkins, for example, even in his useful books about evolutionary biology), and it’s irritating whenever they do so. (Really, when you write a popular science book, you should be engaging people about how exciting you find your field, not condescending to others because they do something else for a living!)

    But there’s a difference between an astrophysicist or a biologist smugly assuming anyone who doesn’t understand their explanations is a moron, and when an economist does the same. The economist, in many cases, has no proof. The laws of how transactions work and how humans engage in them aren’t laws at all; they’re assumptions using very cherry-picked data. You can’t possibly say "markets will do this" when "markets" are an artificial and ever-fluid construct.

    There are all kinds of situations where welfare, or any other social subsidy, "incentivizes" work, or sloth, or a considerable range in between. Same goes for taxes, regulations, etc. It’s the equivalent of stating that because your toddler likes to eat worms, all adult females from Stockholm would eat worms if they could, or some such. (This is really over-the-top with those writers who claim economics can be used to explain all human behavior, like in "Freakonomics." This can be amusing but it’s really silly stuff.)

    Reminds me of the old joke. Q: How many economists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: First you assume a ladder . . .

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