Where to precede from here?

In marking my students’ coursework, I’ve come across a phenomenon that surprises me: the use of proceed to mean follow—that is, as the opposite of precede. I’ve found this in work by more than one student and in more than one year; other tutors have also found it. Obviously it’s a mistake and, at least in origin, it almost certainly began with someone incorrectly interpreting what proceed is normally used to mean. But then there are four possibilities as to what kind of mistake it is, which fall into two categories:

  1. It’s someone else’s fault:
    1. This is now a feature of some dialect that these students have acquired. Their mistake in this case is applying the forms of this colloquial dialect to an essay, where standard academic style is required. It’s equivalent, in other words, to using Scots words in an essay that non-Scots readers are unlikely to understand.
    2. This is not a feature of their dialect, but it’s something they’ve been taught is a feature of standard academic English. The mistake, therefore, lies in someone else’s mischaracterisation of standard academic English usage with respect to this word. The students’ only mistake is not realising that their source of information is faulty.
  2. It’s these students’ fault:
    1. The students have all come up with this on their own, and have been using proceed like this for a while without realising that this isn’t how most people use it.
    2. The word is not one these students normally use, except in writing essays, and they’ve guessed what other people mean by it.

There’s technically also a fifth possibility (which is too unlikely to include): that the students are aware that other people don’t use the word this way, but have decided to use it differently from everyone else on a whim.

Why should this be interesting? Well, apart from the question of there being different kinds of mistake (which I find slightly interesting), then it probably isn’t: I suspect that option 2.2 is the most likely, given the relative formality of the word, so there’s not much else to be said. However, if it’s one of the other cases, then that’s a bit more interesting, and I’d be intrigued if anyone reading has heard people use the word in this way. Who knows? Maybe it has a distinguished history somewhere (though it hasn’t made it into the OED if so).

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Where to precede from here?

  1. Okay, I'm confused – I really don't get what you're talking about here. Do you have an example? Would you be talking about something like 'this analysis proceeds from the idea that…'?? If so, that sounds like something I might have thought was academic English, so option 1.2 in that case (though for all I know it might be correct😀 ).

  2. Sorry. I should have given an example. They're saying things like "This sound assimilates to the proceeding sound", where it's clear from context that they mean "following", and not "preceding" (as further evidence of this, they also contrast it with preceding, saying things like "both the preceding sound and the proceeding sound are vowels").

  3. "Obviously it's a mistake…"Mistake, or innovation? Pre- means before, pro- means follow. Looks good enough to me.

  4. I am not sure it is a mistake at all. "proceed" means "going forward" which is a suitable, if awkward, substitution in the examples you gave. "next" or "following" would be better substitutions, since they include more of the connotations of serial order. But if a student is trying to avoid using the same words an annoying amount of times, then the awkwardness could be forgiven. Are you turning into (gasp!) a prescriptivist?!?

  5. "pro- means follow."Really? I'd say that, if I associated any constant meaning with the prefix as it's used in standard English, it would be something like "forward", "forth" (consider progress, proceed, produce, proffer…). In any case, mistake and innovation aren't at all mutually exclusive. Error is one of the main sources of innovation. And that's exactly what I think happened here: I think this is based on people making a false assumption about how other people use the word. That would be the mistake. That's not to say that such innovations can't become part of standard English. A large proportion of innovation almost certainly arises through mistakes of this sort, and that doesn't mean it's a mistake to use the form (although, depending on the context, it might be; just as wearing a white bow tie isn't inherently wrong, but might be a mistake according to a particular dress code).However, as I hint, it is at least possible that this is a matter of intentional innovation with no regard for how other people use the word. That would be a different matter. Then it would only be a mistake inasmuch as it's a mistake to write assignments in an idiolect your reader is unlikely to share.As I say, however, I'm pretty certain intentional innovation is a very unlikely explanation in this case.

  6. @joolie I like to think I'm not:) I think I've explained what I mean by "mistake". The point is that I think these students are making an assumption about how "proceed" is typically used in standard English, and that they're wrong in that assumption. This is their mistake.In other words, they're not wrong to use the word this way, but I believe they're mistaken if they think this is how most people use it.I see your point, which is that their use of the word is within the bounds of how the word is normally used in standard English, which justifies their assumption, and means there's no mistake.I'm not convinced though. "The proceeding letter" seems to me to be actually outside the bounds of how people normally use the word in standard contexts (and I have asked other people for their intuitions too, so it's not just me). For the record I think that some alternative with "going forward" would be equally odd.But maybe a lot of other people have different intuitions about this; I'm prepared to accept that I and the people I've asked have an unusually narrow sense of how the word's used standardly.

  7. Okay, but still; before:forward, pre:pro. It's not a perfect analogy, and might be a bit of a stretch considering that forward may also mean before, but my intuition is that it's fairly reasonable, and probably how this came about. Especially if it's referring to a linear sequence, such as of letters or phonemes."intentional innovation"That's interesting. What do you mean by that? It seems like both examples in 2 and your 5th example are intentional innovation, and both examples in 1 probably came about the same way.Or are you saying that intentional innovation requires that you believe you're inventing a new form?

  8. "Or are you saying that intentional innovation requires that you believe you're inventing a new form?"Yes, that's exactly what I mean by the term. OK, so all innovation involves some intention to do something (an intention to communicate, say, or to use words in same way as your interlocutor), so I can see how the term may potentially be slightly misleading. But not really. I think "intentional innovation" is a reasonable enough way of referring to the case where the speaker is intentionally being innovative, that is, intentionally trying to create something new, as in the fifth example.In the examples in 2, I'd say the students were being unintentionally innovative.

  9. "before:forward, pre:pro. It's not a perfect analogy, and might be a bit of a stretch … but my intuition is that it's … probably how this came about."I agree. That probably is how it came about. This is entirely consistent with what I've been saying.Innovation, analogy and error are not in any way exclusive.

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