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Do We Appreciate the Breadth of Appreciate?

Recently, I read some writing advice that stumped me. It came down to:

Don’t use appreciate to mean “value.”

This was news to me. Was it true? Had I missed some nuance about appreciate all these years?

I was suspicious, though, because of the rule’s negative tone (the original didn’t include the word don’t but the meaning was there) and its absoluteness. Both are frequently found in zombie rules. And I do mean frequently: Of 100 usage zombies I’ve collected so far, all are absolute, and only 5 can’t be put in a “don’t” format.

Off to the dictionaries I went. I started with American Heritage, which listed five transitive definitions and one intransitive definition:

v.tr.

1. To recognize the quality, significance, or magnitude of: appreciated their freedom.

2. To be fully aware of or sensitive to; realize: I appreciate your problems.

3. To be thankful or show gratitude for: I really appreciate your help.

4. To admire greatly; value.

5. To raise in value or price, especially over time.

v.intr.

To increase in value or price, especially over time.

There it was in number four: “to admire greatly; value.” Did other dictionaries share this definition? Yes. Almost all the American and British dictionaries I checked listed this definition. Oxford Dictionaries Online seems to be the hold out; it doesn’t recognize the “value” definition of appreciate in any of its dictionaries, British, American, or Canadian. Yet the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does, and it’s the second-oldest definition listed, first used in print in 1648.

What, then, is the source of the criticism? On to the usage guides.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage had only a brief entry on appreciate, but it put the problem into perspective:

Ever since Ayres 1881 [Alfred Ayers, The Verbalist (1881)] various critics have felt it necessary to find fault with one sense or another of appreciate. Not infrequently one critic approves the very sense another disparages. … One century of criticism has produced no clear, consistent, and legitimate concern.

Appreciate appears to be a word that usage commentators blindly attack to put their personal stamp on language usage. Someone gets a bee in their bonnet, decides to not like something, and tells the world to do the same—without providing any evidence.

Usage commentators, then, appreciate appreciate, but not in the way they should.

Language users, though, do seem to appreciate the word for what it is. Searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, British National Corpus, and the Corpus of Canadian English resulted in examples of all the definitions. I found similar results in searches of both the US and UK versions of Google Books.

The “value” usage didn’t come up as often as some of the others, but here we come full circle. Dictionary definitions are generally ordered by usage. The more frequently a usage is used, the higher it is on the list (historical dictionaries, like the OED, list definitions from oldest to newest). Our condemned “value” usage is low on the list in dictionaries. In this case, as in most, our dictionaries are accurately reflecting how we are really using words, not how certain folks would like us to.

“Don’t use appreciate to mean ‘value’” is indeed a zombie rule, coming from someone’s bag of personal preferences. Language users, and copyeditors, appreciate all of appreciate’s beauty.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

A version of this article was originally published on 4/29/14 on Copyediting.com.

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