Thursday, February 09, 2006

Shall We Conference?

What is wrong with “confer”?

Proofreading an education textbook, I learn that students should “conference” with their teachers regarding the topics for independent research projects. I am now faced with a quandary.

I know that the field of education is rife with jargon, buzzwords, and neologisms, and that it bends words, attributing particular meanings to old words: in this book alone we have students “partnered” rather than “paired” or “teamed up with.” We have “telescoped” curricula, and “authentic problem solving,” and “exceptional students.” We indulge in nounification, and we verb perfectly good nouns.

And I can see the point, sometimes, in bending an old word when you need a new one, or in verbing a noun that you need to make an action of. But in the case of “conference,” we have this verb—“confer”—that means “to consult or converse” (Oxford Canadian Dictionary). So why do we need to take the noun “conference” (“1. a meeting for discussion or presentation of information, ex. a regular one held by an association or organization.”), and use its sixth definition “to take part in a conference or conference call.”) in place of a shorter, older, more precise pre-existing verb like “confer” or “consult”? What purpose is served, what more precise shade of meaning distinguished?

"Conference" as a verb, while accepted by CanOx, isn’t really that new, alas. The Compact Oxford lists a nineteenth century citation. So it’s an icky usage with a small pedigree. One doesn’t see “conferencing” discussed in very many usage books. The Careful Writer (Bernstein, 1972) doesn’t mention "conference" as a troublesome word at all. CMOS 15 doesn’t see fit to mention it, and neither does The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996). So maybe it’s not a big deal among usage nuts. Maybe it’s sufficiently old to be acceptable. Maybe I’m just too damned hyphenated anyway. (Aside: if people who geek out over grammar are grammarians, what can we call people who geek out over usage? Usarians? Usurers? Ill-used?).

At least one other source attributes "conferencing" to the profession of education. The discussion of the practice, however, does not provide any information that would distinguish this usage from a more standard usage of "conferring":
The profession of education is perhaps responsible for the origin of the term "conferencing" and its use as both noun and adjective, as well as the use of the term "conference" as a verb. Be that as it may, conferencing skills often spell the difference between successful and unsuccessful teaching and supervision.

In editing, I’ve let "conference" stand—at least in this textbook. I’d like to conference over its propagation to other disciplines, though.

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