Archive for Prescriptivist non-poppycock

The Economist finally comes around

From Lane Greene at The Economist, "The ban on split infinitives is an idea whose time never came," with boldfacing by yours truly:

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW was once so angry with a subeditor that he complained to the newspaper. “I ask you, sir,” Shaw wrote, “to put this man out.” The cause of his fury? The editor had insisted on “correcting” split infinitives. “Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place,” Shaw fulminated, “without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between ‘to suddenly go’, ‘to go suddenly’ and ‘suddenly to go’.”

This spring a new edition of The Economist’s style guide is published*. Many of its changes are of a kind only a copy-editor would notice; but on an issue that has set teeth grinding for centuries, it marks a sea-change that Shaw would have appreciated. It says infinitives may be split.

While this strikes a blow for linguistic sanity, it is not an unmixed blessing. The Economist's prohibition of split infinitives within its pages has provided a steady supply of topics for blogospheric descriptivists (especially those with the initials "GKP"), who will now have to find something else to write about.

Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
No-excuses split infinitive in the Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
To more than justify the split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
At last, a split infinitive in The Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Economist Sticklers trying to bug me (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Rules that Eat Your Brain (Geoff Pullum on Lingua Franca)
The Economist Should Lighten Up and Split Some Infinitives  (Geoff Pullum on Slate)
Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish (Gabe Doyle on Motivated Grammar)
To offensively split infinitives (Stan Carey on Sentence First)

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DACA litigation, the “illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant” issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA’s suspension as “undocumented aliens” rather than “illegal aliens,” and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as “illegal” instead of “undocumented.”  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this “is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law”); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term “undocumented immigrants”). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, “there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase ‘illegal alien’  offensive,” Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term “undocumented.” [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday’s DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

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Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

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Don't skunk me, bro!

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

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Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question"

The tweets above have extra salience for me, because I used begs the question in the traditional way ('assumes the answer to the question in dispute') in my most recent post on LAWnLinguistics. I did so with some trepidation—not because I was worried that someone would think I was using the phrase wrong, but because I was worried that someone would think I was using it in the 'raise the question' sense and wonder what the question was that I thought was being begged.

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Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

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John McIntyre's notes on 'Word Crimes'

John Lawler (thank you!) pointed me to this blog entry by John McIntyre, which was written in response to readers' requests for his reactions to "Weird Al" Yankovic's Word Crimes.  I see that Mark Liberman is already a McIntyre fan (here, here, here, for instance), but I hadn't known about him before. I should — as John Lawler pointed out to me, he's an Oriole fan; and the Baltimore Sun, where he is an editor, was our family's daily paper through all my school years.

His notes on 'Word Crimes' really just consist of references that he agrees with, one by Stan Carey at Sentence first, and the recent guest post by Lauren Squires here on Language Log. He also refers to a couple of nice posts by our resident curmudgeon Geoff Pullum both here on LLog (on the curious English of police reports and the inability of journalists going on about the passive voice to accurately identify passive constructions) and in Lingua Franca (on ambiguity).

I don't have a very good excuse for passing this on — I'm just pleased to have been alerted to the existence of such a thoughtful and articulate writer who happens to be a copy editor by profession (and is a fellow Orioles fan!).  I love his self-description: "mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics."

I'm so glad that he's teaching editing, and wish there were more copy editors who were "moderate prescriptivists" like him!

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