Archive for Usage

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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(Not) hardly working

From David DenisonHard working ISA [contrasted with] not hardly working ISA:

David's comment:

This is an ad for an ISA (Individual Savings Account – tax-free for UK taxpayers), pushing the advertiser's Stocks & Shares offering against some other ISA that (presumably) merely pays interest. For me, not and hardly are alternatives before an -ing and incompatible with each other in the sense intended ('hardly at all'), though it's easy enough to find other web examples like it, as well as examples in COCA etc. where not hardly means 'hardly at all'.

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"…should have never been there in the first place"

When I read Chris Christie quoted as saying "[I]f Mr. Pruitt is going to go, it’s because he should have never been there in the first place" (e.g. in this article and in this picture caption), the wording "should have never been" struck me as somewhat awkward compared to  "should never have been". The third option "never should have been" also seems somewhat better to me. And general usage patterns seem to agree  — the COCA corpus has 244 hits for "should never have been"  and 125 for "never should have been" vs. 51 for "should have never been", and the Google Ngram viewer shows the same order, with an even larger advantage for "should never have been":

So all three orders are Out There, but "should never have been" is the most common, while Mr. Christie's reported choice "should have never been" is in last place.

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More on "Could <verb-phrase-of-minimal-concern>"

Jeff Goodman, "Dan Hurley, front-runner for UConn job, hasn't thought about openings 'for a second'", ESPN 3/18/2018:

"Listen, I could give a crap about who's got an opening anywhere," Hurley said. "I haven't thought about it for a second. I could care less what any other school in the country that's looking for a coach or talks about me on social media — I could give two craps about that. My heart, my mind is with this program and these players that just lost a brutal game after having an amazing last couple seasons, and for me it's easy."

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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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Wait, what?

At some point in the recent past, after a few long and fuzzy quasi-days checking annotations for the DIHARD challenge, I found myself dozing off while re-reading a random e-book that turned out to be Charles Stross's Halting State, and was caught short by this sentence:

They call this place the Athens of the North — there’s got to be something you can do by yourself on a summer night, hasn’t there?

I thought to myself, "That's got to be wrong, doesn't it?"

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Annals of ambiguity

Michelle Goldberg, "Fifty Shades of Orange", NYT 12/22/2017:

At a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Donald Trump, as is his custom, called on his appointees to publicly praise him. In a performance that would have embarrassed the most obsequious lackey of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss, who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due.

Who was absorbing the abasement, "Vice President Mike Pence" or "his boss"?

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On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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Participle, preposition, whatever

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Scary good and scary bright

Victor Mair published a post yesterday under the title "Google is scary good", and reader Philip Taylor commented:

"Scary good" reads very oddly to me; would not "scarily" be more customary in such a context ?

The answer is that there are quite a few adjectives (or, perhaps one should say, adverbs homophonous with their related adjectives) that occur as modifiers of other adjectives in standard English: dead tired, cold sober, blind drunk, and plenty of others (the topic is briefly discussed by Payne, Huddleston and Pullum in this lengthy 2010 paper).

In the particular case of scary, I remember when I first heard it as a modifier, some 40 years ago, from a British linguist in Massachusetts (she had moved to America to do her PhD and never went back). She described another linguist, who at the time I had not met, as "scary bright". It registered permanently with me — one-trial learning of the construction — and I never again found it odd to hear scary as a modifier in an adjective phrase. And I never forgot the characterization.

I will now reveal who uttered the phrase, and which linguist she was describing. If you feel this is improper, or wouldn't want to know, or think candid remarks made in private by people other than Anthony Scaramucci should never be quoted in a public setting, or wouldn't like to discover that it was not who you think it was, then all I can suggest is that you resist the temptation to click on Read the rest of this entry. Just be strong: don't read on. Eschew gossiping and leaking. Preserve the privacy and anonymity of both linguists.

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Ask Language Log: "assuage"

Query from a reader:

Is it correct to use the word assuage to indicate a lessening of something? That is, it is often used in the realm of feelings, i.e. assuage hunger, assuage grief, etc. But would it be acceptable to use to indicate the lessening of something more tangible, such as assuage criminality, assuage the flow of water, assuage drug use.

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"As many people as not"

A reader from India, apparently not satisfied with the responses from WordReference and StackExchange, writes to express his problem with the phrase "They kill as many people as not", found in an article by Anne Lamott ("Anne Lamott shares all that she knows: 'Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared'", Salon 4/10/2015).

"As many people as __" is routine, so presumably the problem is "as not".

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