Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

Strictly correct plurals of flower names

It has come to my attention that many laypeople, even Language Log readers, are using incorrect plurals for flower names. "Geraniums" indeed! "Crocuses", for heaven's sake! Please get these right. There follows a list of 30 count nouns naming flowers, together with their approved grammatically correct plurals. Don't use incorrect plurals any more. Shape up.

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Choosing their pronouns for oneself

The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

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McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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Systematic wanting

Says Bagehot, the pseudonym-cloaked correspondent of The Economist who writes a page of comment on British affairs every week (25 June 2016, p. 27 in Brexit-delayed UK edition; not present in the US edition dated June 25):

As early as January a top Brexiteer freely admitted to Bagehot that his campaign planned to turn the public against its leaders; it wanted systematically to delegitimise Britain's pro-EU political, bureaucratic and business elites.

Is that the first time you've heard anyone talking about systematic wanting? It's a first for me. But of course The Economist is just sticking to its dreadful policy of syntactic self-harm, by mechanically moving adverbs to the left so that they don't follow to in an infinitival complement.

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Don't be awkward

Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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The "split verb rule": a fortiori nonsense

John McIntyre has identified the "split verb rule" as "The Dumbest Rule in the AP Stylebook" (You Don't Say, 4/9/2016):

[A]s you look through Garner, Fowler, MWDEU, and language authorities whom you reckon by the dozens on the subject of the split infinitive, you will not find them treating what the AP Stylebook imagines is a problem with splitting a compound verb. That is because placing an adverb between the auxiliary verb and main verb is perfectly idiomatic English, and has been so for half a dozen centuries and more. The authorities do not identify a problem there. If the split infinitive bugaboo is nonsense, than the split compound bugaboo is a fortiori nonsense. John Bremner dismisses it in Words on Words: “Those who would ban splitting a compound verb are even more antediluvian than antisplitinfinitive troglodytes.”

Since many reporters habitually observe this imaginary rule, I have to conclude that it is a linguistic artifice perpetrated by journalism schools, with the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook supplying aid and comfort.

It is time, past time, for this stylebook entry to go to a crossroads and lie down.

In my opinion, John is being unfair to troglodytes here: the "split verb rule", like the prejudices against sentence-initial conjunctions and singular they, is a relatively recent pop-prescriptivist invention, not an attempt to preserve an ancient principle.

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Linguistic reaction at The New Yorker

Mary Norris, "Comma Queen: The Singular 'Their'", The New Yorker 3/4/2016:

Last year, at the convention of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), in Pittsburgh, everyone was talking about “the singular ‘their.’ ” It is the people’s choice for the gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that the English language sadly lacks.  

Many ACES stalwarts—copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists—stand ready to embrace the singular “their.” But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.

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Pressing the House of Commons swiftly

There is a designated staff member whose job at The Economist is to make the magazine (my favorite magazine) look ridiculous by moving adverbs to unacceptably silly positions in the sentence. She is still at work. This is from the December 12 issue, p. 58, in an article about preparations for a referendum next year on whether Britain should abandon its membership in the European Union:

Most pollsters reckon a later vote is likely to boost the leave campaign. Avoidance of delay was a big reason why the government this week pressed the House of Commons swiftly to overturn a House of Lords plan to extend the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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Economist sticklers trying to bug me

My favorite magazine is deliberately trying to annoy me. In the August 22 issue of The Economist there's a feature article about the composition of the universe (dark matter, dark energy, and all that, with a beautiful diagram showing the astoundingly tiny fraction of the material in the cosmos that includes non-dark non-hydrogen non-helium entities like us), and the sub-hed line above the title (on page 66) is this:

Of what is the universe really made?

Come on! Nobody who knows how to write natural English preposes the preposition when talking about what X is made of.

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Another victim of oversimplified rules

On page 4 of the Metro newspaper today (it's distributed free on all the Edinburgh buses, so whatever its faults, the price is right) I read this sentence:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months, taking the total created over the past five years to 184.

A grammar tragedy. It's a verb agreement error. The writer recalls being told sternly that the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject noun phrase, and number seems to be the head noun, so common sense has been thrown to the winds, and the verb has wrongly been put into the singular agreement form—which, of course, is what the simplistic how-to-write books seem to demand.

In this case the correct agreement form happens to be the one that comports with the meaning: the University of Edinburgh has not been forming a number over the past year; it is the companies that have been formed, a record number of them. The singular agreement makes no sense. Lesson: verb agreement is not as mechanical and syntactic as the oversimplified handbook versions would have you believe.

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You can't break rules

From Barton Swaim, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics — the author meets Mark Sanford, then governor of South Carolina:

He had seen some articles and reviews I’d written and conceded I must be “erudite” but wondered whether I could write in a way that “the mechanic in Greenwood can understand.” (Greenwood is a small town in the western part of the state.) I was trying to explain that I could when he interrupted me. “Can you start a sentence with a preposition?”

“A preposition?” I asked. Yes, a preposition. Maybe he meant a conjunction?

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A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

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