Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

To more than justify the split infinitive

As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

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Ask LLOG: "Fail to VERB" should not be used?

From J.D.:

A friend of mine – philosophy professor – just got this comment from a copy editor regarding a paper he submitted for publication:

Copy editor: "As per the style, 'fail to' (followed by a verb) should not be used."  

As in: "I fail to see why this sentence is ungrammatical" (my friend's humorous request for guidance on Facebook).  

So far, nobody has been able to come up with a reason why "fail to VERB" should be a problem. Perhaps Language Log fodder?

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The possessive Jesus of composition

Let me explain, very informally, what a predictive text imitator is. It is a computer program that takes as input a passage of training text and produces as output a new text that is composed quasi-randomly except that it matches the training text with regard to the frequencies of word or character sequences up to some fixed finite length k.

(There has to be such a length limit, of course: the only text in which the word sequence of Melville's Moby-Dick is matched perfectly is Melville's Moby-Dick, but what a predictive text imitator trained on Moby-Dick would do is to produce quasi-random fake-Moby-Dickish gibberish in which each sequence of not more than k units matches Moby-Dick with respect to the transition probabilities between adjacent units.)

I tell you this because a couple of months ago Jamie Brew made a predictive text imitator and trained it on my least favorite book in the world, William Strunk's The Elements of Style (1918). He then set it to work writing the first ten sections of a new quasi-randomly generated book. You can see the results here. The first point at which I broke down and laughed till there were tears in my eyes was at the section heading 'The Possessive Jesus of Composition and Publication'. But there were other such points too. Take a look at it. And trust me: following the advice in Jamie Brew's version of the book won't do your writing much more harm than following the original.

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Secret appearances

The Economist, in a leader last April about the Panama Papers revelation, which I really should have brought to your attention sooner (it fell through the cracks of my life), told us that "The daughters of Azerbaijan's president appear secretly to control gold mines."

They appear secretly? Where are these secret appearances? Are they scheduled in advance, or do they occur randomly? And how would a secret appearance help to control a gold mine?

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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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