Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

Word rage, discreet firearm edition

Oxford University Press has published the fourth edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The name "Fowler" has been retained as a source of prestige, but this is really the work of editor Jeremy Butterfield (as the third edition was the work of Robert Burchfield). Butterfield has already been getting some press attention for some of his more curmudgeonly reactions to points of modern usage. From The Times (UK), "Modern language makes dictionary compiler see, like, red" (3/31/15):

Readers fretful about crumbling standards will be relieved, and possibly amused, that the compiler of the latest edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage has admitted to being overcome by grumpiness at some of the 250 new entries.

Jeremy Butterfield said that he was unable to hide his disdain while writing entries such as "awesome", "challenging" and "issue" – all of which are classified as clichés. So annoyed was he by the use of "like" as verbal punctuation that he suggested violence may be an appropriate response.

Ooh, violence! Looks like it's the latest episode of word rage.

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"Language cancer"

David Bandurski has posted a fine article about "The 'cancer' of all things Western" on the website of cmp (China Media Project), at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.  (3/24/15)

Bandurski draws the inspiration for the title of his article from a February piece in the Beijing Daily, in which the Taiwanese poet and critic, Yu Kwang-chung, is quoted as warning against a yǔyán ái 语言癌 ("language cancer") eroding Chinese literacy through èxìng xīhuà 恶性西化 ("malignant Westernization").

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Awful book, so I bought it

A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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Bad advice on being a good writer

Part 2 of the Wikihow listicle "Be a Good Writer" is about learning vital skills, and item 3 of part 2 says you should "Learn the rules of grammar". Where should you turn to find out what they are? The article (as accessed on March 2, 2015) says:

If you have a question about grammar, refer to a grammar book, such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White or The American Heritage Book of English Usage.

And the link attached to the title The Elements of Style is to an online reproduction of the text of the original 1918 edition of Strunk's dreadful little book of drivel.

O God, grant me thy precious gift of patience… and I need it right now.

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The manuscript they would have written

Here's a very nice case of modern sex-neutral pronoun-choice style, with the unusual feature that the antecedent for the two occurrences of singular they (which prescriptivsts hate so much) is not only a definite noun phrase, but a definite noun phrase denoting a unique individual. The sentence comes from a Buzzfeed listicle drawn from "Shit Academics Say" (@AcademicsSay) on Twitter. I underline the antecedent and the two pronouns:

We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written.

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Nervous cluelessness and getting there first

An email correspondent working for someone who is (evidently) a clueless would-be grammar purist appealed to me recently for help:

I am working with a client who insists that it is grammatically incorrect to use Get There First as a tag line. For the life of us, we cannot figure out what is grammatically incorrect about this phrase. Can you shed any light on our mystery?

Of course I can! Here at Language Log we solve half a dozen grammar mysteries of this sort before breakfast. I can not only finger the client's reaction as classic nervous cluelessness; I think I can identify the etiology of the mistake.

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No-excuses split infinitive in The Economist

I have grumbled on several previous occasions about the Economist's stubborn adherence to a brainless policy that its editors maintain: no adjuncts are to be located between the to and the verb in an infinitival clause, lest readers should get annoyed. That is, the magazine's style guide insists that the "split infinitive" construction should be avoided even though it is well known that the rule barring it is a 19th-century fiction and there is no serious rational ground for practicing the syntactic self-denial in question. The reason I grumble is that the more notable institutions like magazines or publishing houses insist on such silly rules the more money and time get wasted on enforcing compliance. So I was pleased to see this week that The Economist had slipped up and let one through. The court does not have nationwide jurisdiction, so the mogul is unlikely to ever be thrown behind bars said an article about the Pakistani blasphemy law on page 59 of the November 29th issue.

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Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions

In recent years, The New Yorker's coverage of the "descriptivist vs. prescriptivist" divide in English usage has been, shall we say, problematic. In 2012, we had Joan Acocella's "The English Wars," critiqued by Mark Liberman here and here. That was followed up by Ryan Bloom's Page-Turner piece, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which I tackled in "The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter."

In Acocella's piece, Steven Pinker is set up as a descriptivist strawman on the basis of a wildly off-the-mark reading of an essay he contributed to the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. (Pinker serves as chair of the AHD Usage Panel.) He ably defended himself in a subsequent letter to the editor and at more length in a piece for Slate, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Now another New Yorker critic, Nathan Heller, makes a mess of things in his review of Pinker's book The Sense of Style.

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Department of Redundancy Department alert!

Haters of redundancy, get ready to bristle at this email announcement I received today:

Please note that the 7th floor common room in the Dugald Stewart Building will be closed today from 10:30am until 1pm due to an event taking place.

An event taking place? But isn't taking place the only thing that events can do? Isn't taking place their whole thing, the only property they have in common? We have a redundancy here!

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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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25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes"

The following is a guest post by Lauren Squires.


While "grammar nerds" are psyched about Weird Al's new "Word Crimes" video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don't do things the "correct" way. What's behind linguists' reactions are at least three factors.

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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Word Crimes

For his new album Mandatory Fun, Weird Al Yankovic has crafted the ultimate peever's anthem: "Word Crimes," to the tune of last summer's big hit, "Blurred Lines."

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