Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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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Usage masochism

I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

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Value added

From Eric Baković:

A paper of mine that was just published included the following sentence in the abstract, helpfully "corrected" by an overzealous copy-editor:

The focus [of this chapter] is on two main goals of phonological description and analysis: the establishment of generalizations about which members of a set of posited phonological constituents are irreducibly basic and that are derived, and the establishment of generalizations about the contexts in which phonological constituents are and are not found.

Interestingly, virtually the same sentence is repeated in the introduction, with "which are derived" intact.

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Five years ago in LLOG

Following up on a suggestion to bring back classic (or at least old) posts, here's one I'd completely forgotten: "Was Strunk imitating Quintilian?", 3/28/2009. Bill Walderman asked whether the "rule" prohibiting clause-initial position for however might have been an imitation of Latin and Greek second-position elements, and especially the treatment of autem.

After a two-cup-of-coffee research project, I concluded that Bill's idea is a plausible one:

[T]his whole line of reasoning is speculative at best. But it might help explain where Will Strunk got the strange impulse to declare that Mark Twain used however incorrectly two-thirds of the time.

 

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Once more vnto the Breach

A comment on a recent post:

In reference to: This ties in perfectly with the recent post entitled "Once more on the present continuative ending -ing in Chinese" in two ways:

Entitled is incorrect. TITLED is correct.

Unless the letters are "entitled" to an ice cream cone. :)

This is nonsense, as usual asserted confidently without any evidence. Given LLOG's reputation, it's probably a trolling attempt — but I'll bite anyhow, since some of our readers may have been bullied in similar fashion.

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I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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"Hemingway" on Hemingway

Several people have written to me about the so-called "Hemingway" app, which offers to give you detailed stylistic advice about your writing.  One useful way to evaluate programs of this kind is to see what they do with good writing — and given this effort's name, it makes sense to check out its opinion about the prose of Ernest Hemingway.

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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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Can it be true?

John McIntyre ("You have not seen it all yet", You Don't Say 1/17/2014) relays a correspondent's claim to have gotten this note from her college professor:

Look up Strunk and White (1918) for good rules on writing.  Also, I recommend you do not use prepositions at the beginning or end of sentences their use does not reflect well on the writers. 

I do not agree with you on your point and from now on I will mark you down if you use prepositions to begin or end ssentences as you have now been advised to do so.  Once you get out of my class use them anywhere you would like.  

Other people like Winston Churchill had the same thought as you when his editors made the same correction.  Churchill said, "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."  So you have good company of those who disagree with using proper grammar — or at least this rule in grammar.

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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Better directly: unh?

Anyone who loves language will surely cut a lot of slack for a magazine that will describe the Sunday Assemblies (increasingly popular non-religious Sunday gatherings of atheists in England) as "non-prophet organizations" (The Economist, 26 October 2013, p.34). It remains my favorite magazine, and its delicious puns are only part of the reason. But what the hell is going on with language like this (same issue, p.15)?

This newspaper has argued before that it is better directly to tax investors, workers and consumers.

Better directly? What does that mean? I had to go back a few words and re-read.

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Reaching a crescendo?

There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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