Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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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A decline in which-hunting?

Email from reader J.M.:

As I was perusing LL this afternoon, the title of a post you wrote caught my attention: "Metaphors which you are used to seeing in print". I know that the that/which distinction is becoming less and less distinct, but I still thought it was generally practiced in academia (I am not necessarily a proponent of the distinction, but I generally thought it was still preserved). However, in only the past couple of weeks, I have come across several examples of "restrictive which" (in your post title, a textbook for the sociolinguistics class I am teaching (published in 2007), as well as a non-fiction book on spirituality (published 2011)). Can I assume now that it is customary practice to ignore that distinction in published or collegiate writing? I didn't realize the elimination of that distinction had progressed so much from when I was in college (7 years ago).

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At last, a split infinitive in The Economist

The Economist has demonstrated several times that it would rather publish ambiguous, awkward, or even ungrammatical sentences than permit a verb-modifying adjunct to intervene between the marker to and the head verb of the infinitival clause it introduces (see here and here for two of my discussions of the topic). Last week I obtained a robustly direct reaction from an influential staff member at the magazine's offices (I've given the details on Lingua Franca today). It stated that they would not be changing their highly conservative policy — it came close to telling me to butt out. But almost immediately thereafter, I came across a sentence that (you might think) looked like counterevidence. It was in an article about computer modeling of tsunami behavior (15 June 2013, p. 82); I underline the crucial part:

To simplify the problem, the researchers looked at what happens when a computerized wave encounters a cone-shaped island on a smoothly sloping seabed in front of a straight cyber-coastline with a beach that continues to rise smoothly as it progresses inland. These approximations allow a computer to cope with the problem, yet are sufficiently similar to many real places for the conclusions drawn from them to, as it were, hold water.

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Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by "splitting an infinitive" (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

It wasn't a one-off occurrence. Look at this sentence (issue of June 1, 2013, p. 57):

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

What an appalling decision about modifier placement!

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Grammar vs. style: ignorance in The Times

Articles about English grammar in UK newspapers tend to exhibit an almost incredible degree of stupidity. In no other subject could such self-contradictory idiocy be accepted, or subjected to so little fact-checking. Today's exhibit is an article headed "English like it never should of been" by Oliver Moody in Saturday's The Times (London, 18 May 2013; don't buy a subscription just to read an article as asinine as this, but click this link if you already have a subscription; if you wasted $2.50 on hard copy as I did, look at page 3). I will deal with just one example of its boneheaded ignorance, one out of many.

This was the sub-head: "Language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak properly, a study from Cambridge reveals."

So, it is "democratic" to speak improperly? And Members of Parliament are actually doing that? Intelligent readers will seek evidence.

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On the other hand, alone

My faith in the possibility of integrity and self-criticism in humankind got a real boost the other day when I read a post on Lingua Franca in which an editor (who is also a professor in an English department) stopped to think about whether she was in the right about a construction she had been proscribing for years in the journal papers she edited, and decided that she wasn't.

Is it legitimate to say "On the other hand, …" in a text where you have not first used "On the one hand, …"? Professor Anne Curzan thought the answer was no. And for years she told authors to change on the other hand to something like in contrast if they hadn't got a preceding instance of on the one hand somewhere nearby. But then one day she got to thinking: Am I right? Is it really an error to use on the other hand alone? So she did what people interested in grammar only rarely do: she started looking at the evidence, and decided that it refuted her rule.

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Depopularization in the limit

George Orwell, in his hugely overrated essay "Politics and the English language", famously insists you should "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." He thinks modern writing "consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else" (only he doesn't mean "long") — joining togther "ready-made phrases" instead of thinking out what to say. His hope is that one can occasionally, "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin, where it belongs." That is, one can eliminate some popular phrase from the language by mocking it out of existence. In effect, he wants us to collaborate in getting rid of the most widely-used phrases in the language. In a Lingua Franca post published today I called his program elimination of the fittest (tongue in cheek, of course: the proposal is actually just to depopularize the most popular).

For a while, after I began thinking about this, I wondered what would be the ultimate fate of a language in which this policy was consistently and iteratively implemented. I even spoke to a distinguished theoretical computer scientist about how one might represent the problem mathematically. But eventually I realized it was really quite simple; at least in a simplified ideal case, I knew what would happen, and I could do the proof myself.

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