Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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

Karen Thomson, an antiquarian bookseller in London, 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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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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