Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

The Economist finally comes around

From Lane Greene at The Economist, "The ban on split infinitives is an idea whose time never came," with boldfacing by yours truly:

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW was once so angry with a subeditor that he complained to the newspaper. “I ask you, sir,” Shaw wrote, “to put this man out.” The cause of his fury? The editor had insisted on “correcting” split infinitives. “Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place,” Shaw fulminated, “without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between ‘to suddenly go’, ‘to go suddenly’ and ‘suddenly to go’.”

This spring a new edition of The Economist’s style guide is published*. Many of its changes are of a kind only a copy-editor would notice; but on an issue that has set teeth grinding for centuries, it marks a sea-change that Shaw would have appreciated. It says infinitives may be split.

While this strikes a blow for linguistic sanity, it is not an unmixed blessing. The Economist's prohibition of split infinitives within its pages has provided a steady supply of topics for blogospheric descriptivists (especially those with the initials "GKP"), who will now have to find something else to write about.

Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
No-excuses split infinitive in the Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
To more than justify the split infinitive (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
At last, a split infinitive in The Economist (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Economist Sticklers trying to bug me (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again (Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
Rules that Eat Your Brain (Geoff Pullum on Lingua Franca)
The Economist Should Lighten Up and Split Some Infinitives  (Geoff Pullum on Slate)
Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish (Gabe Doyle on Motivated Grammar)
To offensively split infinitives (Stan Carey on Sentence First)

Comments (27)

DACA litigation, the “illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant” issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA’s suspension as “undocumented aliens” rather than “illegal aliens,” and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as “illegal” instead of “undocumented.”  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this “is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law”); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term “undocumented immigrants”). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, “there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase ‘illegal alien’  offensive,” Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term “undocumented.” [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday’s DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

Don't skunk me, bro!

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

[. ] or [. ]?

You may have thought that idea of rhinoceroses peeving about semicolons (when they're not snorting and snuffing) was silly. But the comments on Mark's post Peeving and breeding have devolved to a level of even greater silliness: the pressing question of whether to type one space after a period or two.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (74)

Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question"

The tweets above have extra salience for me, because I used begs the question in the traditional way ('assumes the answer to the question in dispute') in my most recent post on LAWnLinguistics. I did so with some trepidation—not because I was worried that someone would think I was using the phrase wrong, but because I was worried that someone would think I was using it in the 'raise the question' sense and wonder what the question was that I thought was being begged.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (49)

Ask Language Log: with + nonfinite clause?

A staff member at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, responsible for providing guidance for journalists on pronunciation, terminology, grammar, and usage, has asked me about "a particular usage of with, which seems to be doing the job of a conjunction." He wonders whether the construction in question is correct English or not. He supplies these attested examples (all already published by ABC news, so one thing we know is that on this matter the usage train has left the station):

  1. "Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote." (found here)
  2. "Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted, with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready to have his identity revealed." (found here)
  3. "President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House, with officials saying the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models." (found here)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Adverbial bravery

Comments (3)

The less… umm… fewer the better

Someone with a knowledge of usage controversies, German language, and modern political history put this on the web somewhere; I haven't been able to find out who or where:

[Hat tip: Rowan Mackay]

Comments off

Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

What a woman can't do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

"Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off