Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (59)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Comments (143)

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).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts

My post at Lingua Franca this week critiqued the following extraordinarily dumb piece of writing advice from Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those "surprisingly", "interestingly", "very", "extremely", "fortunately", "on the other hand", "almost invariably". (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like "we may consider that", "it is likely that", "there is a possibility that".)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

As you might expect, I concentrated on adverbs. I didn't comment on the fact that one of the "adverbs and adverbial phrases" cited is nothing of the sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Tangled web of the month

Reader KP sent in this gem, apparently from an internal office memo:

In order to accommodate the data merge, the Excel workbooks are locked down in various ways and utilize macros to keep the data in a consistent format. This creates rigidness in the workbooks and has made them difficult with which to work.

Comments (28)