Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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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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.

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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.

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Popes and prophets

Professor Heinz Giegerich has pointed out to me that in the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation of his position at least two BBC reporters have been referring to the next pope, whoever that might be, using singular they. I don't have specific word-for-word quotations, but (apparently) reporters have been using phrases like The next pope will find that they, or Anyone who expects the cardinals to elect them, and so on. Further evidence (to be added to evidence like the case of "They are a prophet") that singular they is not motivated solely or necessarily by ignorance or indecision about which gender is appropriate. The next pope, whoever they may be, will surely be a man, so the pronoun he would be appropriate and unobjectionable. But we have no idea which man, so singular they also feels entirely appropriate, contrary to what all the dumb usage pontificators say.

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Coming up: lecture in Seattle

One week from tomorrow (Tuesday) night I give my Jesse and John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. And although the summary published on the registration page is entirely accurate, I would still conjecture that as many as half the people planning to attend will think that the scandal is people who write bad. They will assume that I will be dinging ordinary folks for writing (and speaking) ungrammatically. Little will they know what lies in store: that my target is the grammarians. It is the rule-givers and knuckle-rappers and nitpickers that I will be castigating for their ignorance of the content of the principles of English syntax.

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The case for plural "data"

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"The data are": How fetishism makes us stupid

Pedantry, Dr. Johnson said in the Rambler, is the unseasonable ostentation of learning. And learning is never so unseasonable as when its display impedes the workaday business of making sense. Take the sentence from The Economist that I ran across when I was writing my word-of-the-year piece for Fresh Air on "big data":

Yet even as big data are helping banks, they are also throwing up new competitors from outside the industry.

You can see what happened here—the copy editor (it had to be a copy editor, since nobody competent to write about big data would dream of treating the phrase as anything but singular) saw data followed by a singular pronoun and a singular form of be, and corrected them to plurals. The problem is that if you construe big data as a plural then it has to denote a collection of large things, in the same way that big elephants denotes a set of elephants that are each large, not a large set of elephants of any size. In that case, I suppose big data would have to be a collection of facts like this:

π = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751…

rather than, say

π > 3

which is a little bitty datum. If you took the sentence at face value, that is, it would be what we grammarians term “idiotic.” But I doubt whether the Economist's copy editor gave a toss, as they lot say. Sense, shmense—he or she wasn’t about to get caught out treating data as a singular noun.

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Learning to speak Imaginary American

Tim Parks, "Learning to Speak American", NYR:

In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.

Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. [...]

Or again, does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

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Preaching the incontrovertible to the unconvertible

I guess that if doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, it is insane for me to imagine that I could do any good by telling the readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education that the rule banning which from restrictive relative clauses is "a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups." But that's what I do in the post published at one minute past midnight on the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. "A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy," I called it. I blame Stan Carey for infecting me with my false optimism about changing people's minds: on his blog "Sentence first" last year he actually reported getting some traction: according to a Twitter message he saw, he actually converted an editor.

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Sometimes there's no unitary rule

Some Language Log readers may feel that the two rules I discuss in my latest post on Lingua Franca, "One Rule to Ring Them All," are stated too loosely for their consequences to be clear. Let me explain here just a little more carefully. The topic under discussion is whether who should be in the nominative form (who) or the accusative form (whom) in sentences with structures broadly like [1]:

[1] He's the man who(m) everyone says will one day be king.

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