Archive for Prescriptivist poppycock

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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The accusative of panic

On the Muskegon Opinion page at m live in Michigan, Paula Holmes-Greeley posed a Question of the Day: After this election, what will pull our country together. Among the clowns who answered the call for comments (people saying that we should start an impeachment movement, or that all the Republicans should jump into the sea), Harry Masters posted this comment:

What will pull the country together?

The question should be "What/Whom has so divided our country?"

My question is different: What or who is responsible for teaching Americans grammar so badly that when commenting online, i.e. communicating publicly rather than conversing, they will change who to whom just as a shot in the dark, to cover themselves against the vague fear that who might be incorrect? What or who is the source of the nervous cluelessness that leads to this sort of panic-attack accusative?

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And the winner of the Metcalf Prize is…

Allan Metcalf chose this fake rule as the winner in his competition to see who could come up with the stupidest fake yet convincing prescriptive rule of English:

Because of should not be used to modify a sentence in the future tense, since it is a logical fallacy to impute a cause to something that is not (yet) true. Rather, a construction such as due to or owing to should be used, or the sentence should be rewritten to be more clear.

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Cage fight

Yesterday's offerings on the New York Times site include what seems to have been designed as a descriptivist vs. prescriptivist cage fight. They picked Robert Lane Greene of The Economist for their descriptivist and Bryan Garner as their prescriptivist, but unfortunately the two men soon start falling into an unseemly state of agreement. The last thing you want in a cage fight is two hulking battlers shaking hands and each expressing the feeling that the other is a good-hearted and well-meaning fellow. "Maybe we're getting somewhere," says Garner at the beginning of his second piece in the debate, pleased that some common ground is emerging: "…you and I are getting closer together." Oh, no! No blood?

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When I split an infinitive, God damn it [...] it will stay split

In the spirit of Geoff Pullum's lyrical prescriptive poppycock offering, I can offer some Raymond Chandler in verse and letter. And this being Language Log, I will follow it with a light dessert of cheap science. Here's a small sample of Chandler's 1947 poem Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive for your edification:

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.

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Mocking prescriptive poppycock in song

Language Log readers who have not seen The Very Model of an Amateur Grammarian on "The Stroppy Editor" should check it out. Sing it (or imagine it sung), fairly fast, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the very model of a modern major-general" from The Pirates of Penzance — the same tune that Tom Lehrer used for his astonishing accomplishment in performing to music the entire list of elements in the periodic table of the elements.

[Hat tip to Julian Bradfield.]

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A quantitative history of which-hunting

In a comment yesterday, Jonathon Owen pointed us to a fascinating post at Arrant Pedantry on Which Hunting (12/23/2011). You should read the whole thing, but as a teaser, here's the key graph:

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