Archive for Peeving

The factual impenetrability of zombie rules

Frank Bruni, "What Happened to Who?", NYT 4/8/2017:

I first noticed it during the 2016 Republican presidential debates, which were crazy-making for so many reasons that I’m not sure how I zeroed in on this one. “Who” was being exiled from its rightful habitat. It was a linguistic bonobo: endangered, possibly en route to extinction.

Instead of saying “people who,” Donald Trump said “people that.” Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was “that”-ing when he should have been “who”-ing, so I was cringing when I should have been oohing.

It’s always a dangerous thing when politicians get near the English language: Run for the exits and cover the children’s ears. But this bit of wreckage particularly bothered me. This was who, a pronoun that acknowledges our humanity, our personhood, separating us from the flotsam and jetsam out there. We’re supposed to refer to “the trash that” we took out or “the table that” we discovered at a flea market. We’re not supposed to refer to “people that call my office” (Rubio) or “people that come with a legal visa and overstay” (Bush).

Or so I always assumed, but this nicety is clearly falling by the wayside, and I can’t shake the feeling that its plunge is part of a larger story, a reflection of so much else that is going wrong in this warped world of ours.

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Impact Effect

I recently saw a list of revisions suggested by the editor of a scientific journal, which combined technical issues with a number of points of English usage, including these two:

Please try to avoid the word ‘impact,’ unless it is part of a proper name.  It is now over-used (its ‘impact’ is diminished), and doesn’t communicate anything specific.  If used as a verb, it is better to describe exactly what happens.  As a noun, ‘effect’ (or similar) would suffice.  For example, “The impact on quality of life…” could be rendered as “The reduction in quality of life…” […]

Be clear and direct; avoid the passive voice.

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More than cat videos

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Uninformed peeving reappears

I was just about to write a post about how pundits seem to have given up on ignorant peeving about "new" usages that are actually decades or centuries old, when Victor Mair sent me a link to Alex Beam, "Words we can live without", Boston Globe 12/23/2016. And Mr. Beam is a worthy heir to the earlier pundits who were "At a loss for lexicons" — or maybe he was just up against a deadline without any ideas for a column?

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Mad

I'm in San Francisco for InterSpeech 2016, where I'm involved in four papers over three days, so blogging will probably be a bit light. But I have a few minutes before the morning starts, so let me continue the discussion of Gabriel Roth's feelings ("Paper cut to the heart", 9/8/2016) by quoting from Bill S's comment:

Some of the context for M-W's reply is (I would think) the prescriptivist injunctions against the use of "I feel like" for "I think that" — I've seen waves of complaints about "I feel like" washing up on various internet shores over the past year (may be recency effect though). If read as ironic deployment of prescriptivism against prescriptivism, it has enough artfulness to counter the rudeness (to me, anyway — you don't get a good opportunity for a one-liner like that every day, and it would be a shame to pass it up).

Indeed: some prior LLOG coverage:

"'I feel like'", 8/24/2013
"Feelings, beliefs, and thoughts", 5/1/2016
"Feeling in the Supreme Court", 5/3/2016

And it's also worth quoting John McIntyre's comment:

I rather thought his set of tweets was a labored attempt at humor that, whether he knows better or not, appeared to betray an ignorance of what dictionaries are for and how lexicographers work. His talking about feeling ambivalent made the Merriam-Webster response concise and apt. The language doesn't care how you feel about it.

But I want to add a note about the history and current status of mad used to mean "angry",  which makes this case an especially problematic one to use as the starting point for a complaint that "Merriam-Webster is turning into the 'chill' parent who lets your friends come over and get high".

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Peeve map abandoned

Alison Flood, "Oxford Dictionaries halts search for most disliked word after 'severe misuse'", The Guardian 8/26/2016

The #OneWordMap, an online survey soliciting readers’ least favourite words, is abandoned after site is flooded with offensive choices

It was intended to be a lighthearted quest to find the least popular word in the English language, but only a day after it launched, Oxford Dictionaries has ended its search following “severe misuse” of the feature by visitors to their website.  

The dictionary publisher had invited users around the world to name their least favourite English word, intending to highlight differences between countries, genders and ages. When it opened for submissions on Thursday, “moist” was an early contender to top lists in the UK, US and Australia. It was later overtaken by “Brexit”, which went on to head the UK’s list, with “British” in third place.  

But the #OneWordMap feature has now been closed, with a notice blaming the shutdown on “severe misuse”.

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A confusion of languages and names

Xinjiang  新疆 (lit., "New Frontiers / Borders / Boundaries") is the northwesternmost and largest (one sixth of the whole country) among all of China's 34 provincial-level administrative units.  It got its present official name in the 1880s under the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), but it has also been called, among other names, "Western Regions", Eastern Turkestan, and Uyghurstan.  When suitable, I prefer to refer to this region as Eastern Central Asia (ECA), since the latter designation is purely geographical in nature and has no political implications.

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McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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That false and senseless Way of Speaking

Some eloquent 17th-century Quaker peeving, from The history of the life of Thomas Ellwood: Or, an account of his birth, education, &c. with divers observations on his life and manners when a youth: … Also several other remarkable passages and occurrences. Written by his own hand. To which is added, a supplement by J. W., 1714:

Again, The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (Y O U to One, instead of T H O U ;) contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of T R U T H  T H O U to One, and Y O U to more than One) which had always been used, by G O D to Men, and Men to G O D, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, Y O U to One ; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men. This Evil Custom I had been as forward in as others and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.

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Feelings, beliefs, and thoughts

Molly Worthen, "Stop Saying 'I Feel Like'", NYT 4/30/2016:

In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”  

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

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Grammatical politics

Geoff Nunberg posted this on his Facebook wall, with the note "Luring the grammar scolds in the Mission":

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The Washington Post concedes on singular they

Bill Walsh, the keeper of the Washington Post's style manual, buries the lede in "The Post drops the ‘mike’ — and the hyphen in ‘e-mail’", 12/4/2015. After 16 paragraphs about mic, email, and Walmart, he finally gets to the most important part, namely the "cautious" adoption of singular they, both for "gender-nonconforming" people and for "those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years":

I was a little surprised that the singular they has drawn stronger online reaction, both positive and negative, than the other style changes, especially because we are approaching it pretty cautiously. The stylebook entry retains the old advice to try to write around the problem, perhaps by changing singulars to plurals, before using the singular they as a last resort.

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

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, 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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