Archive for Peeving

25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes"

The following is a guest post by Lauren Squires.


While "grammar nerds" are psyched about Weird Al's new "Word Crimes" video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don't do things the "correct" way. What's behind linguists' reactions are at least three factors.

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Word Crimes

For his new album Mandatory Fun, Weird Al Yankovic has crafted the ultimate peever's anthem: "Word Crimes," to the tune of last summer's big hit, "Blurred Lines."

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Tilting at hashtags

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So appealing

A few days ago, (someone using the initials) C D C commented:

I get so annoyed when I hear sloppy English on the news.
Today I heard that one of the killers of that soldier in London was going to "appeal his sentence" instead of "appeal against his sentence"!

This was a free-floating peeve, completely unrelated to the content of the post  ("The case of the persevering pedestrian", 4/7/2014) or to any of the previous comments — C D C apparently mis-interpreted our discussion of grammatical analysis as one of those articles meant to stir up "Angry linguistic mobs with torches" that the media, especially in Britain, features from time to time.

And as usual for peevers, C D C was not at all curious about the nature and history of the usage in question, and was therefore soon exposed as ignorant as well as intolerant.

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Laowai: the old furriner

Lǎowài 老外 (lit., "old foreign") is a ubiquitous term for a certain type of person from abroad in China, and dictionaries almost invariably gloss it as "foreigner".  Yet the subtleties and nuances of the term seem almost endless, and they can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  To try to get a handle on this colloquial expression, I asked a number of laowai who have had long experience in China what they thought of this appellation that they had doubtless been called hundreds of times and some Chinese friends who most likely had had occasion to employ that designation themselves.

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I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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Media uptake on uptalk

Yesterday afternoon, UC San Diego Linguistics grad student Amanda Ritchart presented her research (joint with Amalia Arvaniti) on the use and realization of uptalk in Southern California English at the 166th Acoustical Society of America meeting. This work is profiled in the ASA's press room, and has thus far received a fair amount of attention. You can hear and/or read about it on KPBS (San Diego's public radio station), at WBUR's Here & Now, on BBC News, and in the Washington Post. (See also this shout-out on the Linguistic Society of America website.)

Uptalk has been discussed many times here on Language Log, so regular readers are probably not unfamiliar with it. But one of the most recent Language Log posts on the topic ("Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013) shows how relatively unaware of this long-standing feature of many varieties of English some folks still are. So the media coverage of Ritchart & Arvaniti's work is welcome — and on the whole pretty good, if a little biased toward a "wow, it's spreading to men!" interpretation of the research results, which kinda misses the point. But of course, if you scroll down to the comments (why oh why do I ever scroll down to the comments???), you'll see that many appear to think that the use of rising intonation at the ends of (some!) statements is the clearest evidence we have of the decline of western civilization. Sigh.

Update — more here.

 

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Plural problems

Reader SN writes:

One of my students has just received extensive comments on a MS. Some were extremely helpful, others less so. Two in the latter category were:

The plural of behaviour is not necessary.

The term ‘variation’ subsumes the plural. Eliminate the ‘s’ here and throughout.

“Behaviours” troubled me the first few times I came across it, but  I am now happy that there is a difference between saying an animal shows a range of behaviour and saying it has a range of behaviours. I had never come across this attitude to variation though. Do you think Elgar was aware of his solecism when he named his "Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra ("Enigma”)",?

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A century of complaints about business jargon

Joshua Friedman traces this strain of peevery back to the early 20th century ("Jargon: It’s not the business world’s fault!  Why we blame the wrong people for our most annoying phrases", The Boston Globe 9/15/2013):

“The spoken [English] of the Americans is now taking on a very pronounced commercial colour,” wrote the British expatriate editor Douglas S. Martin in a 1914 article for The Academy and Literature. “At the tea-tables in the St. Regis, in New York, and the Copley Plaza in Boston…the breezy gossip of the American woman is simply redolent of the broker’s office, the curb market and the warehouse.”

No realm was safe from this commercial talk. Young clergymen, for instance, were warned not to speak of “selling” a new idea to their congregations. “Just a bit envious of the precision and efficiency he notes in his visit to the president of the tomato-can factory,” wrote Lloyd C. Douglas in the Oct. 12, 1922, issue of The Christian Century, “he even finds it pleasant to adopt the tomato-can president’s business lingo, and tries to think of himself as a manufacturer. He is a manufacturer of ideals, he says.”

But when one looks closer at the complaints about business language being leveled in the 1910s and 1920s, one discovers a surprise: The offensive terms were generally just the slang of the moment. Here’s a partial list of words and phrases that Martin railed against: “stop in,” “deliver the goods,” “win out,” “the straight dope,” “make good,” “get away with it,” “put one over,” “show down,” “come across,” “get wise,” “on the level,” “bawl him out,” “got his number,” “get his goat,” “get warm around the collar,” “hit the ceiling,” “fall for it,” “get busy.” Why did people hear these expressions as business talk?

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Frances Brooke, destroyer of English (not literally)

I don't have much to say about the latest tempest in a teapot over the non-literal use of "literally." It started, as such things often do these days, on Reddit, where a participant in the /r/funny subreddit posted an imgur image showing Google's dictionary entry for "literally" that pops up when you search on the word. The second definition reads, "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true." That was enough for the redditor to declare, "We did it guys, we finally killed English." As the news pinged around the blogosphere, we got such fire-breathing headlines as "Society Crumbles as Google Admits 'Literally' Now Means 'Figuratively'," "Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of 'Literally'," "I Could Literally Die Right Now," and "It’s Official: The Internet Has Broken the English Language."

The outrage was further heightened by the realization that (gasp!) pretty much every major dictionary from the OED on down now recognizes this sense of the word. So now we get vitriol directed toward the OED's lexicographers, who revised the entry for "literally" back in September 2011, coming from such sources as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. [Update: As Fiona McPherson points out on the OxfordWords blog, the usage was actually noted in the "literally" entry when it was first published in 1903. The 2011 revision reorganized the entry and expanded the historical record.]

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Impactful

Anne Curzan, "What to do about 'impactful'?", Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/19/2013:

If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactful about a 3. In other words, I notice the word, and I don’t especially like it.

Now, let’s be clear: There is no particularly good reason for my displeasure with this word. There are plenty of similar adjectives in the language, formed by a noun + -ful to mean “full of or having a lot of [the noun]”: for example, playful, joyful, eventful. The adjective impactful is relatively new to the language, but that’s not a good reason for my distaste either—there are lots of other new words that I like (e.g., the wonderfully playful recombobulate). The meaning of impactful is a bit vague (for example, is the impact good or bad?), but the same critique could be made of well-accepted adjectives like influential. The word may sound business jargony to some, but the data no longer fully support this connotation, as I’ll get to.

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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.

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Recency effect record?

Martyn Cornell:

Check out the comment from sportzzzgirl at the link below, “Strange development in language”, where she is complaining about the use of the verb “spell” to mean “to be relieved at their post”, which has been in the English language, as someone else quickly points out, since the 16th century … surely a record for the recency effect!

The original story is "EMT Stays on Phone With Stroke Victim For 8 Hours Trying to Find Her", Gawker 6/16/2013:

An FDNY EMT dispatcher stayed on the phone with a stroke victim for eight hours as rescuers tried to pinpoint where the distressed and slurring woman had fallen. [...]

In a letter or recognition for her actions, Emergency Medical Dispatch Capt. Philip Weiss wrote that "throughout the entirety [Hilman-Payne] worked to keep the patient awake, she never lost her own composure and remained calm while attempting to elicit more information from the patient.”

Weiss continues that Hilman-Payne “remained on the phone with the patient for almost eight hours being spelled only briefly for reasons of personal necessity.”

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Editorial terrorism

Anna Staver, "Man threatens to blow up state building over misspelled sign: Suspect blames failure to detonate on misspellings in instructions", Stateman-Journal, 5/29/2013:

A man brought a pressure cooker he claimed was a bomb into the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission office and told employees he tried to blow up their sign because it was misspelled on Wednesday morning. [...]

Leonard Burdek, 50, of Salem, told Chamberlain and the receptionist that he tried to blow up the agency’s outside sign, but the bomb didn’t work.

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Candidate for the first annual Politically Biased Peeving award

Allison Flood, "Academics chastised for bad grammar in letter attacking Michael Gove", The Guardian 5/3/2013:

It was a blistering attack on Michael Gove for eroding educational standards and "dumbing down" teaching. But now the 100 academics who wrote an open letter in March criticising the education secretary's revised national curriculum have had their own accuracy questioned. Their letter has been dubbed "simply illiterate" by the judges of the inaugural Bad Grammar awards.

The professors, from universities including Nottingham Trent, Leeds Metropolitan, Oxford and Bristol, had warned that Gove's national curriculum proposal meant children would be forced to learn "mountains of detail" for English, maths and science without understanding it. But according to the Idler Academy Bad Grammar awards, they made a string of grammatical blunders including using adjectives as adverbs and mixing singulars with plurals.

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