Archive for Usage advice

DACA litigation, the “illegal/undocumented alien/immigrant” issue, and a surprise

In the recent decision enjoining the suspension of DACA (but giving the government a 90-day mulligan), the court referred to the people who are affected by DACA’s suspension as “undocumented aliens” rather than “illegal aliens,” and it dropped a footnote explaining why it made that choice:

Some courts, including the Supreme Court, have referred to aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States as “illegal” instead of “undocumented.”  See, e.g.,  Texas  v.  United  States, (explaining that this “is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law”); but see  Mohawk Indust., Inc. v. Carpenter (using the term “undocumented immigrants”). Because both terms appear in the record materials here, and because, as at least one court has noted, “there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase ‘illegal alien’  offensive,” Texas v. United States, the Court will use the term “undocumented.” [pdf (citation details omitted)]

Although the court didn't similarly decide to use immigrant instead of alien, that may well be due more to the fact that alien is a frequently used term in the context of immigration law than to any view about the term's possible offensiveness.

The first case mentioned in the footnote, Texas v. United States, is the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had enjoined the DAPA program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was related to but separate from DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). That decision used the term illegal aliens rather than undocumented aliens, but like Tuesday’s DACA decision, it explained its choice of terminology.

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Able to read and write, yet illiterate

In the course of doing research for a series of posts I plan on doing, I was listening to an interview from a few years ago with Bryan Garner, and something he said bothered me. Well, actually, I was bothered by more than one thing that he said, but this post is only about one of them: Garner’s use of the word literate. And truth be told, that’s something that’s bothered me for a while.

Garner doesn’t usually use literate to mean ‘able to read and write’. Rather, he uses it as a term of praise for the kind of people and publications that use the expressions he approves of and avoid those he condemns. Thus, his usage guides tell us that the double comparative is uncommon “among literate speakers and writers,” that irrelevant is sometimes misspelled irrevelant in “otherwise literate publications,” that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge.” In contrast, pronouncing the –p– in comptroller “has traditionally been viewed as semiliterate,” as is the word irregardless and writing would of instead of would have. Saying where’s it at is “a badge of illiteracy.”

Garner would say that he’s using literate to mean ‘educated’ or ‘cultured.’ Although there’s no entry for the word in his usage guides, there is one for illiterate, which obviously illuminates Garner’s understanding of literate:

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Don't skunk me, bro!

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen continues the conversation about begs the question (Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth). Citing my previous post Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question", Jonathon describes me as writing that "the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers." I wouldn't put it that way; I did quote Mark Liberman's statement to that effect, and I did note that I had, in an instance I was discussing, decided to follow that advice, but I don't think I went so far as to offer advice to others.

As it happens, I'm meeting Jonathon for lunch (and for the first time) later today. I'm in Utah, where the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference put on by the Brigham Young law school was held yesterday, near where Jonathon lives. So I will have it out with him over the aspersion he has cast on my descriptivist honor.

Despite my peeve about Jonathon's post, it's worth reading. He discusses the practice of declaring a word or phrase "skunked".  As far as I know, that is a practice engaged in mainly by Bryan Garner, who offers this description of the phenomenon of skunking: “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become 'skunked.'”

Jonathan writes, "Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way." He explains:

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Carlyle and Kernighan

Thomas Carlyle, "Sir Walter Scott":

There is a great discovery still to be made in Literature, that of paying literary men by the quantity they do not write. Nay, in sober truth, is not this actually the rule in all writing; and, moreover, in all conduct and acting? Not what stands above ground, but what lies unseen under it, as the root and subterrene element it sprang from and emblemed forth, determines the value. Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity: speech is shallow as Time. Paradoxical does it seem? Woe for the age, woe for the man, quack-ridden, bespeeched, bespouted, blown about like barren Sahara, to whom this world-old truth were altogether strange!

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Hey Geoff (Pullum),…

In MS Word, buried deep in File|Options|Advanced|Compatibility Options|Layout is the option to check 'Do full justification the way WordPerfect 6.x for Windows does'". If you use full justification, your document will look ugly unless you check that box.

Does that qualify as a form of nerdview?

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Begging the question of whether to use "begging the question"

The tweets above have extra salience for me, because I used begs the question in the traditional way ('assumes the answer to the question in dispute') in my most recent post on LAWnLinguistics. I did so with some trepidation—not because I was worried that someone would think I was using the phrase wrong, but because I was worried that someone would think I was using it in the 'raise the question' sense and wonder what the question was that I thought was being begged.

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A virus that fixes your grammar

In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

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He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

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Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

Seem actively??

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The Daily Mail deluding themselves

An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that "anyone who thinks Labour's problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves."

It's unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

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Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

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To more than justify the split infinitive

As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

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