Archive for Usage advice

Moar Verbs

A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum noted that William Zinsser's On Writing Well echoes the Strunkish advice that "Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "Most adjectives are also unnecessary" ("Awful book, so I bought it", 3/21/2015). I share Geoff's skepticism about this anti-modifier animus, and indeed about all writing advice based on parts of speech.

But it occurred to me to wonder whether (various types of) good and bad writing actually do tend to differ in how much they use various parts of speech — and in particular, whether there's any evidence that bad (or at least less accessible) writing tends to use more adjectives and adverbs. Given how pervasive part-of-speech writing advice is, I decided to waste an hour exploring the question empirically.

The results are a bit surprising.  At least in this small and conceptually-limited pilot exploration, I found that writing regarded as bad (and perhaps also certain kinds of technical writing) tends to have more adjectives but fewer adverbs, and more nouns but fewer verbs.

The "more nouns and fewer verbs" effect seems to be especially strong — but I've never seen any writing guide that tells us to "write with adverbs and verbs, not adjectives and nouns".

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Awful book, so I bought it

A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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John F. Banzhaf III writes to complain about overuse of "multiple":

Over the past six months I have heard an ever-growing number of TV news anchors, reporters, and talking heads on television use the word "multiple" where "many" – a shorter and less pretentious word – would do as well, if not better.

I would suggest that your remind people not to use the word "multiple" when many is what is meant, or is at least as good.  Otherwise, the speaks sounds pretentious and perhaps pompous.  A quick guide as to when to use each word would also be helpful to many of your readers.

This is not something that I've noticed, though perhaps I don't listen closely enough to enough talking heads.  It does seem to be true that the use of multiple has increased fairly steadily over the past century and a half, from nearly nothing to a rate in the range of 60 to 80 per million words:

(I've used multiplication by 10,000 to turn the Google ngram viewer's uninterpretable percentages on the vertical axis into rates per million words…)

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The things neither of them don't do

Charlie C. writes:

“There are countless things neither the iPhone 6 nor the 6 Plus don’t do” [link]    

Huh??  Does this say what we know it means?  

I’m still in a loop on this one. Every time I read it I grind to a halt.  I could go to the Wikipedia and give myself a short refresher course on Boolean logic and then see if I could do the conversion from English to Boolean correctly, or… here I am.

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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Usage masochism

I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

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It begs the way we see the world

Brad Plumer, "Two Degrees: How the World Failed on Climate Change", Vox 4/22/2014:

"If you’re serious about 2°C, the rates of change are so significant that it begs the way we see the world. That’s what people aren’t prepared to embrace," says Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. "Essentially you’d have to start asking questions about our current society and how we develop and grow."

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Samples in which hypercorrections are in

Following up on "A nation in which supports dependency" (7/9/2012), Glenn Bingham has sent me an annotated compendium of "Samples in which hypercorrections are in", reproduced below as a guest post.

Glenn's diagnosis is that these examples arise by way of an attempt to "sound erudite" by adding an extra preposition at the start of a relative clause, thus yielding a formal-sounding collocation like "in which" without any valid grammatical license.  He sees this as a hypercorrection along the lines satirized by James Thurber in his "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage":

The number of people who use "whom" and "who" wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is of course, strictly speaking, correct – and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired.

As discussed in "Back to the future, redundant preposition department" (5/4/2007) and "A phenomenon in which I'm starting to believe in" (5/14/2007), I'm not entirely sure that the extra-preposition examples are all errors, hypercorrect or otherwise — but Glenn's rational catalogue, drawn mostly from assignments submitted by his students, is a valuable step.

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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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The grammar of "Abide with me"

On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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