John McIntyre's notes on 'Word Crimes'

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John Lawler (thank you!) pointed me to this blog entry by John McIntyre, which was written in response to readers' requests for his reactions to "Weird Al" Yankovic's Word Crimes.  I see that Mark Liberman is already a McIntyre fan (here, here, here, for instance), but I hadn't known about him before. I should — as John Lawler pointed out to me, he's an Oriole fan; and the Baltimore Sun, where he is an editor, was our family's daily paper through all my school years.

His notes on 'Word Crimes' really just consist of references that he agrees with, one by Stan Carey at Sentence first, and the recent guest post by Lauren Squires here on Language Log. He also refers to a couple of nice posts by our resident curmudgeon Geoff Pullum both here on LLog (on the curious English of police reports and the inability of journalists going on about the passive voice to accurately identify passive constructions) and in Lingua Franca (on ambiguity).

I don't have a very good excuse for passing this on — I'm just pleased to have been alerted to the existence of such a thoughtful and articulate writer who happens to be a copy editor by profession (and is a fellow Orioles fan!).  I love his self-description: "mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics."

I'm so glad that he's teaching editing, and wish there were more copy editors who were "moderate prescriptivists" like him!

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38 Comments »

  1. Stan Carey said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 3:30 am

    In copy-editing circles John McIntyre's regular observations on usage are indispensable, and are delivered with a wit, eloquence and erudition too often lacking from the terrain.

    It may interest some of you to know that he published a book last year, called The Old Editor Says; I reviewed it here, and recommend it happily.

    Thank you for the link to Sentence first, Barbara.

  2. Sid Smith said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 3:45 am

    McIntyre is terrific. And (which is harder) consistently so.

  3. joanne salton said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 3:48 am

    There is one very good reason for Weird Al to "punch down" on the disadvantaged, as the linked article puts it, which is routinely ignored at this blog. Many people, including most of the people who post here I believe, are in the position of punching people when it really matters. They will discriminate against some of the non-standard usages listed in the video when people are applying for jobs, promotions and qualifications. If Weird Al helps a few people prepare for this he has perhaps done them a favour.

  4. David Morris said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 4:08 am

    Hooray for a tag called 'Prescriptivist non-poppycock'. Slight worry that there's precisely one item tagged as such.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    This may suggest the possibility that prescriptivists and descriptivists can reach across the aisle.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    joanne salton: Lots of people here agree that the standard dialect has value as a standard and that it should be taught so people can use it in applying for jobs and various other situations. The question is how to teach it. Should one tell people that if they don't use standard English all the time, they're morons and were raised in a sewer? Or should one tell people that standard English is appropriate in school, job interview, etc., but not necessarily all the time, as someone might capitalize her name in the standard way on her résumé but not in a blog comment?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I meant "in job interviewS", darn it!

  8. Toma said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    McIntyre's blog is outstanding. Everyone here would enjoy his wit and his attitude toward AP style.
    The only downside to McIntyre's blog is that it's behind a pay wall. You only get so many free views per month. I usually run out by about the 5th of the month.

  9. John McIntyre (@johnemcintyre) said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    Yes, there is a subscription fee at baltimoresun.com, but links to "You Don't Say" from my Facebook and Twitter accounts bypass it.

  10. John McIntyre (@johnemcintyre) said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    Oh, and many thanks for the kind words.

  11. Barbara Partee said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    The reason that there's only one post with the tag called 'Prescriptivist non-poppycock' is that I just invented that tag newly for this post. I will also be happy if there are more posts in the future with that tag!
    And given these nice comments, I'm glad I did that post even though I had nothing original to say!
    (And I suppose I'm going to reactivate my paid subscription to the Baltimore Sun now, since I now have THREE reasons to read it — the Orioles, my grand-nephew Scott Dance's articles on business and science, and my new-found non-poppycock friend John McIntyre.)

  12. John McIntyre (@johnemcintyre) said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    Mr. Dance earns his pay.

  13. Barbara Partee said,

    July 24, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    And thank you, Stan Carey, for the book review — I've just bought John McIntyre's book, look forward to reading it! (And thank you, John McIntyre, for the nice words about Scott Dance — I've just passed them on to his mother. I suppose this is all off-topic, but I hope no one minds!)

  14. Dan H said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    They will discriminate against some of the non-standard usages listed in the video when people are applying for jobs, promotions and qualifications. If Weird Al helps a few people prepare for this he has perhaps done them a favour.

    I'd say several things about this.

    The first thing I would say is that it is *completely absurd* to use the existence of prejudice as an argument in favour of the propagation of the same prejudice. A lot of people discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, sexual identity and physical disability. Does this somehow make it laudable to mock people who don't conform to social norms in these areas? Why is language so different?

    Besides, from an educational perspective, insults have very little value. If I ask one of my students to state Newton's second law, and they say "F = ma", I don't respond by saying: "You do physics like a spastic. For A2 you will be expected to give an answer in terms of rate of change of momentum. Get out the gene pool." If I did I would probably be fired. There is a *world* of difference between teaching people to do something in the way that they will be expected to do it and teaching people that they are stupid if they don't act in accordance with your expectations.

    I also just *don't believe* that following the rules of "standard English" as they are described in Word Crimes will be any help in getting a job. Somebody posting as "B" helpfully listed Yankovic's "Word Crimes" in another thread, and they are as follows:

    Observe less/fewer distinction
    "I could care less" meaning
    It’s / its distinction
    Espresso not spelled/pronounced expresso
    Don't use dangling participles
    Recommended to use the Oxford comma
    Don't spell (be,see,are,you) as (b,c,r,u)
    Don't write words using numbers for letters
    Use whom when appropriate
    Don't use quotation marks for emphasis
    Observe good/well distinction
    Meaning of "irony"
    Meaning of "literal"

    Of these several are about orthography, and would be completely meaningless in a spoken English situation (like a job interview). Several others relate to slang or informal language (contrary to popular belief, "couldn't care less" is just as idiomatic as "could care less" – in a job interview it would be far more sensible to say "don't care" or "care very little").

    The "expresso/espresso" distinction is a difference in pronunciation which I would expect people in authority (interviewers, etc) to have as much difficulty with as anybody else. If you go for an interview and the interviewer asks you if you want an expresso, you won't ingratiate yourself by correcting their pronunciation.

    Finally there are the peeves based on actual misconceptions (who/whom and less/fewer, neither of which are actually readily observed in ordinary spoken English by the majority of speakers). Abiding by these rules might make it easier to get a job if the person interviewing you holds to the false belief that they are real and important rules of the language, but this is tantamount to advising people to *dumb themselves down* in order to conform to the prejudices of less informed people.

    I mean, I'm sure there are some places where I'd find it hard to get a job if I said that I believed that the Earth was more than 6000 years old, or that global warming was real, or that species evolved by natural selection – that doesn't mean that *I* have to go back to preschool.

    Finally, if the argument is that Word Crimes is a model of correct, formal English then it fails dismally. Just running down the lyrics it includes "ya" as a contraction for "you", a dropped g on the end of "danglin'", "wanna" for "want to", the idiomatic and informal phrase "smack a crowbar upside your head", and of course the just plain insulting language.

    Somebody who learned to speak formal English from Word Crimes would, it seems, have no trouble telling an interviewer that the reason they left their last job was that they "got to thinkin' the boss was a real dumb mouth-breather."

    Which isn't exactly appropriate register.

  15. John Lawler said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    Another editing professor heard from, with pretty much the same viewpoint.

  16. joanne salton said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 5:33 am

    It is not really that I think Weird Al's is the perfect method of instruction, of course.

    It is just that at least he tells people that he is going to discriminate against the way they use language. He does not, like professional linguists, merely do that when it is actually important, and keep the great unwashed in their place just the same as anybody else does when it comes down to it at interviews etc by discriminating against non-standard usage. The same usage that they do not like to see "corrected" because of the odd but pervasive idea that everone can automatically switch from their usual mode of expression to standard academic expression the the drop of a hat.

  17. joanne salton said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    AT the drop of a hat.

    As to telling someone they are a "spastic" because of mistakes by the way, in the UK of course that is one hundred times more controversial than any bit of prescriptivism.

  18. Dan H said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    It is just that at least he tells people that he is going to discriminate against the way they use language.

    So if he'd written a song about how stupid black people were, that would be laudable because at least he'd be telling people he was going to discriminate against them on the basis of race, instead of pretending not to, but discriminating when it really matters, like in a job interview?

    He does not, like professional linguists, merely do that when it is actually important, and keep the great unwashed in their place just the same as anybody else does when it comes down to it at interviews etc by discriminating against non-standard usage.

    This is a bald and utterly unsupported assertion. What evidence do you have that John McIntyre, or Stan Carey, or any of the Language Log contributors would discriminate against anybody based on their use of the kind of *completely legitimate* constructions that they regularly argue are *completely legitimate*?

    Why would a person who knows that the less/fewer distinction has never really been part of standard English would discriminate against a person who fails to abide by it? Why would somebody who knows that "drive slow" is a perfectly legitimate use of a flat adverb suddenly mark down a student for saying "drive slow" instead of "drive slowly" or "too much too young" instead of "too much while still too young"? Why would a person who has strong experimental evidence that the who/whom distinction has basically fallen out of use in English be prejudiced against somebody who says "who are you talking to" instead of "to whom are you talking"? Why would somebody who knows what grammar *actually is* diagnose an inability to correctly use the possessive apostrophe as "poor grammar"? Do you really, honestly, truly think anybody has ever been looked over for promotion just because they said "expresso" rather than "espresso"?

    There are two ways in which your ability to use language could stop you getting a job. The first is an inability to express yourself clearly and in an appropriate register – this has *nothing whatsoever* to do with obeying made-up "grammar" rules or how you write your blog posts. Correct spelling and punctuation *are* useful, and nobody would argue that they aren't, but even that varies by context. Waterstones were not "wrong" when they took the apostrophe out of their name.

    And I would point out again that formality of register is wholly lacking from Word Crimes. It regularly drops gs (although as LL points out, this is really just replacing one consonant sound with another), uses inappropriate contractions, and employs exactly the kind of language that people *are genuinely prejudiced against* (I would cite "upside your head" as a major example of this – it is at least perceived as having its roots in African American slang, which is *exactly* the kind of language that people are prejudiced against in interview situations).

    The second way in which your ability to use language could stop you getting a job is if your language-use is associated with a deprecated social group. This has nothing to do with grammar, nothing to do with clarity of communication, and everything to do with rank prejudice. I remember having a fascinating conversation with two of my colleagues last year in which they expressed – simultaneously – outrage at the story of a Yorkshire headmaster who had written a letter to all the parents of the pupils at his school, insisting that they instruct their children in the "proper" (that is to say, southern) pronunciation of words like "cup" "bath" and "mask", and *equal* outrage at the fact that a woman with a strong Essex accent had been allowed to teach English as a Foreign Language even though she pronounced "three" as "free".

    Now you *can* make a self-consistent argument that, in a prejudiced and bigoted society, it is valuable to teach people to do what they can to avoid being the target of prejudice and bigotry, but by that argument as well as teaching people to speak "proper" English we should also teach gay people to stay in the closet, non-European people to change their names, Muslims to convert to Christianity, and women to avoid traditionally masculine occupations and areas of study.

  19. joanne salton said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    I think that any academic will discriminate against a number of the video's usages in essays/interviews, particularly the It's/Its and good/well distinctions. Dangling participles and oxford commas not so much, but perhaps. Using letters for words, numbers or letters representing words, of course, on the basis that the context is wrong. Not many people involved with linguistics would now worry about "whom" I suppose.

    The point is though that where the average person uses their average everyday informal language in a formal situation they will be discriminated against by almost any academic. And avoiding doing that is much more difficult (and requires more instruction) than academics tend to make out, and becomes all the more difficult the more your normal dialect is removed from general American/standard British English.

  20. Phoenix Woman said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    I wonder how many of the people here who think it's perfectly cromulent to misuse apostrophes were secretly glad that their hated enemy Weird Al own-goaled himself with the use of the S-word?

    It's as if I heard the mental voices of millions of lazy American English speakers and writers cry out in joy "At last we got him committing an Unforgivable! Now we can use this as a brush with which to paint all prescriptivists as evil racist bigot pariahs whose every utterance is to be censored! "

    (By the way, I happen to like the Oxford comma myself, but I'm not going to get in Al's grille over it.)

  21. M.N. said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

    Phoenix Woman: I can't tell if you're being serious or not. Apostrophes (and the Oxford comma) are punctuation marks; as such, they belong to the realm of orthography, not grammar. Thus, they are irrelevant to linguistics (the topic of this blog). Nobody would argue that a standardized orthography isn't useful (for instance, it helps us understand things written by speakers of different varieties of English). So this is a straw man, at best.

    Weird Al is nobody's "hated enemy" – the first-person "narrator", as it were, of the song is not Weird Al himself, just as Weird Al is not any of the following:

    -Amish
    -a rabbi
    -a member of Nirvana
    -a guy who lost on Jeopardy in the Art Fleming era, to "a plumber and an architect, both with a PhD"
    -"the type who is liable to snipe you with two seconds left to go" (whoa-oh)
    -etc.

    If you were talking about, say, split infinitives, then we could have a real discussion or argument here. (You can search the archives of this blog for a whole series of great posts by Geoff Pullum, with naturally-occurring examples of situations where the best – or even only – way to express a particular meaning is to split an infinitive.) That's the kind of thing that prescriptivists whine about, but that professional linguists know is just a feature of English. And it's not because we're "lazy…speakers and writers". (Similar issues include singular 'they', stranded prepositions, "flat adverbs" as discussed above, etc.)

    The "good/well distinction" is something that prescriptivists whine about as well, while often proving through doing so that they don't understand it. I've heard people say they hate it when someone says "I don't feel good", because it should be "I don't feel well". If they thought about it for two seconds, then they'd notice that we say "I feel happy" (and "I feel happily" isn't English), so adjectives are perfectly fine in that position. It just so happens that "well" can be an adjective (as in "health and wellness") as well as an adverb.

  22. Dan H said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    I think that any academic will discriminate against a number of the video's usages in essays/interviews, particularly the It's/Its and good/well distinctions.

    I would make two observations here.

    The first is that there is a world of difference between an essay and an interview, not least because an essay is a formal piece of writing while an interview – most often – is not. The second is that I think you're using "discriminate" in a rather obtuse manner.

    Correcting a misspelling on an essay isn't discrimination – it's teaching. Correcting excessively informal style on an essay isn't discrimination – it's teaching. Correcting poor referencing in an essay isn't discrimination – it's teaching. Essays are supposed to be written in a particular style, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to be written in that style. But the style required of a formal essay overlaps only minimally with the style of writing advocated in Word Crimes.

    In a job (or even worse, University) interview, I very much hope that most academics *wouldn't* discriminate (either in the "systematically disadvantage" sense or the "distinguish between" sense) on the basis of this kind of pedantic nonsense. If I thought people were being turned down for places at universities because they said that they were "doing good" rather than "doing well" (or even worse, because they said they were "feeling good" rather than "feeling well") I would be freaking *livid*. If somebody cannot express themselves clearly, that is a problem. But Standard English is not and should not be a sequence of secret handshakes.

  23. Goscé said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 2:01 am

    M.N. said:

    “Phoenix Woman: I can't tell if you're being serious or not. Apostrophes (and the Oxford comma) are punctuation marks; as such, they belong to the realm of orthography, not grammar. Thus, they are irrelevant to linguistics (the topic of this blog).”

    WRONG:
    Orthography is very relevant to linguistics, (which is not the only topic of this blog) because, among other things, it concerns itself with the relationship between phonemes and graphemes in a language. A phoneme is the basic unit of a language’s phonology and phonology is a branch of linguistics concerned with the systematic organization of sounds in languages.

    Punctuation and grammar are usually thought to be separate parts, but punctuation is actually an essential part of grammar.

  24. Dan H said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    Punctuation can't be an *essential* part of grammar, since speech has grammar but not punctuation. I agree that punctuation is an indispensable *guide* to grammar in written communication, but an error in punctuation is most likely to be an error in punctuation, not an error in grammar.

    For example, if a person writes "the dog wagged it's tail" it is *vanishingly* improbable that they intended to write "the dog wagged it is tail" (which would be grammatically nonsense and would constitute a real grammatical error). Rather they almost certainly intended to write "the dog wagged its tail" (which would be indistinguishable in speech) and simply mispunctuated it.

  25. joanne salton said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    Dan, people are awarded degrees on the basis of essays they produce, and awarded jobs, power and money on the basis of those. I suspect that you and nearly everyone else writing here is in the habit of avoiding most things in Weird Al's video pretty much all of the time. Thus, when we wish to, we can turn in an essay (or interview performance) that makes us look like properly paid up members of the educated elite. People who do not usually worry about such things will have a hard time doing that. OK, we all relax a bit in certain situations like text messages or even when chatting, but that is not the same thing as never paying any attention to what is taken to be the formal standard.

  26. tpr said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    Suppose an applicant for an academic job has successfully internalized all of Weird Al's rules and others of the same ilk so that they speak and write what we might call Weird English. Even if you think the rules of Weird English are arbitrary and ridiculous, and actually especially if you do, it suggests something positive about the applicant's intellectual competence because it's no simple task to memorize a large number of largely arbitrary rules. It could also suggest that the applicant has spent quite a lot of time in educational institutions where they might have had an opportunity to pick up more useful knowledge.

  27. Dan H said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 9:11 am

    Dan, people are awarded degrees on the basis of essays they produce, and awarded jobs, power and money on the basis of those.

    But essays aren't written in Standard English. They're written in a specific, formal variant of standard English that a University should – if it is doing its job – explicitly train you to write in. The specific style of writing required for a formal essay has to be taught. And it is not useful to try to teach it by ridiculing people who use colloquial variants of informal phrases which would not be appropriate in a formal context *even in their standard form*.

    I suspect that you and nearly everyone else writing here is in the habit of avoiding most things in Weird Al's video pretty much all of the time.

    Then you'd suspect wrong.

    I say "could care less" rather than "couldn't care less" because I prefer understatement to overstatement, and it seems utterly absurd to me to choose a phrase which – in essence – implies that you want to make an enormous song and dance about how little you care about something. If I want to be formal I will say "I don't care" or – even better – "I'm not sure that's strictly relevant".

    I distinguish between less and fewer using the actual rules of real spoken English, which is to use "less" for both countables and uncountables but to reserve "fewer" for countables only. I explicitly believe that "ten items or less" is a more succinct, more elegant, and more appropriate sign than "ten items or fewer".

    I do not usually say that I am "doing good" but nor do I say I am "doing well". If somebody asks me how I'm doing I will usually say "okay" or "not so bad." I should note that "not so bad" uses the same construction that Weird Al frowns upon. To use "proper grammar" I should say "not so badly". But this would clearly make me sound like an idiot.

    I do use the Oxford comma, which Weird Al and I both accept is a style choice.

    I do use apostrophes in the conventional way, although I also recognise that there is no set convention for their use in a number of cases, such as the proper names of institutions. I lean slightly towards leaving the apostrophe out of names like Waterstones and Foyles.

    I suspect that my pronunciation of "espresso" is actually – like most people's somewhere in between "espresso" and "expresso" – the two are actually quite hard to distinguish when speaking quickly. In fact I suspect that I actually pronounce it [schwa]spresso.

    I don't write "b" "c" or "u" as letters but I don't care if people do. I do use quite a lot of abbreviations and initialisms, many of which I've picked up from the interwebs. I'll happily say kk, omw, brb, afk and tl;dr. I don't normally substitute numbers for letters but mostly because there aren't that many circumstances under which it would even be useful to do so.

    I virtually never say "whom", and honestly I feel that people who *do* say it come across as intellectually insecure more than anything else.

    I know enough about "irony" to understand that a co-incidence can indeed be ironic in some circumstances.

    I regularly use "literally" as an intensifier, because it serves a useful function when so used.

    OK, we all relax a bit in certain situations like text messages or even when chatting, but that is not the same thing as never paying any attention to what is taken to be the formal standard.

    Oh, I pay very close attention to what is taken to be the formal standard. The formal standard has *nothing whatsoever* to do with the grab-bag of just-so stories and nonsense-rhymes that grammar peevers would have us believe constitute "good English".

    Hell, if we're talking about formal situations like job interviews then it is *actively desirable* to use phrases that the Grammar Police would tell us are completely wrong. In a job interview you should absolutely use "impact" as a verb and "going forward" to mean "from now on."

    Conversely, if you're in a job interview and they ask "how soon can you start?" and you reply "I *can* start right now but I *may* only start once I've worked out my notice with my current employer," and then when they ask how long that will take you reply "I don't know how long it *will* take because I don't know how long it *wants* to take, but I suspect that it *shall* take about eight weeks" … you probably won't get the gig.

  28. joanne salton said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    Weird Al is an unashamed peddler of all the old chestnuts, and we all know here that some of those are misguided. My usage is similar to Dan's, though of course I would never say "I could care less" in the British Isles, as people would not approve at all.

    Mixed in there though, are some pieces of good advice, and more importantly, the general attitude that if you want to succeed in society then altering your normal speech/writing towards the standard is generally going to be a good move. That is advice that nearly everyone here has taken on board a long time ago, and advice that they consequently ought to give out.

  29. Dan H said,

    July 29, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    Mixed in there though, are some pieces of good advice, and more importantly, the general attitude that if you want to succeed in society then altering your normal speech/writing towards the standard is generally going to be a good move

    It is certainly true that altering your normal speech towards the prestige dialect is a good move if you want to succeed in society. So is joining a Church (regardless of your religious beliefs) changing your name if it sounds either scarily foreign or horribly lower class, making sure that you only pursue romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex regardless of your actual orientation, and so on.

    Just because being a particular way will make it harder for you to get on in life, that does not make it laudable to condemn people for being that way.

  30. Goscé said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 1:21 am

    Dan H:

    "Punctuation can't be an *essential* part of grammar, since speech has grammar but not punctuation."

    Punctuation is an extremely essential part of grammar in writing. The fact that it is not essential in speech does not alter its importance.

    On the contrary, one must be far more meticulous when writing, and that's where punctuation comes in.

  31. Goscé said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 2:08 am

    Dan H:

    “It is certainly true that altering your normal speech towards the prestige dialect is a good move if you want to succeed in society. So is joining a Church (regardless of your religious beliefs) changing your name if it sounds either scarily foreign or horribly lower class, making sure that you only pursue romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex regardless of your actual orientation, and so on.”

    This is complete and utter nonsense and has no relationship whatsoever to grammar, linguistics or commonsense.
    Everyone wants to succeed in society, but not everyone wants to join a Church, or change his name because it sounds foreign. Your analogy is nonsensical hyperbole based on a subjective opinion without a scintilla of criterion.

    “I virtually never say "whom", and honestly I feel that people who *do* say it come across as intellectually insecure more than anything else.”

    You don’t say “whom” because you don’t want to come across as intellectually insecure is a manifestation of your own insecurity. There are many people who do say it and they say it because they’re *not* insecure that others might stigmatize them as elitist.
    I use whom because I like the word and I enjoy stimulating my brain by trying to decipher how to use it. In addition, it reads and sounds better than, "for who the bell tolls."

    Was Hemingway intellectually insecure? I wonder.

  32. joanne salton said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 3:10 am

    It is a little unusal to find support at this site for my rather soft prescriptivist stance.

    As for my take on the difference Dan mentions, it is merely that linguists themselves do not follow their own advice. They themselves move their language towards the standard. They advise people to join a far-out church of which they are not a member. Further, they do not allow people into the ivory tower if they use broad dialect or are unable to master standard dialect properly, nor even will they give them the stamp of approval for other positions of influence.

  33. Dan H said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    As for my take on the difference Dan mentions, it is merely that linguists themselves do not follow their own advice. They themselves move their language towards the standard.

    I'm afraid this is another [citation needed].

    I'd also suggest that it depends a *lot* on what you mean by "standard English" and a lot on what you mean by "move their language towards the standard."

    I am absolutely one hundred percent certain that the linguists on Language Log do not care one little bit if a person says "who are you talking to" rather than "to whom are you talking". I have pretty good evidence that they use "which" for restrictive relative clauses in their own writing and get annoyed when overzealous copyeditors "correct" that "error". No reputable linguist gets hung up on split infinitives, because there is no rule in English that says that a split infinitive is in any way wrong (or, indeed, capable of existing).

    Is it possible that individual linguists discriminate against people on the basis of their dialect? Very probably. People tend to internalize the prejudices of their society and it can be very hard not to. But this is, once again, screamingly irrelevant. The fact that society will discriminate against somebody for behaving in a particular way does not make it laudable to insult somebody for behaving that way.

    The logic you continue to apply is that it is right to discriminate against people who do not behave in a particular way, because in doing so you are encouraging them to abandon the behaviour against which you discriminate and, thereby, protecting them from discrimination. This is clearly absurd.

    I would also point out that *nobody* – on this site or anywhere else – is saying that it is wrong to learn to use Standard English. They are saying it is wrong to:

    1) Assume that "Standard English" is the same as your personal collection of pet peeves.
    2) Insult people who deviate from *your perception* of what Standard English is.
    3) Treat non-standard versions of English as inferior.
    4) Pretend that to grow up speaking a particular dialect of English somehow represents a morally righteous action rather than an accident of geography.

  34. joanne salton said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    The argument always breaks down at this point – there is no research I am aware of which shows that linguists generally use standard English, with standard spelling and punctuation, and that they have gone through their lives correcting themselves, and being corrected, in order to move towards that. Such a thing is obvious, and nobody in linguistics is well-advised to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to prove something obvious in order to make a rather "right-wing" point.

    Rather, the story is that linguists teach "standard English" when they should while also cherishing broad dialect. Thus we must assume there are people out there speaking in, say, broad rural dialects each day and then launching into perfect standard error-free English when the time is apt to pass the exam or get the job. Personally, I have never encountered such folk.

  35. Dan H said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    Personally, I have never encountered such folk

    But you freely admit that you *are* such folk. You say that your usage coincides more or less with mine, but that you – for example – would avoid saying "could care less" amongst British English speakers because you think they wouldn't understand you or would think ill of you for it.

    (For what it's worth I *am* a British English speaker, and as I mention above I *strictly prefer* "could care less". I think "couldn't care less" is silly).

    There is an extraordinarily well-documented phenomenon in linguistics called "code-switching" which, broadly speaking, is exactly the thing that you insist that people never do, and actually something people do all the time. The way teenagers talk to other teenagers isn't the way they talk to their teachers. The way I talk to my friends isn't the way I talk to my boss, which isn't the way I talk to my students.

    I'd also point out that I *absolutely have not* gone through my life correcting myself and being corrected. I grew up in a middle-class family in South-East England. The standard dialect of British English *is* my dialect. Do you honestly believe that I somehow have to make a conscious effort to avoid speaking in non-standard dialects that I never learned and have no experience of? That I have to suppress some innate, atavistic desire to say "haway wi' ye" and "can yez borrow us a tenner" every time I speak?

    I live in a society which defines the way I speak as "correct". It benefits me greatly for that system to be supported, and if people who speak less prestigious dialects want to carry on destroying their own self-confidence by kidding themselves that I'm better than they are it would be against my self-interest to stop them. That doesn't mean I think it's a sensible way to run a society.

    Do people find it easier to get on in life if they move their natural usage closer to Standard English? I'm sure they do. People also find it easier to get on in life if they aren't openly gay, that doesn't make homosexuality an error to be corrected.

  36. Sean McAleer said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    I'm a little bummed to learn that the editor in this scene from The Wire is not supposed to be John McIntyre. On the upside, the Tour de France being over opens up time for binge-watching The Wire (yet again).

  37. joanne salton said,

    July 30, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    If you grew up speaking middle-class SE English then your teachers only really needed to work on your punctuation and spelling in order to make you pass muster with the exam board. I'm fairly sure they did that.

    Had you not done so then you would need to make more of an effort – imagine you were working class and from a small village somewhere far from London. I think I have made it fairly clear that I am aware of code-switching and admit that it occurs to some extent. My argument is that the extent is limited, yet portrayed as over-archingly important. The research does not usually focus, in any case, on whether non-standard speakers are suddenly able to become "error-free" when they move towards the standard. Since I once, for example, wrote a very long and involved linguistics essay which only elicited in the feedback box a ticking off from the marker responsible due to my use of a comma instead of a semi-colon before "however", I suspect this is rather hard to achieve.

  38. Steve Bacher said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

    M.N. said, "Apostrophes (and the Oxford comma) are punctuation marks; as such, they belong to the realm of orthography, not grammar." I would go further and assert that apostrophes belong not to the realm of punctuation but of spelling. Writing "it's" for "its", or the reverse, is most definitely a spelling infraction. Regardless of the presence or absence of the apostrophe, the grammar *and* punctuation of Dan H's example "The dog wagged it's tail" is unexceptionable.

    Dan H also said, "Punctuation can't be an *essential* part of grammar, since speech has grammar but not punctuation." Regarding the explanatory clause, I disagree: omission of the second comma of a nonrestrictive clause is clearly audible in the speech of numerous commentators on NPR, for example, and disturbs me no end.

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