In this day of slack style…

« previous post | next post »

In 1917, The Nation's book reviewer objected to "the inexcusable irregularity of the style" in Helen Marie Bennett's Women and work: the economic value of college training, listing a number of specific "blunders" as evidence. One of these "blunders" can be found in the following passage:

College girls may not realize why it is that many of them are so anxious to secure at once a position that will "pay a good salary" without taking further training. Their brothers do not expect it, for they are choosing their profession, because it is the one of all others which they desire and because they expect to follow it all their lives. But because the girl expects to marry, she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his. Unless she is a genius or has within her an intensely strong urge towards some form of self-expression, she lapses into the easy choice by means of which she can lope along until her wedding day. She does not phrase it thus ignobly; but such is the status of her choice.

Can you identify the problem?

Here's the answer — I certainly wouldn't have guessed it. From [Book] Notes, The Nation, June 21 1917:

The reader of the book is likely to be exasperated by the inexcusable irregularity of the style. Thus the writer pleases when she inveighs against the catch-word "efficiency" and its use as a shibboleth. But she herself constantly sins in the same way by making everything "to function." In this day of slack style, much has to be overlooked, and Miss Bennett is probably not worse than many others, but it is inexcusable that the proofreaders of a reputable firm should allow so many blunders to pass. We note a few: science wreaks of machinery (p. 19); a nondescript salary (p. 24); raised as an intransitive verb (p. 30); urge as noun (p. 263), etc. The book has its value, but it should be pruned and carefully rewritten that it may not serve as an example of "English as she is taught" in our colleges.

Frankly, I was not aware that the use of urge as a noun had ever been a shibboleth. (And who knew that The Nation had such a snooty tone, back in 1917?)

But we can see from a quick check of the Google Books Ngram tool that 1917 was indeed just about when urge as a noun was starting its rise:

Less than 20 years later, a contributor to "The Lexicographer's Easy Chair" (in The Literary Digest for March 3, 1934) took a more relaxed view:

urge. — "M.A.J.", Wappingers Falls, N.Y. — Urge as a noun has been restored to the language gradually within the past twenty years, and can now be said to be in good standing again. As a noun, it was in restricted use in the early 17th century, then disappeared until Walt Witman brought it to light in 1884 in "Leaves of Grass": "O I am sure they really came from The, The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will."

And by 1948, when the change was complete, Eric Partridge, Words at War, Words at Peace: Essays on Language in General and Particular Words, 1948, grudgingly allows that urge as a noun might be OK for some:

Urge as a noun has gone far to displace 'eagerness' or (strong) desire; appetition; (compulsive) aspiration; (powerful) ambition: and although it is disliked by purists and by not a few others, including myself, and has, in the form body-urge, been satirized in that delightfully satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm, yet is appears in the works of numerous thinkers and writers, for example Professor Whitehead, Sir Arthur Thomson, A.B. Cox, Olaf Stapledon.

I could also have looked at The Nation's complaint about Ms. Bennett "constantly sins by making everything 'to function'". This seems to be a reference to her three uses of function as a verb (along with 15 uses as a noun):

How does the college girl function in life?

She has a legitimate ambition to make her college training function.

This group of college women should be the first to give attentive study to the choice of occupations, studying to find the perfect means of self-expression, through which not only they themselves will function most perfectly, but through which society in general will benefit the most, and all women will find themselves high up on the mountain of opportunity.

The historical trajectory of function as a verb is similar to that of urge as a noun:

But reactions of this kind are generally short-lived, and go away once the rapid rise of a new form is over. Thus Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) doesn't even have an entry for urge as a noun, or function as a verb, though it's admirably complete in giving advice even about questionable or outdated shibboleths. . Garner's Modern American Usage is similarly silent on urge as a noun, and makes extensive use of verbal function in its text: "… may also function as an adjective…", "… can (and usually does) function as a noun …", "… also function, of course, as verbs", "… questioned whether e-mail should function as a verb", "… these verbs and the idiomatic way they function", "… free by itself can function as an adverb …", and so on. In fact, Garner uses function as a verb in introducing his entry on Nouns as Verbs:

A type of semantic [sic] shift a little less common than the noun-to-adjective shift occurs when nouns function as verbs. There are scores of examples, such as appeal, bias, deal, function (as in the preceding sentence), handle, people, perfume, reward, room, silence, survey, and weather.

He warns his readers to "be wary of these innovations. They reek of jargon." But function as a verb is useful enough to him, and well enough established, for him to use it dozens of times. So the wariness has waned in this case — as it always does, I think, in cases of nouning and verbing.

N.B. I don't read century-old issues of The Nation for fun. I stumbled on that lovely little specimen of antique prescriptivist poppycock while researching the history of objections to new examples of zero derivation in English.  It's worth remembering that if William Strunk Jr.'s little 1918 pamphlet of usage advice hadn't been enduringly rezombified by E.B. White, it might seem just as quaint to us today.

In fact, now that I think about, I wonder if there's some cultural continuity of New York City-based left-wing prescriptivism, running from (whoever reviewed books for) The Nation in 1917, though E.B. White and Dwight Macdonald, to Louis Menand and Joan Acocella at The New Yorker today.

Update — For those who may be curious about the nature of The Nation in 1917, an essay by Victor Navasky (who was editor of The Nation from 1978 to 1995) on "Oswald Garrison Villard" notes that

Under [Paul Elmer] More (1909-1914), a Sanskrit scholar, The Nation described itself as an "organ of thinking people, the exponent of sane progress, of wise conservatism." [...]

After More came Harold deWolf Fuller, whom Oswald Garrison Villard considered a "very dull person . . . stubbornly narrow [and] utterly unyielding in his prejudices." H.L. Mencken captured this interlude in the magazine's history best when he wrote in the Baltimore Sun that "The Nation, since the passing of Godkin, had been gradually dying. It was, perhaps, the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world. Its content consisted on the one hand, of long editorials reprinted from the Evening Post, and on the other hand, of appalling literary essays by such pundits as Paul Elmer More. Villard, when he took it over, threw out the garbage and started printing the truth."

Those who wonder about the book reviewer's snooty tone about usage will find some explanation in The Editor's Speech of Welcome to the Semi-Centennial Dinner on April 9, 1917, which devotes a long paragraph to

How manfully the Nation has fought the losing fight to keep within their rightful provinces such sinners as "secure" "practically" "stand for" — the Lord He knows. But without being meticulous, the Nation can perhaps do more than a bit, by the cooperation of its readers, to prevent the English language from leading too licentious a career.

Can anyone tell us what sins "secure", "practically" and "stand for" were committing in 1917? I confess to being mystified.



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 8:04 am

    I guessed the sentence-initial "But" or the use of "status" for something like "basis". There are other possibilities too. I missed "urge" completely.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    Incidentally, the reviewer of Cinderella Jane had no objection to the zero derivation in the one phrase from the novel he or she quoted: "into the world of deeds, of fight and lose, heartache and some rare joys".

  3. Rick Sprague said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    I thought it was the (to me ungrammatical) "…she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his". Apparently the restrictive relative clause gap is meant to be filled with "choice of occupation"?

  4. Ryan said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    My bet was on "anxious to", as opposed to "eager to", but frequencies in COHA suggest that opposition to "anxious to" is actually new, since "anxious to" peaks in the 1880s, while "eager to" peaks in the 1980s. So it seems the eager/anxious choice probably wasn't a shibboleth in 1917.

  5. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:17 am

    Rick makes a good point about the antecedent of "which a man bestows" not having a clear antecedent (it is not the occupation that a man bestows care upon, surely, but the choosing thereof, so the needed head noun is not there in the text). But it is interesting that the writer twice uses restrictive (integrated) relative clauses beginning with which. Americans who are bullied by copy editors into using that relatives, take note: in 1917, when William Strunk was 38, restrictive relative clauses with which were perfectly standard, as they are today in British English. Strunk used them himself. The obsession with getting rid of them is a modern perversion, which White introduced into his mentor's little book in 1959. And as Jan Freeman noticed, White then silently edited Strunk's prose to remove the which relatives and turned them into that relatives, falsifying the usage record to make it look as if Strunk had agreed!

  6. The Ridger said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    No, that's just an common elision: "…she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his choice (of occupation)". It doesn't have anything to do with the gap, which would be "a man bestows [care] upon his choice" which seems very awkward to me – "bestow care upon"?

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    Geoff Pullum notes that The Nation's book reviewer doesn't object to Ms. Bennett's use of which to introduce restrictive relative clauses. It's worth adding that the reviewer himself employs restrictive which several times in the same issue of the magazine, and indeed once in the very same brief review:

    Those parts of the book which deal with the specific problem of finding jobs are interesting and valuable, but …

    A few other examples from the Book Notes in the same issue:

    The circular points out the immense practical as well as sentimental value which a knowledge of French will have for American officers who are going to France to fight side by side with our allies.

    …the great majority of children … are losing the chance of that better education which comes from a steady discipline in the thoughts and lives of the best men.

    Professor Henderson … has started an investigation which will certainly be continued.

    … the opinion that life is a necessary consequence of the earth's physical and chemical constitution, an opinion which points to a hitherto unrecognized order existing among the properties of matter.

    … like all such discussions which attempt a scientific exposition of a final cause the argument has an inevitable tendency to to drift into vague generalities …

    In fact, a quick scan suggests that in the reviewer's own writing, restrictive which is much more common than restrictive that.

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    @The Ridger: but "choice" doesn't appear in the sentence–that's the problem. Gaps in relative clauses are usually thought to be constrained to be coreferential with something in the parent clause. The reader is supposed to treat the clausal "choose her occupation" as somehow coreferential with "his [choice of occupation]." Semantically it's no problem–I didn't see the issue until Rick pointed it out–but syntactically it's pretty marginal.

    I suppose this is related to what Haj Ross called sloppy identity, which Mark has posted about here before. But this is ultra-sloppy. Calling it "elision" is just a way of restating the problem–there's a gap that needs to be interpreted as referring to something. But there are constraints on what that something has to be–you can't just elide arbitrary material (or can you?).

  9. F said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    The most obvious (to me) error is the superfluous and misleading comma after "profession" in the second sentence.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    @MYL: I'm guessing "practically" was supposed to mean "in a practical manner", not "for all practical purposes". I received a mild peeve about that in the 1990s. As a wilder guess, the deprecated sense of "stand for" might be "tolerate, accept". I have no idea about "secure", even whether it's an adjective or a verb.

    @Rod Johnson: The "gap" after "his" isn't confined to relative clauses. The problem would be the same if the sentence were, "A chooses her occupation with little care, but a man bestows great care on his." Calling it a gap is confusing people who use "gap" as a technical grammatical term for something found specifically in relative clauses. Terminology aside (he said practically), I think everyone so far agrees that the omission of the word "choice" is bad style at best.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    "A girl chooses…"

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    Jerry: The gap concept isn't confined to relative clauses; it's used with wh-questions and clefting, as well as broadly for "missing" constituents that are anaphoric to something else in the sentence (see for instance Ray Jackendoff's "Gapping and related rules," Linguistic Inquiry 2, 1971, which talks about the "deleted" constituents in Gapping as gaps.

    But I take your point. It's worth keeping a distinction between strict (?) syntactically governed gaps and more general, pragmatically motivated ellipsis phenomena. What I'm saying is that what Rick Sprague is (correctly, IMO) treating up there as the former is being treated by The Ridger as the latter.

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 12:59 pm



  14. TR said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    I was expecting a rant about "the one of all others" or the repetition of "expect" three times in two sentences. Between us we've now found about half a dozen peeve-triggers in this short, ordinary-looking paragraph: more evidence, if such were needed, that peeving is basically a kind of allergic reaction.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    The Nation of 1917 was probably not yet as conventionally left-wing as it later became (because its politics were driven by those of its owner, which evolved over time), but as a sociological matter it seems plausible that its staff writers on the whole would fit into the niche/tradition referenced, since the particular politics-for-the-time being of a stereotypical Manhattan literary intellectual no doubt themselves have evolved over time. Of the characters other than Garrison in Navasky's essay, Albert Jay Nock (who got the magazine in trouble with the government for attacking Samuel Gompers for aligning organized labor with President Wilson's war machine) is these days known, read and admired primarily by people fairly far to the right. Paul Elmer More is someone one is probably more likely to have heard of if fairly far to the right (because one will have read Russell Kirk singing his praises), but I can't say he's actually actively read or admired even there. I had never personally heard of Fuller, who seems to lack a wikipedia page of his own.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    Rod: Thanks for the correction.

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    Mark — Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right (1909) contains all three of the mystifying peeves. Bierce objects to "secure" meaning "procure", as in "he secured a position as book-keeper"; "practically" meaning "virtually"; and "stand for" meaning (as he puts it) "endure", as in "he would not stand for misrepresentation".

    [(myl) Though I didn't think to look in Bierce, those were the uses that I suspected -- but the first two of them occur dozens of times throughout the Nation in the 1917 volume and before, e.g.:

    ... a peace which does not secure these things would be a disaster and not a blessing.
    ... international law will never assume the position which belongs to it, nor non-belligerent nations secure their rights, until ...
    ... efforts to secure a more generous recognition of American degrees abroad ...

    Within two weeks practically every organization was reached in this way.
    Practically every student gave enough to make his subscription a sacrifice ...
    Fishing is already in full swing, the golf links and tennis courts are ready for use, and practically all the hotels are open.

    "Stand for" is not very common in any meaning, but one of its ten 1917 uses is:

    Broadway would never "stand for it"!

    I guess this all makes sense if the editor's commitment to linguistic virtue was mainly a virtual one.]

  18. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    @myl's response to Jon Weinberg:

    Not to dispute your point, but I don't believe that in your second example "secure" is being used in the proscribed "procure" sense. As I understand it, it refers to rights that non-belligerent nations already possess (in principle, as natural rights) but that need to be secured. The same might be true of your first example, depending on what the "things" are that peace should secure.

    [(myl) How about:

    The book will prove an inestimable aid to those seeking to secure for other States the protection which Pennsylvania alone enjoys.

    This seems to be the OED's sense 7.a., "To succeed in obtaining or getting possession of (something desired or needed), esp. as the result of considerable effort or mental application", for which citations are given starting in 1660. If Bierce and others thought that this was a dangerous novelty as of the early 20th century, they were deluded.]

  19. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

    I saw several problems with the paragraph (inevitably: 1917 was some time ago). The main one was the awkwardness of a "because" clause immediately after a "for" clause. But I didn't expect that — or anything else I spotted — to be THE problem, because if it were that predictable it wouldn't have been the basis for a Language Log post.

    Here's my attempt to edit the paragraph for style:

    "College girls may not realize why so many of them are impatient to secure a position that will "pay a good salary" without taking further training. Their brothers do not expect that, for they are choosing their profession: the one they desire above all others and expect to follow all of their lives. But because the girl expects to marry, she does not choose her occupation with the same care that a man bestows upon his. Unless she is a genius — or has within her an intensely strong urge towards some form of self-expression — she lapses into the easy choice by which she can lope along until her wedding day. She does not phrase it so ignobly; but such is the nature of her choice."

  20. Joel said,

    September 2, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

    Surely Garner intended its use of "function" as jargon…?

    [(myl) "Its"? Anyhow, I don't think so, even if it were clearer how to determine what "jargon" is. Here's a pretty ordinary verbal use of function, from Garner on Language and Writing:

    "Many existing law dictionaries are poorly written, function more as encyclopedias than as dictionaries, lack comprehensive treatment, and provide little if any guidance on the development of legal language [...]"


  21. L said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 9:24 am

    I thought the error must lie in "pay a good salary." I had no idea what the error might be, but as I could find no other, I fixed upon the quotation marks as indicators of doubt.

    However, my quotation marks are simply quotation marks.

    I leave it to others to determine whether or not pay began life as a noun, as I am not salaried to do that sort of thing and, my efforts in that direction would not be for the good.

    [(myl) The OED has citations for pay v. "to give money" from about 1200, and for pay n. "money paid" from about 1400. So it seems that the noun is a bit later than the verb; but the snoots of the world, as of 1917, already had more than 500 years of experience to make their peace with this innovation.]

  22. Nelida said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    @Rick Sprague:
    I thought it was the (to me ungrammatical) "…she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his". Apparently the restrictive relative clause gap is meant to be filled with "choice of occupation"?

    Yes, totally, I agree. But I also think the sentence could have been rendered more elegantly or concisely as: "…she does not choose her occupation as carefully as a man does" (a sexist view if I ever saw any, by the way).

  23. Rick Sprague said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    I did, indeed, intend the technical syntactic meaning of "gap" in my post, and The Ridger was absolutely right in correcting me on it. But I do appreciate the efforts of the kind folks who tried to explain away my faux pas.

  24. J. Goard said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

    @Rick Sprague:

    I thought it was the (to me ungrammatical) "…she does not choose her occupation with the care which a man bestows upon his".

    I didn't, and still don't, find anything wrong with this. My construal is that care is indeed being bestowed upon the occupation via the careful choice. Compare:

    The cellist devoted a lot of time to his debut performance.

    Would anybody object that the time was actually devoted to practice for the performance?

  25. blahedo said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

    Nobody seems to have brought up this usage issue (although Adrian Morgan is looking at the same sentence), which may reflect usage drift since 1917 but for my modern eyes actually affects the meaning of the sentence:

    Their brothers do not expect it, for they are choosing their profession, because it is the one of all others which they desire and because they expect to follow it all their lives.

    Nevermind the restrictive which, what about that comma after "profession"? As written (and as Adrian interprets it, noting its clunkiness) it seems to set off "choosing their profession" as distinct from what the women are doing, with the "because" clause (both of them) hanging on as an explanatory adjunct; but surely what was meant was for the "because…lives" to attach to "choosing their profession"? Later sentences make it clear that the author implies that boys choose their professions based on lifelong plans, but girls choose them only for a pre-marriage interim period.

    On further reflection, I guess it's possible that "profession" (meaning what the boys do) really is meant as distinct from "occupation" (which is what the girls do) rather than as its synonym, in which case the as-written reading could stand. Still clunky at best (as Adrian noted), though.

  26. Jonathon said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    For anyone interesting in the history of the that/which distinction, I wrote a post last year showing that it is indeed a relatively recent phenomenon.

  27. L said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    I'm still stuck on the quotation marks. I do that. I get stuck on things. It's one my pet peeves with myself.

    What, in fact, do the quotes on "pay a good salary" accomplish in the first place? Had somebody used this expression earlier in the article?

    Alternately, why are there no quotemarks on "lope along until her wedding day?"

    Surely a modicum of consistency is a stylistic good. Maybe even two modica?

  28. Jason Eisner said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 11:49 pm

    @L: The quotation marks around "pay a good salary" are meant to attribute the phrase to the young women, I think. It suggests that they're often heard describing their ideal job in those words.

  29. joanne salton said,

    September 5, 2012 @ 6:11 am

    I don't see why the phrase with lope should have quotation marks, L, since it originally comes from the author.

    I'd agree with Blahedo that the comma after because makes the sentence unclear – especially because you then wonder who "they" are.

    People generally seem to defend their peeving rather strongly in cases like this when the alleged error results in a lack of clarity. I'm not sure a clear distinction can be made though – all types of regularity of behaviour probably aid comprehension to some degree.

  30. L said,

    September 5, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    @Jason – Ah, thanks.

    @Joanne – In light of Jason's reply, I agree. "She does not it phrase thus ignobly."

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment