Angry linguistic mobs with torches

« previous post | next post »

A couple of days ago, Andrew Mueller at the Guardian tossed some bleeding gobbets into the crowd of ravening peevologists ("Linguistic pedants of the world unite", 4/14/2008). His point of departure:

For centuries, travellers have crossed America to explore it, conquer it, settle it, exploit it and study it. Now, a small but righteous crew are traversing America in order to edit it. Jeff Deck, and his friends at the Typo Eradication Advancement League (Teal), are spending three months driving from San Francisco, California, to Somerville, Massachusetts, on a mission to correct every misspelled, poorly punctuated, sloppily phrased item of signage they encounter en route. Equipped with marker pens, stickers and white-out, they are seeking to scourge America's landscape of floating apostrophes, logic-defying syntax and other manifestations of laziness and/or illiteracy.

Mueller's column visits all the classic tropes of word rage, including mock-restrained mock-threats of violence:

A person who perpetrates vandalism upon the language, whether they're the signwriters targeted by Teal or the correspondents who pollute Comment is free threads with the barbarous neologisms of text-speak, is not merely inept but actively contemptuous. A language is the crucial asset of any society – it's what binds us, animates us, permits us to accomplish things. It is part of our common space, and perhaps it should be protected as such. In theory at least, fly-tippers and litterers, who also wantonly sully what belongs to us all, are subject to prosecution. While my personal preference for retribution against typographical psychopaths would involve angry mobs with torches, I am a reasonable man, and would settle for a regime of fines, the proceeds to be spent on a campaign to raise standards of literacy

And as we expect ("The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming"), the torch-bearing mob assembles on cue to provide 272 comments. This was the second-largest response for any of the 28 "Comment is free" items dated 4/14/2008. (The only larger response was, predictably, to an article equating zionism with racism; in comparison, a proposal that Britain should join the Euro zone stimulated a mere 81 comments, and an editorial by Ian Baruma under the title "Tibet's last stand", arguing that "The last glimmers of Tibetan culture are in danger of being extinguished …", got 78.)

Some of the comments are contentless cheers and roars ("I agree with the article but I fear that we pedants are fighting a losing battle"). Others hit the usual hot buttons of peevology: less/fewer, split infinitives, and so on. One of wmaiden's peeves was new to me:

Since when did "either", "ei" pronounced as in Einstein, twice, and in German in general, become "eether"; all TV and most radio presenters in the UK use the latter completely unacceptable pronunciation.

I don't know the history of the [i]-[ai] variation in this word, but the OED gives the "ee" variant as the first pronunciation. Apparently wmaiden has generalized incorrectly from the spelling, mistaking a normal and standard pronunciation — used, as (s)he observes, by many educated speakers — for a symptom of civilization's decline.

Other ironies abound. None of the commenters note that Mueller uses contemptuous to mean contemptible. And after recommending Humphrys and Truss, a commenter named JelMist complains about singular "they" ("One of my personal pet peeves is the use of 'they' as a neuter third-person singular") without noticing that Mueller himself violates this taboo ("A person who perpetrates vandalism upon the language, whether they're the signwriters targeted by Teal or the correspondents who pollute Comment is free threads with the barbarous neologisms of text-speak, is … actively contemptuous."). In a later comment, JelMist executes an (entirely unironic) eggcorn ("I think you'll find the Chomskyite approach was given free reign in the 1960s, and was largely responsible for much of what we are now discussing.")

Some contrarian voices are raised — stevejones123 makes a noble effort, for example — but overall, the comments exemplify the poor signal-to-noise and light-to-heat ratios generally found in public discussions of usage. Still, this case also confirms the high level of public interest in such matters. Imagine if we could harness all this energy towards some productive end, such as acquiring the concepts and skills of linguistic analysis!

[For a sample of the Typo Hunt Across America, check out the recent dispatch from San Francisco, "Floundering". You'll find an interesting mix of interactions.

In one example, a THAA-ista confronts the baristas at Starbucks:

I got the attention of a girl at the counter. “Hi there. I noticed that elegant was spelled wrong on your sign.”

She checked it out. “No, that’s right. E-L-E-G-E-N-T.”

“A-N-T,” said a couple of nearby customers at the same time Julie said it.

“Oh, really,” said the girl.

"Yeah,” I said. “Would it be possible for you to fix it?”

A couple of her male co-workers had been hovering nearby during this exchange, and now one of them stepped forward aggressively. “Are you actually here to buy anything, man?”

“Just some peace of mind,” I said.

“You won’t find that at Starbucks,” he muttered, and backed off.

It seems to me that the barista wins that one, though the sign does get corrected (while the rest of the would-be customers wait in line, apparently).

I reacted differently to the reported episode of typo-hunting at the Cartoon Museum, where the THAA-istas take on some remarkably careless signs in an exhibit of the work of 10 female cartoonists. We're not talking about a couple of errant apostrophes or an -ant/-ent confusion -- these signs were apparently full of passages like “I admit I became kind of a bif fishas flounder of Kirshenbaum…” and “Interestingly, while she did not have a favorite Beatle, she did have a minute-and-a-half and then went on to work at numerous jobs…”.

The museum's representative tries a couple of unimpressive excuses. First she suggests that a high-school intern did it, as if that would absolve the museum of any responsibility; then she says that they just copied the text from the book that inspired the exhibit, mistakes and all -- but the text in the book turns out to be clean. (It was "... big fish as founder of ...", not "... bif fishas flounder of ...", for example.)

In that interaction, my sympathies are entirely on the side of the THAA-istas. ]

[Update -- Jamie Drier writes:

Maybe an instance of Hartman's Law, or maybe just irony:

"...they are seeking to scourge America’s landscape of floating apostrophes, logic-defying syntax and other manifestations of laziness and/or illiteracy."

Mueller apparently doesn't know what 'scourge' means. Well, I bet he does, but it's plainly misused there. (My 15 year old son suggests that he was thinking of 'scoured' and 'purged', and note also that the expression 'scourge of the landscape' is in the semantic and syntactic neighborhood.)

Yes, "scourge" here is probably a blend of "scour" and "purge". Mr. Mueller's fines (to be devoted to literacy education) are mounting up.

But Karen Davis comes to Mueller's defense on the "contempt__" charge:

I’d be willing to bet Mueller *meant* contemptuous, not contemptible. It would fit in with his theory that people who do such things are ‘perpetrat[ing] vandalism upon the language’ and must be eradicated.

And she might well be right. Neal Whitman agrees:

I think in the excerpt you printed that the author really did mean 'contemptuous': Our language is our common asset, he says, and these people who treat it so carelessly are contemptuous of it — is how I took the message.

I also cut out this sentence from their blog posting that you quoted:

“You won’t find that at Starbucks,” he muttered, and backed off.

I'll add that to my list of non-parallel coordinations involving quotative inversion. Not that I think it's wrong, but I've been on the lookout for them once I realized they were a peeve of Bill Walsh's (the only person so far I've heard complain about them).

The list of possible linguistic peeves must be finite, but I'm always amazed to learn just how far down the list you can go, and still find things that get under somebody's skin. Somewhere, no doubt, there are people who break out in spots if someone says "Wheat Chex is my favorite cereal", or refers to "the soils of north central Pennylvania".]

[David Gil writes:

I was surprised to read that that peeves regarding the pronunciation
of "either" are new to you. This complaint figures prominently in the
circa 1937 Gershwin song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off".

In that song, the singer complains that, due to some systematic
pronunciation differences between the singer's and their romantic
partner's dialects, their "romance is growing flat" . The first
example of these differences is that, while the singer uses the
"correct" pronunciation of "either", the romantic partner uses the
pronunciation deplored by wmaiden. The singer therefore initially
decides to "call the whole thing off". But, fortunately, the singer
rejects this "prescriptivist poppycock", singing: "so we better call
the calling off off." As should anyone possessed of this silly notion.

The lyrics to the song are here, and there's also a not tremendously useful Wikipedia entry.

Well, I certainly know the song, and I remember the "either" part, but I've always interpreted the song as using dialect differences to stand in for general interpersonal incompatibility, with no real connection to prescriptivism. ]

Update — more here.


Comments are closed.