Educational sky is falling says blithering windbag

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Week after week the language-and-literacy pontificators fulminate in newspapers and magazines, nearly always revealing how little they know about language. The worst case I've seen in the past week is a column by Howard Jacobson in The Independent about how old teaching methods worked and new ones don't (muted thanks to Steve Jones for pointing it out to me). In the column he foams at the mouth over a contestant on a reality show who did not understand the meaning of the idiomatic phrase at your peril. Peril means "danger", of course but is somewhat archaic. Proceed at your peril means "If you proceed you will be in danger", but crucially, this is not compositional: the meaning does not follow from the regular principles for the rest of English phrase semantics. For example, you can't say ??Proceed at your trouble to mean "If you proceed you will be in trouble"; you can't say ??Proceed at your error to mean "If you proceed you will be in error". At your peril is a fixed phrase you have to learn as a whole. It is insane to whinge about the whole educational system going to the dogs just because one young person didn't know this single idiom. Everyone is ignorant of at least some of the abundantly many idiomatic phrases in English. And apart from that one phrase, Jacobson's complaints about education rest entirely on two things: a teacher named Phil Beadle used the transitive verb lay to mean "lie" ("be recumbent") in a TV program (see my disastrously unhelpful guidance on Language Log about this supposed shibboleth), and practice (rather than practise) was used as a verb in the program's closing credits (there's nothing wrong with it: dictionaries list it as a variant spelling, but Jacobson is too stupid or too over-confident to look at dictionaries). What a pathetic basis for apocalyptic claims about modern education. Read this linguistically ignorant blithering windbag at your peril.

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38 Comments »

  1. D Jagannathan said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    I can see him on a street corner with an A-Frame proclaiming the decline of society as we know it.

    I should add, though, that "at your peril" is matched by the similar, perhaps more common "at your (own) risk." Other non-locative (and thus, I take it, non-compositional in your sense) 'at your' phrases like "at your service", "at your expense" seem to fall into another class.

  2. James said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    Proceed at your leisure.
    Proceed at your own risk.
    Proceed at your discretion.
    Proceed at will.
    Proceed at your own caution.
    (I would never say this, but it showed up in my google search.)

    Others? Are there any that aren't idiomatic but seem okay anyway? (I tried to make up a new one and couldn't.)

    Proceed at your own pace, and related, seem to be compositional. They don't count.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    Why 'muted'? Shout them over the rooftops :)

    I've just gone back to the thread and there are two numpties who think he's right about 'practise/practice'. And they feel full of themselves!

    By the way Geoff, refreshing to find invective that makes me seem restrained!

  4. Rebecca said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    The weird rule about practice and practise was drummed into me in Primary School not that long ago (1998). We were told that using practice-with-a-c-as-a-verb was a very American thing to do, explaining his huffy "in this country" remark.

  5. Blake Stacey said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    If I try to parse proceed at your leisure following the model of proceed at your peril, it comes out sounding like, "If you proceed, you will enter a state of leisure."

  6. Christopher Stone said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    I did a search for proceed on google as well, and I was interested to see how often the word 'pace' shows up with proceed (a search for "proceed at" +pace yields 275,000 results out of a little more than a million hits for "proceed at"):
    proceed at snail's pace
    proceed at a measured pace
    proceed at a considerably slower pace
    proceed at a pace faster than even Roosevelt
    proceed at the same pace as until now

    And then there are others that I suppose are related to the 'at your own pace' one in that they have the sense of rate of speed, but don't actually use the word 'pace':
    proceed at a normal rate
    proceed at a increasing and more productive rate
    Proceed At Full Speed

    And here are two that seem to be compositional:
    proceed at room temperature (This one makes sense if you take into account that it was talking about chemical reactions, or at least it does to me)
    proceed at obtaining records from Barnardos (I have to say, this one sounds pretty strange to me, but I also found it on a British site. Any Brits care to weigh in on this one?)

  7. Justin L said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    One question–how many of these "at (your) X" phrases are borrowings or calques of French expressions? A quick search turned up "procéder/avancer à votre loisir," "procéder/avancer à volonté" and "procéder/avancer à vos risques et périls".

    I don't know when these expressions were first used in English, but most of the individual words were borrowed during the Norman Invasion, and it seems possible that a handful of expressions (maybe used in law?) entered alongside the vocabulary. However, the phrasing never became truly productive in English except with terms of speed, leaving us with a few formulaic phrases.

  8. Trevor Barrie said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    "At your peril" may not be compositional, but I would argue that anybody who understands what "peril" means should be able to successfully interpret the idiom nonetheless.

    What strikes me as ridiculous about Jacobson's article is that I don't see any reason to conclude that the young person in question misconstrued the expression at all!. Apparently, upon hearing that she should proceed "at her peril", the young woman thought for a while, then smiled sweetly and thanked the speaker. How does that imply a failure to understand the idiom? Could she not simply have meant "Thank you for the warning, I'll take it to heart."?

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

    Actually when we do look up the usage in the British National Corpus of practice/practise the result is quite bizarre.

    When we look up the infinitive 'to practice' we find 196 examples compared to 566 for the more common 'to practise'. Most of the 196 examples are of the infinitive rather than the noun. The present and past participles are overwhelmingly in favour of the 's' form by a factor of over 50 to 1, though the proportion declines somewhat when we distinguish the verbal use of the adjectives from the adjectival. In the present simple the proportion is only 5-1.

    (There are also of course plenty of examples of practise used as a noun in British English).

    So the matter is not at all simple.

    (And of course it is quite Colonel Blimpish to object to an American spelling anyway).

  10. Barbara Partee said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    Geoff, doesn't this warm your heart and make you glad after all that Language Log now includes the comments function? Your post was about idiot prescriptivists, but many of the commenters are thinking about your "proceed at your peril" example and doing linguistics! I think that's neat!

  11. Andy J said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    Geoff Pullum (since he is currently based in the UK) will probably know, but others from across the Atlantic may not, that the phrase "we ignore this at our peril" is much beloved and very overused by a section of London society who might think of themselves as the literati, amongst whom I would certainly number Howard Jacobson. I suspect that he would actually be mortified to think that someone from the lower orders might be familiar enough with this phrase to use it himself. I'm only surprised that the article didn't appear in the Guardian rather than the Independent

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    Incidentally we should take away 24 examples of 'to practise/practice' from both versions as they are from the spoken corpus.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    Now the strange difference in the occurrence of 'to practice' and 'practiced' or 'practicing' cannot be explained by Word's UK spell checker as it doesn't mark them as bad spellings.

    So the spelling rule is totally bizarre: in modern British English 'practise' as a verb is spelt 'practise' except in the infinitive when 'practice' is also allowable.

  14. Amy said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    Nobody's mentioned this modern business-speak idiom:
    "proceed at your convenience"

    Actual usage is more commonly:
    "Call me back at your earliest convenience."

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    The values for <noun> in "at your <noun>" with a frequency of more than 10 in Mark Davies' COCA at BYU, ordered by frequency, are:

    house, service, age, feet, fingertips, sides, desk, door, home, disposal, place, school, side, back, office, table, destination, job, face, leisure, peril, wedding, expense, mother, watch, convenience, life, father, news, command, doorstep, head, hotel, child, computer, heart, company, mom, hands, hand, neighborhood, work, hair, health, request, supermarket, beck, word, eyes, state, body, heels, target, throat, apartment, chest, church, family, bank, heartstrings, hips, parents, credit, gym, library, record, waist, workplace, baby, children, doctor, party, skin, son, trial, brother, daughter, discretion, husband, kids, wife, wrist, death, …

    Obviously some of these are the start of a longer phrase.

    For the pattern "proceed at your <noun>" there is only one hit, with a frequency of 1 in 360 million words, namely <noun> = "peril".

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

    —-"For the pattern "proceed at your " there is only one hit, with a frequency of 1 in 360 million words, namely = "peril".——

    Interesting how the way you refine the search makes a big difference to the results. The COCA gives in fact 'proceed at your own risk' as having four occurrences.

    How do Mark and I get such different results? I suspect Mark refined his search too much, using 'proceed at your [nn*]' as his search string instead of simply 'proceed at your'.

    [(myl) Yes, that's right.]

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    Windbags blather, certainly, and idiots blither.

    Google finds 122,000 for "blithering idiot", to only 14,400 for "blathering idiot". For "X windbags", on the other hand, the count is only 56:41. By themselves, it's 333,000:787,000.

    The "Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology" suggests they are variations of "blethering", which comes up at 30,500, with 463 idiots and only a single windbag.

  18. Alexandre said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    Not only do I, like Barbara, just love the comments section but I get this warm and fuzzy feeling from following some of the recent anti-prescriptivist rants and thoughtful posts. The feeling of not being alone, in this world.
    Is there a club for those who fight prescriptivism and pedantry?

    Also, Justin may be on to something about calques. As a French-speaker, I find "proceed at your peril" to be eerily familiar.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    Read this linguistically ignorant blithering windbag at your peril
    Ugh: I just did. As to Jacobson's other gripe about the programme –

    Watching Phil Beadle spill his guts, drop his aitches, glottal stop, rend his soul, cry a bit, laugh a bit, swear a bit, in general fall over himself not to act or look or sound like someone in authority

    - he doesn't seem to grasp that it was excellent psychology. The subjects were working-class people who had bad memories of conventional teachers (i.e. middle-class, RP and authoritarian) so of course it made sense to get someone they wouldn't see as an enemy.

  20. Giusi said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    I am Italian and in Italian we use to say: a tuo rischio e pericolo (at your risk and peril). Since peril definitely comes from Latin (Middle English, from Old French, from Latin perculum. See per-3 in Appendix I), this expression might be a borrowing from that Italian expression.

  21. Liam said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    In fact, blithering bags are full of not just wind, but any of the following:

    hot air
    bolts
    jetlag and excitement
    gas
    bullrushes
    shit
    emo
    pus
    fodder
    protoplasm
    babbles and blushes
    feces?
    nerves

    Blathering bags, too, may contain wind, or:

    hot air
    nuts and bolts
    hot gas
    SNOTBALLS
    madness
    mostly water

  22. john riemann soong said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 12:52 am

    Snowclones are moldable, but they aren't exactly compositional either, are they?

  23. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 4:12 am

    Is there some Latin-based reason for practice/practise and licence/license, in England? I remember the Latin teacher at school was very proud of taking the local 'off-licence' to task for having misspelt their own trade.

    Ray Girvan: Watching Phil Beadle spill his guts, drop his aitches, glottal stop, rend his soul, cry a bit, laugh a bit, swear a bit, in general fall over himself not to act or look or sound like someone in authority… it was excellent psychology. The subjects were working-class people who had bad memories of conventional teachers (i.e. middle-class, RP and authoritarian) so of course it made sense to get someone they wouldn't see as an enemy.

    I'm wondering what US linguists (broadly leftish, if I'm not mistaken) think of Britain's class-coded accents? Are they a Bad Thing?

  24. JanetK said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 4:59 am

    I wonder if I am alone in this, but I do not really feel any difference between the transitive and the intransitive sense in the lie/lay verb pair. This is also true of some other verb pairs but not all. What harm to meaning would occur if there was just one verb to cover both the case where there is an object other than oneself and the case where there is no object because it is assume to be oneself? Please help me with this unnatural contrast. And..what is the correct verb to use in the phrase, 'now I lay me down to sleep' in the little child's prayer?

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 5:52 am

    The Latin is licentia. Practise/Practice appears to supersede the earlier from practic, which goes back to the Greek praktik.

    The reason for the advise/advice and devise/device difference is that the verb form comes from the French aviser and déviser, whilst the noun comes from the shorter forms avis and dévis.

  26. John Lawler said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    @JanetK:
    There would be, of course, no harm at all to meaning if the transitive causative lay 'cause to recline' and the stative/inchoative intransitive lie '(come to} recline' stopped being distinguished. We do this uneventfully with open, for instance.

    The ablaut distinction between lieand lay (and the parallel ones sit / set and rise / raise, all of which relate irregular inchoatives referring to body motion with regular derived causatives) is old, and therefore venerable to some. It's sacred morphology, like whom or Meā culpā!, and unnatural only to those who don't find history natural. Thus it becomes a badge also of education and social status in the Anglophone world.

    In the children's prayer Now I lay me down to sleep, note that there is an object me and the verb is therefore transitive. Thus lay is correct. This is in fact an old reflexive use of the verb, like German Setzen Sie sich, or rural American Set yourself down, often pronounced as Sit yourself down, especially in regions where the [ɪ/ɛ] distinction is weakened.

  27. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    Possibly the best quote from that column, in the last paragraph, is Jacobson's use of the royal (or educator's) "we": "We are not pedantic."

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    How did English come to replace sounds the "k" sound with "s", as in praktik -> practice and (particularly) Caesar "kyzer" -> Caesar "seezer"? Is it just from confusion about how to pronounce the written letter "c"?

  29. John Lawler said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    @Nathan Myers:

    It didn't. Latin /k/ (spelled 'C') got replaced with fricatives by palatalization in some contexts much earlier in other languages, and then borrowed into English.
    There's a nice summary of answers from Ask-a-Linguist about that here.

  30. Justin L said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 1:50 am

    My professor actually used "Caesar" on one of my exams in History of Spanish, because it shows a lot of diachronic processes.
    [kaisar]
    [kɛsar]-reduction of dipthong
    [tʃɛsar]-palatization of initial "k"
    [tʃɛzar]-voicing of intervocalic "s"
    [tˢɛzar]-fronting of cluster
    [tˢezar]-merger of unstressed "e" and "ɛ"
    [sezar] (spelled "cesar")-lenition of [tˢ] to [s]
    The later steps to give modern Castillian Spanish [θesar] are post-Old Spanish

    If [sezar] was borrowed before the Great Vowel Shift, then English would normally have long e>[i] and "ar" would be weakened to "er", giving [size(r )] in Modern English. The restoration of the dipthong is probably English printers/dictionary writers trying to promote the "classical" spelling.

  31. Peter Erwin said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    @Nathan Meyers:

    To oversimplify a bit: Classical Latin used the letter "c" to indicate the sound "k". As Latin evolved into the various Romance languages, the pronunciation changed in the cases where "c" was followed by "e" or "i" (or, I'm guessing, "ae", as in Caesar). In Italian this ended up becoming the "ch" sound; in French (and at least some Spanish dialects) this became "s"; as Justin L points out, in Castillian Spanish it eventually ended up as the "th" sound. English basically borrowed the French pronunciations for Latin.

    So, for example, Cicero is [ignoring other details of pronunciation]

    "kikero" (Classical Latin)
    "sisero" (French, English, Latin American Spanish)
    "thithero" (Castillian Spanish)
    "chichero" (Italian)

  32. Paul Wilkins said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

    This post reminds me of a podcast of This American Life I recently listened to. (#293: Alittle Bit of Knowledge)
    found here:
    http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1251

    Tackles both ends of this situation under the heading of "American Jackass". Geoff is definitely on to something. I think David Brooks belongs in this episode, too.

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

    Justin, Peter: Thank you. Oversimplification appreciated too.

  34. Patrick Hadley said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    I was taught to use advise/advice to help me remember how to distinguish practise/practice and license/licence.

    I certainly agree that to make a big deal out of this issue is very silly, but no doubt Jacobson was running out time to fill up a page when he wrote the article.

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Also, thanks to John, with apologies.

  36. KL Clark said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

    I tell our dogs to 'lie down', my husband tells our dogs to 'lay down'. Result is identical. Mostly they completely ignore us and keep on barking, but occasionally they will in fact lie down.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    (from Justin:) "One question–how many of these "at (your) X" phrases are borrowings or calques of French expressions? A quick search turned up "procéder/avancer à votre loisir," "procéder/avancer à volonté" and "procéder/avancer à vos risques et périls"."

    I guess Justin and Alexandre must be quite young and unfamiliar with the French spoken and written before the massive influence of translations from English which has affected contemporary French vocabulary and syntax, first in Canada, but now (even more it seems) in France. The French expressions above with "procéder" are recent calques from English, not the opposite.

    I have not lived in France for many years and would never have thought of using "procéder" to mean 'proceed' in the sense of "avancer" – to me it is a word belonging to a formal, legal or administrative style, meaning 'to perform with care and deliberation (esp. something long and difficult)' as in "procéder à une opération" 'to perform an act or operation" (eg in a formal, institutional context, eg in a business or bank, or a police station, or – sometimes humorously – in the context of some perhaps commonplace activity performed with a lot of care and attention, as in "procéder à sa toilette" 'to perform one's grooming activities'). Similarly I would never think of using "à votre loisir", a literal translation of 'at your leisure' – but the two nouns do not mean the same thing. "Avancez à vos risques et périls" is the only one of these expressions that I recognize and might use, to mean "Go ahead if you like, but you only have yourself to blame if something happens to you." Incidentally, I interpret "at your peril" the same way: not that you will get into a dangerous situation, but that you might, so you are warned. Am I wrong about "at your peril"? Doesn't it mean about the same as "at your own risk"?

  38. marie-lucie said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    p.s. more on "procéder": i am not totally happy with my translation 'to perform an act with care and attention'. It is not really wrong, but the verb also carries a connotation that the 'process' or 'procedure' consists of steps to be followed in a certain order, and therefore its performance requires care and attention.

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