Archive for Usage

Further v. Farther

Apparently, further and farther come from the same source, namely the verb that we retain as further meaning "to promote". The different spellings were originally due to the general diversity of English orthography in earlier times. And the spelling was apparently not regularized because the word(s) took over as the comparative form of far, which used to be farrer. But because of the similarity of meanings, both forms seem always to have been used in the full range of adjectival and adverbial meanings, though with some probabilistic influence of far's spatial sense on the vowel.

From the 1895 OED entry for farther (not revised since then):

Middle English ferþer (whence by normal phonetic development farther ) is in origin a mere variant of further n., due probably to the analogy of the verb ferþren < Old English fyrðrian to further v. The primary sense of further, farther is ‘more forward, more onward’; but this sense is practically coincident with that of the comparative of far, where the latter word refers to real or attributed motion in some particular direction. Hence further, farther came to be used as the comparative of far; first in the special application just mentioned, and ultimately in all senses, displacing the regular comparative farrer. In standard English the form farther is usually preferred where the word is intended to be the comparative of far, while further is used where the notion of far is altogether absent; there is a large intermediate class of instances in which the choice between the two forms is arbitrary.

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People of X

In the discussion of Boris Johnson's misperceived phrase ("Was it 'people of colour' or 'people of talent'?", 12/6/2019), several people expressed the opinion that "people of talent" is an unexpected way to refer to the group that he wants to welcome. Thus Rose Eneri:

My question is why does Mr. Johnson use such as odd phrase. Why does he not say, "talented people" or "people with skills we need?" I don't know of any other use of the phrase, "people of…" This fracas demonstrates the perils of using one.

Actually there are quite a few other possible values for X in "people of X", where the phrase means something like "people who have X": faith, goodwill, conscience, influence,  integrity, character, means, authority, importance, intelligence, vision, quality, . . .

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They were a prophet

Ben Zimmer, "How Maguire Accidentally Made the Case for Singular ‘They'", The Atlantic 9/27/2019 (subhead: "The national intelligence director’s recent testimony inadvertently supported the argument against grammar purists"):

When the committee chairman, Adam Schiff, asked Maguire if he thought that the whistle-blower was “a political hack” as Trump had suggested, Maguire responded, “I don’t know who the whistle-blower is, Mr. Chairman, to be honest with you. I’ve done my utmost to protect his anonymity.” But if Maguire was seeking to protect the whistle-blower’s anonymity, why use the pronoun he to identify the person’s gender?

Schiff, in his questioning, was more circumspect, avoiding gendered references by relying on a time-honored strategy: deploying they as a singular pronoun. When Maguire said he thought the whistle-blower was “operating in good faith,” Schiff said, “Then they couldn’t be in good faith if they were acting as a political hack, could they? … You don’t have any reason to accuse them of disloyalty to our country or suggest they’re beholden to some other country, do you?”

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Non-binary "singular they" endorsed by Merriam-Webster

"Singular 'they': Though singular 'they' is old, 'they' as a nonbinary proonoun is new — and useful", Merriam-Webster Words We're Watching:

Much has been written on they, and we aren’t going to attempt to cover it here. We will note that they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular they mirrors the development of the singular you from the plural you, yet we don’t complain that singular you is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing.

They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context, as in the example above. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, “This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.”

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To boldly split

Past LLOG coverage

[h/t Daniel Deutsch]

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"Come, comrades, over there!"

There's a huge controversy over whether the police commander uses the Mandarin word "tóngzhìmen 同志们" ("comrades") at around 2:15 in this video:

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Military slang

On a large discussion list, I said something that involved a lot of close, careful reasoning and marshalling of evidence to come to a precise conclusion, and another member of the list approved what I wrote with a hearty "Shack!"

I was dumbfounded.

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Kirsten Gillibrand's Mandarin

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X of Y ↔ Y(ed) X

Robert Ayers sent in this cartoon:
And asked "Was the 'colored person' fall from grace strictly a one off due to history? I see no movement from, eg, 'Asian person' to 'person of Asia'. Or 'Irishman' to 'man of Ireland'."

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Calling out sick

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"We need wall"

Josh Marshall, "We need wall", TPM 12/20/2018:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me the word has apparently come down from the White House that the wall, as in the wall to be built along the southern border, must now be called “wall”. In other words, no definite article, no “the”.

Here's DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifying in congress today:

From congress I would ask for wall. We need wall.

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"Biomarkers": Language as a substance?

For the past few years, I've been involved in some research on clinical applications of linguistic analysis. And as a result, I've done a lot of reading in the associated inter-, trans-, or meta-disciplinary literature (see e.g. the reading list for a seminar I taught last spring).  This involves assimilating some inter-, trans-, or meta-disciplinary terminology, of which one interesting example is the word biomarker.

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Annals of singular "they"

"Pilot misses destination by 29 miles after dozing off", Sky News 11/27/2018:

A pilot in Australia is being investigated after they fell asleep in the cockpit and missed their destination by 29 miles.

The pilot, who was the only person on board at the time, overshot the remote Tasmanian island where they were due to land after dozing off.

The Piper PA-31 was travelling from Devonport to King Island on a routine flight by Vortex Air, a high-end private jet tourism operator.

A statement from the company said the flight was the pilot's first after a period of leave.

They had declared themselves fit to fly, were deemed adequately experienced, and had "previously flown the route a number of times without incident", the operator said.

Use of they for a specific singular human referent of unspecified gender is becoming routine.

[h/t Tim Frost]


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