Everything he was in he raised the quality

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According to Metro, the UK free newspaper that I pick up each morning from a stack just inside the door as I get on a double-decker bus, Steve Coogan said this about the excellent film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly was found dead with a hypodermic in his arm yesterday:

Everything he was in he raised the quality of his film just by his presence.

Quite so. Or at least, sort of so. If I defocus my syntactic eyes a lot, I can sort of get a glimpse of what Coogan meant.

We all make sentence-planning errors, more so in stressful situations like being suddenly approached with an unexpected question by a journalist after learning of the death of a colleague. Coogan might have been aiming to say (or might even have said, since journalists make transcription mistakes) any of the following:

  • In everything he was in, he raised the quality of the film just by his presence.
  • Everything he was in had its quality raised just by his presence.
  • Everything he was in, he raised the quality of it just by his presence.
  • Everything he was in he raised the quality of, just by his presence.
  • . . .

Something along those lines. But certainly not what he is actually reported to have said.

I mention this for the following reason. Every time you meet someone who claims "Descriptive linguists just think anything goes," I want you to slap them. Hard.

Lynne Truss describes linguists as "well-paid academics just sitting back and enjoying the show" (meaning that they should be out there fighting against grammatical illiteracy but instead they just say all the errors are cool and everyone should lighten up). Slap her.

A commenter called minnesotan says it is "annoying to most people to hear the fellow who claims that anything goes" (he is clearly implying that I am such a fellow). Slap him.

I'm just fed up and I'm not going to take it any more. I'm fed up with these people who take the fact that I use evidence to figure out what the syntactic rules of English are, and twist it into the thesis that I don't believe in rules at all. If there were no rules, everything would be correct. I don't think everything is correct. What Steve Coogan said about Hoffman is miles from being grammatically correct no matter what assumptions you make.

Yes, there are rules of grammar. It is Coogan's job (and yours) to try to obey them. And it is my job as a linguist to try and figure out what they are, and to state them precisely. And also to not be a jerk about it: my job as a language user is to forgive Coogan (or you) for any difficulty he (or you) might have in following them in spontaneous speech, and to use my common sense in trying to figure out what he (or you) might have meant.

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