Prescriptivist pain

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9 Chickweed Lane, for June 15, illustrates something about prescriptivist pain:

Apparently, the people who suffer from "word aversion" experience the offending words as intrinsically and irremediably unpleasant, like fingernails-on-the-blackboard noises. Therefore you can genuinely afflict someone by producing certain words, even if they know you're doing it on purpose to bother them. Mentioning an offending word is apparently just as aversive as using it, and using it on purpose just as bothersome as using it without malice aforethought.  In "The moist panties phenomenon", 8/20/2007, I reproduced testimony like this:

The word Crudd (sp?), in place of dirt, and the word Chunks. It just sounds so gross. My husband will use them sometimes, just to see me give that yucky face I always give when hearing them.

My sister also hates the words 'moist' and 'panties'. I, however, find it HILARIOUS to walk behind her at the mall whispering over and over "moist panties. moist panties. moist panties". She turns this lovely shade of red as she gets more upset with me. ;)

There are people who claim to react in a similar way to usage shibboleths. Thus Judge Sonia Sotomayor:

Each time I see a split infinitive, an inconsistent tense structure or the unnecessary use of the passive voice, I blister.

But I would be very surprised if one of Judge Sotomayor's friends or relations could make her blister by walking behind her in the mall whispering over and over "to boldly go, to boldly go, to boldly go". (Well, maybe they could, but for different reasons…)

Prescriptivist pain, to the extent that any real discomfort is ever involved, seems to be limited to use, not mention, of purported usage abuse; and in fact it seems to be required that the use is unwitting, not ironic or otherwise knowing.

[If you're not familiar with 9 Chickweed Lane, you may find the the backstory for the cited strip to be stranger than you expect; but if you want to try, you could start here. ]

[And in the (I hope unlikely) event that you think split infinitives and unnecessary passives *should* blister the judge (or anyone else), read this and this, for a start. ]

[Update — one of the earliest Chickweed Lane strips, from 11/8/2000, also involved violence and preposition placement:



  1. Zwicky Arnold said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    On the backstory, see the Wikipedia entry.

  2. Ashley said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    "Secrete" is another gross word that I can't stand.

  3. kip said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    Here I thought the post was going to be about the strange (to my ear, at least) wording "to do violence."

    Also, I think I could annoy a few LL posters by walking around the mall behind them whispering "Strunk and White is so great, Strunk and White is so great, Strunk and White is so great." :)

    [(myl) In own case, at least, this would be no more annoying than repetition of any other six-syllable phrase under similar circumstances. And if you actually meant it — if you were counting rosary beads while repeating a phrase assigned as penance, for example — then I'd be happy to have a subject for some future post. Unfortunately, the Church of Strunk & White doesn't seem to have formalized any rituals of grammatical confession and penance. ]

  4. Greg Morrow said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    For those who follow the link to the Wikipedia page, it may be worth pointing out that the characters in this strip are Diane and Monty.

    Also, Diane enacts her plan for grammatical assault in the June 16th strip.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    For some reason I didn't notice this on previous readings of Sotomayor's remark, but it now strikes me that "blister" is an odd choice here. I'm thinking she must have meant to say "bristle". (Might this be a mistranscription, perhaps aided by a spellchecker? I note that the two words are anagrams.)

    [(myl) Because (I think) it would need some long-distance rearrangements of letters, the theory that blister is a Cupertino for bristle seems somewhat less likely that the theory that it's a malapropism, of the type where the substitution is perfectly sensible in itself (like "hone in on", for example).

    If the intended meaning was "bristle", then the judge's remark is less good as an example of the phenomenon that I was trying to exemplify. Another example where a solecism is claimed to cause pain or discomfort might be Alain Bentolila's "mon oreille souffre lorsqu'on rate un subjonctif" ("my ear suffers when someone muffs a subjunctive").

    But my point is that people noting such "errors" may feel annoyance, or some stronger emotion, if they perceive that someone has genuinely transgressed (what they think is) a social norm; but the deprecated usage doesn't in and of itself evoke an intrinsic emotional reaction. Thus discussing the error (which such people often choose to do at length) is not aversive. This seems to be different from the phenomenon of "word aversion", where I'm willing to believe the testimony that visceral disgust is sometimes genuinely felt, and where simply discussing the reaction can be problematic if it requires using, or even thinking about, the offending word. ]

  6. Bloix said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    If someone said "Strunk and White is so great" I would stumble over the use of 'so' meaning 'very' or "truly.' My children say it all the time and it appears to have become standard usage at least in spoken English, but it still sounds to me like Valley Girl talk.

  7. Bloix said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    I was at the gym the other day and I had on cnbc, or maybe cnn, and one of the interchangeable pretty faces was interviewing an Iranian-born commentator. The questions were full of, "I mean," "from the point of view of someone like you who might have been born there," "given your experience in this sort of situation, and you have many years, as you just explained it to us, what do you feel would be how the ordinary person in the street could – or might expect to – react,' – huge slabs of ungrammatical, self-interrupting, information-free excess verbiage whose whole point seemed to be to communicate that the interviewer had no clue what she was talking about. I think these people are intentionally selected because they're inane.

    The responses came back in concise, perfectly formed, grammatical sentences, in which the interviewee strained to say something of interest that was related to the contentless question that had been asked.

    I really did want to listen to him, but the questions were so painful that I had to turn it off. So that's an example of an emotional reaction to a style of usage, if not to a single phrase.

  8. Andrew said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    Bloix: I would say that 'so' meaning 'very' and 'so' meaning 'truly' are two distinct usages. The first (of which 'so great' is probably an example) seems perfectly natural to me, and does not strike me as recent. The second, on the other hand, does strike me as recent – someone will now demonstrate that the first recorded use was in 1583, but at any rate I think it has become more common recently. You can tell that this usage is in play when 'very' would not really make sense, as in 'He is so dead'.

    My guess is that this derives from 'It is so' (as a complete sentence), which has always been a possible response to 'It is not'. From there, it's a fairly natural step to saying 'He is so dead' as a response to 'He is not dead'.

  9. fiddler said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 3:36 pm


    Couldn't resist. From the OED:

    14. a. In affirmative clauses, tending to become a mere intensive without comparative force, and sometimes emphasized in speaking and writing.

    The first quotation is from Beowulf in 347, but I don't think it's going to reproduce here: (a) Beowulf 347 {Asg}if he us {asg}eunnan wile, {Th}æt we hine swa godne gretan moton.

    A more recent quotation that I can reproduce:

    1837 DICKENS Pickw. iv, My dear brother is so good.

    I think the more contemporary slang usage sounds like "I am so going to x", as in this headline: "Seriously? OMG! WTF? I am so going to miss Boston Legal."

    A Google search on "I am so going to" gave me 140,000 hits.

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    Each time I read the blister quote, I imagine a red ochre color and a sea of bubbles on her surface, much like the effect of paint blistering.

    That English speaking journalists are woefully inarticulate, to the point of being verbal slovens, is a great shame. If Sotomayor had given her seat in language arts classes to Bloix's journalism major so the judge could have read more law and the journalism major could have learned her craft, perhaps everyone would have benefited.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    I suspect people of a certain age who attended Catholic schools relate "blistering" to the experience of sadistic paddling practiced there — and at any school, in some places.

  12. Bloix said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    Very interesting, Andrew and fiddler, thank you. Maybe they had Valley Girls in ancient Britain. Or maybe what I'm hearing is that "so good," "thank you so much," etc is excited or gushing utterance, which means perhaps that there's no change since Dickens put it in the mouth of a character. (The "so good/swa godne" from Beowolf is also in dialogue – flattery – so maybe the gushing connotation goes all the way back.)

  13. James C. said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    There's probably a cognitive psycholinguistic explanation available here. The lexicon may have greater access (or connection, or whatever handwave you like) to emotional information, whereas syntax is more isolated. It seems to me to be very unlikely that specific syntactic patterns could possibly generate emotion regardless of their semantic or lexical content. In contrast, it is apparently very easy for lexical items to induce emotion. Research on embodiment does show that syntax is not totally isolated, but it is does seem to have less association to other forms of experience than specific lexical items. Indeed, embodiment is relatively easy to demonstrate in the lexicon. This makes sense because lexical items are prototypically representations of other forms of experience. Syntax doesn't have direct referents in the experiential world, however.

    That's not to say that people couldn't be trained to experience emotion due to some syntactic pattern. I'd love to see a behaviorist experiment where someone tried this. Perhaps take a group of college students and zap them immediately after certain semantically neutral sentences, but not after others which lack the specific syntactic structure. (That'd probably never pass human subjects review.) The relationship between the syntactic structure and the emotive experience is still probably going to be weak, however. I imagine that training people for word aversion would be relatively easy, in comparison.

  14. Bloix said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    James C – what about this:

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    James C: I get a boost using almost any archaic syntactic construct in conversation. E.g. "know not of", "when last I". I find I only use them where I have socially dominant status.

    You could dispense sugar solution instead of electric shocks, to pass human subjects review.

  16. Steve said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    @ Fiddler

    'Beowulf in 347'? That seems to suggest 347 is the date. It isn't – Beowulf was written some time between 700 and 1000. 347 must be the line reference.

    In 347 English didn't exist and the inhabitants of Britain spoke Latin or some form of Celtic.

  17. Andrew said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Fiddler: I think the references you give fit 'so' as 'very' rather than as 'truly'; certainly 'very good' makes sense. So I think it's still possible that 'so' without any implication of degrees (befoe an adjective or a participle, rather than on its own) is somehing recent – possibly invented by Valley girls, though I wouldn't like to say.

  18. Aviatrix said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    I think of "this is so good" as a truncated form of "this is so good that …" with some vague or hyperbolic ending (hmm, wait hyperbolic is the adjective for hyperbola: what's the adjective for hyperbole?) like "it should become our national food/I'm going to buy it/everyone should know about it."

    And "you are SO in trouble!" I thought of as a shortened form of "you are in so much trouble [that you're going to be grounded]".

    But what people think they are saying really has no relation to anything, does it?

  19. Peter Gerdes said,

    June 21, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    @James C

    "I be going down to the mall today"

    Many people are going to strongly associate certain kinds of phrasing with particular socioeconomic groups. I'm willing to bet that people who have strong feelings of guilt/shame about coming from an uneducated/low class background also have very strong emotional reactions to sentence structures that remind them of their background. While I don't react to the above sentence some of the older generations in my family do strongly react to that kind of speech.


    Still I strongly suspect there are two seperate but related phenomena under discussion here.

    1) The way in which some words can be so powerfully evocative of some unpleasent/embarassing/ugly though that people find them very distasteful.

    2) The way in which certain speech/writing patterns can be so evocative of membership in or exclusion from certain social groups that they inspire strong feelings in the listener.

    This would then explain the suggested difference in reactions. Hearing a word you react to as in 1 is like seeing someone eat soup after someone spit in it. While listening to someone speak in a way that bothers you in sense 2 is more like watching someone tuck the table cloth up under their chin as a napkin. It makes you cringe out of perceived inappropriatness but doesn't evoke the same visceral disgust even though it can stir strong emotions.

    But that's just a guess.

  20. Peter Gerdes said,

    June 21, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    In 1 'though' should be 'thought'

  21. RE said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    The first quotation is from Beowulf in 347, but I don't think it's going to reproduce here: (a) Beowulf 347 {Asg}if he us {asg}eunnan wile, {Th}æt we hine swa godne gretan moton.

    "swa" in Anglo-Saxon, while the direct etymological ancestor of "so", is hardly the same word. In the case of Beowulf, the word "hwaet" is often just as close.

    And incidentally, I'm assuming (I don't have access to the OED) that the "347" refers to a line number in the text, and not the year of usage. That would be at least half a millenium too early for the text — and a full hundred years before the Saxons ever set foot in England!

    Sorry to be a pedant! It seems more acceptable here than most anywhere else.

    Oh, and someone else mentioned the phrase "to boldly go". I found it amusing that, in the horrible new Star Trek movie, the phrase "to boldy go where no man has gone before" has been amended to "to boldy go where no one has gone before". They edited out the gendered pronoun, but not the poor grammar (my ex informs me that the change was made several Star Trek incarnations back, but I can't confirm this, not being a Trekkie).

    I appreciate that many readers of this blog defend the split infinitive. Certainly there are cases in which to escape it requires unpleasant periphrastics. (I know that's not the normal use of that word!) But I nevertheless tend to think that it should be avoided, whenever it can be without grave cost to clarity or elegance. I can see no reason why 'to boldy go" would, in this context, be preferable to the more pleasing "boldy to go".

    Perhaps I'm just a victim of a self-inflicted construction aversion….

  22. Robert said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    So meaning very is also used in German. I don't know if that's a recent borrowing, a parallel change in meaning, or if it dates back to the split between German and Anglo-Saxon.

  23. On language, reason, and lego | Garic Gymro said,

    August 18, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    […] to be, and how strong the emotions can be. Language Log, not unexpectedly, has quite a few posts on this topic. I have a strong suspicion that's it's partly connected to perceived group […]

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