Preaching the gospel of wrong is right?

« previous post | next post »

If you want to see all the illogic and angst of the prescriptive poppycock merchants on display, Howard Jacobson provides one-stop shopping. I don't think the UK has a more unprepossessing columnist of the foaming-at-the-mouth language-is-going-to-the-dogs persuasion. Oddly, he is not in the Telegraph but in the relatively liberal Independent. You might (or you might not) want to look at the way his last piece of rambling, ranting, frothing bitterness ends. It is entitled "In the face of overwhelming ignorance, it is the pedant's duty to keep battling on". Read on if that title holds any appeal…

We have no regard for schoolteachers. There are countries where to be a schoolteacher is to enjoy considerable esteem. Here, we pay them badly and encourage our children to treat them with contempt. The reason for this is that we fear learning and would rather mock it than acquire it. No one must draw attention to our ignorance, no one must teach us how to think, how to say what we mean or how to mean something better, no one must correct our spelling or our syntax or our speech. The very concept of correction is anathema to us.

The capitulation of the pedant himself to this free-for-all of knowing nothing was in evidence this week on Fry's English Delight, Stephen Fry's Radio 4 programme about the English language. A schoolmasterly man himself, Fry listened, I thought, with regret, as an assortment of language experts — I mean no disrespect: some of my best friends are lexicographers and linguisticians — preached the gospel of wrong is right because whatever the people decide to make of language is what language must become.

Say less when you mean fewer, infer when you mean to imply — none of it matters because what the unlettered populace does with words today the rest of us will meekly do tomorrow. Brute proof, of course, is on the side of those who argue in this fashion; yesterday's sins do indeed become forgotten in the democracy of usage. But that doesn't mean there is not a vice called illiteracy, and that we shouldn't, every now and then, seek to save something from its all-devouring maw.

Take the uninterested/disinterested confusion which Fry's programme mentioned. It is true that these words have changed places over time; that disinterested once meant unconcerned and uninterested meant without bias, whereas it is now the other way around. Or would be the other way around had absence of bias not become a forgotten concept and unconcern — do I look bovvered? — not carried all before it. But it is not pedantry for pedantry's sake that makes one argue for the retention of disinterested. It is because the state of mind it describes — freedom from self-seeking, preparedness to think and act impartially, without taking account of personal advantage, a grand carelessness of profit — is one we cannot afford to lose.

Differentiation matters. Ignorance is not argument. Disinterestedness is not another word for "Whadever!". We are quick to outlaw words when they don't suit the temper of the times. We should, to defy the temper of the times, try rescuing a few.

What is this stuff about preaching "the gospel of wrong is right"? (I'm afraid I do not listen to Stephen Fry's Radio 4 series on language. I have heard promos, and a snatch of it, and despite being a Stephen Fry fan I find it unbearable.) It's hard not to read Jacobson as declaring wrongness to be permanent. That is, he seems to deny that the spreading of what was once an error or a confusion can eventually solidify into a feature of the language. Yet Jacobson admits that the words "disinterested" and "uninterested" have changed their meanings during the recorded history of English and he accepts the newer, changed meanings, so he is not being consistent.

Jacobson also shows some signs of being in the grip of the fallacy that if anything goes, everything goes. If ever some form of words once thought to be a solecism is taken to have become part of Standard English, then all is lost. Acceptance would be capitulation to the schoolteacher-hating ignorance of a culture that tosses aside all generalizations about usage, refusing to accept them precisely because they involve judgment and the possibility of correction. "Say less when you mean fewer, infer when you mean to imply — none of it matters…", he wails. But why does none of it matter, just because one opinion about acceptable usage is revised?

I am not suggesting that there is anything to revise about disinterested and uninterested, by the way: I am not a fan of the tendency to use the former for the meaning that the latter standardly bears. (And it's interesting, I think, that there seems to be no current sign of any tendency to shift meanings in the other direction. The two words are not collapsing together.) But suppose we did decide that it had become standard for disinterested to be ambiguous between "unbiased" and "uncaring". Why would that imply a cataclysm of abandonment, a whole domino series of cascading usage mergers?

I happen to think that the generalization about less and fewer (the former goes with non-count nouns and the latter with count nouns), which Jacobson mentions, has been erroneously formulated by many usage authorities. (This is particularly clear when we consider count nouns that are units of time: I am unable to believe that less than five years violates the syntax of my native language.) But that doesn't mean I have to toss away the distinction between imply (something that the speaker does) from infer (something that the hearer does in response): that distinction seems well grounded, and I am happy to follow the usual dictionary descriptions of it. Certainly, I am not bound to abandon that distinction just because I have a revisionist opinion about less than.

For those who take an intelligent interest in language, there can be reasoned discussion about what exactly the rules exclude or permit — discussion that is disinterested in the modern sense, rather than committed in advance to a defense of current conservative dogma and uninterested in hearing anything to the contrary. But not for Howard Jacobson. For him it seems to be a choice between, on the one hand, adherence to every single rule any purist nutball has ever defended, and on the other, flushing all syntactic and lexical distinctions down the toilet. I reject this insane dichotomy.

People report that Jacobson has given up his former academic pretensions (he once taught in higher education institutions), and that when not pretending to be apoplectic over dangers to the English language he writes extremely funny novels about Jewish life in Britain. It's odd how little of his humor comes through when he writes about English instead of in it. But I think I've said as much before, in "Educational sky is falling says blithering windbag" and at the end of "Canoe wives and unnatural semantic relations".


  1. Mary Kuhner said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    Humans use language to communicate, and I don't think history records any instances where they have modified their language in such a way that it no longer fulfills that basic function. Humans also, cross-culturally, use language to make art; again, I don't know of any case where they've changed it so that it can't be artful.

    All of this reminds me of the century plant at the botanical gardens on the UC Berkeley campus. At age sixty or so it flowered for the first and only time in its life. Many people, including me, asked the garden where they planned to plant the seeds. But they didn't plant them at all–the plant was a *hybrid*, horror of horrors, so its genetic information wasn't worth propagating.

    Or the buffalo wolves at Wolf Haven. Buffalo wolves are a subspecies of plains-living wolves, now essentially extinct, but the Haven had around a dozen of them. They sterilized them all, because that's not a big enough population to be viable. And apparently a half-buffalo-wolf population is of no value.

    I find this upsetting in all three cases.

  2. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Agreed, agreed, agreed, and agreed.

    Maybe he'd be more understanding of language change if he abandoned his linguistician friends in favor of the company of linguists (though I applaud his nonce construction).

  3. Paul said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    I thought Fry's first programme in this series (the one referred to here) was pretty good, and put forward the argument that language cannot be (prescriptively) set in stone but inevitably changes under the democratic pressure of the users. His second episode, however, (on pronunciation) was quite disappointing. John Wells has blogged on the topic:

    I remain a fan of the man, though. For someone with a background in English Lit, writing and acting, he does seem remarkably open to Linguistics-like insights into language. And Fry's extraordinarily high profile (in the UK at least) means some of these things might get heard by people who might not otherwise have had their Jacobson-style views challenged.

  4. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Sometimes I think these people compete to see who can be the most outraged. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit where one says , "We used to live in this tiiiny old house, with greaaaaat big holes in the roof." And the other replies, "House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!"

  5. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I was a bit taken aback when he mentioned "the vice of illiteracy." Does he really mean to say that the loss of some of his prescriptivist rules is a slippery slope that leads ultimately to the inability to read? Or that not knowing (or caring) whether to use infer or imply, different from or different than, less or fewer, etc. is practically the same thing as being illiterate?

    And calling it a vice seems ridiculous. Vice, in connotation if not denotation, involves a principle of choice. You can choose to drink, smoke, and screw, but no one chooses to be illiterate. (For the most part, by the time you're old enough to even consider that you COULD choose to be illiterate, you already know how to read.) And one usually, at least in the beginning, gets some pleasure from a vice. Has illiteracy ever made someone feel good?

    Calling illiteracy a vise, yes; but a vice? I don't think so.

  6. Picky said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    @Mark P: I think that sketch was from the pre-Python At Last the 1948 Show.

    Jacobson is indeed a fine novellist, and although I seldom agree with what he writes in his Independent column it is excellently written, whereas Fry's programme, even when it isn't being very silly, strikes me as tedious and pedestrian. I am happy to see Mr Jacobson continue to foam.

  7. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    @Andy: as with most mouth-foamers of his type, Jacobson clearly define "illiteracy" as "incapacity to write properly" (i.e. according to his own tenets).

    This all reminds me about a very short, yet sharp characterization of purism (French purism, as it happens) that I collected for a paper: "the purist's job is to defend the language against its own speakers".

  8. Grep Agni said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    WRT less/fewer distinction: I thought the distinction was between continuous and discrete. Time, distance, temperature, volume, weight, and so on all vary continuously and so take less.

    1) less than five pounds of rice

    2) fewer then five grains of rice

    I don't usually bother about the difference, but when I do this is how I think about it.

  9. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Do you agree or disagree that "disinterested" meaning having no financial, professional, or personal interest in a matter is a useful word? I personally think it is a useful word and it's a shame that it can't be used anymore for fear of being misunderstood.

    Obviously language evolves and meanings change. But the changes bring loss as as well as benefits. I don't think it's irrational to recognize and mourn those losses.

  10. chris said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    The episode of Fry's programme referred to here is the one Benjamin Zimmer blogged about on Language Log just over a week ago: Fry's English Delight: So Wrong It's Right. I listened to it after reading that post, and Fry certainly wasn't taking the side of inflexible prescriptivism.

  11. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Another tempest in a teapot. It's matters not that we lose the word disinterested, because (Jacobson's opinion notwithstanding) the idea itself is not lost. Most considerate writers, knowing that their readers may miss the distinction, will choose something like "unbiased," whose meaning remains perfectly clear. It does the job, it's an ordinary word, formed of readily available morphemes.

    Less and fewer? 'Nuff said.

    I'm on the fence about imply and infer. This continues to be a school teacher's hobby horse, so the words perpetuate a state of usage anxiety. It may turn out that the flood shall overwhelm the levee, but it won't be for lack of vigilance.

    Parenthetically: I suspect that education about imply and infer is itself the culprit. I imagine a more naive age, during which students arrived at school not knowing the word infer to begin with. Pursuant to the task of teaching literary interpretation (or a reasonable facsimile) teachers introduced infer to the vocabulary. When a few students got it confused with imply, the next year's lesson (new and improved!) included an explanation of the differences, thereby ensuring that even more students would get them confused.

    I suspect likewise that whole generations of students confuse there their and they're for the simple reason that they are generally taught, not in some sort of context, but all at once, for the sole purpose of eradicating the errors, and thereby creating them.

    Just different manifestations of the objective "he and I" anxiety.

  12. Vincent said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Howard Jacobson makes a valid point well: that the clear distinction made between "disinterested" and "uninterested" was till recently respected by educated speakers. The blurring of that distinction is due to ignorance.

    Jacobson's point is not a diatribe against the ignorant, but an anti-prescriptionism which would remove the distinction between ignorant and educated usage.

  13. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    @Picky, I don't know where the sketch originated, but Monty Python performed it.

  14. goofy said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    The notion that there is a clear distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested", that the words don't overlap in meaning, isn't true. See this LL post:

  15. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    "For someone with a background in English Lit, writing and acting, he does seem remarkably open to Linguistics-like insights into language"

    I don't know if it was the case back when Fry was there, but Eng Lit courses at Cambridge (and Oxford) include elements of linguistics. There's a mandatory paper on the history of the English language, and I took an optional paper in linguistics as such.

    As for Jacobson, he can be funny in his fiction, but his op-eds are full of ill supported general purpose busybodying. He's quite conservative by temperament and apparently not very thoughtful about it.

  16. Chris said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    @Grep Agni: Money doesn't vary continuously, but still takes less.

  17. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Well, I read what Liberman had to say about disinterested, and my take-away is that at the time of the OED, a distinction had developed and was observed among educated people who were punctilious about usage, and that since that time the disinction has eroded, which to my mind is a shame because it's a useful distinction. "Disinterested" is not synonymous with "unbiased" – unbiased refers to a subjective mental state, while disinterested refers to the objective relationship of the individual to the subject. That is, I could have a financial interest in a dispute (and thus I would not be disinterested), but I could nonetheless be fairminded (that is, I could be unbiased). The distinction was developing for good reason and it's a shame to lose it.

  18. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Do you agree or disagree that "disinterested" meaning having no financial, professional, or personal interest in a matter is a useful word? I personally think it is a useful word and it's a shame that it can't be used anymore for fear of being misunderstood.

    Of course it still can be used and the chances of being misunderstood are minimal.

    The word 'fair' has two meanings, but the concept of 'fairness' is the sense of being just or equitable is not in the least influenced by its describing skin and hair colour.

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    I don't know if it was the case back when Fry was there, but Eng Lit courses at Cambridge (and Oxford) include elements of linguistics. There's a mandatory paper on the history of the English language, and I took an optional paper in linguistics as such.

    Fry would have been there at the very end of the seventies. There were no language papers at all when I was there from 70-73

  20. Zubon said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    @Chris: Money can vary continuously, and you will find contracts and formulae that go to more decimal places than you are likely to see in the weather report. We do not coin it in very small increments, but banks can track money and interest to whatever precision you like. A=Pe^(rt).

  21. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Less money. Fewer coins. Not that it matters, because it's a distinction that doesn't affect meaning. No one is confused by the supermarket sign that says, "10 items or less."

    And no one would think that "the judge was fair" means "the judge was blond."

    But "the judge was disinterested and fair" can be misunderstood, which is why I don't use the word at all. I think it's a shame, but that's how it is.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Maybe there's something specific about the prose style of the Telegraph versus that of the Independent I would know if I lived over there, but without that I am puzzled by the puzzlement that this appears in the "relatively liberal Independent" rather than the so-called Torygraph because this presupposes a strong correlation between prescriptivist poppycock and right-of-center political views which I am not sure really exists at least in the U.S., although things could of course be different in the U.K. Obviously there are some visible right-of-center personalities who are prescriptivists and this seems at first glance like a good fit because there's a good decline-and-fall-from-happier-times narrative. Plus bow-ties. But (to repeat myself from previous threads) the occupational groups which seem to attract lots of prescriptivists include journalists, people who work in magazine or book publishing, lawyers, and schoolteachers, which are all generally left-of-center groups in both U.S. and I believe U.K., whereas more right-of-center groups like businessmen, military personnel, and evangelical preachers are likely to produce the sort of novel usages that attract prescriptivist ire. GKP himself may have noticed some left-of-center prescriptivism back when he was regularly defending the previous president of the U.S. against ignorant cricticisms of his language use. It is probably true that the left more than the right also includes certain sorts of radical anti-presciptivists who don't want public schools to teach a standard dialect, think correcting spelling errors will squelch "creativity" etc etc., but that just means that the left-wing coalition (like all political coalitions large enough to be of some practical importance) contains some internal tensions.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Eli Morris-Heft: I prefer "linguisticist". Is there any valid distinction to be assigned to "linguist" and "linguisticist"? I imagine the former who actually knows languages, and the latter who only knows abstract facts about languages in general, but can speak only one (if that). One could then be both a linguist and a linguisticist, one or the other, or (like most of us) neither.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    On disinterested v. uninterested, it is helpful to have a single noun meaning "lack of interest," and for some reason presumably having to do with the quirks of varying morphological productivity of different prefixes in modern English "uninterest" doesn't seem to work but "disinterest" does. So maybe this feeds back into the newer meaning of "disinterested"? I don't think you'd use "disinterest" to mean "the state of not having a disqualifying conflict of interest."

  25. Jonathan said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    How is it that we can use the word "interest" for both "curiosity" and "interest" (meaning a financial or other stake in something) with confusion? I found that common phrases like "disinterested pursuit of the truth" and "disinterested party" showed up quite frequently in google searches. The idea that this meaning is being lost because people talk about "disinterested students texting their friends in class" does not seem plausible to me.

  26. Alex said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Even before going back to read the LL post on dis vs. un, I find it obvious that the two words most likely were historically ambiguous with respect to the two contested meanings, and probably had a good deal of other related meanings in use during various periods.

    This is because the word "interest" itself has undergone a series of meaning shifts, from a strictly financial sense to a more abstract personal-inclination sense, with many divergent meaning lineages in between. Some of these lineages survive in the various contemporary senses of the word "interest."

    At each point in history one could coin an adjective, with a purely compositional meaning, using the noun and a negative suffix. It's a shame that although most people realize that the word "interest" has any number of possible senses, they expect various adjectives derived from it to stick to narrowly defined meanings.

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    "But (to repeat myself from previous threads) the occupational groups which seem to attract lots of prescriptivists include journalists, people who work in magazine or book publishing, lawyers, and schoolteachers, which are all generally left-of-center groups in both U.S. and I believe U.K"

    I'd be pretty amazed if lawyers were generally centre-left in the UK. I know a lot of them personally, and I speak to many lawyers on a professional basis every week. I'd say that 80% to 90% of the ones I deal with are right of centre (by UK standards). There are certainly some high profile leftish lawyers here, and I do know some liberal lawyers, but the profession is fairly solidly conservative as far as I can tell.

    All that said, I'd agree that there's no reason to suppose a general correlation between one's views on policy and one's views on language. Still, I wasn't at all surprised by Jacobson's column given my knowledge of his conservative cultural attitudes.

  28. Gedaly said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    I think I agree with Mark P. They're having a curmudgeon contest. Jacobson and his peers are trying to out-curmudgeon each other. Happens all the time. "I'm the most crotchety, therefore the most trustworthy!" Oh well. You can't have a middle ground if the extremes don't exist.

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    I would say that most right wingers in the UK are prescriptivists whilst this is only true of a very large number of left wingers; there is certainly no automatic correlation though which is why Pullum's comment on the Independent's politics is a red herring.

    What one does see is an attempt by right-wingers to tie up what they see as linguistic decline with a general decline caused by left or liberal values. If you remember Halpern wrote a whole book defending this dubious idea, and came on here to defend it since we were discourteous enough to value his ideas at their own worth.

  30. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    "It's a shame that although most people realize that the word "interest" has any number of possible senses, they expect various adjectives derived from it to stick to narrowly defined meanings."

    This, I suppose, is a bit of good-natured ridicule. I don't expect words to stick to narrowly defined meanings. But when words take on radically different meanings that cannot be distinguished from context, then they can't be used without risk of confusion. It's unfortunate when otherwise useful words have to be retired due to that risk.

    Here's a sentence from George Washington's famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790):

    "For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

    That one sentence contains two words that, although they still retain the meaning intended by Washington, now have more usual alternative meanings that are so contrary to Washington's intent that the sentence would be unclear to many modern readers. "Sanction" as a noun now usually means "penalty" rather than "permission," and "demean" more usually means "debase" than "comport." A modern reader with a high school education – my son, for example – would find this sentence confusing.

    When words take on virtually opposite meanings, or very different meanings that would make sense in the same context, anyone who cares about clarity of expression has to be sensitive to possible confusion. This means avoiding the use of otherwise perfectly serviceable words, and that's what I find to be a shame.

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    The American political center and the UK political centre do not necessarily map onto each other particularly closely, and the sociology of different occupational groups may be different in any event. But I would think there would be lots of opportunities in the U.K. for left-of-center prescriptivists to tie perceived linguistic decline to general perceived cultural decline allegedly caused by Thatcherism. Maybe the broader political point is that elitism-v.-populism is often orthogonal to left-v.-right (with different flavors of elitist found on both left and right) and prescriptivist poppycock reflects a certain sort of bogus elitism (one that's still perhaps faintly non-U to the extent it correlates with a lack of unselfconscious self-confidence in its possessor).

  32. sls said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    Running out of "serviceable" words? Don't worry, we'll make more. =)

  33. Mark F said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    Bloix — If I read him correctly, Geoff agrees with you on this one, except that he even goes so far as to think that it is still possible to use "disinterested" to mean "unbiased" without too much chance of being misunderstood.

  34. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    Mark F- you are absolutely right, except that I'm the one agreeing with Geoff.

  35. acilius said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    The "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch did indeed originate with the pre-Python AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW.

    @ Grep Agni 12:42: "Fewer than five years" vs "Less than five years"- I think you may be on to something. "Fewer than five years" sounds to me like an answer to the question "How many years?"- "Fewer than five." So, one, two, three, or four years. While "Less than five years" sounds to me like an answer to the question "How long?"- "Not as long as five years." So, if it took Marty Feldman about a minute and a half to deliver his lines in the original "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, we might get a chuckle by saying that it took him "Less than five years" to do so (after all, a minute and a half is not as long as five years.) A poor joke, admittedly. But "Fewer than five years" wouldn't be a joke at all.

  36. John Baker said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Offered without comment as a data point: In legal writing, "non-interested" is sometimes seen instead of "disinterested" in the meaning of "without an impairing financial or other interest."

  37. Nathan said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    @Bloix: The dated use of a couple of words in the Washington quotation might give one pause, but context tends to clarify the meaning. I think the same is true for typical uses of disinterested and most of the other words these people wring their hands about. I see no failure to clearly communicate, so what's the big deal? That's what words are for, not to be preserved as museum specimens.

  38. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

    I see no problem with 'sanction'. It still retains the 1790 system in verb form. 'Demean' has changed meaning but that is what words do.

  39. Bloix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    Nathan, context clarifies meaning for hyper-educated people, such as those who visit language log. Most people often just get confused. Take "suffer." Everyone here knows what "suffer the little children" means, but most of the time, it's used in connection with children in some sort of pain. The word has changed and people don't understand it any more.

    . It's not so wrong to try to slow the change in meaning of some words, and there's no reason to celebrate the loss of precision in them. I think that one of the posters here – don't recall if it was Prof. Pullum – has bemoaned the change in "beg the question" and given it up as a lost cause. Or maybe he didn't bemoan it, and just accepted it – but there's no reason to say that people who do bemoan such things are ridiculous for doing so.

    (Stephen Jones – Washington used "sanction" as a noun, which nowadays almost always means "penalty," and my dictionary still gives "demean" as comport, even though that's not in general usage anymore – althugh "demeanor" is still around, confusingly enough – these words still have two dictionary meanings but you can't use one of them if you want to be understood.)

  40. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    @Nathan Myers — Sorry "linguisticist" is already taken. A linguisticist is one who studies linguists and their customs and beliefs. I know several. They do their field-work here at LL. Naturally they do not make their presence known in order not to interfere with the native ways, the way Margaret Meade did, sadly, in Samoa or B. Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands. I've read some of their fascinating work on diachronic analysis of modal auxiliaries as the linguists' counterpart to the Cargo Cult. One team of linguicists is working on translating the New Testament into syntactic structures.

    You are welcome to use "linguistician" in any way you chose. I'm not one of your prescriptivists.

  41. Sarra said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    So, one, two, three, or four years. While "Less than five years" sounds to me like an answer to the question "How long?"- "Not as long as five years."

    Similarly, "how much shopping?" (10 items or less) vs "how many items of shopping?"

    Thanks for illustrating to me why "10 items or fewer" sounds so hyper-prescriptively absurd :)

  42. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    It's not so wrong to try to slow the change in meaning of some words,

    Yea, it's amazing the bad publicity that King Knut got.

  43. Stephen Jones said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    The other problem of course with 'trying to slow the change in meaning' is that it is a case of only ever closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

    Just as prescriptivists only choose as ungrammatical constructions that are always grammatical because if they weren't they wouldn't be in the language, so they only chose to defend the older meaning of words that have already changed, because if the meaning hadn't already changed they would not know about it.

  44. Nathan Myers said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 12:55 am

    Dan Lufkin: And what, then, of prescriptivistists?

  45. Dan Scherlis said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 1:35 am

    @Nathan Myers and @Dan Lufkin: If beauticians, musicians, and magicians make beauty, music, and magic, then do linguisticians make language? Or do they generate linguists?

    As for the prescriptivistists you posit, I think LL houses a few people who study prescriptivists, but wouldn't such scholars be prescriptivisticists? (To the extent, of course, that their studies aren't overcome by their understandable prescriptivistaphobia.)

    By contrast, the prescriptivistists would presumably be practicing a politicized version of prescriptivism, just as Islamists are with regard to Islam.

    PS: So, @Dan Lufkin, may we assume that you're working up that Cargo-Cult model for ?

  46. peter said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 4:20 am

    Stephen Jones said (August 20, 2009 @ 3:06 pm):

    "What one does see is an attempt by right-wingers to tie up what they see as linguistic decline with a general decline caused by left or liberal values."

    In fact, most of them see the general decline as being caused by all modern values, not particularly liberal or left-wing values. The same prescriptivism was evident in those very conservative people (conservative on language, social issues, art, music, education, etc) who ran the USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1991. The left can be – and mostly has been – just as nostalgic for an imaginary, golden-tinged past as anyone from the right.

  47. rolig said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 7:04 am

    I am curious about the pair linguist vs. linguistician. The Oxford American Dictionary gives linguistician as a noun derived from linguistics (no surprise there, I guess). But since the word linguist also has the meaning "one who is good with languages", i.e. who speaks several languages or easily learns foreign languages, it would seem reasonable that linguistician developed to mean someone who not only knows foreign languages but studies them as a scholarly discipline. Today people rarely use linguist to mean simply "someone who knows several languages", though I'm not sure why. Could it be that students of linguistics insisted on calling themselves "linguists" and not "linguisticians" and so monopolized the former word? Although Jacobson was probably using the word facetiously, linguistician does have a certain logic to it. Students of statistics, after all, are not to be confused with statists.

  48. Graeme said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    I'm in academia and law in Australia.
    I rarely hear either un or dis interested. (They appear more often in print.)
    Rather, people routinely verbally use "have no interest" or "not interested" as synonyms (the latter unambiguously correlates to dictionary meaning of "uninterested".) People routinely use "no pecuniary interest", albeit loosely, when they mean "disinterested".

  49. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Sorry, correction — I checked with a linguisticist colleague and the translation project actually involves translating Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (Janua Linguarum No. 4) into vernacular English.

  50. Picky said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    "I am not suggesting that there is anything to revise about disinterested and uninterested, by the way: I am not a fan of the tendency to use the former for the meaning that the latter standardly bears."

    Do you know, when Prof Pullum writes summat like that, I wonder why we all get so hot under the collar. Prescriptive? Descriptive? Of a sudden he looks like a man with a sensible compass.

  51. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    Here's info on the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – in essence, originally done for the At Last The 1948 Show by four people, two of whom – Cleese and Chapman – went on to Monty Python and two – Marty Feldman and Tim "The Goodies" & "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" Brooke-Taylor – who didn't.

    Python did perform it live, and so have some Pythons and other people at Amnesty shows.

  52. Martin Hauser said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Language use could catch up with discoveries in physics regarding the particulate nature of matter and energy and drop distinctions between "less water" and "fewer potatoes" altogether.

  53. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 21, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    Also, since we say both "more water" and "more potatoes", why not have just one word for the opposite of "more"? It's not as though "logic" "forces" us to.

  54. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:25 am

    Jacobson wrote, "But that doesn't mean there's not a vice called illiteracy."

    HAH. His use of "illiteracy" is what he'd call "illiterate".

    Properly speaking, ahem, illiterate refers to adults only unable to read or write.

    I'd check the OED on that, except I sense Mr. Jacobson is uninterested in what a bunch of lexicographers have inferred. Too bad my prescription, in essence, eliminates his so-called vice. That's what I mean to imply, at least.

  55. Graeme said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 6:52 am

    Fewer reasons mean less reason.

  56. mollymooly said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    Here is an idealised view of less vs fewer, and friends:
    * littlest-littler-little–large-larger-largest
    * least-lesser-little–great-greater-greatest
    * least-less-little–much-more-most
    * fewest-fewer-few–many-more-most

    "Less" goes with "much", for quantities in Q or R.
    "Fewer" goes with "many", for quantities restricted to N.

    Of course, many who wince at "less than ten items" don't bat an eyelid at "at least ten items". I could never be such a pedant as to say, much less insist, on "at fewest ten items".

  57. Bob Ladd said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 1:24 am

    WRT linguistician: This is reasonably common in the UK among small-c conservative academics in the humanities. Howard Jacobsen certainly didn't make it up.
    It is (arguably) a useful coinage because it eliminates the ambiguity in the word linguist between "person who speaks a bunch of languages" and "person who does linguistics". You won't find many linguisticians actually calling themselves that, though – typical, isn't it, of their tendency to go throwing away useful distinctions…

  58. Ken Brown said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    Andy Hollandbeck said: "I was a bit taken aback when he mentioned "the vice of illiteracy." … calling illiteracy a vise, yes; but a vice? I don't think so."

    In my version of English the name of the tool for holding things is spelled "vice" not "vise". I suspect the same is true for Howard Jacobson. "Vise" is not the standard spelling here.

    I assumed when I read the piece that he meant vice as in morality – though it might be society as a whole that is vicious for allowing or promoting illiteracy, rather than the unfortunate illiterates. But on re-reading he does talk about its "all-devouring maw." which I suppose could, at at squeeze, refer to the tool. Maybe its a pun.

  59. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    The paper OED gives several citations for linguistician from 1895 on.

RSS feed for comments on this post