Word rage, discreet firearm edition

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Oxford University Press has published the fourth edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. The name "Fowler" has been retained as a source of prestige, but this is really the work of editor Jeremy Butterfield (as the third edition was the work of Robert Burchfield). Butterfield has already been getting some press attention for some of his more curmudgeonly reactions to points of modern usage. From The Times (UK), "Modern language makes dictionary compiler see, like, red" (3/31/15):

Readers fretful about crumbling standards will be relieved, and possibly amused, that the compiler of the latest edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage has admitted to being overcome by grumpiness at some of the 250 new entries.

Jeremy Butterfield said that he was unable to hide his disdain while writing entries such as "awesome", "challenging" and "issue" – all of which are classified as clichés. So annoyed was he by the use of "like" as verbal punctuation that he suggested violence may be an appropriate response.

Ooh, violence! Looks like it's the latest episode of word rage.

But is Butterfield really "suggesting violence may be an appropriate response" to the use of like as a discourse particle? Here's how The Times quotes the entry:

The entry notes that "many people below the age of, say, 25 – or rather more if they are American – seem incapable of constructing a single affirmative sentence without at least one 'like' in it".

"Overuse will cause listeners outside the speaker's immediate social circle, wider social group or age cohort to ignore the content of the message, to assume that the speaker is little short of brain-dead, or, in extreme cases, to wish they had a discreet firearm to hand," he added.

Mildly expressing a wish that one had a discreet firearm isn't exactly the same as encouraging violence. But that didn't stop the Daily Mail from sensationalizing the story even further, including this as a subhead in their rehash of the Times article:

Says that anyone who says 'like' deserves a violent reaction

Now I'm starting to get concerned that if there really is a like-induced incident of gun violence in the UK, Mr. Butterfield may be hauled into court, where he'll have to take the blame for inciting the act. In the past, hip-hop and video games have been scapegoated for provoking violence. Turns out usage guides are the real culprits!

Here is the relevant section of the like entry, courtesy of Google Books.

(For past posts on word aversion and word rage, see the list at the end of this post.)


  1. John McIntyre said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

    Fowler, at his best, was charming even when cranky. Burchfield took a straightforward, no-nonsense approach in his revision. But the sort of stuff above reads like self-parody.

  2. Alan Shaw said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    So what's his take on starting sentences with "So"?

  3. John said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

    "…many people below the age of, say, 25…"

    Of course, one of the commoner uses of "like" functions exactly the same as the word "say" in this sentence. But I suppose you'd have to start taking an interest in "highly technical academic papers" to realise that, and who can be bothered when knee-jerk moralising is so much easier?

    I find that casual anti-intellectual sneer far more offensive than the snobbery itself. It's one thing to be ignorant, it's another to proudly boast about clinging to your own ignorance because learning something would only make you change your mind.

  4. empty said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

    Did dear Fowler ever complain about the way people spoke, or only about the way they wrote?

  5. Matt said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

    Nothing against Butterfield, but if there has ever been a position that called more urgently for the classic rebuttal, I'd like to know what it was.

  6. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    A firearm? You mean, like, a fowling piece?

  7. Arne said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

    Q. Pheevr: Literally!

  8. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 12:20 am

    Like is, like, so 80s. Which means that it must be coming back, like hair metal and Members Only jackets.

  9. amandachen said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 4:20 am

    Everyone like seems to forget Robert Allen's edition of Fowler.

  10. maidhc said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 4:33 am

    If only we were back when people talked like Pynchon's Amelia: "well, I'm, as, 'maz'd."

    (Mason & Dixon)

  11. Marion said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 9:29 am

    'Like' as a 'filler' is one thing, but I'm more struck by its use in reporting speech, 'and I was like "….."'. This has more or less replaced 'I said', hasn't it? Not saying I have a preference, though. When I was little (UK, 50s), old ladies used to say 'and I says to er, I says….'.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    Quotative "like" is treated in section 4 of Butterfield's like entry. No firearms are suggested, but he does say that anti-like types would be "horrified" to know that the OED has added a subsense covering the usage (with examples back to Moon Unit Zappa's "Valley Girl").

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    @Alan Shaw

    What's your take on starting sentences with Hwæt? It's an old, old rhetorical trope.

  14. D.O. said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    The entry notes that "many people below the age of, say, 25 – or rather more if they are American – seem incapable of constructing a single affirmative sentence without at least one 'like' in it". [Emphasis added]

    What does he mean by affirmative? Interrogative and negative sentences just as easily use like as discourse particle, see Butterfield's own examples. Or the idea is that like expresses a doubt and thus turns an affirmative sentence into a "tentative" one? But again, his examples show, for the most part, no doubt whatsoever. In many of them like reaches (or sinks to) the level of hesitation marker.

  15. Nicholas Feinberg said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

    Sounds less like he's encouraging violence and more like contemporary language makes him want to shoot himself…

  16. Blake said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    Well, it stumbles and it falls
    Off of almost every tongue
    Give a listen and you will hear

    It's lurking like a land mine
    And almost every sentence
    Is an assault to my mind's ear

    Yeah, it might've started back with
    Jack Keruoac—probably more than likely
    It was Maynard G. Krebs

    It's a four-letter-word
    That used to mean "as if"
    And the meaning's covered in Cobwebs

  17. Hugo Quené said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    I like "X is as unlikely as Y" in this context.

  18. Matt said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    Dan, have you read Walkden on hwæt? It changed my life! Well, the part of my life that concerned itself with the word "hwæt," at least.

  19. Terry Collmann said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 8:28 am

    That must have been a hwæt off your shoulders …

  20. Martha Rosen said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    If he thinks "as nobody who is not a hermit can have failed to notice" is clear writing, it's hard to take anything he says seriously.

  21. Marek said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

    Exagerrated or not, I don't suppose the same attitude would be acceptable in fields other than lexicography. Imagine the following:

    'Leading entomologist said that he was unable to hide his disgust while describing insects such as "attacus atlas", "marcotermes bellicosus" and "ichneumon insidiosus" – all of which are classified as aberrations. So annoyed was he by the recently observed evolution within formicidae that he suggested stomping them may be an appropriate response.'

  22. FM said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 11:52 am

    The P. Bailey example is extremely unidiomatic to me. Is it just from a different dialect or did Mr. or Ms. P. Bailey not understand the grammar of what they were trying to write?

  23. Doreen said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 5:32 am

    Butterfield enumerated some more of his personal peeves in the Guardian on April 3rd: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/03/bad-language-bugs-me. As is typical for linguistic peevery-related pieces, that one attracted over 1,500 comments.

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