Able to read and write, yet illiterate

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In the course of doing research for a series of posts I plan on doing, I was listening to an interview from a few years ago with Bryan Garner, and something he said bothered me. Well, actually, I was bothered by more than one thing that he said, but this post is only about one of them: Garner's use of the word literate. And truth be told, that's something that's bothered me for a while.

Garner doesn't usually use literate to mean 'able to read and write'. Rather, he uses it as a term of praise for the kind of people and publications that use the expressions he approves of and avoid those he condemns. Thus, his usage guides tell us that the double comparative is uncommon "among literate speakers and writers," that irrelevant is sometimes misspelled irrevelant in "otherwise literate publications," that singular they "sets many literate Americans' teeth on edge." In contrast, pronouncing the –p– in comptroller "has traditionally been viewed as semiliterate," as is the word irregardless and writing would of instead of would have. Saying where's it at is "a badge of illiteracy."

Garner would say that he's using literate to mean 'educated' or 'cultured.' Although there's no entry for the word in his usage guides, there is one for illiterate, which obviously illuminates Garner's understanding of literate:

(1) unable to read or write; or (2) unlettered. Sense 1 refers to the most minimal literacy, sense 2 to grander notions of literacy. Today sense 1 threatens to drive out sense 2.

Maybe it's just me, but the statement about the declining use of sense 2 seems tinged with regret.

Garner's use of literate, illiterate, and the corresponding nouns literacy and illiteracy strikes me as more than a little demeaning, given those words' strong association with the ability (or lack of ability) to read and write. And that impression is reinforced by Garner's choice of the words he uses in referring to the usages that he advocates or criticizes, and to the people who use them. Not only are the expressions he doesn't like are "illiterate" or "semiliterate," they are "uneducated" or "semi-educated," "slipshod" or "slovenly." It's apparently not enough for Garner to argue that some people will look down on you if you speak and write the Wrong Way; he wants you to know that he will look down on you.

If you speak and write the Right Way, on the other hand, you are "careful" or "scrupulous," "refined" or "fastidious," "stalwart," a "stylist," a "stalwart stylist."

I initially thought that Garner's use of literate, illiterate, and their variants represented metaphoric extensions of what I assumed was the word's central sense, having to do with the (in)ability to read and write. After listening to the interview with Garner, I became curious about when the extended meaning arose, so I looked it up—and learned that I had the etymological sequence backward.

According to the OED, the sense in which Garner usually uses the word is the older one, with the first cited use being from the mid-1400s. The 'able to read and write' sense was traced back only to 1613. The OED says that "able to read and write" is now "the usual sense," that the earlier sense is rare, and that the earlier sense has come to be "coloured" by the later one. Garner's statement that the newer sense "threatens to drive out the older one is consistent with those statements. However, a quick look at COCA suggests that the older sense may be healthier than Garner and the OED think.

Nevertheless, it's probably reasonable to expect that when the older sense of literate is used with regard to language skills, and even more so when it is used in opposition with illiterate, it will evoke associations with the 'able to read and write' sense.

But is it possible that in using the words as he did, Garner didn't intend them to convey any negative connotations? Maybe, being the snoot that he is, he was just clinging stubbornly to the older sense of the word, either because he wanted to keep it alive or because he looked down on the newfangled meaning as being, um, illiterate.

I think that's implausible. The patterns in Garner's vocabulary of evaluative words suggest that he is not shy about being judgmental. And given that he regarded the newer sense as having become so dominant that the older one was threatened with extinction, it's difficult to believe that Garner was oblivious to the negative connotation of his usage.

AS IT HAPPENS, Geoff Pullum has a chapter in a newly published book, English Usage Guides: History, Advice, Attitudes; the chapter is titled, "The Usage game: Catering to Perverts" and it's available in manuscript form here. Geoff writes that "[the] books on usage that succeed best do a lot of finger-wagging and bossing around," and he goes on to explain:

They are written as if for people who want to be dominated, humiliated, and punished—as if they lust for someone to force them into unnatural but posh-sounding constructions, as if they want to be harshly disciplined for fantasised  grammatical transgressions. In short, it looks as if the usage game is catering to perverts.

See also Geoff's post Usage Masochism, from 2014.

Although I certainly understand where Geoff's coming from (and even where he's at), this is Language Log, not Armchair Psychology Log. So I'm not going to speculate about anybody's subconscious motivations. But for someone who did want to indulge in such speculation, the  rhetorical choices Garner makes in his vocabulary of praise and condemnation might provide a fruitful area of inquiry (as might this).

 

 



41 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

    I really, genuinely, cannot see the problem with being judgemental. There are correct ways to speak (and to write), less correct but acceptable ways, and incorrect (and therefore unacceptable) ways. No-one would (I think) claim that there is only one way to speak (or write) correctly, but there is a clear continuum between correct and incorrect, and I for one see no problem with someone being judgemental about usages that are clearly incorrect ("we was", "we're gonna", "I ain't done nothing", etc.). All three of these examples are, to my mind, clearly illiterate usages, and I would have no hesitation in describing them as such.

  2. cervantes said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    He seems to be conflating typographical errors, solecisms, informal usages, dialect, and innovations or neologisms. Exactly how much you might personally want to copy edit any of these would depend on the demands of the context and relevant style. There's nothing wrong with advising people about how to write and speak in a way which won't annoy your interlocutors in a given circumstance, but it's not a measure of your worth as a human being. That's where it's at.

  3. cervantes said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

    P. Taylor — Some of these are standard in certain dialects, or informal speech, not "illiterate," and perfectly fine as long as the people you are talking to understand them. Not everybody has to speak the way you do.

  4. martin schwartz said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    As to the pronunciation and orthographical difference between "comptroller" and "controller", and their etymology, I can only suggest that it's worth a careful look at the first page or so of internet entries on these words (I used Google).
    Martin Schwartz

  5. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    Garner has this reputation as the sophisticate's usage writer. This reputation comes partly from his pseudo-quantitative hand-waving, and partly from his largely avoiding obvious name calling. That last one can carry you a long ways. Look good in a suit and have a calm affect, and you can say the same things as those spittle-flecked maniacs and still get invited to respectable parties. But the mask slips from time to time.

  6. martin schwartz said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

    Hmm, my computer's spell-check feature is advising me to consider
    more carefully my "orthographical" (vs. "orthographic".
    There seems to be a moral there.
    My favorite spell-check story: Some years ago a student, Iranian as it happens, submitted to me a good a paper on Persian and Middle Persian poetry. When I faulted him for writing "hemstitches"
    ("hem-stitches"?) for "hemistichs", he blamed it, maybe rightly,
    on his spell-check.
    Martin Schwartz

  7. David Morris said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

    On the contrary, pronouncing 'comptroller' with the the 'p' shows that you have learned it by reading it, as does pronouncing any word exactly as spelled. People can't win. If I had *heard* 'comptroller', I would have written it as 'controller'. The only way people can spell and pronounce it 'correctly' is by hearing *and* reading it.
    FWIW, Dictionary.com records the 'spelling pronunciation' alongside the standard one, which shows that enough people must be saying it.

  8. Tim Leonard said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

    I think people buy finger-wagging usage guides not to be spanked, but to build and support their feelings of superiority. The buyers of usage guides want to know rules that they can see that other people are flouting. For that, it doesn't matter if the rules have evidential support.

  9. AntC said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

    Sounds like literate has become a 'skunked' term, by Garner's definition. That happened somewhere in the C17th and the ambiguity has persisted since.

    Then he should avoid it altogether; by his own prescriptivism.

    I'm certainly familiar with both senses; and like Neal was surprised that the 'lettered' sense is the older.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

    Let there then be no more condemnation of people that use 'literate' and relatives in the older sense, which still survives in English. It's useful as I don't think there's any other single word that fits – 'educated' is probably best, and is often used, but is at least as vague.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  11. Rubrick said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 8:03 pm

    You mistyped "Maybe, being the snoot that the is". You are obviously illiterate.

    *spank*

  12. Joe Fineman said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 8:34 pm

    Cf. Fowler, MEU (1927 already), s.v. Illiteracies:

    "There is a kind of offence against literary [N.B.] idiom that is not easily named. The usual dictionary label for some specimens of it at least is _vulg.; but the word _vulgar_ is by now so imbued with social prejudices & on the other with moral condemnation as to be unsuitable; the property common to these lapses seems to be that people accustomed to reading good literature do not commit them & are repelled by them, while those not so accustomed neither refrain from nor condemn them; they may perhaps be more accurately as well as more politely called illiteracies than vulgarisms…."

    Here are most of his examples (abbreviated), of which some still strike me as irritating, some as normal, and some as American:

    If I could think like you do
    However did you find out?
    Will submit same for approval
    Am ready to categorically affirm
    arguments re predestination
    promised to write him soon
    I did not think to tell him
    I shouldn't wonder if it didn't come true
    It looks as if we are winning
    Instead of me being dismissed
    between glorious death or shameful life
    rather unique
    more preferable
    aggravating (for annoying)
    individual (for person)
    the ruling-class
    my wooden-leg

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

    I suspect the problem may be that we don't have different adjectives for "of or pertaining to the functionally-literate" and "of or pertaining to the literati." Nor do we have different pejorative-sounding antonyms for these different senses of "literate." Of course, viewing "literate" in the "of or pertaining to the literati" sense as a compliment and "illiterate" in the opposite sense as a pejorative is based on a rather significant unexamined minor premise, namely the assumption that the literati is a social class or subculture that is praiseworthy rather than blameworthy (or maybe even just neutral in moral terms).

  14. dainichi said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

    > According to the OED, the sense in which Garner usually uses the word is the older one, with the first cited use being from the mid-1400s. The 'able to read and write' sense was traced back only to 1613.

    I don't have access to OED, but is it possible that before 1613, the distinction didn't make much sense at all? I.e. that being able to read and write was more or less the same as being educated?

  15. Keith said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 1:08 am

    I remember that when studying French at university, our lecturer pointed out the difficulty of the English words "literate" and "illiterate". French has a clear distinction between "analphabète" meaning "not knowing how to read or write" and "illettré" for "unlettered".

    I agree with Cervantes, that Garner "seems to be conflating typographical errors, solecisms, informal usages, dialect, and innovations or neologisms". But especially in the phrase concerning misspelled word in "otherwise literate publications", I think there is a criticism of sloppiness, of not properly checking a text before publishing it.

    Daily newspapers are expected to contain a number of misprints, it is simply not reasonable to expect every word of every article to be perfect when the paper has to be put to bed and then printed so that copies are at newsagents' shops by 05h00 the next day.

    But to find such errors in monthly magazines or (as I've seen far too often) in second or third editions of paperback books is inexcusable.

    Perhaps Garner is also criticizing a general "slackening" of style in what would have been, a few years ago, quite straight-laced and formal publications, and which are still aimed at a very wide readership.

    I find it annoying to read in an English language book on science, technology or business, aimed at a global readership, that the solving of some problem or the taking of some decision was "a no-brainer". I've made numerous edits in colleagues works to remove what I consider overly idiomatic phrases such as "take the bull by the horns", "grasp the nettle" and "bite the bullet"

    There's a time and a place for most things in writing, and in fiction just about anything is acceptable, so long as it is consistent with the characters in the story. In directly reported speech, I can accept having the CEO or CTO of some corporation say "it was a no-brainer", or "we went the whole nine yards".

  16. John Walden said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:51 am

    I see that 'analphabetic' is in the dictionary with both the meaning 'unable to read' of a person and 'not having an alphabet' of a language. That might cause other confusions.

  17. richardelguru said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 5:27 am

    The book shop's Literature section opposed to Fiction?

  18. Stan Carey said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 5:38 am

    I for one see no problem with someone being judgemental about usages that are clearly incorrect ("we was", "we're gonna", "I ain't done nothing", etc.). All three of these examples are, to my mind, clearly illiterate usages, and I would have no hesitation in describing them as such.

    @Philip Taylor: These usages are not incorrect at all, still less "clearly" so. As cervantes says, they're fine in some dialects and registers. Linguistic correctness is not absolute but depends on local conditions. This is not relativism gone mad: it's common sense. What's appropriate in one variety of English may be utterly inappropriate in another – and that works both ways.
    In some situations, saying "we are going to" (instead of "we're gonna") or "I have not done anything" (instead of "I ain't done nothing") would be as wrong as saying the informal or nonstandard versions in contexts where standard English is expected.
    Standard English is a socially privileged dialect whose norms don't extend automatically to other varieties of English. Arguing that they do is like insisting on formal dress in all situations: absurd. Standard English (or whatever version of it you have in mind) is not intrinsically more "correct" than any other dialect: it's just more suited to certain contexts, such as formal or official English. I'd have thought all this was self-evident, but apparently not.

  19. ajay said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:08 am

    some still strike me as irritating, some as normal, and some as American

    Much like my colleagues, really.

  20. ajay said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:15 am

    I suspect the problem may be that we don't have different adjectives for "of or pertaining to the functionally-literate" and "of or pertaining to the literati."

    "Well-read" seems to be a good way of referring to the literati. But I don't think the converse exists for people who can read but just haven't read much: "poorly-read"? "Ill-read"?

    "Lettered" is a bit antique as a way of saying "has read a lot of stuff, especially the stuff you're supposed to have read to be a respectable intellectual type". And it has the added problem of being the American university equivalent of getting your Blue in something.

  21. JAH said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    "The ratio of illiterates to literates is unchanged from a century ago, but now the illiterates can read and write."

    –Alberto Moravia

  22. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 9:19 am

    @Keith:

    One person's "overly idiomatic phrases" are another's "phrases."
    Language is built of metaphors and cliches, after all. ;)

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 9:50 am

    Stan (Carey) — I do not dispute for one second that your views are an accurate reflection of current thinking; however, what you suggest, and what is currently regarded as (politically) correct, goes against the received wisdom of centuries. I came from a classic working-class backround : father a bus-driver, mother a housewife who occasionally had to work in order to supplement my father's meagre income. But I had the remarkable good fortune to have a mother who cared deeply about how I spoke (and dressed, for that matter), and who would pull me up whenever I allowed myself to lapse into the local (South-East London) patois. My mother's teaching was re-inforced at primary school, where again we were taught that there is a correct, and an incorrect, way to speak and to write ("treat 'lot' and 'got' as if they were red hot" remains firmly lodged in my mind to this day). And at grammar school, too, exactly the same situation obtained — one was taught to speak, and to write, correctly, and to eschew vulgarisms, slang, and slovenly speech. Even in French, the lesson was drummed in : "Caddis minor, you speak French with the accent of the Old Kent Road; repeat after me …..". When I started work, I had the great good fortune to find myself working under the direction of a minor landowner, whose modes of speech and dress continue to influence me to this day. So for almost 70 years I have been taught, and have believed, and continue to believe, that there is correct speech, and there is incorrect speech, and just because some forms of incorrect speech have been adopted as the lingua franca of certain social groups, this no more makes them correct than would (for example) the publication of a book entitled "'ow ter speak proper" which sought to place a cachet on such uneducated (and illiterate) usage.

  24. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    So for almost 70 years I have been taught, and have believed, and continue to believe, that there is correct speech, and there is incorrect speech, and just because some forms of incorrect speech have been adopted as the lingua franca of certain social groups, this no more makes them correct than would (for example) the publication of a book entitled "'ow ter speak proper" which sought to place a cachet on such uneducated (and illiterate) usage.

    If there is correct speech and incorrect speech, there must be standards that govern what is correct and what is incorrect.

    Where do those standards come from?

    Who sets them, and by what authority?

    How do people know what they are? There is no Academie Anglaise that has the authority to promulgate such standards. And if you point to what Garner or some other expert says, what do you do when I point to what a different expert says?

    And what about the fact that the kinds of usages and rules that Garner covers represent only a tiny fraction of the usages and rules that are part of the English language? How know you that sentence this ungrammatical is?

    We know for a fact that usages that were once denounced as being incorrect are now regarded as uncontroversially acceptable. How did that happen? At what point did those usages change from wrong to right?

    To whom do the standards of correctness that you follow apply? They obviously don't apply to people who speak Italian or Japanese, since those are different languages. But what about Americans and Australians, who speak English, but in ways that differ in many respects from what you would regard as correct. And if you say, well those are different dialects, and they have their own standards of correctness, why isn't the same thing isn't true of the South-East London "patois" that you apparently grew up speaking? While there's certainly a difference between those examples, is it a difference in kind or only a difference in degree?

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    Neil : the points that you raise are valid, and deserve an answer. But I do not wish to monopolise this thread, so I will (if you permit) defer my answers until others have had the opportunity to comment. One point, though, that does concern me — if you (and those who share your views) seek to establish as an accepted fact that the speech, writing and mores of (the members of) socially disadvantaged groups are not only acceptable but are, at least within their milieu, "correct", then are you not (albeit unintentionallyt) helping to reinforce the very ghetto mentality that will ultimately prevent them from ever escaping their backgrounds ? Would it not be far better to politely but firmly establish and re-inforce the idea that if they wish to better themselves, and to escape forever the social environment into which they were born, then they will need to adopt more universally acceptable (and accepted) modes of speech, writing, dress, etc ?

  26. cervantes said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

    It is true that people are often judged by the social class associations of their dialect. That doesn't make their dialect "wrong," it just means that they have pragmatic reasons to become adept at code shifting. We all use different styles in different contexts, usually unconsciously. What's right in a New York Review of Books essay is often not right in the pool hall or construction site. But you'd be in just as much trouble making the mistake in either direction.

  27. Chandra said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

    As a fundamental literacy instructor of adults who have struggled to read and write their whole lives for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence level, laziness, or moral inferiority, this kind of pompous and dismissive rhetoric enrages me. Mr. Garner may know a lot about the intricacies of the English language, but he is an utter ignoramus when it comes to the lived experiences of actual illiterate or semi-literate people.

  28. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

    @Philip Taylor:

    Neil : the points that you raise are valid, and deserve an answer.

    As long as we're on the subject of error and correctness in usage—of upholding the standards of literacy and avoiding slovenliness—I hope you don't mind if I ask you to spell my name correctly. Your comment also includes several other errors of various sorts: there is no t at the end of unintentionally, it is wrong to put a space before colons and question marks, and reinforce is spelled without a hyphen. The first two are pretty trivial, but I'm confident that Bryan Garner would regard the third as a solecism.

    if you (and those who share your views) seek to establish as an accepted fact that the speech, writing and mores of (the members of) socially disadvantaged groups are not only acceptable but are, at least within their milieu, "correct", …

    Where did I say anything about anyone's "mores"?

    … then are you not (albeit unintentionallyt) helping to reinforce the very ghetto mentality that will ultimately prevent them from ever escaping their backgrounds ? Would it not be far better to politely but firmly establish and re-inforce the idea that if they wish to better themselves, and to escape forever the social environment into which they were born, then they will need to adopt more universally acceptable (and accepted) modes of speech, writing, dress, etc ?

    I'm not going to address the stereotyping that your statement displays, because I'm afraid that if I do, the discussion is going to go down a rabbit hole from which it will never emerge.

    Instead, I'll just say that I think it's beneficial for those who speak nonstandard dialects to learn standard English, and that demeaning them by condemning the dialect that they speak is not a good way to accomplish that goal. If anything, doing so is likely to alienate them from the broader linguistic community, and therefore to worsen whatever "ghetto mentality" might already exist.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 3:43 pm

    Neal : "I hope you don't mind if I ask you to spell my name correctly". Of course not — mea culpa. May I ask the same in return ? My name does not commence with a commercial-at symbol. Space before tall punctuation is traditional in British typography (it is less used recently, although still to be found where high-end standards of typography still obtain; it is, of course, still the norm for French), the hyphen is required for the same reason, and the "t" at the end of "intentionally" is a genuine error — I don't think I ever claimed to be perfect. Finally, to address your closing paragraph, I do not believe I ever suggested that speakers of incorrect English should be demeaned; they should, rather, be (a) educated, and (b) encouraged to use correct English by emphasising the benefits thereof.

  30. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

    @Philip Taylor: " May I ask the same in return ? My name does not commence with a commercial-at symbol."

    In comments on a blog post, when responding to a prior comment and quoting part of what it said, it is a convention to put "@" before the commenter's name, as an indication that they are the source of the quoted language. It is not considered to be part of the spelling of the name (just as the colon following your last name is not considered part of the name.

    @Philip Taylor: "Space before tall punctuation is traditional in British typography (it is less used recently, although still to be found where high-end standards of typography still obtain; it is, of course, still the norm for French)"

    Huh, live and learn. But that said, I have to wonder whether you are following a convention that is effectively obsolete, and if so why you are following it and whether doing so amounts to an error as to which I am (on your view) entitled to be judgmental. I have lots of books from academic publishers in England (including the Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press), and going through some of them just now, books that published as long ago as the mid-1980s, and that followed British punctuation style, did not follow the practice you refer to. I did find the practice being followed in books from the 1960s and 1950s, but that's 50 years ago or more.

    @Philip Taylor: "…the hyphen is required for the same reason"

    Neither the New Oxford English Dictionary nor the OED lists re-inforce as an alternative spelling of reinforce. The OED does list re-enforce as a variant, but enforce is a well-established word. In contrast, OED has no entry for inforce. So I don't see how hyphenating reinforce can be considered appropriate.

    @Philip Taylor: "I do not believe I ever suggested that speakers of incorrect English should be demeaned; they should, rather, be (a) educated, and (b) encouraged to use correct English by emphasising the benefits thereof."

    It's true that you didn't expressly advocate "that speakers of incorrect English should be demeaned," but treating nonstandard dialects as "incorrect English" inherently demeans those who speak those dialects. And telling such speakers that the way they talk is "incorrect" (not to mention "illiterate," "uneducated," "slovenly," etc.) is probably not an effective way to teach them standard English.

    For discussion (from a U.S. perspective) of the issue of teaching standard English to speakers of nonstandard dialect, see Wolfram et al., Dialects in Schools and Communities.

  31. David Marjanović said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

    I grew up in a diglossia, where everyone is reasonably fluent both in the local dialect and in the standard language and uses each in different situations. Isn't that the best of both worlds? My grandfather used to complain, in dialect, at the TV about newsreaders' shortcomings in the standard, and nobody found that paradoxical.

    In comments on a blog post, when responding to a prior comment and quoting part of what it said, it is a convention to put "@" before the commenter's name, as an indication that they are the source of the quoted language.

    Not quite. What's going on here is that @ is used as a logogram for the word at, indicating that the comment that follows is directed at the person whose name is mentioned.

    …which I personally consider a category error on a blog, which is after all public, not a private conversation; all blog comments in English are really "directed at" all of the two billion people who can read them. But never mind. :-)

  32. David Marjanović said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

    Oh, I forgot a few things:

    It is true that people are often judged by the social class associations of their dialect.

    That depends – not every culture, for a very small value of "a culture", has sociolects. The UK is famous for having a whole system; the US is almost devoid of them, except that AAVE has recently begun to become a sociolect; Berne in Switzerland used to have three, all of which were/are comprehensible by half or less to anyone unfamiliar with a High Alemannic dialect…

    re-inforce

    I always want to pronounce such spellings with a long pause ended by a loud glottal stop. But the true reason for this is that southern German is unusually happy with vowel clusters.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    Neal : I have nothing further to add.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 29, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

    Keith: Given your comments, I hope you don't mind my pointing out that the standard word is "strait-laced", not "straight-laced". I realize you may know that and may have just typed one homophone for another, something I do all too often.

  35. Monte Davis said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 8:34 am

    @Neal Goldfarb:: 15 year ago I briefly taught English lit/composition to HS juniors and seniors at a N. Philadelphia public school. There were many relatively recent immigrants in an unusual mix — as many Russians and other ex-USSR + Haitians + East/South Asians as African-Americans, more than Latino/a. Their attitudes toward standard English ranged from "I want that NOW to fit in and succeed" to "Fck that tightass stuff."

    After the first month, on impulse I brought in video of "My Fair Lady" and showed initially just the first part — Henry Higgins' adoption/abduction of Cockney Liza and his bet that he could teach her to pass as a Lady. For most students the first hurdle was to grasp that yes, "English English" has many accents (and dictions, registers, etc) rather than being a single bloc of Oxbridge-twit-snob gentility. Once past that, I said to them: "OK, you have a lot of different feelings about the value and usefulness of sounding like a US native speaker. This is a 90-year-old satiric fable from far away — for me too — but see if any of it feels familiar." Then we watched the rest of the story.

    From then on, the students were *amazingly* good close readers of both the comedy itself and Shaw's insights about speech and social class. We spent most of three weeks on it instead of the few days I'd planned (and half a dozen went on to read 'Pygmalion' on their own). I remember especially the discussion of the Ascot race scene, when fashion-perfect and accent-perfect Liza gets excited near the finish and shouts at her horse "Move yer bloomin' arse!" With barely a prompt from me they discriminated the various ways that was "incorrect," and were eloquent about which mattered to them and why. Bottom line: they covered about as much ground re correctness and context, peevery and perversion as this worthy commentariat. Best teaching experience ever for me. I take credit only for making one good connection; the rest was theirs and Shaw's.

  36. Avi Rappoport said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    I think that this may be conflating "literate" and "literary" in addition to the other old-fashioned meanings

  37. Joe McVeigh said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 3:46 am

    Bryan Garner demeaning? I just don't believe it.

    Seriously, though, Garner shouldn't be taken seriously. He's condescending and contradictory. The evidence he uses to back up his dictates is spotty (or should I say slipshod?). It feels like he wrote a style guide just to try to prove that the way he writes and speaks is the One True Way. And to pick on anyone who dares deviate from Garnerish.

  38. Ray said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 6:30 am

    where my friend works, everybody can read and write, but only some of them are paid to be writers, and only some of them are paid to be readers (and they even have a few paid speakers). and while everyone recognizes these distinctions, it's not so clear that anyone is driving anyone out.

  39. ardj said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

    1. What Stan Carey – and others in various ways – said

    1a As addendum, here is an example already offered to Stan: In the UK we once gave a lift (ride ? for the US?) to a young mother and her small boy. At one point, the child said, "look, mum, twain. We was in a twain [sc. train], didn't we ?" The mother replied, "No, Johnny, that's not right. We was in a train, wasn't we". This seemed and seems to me a perfectly managed exercise in communicating a real truth about a particular variety of a language.

    2. @dainichi: For what it is worth, which is not very much, the first OED entry for "literate" begins its definition, "Acquainted with letters or literature", adding "educated, instructed, learned in early use". The first example, from 1432-50 reads "The kynge toke to the childe a m. talentes whiche boughte anoon a c. childer litterate" (pray excuse the modern alphabet symbol at second 'g'). I suggest that the 100 children would scarcely have become learned for this sum, lavish though it was: although probably they would be more learned than the unlettered. I cannot find ( in my 2nd edition) a 1613 citation.

  40. RfP said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

    I must admit to my own bouts of snootery over the years.

    If I could but be compensated for every time I've been upbraided for my "sanctimonious piffle," or remunerated for each occasion on which "self-righteous prig" was hurled in my direction…

    But what still escapes me is that anyone can define literacy of the cultural kind in a manner that fails to accord with the scientific facts of language. I should venture to say that this unlettered advocacy of illiteracy rebounds on itself.

  41. Bloix said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 10:13 pm

    The current issue of the New York Review of Books (dated April 19) contains a review of a new bio of GB Shaw. The review, by Simon Callow, a British theater director and actor, contains the following:

    "[By the 1980s, Shaw] had vanished, too, as an intellectual influence, the books once read by anyone who could read – The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Everybody's Political What's What … cosigned to oblivion."

    And this:

    "[Shaw was] an inspiration to the newly intellectually aware middle- and lower-middle classes, as they discovered a brave new world of thought and art, rejoicing in the uses of literacy."

    So, in addition to the literal meanings of the word literate, there is a metaphorical meaning attached to the concept of the ability to read which means, more or less, well-read or engaged with the intellectual issues of the day.

    Perhaps this meaning is out of date. The idea that there is one general debate or discussion of ideas relating to politics, art, music, literature, and culture, which is conducted via the written word and can be accessed by any intelligent person with the ability to read and think, is obsolete in a number of ways – it predates television, not to mention the internet, for one thing, and it seems rather quaint in an era of multiculturalism and pop culture.

    But it's the idea that Garner is harkening back to, I think, in his use of "literate."

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