## Geoff and the Language Guardians

The website for BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth describes today's program this way:

Peggy Reynolds is sitting in for Michael Rosen on Word of Mouth, the programme about language and the way we use it.

This week, Peggy investigates the world of language guardians.

Once, they wrote to the letters pages of newspapers. Now they have the internet. Peggy looks at the battles raging on the language blogs.

One of the guests on the program was Geoff Pullum.

At the moment, at least, the audio is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00d0hw7. Geoff's segment starts around 3:10.

1. ### Ollock said,

August 19, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

2. ### Nathan Myers said,

August 20, 2008 @ 12:36 am

Curious use of the word "available" to mean "locked up". The culture wars roll on.

3. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 20, 2008 @ 1:13 am

An excellent discussion. But resurrecting Elvis is a serious matter and you shouldn't have debunked it.

Geoff's claim that North Americans are much more obsessive over prescriptive poppycock than the British is something I've noticed as well, the Queen's English Society notwithstanding.

4. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 20, 2008 @ 1:34 am

And of course the usual collection of nutters on the program. There's one who pretends there's a difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested', and one complete lunatic who has declared war on the apostrophe in plurals; he claims that a's is wrong as the plural of a without giving any evidence why (Pullum make a similar gaffe on Language Log when he claimed that people who used apostrophes for years and initialisms were 'ignorant', when they were merely following the older tradition (The University Grammar of English written in 1975 allowed both forms though it suggested the apostrophe-less form was gaining ground). One is ignorant when one follows a rule that is plain wrong, not one that has been deprecated.

5. ### marie-lucie said,

August 20, 2008 @ 2:26 am

Learning English consciously (as a 2nd language), I learned the difference between uninterested 'having no interest in something = finding it boring' and disinterested 'having no interest in something = not expecting personal benefit from it' and I find that (in spite of a possible "recency illusion") this difference is still observed by many people who are not 'nutters', although it seems to me that more and more (and younger) people are using disinterested for both meanings. After all, the potential ambiguity of interest does not seem to cause problems in context.

6. ### skot said,

August 20, 2008 @ 3:55 am

If there's no difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested" there ought to be, otherwise it's such a waste to have two words with absolutely no connotative differences…

I like the trend of not using an apostrophe for plurals. Of course for A's, it's pretty silly.

But then again, I'm probbaly a nutter myself…

7. ### outeast said,

August 20, 2008 @ 4:04 am

FWIW, the OED notes that both 'disinterested' and 'uninterested' have historically had both of the uses mentioned by Marie-Lucie – but adds that 'disinterested' in the sense of 'finding sth boring' is 'often regarded as incorrect', while 'uninterested' for 'having no investment in sth' is obsolete. I suspect that this is a case where modern usage – at least among Brits – is pushing the two words apart (mirroring the 'insure/ensure' divide?). Personally, I think the distinction would be useful.

8. ### language hat said,

August 20, 2008 @ 9:22 am

And of course the usual collection of nutters on the program. There's one who pretends there's a difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'

There's little point trying to show one's superiority to "nutters" by talking like a nutter oneself. Or are differences that you personally don't choose to maintain ipso facto nonexistent?

9. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 20, 2008 @ 10:01 am

Nutters aren't those who maintain distinctions I don't. In fact, in my ideolect, I maintain the difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'. But you are a nutter to claim that a distinction you and many others choose to make is the only correct form, when the evidence from both historical sources and current usage suggest that the distinction is not universal, or possibly not even the majority distinction.

I'm sorry, Languagehat, but you've let yourself down here.

If there's no difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested" there ought to be, otherwise it's such a waste to have two words with absolutely no connotative differences…

There are thousands of examples where we have two words that only differ in social or geographical dialect and have no connotative differences, as well as examples such as 'start', 'begin', and 'commence' where you'd be hard put to find any difference whatsoever.

Unfortunately there should be a difference has no place in the study of language. We take the differences that are there, not the millions of hypothetical differences that might or might not be useful and economic of time.

10. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 20, 2008 @ 10:15 am

Still talking about distinctions it would be nice to have. In British English we have the word 'flat' and the word 'apartment', the latter being looked down on in BrE as an American import; to the best of my knowledge there is no difference in meaning between either. In AmE I believe we have 'condominium' and 'apartment', the difference apparently being more of type of tenancy cum ownership than the actual real estate.

Now Spanish has two words that are the equivalent of the BrE English duo, 'flat/apartment', that is 'piso/apartamento'. But the Spanish make a clear distinction; an 'apartamento' is small and normally furnished, often with a 'cocina americana' (which by some absurd mechanism is the Spanish for 'kitchenette'), whilst a piso is a normal flat, often rented unfurnished.

It is a useful distinction, but it is pointless to ask English to have it, as pointless as trying to resurrect Elvis or to announce that it would be much more grammatical and logical if the Transmontaña blew in the opposite direction.

11. ### Alexandra said,

August 20, 2008 @ 10:57 am

I am baffled by the person at 1:20 who gets indignant at the use of the word "emotional" because it's "vague." But one of this person's proposed alternatives is "it's very moving." How is "moving" less vague than "emotional"?

12. ### TMA said,

August 20, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

Is there somewhere in between where I can live? I accept that I have no logical grounds to *justify* maintaining a distinction between disinterested and uninterested in the face of history and common usage but, just for my own personal aesthetic reasons, I really wish the distinction would be preserved.

I still remember throwing something at the TV during the OJ trial when a commentator said "the jury appeared disinterested in the DNA expert's testimony"… juries are SUPPOSED to be disinterested!

13. ### Mark Liberman said,

August 20, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

TMA: I accept that I have no logical grounds to *justify* maintaining a distinction between disinterested and uninterested in the face of history and common usage but, just for my own personal aesthetic reasons, I really wish the distinction would be preserved.

No, you wish the distinction would be created. That's a fine wish to have, and I'll join you in using the words as if your wish had been granted.

But, alas, you aren't free to wish for the preservation of a situation that never existed. It's like wishing for American political parties to maintain their traditional commitment to fair and honest campaigning — your state of mind suffers from a failed presupposition.

14. ### Lance said,

August 20, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

Here's the thing about dis-/uninterested, and the rhetoric used above. When Stephen Jones refers to "one who pretends there's a difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'," he's being disingenuous. There's no need to pretend; there is a difference between the two. That difference may not be universal, and it may not be 100% historically supported, but neither of those facts justifies saying that there's no difference.

And when Mark says that one wishes for the difference to be created, he's somewhat right, except that the difference already has been created. Perhaps not that long ago, historically speaking, but long enough for many of us (Stephen, perhaps; myself, certainly) to have learned it in school as fact, just as we learned the difference between "compliment" and "complement".

And then the fact of the matter: to expand on what outeast said, the OED gives "free from motives of personal interest" as a definition of "uninterested", but only with an "obsolete" note, with 1767 as the last citation (and 1771 as the first citation of the "indifferent" meaning). It's also noted that "In this sense disinterested is increasingly common in informal use, though widely regarded as incorrect".

Now, true, "disinterested" has had both meanings since its first use in the 1600s, with the "not interested" meaning being earlier; but depending on how correct the OED is that the prescriptively-erroneous use is "increasingly" common, the historical fact is:

* "disinterested" has mostly been used to mean "unbiased";
* "uninterested", in non-obsolete usage, has only been used to mean "not interested"

That's the sense in which, even if somewhat artificial, the difference need not be created, as Mark has it, but in fact was created (and perhaps not even artificially) hundreds of years ago.

August 20, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

Stephen: "between either"?

16. ### Lance said,

August 20, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

…ah crud, this is what happens when I fall behind on my reading; I should have read the next post first. My apologies. It does seem to me that there's a definite difference between "has been used to mean" and "has generally been used to mean", and the OED seems to suggest that the one sense has been used occasionally, but not generally, until recently. I don't know what MWEU's evidence is, but I think one would need a more thorough set of data to judge.

17. ### language hat said,

August 20, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

But you are a nutter to claim that a distinction you and many others choose to make is the only correct form, when the evidence from both historical sources and current usage suggest that the distinction is not universal, or possibly not even the majority distinction.

But that's not what you said. You said, and I quote:

And of course the usual collection of nutters on the program. There's one who pretends there's a difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'

In other words, you were maintaining that there is no difference at all, and anyone who "pretends" that there is is a nutter. When challenged, you fall back on pretending that you said something else. I'm sorry, but you've let yourself down here.

No, you wish the distinction would be created.

I don't understand this. The distinction already exists in the usage of many people, me and Stephen Jones ("In fact, in my ideolect, I maintain the difference between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested'") included. Some people make the distinction, some don't. I thought the whole point of being a linguist was that you don't take sides between competing usages, you just record the differences.

18. ### Mark Liberman said,

August 20, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

@language hat: The distinction already exists in the usage of many people…

Well, I could have said more precisely that TMA wishes that an emergent distinction would become universally accepted and observed. In fact, I did say that more precisely (or tried to) in the next post "It's stylish to lament what has been lost".

My reason for emphasizing the innovative aspects of TMA's preferences was to counter the standard assumption that a preferred usage pattern must be a conservative one, which TMA's phrase "I really wish the distinction would be preserved" exemplifies.

19. ### Andrew said,

August 20, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

These two statements are surely consistent:

1. That the distinction did not exist when the terms were first introduced, and has never been universal.

2. That the distinction used to be more common than it is now, and is now in decline.

Whether the second is true I don't know. It isn't implausible, given that English is less often taught in a prescriptivist way than it used to be. If it is true, it makes sense to speak of 'preserving' the distinction.

20. ### TMA said,

August 20, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

OK, I'll certainly defer to those of you who have academic credentials in this subject — heck, I teach math! — but it still hasn't been demonstrated to me that the distinction is something recently created, or that it wasn't obeyed much more 40 — or 60 years ago than it is today (again, whether for good or ill is not the issue here, I acknowledge that!) I certainly never noticed people using "disinterested" interchangeably with "uninterested" prior to the early 1990s — but maybe I wasn't paying attention. Clearly there are early instances of this — but were they as common?

People have presented documentation from the OED showing that both meanings have been used with both words on at least SOME occasions stretching back to 1612/1659 [for disinterested] and 1646/1771 [for uninterested] — but the fact that, throughout the last 350 years there are individual citations with some particular meaning attributed to the word does not, in itself, imply that the distinction didn't exist at that time — I mean, there are contemporary citations of both words with both meanings, yet plenty of people still make the distinction.

21. ### gordonoz said,

August 20, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

It stops me in my mental tracks when people use disinterested' to mean uninterested'; I have to rethink the context to work out what they mean. To lose the word disinterested' in its not having any self-profiting stake' sense is to risk losing that concept, and, in a world where corruption is almost universal, that is a tragedy because it makes it difficult to define and condemn corrupt behaviour. It's up to teachers and linguists to use their skills to communicate the difference between the two words. To dismiss people who care about this distinction as `nutters' is baseless and rude.

22. ### dr pepper said,

August 20, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

This is the first time i've ever heard of anyone using those two words as synonyms.

23. ### GAC said,

August 20, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

@gordonoz:

While I agree with you that it is an important concept that should be kept — the loss of a word (or a change in its meaning) does not necessarily mean a concept is lost. In fact, it's usually the case that another word will come to fill its place — or is already in place as a synonym. If disinterested in the ethical sense were to fall out of usage, uninterested might fill its place — or common synonyms like neutral, fair, or unbiased would probably rise to the occasion — or perhaps a new coinage developed. In any case, I'm fairly sure that the notion of a party that has no interest or biases toward a given dispute is probably useful enough that it'll endure any lexical changes that occur for a good, long time.

24. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 21, 2008 @ 3:01 am

The point Language Hat is that there are two meanings and two words and either word can be used for either meaning. So although some may distinguish between them because they assign the one meaning between each word one cannot assign a generalized difference between the words on that basis.

I'm told that there are people who think you should never confuse serviettes with table napkins. Bully for them, but I, and most of the British English speaking world doesn't make that distinction.

The point about peevologists is that they only ever attack correct usages. If the usage they attack were genuinely incorrect, people wouldn't be using it all the time and there would be no need for the peevologists to get het up.

25. ### language hat said,

August 21, 2008 @ 9:19 am

The point Stephen Jones is that you went way overboard in your laudable desire to foil the dastardly designs of the prescriptivists. You and I are on the same side here, but it is no better to claim that there is no difference between two words that many people use differently than to claim, as does the worthy gordonoz, that the use of "disinterested" in a way he doesn't like is "a tragedy because it makes it difficult to define and condemn corrupt behaviour." Both claims are manifestly silly.

26. ### skot said,

August 21, 2008 @ 10:58 am

"Unfortunately, 'there should be a difference' has no place in the study of language. We take the differences that are there, not the millions of hypothetical differences that might or might not be useful and economic of time."

I would have to disagree with you. We create the differences by how we choose to use language as a group. And, yes, I think we do this out of usefulness, economy or mere whim, i.e. just because it sounds "good".

Start, begin and commence aren't without connotation either, by the way, especially "commence".

27. ### parkrrrr said,

August 22, 2008 @ 8:41 am

To present another point of view, I'd like to mention that until I read this comment thread, I was unaware that some people saw that distinction between the two words. If I'd had a use for a word that has the meaning some here ascribe to "disinterested," I'd have used a different word such as "unbiased" or "neutral."

Indeed, when I first read Stephen Jones's first comment on the matter, I thought he was talking about a more general difference between un- and dis- wherein un- is used to mean "never" and dis- is used to mean "no longer." That is, I would have interpreted "uninterested" to mean "not interested, and never was" and "disinterested" to mean "no longer interested," but with both words using "interest" in the sense of attention rather than in the sense of a stake. (Though, oddly enough, now that I've claimed that such a distinction exists, I find myself unable to demonstrate it by means of another word pair.)

28. ### Stephen Jones said,

August 23, 2008 @ 4:30 am

I suggest you listen to the transcipt, language hat, the guy really does sound like a nutter.

But let's look at the general principle. The gentleman involved is quite aware that the distinction he makes between the two words is not shared by many people (which is why he gripes) but then ignores this salient fact to claim the distinction is universal, and not a peculiarity of his idiolect.

He claims he wants his 'doctor to be disinterested, not uninterested." (He is of course likely to be disappointed in both regards). It's like someobody saying 'he wants his letter box to be red and his bird table yellow" and then go on to complain how the vast amount of suburban furniture he sees that doesn't follow this pattern doesn't affect his claim that redness is an essential quality of letterboxes.

When somebody comes to a conclusion that is in clear contradiction to the reality that is staring them in the face than I call that insanity.