Drawing the line

Today's SMBC:

The aftercomic:

The mouseover title: "If we have to draw a line, this is where the line is."

1. Y said,

April 2, 2022 @ 8:36 pm

Good descriptivists document in detail the loathing they and others feel toward particular words or other linguistic phenomenas phenomena.

2. Jenny Chu said,

April 2, 2022 @ 9:38 pm

The real challenge comes when one's children readily adopt such modern definitions or variants (specifically: intransitive, present-tense lay) and one must decide whether to "correct" them.

My solution has been to give careful instruction on register and code switching. "Just as it is appropriate to speak formal Cantonese in the classroom and Chinglish on the playground," – we are in Hong Kong – "it is appropriate to speak internet English to random people you meet online via Discord, but when you talk to Mommy and Daddy it is appropriate to say 'I want to lie down' and not 'I want to lay down' because otherwise they will rethink their lifelong stance against corporal punishment."

3. Robert T McQuaid said,

April 3, 2022 @ 3:56 am

Quantum leap (in science) the smallest possible change

Quantum leap (in pop culture) an enormous change

4. Seth said,

April 3, 2022 @ 7:50 am

This article has generated some dispute just based on the metaphor involved:

"What Quantum Mechanics Can Teach Us about Abortion
As light can exist as both a particle and a wave, an abortion provider can honor birth and fight for a person’s right to give birth when it’s right for them"

Whatever one's feeling about abortion, there's a different controversial issue about the use of wave/particle duality as a way of trying to express emotional conflict: "Particle and wave, abortion providers and ethical physicians, pro-life and pro-choice."

5. james said,

April 3, 2022 @ 8:42 am

@Robert T McQuaid: The significant thing about a "quantum leap" is not the size (they can be relatively large) but the fact that they take place between discrete (i.e. quantized) values. They often result in a significant change of state and so the popular metaphor seems perfectly reasonable

6. Stephen Goranson said,

April 3, 2022 @ 9:18 am

Sure, theoretically.
Sorry.

7. Gregory Kusnick said,

April 3, 2022 @ 9:59 am

"Quantum leap" isn't a term of art in physics; it's the name of a TV show from the 1990s.

A quick search of Google Books suggests that the last non-metaphorical use of "quantum leap" dates from the 1920s. Needless to say, our understanding of quantum physics has progressed a bit since then.

8. Barbara Phillips Long said,

April 3, 2022 @ 3:35 pm

@Jenny Chu —

I think the lie/lay confusion is long-standing. In my experience, it occurs across the class spectrum and is not limited to the internet-influenced or the poorly educated in the U.S. in Kentucky, Ohio, and the states northeast of them. For how many decades have textbooks tried to instill the usage prescribed for lie/lay?

I often choose to avoid the controversy, and rest in bed.

I wish students in middle school and high school in the U.S. were taught about code-switching and the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivisim. I think that is more honest than teaching children that words like “ain’t “ or “busted” are always taboo. Lots of words suffer from a history of controversial use, from “decimate” and “gauntlet/gantlet” to more recent confusion that the internet seems to perpetuate, such as “cache/cachet” or the use of “cliche” where I would use “cliched.”

9. Brett said,

April 3, 2022 @ 3:44 pm

@Robert T McQuaid: Nope. Quoting myself:

Physicists do not, in the main, object to the widespread way that the expression “quantum leap.” The meme that quantum leap as it is commonly used is a solecism seems to have originated from a non-physicist who simply looked up quantum in a dictionary and somewhat misunderstood how that word is used, and then completely misunderstood “quantum leap” as as being a purely compositional expression. The point of a quantum leap is that it is a transition between states, without a smooth movement through intermediate states. It is thus an excellent analogy for a large, effectively instantaneous change or advance.

10. Philip Taylor said,

April 3, 2022 @ 4:28 pm

I am most definitely in the "prescriptionist" camp (in fact, even more of a proscriptionist than a prescriptionist), yet I choose to use expressions such as "I lay in bed" in order to avoid any possible interpretation that I never tell the truth when in bed. In a similar vein, I recently wrote to a friend "Your e-mail to Martin and I well received", despite that I know full well that I should have written "… to Martin and me …". I cannot justify this using any argument analogous to that which I used to justify my use of "I lay …", yet "Your e-mail to Martin and me" just feels so "ugly" when it forms the subject of a sentence.

11. Barbara Phillips Long said,

April 3, 2022 @ 5:16 pm

A quote with another use of quantum:

This was not the first time that Tenpenny, a licensed osteopathic physician from Cleveland, Ohio, has promoted such a bizarre conspiracy theory. In January, Tenpenny asserted that coronavirus vaccines "are creating 'quantum entanglement' between those who take them and 'the Google credit scores and the dematrix and all of those things.'"

https://www.salon.com/2022/04/03/anti-vax-activist-claims-19-vaccines-cause-aids_partner/

There are musings about “quantum biology” here, combined with musings about religion in typical Rod Dreher fashion:

https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/quantum-biology/

I don’t have a good internalized definition for quantum, and now I am glad I read it without using it in conversation or writing. The word is on the fringes of my working vocabulary.

12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

April 3, 2022 @ 5:19 pm

@Philip Taylor —

Why not write “Your email to me and to Martin…”?

13. Bloix said,

April 3, 2022 @ 7:44 pm

There are lots of words that have technical meanings different from the lay meaning. Fruit, pandemic, exponential, significant. Sometimes confusion results.

14. Bloix said,

April 3, 2022 @ 7:52 pm

Oh dear, I typed too quickly. Epidemic has two very different meanings. Pandemic is more or less the same in its technical and lay meanings.

15. Andrew Usher said,

April 3, 2022 @ 7:57 pm

Seth: That analogy is indeed horribly strained at best. I make no further comment on the abortion issue. It also seems to me that 'quantum jump' and not 'quantum leap' is the preferred term in literal senses – so its non-technical use must be very old, long enough that no connection with physics is felt anymore.

It seems the moral is that descriptivism reaches no farther than language as the subject of scholarship; those that preach most loudly about it are no more likely to practice it in real life when it comes to their own language. This is no news to me; I have always held that we need to recognise prescription and description as simply different approaches, not contraries. Terms such as prescriptivist and descriptivist are not helpful. To be sure, there is a difference between what you call prescriptive and descriptive grammars, but if they are describing the same standard language there are really only grammars with varying purposes, and that can be good or bad at their purpose.

k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

16. Viseguy said,

April 3, 2022 @ 10:05 pm

"It seems the moral is that descriptivism reaches no farther than language as the subject of scholarship; those that preach most loudly about it are no more likely to practice it in real life when it comes to their own language. This is no news to me; I have always held that we need to recognise prescription and description as simply different approaches, not contraries. Terms such as prescriptivist and descriptivist are not helpful. To be sure, there is a difference between what you call prescriptive and descriptive grammars, but if they are describing the same standard language there are really only grammars with varying purposes, and that can be good or bad at their purpose."

@Andrew Usher: Thank you for this eloquent statement, which debunks a false duality that's nagged at me for a long, long time. It is going straight into my book of days.

17. Philip Taylor said,

April 4, 2022 @ 2:25 am

Barbara — “Your email to me and to Martin…” ? Well, your second "to" does a lot to compensate, but I would still feel that putting oneself first is not the done thing. In my idiolect, I would always write "Martin and I", never "I and Martin", or if we form the object of a sentence, then "Martin and me". A habit inculcated almost since birth, and impossible to shrug off.

18. Andreas Johansson said,

April 4, 2022 @ 3:27 am

The phrase "quantum leap" bugs me because, in my experience, it's mostly found in a obnoxious salesman or manager speak. I wonder if similar guilt-by-association is the underlying reason for some or much of the animosity towards it, with the supposed literal inappropriateness a subconscious rationalization for the dislike.

I don't think I'm familar with the usage of "quantum" for for situations with unknown outcomes. Example?

19. Philip Taylor said,

April 4, 2022 @ 4:55 am

Ethan, at Forbes.com. makes reference to "quantum uncertainty", Andreas, which may address your point.

20. Trogluddite said,

April 4, 2022 @ 10:10 am

@Andreas Johansson: "The phrase "quantum leap" bugs me because, in my experience, it's mostly found in a obnoxious salesman or manager speak".

More generally, "quantum" and related terms probably reach the most readers in sales patter of one kind or another; from relatively harmless new-age woo-woo (so "holistic"!) through to potentially dangerous conspiracy theorising such as Barbara Phillips Long noted. The usual intent, as with so much pseudo-science, is to lend credibility to nonsense precisely by convincing readers that words _are_ being used as scientific terms of art when they might just as well be replaced with the word "magic" (as per Arthur C. Clarke's famous maxim). It's these uses, that attempt to obscure the distinction between literal/metaphorical and between technical/lay-usage, which bug me the most.

21. Michael Watts said,

April 5, 2022 @ 6:58 am

In my idiolect, I would always write "Martin and I", never "I and Martin", or if we form the object of a sentence, then "Martin and me".

Never "Martin and myself"?

22. Philip Taylor said,

April 5, 2022 @ 7:14 am

Possibly if my brain was not fully engaged, Michael, but in general I try to avoid using "myself" where it seems nothing more than a replacement for "I" or "me". "For myself, I see nothing wrong with suicide" feels fine, as does "I kept some of the vintage Armagnac for myself", whereas "I myself do not think that suicide is wrong" feels wrong to me [redundant "myself"], as does "She gave it to Martin and myself" [better "to Martin and me"].

23. Terry K. said,

April 5, 2022 @ 8:16 am

The light being both a particle and wave and abortion views comparison seems pretty straight forward and sensible to me. It seems contrary that light can be both a particle and a wave, but it isn't. And, similarly, the pro-life and pro-choice viewpoints seem (to many) as contrary and opposite, like one has to be one or the other, not both, but that's not actually so. In both cases, our human concepts make two viewpoints seem contrary, but we can move beyond the concept boxes associated with the terms in order to see that light can be both a particle and a wave, and a person can be both pro-life and pro-choice. (More detail than that, on either subject, wouldn't be appropriate here.)

24. Marc-André Pelletier said,

April 5, 2022 @ 10:59 am

@Andreas Johansson: "The phrase "quantum leap" bugs me because, in my experience, it's mostly found in a obnoxious salesman or manager speak".

That is pretty much the /totality/ of prescriptivism in a nutshell; specific registers, vocabularies, accents are discouraged or encouraged as markers of one's social, ethnic, or political backgrounds. "X is bad English" is almost always code for "X is used by $undesirable_subgroup". Prescriptivism isn't linguistics, it's weaponized language. 25. Philip Taylor said, April 6, 2022 @ 2:48 am « "X is bad English" is almost always code for "X is used by$undesirable_subgroup$". Prescriptivism isn't linguistics, it's weaponized language ». An interesting proposal, but not one with which I could agree. Were the proposal to read "X is bad English" because "X is used by$undesirable_subgroup$", then I could understand the "weaponised language" argument, but in the absence of a causal relationship I see it as nothing more than the genuine reporting of facts. There can surely be no doubt that the less well educated, the lower social classes, first-generation immigrants and so on are more likely to use "bad English" than well-educated, middle- or upper-class indigenous Britons (or Americans, or whatever) but that does not define "bad English", it merely reports on its socio-economic distribution. 26. Marc-André Pelletier said, April 6, 2022 @ 9:32 am @Philip Taylor If you want good indications of that relationship, I suggest you read Fuertes, Jairo N., William H. Gottdiener, Helena Martin, Tracey C. Gilbert, and Howard Giles. 2012. “A meta analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations.” European Journal of Social Psychology 42(1): 120–33 This is a metastudy, so there are a good number of references to follow up on. In this case, accent is the focus but a bit of research will quickly show comparable studies where lexical choice or grammatical structure have been shown to have comparable effect. 27. Philip Taylor said, April 6, 2022 @ 10:21 am Thank you, Marc-André. I have had a very quick look at the paper (but not at the references cited), and unless I have misunderstood the authors' conclusions, it seems to me that what they are saying is that speakers who speak standard English are likely to assume that those who do not speak standard English are (very quick paraphrase) "less worthy of attention / less intelligent / less <whatever>". I very much suspect that this is true, but I cannot see how it leads to your original conclusion that "X is bad English" is almost always code for "X is used by$undesirable_subgroup".

When we make a judgement about another person's English, we are (IMHO) judging their English on the basis of what we have been taught (or led to believe, or come to believe) is correct English — if a person says (for example) when referring to himself and a group of friends "We was conned", then we are entitled to infer that he is speaking "bad" English (I would prefer the term "incorrect"). Now if "we was conned" forms a standard part of the sociolect of his peer group, that does not of itself elevate the phrase to the level of correct English — it may well be the norm within his peer group, but it is still wrong.

28. Marc-André Pelletier said,

April 6, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

@Philip Taylor

"Now if "we was conned" forms a standard part of the sociolect of his peer group, that does not of itself elevate the phrase to the level of correct English — it may well be the norm within his peer group, but it is still wrong."

This, I think, is where you err. "We was conned" is an excellent example, if a slightly uncomfortable one, because it's a common example of a perfectly ordinary AAVE construct (and, coincidentally, Kent and Southeast London that I know of); so in the United States it's a "black" usage, and in the UK it's a "chad" usage — in both cases they are perfectly ordinary dialectical differences that are used as socioeconomic/ethnic markers and declared "incorrect" out of a false sense of superiority.

I don't mean "I am superior to you", I mean "The English *I* learned in my group is the only correct English, therefore your group uses English incorrectly". Weaponized language.

Another example: the spanish dialect of Puerto Rico almost systematically eliminates unstressed final voiceless alveolar fricative at the end of words; this has been decried as "lazy spanish" by more powerful socioeconomic groups so much that it has been internalized into outright shame of their language by many Puerto Ricans.

29. Marc-André Pelletier said,

April 6, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

… put another way, if a powerful socioeconomic group defines "correct English" as "the dialect we use", then by definition all other groups either must conform or speak "incorrect English". Not because their English was any less "correct" in any objective sense, but simply because it wasn't what the other group decided was correct by fiat.

When you say "it is still wrong" you – without need of malice – are simply saying "it is still different from mine".

30. Philip Taylor said,

April 6, 2022 @ 2:17 pm

Well, let us agree to (amicably) differ. But let me ask you, do you own a single book that states that, in the English language, the first person plural of the verb "to be", past tense, is "was" ? I suspect not — certainly those that I own say that it is "were". Not should be "were" but is "were". A fact, not open to dispute. Now you may (wish to) argue that these books are fossils, that they no longer reflect the English of today (and perhaps David Crystal would agree with you), and of course those same books do not admit of the existence of "wanna", "gonna", or any similar abominations — if noted at all, they are simply classed as "wrong" (albeit with an explanation as to how those erroneous forms have arisen), but books such as on which we can decide what is, and what is not, correct English. The French, lucky souls that they are, have L'Académie française to whom to turn on such matters, but we Britons have no such august body to which such matters can be referred. We did have, for a time, have "The Society for Pure English", but I believe that the SPE went extinct even before I was born (or perhaps at around the same time).

Now, referring back to your penultimate comment, you say that « "We was conned" is an excellent example, if a slightly uncomfortable one, because it's a common example of a perfectly ordinary AAVE construct », and if by "perfectly ordinary" you also imply "and therefore correct", I would not hesitate to agree with you. But the fact that it is correct in African-American Vernacular English does not make it correct in English qua English — AAVE is a dialect, or a topolect, or perhaps even a sociolect, of English, but its rules and the rules of (standard) English, whilst almost certainly overlapping, are by no means isomorphic. So a construct can be "perfectly ordinary", or even "correct", in a *lect of English while being incorrect in standard English. Would you not agree ?

31. Philip Taylor said,

April 6, 2022 @ 2:27 pm

Sorry, I appear to have lost a part of the preceding in posting — it should have read something along the lines of

… but books such as these, written by scholars who have devoted a substantial part of their life to the study of the English language, are surely the only basis on which we can decide what is, and what is not, correct English.

32. Jarek Weckwerth said,

April 6, 2022 @ 5:34 pm

@ Philip Taylor: A typical way of framing this within typical descriptive discourse would be to say that we was conned is grammatical in one dialect but not in another. And then to point out that only one of those dialects enjoys prestige and therefore embedded e.g. in education (and literature etc.). This is a sociohistorical "accident" and has no relation to the linguistic features of those dialects.

We was conned is a perfect example because it shows the arbitrariness of "correctness". Was is the logical form; or, perhaps, having one form is logical in English. Having two forms, was/were, violates the paradigm. No normal English verb does that. Illogical exceptions (fossils) of this type are good shibboleths, and therefore grow logically undeserved prestige a.k.a. becoming "correct".

I think all of this is a relatively standard introduction to how descriptivism differs from prescriptivism in linguistics.

33. Philip Taylor said,

April 7, 2022 @ 8:49 am

OK, I (think I) understand the points that you (Jarek) and Marc-André are making, but if I understand you both correctly then you seem to be arguing that "all dialects are equal". From my (prescriptive) perspective, this is simply not true — there is standard English (the language taught in schools), and there are any number of non-standard varieties of English, of which (for example) Cockney and AAVE are two. I think that as our two positions are so different on this central issue, any likelihood of real convergence is very small.

34. Terry K. said,

April 7, 2022 @ 12:53 pm

Seems to me whether all dialects are equal depends on the context. Like, if you are travelling the world, RP is likely to be better understood than Cockney, I would think. So, the two aren't equal. But that doesn't make features of Cockney wrong.

35. Marc-André Pelletier said,

April 7, 2022 @ 12:57 pm

@Philip Talor

I am very much _not_ making the point that "all dialects are equal" — if anything I am expounding on the fact that they very much are not. One is valued by the socioeconomic group that detains the power and is therefore declared by fiat to be the "correct" one, and the others are "incorrect", and thus explicitly or by implication "inferior".

What you call _the_ standard English I argue is no such thing. It happens to be the dialect spoken by the people that hold power and who wrote the books that are used to teach in schools, and that are imposed as "correct" to the students regardless of which socioeconomic group they belong to. And I should point out those groups aren't even the same depending on _where_ you received your education: I was thought to spell "colour", and that is the "correct" spelling. Because white european American English speakers have enough prestige, their variant "color" is gurdgingly accepted as a correct "variant" spelling.

That "we was" is deemed "incorrect" instead of "variant" has _nothing_ to do with linguistics, and everything do to with socioeconomic power dynamics.

Descriptivism simply notes, correctcly, that "in group X the usual form is Y; in group Y the usual form is Z". Prescriptivism weaponises those variations into value judgements.

36. Gregory Kusnick said,

April 7, 2022 @ 1:07 pm

If the claim is that "standard" English is correct because it's taught in schools and documented in prescriptivist manuals, all that says is that the people who control schools and printing presses get to decide what counts as "correct".

If on the other hand the claim is that it's taught in schools and documented in books because it's objectively correct in some sense, I would want to know where that standard of correctness comes from, if not simply from the fiat of the privileged classes who speak it.

37. Jarek Weckwerth said,

April 7, 2022 @ 1:31 pm

@Marc-André: I couldn't express this any more succinctly, thank you. I'm in complete agreement.

There may perhaps be one complication. At times, non-standard varieties may show patterns of simplification and regularization that are held in check by prescriptivist forces in standard varieties. For example, Australian English phonology has been described as a natural continuation of South-Eastern England features "without the shackles of RP". And it's very easy to portray simplification and regularization as "sloppiness" or "laziness". (But you can also portray them as making stuff more logical… cf. we was conned ;)

But then some people, e.g. Peter Trudgill, have argued that small, tightly-knit, isolated communities tend to preserve irregular patterns better… Is that an opposing force? Dunno…

38. Philip Taylor said,

April 7, 2022 @ 3:05 pm

Just one note/comment/correction — I did not refer to "_the_ standard English", simply to "standard English". What I would call "standard English" is standard British English; what an American (or an Australian, or a who-knows-where-ian) would call "standard English" is standard American English, or standard Australian English, or …

"_the_ standard English", if it ever existed, would have ceased to do so once the English-speaking colonies were established.

39. Marc-André Pelletier said,

April 7, 2022 @ 3:32 pm

@Philip Taylor

Sorry, I had not meant to put words in your mouth — when you said "English qua English" and "the rules of (standard) English" I thought it implied you meant that there was exactly one correct dialect which is why I used the definite article. :-)

But then, if there can be several, this beggars the question of what qualifies any specific dialect of English as "standard" — which circles back around my point that this is entirely about socioeconomic power dynamics and not linguistics.

40. Philip Taylor said,

April 7, 2022 @ 4:10 pm

No, even wearing my most prescriptivist hat, I could not claim that there is only one standard English, and that all variants thereof are lesser beasts. So I could not criticise an American for writing "I visited with my aunt" or "a couple weeks", even if I feel that he would be misguided so to do.

But unless and until someone can point me at a respected reference text, on a par with (say) Randolph Quirk's magisterial Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, in which it is stated categorically that the first person plural, past tense, of the verb "to be" is "was", I will continue to defend to the death my statement that "we was conned" is incorrect English.