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No one will ever pick up on this hyperbole
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Good Stuff: 8/29/08
Montreal: phonetics, purists, and even some terror...

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The usual post-election vocab lesson
Wednesday, November 5, 2008   10:10 AM

Bart: I am so sick of hearing about Lisa. Just because she's
doing a little better than me—

Marge: She's President of the United States!

Bart: President-*elect*.

Congrats to those of you who supported Obama. It's a giddy time for wonks and English geeks generally: we get to spend the next few months correcting President to the delightfully technical President-elect.

I don't see any U.S. newspapers using it, but there's an additional potential distinction, President-designate. Check out this 1976 entry from The American Political Dictionary:

Following the November popular election, the winning candidate is unofficially called the "President-designate" until the electors are able to ratify the people's choice. Under the Twentieth Amendment, the President-elect is sworn into office at noon on the twentieth day of January, and if the President-elect fails to quality at that time, the Vice President-elect then acts as President.

As Wikipedia points out, if the President-elect dies before being sworn in, then the Vice President–elect becomes President. If, however, the President-designate dies before being voted President-elect on December 15th, then the Electoral College could choose a different President-elect, and they are not required to choose the Vice President–designate.

Obviously the news outlets are just following the common usage of President-elect. For one thing, calling Obama President-designate might come off as the same sort of dog-whistle that mentioning the middle name Hussein is in some circles.

Still, odd that no copy editors have latched onto the December 15th date for "official" President-elect status; it seems like the sort of petty terminological minutia they usually enjoy.

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If you want to talk about minutiae, what about the fact that the day after the election is not always November 5th?

Ah yes! A rookie mistake on my part, not checking that date.

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No one will ever pick up on this hyperbole
Monday, September 22, 2008   1:29 PM

Speaking of signs, remember those guys who were fined for correcting a sign at the Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park?

Well, the promised "Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands" is up at the old Typo Eradication Advancement League website, and... does anyone else think it's a little snotty?

Sample quotes:

"It is absolutely egotistical for one to think that one can tell others how to spell."

"The act of vandalizing or damaging signs on the National Parks and public lands has a historic and archaeological impact that one cannot underestimate."

"Certain of the signs may have been put into place at the birth of the park, thus representing as intrinsic a part of its identity as any tree or canyon [sic!] within the park."

Moreover, the statement points out twice that "Altering signs without the permission of the owner is a crime!!" Without reading too much into it, I'll just observe that the old TEAL posts that I've seen always only used a single exclamation mark. So this is a little odd.

(I've been offline for a few days, and I see now that friend-of-the-blog Mighty Red Pen already wrote about this a few days ago. She too found TEAL's sudden embrace of orthographic radicalism more than a little surprising.)

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It was almost like they'd been taken over by anti-grammar vigilante zombies: "We.will.not.vandalize.National.Park.signs" gahhhhhhh.

I posit hidden government-run descriptivist re-education camps in unmapped areas of the American Southwest. Or in a secret base within Pikes Peak, the obvious headquarters for any organization that doesn't think spelling matters.

Sounds like a lost X-Files episode. Where are Mulder and Scully when we need them?

Not so much snotty as something that they had to write but don't for a minute believe (except maybe the crime part).

love is not Classic Short Ugg Boots easy thing.if they want to be together forever they Classic Cardy Ugg Boots should adopt each other.noone is perfect Classic Tall Ugg Boots.everyone have his own defect .
can't understand

movado watches
omega watches
oris watches
Panerai watches
Patek Philippe watches
Piaget watches
Rado watches
Tag Heuer watches
Tudor watches
U-boat watches
Vacheron Constantin watches
Rolex watches
Rolex Air-King watches
Rolex Datejust II watches

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 15, 2009 8:54 AM  

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Montreal: phonetics, purists, and even some terrorists
Wednesday, August 27, 2008   3:59 PM

One of my fellow roadtrippers was friends with a guy from Quebec, so on the second day of our stay in Montreal we met up with him at a local bar, where he taught us the swears (there's a cheatsheet somewhere, but basically Quebec hasn't made the switch from blasphemy to profanity, so tabernac (sp?) is one of the worst things you can say) and answered our other questions about Montreal.

I can't tell you how nice it was to finally find out what those little triangle marks were called: circumflexes. As Fred tells it, to convert French into québécois, you should pronounce every vowel as if it had a circumflex accent.

Who knows if that's correct. Since reading a post on Foreign Place Names over at Linguism, I've been terrified of French phonology:

For instance, of all the forty-odd phonemes of English, and the similar number in French, only two are identical in the two languages (and there may be small differences even here): /f/ and /m/. All the other sounds of the two languages have differences that contribute to the sound of a French accent in English, or an English accent in French.

After drinks (but also before yet more drinks), Fred took us on a walking tour of the city. He paused outside of a Second Cup to show us the tiny type that had made it into a Les cafés Second Cup.

As I understand it, the business name "Second Cup" is permissible under the Charter of the French Language, even if the predominant language on everything inside the building has to be French.

The "Les cafés" was added to some signs in 2000, after the French Self-Defence Brigade (a translation of the official name, I'm sure) attempted to firebomb three franchises in Montreal. And there were protests last year when the chain considered changing the name back to just "Second Cup."

Successful protests, as far as I could tell.

(Check out this post at Fagstein, the blog of a copy editor in Montreal, for a local's take on the Second Cup issue.)

Related: Montreal is also home to a strangely familiar coffeehouse chain called Café Starbucks Coffee.

We may have actually had drinks at McKibbin's, the Irish pub that was cited for decorating its interior with vintage English-only beer ads (my goodness!), but I wasn't paying attention so I can't be sure.

One article on that particular tempest in a teapot had some nice trivia at the end: a list of "other cases over the years that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language." Enjoy.

1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.

1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.

2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.

2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."

2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."

2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as they are known elsewhere in North America.

2007: About 50 people protest outside a Second Cup outlet to demonstrate against the words "Les cafés" being dropped from "Les cafés Second Cup" at some of the chain's outlets.

2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.

...And that's all I have to say about Canada at the moment. We now return to your regularly scheduled anti-prescriptivism.

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Pronouncing French vowels as if they had a circumflex doesn't make much sense, since it usually doesn't change the pronunciation. The mark typically indicates that the vowel was once followed by an [s] which went silent (compare English forest and French forêt or English castle and French château).

Huh. There seem to be some sound changes associated with the circumflex in French, but the Wikipedia article on the subject is daunting. Money quote: "Some circumflexes appear for no known reason."

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That's totally a word
Monday, August 4, 2008   12:02 PM

Erin McKean, the Internet's lexicographer-next-door, has a great guest column in Sunday's Boston Globe about what she calls "not a real word" apologia — i.e. caveats like "(if that's a word)" or "(is that a real word? LOL!)."

This has always bothered me. Unless you're actually talking about a string of letters that doesn't signify anything, it makes no sense to claim that something "isn't a word."

Alternatively, if you don't think that a word is "real" until it's appeared in the OED or the Official Scrabble Dictionary or the Google corpus, then I can see the sense of your argument, but I think you should know that you have an unusual definition of real.

(One that you won't find in any dictionary, I might add.)

The notion that a dictionary could be the arbiter of what words are "real" fascinates me. I understand that most people adopt this mindset thoughtlessly, but it would be cool to see some prescriptivism which took it seriously.

I imagine something like this:

Anyways, I found it odd that McKean took such a diplomatic stance, focusing on speakers uncertain of their own words when — as any good Grammar Warrior knows — claims that such-and-such "isn't a word" abound in pop-prescriptivism.

I could find examples elsewhere, but I'm going to pick on the folks at Everything Language and Grammar because they're professionals.


"Gonna is not a word; it's merely a verbal laziness of going to." [cite]

"I use ain't as an example because we should all know that it's not a word" [cite]

"As I like to say, irregardless is not a word regardless of its presence in the dictionary—period." [cite]

What they're really talking about here is whether a word is acceptable or appropriate or cromulent — not whether or not it's "a word, period." Frankly, this is sloppy writing, because I don't have any idea what "word" means here now. I don't think that they're trying to pretend to authority and rigor that their prescriptivism doesn't have, but I can't be certain.

In contrast, the post on doable strikes just the right tone:

"I'm not saying that this is not a word; however, just because something is a word doesn't mean that it's necessarily the best way to express yourself."

This is aptly put. Anyone is free to make the case against any word as a matter of taste — in fact, we did this just the other day at Editrix — and people might agree with you that this word is ugly because it mixes Latin and Greek or that that word is pointless because we already have a better one for the same thing or that my good friend irregardless is stupid because it has a redundant affix.

However. If you want to actually dismiss certain words as non-words, turn "I don't like that" into "that's wrong" — well, then I want a definition of real word that makes sense. And I want something deontological, so that I can figure out if a word is "real" even when you're not around.

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I like to tell peevologists that the ir- in irregardless is not a negative prefix but an augmentative one just like the in- in inflammable. (I mean, can you prove it ain't?) They don't even blink.

Playing a game of chicken with folk etymology... yes, this just might be the thrill I've been looking for.

It may be that ir-regard-less (dashes added for emphasis) has a valid separate meaning, in that negating a negation is cumbersome, but within the confines of debate sometimes philosophically valid. You negate my regard for a given concept (regardless) and I find that your negation is invalid, and negligible, so irregardless your specious argument, I continue to assert my position.

It is cumbersome English, but not illegal or illogical.

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My favorite prescriptivist is a talking dinosaur
Tuesday, May 13, 2008   3:27 PM

After downloading the Firefox add-on Long Titles 1.3 a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading through the Dinosaur Comics to see all the hilarious alt text I missed. I'm done with that now, but I brought you back a souvenir: five years' worth of language comics.

Loosely categorized! Whoo!

Words we hate comics

It's a disaster!

You heard me!

Men stereotypically leave the toilet seat up!

There are other words than "bitches"! Daaamn!

It is not a generic intensifier!

Words we love comics

For instance: the word "awful" (really bad) and the word "offal" (butchered entrails)!

Sorry, other word classes! I have a NEW girlfriend now!

Prescriptivism comics

So dumb!

Well, yeah!

And guys I wasn't even trying that hard!

FOR EXAMPLE: T-Rex is a pretty sweet dude because he's always so friggin' awesome!

RESOLUTION ONE: eat less chickens!

Man! I'll never have kids at this rate!

Okay! Our first letter comes from Jenn!

Cowboy hat dude got DECIMATED!

Guys! I am not alone in this!

(Pleonasm is the use of redundant, unnecessary words to express an idea!)

Etymology comics

However, this is not the case!

I also left a big tip, so as not to appear NIGGARDLY!



First: snake oil salesmen!

Linguistics-ish comics

This source says: DEFINITELY YES!

It's the coolest!

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"However, this is not the case" seems to imply that "man" is derived from Latin "humanus."

"Maybe ADJECTIVES wouldn't force us to have such conversations!" hehe he

Oh, how I love Dinosaur Comics. And I've realized that I never finished going through all the archives.

Also, I really like this Scrabble comic.

Hah. When I was in college "playing Scrabble" was often employed as a euphemism for "having sex."

nenu shudda shaakaahaarini - Telugu for "I am a pure vegetarian" heheh

Thanks for posting this. I forgot how much I like Dinosaur Comics.

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Oh non! Le point-virgule!
Friday, April 4, 2008   11:50 AM

A post today at World of words directed me to a Guardian article on the decline of the semicolon — in France!

I find it hard to get worked up about this, seeing as the semicolon was making headlines here in America as recently as last February. I mean, just last night I was trying to decide what color Semicolon Appreciation Society T-shirt to order.

If you scroll down towards the end of the story, however, you'll find that the Guardian has assembled some interesting quotes under the heading "An elegant pause — or merely a 'pretentious comma'?" Kudos to Jonathan Franzen for this one:

I love a good semicolon, but this sounds like one of those Literature is Dead! stories that the New York Times likes to run. I've never heard from a reader confused by one of my semicolons, and I don't remember ever throwing a book aside for being semicolon-free.

Also, since I blogged about the Eats, Shoots & Leaves Curse yesterday, I should note that another mention of her book has tempted fate. This time the problem is an extraneous, incorrect — dare I say bad? — comma:

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Thanks for the link. For what it's worth, I don't think the punctuation debate is particular new here (read: Europa) either. Still, good to know that the humble semicolon can still rouse passion. Good or bad!

Oh, and I emailed the Guardian about the errant comma you also spotted. No reply yet. Probably still checking their point-vigules.

Great blog by the way.

Hah, thanks.

I see that the Guardian hasn't silently corrected the story, so that comma will probably be there for good.

Not only is it a bad comma, but they apparently stole it from the following sentence. The horror!

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Alternatively: "You got Trussed!"
Thursday, April 3, 2008   8:58 AM

A little over a month after the NYT misspelled the book's title, the Eats, Shoots & Leaves Curse has struck again.

After leaving out a colon in the headline, the press release for Literally, the Best Language Book Ever: Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again begins with the observation that "Penguin Group (USA) created a sensation over punctuation with the release of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss..."

That would be Lynne Truss, actually. With apologies to Mighty Red Pen, here's a screenshot of the error:

As Word Wise so rightly observed: "you can no longer assume traditional spellings of names."

Check names and dates, people — this is basic stuff. Always check.

(Editosphere veterans will recognize the Eats, Shoots & Leaves Curse as a meta-manifestation of McKean's Law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error." No one is exempt.)

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I guess McKean's Law also explains the missing hyphen in the title of Truss's book.

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Prescriptivism's Greatest Assholes vol. 1
Wednesday, March 26, 2008   12:07 PM

Like all of God's children, prescriptivists can be assholes. Generally the worst offenders are also the worst-informed, but even they should know better than to correct someone's grammar in casual conversation or use [sic] for the purposes of evil. All the book-learnin' and mock-outrage in the world doesn't exempt you from common courtesy.

Today's prescriptivist asshole comes to us from Best Pic Ever:

Hey, do you want to be happy? Then stop being a dick. It really does work.

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National Grammar Day:
Readability is My God

Tuesday, March 4, 2008   10:28 AM

Outside the realm of comic books, the best arguments for prescriptivism are invariably pragmatic.

Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems like most grammatical prescriptions, even the crazy ones, came about because someone thought the text would be more readable that way. For example, even though the "avoid the passive voice" rule is much too blunt, it's true that "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive."

The novelty of the UChicago academic writing program was its extremely pragmatic approach: the intro course focused on things like subject continuity and sentence order. When pressed, one instructor told me that there was actually research behind all these new guidelines, proof they would make our writing more readable. It was hard to find fault with this purportedly scientific prescriptivism.

Editors have to consider other factors — correctness, conformity, veracity, elegance — but our fundamental concern is readability. We're there to make sure the text communicates its ideas effectively. That post about a National Clarity Day has it exactly right.

It's a shame that grammatical prescriptions don't always have much to do with readability. Dangling modifiers could trip up the reader, I can see that, but has ignorance of the which vs. that distinction ever done any harm?

(See also: Dryden's proscription of sentence-final prepositions, which is prettymuch completely ignored these days.)

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Pleased to make your acquaintance, I'm Mr. Unreadable.

I think it might be because I switched schools every year and missed ever doing the 5th/6th grade sentence diagramming phase of English education.

Now, that is also liberating, but the truth is you have to hear me to understand me, because it is basically all singing (e.g. tangents get their own pitch).

Would you look at my blog to see if you could make any suggestion for my improvement?

Hmm, I think if the writer is ignorant of the that/which distinction and the reader is not, then the writer's use of that and which might cause the reader to pause for a moment and lose the flow. In that sense it might affect readability.

The same would go for things like split infinitives – I have no problem with them, but I still try to avoid them where possible in the magazine I work for because some of our readership would take issue with them. The readers that don't have an issue with them presumably wouldn't mind either way.

So I am a pragmatic prescriptivist... I imagine most copy editors would fall into this category too.

Oh and Mr Unreadable - I had a quick look at your blog (the old movies one) and thought your writing was fine. I know professional writers whose writing is less clear.

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National Grammar Day: Prelude
  7:17 AM

Do you adore clean, correct sentences? Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe? We understand completely, and this is why the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and MSN Encarta have designated March 4, 2008 as National Grammar Day.

Today is National Grammar Day. John McIntyre was spotted wandering the streets yesterday in his camel-hair suit (seasonal), joyously proclaiming the impending Grammarocalypse. There were even rumors that four horsemen had been spotted...

Which is to say: count me among those who worry that this holiday will just empower would-be pedants.

I mean, obviously it will — "Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe?" is a clear appeal to the Princess and the Pea school of prescriptivism — but after today, will we have a better-informed public, or just more people acting like assholes because they know not to use the word irregardless?

For the most part, the posts so far from National Grammar Day partner blogs have given me some reason for optimism:

Grammar Girl provided good usage advice and pointed out some common misconceptions in Top 10 Language Myths.

At You Don't Say, McIntyre described his eventual realization that sloppy writing is not a moral failing and invited all of us to enjoy a Grammartini. I can definitely get behind that idea.

And Mighty Red Pen, after surveying the evolving Grammar Day controversy, wrote:

MRP is proud to be a National Grammar Day participating blog. As such, I intend to embrace the spirit of the day, which to me is to celebrate the joy and complexity of language, and our shared interest in it.

I'm too much of a language geek not to appreciate National Grammar Day, whatever my complaints about its specific focus. And I'd rather represent mystery shop editors and militant reactive grammarians and whatever else I am than pout on the sidelines.

So I'll be "liveblogging" throughout the day today (if I could make those scarequotes scarier, I would) until work picks up and/or I run out of stuff to post.

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The Annual Statement from the Association of Easily Confused Englishmen
Wednesday, December 12, 2007   4:22 PM

So the Plain English Campaign has announced the winner of this year's "Foot in Mouth" award for "a baffling comment by a public figure." As Language Log has noted numerous times, most damnably here, these people have fairly crummy opinions.

The winner this year is some former English soccer manager I've never heard of. His "baffling" quote?

"He is inexperienced, but he's experienced in terms of what he's been through."

I'll leave it to British soccer fans to decide whether this statement holds true, but my immediate and only interpretation of this out-of-context quote is that Wayne Rooney has two types of experience, and that McClaren is contrasting, for example, the time Rooney has spent playing professionally with what Rooney has accomplished in that time.

Even if this statement is a bit clunky — well, it's hardly the worst thing they could have found. See also: 2002 and 2003.

Still, judging from the press this is getting, the Plain English Campaign is having great success pretending to be very dense.

As Ray once said of The Cure: "They are really silly people! Stop listening to them!"

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Reactive spelling
Thursday, December 6, 2007   4:23 PM

I cringe whenever I see the phrase "common misspelling." Not because I'm an orthographic radical (though I suppose I am, in comparison to the general public), but because the misspelling in question is usually a perfectly acceptable-looking variant.

Last week Blogslot spotted a "very common misspelling" in USA Today: an article titled "Typos can lead you to imposter credit sites."

The preferred spelling is (of course?) impostor. And personally, I do prefer impostor, just as I prefer advisor to the uglier, less common, utterly abominable adviser. (Curse you AP!)

While I was able to find some good guidelines for telling -er words from -or words, there's no overriding logic at work here, just memorization and educated guesswork.

In this case we're talking about a very common misspelling indeed: imposter gets about 3/4 of the Google hits that impostor does. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says, "Impostor is the more common spelling, but imposter is also acceptable." And while my dictionary doesn't acknowledge imposter as a variant spelling, it does use this spelling in one of its entries.

Even if you think that the spelling imposter is "wrong," it's not obviously wrong.

The imposter spelling is less common, but it's nevertheless reasonable and well-attested. There are plenty of variant spellings that are, at worst, credible guesses. Contrast these with a more creative misspelling like impaustor: I don't think Joe Greengrocer should be ridiculed for using it, but it's WTF for me. Not because it's not in the original OED that Moses brought down from the mountain, but because it's so unfamiliar.

However, just to be clear: imposter is an error in that headline. A copy editor has a responsibility to catch nonstandard spellings, for conformity's sake if for no other reason, and the sin here is even greater if it was the copy editor who introduced this error. It's the idea that this is a matter of correct vs. incorrect spelling, rather than preferences and style, that I take issue with.

Regret the Error recently posted a correction that incorporated this irksome One Spelling To Rule Them All mindset. From the Chicago Tribune:

In the editorial "Spelling, 21st-Century style" on Tuesday, the wrong phrases were used to demonstrate how the Oxford University Press updated its dictionary. The phrases should have been "free rein" and the new entry "free reign" — not "rein in" and "reign in." Also, the dictionary includes some misspelled or misused words because they are so common or have a historical precedent, not because they are correct.

I'm no lexicographer, but I'm pretty sure that dictionaries don't include any words because they're correct. Though it'd be interesting to know what the prescriptivist source of objective Correct Spelling is, if even their dictionaries can betray them.

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Bruton-Simmonds on BBC Radio
Thursday, November 1, 2007   10:59 PM

I heard an interesting exchange today while listening to the BBC's Monday Radio Newspod podcast. At the very end of the program they had Ian Bruton-Simmonds of the Queen's English Society on to talk about a proposal to hire a "language advisor" for the BBC.

Prescriptivists may recognize Bruton-Simmonds as the author of Mend Your English; descriptivists might recall a Language Log post in which he was named ranter of the year for his lecture "A Criticism of Modern Linguistics with Suggestion for Improvement of English through the BBC." For what it's worth, the Queen's English Society website has a prescriptivist "Good English" page, but it's fairly reasonable-sounding stuff.

I don't agree with the proposal, even though I'd coincidentally come up with a similar idea earlier this week after attending an amateur poetry reading. There were dangling modifiers.

Still, this interview left me with mixed feelings. Bruton-Simmonds comes off as the sort of gentleman prescriptivist who's all too rare these days.

Here's a partial transcript:

Bruton-Simmonds: This isn't a matter of correcting mistakes of grammar or vocabulary; seasoned presenters don't make gross errors. Broadcasting journalists are often under more immediate pressure than press journalists. Most would welcome discreet advice in the network, I would suggest.

BBC: And you're saying there is a problem at the moment with vocabulary and with grammar?

Bruton-Simmonds: Yes.

BBC: Who on earth could you employ that could solve the problem?

Bruton-Simmonds: Very easy. There must be a language advisor sitting in Broadcast House. He must have at least the knowledge of English that I've got. And there are hundreds of people in Britain who surpass me. He would be—

BBC: But the problem isn't you, the problem is — me, for example — and since we are talking live, and we are, ad libbing, nobody sitting in Broadcasting House is going to be able to—

Bruton-Simmonds: But if you make a mistake — let us say you give a sentence that is, that can be improved. Even Shakespeare, if he was in your position, under that pressure, is going to make a mistake now and again. If the language advisor says to you, privately, "this sentence you said — here is a sentence better," at once you would say "thanks!"

BBC: You do know that we have millions of language advisors in the form of our listeners, who do contact us —

Bruton-Simmonds: They are a danger. A pedant can do a lot of damage, and they are the ones who get steamed up. You want somebody with real, heavy knowledge.

You could probably successfully attack what he's saying from either grammatico-political front, but there are some good sentiments here. I think we would all prefer to have more language advisors and fewer language police.


Wow, that "Criticism of Modern Linguistics" is really something. I've read it, but unfortunately I'm still not sure how "Applied Linguistics has had a baneful influence on education, and hence on society from top to bottom". This is probably because I never studied Latin, so my comprehension is impeded.

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Nonexistent problems abound
Thursday, October 25, 2007   11:18 AM

In one of the most famous (and most abused) sections of The Elements of Style, Strunk advises us to "omit needless words":

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Yesterday I edited a mystery shop report that was chock-full of very obvious pleonasms. Here are the two worst offenders:

There were no existing problems that needed to be resolved.

During the interaction she was pleasant and friendly while cashing out my voucher.

I saw about six different iterations of each of these sentences.

In this case, I'm going to have to side with Strunk. The dictate "omit needless words" sounds more sensible as the offenses against it become more egregious. See also: the Ten Commandments.

However, every word that doesn't "tell" isn't needless. The word that, for example, often doesn't tell you anything, so it follows that it could be omitted. Thusly:

This does not require the writer to make all his sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but every word should tell.

(Last month, Futility Closet presented a much more glaring example of Strunkian hypocrisy. Though as I observed then: maybe Strunk was joking?)

Obviously, some words are only there to add a bit of extra clarity to the sentence — and most of us are fine with that. In a poll I set up a while back, a majority of ACES forum members said they would write stated that instead of stated.

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Please, leave the prescriptivism to the professionals
Wednesday, October 10, 2007   1:03 PM

While I feel that the reactive grammar movement provides the ideal lens through which to view language on a day-to-day basis, as an editor and proofreader I have to concede the utility of a more strenuous prescriptivist approach. When the rules being followed are consistent and reality-based, measured doses of prescriptivism can help editors, writers, teachers, and (especially? occasionally?) readers.

However, unless your primary role in a given situation is to improve someone's writing or speech (or if you're with the rare sort of person who'd actually want you to correct them), you should reserve your helpful suggestions for the truly WTF. Prescriptivism can do a lot of damage when it gets out into the wild.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike mainstream, non-professional prescriptivism — the attitude many (probably most) educated American have towards language. It's vaguely classist. Its rules often have little basis in reality, especially when amateurs get involved. And then there's the absurdity of those prescriptivists who use their arbitrary set of rules as a general intelligence test.

(In defense of amateur prescriptists everywhere, I should point out that widespread belief in bogus rules like "you can't end a sentence with a preposition" and the appeals to the "one correct definition" or "the one correct pronunciation" are the result of a systematic failure to teach people how language actually works. This caveat was brought to you by Language Log.)

One problem with everyday prescriptivism that I don't think has been given enough attention is the way it paves over the charming quirks which make up our dialects and idiolects.

The prescriptivist mindset is widely assumed to be the default stance of anyone who's commenting on language, and so bringing attention to the fact that someone is talking or writing differently is automatically interpreted as a criticism.

Most people are self-conscious about how they express themselves, and most of the time they don't want how they speak or write to distract from what they're trying to say. A friend of mine came to college saying "abzurd" and "salza," but this derailed so many conversations that he started using the more standard, ho-hum pronunciations.

I'm friends with a Minnesotan who uses the /hw-/ cluster, and another who doubles words for emphasis (e.g. multiple multiple). And a lot of people I know have an overfondness for a handful of particular words.

I don't — can't — say anything about these wonderful peculiarities, because there's so much prescriptivism in the air. There's just no way to know beforehand whether or not these quirks are too delicate for sustained attention.

Not all language variety is good (I don't like Rachael Ray's idiolect, and I find a coworker's variant pronunciation of rhetoric really grating), but the boundaries of what we could say — without a loss in understanding, without prompting a double-take — are constrained by what mainstream prescriptivism says we should say.

However much it may inflate the exceptionalist egos of those devoted to its more obscure rules, however incoherent its dictates, however hypocritical its proponents, the primary goal of mainstream prescriptivism is still conformity.

Not with the largely invisible rules that dictate how the English language actually works, but rather with the prescriptivist: how he already writes, and how he already speaks.

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Videogame vs. video game
Monday, October 1, 2007   11:15 AM

I just finished slogging through a mediocre misconceived New York Times op-ed on the high-art status of videogames. One sentence in the first paragraph completely derailed me:

I am in a Halo haze, brought on by three days of marathon sessions with Halo 3, the video-game phenomenon of the year.

Is that hyphenation WTF for you?

At first, I didn't get what was going on: I was flabbergasted that the NYT would spell videogame with a hyphen.

Then I realized that they were spelling it video game. Like the AP, the NYT sometimes hyphenates compound modifiers before nouns to avoid potential confusion. This is the video-game phenomenon of the year, not just the year's biggest game phenomenon to make use of video.

For me, that awkward, ugly hyphen is probably the strongest case you can make for using videogame over video game. I'm also put off by sentences that start with Video game — with the space there, I'm expecting a verb after Video; it takes a split second to grasp that the subject of the sentence has changed.

(I prefer boardgame to board game, for the same aesthetic reasons.)

A quick Google search shows that the videogame vs. video game debate has been raging for some time, with the recent publication of the Videogame Style Guide adding considerable fuel to the fire.

Styleguides lend authority and consistency to your writing, but with one crucial caveat: you prettymuch have to follow the entire guide. So it's probably pretty frustrating to see a guide with so much good, necessary videogame style advice advocating a variant, less popular spelling of video game.

I'd imagine that proponents of video game are just as irked by videogame as I was (and still am) by the AP's preference for adviser over the much more common advisor.

The arguments used by the International Game Journalists Association — the group behind the Videogame Style Guide — don't help matters much. In their Videogame Style Guide FAQ, we're asked to accept two falsehoods: first, that exocentric compounds (i.e. "compound words where the meaning is not specified by any of the parts," like butterfly) get pushed together in American English, and second, that video game is an exocentric compound.

The first claim may be a general trend, but it's hardly a rule: Bradshaw of the Future supplies Maple Leaf, still life, and high brow. Off the top of my head, there's also Range Rover, pack rat, and Jucy Lucy [sic!].

As for the second claim... dudes, I'm looking right at it: video is modifying game.

The first article I found about this style choice was so contrary to my grammatico-political beliefs that I considered running it verbatim as an April Fool's Day gag. Sample:

In the introduction, there is a colon followed by a capital letter, for no apparent reason. I looked up the usage of colons in Strunk & White, just in case I was having some kind of memory lapse. I wasn't. It's not correct to use an uppercase letter there.

Much better was the response over at GameSetWatch, where Benj Edwards gives these and other spurious arguments a thorough fisking. There are some contentions, however, that I don't think he manages to refute: for example, the notion that we should follow the AP styleguide habit of writing most video words as runtogethers has a quirky sort of logic to it. Editors love eliminating exceptions, unless those exceptions can themselves be made into a rule.

Moreover, I remain sympathetic to the contention that 45 percent of Joystiq readers prefer videogame. It may be the less popular spelling variant, but it's a variant that emerged from within the gamer community, and it's there that it has most of its support. This styleguide is originating within that community, so while the IGJA might have been well-advised to wait until videogame was more widely accepted among gamers, they have no reason to follow the usage of the masses.

The masses, as readers of a certain age may recall, once referred to all videogame consoles as Nintendos.

(Video-game consoles, NYT?)

Edwards closes with some standard prescriptivist arguments, e.g. "any arbitrary change against the standard introduces unnecessary confusion" and "video games have been called 'video games' since the early 1970s, and there's no good reason to stop that trend."

He also asks — and to be fair, the IGJA kinda invited this question in their FAQ — "What are you trying to prove?"

I'm going to go ahead and say that most people are probably choosing the spelling that looks better, not trying to "prove" anything. My own preference is largely an aesthetic one. However, after reading through all the commentary on this, I think it's also clear that people on both sides can and will see an agenda in the presence or absence of a single space.

The writers behind the Videogame Style Guide no doubt knew the various connotations that people attach to these different spellings, and they probably anticipated many of the arguments against their unlikely choice. Nevertheless, for this styleguide they had to mandate one of the two options. I think they chose the right one, but I believe them when they say that they didn't make this decision lightly.

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Hi Dan,

1. Nice blog. I'm glad that I found you.

2. Doesn't Blogger do TrackBacks? Anyway, your post inspired me to author a response.

Thanks and take care,

Thanks Tim, your language enthusiasm remains "the tits." I've commented over at your blog, essentially just rehashing.

Trackbacks... long, boring explanation. But my language RSS feed collection is practically an all-seeing eye.

The NYT dictionary of choice is Webster's New World, which shows video game for the noun. Presumably the NYT stylemeisters do not feel a need to supersede that.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at October 3, 2007 11:15 AM  

I take language seriously and I don't appreciate being painted as an "April Fool's Day gag." I stand by my comments, and I don't see why you or anyone would disagree anyway. We really don't have cardgames or boardgames and videogames would be just as silly. It's been spelled "video game" for decades and there's no need to change it.


Sirlin - that April Fool's Day thing was an expression of the apparently extreme divide between our grammatico-political stances. For example, I would rarely if ever go to my copy of the Elements of Style to find out if something is "correct."

Your apparent attitude towards language reflects the mindset of most Americans, and I don't consider that position or the fact that you hold it ridiculous. As with "video game," many (even most) intelligent people agree with you.

However, given everything I've written here (especially the "Manifesto," which you're welcome to read if you care about grammar politics), my pretending to espouse such a view would be patently absurd.

I'm still very confused here. I'm American and America sucks, but neither of those things have much to do with anything here. I can go along with your manifesto, but I don't see what that has to do with this either.

I'm deep within the video game industry. I'm part of many different gaming circles, and I run the Evolution Fighting Game Championships, the biggest fighting game series anywhere in the world except for Japan's Super Battle Opera. I write for Game Developer Magazine and I wrote a book about competitive gaming. I have never seen any gamer in any of my circles ever use "videogame" even one time. It's also inconsistent with "card game" and "board game" as I said before. When I weigh these two possible spellings, I have nothing at all on the one hand, and everything I've ever seen on the other. So...why would we invent a new spelling? I must be missing something. Or is the claim that all the gamers I interact with are not representative and that a huge number of real people actually use "videogame"? If that's the claim, at least I'd know what the debate is, but I don't yet see any reason in favor of that spelling. That book with "videogame" in the title is the subject of many jokes because of it, further demonstrating the silliness of it.

Of course "video-game" would be even more jarring, so at least that's off the table (unless you're a writer for the New York Times).


I was responding to your concern about my earlier "April Fool's Day gag" comment. The point there wasn't your opinion on "video game" but instead the way you talked about grammar in making your case. I've changed the excerpt I used to better reflect the essence of my gripe. (In this case, contra Strunk, many people capitalize the first letter of a full sentence when it appears after a colon. It's AP style, for example.)

But on "video game": the argument that it's the most popular version is a good one, probably the best argument in its favor — but if you're actually claiming that a lot of gamers and gaming magazines don't use "videogame," then I suggest you go to Google, or any gaming website, and search the articles for "videogame." There are millions of results for "videogame" on Google, and thousands on IGN, Gamespot, and Gamespy. The Videogame Style Guide FAQ claims that 45 percent of respondents to a Joystiq poll support "videogame." It's still not the most common spelling, but it's quite common within any metric of "the community" that you want to use.

As my post makes clear, I'm not really persuaded by a lot of IGJA's arguments. My argument is two-fold:

1. This spelling variant is already in common usage.

2. I prefer the way "videogame" looks, especially since it will never acquire an ugly hyphen when modifying another noun. This could happen to "video game" in both AP and NYT style, and while I have very little against "video game," I hate "video-game."

Of course "video-game advantage" has to be hyphenated, just like "first-mover advantage". Are you going to tell us that all instances of "first mover" should become "firstmover" just so people won't use that "awkward, ugly" (but standard) hyphen? That's silly.

That would indeed be a silly thing to think. Obviously I'm not for turning all compound nouns into runtogethers, but videogame already has wide currency and — as the version that avoids the hyphen issue — I think it's aesthetically preferable to video game.

Wired Style put it nicely: "When in Doubt, Close It Up."

I had a debate with my copy editor for a book I am writing precisely on this issue. Very nice that to have found this blog entry. I am indeed going with videogames.

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Language also belongs to the snoots
Wednesday, September 5, 2007   8:17 PM

Commenting on the Manifesto, alienvoord opines that:

...I think this "complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage" you mention is a straw man. A real descriptive grammar is a description of usage, including what is used and not used in various social contexts. In other words, I think the descriptive approach is the third way.

So why don't I call myself a descriptivist?

I'll readily agree that the definition of descriptivism that I used is a straw man, and that few people are actually descriptivists in this "anything, anything you say goes" sense. This sense of descriptivism is used primarily by the people we call prescriptivists, for whom it functions rhetorically as the more troubling half of a good-crazy dichotomy.

I suspect that the specifics of reactive grammar might qualify it as a mere faction of the sort of descriptivism alienvoord is describing — but whether you call your third way descriptivism or you call it reactive grammar, it's clear that people like us aren't actually included in the prescriptivist framework.

It's not at all crazy to want descriptivism to match up with what opponents of prescriptivism actually believe. In certain contexts (e.g. linguistics departments, where it's a premise, not a stance), it's already the natural word to use, and not every prescriptivist uses the straw man definition.

However, within the grammatico-political discourse you might have to fight to redefine/reclaim the term. Descriptivism, real descriptivism, may be the third way, but it's still going to sound like the second.

When the snoots come, descriptivist is a liability.

(Isn't that clause chilling? "When the snoots come...")

So I prefer to leave the biased prescriptivism/descriptivism framework intact and say "I'm not either of those." Other people might not be so ready to abandon the good ship Descriptivism, and you can rest assured that they are fighting the good fight o'er larboard.


good post. so maybe I'm being unnecessarily prescriptive when I insist that the word "descriptive" doesn't mean what many people use it to mean.

All this Judean People's Front business aside, in actual practice there's probably no need to abandon the descriptivist label around prescriptivists: I'm being more than fair.

As long as you had a suitable reference source handy, you could always just tell a prescriptivist that yours is the only "correct" definition and proceed to prove it to them...

I found this page through languagehat and just wanted to say thanks for a great read and wonderfully reasonable presentation. Unfortunately, I can't seem to access any of the other blog posts or your Manifesto, etc. The other pages all time out for me, in both Firefox 2 and IE.
proud to be a pieriansipist

Hmm. I was getting the same thing, but republishing seems to have fixed it. Thanks.

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The defensive obviously in Tricked
Thursday, August 30, 2007   7:27 AM

I just finished reading Tricked, Alex Robinson's second graphic novel. I've already blogged about his previous (and IMHO superior) effort, Box Office Poison, because of its frequent, apparently intentional use of that runtogether-of-runtogethers, alot.

Whether this spelling reflected Robinson's personal opinion on the matter or was merely character-correct, it was still a bold choice.

I looked through Tricked twice (it's interesting how we no longer say scanned here) for instances of either a lot or alot. I didn't find anything, but on his blog, Robinson uses a lot.

Assuming that alot did reflect some descriptivist leanings, has this erstwhile People's Hero undergone a prescriptivist conversion? There's a quirk in Tricked that makes me suspect he has. Spoilers, ho!

Check out this deployment of obviously:

This happens several times in the book. A character will say something that has both an obvious, correct interpretion and an unlikely, yet still grammatically correct interpretation, and then make a point of how they can see both interpretations and are smart enough to go with the obvious, correct one.

Here's another example, in parentheses at the bottom:

This only happens about three or four times in the novel, but it's enough to stand out. I know that it's probably meant to be amusing... but there are a lot of ways to be amusing and this was an odd choice. Why would anyone think like this?

These characters seem to be constantly on guard against improbable but grammatical misinterpretations — putting aside deeper readings here, it really makes me wonder if Robinson had a bad experience with an overzealous editor. Something that might have left him with a copy editor's eye and this prophylactic tic.

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Please, tell them I fought bravely
Sunday, August 26, 2007   7:47 PM

So I was at the bar on Friday when an acquaintance stopped the conversation to correct my pronunciation of something — prettymuch exactly the situation I mention in the Manifesto. Drive-by prescriptivism!

The word, ironically enough, was pronunciation. I've said "pronounciation" for my entire life and that variant is common enough around here that I don't feel like I have to retrain myself to say it the "correct" way. As I've noted before, with this word I'm much more concerned with my occasional pronunciation spelling.

Still: shibboleths. I didn't know what to say, and not just because of the booze. How could I explain this front of the Grammar Wars to someone who'd done nothing more than wander onto the battlefield with a pointy object? I had the courage of my convictions, but not the requisite wherewithal.

Short story: I looked mighty foolish, but luckily not in front of anyone who realized exactly how foolish.

However, since this is bound to happen again with some other acquaintance — and because I'm still nursing my wounded pride — I've compiled a list of snappy and/or suitably baffling retorts, each of them short enough to remember even after a few beers:

1. You got what I meant, didn't you? (slur this, angrily)
2. Language is the people's!
3. Lots of people say that.
4. Psh, look it up (coward! this delays the conversation until you're sober, but will backfire spectacularly if someone has wi-fi).

1. There's no need to bring Strunk and White into this.
2. Well, have fun with that "rule" while you still can.
3. Psh, go back to [the 18th century / 19th century / 1934].
4. Verily!

1. Psh, you heard me.
2. Oh, that's not how we say it in [dialect area. your hometown?].
3. Whatever, it's not important. (roll your eyes for this one)
4. Sorry, did I pronoonce that wrong? (this isn't my idea, but I can't remember where it's from... McKean maybe?)

Note: that last one doesn't work if the word you're pronouncing incorrectly is pronunciation. Freaking shibboleths... what's wrong with us?

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Usually when some corrects me on pronunciation (which almost never happens) or grammar/word usage I say something like "No one asked you, you can leave/sit down now" if I'm feeling extremely childish.

However, what's better IMO (and obviously more mature), is to say "Mmm, I really don't care," and show the person that it genuinely does not matter to me. That really throws people off because most people just give in and apologize if they make a "mistake" in their grammar or pronunciation.

After I say that I don't care, I make an effort to use the word/grammar construction again =P

posted by Anonymous John at November 13, 2008 12:31 AM  

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Corks and clear heads
Wednesday, August 22, 2007   9:47 AM

Over at Bremer Sprachblog, there's an excellent post on Denglish that's also relevant here. My German is pretty rusty, but here's my attempt at a translation:

In the online edition of the St. Galler Tageblatt, there's a very nice interview with the Swiss writer and literature professor Urs Widmer. Here's an excerpt:

The language we use is full of Anglicisms. How far are you willing to accommodate Denglish?

Widmer: You know, my relationship to the language isn't a moralizing one. The language does what it does. And I watch what it does, and deploy that sometimes directly and straightforwardly, and sometimes with critical irony. But the language is always right. I'm against language wars, against complaints that too many English words are being used, too few French words, that we need to protect our dialect. I'm one of those people who floats upon the language like a cork, with a clear head.

I'm personally more suited to ranting, not profound observation, so I'm naturally pleased by Widmer's clear head (definitely read the whole interview!).

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Love in the Time of McKean's Law
Sunday, July 8, 2007   7:55 PM

Since this week's NYT "On Language" column is about a snoot's search for love, I should also mention that Epstein's rambling second sentence is full of stuff that her fellow snoots might object to:
One day, as a cure for a broken heart, a heart that had only barely survived a head-on collision with another heart, a heart just out of intensive care, bruised and limping and still shying at the sound of any traffic, I decided to go online to find distraction in the arms of other, virtual men and maybe, as a bonus, a suitable replacement for the one no longer in my life, to meet someone the normal way, as opposed to the archaic, anachronistic, so 1970s way I had met HIM — I'd had my skis (nearly) charmed off me at 10,000 feet by my instructor, who was trying, with a dribble of luck but gallons of patience, to teach me how to jump turn on telemark skis.

Faced with this sentence, a prescriptivist might ask some foolish questions:

Is a distinction being lost here between cure and heal? If heart is a flowery synecdoche for person, would we say "I got into a head-on collision with another person"? Are the men virtual, or just their arms? If the former, are you trying to find a replacement for the virtual man no longer in your life? Should the adjectival phrase so 1970s be hyphenated when it proceeds a noun? Why is nearly in parentheses? And can telemark not stand alone, or is there some reason why you wrote that you were (nearly) charmed off your skis while on your skis?

As for me, I don't particular care for the sentence, but I agree with the thrust of the article: in any real life situation that matters, grammar snob oneupsmanship is a fool's game. A fun one.

And yet...

What few people seem to realize is that it's also a game that nearly everyone can play; society functions as well as it does because most people confine themselves to WTF reactions and tolerate the rest of us. Epstein seems to have brushed up against the boundaries of that tolerance, and in toning it down I think it's clear that she made the right choice.

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The grammar muggles are actually even more generous than mere tolerance would suggest — they actually look to us as authorities in certain situations. I find it enormously gratifying that I can get some measure of respect for working with language(!) even from coworkers who would have little-to-no interest in my language geekery in its pure form.

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The whole system is breaking down!
Tuesday, June 12, 2007   11:10 AM

Most of us are aware that U.K. English uses different marks for some of the same purposes — J.L. Bell has hypothesized a "Great British Punctuation Shortage" — but lately I've been noticing something more complicated than the one-for-one symbol substitution of single quotes for double quotes.

I'm talking about usage differences, usually at the ideolect level, within the U.S. punctuation system, that reflect different correctness conditions.

I've run into a lot of interesting usage in my work as a QA grunt, stuff that's clearly correct for the writer but nevertheless WTF for me. For example, a lot of people think that you should end a paraphrased question with a question mark. It's part of my job to keep the clients insulated from all this wonderful variety.

The idea that even punctuation is subject to differing correctness condition was a bit of a shock for me, probably because I'm used to thinking of correctness condition differences as a product of the spoken dialect.

But I'd argue that it's hard to separate style suggestions from rules when dealing with common "errors" like the greengrocer's apostrophe, comma splice, and hyphen-as-dash. For a lot of people, our errors are their rules — they just don't have the usage guides to back their choices up.

Even language wonks can disagree. Last week another proofreader and I got into an argument over a sentence like this:

Please call me; I can help you make the best sandwich ever.

Personally, I find that usage of the semicolon not incorrect, but nevertheless offensive. I believe my exact words were "you used to be so pretty..."

I suggested replacing it with a colon, but the other proofreader insisted that colons don't work that way. She said she'd go semicolon, comma, dash, whereas my preference was colon, comma, semicolon, dash.

Luckily for me, she's a prescriptivist so all I had to do was find a textual authority that backed up my usage. I promptly did.

Looking back, I remember occasionally getting marked up in college for my generous use of em dashes. It would be interesting to known how much that had to do with correctness as opposed to aesthetics.

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Another look at Borrow vs. Lend
Tuesday, June 5, 2007   8:46 AM

One "correction" that always presses my cider is the enforcement of the borrow vs. lend distinction in spoken English.

In edited English: no, it's not allowed. The rules are irrational, but that's the game.

However, only very rarely in spoken English does the use of borrow to mean "to give someone something temporarily" create any actual confusion.

Mainly this is because it's clear from the context, but equally important is the fact that, for native speakers of English, certainly here in the Midwest if not elsewhere, the distinction between giving and receiving is never lost.

You borrowed a toothbrush.
You borrowed out a toothbrush.
You borrowed someone a toothbrush.
While I should note that for me, *You borrowed a toothbrush to him is still ungrammatical, the last two forms aren't. And unlike the first sentence, they clearly signal that you is not the one getting the toothbrush, either through the use of a preposition to change the meaning of the verb, or with a good old fashioned indirect object.

(I'm waiting for the day, a hundred years hence, when some schoolteacher chides a student with "You borrowed whom a toothbrush?")

What is usually the most convincing prescriptivist objection — that expanding the usage of one word will result in a useful distinction being lost — doesn't hold here, thanks to our good friend syntax.

Yet there will always be people out there who get annoyed at this use of borrow (my friend from New Jersey hateses its), even though they know deep down, in their Wernicke's area of Wernicke's areas, exactly what you mean.

The most they have is an aesthetic objection to what is an increasingly common usage.

They can safely be ignored.

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Wait, what did you — my leg!
Friday, May 18, 2007   8:15 PM

My correction of some affect/effect confusion got stetted by the client a few days ago. A little bit of my soul died.

Watching Planet Earth tonight, I was surprised to hear piranha pronounced like "peer-on-yah" instead of "per-ahn-uh." Apparently this is the "correct" pronunciation, and for what it's worth the guy seemed to be a local.

Still, I prefer Craig Ferguson's less snoot-y rationale:

Piranha fish. I like to say "piranya" instead of "piranha," because "piranya" is the way a Bond villain would say piranha fish. "Be careful of my 'piranya' fish, Mr. Bond."

I'm all for attempting to abide by older pronunciations if the word is a recent addition to English. But "per-ahn-uh" is already out there. I like it, and the Midwest won't look askance at me if I use it.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my pronunciations, trying to decide between variants on the basis of acceptability and elegance rather than imaginary notions of correctness.

(Picture me riding on my bike, ruminating on the possible advantages of "salza" over "salsa.")

Unfortunately, each of us is allowed to consider himself an expert on the English language. And we all have correctness conditions.

Unless you have a British accent, any perceived novelty in pronunciation runs the risk of generating a WTF reaction from your audience. I once got in a nasty, stilted argument with a German over the "correct" way to pronounce Achilles — because no sane American would pronounce it the classical Greek way.

(For their part, I've heard dozens of Germans, including an English-language teacher, refer to Arkansas as "Are-kansas.")

If a pronunciation I've chosen does stop a conversation cold, there's always the Dictionary Defense — which I'm loath to use for grammatico-political reasons. If anyone's interested, however, my dictionary recognizes four pronunciations for piranha.

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Well, in Proto-Indo-European...
Friday, May 4, 2007   10:40 AM

How do you pronounce ancillary? I doubt that I'd ever said the word aloud before yesterday, when I intervened in an argument about the "correct" pronunciation. I was asked for the "correct" — or to use a more palatable word, "proper" — pronunciation. After pointing out that both parties thought they were right, understood each other, and were unlikely to be alone in their pronunciation, I duly looked up the American Heritage entry.

The loser accepted the dictionary entry and conceded defeat.

(Today I found that the Columbia Guide to Standard American English mentions both pronunciations, and suddenly both were correct. The power of the written word!)

One of the parties involved continues to harbor the belief that the source of the word should indicate how we should pronounce it. His immediate question when I offered up the dual pronunciations today was "did they source it?"

I initially pictured a recording of President Clinton: "I'm Bill Clinton and I approve this pronunciation." But no, we're talking about etymology.

From a later conversation about "Ebonics", it seems like he harbors the belief, exceedingly common in the short term, that language degrades over time. As a copy editor I'm sympathetic to prescriptivist attempts to maintain useful distinctions, but this doesn't work for pronunciation. I don't know where you would stop in this system, certainly spelling pronunciations would be verboten, but how do you handle a silent E? What language is the original? Etc.

I'm reminded of a girl in high school who pronounced glacier "glay-sheer," using similar reasoning.

(This is one of the reasons why it's so refreshing to listen to BBC radio: there's an amazing variety of pronunciations and accents.)

We both agreed that there are pragmatic reasons for trying to find out the Standard American English pronunciation and use that, especially in professional settings. But it's the disgust with differing pronunciations that is the real problem, and I'm pretty sure I failed to convince either of the two parties to be more tolerant.

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(Within ten feet of this cube)
Tuesday, May 1, 2007   3:25 PM

While walking past my cubicle, a prescriptivist coworker of mine noted that "it would be nice if someone would actually put up a decoration that contains a complete sentence."

There was not a sentence fragment in sight, so I asked her what she meant and she pointed to my LANGUAGE IS THE PEOPLE'S picture.

"That's not a sentence."

"What? How is that not a sentence?"

"Because it begs the question. The people's what?"
"What? That is totally a sentence," I said. "I'm going to prove you wrong."

Also, I noted that she'd used begs the question wrong, not because she had — as far as I was concerned, she hadn't — but because... I have no idea now, probably to show that I could play her game.

(In hindsight, it was probably pretty petty to fight prescriptivism with prescriptivism like that.)

My coworker's initial claim seemed to be that you couldn't end a sentence with a possessive. The only reading she allowed herself was:

Language is [article for missing noun -->] [attributive possessive adjective -->] [missing noun] .

(Apparently an attributive adjective sidles right up to the noun and a predicate adjective proclaims itself through a verb.)

I can see where my coworker gets her version, but there's no reason to prefer a reading that results in an ungrammatical sentence when there's a logical alternative reading. I see this:

Language is [<--- predicate possessive adjectival phrase]

C.f. language is the shit. It almost doesn't matter that there is a possessive there, but you can also clearly end a sentence with a possessive. For example, with an absolute possessive pronoun, as in the nonsensical-but-grammatical language is hers. The AP styleguide also has punctuation guidelines for sentence-final possessives.

When I talked to my coworker later, she claimed that it was the word is that was the real problem, because you wouldn't say car is the people's. I gave a fumbling explanation, but got sidetracked into a discussion of the difference between a noun representing an abstract concept and a noun representing a finite object.

(Everyone should read Language Log's Plural, mass, collective post)

The bigger issue here is: how do we handle prescriptivists? If someone says that a non-WTF usage is Wrong, should I merely disagree? Argue? Spend an hour trying to learn grammatical terms? Preach?

If you're trying to live based on the real world, rather than an abstract set of rules and beliefs, how much can you disagree with people without coming off as a smarmyass? Does their attempting to impose their system on you change the rules of engagement? It's like being an atheist, but with Strunk as Jesus.


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A rogue copy editor's manifesto
Wednesday, April 18, 2007   9:20 AM

As outlined in the Language Log post "Everything is correct" versus "Nothing is relevant", there is a third way between a complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage and a slavish prescriptivist adherence to rules that often have no relation to how good, honest sentences are formed.

As I understand it, Reactive Grammar, a.k.a. WTF grammar, is about abiding by your own correctness conditions rather than usage guides. You can still make language mistakes, but if a sentence is clear and intelligible to both its speaker and its audience, then it doesn't matter if, say, it ends with a preposition. And why should it?

I'm currently employed by two different companies as a proofreader and quality assurance editor respectively, and in the past I spent a year as copy chief of our school newspaper and three years tutoring students on how to write effective essays. I've found that even if you're in a position where you have to enforce arbitrary rules like the AP styleguide's preference for adviser over advisor, there's no harm in knowing that language prescriptions like those in your usage guide are neither magic nor objectively "correct."

This knowledge can even help you to be less arrogant. There's no reason to look down on a writer for using which in a way which you wouldn't, especially when you find out that many other people have the same correctness conditions as that writer. You might recast a sentence with that sort of which in order to fit with internal style rules or promote clarity or satisfy the language cranks in your audience, but all that's about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.

There's also no reason to — as I often did in the past — stop a conversation to enforce a language "rule" when what the speaker said was completely intelligible to you. The latent classism in pointing out that "ain't isn't a word," or the fact that, yes it is, aren't the point. The point is that you are the people, the language is working for you, and if you didn't have some WTF reaction to how the speaker is talking, then there's no reason to bring Strunk and White into this. As they say, or should.

Lest we forget: Language belongs to the people.

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Thoroughly enjoyed this one. Especially the last paragraph and sentiment.

Frankly I was a bit shocked when I saw you'd made a pic that expressed something so close to my core beliefs.

Sadly, or rather, not, that wasn't me who made that image. That was my good friend at Though we work together at: I enjoy your work, keep it up!

I love you, I love you, I love you!

I, too, find myself between the prescriptivists and descriptivists. I got my M.A. in Linguistics some thirty years ago -- and now I write historical novels, which makes me ever mindful of the copy editor.

Kudos on a lovely site.

I agree, but I think this "complete descriptivist rejection of grammatical rules in the face of contrary usage" you mention is a straw man. A real descriptive grammar is a description of usage, including what is used and not used in various social contexts. In other words, I think the descriptive approach is the third way.

I responded to alienvoord's last comment here, and he's responded to my response there as well.

Essentially, I'm fine with the definition many actual descriptivists would use for "descriptivism," but the perjorated, straw-man sense of that term is common enough these days that I'm willing to accept a third label instead.

Descriptivists — as imagined by the prescriptivists — may not even exist, but it's still useful (and quick) to be able to say "no, I'm not one of those people; I have some correctness standard."

Glad I found your site! I posted about it here.

Yes, thanks. I was on lunchbreak when you posted, so I noticed prettymuch immediately.

Perhaps you've stumbled across them already, but if you like my site you might also be interested in the blogs Motivated Grammar and Arrant Pedantry.

Your Manifesto is capital work, and I've added it to my collection of links. Thanks for pointing out the third way so clearly.

"I am theory"
Siegbert Tarrasch when told his unorthodox chess plan went against theory.

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The case for prescriptivism
Saturday, April 14, 2007   1:52 PM

I posted this on my personal blog a while back, but it's too good not to x-post here. I hereby present "The Case for Prescriptivism," from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing comic (June 1984).

Swamp Thing presents the Spelling Monkey

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and they say Watchmen is his best work.

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Think reactive, not reactionary