Well, in Proto-Indo-European...  
Friday, May 4, 2007   9:40 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   2:25 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   8:20 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 perscriptivist 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 noweverybody.blogspot.com. Though we work together at: onegoodideaaday.blogspot.com. I enjoy your work, keep it up!

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The case for prescriptivism  
Saturday, April 14, 2007   12:52 PM

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

Swamp Thing presents the Spelling Monkey

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Think reactive, not reactionary

Previous Posts

The Hobbitification of America
Of points and picas
The "special assignment" plural apostrophe-S
Well, in Proto-Indo-European...
(Within ten feet of this cube)
Proximity misconjugation
And stoves will be called "kenmores"
Lies, damned lies, and etymologies
On mispelling

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