An essay for the language police

I’m not averse to making fun of erroneous language use; after all, I often post signs that I find humorously ungrammatical, and have criticized awkward and incorrect usage I’ve found elsewhere.  Where I draw the line, though, is when someone uses a language error to dismiss the entirety of what someone says.  That’s happened twice recently with my infelicitious use of the word “irregardless” (which is a word, by the way, just not standard usage).

Steve Pinker, who knows his onions about language, is, I think, writing a book about linguistics and learning to communicate in popular prose, and he should know what he’s talking about.  As far as I know, he’s pretty relaxed about language usage, and the other day tw–ted a reference to an article (I didn’t read the tw–t; someone sent it to me) that of course I was compelled to read.

Here’s his tweet, indicating that Steve agrees with its points:

Picture 1

And the article by Stamper, “A compromise: How to be a reasonable prescriptivist,” can be read on the website harm*less drudg*ery. Although I thought it was good, I wasn’t blown away by it.  I suppose it’s because the piece doesn’t really take a stand one way or the other, but says that one shouldn’t prohibit irregular usages, or police others who do so, but you can do that if the context is wrong.  I guess that’s a reasonable compromise, but I still have a gut feeling, probably based on the configuration of molecules in my brain, that some usages are simply wrong. The word “impactful,” for instance, grates on my brain like nails on a blackboard.

But Stamper’s essay is interesting and also funny. Here are her six steps to becoming a reasonable prescriptivist, with a few quotes (indented). (Stamper is an editor and lexicographer for the Merriam-Webster dictionaries.)

Step 1: Learn what prescriptivism and descriptivism really are.

Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s.  Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism.

. . . In fact, do everyone a favor and just stop talking about “descriptivists vs. prescriptivists.” It’s a false dichotomy that only works if you construct a nonexistent descriptivist straw man as a foil to your upstanding-citizen prescriptivist (or vice versa. Prescriptivists don’t have the corner on language nastiness).

I’m not sure how useful this advice is.  The problem really comes down to “should one give advice to others if you think they’re using words incorrectly?”; and “Is that advice dependent on the context?”

Step 2: Learn what dictionaries actually do.

Something that really burns my proverbial biscuits is the musty insistence that dictionaries are the guardians and gatekeepers of the language, and when we enter a word into the Most Sacred Tomes of Webster, we lend it legitimacy. We’re putting our Seal of Approval on its unchecked use, which will eventually kill English.

Apparently Stamper, who should know, sees dictionaries as records of language rather than authorities about what is inviolable.  (She has another essay on that topic.) I have no problem with that, except that some dictionaries are prescriptive in a way.  Earlier in the essay, Stamper notes that a good dictionary would include “irregardless” (!) but note that it is not accepted as standard English.

Step 3: Educate yourself

. . . buy some usage dictionaries. At least two, preferably four, written by both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Arrange them near your desk in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. There. Aren’t they nice? They are nice. NOW READ THEM.

Most modern usage dictionaries will give you a little historical overview of a contested use, and then will offer advice on how (or whether) to use it.  You will be surprised to discover that many thinking prescriptivists disagree in their advice, or pass judgment on uses that are so common, no one knows they are not supposed to be using that word that way (e.g., “above” as a noun, as in “all of the above”).  A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.

This is simply too much effort for me. So sue me.

Step 4: Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.   

My mother, bless her, claims that when I complete a task and holler “I’m done,” I am announcing to the room that I have reached a safe internal minimum temperature and hence will not give you trichinosis. “You’re done, are you? Should I stick a fork in you to make sure?”, she will tut. “You’re finished, not done.”

This reminds me of a story (which the Quote Investigator says is apocryphal:   There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.

The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”

Back to Stamper:

Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable. I can hurl citation after citation at it with my standard-issue Lexicographer’s Trebuchet, but a personal decision you make with and keep for yourself is inviolable. “I prefer to use ‘finished’ instead of ‘done’” is a statement that no thinking descriptivist will argue with, because you are not claiming it is a universal fact everyone should subscribe to. But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.

I tend to agree, though not necessarily with “unassailable.” You can assail somebody for using language that is either misleading, confusing, or simply harsh to the ear.  That’s why good writing is smooth, flowing, and mellifluous.  If somebody tells me that an action is “impactful,” I’m not sure exactly what she means.

Step 5: Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.

I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who feels  it is his life’s mission to let me know when I’ve used a word incorrectly. He will stop a conversation dead in its tracks to share with me that I didn’t pronounce “towards” right, or that I should stop saying “howdy” out here on the East Coast because it’s hickish. It’s not just that our conversations are stilted because I can’t finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it’s that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns. His experience becomes the standard for what is right and proper and good.  In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.

Remember that, dear reader, before you call out Professor Ceiling Cat for his ill-advised usage.  Above all, never preface your center-of-the-universe corrections with the phrase, “I don’t mean to be a nitpicker, but. . . ”  Of course you do!!

But this is good advice:

No thinking descriptivist is going to disagree with you when you say that certain words should not be used in certain contexts. But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era.  The best practices of written English have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Language is flexible; advice regarding its best use should be as well.

Step 6: Lighten up, Francis

Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate’”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?

The core question here is an existential, not a grammatical, one: why are you a prescriptivist? Perhaps you’re a professional editor and you need to uphold a style sheet that demands you subscribe to dusty old shibboleths (some of which you may adore). Perhaps you’re a writer and you don’t want to drive your editors crazy. Perhaps you feel that championing best practices makes for better reading and writing. Hell: maybe you just like following rules. Those are fine reasons for being a reasonable prescriptivist. But if you are a prescriptivist because it gives you a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which you can spit on the idiot masses below, then you are the sort of prescriptivist that is giving prescriptivism a bad name. Maybe take up yoga?

. . . The English language is not under attack by barbarians, and you are not her only hope. She’s taken pretty good care of herself, all things considered. Her best practices have always prevailed.  In short: be cordial, humble, and hopeful. It’s so much better than being miserable  and insufferable.

I tend to agree, although using “decimate” in its original sense, and knowing the difference between that and “destroy utterly,” is an interesting historical lesson.

The essay, then, seems to boil down to this: “Language is flexible, and don’t get all over someone for using a word in an ‘improper’ way.  There are no rules, even in dictionaries. That said, there are some contexts in which it makes sense to pay attention to language.”  That’s a lot shorter—though less entertaining—than Stamper’s essay.

I’m not trying to snuff out arguments about usage on this site. I think they’re fun, and I engage in them, too, as you’ve seen recently with my posts about ungrammatical signs. Still, let’s not take ourselves too seriously, and above all let’s not dismiss people’s entire argument simply because they use a word incorrectly. In fact, unless we’re specifically discussing language, why bother to point out someone’s “bad” usage?

That said, I despise the word “impactful,” and the words “gift” and “medal” when used as verbs. . .

364 Comments

  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Totally with you on “impactful”. I HATE that word. I’ve seen “gift” as a verb (as in “gifted”, I presume you mean) but “medal” as a verb? Never seen that, can’t think of a likely example.

    • bric
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Popular with sports journalists, as ‘She medalled in the high jump’ Also ‘podiumed'; pretty ugly eh?

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Ah, I pay zero attention to sports, so that explains my ignorance. But “medalled in the high jump” does sound familiar to me.

        “Podiumed”? Really? Is that one out there? Awful. But “impactful” is THE worst.

        • wildhog
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          “Personal best” is used as a verb too, and usually as an abbreviation: “She PBed in the 1500 meters.”

          I dont really know if the period is supposed to go inside or outside the quotation marks, so I alternate, knowing I’ll be right 50% of the time.

          • Barry Lyons
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

            Now you’re getting into the area of British punctuation, which I generally prefer.

            If you have a sentence that ends with a quoted word, the period goes outside the word: He said “definitely”. But if the entire sentence is a full quotation (as in a novel), the period would would go inside.

            Also, when the the Brits are listing a series of items that are surrounded by quotation marks the commas are placed outside the quote mark. I prefer that over the American style as well.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

              Crap on a cracker, I didn’t even know there were differences in punctuation.

              • Barry Lyons
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                Tracking back, I see that you used the British style at the end of this sentence you wrote a moment ago. So there you go.

                Nauseous or nauseated gets on my nerves for absolutely no good reason. Apple’s, “Think Different” induces a tourettes-like correction, “differently”.

            • Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              As well as persuading the Americans to adopt the far more rational British punctuation, could we also persuade them to drop the utterly ugly usages:

              “If you think that you’ve got another thinG coming” (ugh, ugh).

              And: “I could care less” (ugh, ugh, ugh).

              Distinguishing between “insure” and “ensure” can also be useful!

              • teacupoftheapocalypse
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

                I’m loving that. Or perhaps not.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                If you get rid of “you got another thing coming”, how are we supposed to rock out to Judas Priest?

              • Dan McPeek
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

                I have ensure in my frig.I mean ice box. Is frig a word? I am going to have some crap on a cracker (thank you Diana Mac) and wash it down, very quickly, with my ensure. Of that I’m surely sure. I’m leaving now.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

                Dan: “Fridge” is a word, and probably the one you’re looking for.

                “Frig” might be a word too, in the sense that a friggin’ idiot is (presumably) an idiot who likes to frig. But I don’t think that’s what you meant.

              • teacupoftheapocalypse
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

                ‘Frig’ is, indeed a real word, and does mean exactly the same as another four-letter word beginning with ‘f’. There is an old rugby song, ‘Good ship Venus’, whose chorus begins “Friggin’ in the riggin’…”. In my not inconsiderable experience, the lyrics tend to vary from one club to another. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Ship_Venus
                The song was also covered by The Sex Pistols and Anthrax, each with different lyrical content.

              • Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

                “Frig” is indeed rude sexual slang, but a Brit would interpret it not as meaning the same as that other F word so coyly referred to by teacup, but to mean “indulge in an autoerotic episode”. In fact in its original usage it was even more specific that: it refers to what people of the female persuasion are alleged to do when they are short of a much-needed sexual partner.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:15 am | Permalink

                Surely the American [re]frig[erator] is pronounced ‘fridge’, however it’s spelt. Whereas what the athletically adept crew of the good ship Venus got up to in the rigging is pronounced ‘frigg’.
                :)

              • teacupoftheapocalypse
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                And where is William Perry when you need him? :)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I think Canadians were probably taught the British style. I had a short career as an editor where we used the American style so who knows what happened to me in the end. It’s probably a combination.

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

                I, too, had no idea there were 2 different styles, but I do know about the Oxford comma:

                I think I have this right…cats, dogs, and pigs vs. cats, dogs and pigs. I prefer the former because the latter somehow groups the dogs, whoops, d*gs and p*gs in closer proximity to each other than to the cats…

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

                Indeed, I learned cats, dogs, and pigs but when I did editor work I was forced into cats, dogs and pigs. This to me makes it less clear but because of learning the latter, I tend to use that one now in my regular writing.

        • Marella
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

          The world of sports is largely populated with people whose main claim to fame is that could run faster, hit a ball further or possessed other physical talents to a greater extent that the general public, none of which have anything to do with getting an education, so I tend not to expect too much from them. My mother, who is very much a prescriptivist and loves sport, suffers grievously.

  2. Merilee
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Not to mention impact as a verb:-(

  3. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    “Gift” in German means poison. I’m sure there’s an etymological story behind this, but I’m too lazy to look it up. So sue me.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I actually had to read Jerry’s disdain for “gift” carefully because my mind started thinking of the German definition. :)

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Bonus info: “Gift” not only means poison in danish too, it also means married.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        That is hilarious.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          It has a certain irony to it.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            Or sincerity ;)

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

              :-)

          • cherrybombsim
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

            If you want irony, note that handcuffs are “esposas” in Spanish. (At least where I live. I dunno about that language they speak in Spain.)

      • Hempenstein
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Same in Swedish.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          Ja, exakt. :-)

    • darkwavepunk
      Posted September 2, 2013 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      I think the “Gift” to poison thing may come from older Germanic cultures. The rune X is Gyfu in old English and Norse which means gift. However expensive gifts used to be sometimes given as a social weapon essentially bankrupting the receiver as they were forced to reply in turn or face the accusation of slighting the giver. I believe the rune poem for Gyfu even alludes to this.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I loved this essay. One thing that drives me crazy is someone proclaiming something isn’t a word because it isn’t in the dictionary. My usual response is, “yes it is, I just used it in a sentence you understood, therefore it’s a word”.

    I also had someone tell me “exit” wasn’t a Latin word because it appears in the “English dictionary”.

    Finally, down with declining relative pronouns, “whom” must go and let’s bring back the double negative used for emphasis as it was in Middle English!

    • Robert
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      YES! Hear hear!

      Whom is a joke word to me personally. I intentionally use who sometimes to get a rise out of people who know I am a native speaker with a background and at a job where everyone expects I would be the one to use it properly.

      And double negatives FTW. Stupid Bisop Lowth trying to apply logic to language.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Nothing whatsoever wrong with a double negative, used well.

      • kirkgray
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, yeah.

      • teacupoftheapocalypse
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        Without double negatives, we would not have some of the best rock, blues and jazz lyrics from the last 100-odd years.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, we don’t need no education! :)

          • Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Gift, v. is to my ear usually used & quite OK when it relates to giving something for tax purposes.

    Otherwise, that anecdote always comes to mind when I hear someone use ‘surprising/ed’ the wrong way.

    & oh, how I miss Wm Safire. & Edwin Newman before him, too.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Pinker has a good explanation of ‘flyed’-not-‘flew’ in baseball [or was it Gould? no, I still recall the details pretty well, so it must have been clearly written]. It would appear that in legal/accounting contexts “gift” has been verbed in the same manner, and with the same validity.

      What constantly annoys me – not so much in blebsite comments, as in news stories presumably written by professional ‘journalists’ – is the inaccurate use of homophones: I can’t remember when I last saw led used as a past tense; the heavy grey metal has poisoned it, and it may already be dead.

      Their, they’re, said Yossarian (as Joseph Heller didn’t write).

  6. Alex Shuffell
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    The people that dislike the word irregardless I assume are the same people that don’t like the word guesstimate. Disliking these words were both Family guy jokes.

    As for language use I listen to Stephen Fry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

    • kirkgray
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I love this treatise.

      I must admit I often listen and read now looking for and relishing “sound sex.” Funny I didn’t even know it existed until Mr. Fry gave it a name for me.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      “The people THAT . . . ” (my capitalization).

      To channel George Carlin, I did not get the memo or email on “that.”

      Just curious, in what if any circumstances may one continue to say, “The people WHO . . . .”?

      I’m noticing more and more that in every day discource a flesh-and-blood human is referred to as a “that,” not a “who” or a “whom.”

      I suppose “that” it would streamline the English language to dispense with “who” and “whom” (and maybe even “which”) and use only “that” where such a pronoun is called for.

      However, to my mind a human “that” is a human “resource” or human “capital,” and represents the continued (subconscious – manipulated?) “objectification” of humans, who have an intrinsic worth independent of Masters of Mankind efforts to cast them merely and solely as “resources” and “capital.”

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        I seriously doubt that anybody’s going to complain very much if you go on saying “people who” as you were brought up to do.

        I can pretty much guarantee, however, that people who were brought up to say “people that” will continue to draw complaints from grammar curmudgeons who believe there’s only one Right Way to Speak. (See step 5 above.)

        Hardly seems fair, does it?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          I lazily say “that” when it should be “who” all the time.

      • Merilee
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Definitely people WHO!!!

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Nauseous or nauseated gets on my nerves for absolutely no good reason. Apple’s, “Think Different” induces a tourettes-like correction, “differently”.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Feeling nauseated about being asked to think different isn’t thinking different, it’s such a windows thing to do.

    • Nick
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I studied two or three “Improve your vocabulary” type books in prep for college entrance exams as a teen. For quite a long time after (some say, still), I was quite obnoxious. E.g. insisting that decimate mean what it originally meant, as in Jerry’s example.

      Thus when anyone said in my presence, “I’m nauseous!”, I’d say “No you’re not.” They would usually just give me a strange look and wander away shaking their heads.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I keep inner pedant at bay in circumstances like this and just correct in my head. I do this for decimate often. I only correct of the person is obnoxious or condescending because I consider it their comeuppance.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        ‘Thus when anyone said in my presence “I’m nauseous!”, I’d say “No you’re not.” ‘

        Awww, you’re just being charitably pedantic. If you were a cynic like me, you’d probably agree with them. ;)

    • NoJoy
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Although I also cringe at “Think Different”, I think it’s supposed to admit the interpretation “Think ‘Different'”.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Yes that’s how ivory to convince myself that it’s okay and try not to notice it isn’t “Think, ‘different'”.

    • Dalai Llama
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Flat adverbs actually have a strong historical backing, as it happens. However, they fell victim to overly sniffy grammarians (the kind who for some reason thought English should work just like Latin, despite the fact that this is, well, stupid) and consequently lost favour among speakers. They’re still not necessarily *wrong* though.

      http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/do-all-adverbs-end-ly?page=all

      http://www.dailywritingtips.com/flat-adverbs-are-flat-out-useful/

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t even know about these flat verbs. I gotta tell ya, not liking them. English has annoying rules.

        Also, I always say “lay” when it should be “lie”. :(

        • Marella
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

          WHY DO AMERICANS DO THIS!! It drives me crazy! Aaaarrrrghghghghgh. Cough, I will go and listen to Stephen Fry again and try and compose myself. :-S

          • Merilee
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

            Shouldn’t it be try TO…

            • Larry Gay
              Posted August 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              I’m with Merilee on this one.

        • teacupoftheapocalypse
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

          McDonalds has a lot to answer for.

      • Marella
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

        Fascinating links, thx.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      On the flip side, it bugs me when people say “I feel badly.” It makes it sound like they’re incompetent at feeling, when what they really mean is that the feeling they have is a bad one.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha I know it is odd. I would take “I feel bad” as when you do the act of feeling, you do it poorly.

        • Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

          “I feel bad” is lazy. Specify which bad emotion you are feeling: ill? ashamed? sorry? sad? “I feel bad” sounds like what a feckless teenager says in front of Judge Hatcher when patronisingly confronted with the results of its wrongdoing.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

            Reminds me of a tee shirt (in the days of my youth) which only very brave people would wear. It said “I FEEL GOOD” and then (in much smaller letters “Feel me”.

  8. JT
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I didn’t call you out on your use of “irregardless” as some others did, but I did notice it. I don’t think it took away from what you wrote at all, but that may only be because I have read enough of your writing to know that the content is usually of a high standard. However, there’s a reason why so many people correct their own typos and grammatical errors right after they post on here: because they know (or suspect)that it detracts from what they wrote and makes a bad impression. This is human nature. Most of your readers, Jerry, are well-educated and that means they will tend to be careful speakers of English. If they have learned to speak other, more inflected languages, they may be even less tolerant of grammatical errors than others. For example, anyone who learns German or Russian will have little tolerance for those who cannot figure out which case a pronoun should be in English.
    That being said, the word “irregardless” makes no sense on any level. The word is negated twice which means that you end up saying exactly the opposite of what you mean. This is a logical issue in the same way that in mathematics two negatives multiplied together make a positive. Such usage is not worth defending; rather, one should admit the error and move on.
    If getting your meaning across is all that matters then I’d say that usage is relatively unimportant. But many people have a deep love for language and care very much about the elegance of expression, diction, grammar, etc. The negligent butchery of English can be hard to take at times. It’s kind of like the mathematician who searches for the most elegant proof. Sure, anyone can cobble together a proof, but a proof of beauty, of elegance, is much more satisfying.
    By the way, Jerry, I think your writing is usually quite tasteful and elegant.

    • Robert
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      “That being said, the word “irregardless” makes no sense on any level.” The second someone understands what it means, it makes sense.

      Language is not an exercise in logic where 1+1 = 2 or two engatives make a positive.

      While your sentiment that people understand that non-standard usage can sometimes make a bad impression is correct, you seem to have completely missed the point of the post.

      On a distantly related note: often non-standard usage makes a bad impression simply as a matter of prejudice. Language (or rather, making judgments based on language usage) is one of the hidden (to most) ways that racism and other forms of prejudice manifest itself.

      • Nick
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        I love the word “engative”, and if it doesn’t have a definition it damn well should!

    • Gary W
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      That being said, the word “irregardless” makes no sense on any level. The word is negated twice which means that you end up saying exactly the opposite of what you mean.

      The use of double negatives for emphasis or agreement between elements is common in language. ne…pas is standard French, and according to Pinker double negatives were also common in Middle English. Just as there’s no real risk that I Can’t Get No Satisfaction would be misunderstood to mean I Can Get Satisfaction, there’s really no confusion about what irregardless means. At worst, the ir- is just redundant. I think your complaint here is a good example of the pedantry Pinker and others have discussed.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Pinker said that about double negatives? Cool! I learned from reading Chaucer and I’ve always secretly wondered if I was full of it when I talked about it – I now feel assured. :)

      • Moarscienceplz
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        “At worst, the ir- is just redundant.”
        Emotionally, I feel redundancies are really very unnecessary and superfluous.

        • merilee
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          Methinks this whole issue (pronounced ishue) needs to be escalated (a dreadful biz-speakism) to the Department of Redundancy Dept.

          All typos brought to you courtesy of my iPod

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      “(or suspect)that it detracts ”

      Ahem… you’re missing a space between the closing bracket and the word “that”….
      :]

      Prof. Ceiling Cat, may we please have amnesty from the language police on Caturdays?

      • Merilee
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Speaking of brackets…when I moved to Canuckland from The States, I noticed that people seem to call parentheses brackets here. In the US, I believe the plain rounded ones () are parentheses, and the square and the curly ones are brackets [], {}. Do the Brits use the Canuck model? I gave up and called them all brackets in my 20 years of teaching Math.

        • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s the *Canucks* who use the British model. :) When it comes to brackets, alas, I’m not a purist. I’ll often use the words “brackets” and “parentheses” interchangeably, and use “square/curly brackets” when I mean those.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

            Yes, me too and Canadian English is a combination of British & American. It’s annoying if you have to choose on a phone because there is no Canadian English option. So, we spell “realize” like Americans with the “z” not the “s” as in “realise”, we put the “u” in things like “colour”, we use American dates: mm-dd-yyy vs. British: dd-mm-yyyy and I just learned today that we also punctuate like the British.

            I’ve always used the terms brackets & parentheses interchangeably. Brackets is easier to say because “parentheses” as a “th” and has 4 syllables.

            And it’s the Republic of Soviet Canuckistan. :D

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              Oh and we tend not to say “wilst” or “learnt” which is more American.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                “whilst”

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                You mean Americans NOT saying whilst and learnt, I presume…
                One more minor quibble by this American who has been in Canada longer than in her original country: Why oh why do so many Canadians insist on pronouncing asphalt ASHphalt???? It ain’t spelled (or spelt – oh, wait, that’s a grain) ASHphalt. When I correct my students they say that asphalt sounds rude…ass-fault??
                Then I have occasionally resorted to “Just say no to crack” when their pants are worn too low…

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

                Canadians don’t say “whilst” or “learnt” either as we follow the American tradition here. It’s still an acceptable alternative, however as is spelling “realise”, etc.

                I have never heard anyone say “ashphalt” but maybe I’ve been exposed to too many Classicists who know it’s from the Greek, asphaltos (ἄσφαλτος). If you look up the etymology it will say it means, “not make fall” or something put I remember learning the word as “safe” (and indeed both translations are in my lexicon). I laughed when I learned the word because apparently asphalt is supposed to be safer for children on playgrounds than concrete, but I had many a goose egg on my forehead from falling on asphalt so maybe it did refer to how bitumen was made and not that safety story one of my Greek professors told me.

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                Interesting…I believe I have only heard ashphalt up here, and this from very well-educated folks (but possibly not in the classics…)

            • Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

              Yes, and ‘brackets’ is easier to spell and type. Oh, and to pronounce.

              When I was a kid, I was somewhat traumatized to hear the pronunciation “ashphalt”. I used to swear that they made the stinky stuff with ash in it! Otherwise, why else would they say it that way?! Even my dear ole dad who didn’t speak the Queen’s English pronounced it “asphalt”.

              I’m rather fond of the word ‘whilst’. It sounds poetic. :)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                I lived in a hick town so we called it tarmac :) I don’t know when I learned asphalt but I learned it properly or maybe I didn’t then learned Greek & corrected myself in my mind by revising history. I’ll test it out on my fellow Canadians at work & see what they say.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

                @Diana
                ‘tarmac’ is of course short for ‘tar-macadam’. MacAdam was a Scottish pioneer of road-building techniques and developed the modern method of road construction (which virtually all modern roads use, including gravel ones) of a fine waterproof top layer over coarser lower layers of stone. The ‘tar’ came later when tar (possibly coal tar?) was added to the top layer as a binder.

                Asphalt, on the other hand, is (or was originally) a natural product. Trinidad has a lake of it, hence the signs I saw in England as a kid ‘Trinidad Lake Asphalt’ which puzzled and fascinated me. Of course asphalt can be used on a tarmac road.

                More than you wanted to know…

          • merilee
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

            I knew that someone, most probably a Brit, would point out my backasswardness on that borrowing;-)

            • JT
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

              I’m a Canadian and I have to agree that the ASHphalt pronunciation is very common here.
              If I can add one thing about American pronunciation that bothers me: there is a tendency for many Americans to turn a short O into a short A. For example, the word dollar becomes DALLAR, and possible sounds like PASSIBLE. I once heard someone call it the Great Eastern Vowel Shift because it seems to be more pronounced in the eastern and mid-western states. Anyway, it sounds strange to my ears.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

                LOL the Dallar thing is only people from Buffalo & Tonawanda. :)

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

                Diana’s got that right!! Buffalo has a very distinct accent. Aaaaabsolutely fantaaastic.

            • MikeN
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

              Canadian here; “ashphalt” is certainly what I would say, and yes, “asphalt” sounds funny- do Americans really pronounce it that way?

              I would probably even spell it wrongly (flat adverb?) at first, then realize there are too many “h”s.

              Americans say “French fries” vs. “chips”,
              Brits say “chips” vs “crisps”.
              Whereas Canadians sensibly say “chips” vs “chips”.

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

                Honestly?

                I’ve never, ever, in my life, heard it pronounced “ashphalt,” and it’s never even occurred to me that that somebody might pronounce it that way.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

                Canadians *should* say it that way because that’s how it’s said. :)

                “ass” is in a lot of things, “assumption”, “assault” and no one worries about those words.

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

                But asphalt is NOT spelled ashphalt:-)~~

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

                I’d say fries unless I was having them with fish.

              • Marella
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

                Australians (all of us) pronounce asphalt “ashfelt”, don’t ask me why I have no idea.

        • Nick
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          I have close cousins in Victoria, BC, and I noticed only slight differences in pronunciation when visiting there: a tendency to say “aboot” for about (Scots heritage?); pronouncing “roof”, etc. to rhyme with “boot” rather than “tough”, like most of my American friends.

          When I was in Nova Scotia for 2 weeks, I remember some much more jarring (to my ear) pronunciations. The only one I can recall immediately is “fillum” for film (yeah, it was 1995 – before widespread use of digital cameras).

          • merilee
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

            My Scottish-way-back mother-out-law says fillum. Also De-troy-it for Detroit. I don’t think “one” hears as much oot and aboot anymore, but maybe I’m just used to it.

            Newfoundlanders have very colorful accents, somewhat similar to the Irish.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

          Of course, the parenthesis is the content between the brackets. Use of ‘parentheses’ for bits of typography is just ignorant, and everyone who does it should be disregarded, or possibly shot. :)

    • Gary W
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      For example, anyone who learns German or Russian will have little tolerance for those who cannot figure out which case a pronoun should be in English.

      Do you really think this is a problem? How often do you hear anyone say something like “I gave it to she” or “Us works for Microsoft?”

      Perhaps you’re referring to the “incorrect” use of who/whom. But that distinction is already pretty rare and is clearly on the way out. Hardly anyone says something like “Whom do I see about getting my car fixed?” They just say who for both subject and object. In fact, according to Pinker again, case distinctions in English have been eroding for centuries. And it’s happened to pronouns too. Nobody bothers with the ye/you distinction any more. It’s just you.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        We vs Us gets messed up a lot: It’s us (should be It’s we but that sounds funny). I and me gets screwed up because of being taught too simply as children. We think it’s nice to say “the wind blew joe, frank and I” but it should be “the wind blew joe, frank and me”.

      • Gary W
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        “It’s we” is archaic, which is why it sounds funny. It’s another example of the erosion of historical case distinctions, like ye/you and who/whom. Your second example involves pronoun case inside a conjunction. There’s no logical basis for insisting that the case of each pronoun in a conjunction has to match the case of the conjunction. We certainly don’t insist on that rule for grammatical number (we say “The people are Joe, Frank and me,” not “The peopleis Joe, Frank, and me”). So in your example there’s really no basis for claiming that “Joe, Frank and I” is incorrect usage. Again, Pinker discusses this in The Language Instinct.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          The I is incorrect because the pronoun. “I” when it is a direct or indirect object is “me”.

          • Merilee
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

            Someone doesn’t go with I so why would they go with Jim and I??? It’s clearly the object, so should be me. Jim’s just Jim…

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

              Yup!

              • MikeN
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                Hypercorrection- people remember getting yelled at for saying “Joe and me went to the store”, so they change it to “I” even when it is the object.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                Yes, they were taught a simple rule instead of why “me” is okay to use when it’s an object or indirect object. It wasn’t until I took other languages that I understood how English worked!

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

                So true about how other languages help understanding your/one’s own.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            I just explained why that isn’t true when the pronoun is inside a conjunction. Here’s Pinker:

            “… a conjunction has no head [a word that stands for the whole phrase]; it is not the same as any of its parts … So just because Me and Jennifer is a subject that requires subject case, it does not mean that Me is a subject that requires subject case … On grammatical grounds, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants.”

            • JT
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

              I’m not familiar with that quote from Pinker or the context, but pronouns in English (and every other Germanic language) have a case depending on how they function in a sentence. You can choose to ignore the pronoun case and say things like: “He asked John and I if we would stay.” The case of the first person pronoun is wrong, plain and simple. It does not affect understanding in this case but it can in others. Here’s an example:
              He loves her as much as I vs. He loves her as much as me.
              In this example the pronoun case changes the meaning completely.
              My point about learning another heavily inflected language is a simple one. Anyone who has learned German or Latin will agree with me when I say that once you have spent any time with these languages, you will never make a mistake again with an English pronoun. You will never say something like “Between you and I.”

              • JT
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

                Correction: First person should be first person singular in my example above so as not to confuse it with the fist person plural in the same sentence.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                +1

            • Gary W
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

              I’m not familiar with that quote from Pinker or the context, but pronouns in English (and every other Germanic language) have a case depending on how they function in a sentence.

              As I mentioned above, case distinctions in English have been eroding for centuries. When a feature of a language disappears, it probably means it isn’t serving an important purpose. Just because we continue to make case distinctions in certain pronouns doesn’t mean they are useful. As I said, the ye/you (actually, ye/you/thee/thou) distinction has completely disappeared, and who/whom is clearly moribund. I’d still like to know what supposed misuse you had in mind when you referred to “those who cannot figure out which case a pronoun should be in English.”

              You can choose to ignore the pronoun case and say things like: “He asked John and I if we would stay.” The case of the first person pronoun is wrong, plain and simple. It does not affect understanding in this case but it can in others. Here’s an example: He loves her as much as I vs. He loves her as much as me. In this example the pronoun case changes the meaning completely.

              But these are two very different types of usage. Your first example involves a pronoun in a conjunction. As I explained above (twice), insisting that the case of the pronoun must match the case of the conjunction is illogical. In this example, “John and I” works just as well as “John and me.” Your claim that “John and I” is “wrong” is simply without merit. Your rule is just an arbitrary restriction that serves no grammatical purpose.

              In your second example, the use of “I” is grammatically ambiguous. The sentence could mean either “He loves her as much as [he loves] I” or “He loves her as much as I [love her].” So in that example “me” would be clearer. But it would be clearer still to simply add the two extra words needed to remove any ambiguity about who loves who.

              • JT
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

                All due respect, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘John and I’ is wrong because pronouns in English inflect for case whether you like it or not. This is a fact. The verb ask is transitive, meaning that it takes an accusative pronoun. In English, that means we must choose “me” and not “I.” Do you not think that there is a grammatical distinction between “me” and “I”? There is indeed. One is a subject case pronoun and the other is an object case pronoun (we do not have a proper accusative and dative case in English anymore). This is all basic English grammar.

              • JT
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

                My second example is not at all ambiguous. Once again, the reason why it’s not ambiguous is because of the case of the pronouns.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

                All due respect, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. ‘John and I’ is wrong because pronouns in English inflect for case whether you like it or not.

                You’re the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Case inflection in English pronouns is inconsistent and changing. That’s why the ye/you distinction has disappeared entirely, who/whom is on its way out, and phrases like between you and I or John and me are are used so widely. Just because you don’t like this usage doesn’t mean it’s “wrong.”

                My second example is not at all ambiguous.

                Huh? “He loves her as much as I” is ambiguous in the way I described. “He loves her as much as you” is ambiguous in the same way.

            • Gary W
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

              I should add that, regarding your second example, “He loves her as much as you” suffers from the same problem of ambiguity as “He loves her as much as I.” Yet we no longer have separate second person pronouns for subject and object. In fact, we don’t even have separate pronouns for singular vs. plural. In all four cases, we use the word you. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any serious movement to bring back ye and thee.

              • JT
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the subject and object case for the pronoun “you” does not change but the others do, and it does matter. When you figure out what the two sentences I wrote mean, then you will have learned something about pronoun cases in English. There is absolutely no ambiguity; each sentence can mean only one thing.

              • Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

                The specific confusion between the meanings of “me” and “I” (I don’t care what you say, “I” is the subject and “me” is for object) reminds me of a discussion once over the sentence “Those are they”, in response to a question along the lines “Are these the ones you were talking about?”

                It was opined that “Those are they” sounded stilted and pompous, while the speaker could neither work out why nor conceive of a grammatically accurate alternative which was any less stilted. In the end it was agreed that the conventional response would be the vernacular and technically inaccurate “That’s them!”

              • Gary W
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the subject and object case for the pronoun “you” does not change but the others do

                Which is why your argument doesn’t make sense. You claim the I/me distinction is necessary to distinguish meaning. But there is no such distinction for the second person pronoun, because the same word, you, is used for both subject and object. If we don’t need case inflection for the second person pronoun, why do we need it for the first person pronoun?

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

                We do need inflection for second person pronouns, it just so happens that the same form is used for both inflections. It can be worse in other languages. For example, in German “sie” can mean both “she” or “they” depending on context (and conjugation of the verb). Also, German uses “uns” and “euch” for “us” and “you” for both the accusative and dative cases, but all the other pronuns in those cases are different. Languages are strange beasts with plenty of bizarre features. But English still does inflect its pronouns for case. In fact, many language professors who teach heavily inflected languages like Latin or German, will take the time to explain the case system in English pronouns in order to prepare them for the inflection nightmare they’re going to find in their studies of those languages.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                many language professors who teach heavily inflected languages like Latin or German, will take the time to explain the case system in English pronouns in order to prepare them for the inflection nightmare they’re going to find in their studies of those languages.

                You mean “inflection awesomeness” :)

              • merilee
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

                Right arm!! Outta state!!!

              • merilee
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

                I’m embarassed to admit that I had never heard the term “inflected” for what you do to pronouns in the different cases. I do still remember die, der, den, die for the plurals in the four cases auf deutsch, but never knew it was called inflection. Now I know;-)
                (I would have thunk(ed) that inflection referred only to pronunciation, but clearly I be’s wrong…)

                Reminds me of the one year I taught HS English near Berkeley in in the early 70s. Attempting to explain bad, worse, the worst when the kids were talking about the baddest dude around…context is everything!

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

                I should add that the case system in English no longer affects meaning except in a very few examples. In other more inflected languages the case system is much more important to understanding what’s being said. English relies very heavily on word order for meaning which simplifies things and makes our case system rather unimportant for understanding. This is kind of sad because it makes English far less flexible (at least syntactically) than other languages because of our very rigid word order and lack of inflection. Imagine what our great poets could have done with English if they had more syntactical freedom.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

                This is where you truly appreciate Cicero’s rhetorical abilities!

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                We do need inflection for second person pronouns, it just so happens that the same form is used for both inflections.

                Huh? An inflection is a different form of the pronoun. When the same word is used for both cases, there is no inflection. Your argument that we need the I/me inflection just doesn’t make sense given that there is no inflection for you.

                And for the reason I (and Pinker) explained, the argument that the rules of grammar require pronoun inflection inside a conjunction doesn’t make sense either. It’s not a matter of grammar, it’s just an arbitrary restriction on usage. You want people to follow a rule for the sake of following a rule, not because the rule serves any grammatical purpose.

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                Gary, we’re going around in circles here. Also, I don’t know what you mean by a “conjunction”. My understanding of a conjunction is that it is simply a connecting particle, a part of speech. “And” and “but” are conjunctions, for example. From what you’ve been saying here, I don’t think you understand what inflection means and what its importance is in Indo European languages. There is nothing arbitrary about inflection, it is essential to meaning in heavily inflected languages. In English, we use word order to convey meaning, so our language has lost much of its inflection in the past several hundred years. That being said, English still inflects its pronouns for case, and there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it.
                Here’s a few examples: The man killed the wolf.
                In this sentence we know that the man is the subject and the wolf is the object. How do we know this? Because of English convention which puts the subject before the object. As long as we don’t mess with word order, we know who’s killing whom.
                Let’s do it in German now.
                Der Mann tötet den Wolf.
                or
                Den Wolf tötet der Mann
                Notice that although the word order is different , any German will immediately know that the man is killing the wolf in both sentences. How do they know this? Because the article is inflected for case. They know that Wolf is functioning as an object because of its article which has declined. Word order is far less important in German and many other languages. The same thing applies to English except our articles and adjectives do not inflect (decline) anymore, but our pronouns still do. You might not like this, but it is a fact and there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it. English is a Germanic language, and along with Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, has lost much of its inflection, but some of it still remains! If you doubt this, try saying “Me hungry” the next time you go out to a restaurant. Your choice of pronoun is not arbitrary!

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                we’re going around in circles here.

                No, we’re not going in circles. You just keep ignoring the errors in your claims and arguments that I have pointed out.

                Also, I don’t know what you mean by a “conjunction”.

                A conjunction, in this context, is a phrase in which two or more words are joined, typically with the words “and,” “or,” or “but.” In your example, “John and I” is a conjunction.

                From what you’ve been saying here, I don’t think you understand what inflection means

                I understand perfectly well what it means. It’s an alternate form of a word. When there is no alternate form, as in the pronoun you, there is no inflection.

                There is nothing arbitrary about inflection

                I didn’t say there was. For the umpteenth time, what is arbitrary is your “rule” that a pronoun inside a conjunction must take the same case as the conjunction itself. Grammatically, your rule makes no sense. It’s just an arbitrary restriction on usage. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this now, but you keep ignoring it.

                I’ve also pointed out that case distinctions in English have been eroding for centuries and continue to erode today. This includes distinctions in pronouns. That’s why we no longer use the word “ye” as the subjective case for “you,” and why the who/whom distinction is mostly ignored, and why phrases like “between you and I” are so common. That means your claim that such usage is “wrong” makes no sense, either. But you keep ignoring this point too.

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                Gary, you are being pig-headed, and, a conjunction is a particle, a part of speech. John and I is NOT a conjunction, it is a noun phrase. “And” is a conjunction. “But” is a conjunction, etc. I’ve never heard of a conjunction as you seem to be using it and I’ve taken several linguistics courses in university.
                How on earth can a pronoun be INSIDE a conjunction? This makes no sense. Two pronouns can be LINKED by a conjunction. For example, John AND I, where “and” is the conjunction.
                ALL pronouns in English are inflected for case and number except the second person. This IS NOT my rule. This is basic English grammar.
                Let me repeat, a conjunction IS NOT a phrase, it is a particle.
                An inflection is not just another form of a word, it is a form which also changes meaning in some way.
                You write: “what is arbitrary is your “rule” that a pronoun inside a conjunction must take the same case as the conjunction itself.”
                WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN! I could not possibly have asserted what you claim I’ve asserted since I have no idea what you’re talking about.
                How can a pronoun be INSIDE a conjunction and how can a pronoun take “the same case” as conjunction? A conjunction HAS NO CASE. Again, a conjunction is a linking word.
                You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
                Finally, I know that case distinctions in English have eroded over time, but that in no way changes the fact that we STILL inflect our pronouns for case and number. You’ve noticed that the second person pronouns do not change anymore. Congratulations. The other do change. And by the way, most English speakers are uncomfortable with the fact that we no longer have a separate pronoun in the second person for plural. You can tell this by the tendency of many people to add something to the plural you to show that it’s plural (i.e. that it’s declined for number). Notice things like “you guys”, “y’all”,. “youse” or “youse guys”.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

                ALL pronouns in English are inflected for case and number except the second person. ALL pronouns in English are inflected for case and number except the second person. This IS NOT my rule.This is basic English grammar.

                Your “rule” that pronouns inside conjunctions must take the case of the conjunction is most definitely not “basic English grammar.” As I have patiently explained to you several times, your rule serves no grammatical purpose. It’s simply an arbitrary restriction. The phrase “between John and I” works just as well as “between John and me.”

                I know that case distinctions in English have eroded over time, but that in no way changes the fact that we STILL inflect our pronouns for case and number.

                No, we sometimes inflect some pronouns for case and number. We most certainly do not consistently inflect pronouns within conjunctions for case. That’s why people often say things like “between John and I” and “John and me are going to dinner.” There’s no grammatical basis for your insistence that such usage is “wrong.” It’s hardly even non-standard any more.

                You don’t have any actual argument to support your claim that phrases like “between John and I” are “wrong.” That’s why you keep going off on these irrelevant diversions and quibbles, to distract attention from the irrational nature of your “rule.” You simply don’t understand English grammar, either at the theoretical level or as used in practice. Read the Pinker quote again.

              • cherrybombsim
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

                I kid you not. When I took German classes in a Texas high school, the teacher explained to us that German has a “y’all” form of the verb.

              • Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

                “He loves you as much as I” is *not* ambiguous. It means “He loves you as much as I do.” “I” is the subject. Always. Otherwise you’re saying “He loves you as much as he loves I” which is much more apparently wrong.

                Your argument seems to be that if there are a whole bunch of confusing words in between the simply-grasped direct subject-verb-object juxtaposition, it’s too difficult for people of little brain to apply the rules of grammar and select the correct term, and it is better to pull the first thing that comes into one’s head: the rule the grade-school teacher drummed into you: “You don’t say: ‘Me and my friends went to the park’, you say ‘My friends and I went to the park’.” As this instruction is never followed up properly (although it probably is, but by that time the student’s mind is too occupied with thoughts of the opposite sex to pay any attention) this rule learned in kindergarten is never effectively updated.

                This is why so many conversations between adults sound like children playing the game of pretending to speak like adults.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                “He loves you as much as I” is *not* ambiguous. It means “He loves you as much as I do.”

                No, it could also mean “He loves you as much as he loves me.”

                English speakers abandoned case distinctions for the second person pronoun (ye/you/thee/thou) a long time ago. And they also abandoned case markers for regular nouns. There doesn’t seem to be any serious movement to bring back these archaic features of the language. So it seems unlikely that there’s a compelling reason to retain the I/me distinction. Perhaps that distinction survives (for now) simply through habit, or aesthetics. It’s certainly not observed consistently. People often say things like “John and me are going to dinner” or “She came between you and I.” It wouldn’t surprise me if a century from now the distinction had largely disappeared, and English speakers used one word for both cases, just as they do with “you” and “it.”

                Your argument seems to be that if there are a whole bunch of confusing words in between the simply-grasped direct subject-verb-object juxtaposition, it’s too difficult for people of little brain to apply the rules of grammar and select the correct term

                That’s not my argument at all. If you think it is, you have completely misunderstood my comments.

            • JT
              Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

              First of all, you need to explain what a “pronoun inside a conjunction” is. This makes no sense at all, and I think you are mistaken in what you believe a conjunction to be.
              Next, “Between John and I” is a prepositional phrase. When choosing which pronoun to use we select the appropriate one by figuring out how the pronoun is functioning in the sentence. Well, if we parse the sentence, we can see that, syntactically, “I” is functioning as the OBJECT of the preposition “between”. Are you following so far? Good. Since we STILL inflect most of our pronouns for case, we must choose the object case pronoun in the first person “me”.
              If you have a problem with this rule, then ignore it, but whatever you do, don’t try to become an editor. You could fight with him or her for all it’s worth and you’d still get fired. I didn’t make up this rule, but it is a rule nonetheless.
              I have explained e grammatical basis for this rule, you just haven’t been listening. And you still don’t have a bloody clue what a conjunction is.
              Here’s a little test. Say this sentence: She gave the book to John and I.
              Now, simply repeat the sentence and remove John. It would look like this: She gave the book to I.
              Is there anything wrong with that sentence? Not according to you, since pronoun cases are archaic rules that we can ignore. Removing the word John does not alter the syntax of the sentence at all, and yet, nobody would say She gave the book to I. Why not? English speakers have a feel for case even if they don’t really know how it works. You’re right that million upon millions of speakers disregard pronoun cases every day and don’t bat an eye while doing it. But the reason they ignore the case of pronouns is not because they think pronoun cases are arbitrary rules, it’s because they don’t know what the rule is in the first place. If pronoun cases didn’t matter then we’d be hearing things like Me went to the store. Pople know what the rule is instinctively, but they don’t apply it consistently. All I’m saying is that if you apply that rule consistently, you end up with Between you and me, and not between you and I.

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                Seriously, you need to tell me what you think a conjunction is. Type it into wikipedia and see what you come up with. I’m starting to think that you’re just jerking my chain here and you’re not serious at all.

              • JT
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

                I should mention that we also inflect nouns in English. We do it all the time. Examples:
                apple= subject/object case noun singular
                apples subject/object case plural
                apple’s= genitive case singular
                apples’= genitive case plural
                See, and you thought case was a bunch of arbitrary restrictions.
                All of language is arbitrary in a sense. We have agreed upon rules that allow us to communicate. If we all just decided to pick and choose which rules to keep and which to get rid of we’d end up failing to understand one another. Suppose I decide that there is no grammatical basis for the present tense of the verb “to be”. After all the Russians have gotten by just fine without it for hundreds of years. I could insist on saying I hungry and I no like you. No one would have any trouble understanding me at all. But I don’t do that because there are grammatical rules which we all tend to, more or less, abide by. These rules are really nothing more than convention. In the end, the masses of English speakers will shape the conventions over time, but as of this moment, we STILL inflect most pronouns in English for case. Everyone who speaks English inflects their pronouns whether they know it or not; but everyone does not do it consistently.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                Seriously, you need to tell me what you think a conjunction is.

                I already told you: A conjunction, in this context, is a phrase in which two or more words are joined, typically with the words “and,” “or,” or “but.” In your example, “John and I” is a conjunction.

                Next, “Between John and I” is a prepositional phrase. When choosing which pronoun to use we select the appropriate one by figuring out how the pronoun is functioning in the sentence. Well, if we parse the sentence, we can see that, syntactically, “I” is functioning as the OBJECT of the preposition “between”.

                This statement demonstrates yet again that you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. A pronoun takes the object case when it is the object of a verb. In the sentence “Jack came between John and I” the verb is “came” and the object of the verb is the phrase “John and I.” So it is “John and I” that takes object case. Not “I” (or “John”). A pronoun within the object can be any case you like. There is no grammatical requirement that it be the same case as the object. That’s just your arbitrary rule. “Jack came between John and I” works just as well as “Jack came between John and me.” That’s why people use phrases like “between you and I” so often. Your claim that this is the result of ignorance just demonstrates your own ignorance of people’s ability to distinguish useful rules of grammar from arbitrary restrictions.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

                These rules are really nothing more than convention. In the end, the masses of English speakers will shape the conventions over time, but as of this moment, we STILL inflect most pronouns in English for case.

                You must see the problem with your claim, because you’re now backpedaling furiously. You originally claimed that phrases like “between John and I” are “wrong, plain and simple.” Now you’re saying merely that they’re unconventional. So which is it: an outright error, or merely unconventional usage? Make up your mind.

                In fact, phrases like “between you and I” aren’t even particularly unconventional. They’re actually quite common. That’s why pedantic prescriptivists who don’t understand how language works and want people to blindly follow arbitrary rules of usage are so upset about them.

              • Dalai Llama
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                Gary, a conjunction is a joiny-word, not “a group of words joined together by a joiny-word”.

                What you are describing as a ‘conjunction’ is actually a noun clause – a group of words that, taken as a single unit, act as a noun.

                I have never heard the word ‘conjunction’ used in the way you use it, and I studied languages at university. Moreover, I cannot find any sources backing up your definition. A conjunction, according to pretty much everyone except you, is a word like ‘and’ or ‘but’ – not a group of words that happens to include a word like ‘and’ or ‘but’.

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjunction_(grammar)

                http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conjunction

                http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/conjunctions

              • Gary W
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                I have never heard the word ‘conjunction’ used in the way you use it,

                Here’s Pinker using it in that way: “probably no ‘grammatical error’ has received as much scorn as the ‘misuse’ of pronoun case inside conjunctions (phrases containing two elements joined by and or or).”

                Do you have anything to contribute on the substantive point at issue about pronoun case, or do you just want to quibble about the usage of “conjunction?”

              • Posted September 25, 2013 at 2:33 am | Permalink

                ” it’s because they don’t know what the rule is in the first place”

                Did those linguistics courses you took include a psycholinguistics course? Or even an introductory linguistics course that covered the definition of grammar? ALL grammatical knowledge that a native speaker possesses is unconscious, so it’s utter nonsense to speak of people reasoning about pronoun cases as if they think about it consciously. People do not use language this way at all.

                “Pople know what the rule is instinctively, but they don’t apply it consistently.”

                Grammatical knowledge is all “instinctive”, that is, it’s mental knowledge that is not conscious (it’s also an instinct meaning the ability to acquire a language at all is genetic). I’m calling bullshit on your claim of ever having taken a linguistics course in your life.

  9. Robert
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    So, about impactful. Two things I hope I can keep brief:

    1. “some usages are simply wrong. The word “impactful,” for instance, grates on my brain like nails on a blackboard”

    There are parallels here to theism/morality or any number of debates we engage in about authority.

    I actually agree with you that it can be wrong, and demonstrably so, but that will ALWAYS require context.

    There is no authority from on high (not even in languages or countries with academies that prescribe rules – much as they think they are, or thought they were anyways) that states what a particular string of sounds must mean.

    2. “If somebody tells me that an action is “impactful,” I’m not sure exactly what she means.” I actually find this a little hard to believe. Someone as well-educated as you or myself or any number of the readers here should be good at sussing out meaning from non-standard usages and combinations.

    Impact + ful = ?

    That’s not a guaranteed formula (after all, see point 1), but it’s something we apply naturally when hearing new words that are made up of smaller pieces we already understand.

    That said, it’s not like there aren’t already other words to fill that lexical space and that sometimes bugs me too – we already have influential and a number of other synonyms. But then, if you’re drawing a blank or really want to connect the idea to the root you have on the tip of your tongue, you’ll sometimes create a new, even if redundant, word.

    TLDR: I agree with your ultimate conclusion (never dismiss an argument out-of-hand because of poor usage). I did feel the two points above were worth commenting on.

  10. Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    If somebody tells me that an action is “impactful,” I’m not sure exactly what she means.

    Well, if we break it down, I think it means the action wasn’t burdened with excessive — or any — amounts of pact. To make sense of it I think that means it’s a treaty violation. But wouldn’t it be so much clearer to just phrase it that way, irregardlessistically speaking?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Paul S
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Last time I tried to speak irregardlessistically, I broke my tongue.

      • Gary W
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        I wish you would of learned to speak properly.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          :-)

        • Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:03 am | Permalink

          I would of learned you to speak proper.

          • Merilee
            Posted September 1, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

            I woulda learned you real good :-)

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      You’re divinely hilarious and witty, Ben!

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Where I draw the line, though, is when someone uses a language error to dismiss the entirety of what someone says.

    Too many commas.

    • Robert
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      My trouble when talking about language is my sarcasm-meter goes offline perhaps to spare it’s energy for my passion for nitpicking… I almost wrote a baffled reply wondering what was wrong with two commas.

      • Robert
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Oh noes, I have an apostrophe in a possessive its… please read as entirely invalid any and all of my arguments henceforthwith.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

          Done!

  12. Desnes Diev
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “This reminds me of a story (which the Quote Investigator says is apocryphal:”

    The same story exists in French with Émile Littré (the author of the “Dictionnaire de la langue française”) in place of N. Webster.

    Desnes Diev

    • Gordon
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      A quck google of “define osculate” results in an interesting range of options once you get down a few.

  13. Gary W
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a wonderful book about language. It includes a chapter in which he takes “language mavens” to task for being excessively fussy and prescriptivist.

    • Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

      Yes, well Pinker is not an authority. He has an opinion, and that is all. In return I would take Pinker to task for being a pompous fool. Which, again, is an opinion.

      • Gary W
        Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        On the contrary, Pinker is a very strong authority. He’s a distinguished academic psychologist specializing in the psychology of language and has published numerous papers on the subject, as well as two highly acclaimed popular science books, The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. His criticisms of the language mavens are not merely statements of opinion but tightly-argued critiques that draw on his extensive knowledge of linguistics, including his own original research.

        • Posted September 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

          If he *really* says what you claim he says, then he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.

          But back to the issue in hand.

          Your claim is that “I” and “me” are interchangeable and there is no reason to use one over the other. Your argument in favour of this is that “you” has no inflections.

          My claim is that while it is common to see both “me” and “I” used indiscriminately, whether for subject or object, and the usage merely based on the whim of the user, such indiscriminate usage is “incorrect” in that the person using it wrong shows himself or herself up to be ignorant (i.e. neither knowing nor caring about correctness of English).

          Your argument in favour of your point of view appears to be observation of the rubbish that gets spoken all around you. My reply to that argument is: go and stew in it, but DON’T presume to present your views as authoritative to people who know what they are talking about. Your egregious solecisms on this thread show you up to be an ignoramus.

          • Gary W
            Posted September 1, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

            Your claim is that “I” and “me” are interchangeable and there is no reason to use one over the other. Your argument in favour of this is that “you” has no inflections.

            I haven’t claimed there’s “no reason” at all to use one over the other, or that they are “interchangeable” in current usage. What I said is that there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to retain the distinction, given the general erosion of case distinctions in English, including the abandonment of case distinction in pronouns like ye/you and who/whom. If you think there is a compelling reason to keep the I/me distinction, what is that reason?

            My claim is that while it is common to see both “me” and “I” used indiscriminately, whether for subject or object, and the usage merely based on the whim of the user, such indiscriminate usage is “incorrect” in that the person using it wrong shows himself or herself up to be ignorant

            What is your evidence for these claims?

  14. Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Well, this is not a war, indeed. Maybe we could understand it this way:

    * Descriptivists are scientists (called linguists, in fact), whose job is not to prescribe how to speak, but to observe and study how humanity uses language (and where it came from, how it changes, etc.). The prescriptivist ramblings or reasonable advice are part of the object studied by linguistics. The fact that some usages create a reaction as strong as nails in a blackboard, as stated by you, is something interesting to a linguist.
    * Prescriptivists come in all sizes and forms, from “secular” non-linguist people who simply state etiquette rules about language use, to quasi-religious folks who find language to be a sacred demigod (or even a God, period) who must be respect — these people will disparage you and propose prison sentences to those who don’t use the prescriptivist rules they find essential to preserve the dignity of their god.

    Now, a person can be a descriptivist in their professional life and a prescriptivist when hanging out with their friends, just like a scientist can be a religious person. How much this is reasonable is something to be discussed. It may be cognitive dissonance, or descriptivism and prescriptivism (in a non-fundamentalist form, of course) may be compatible.

    A final note: writing well is seldom a question of following prescriptivists advice. It is in fact a much more difficult endeavor. If it all boiled down to following simple rules as “do not split infinitives, please”, it would be so easy.

    As a non-native English speaker, I can attest that learning those rules is easy. Everything else is awfully difficult.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      I love to gratuitously split infinitives any time I can. Though I do like to have some justification for it, such as, it sounds more awkward the ‘correct’ way.

      (One thing I’m finding about French is that, though they have grammatical rules galore, it seems they will instantly make an exception to any rule if it sounds better when said the other way.)

      • Dalai Llama
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Never feel bad about split infinitives – the rule is an artificial one anyway, invented by grammarians who thought English should follow Latin rules. Since you can’t split an infinitive in Latin, they figured, you shouldn’t be allowed to in English either. Never mind the fact that in Latin the infinitive takes the form of a single word whereas in English it’s two… *facepalm*

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          Exactly, our language makes an infinitive in two parts and it sounds silly sometimes to keep them together! To boldly go, I say! :) My inner pedant recognizes my split infinitives but my practical self says screw it!

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

            Exactly!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:26 am | Permalink

            To boldly split infinitives no man has split before…

  15. Rauha
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    As a native speaker of a language other than English, these sorts of things puzzle me.

    English is such a mongrel language. You have:

    A. The original Anglo-Saxons who spoke a perfectly reasonable Germanic language.

    B. The French people (who will become important once we get to C.), whose language is basically what you get when a Germanic people (franks) try to speak Latin

    C. Norman-French, which is what you get when a Germanic people (old Norse/Vikings) try speak a language formed when an another Germanic people try to speak Latin.

    Now you do A + B, which equals middle-English, also known as a “already rather insane Germanic language, but still rather sensible compared to things to come”.

    Then you get that whole middle-English mutating and forming strange germanic + romance vocalbury, silent letters, letters that have varying pronunciation, medieval clerks dropping lots of really useful parts of the old alphabet, early modern era clerks deciding that understandable and phonetic spelling is totally over rated, both the British and the American empires spreading this weird thing around the globe and the whole thing becoming even crazier as it spreads. The end result is that the world is stuck with a lingua franca, that is both queerly strange and interesting, yet one of the worst possible languages to have as a common language.

    Why anyone would try to make sense out of it- or argue for a proper usage- is completely beyond my understanding. I just watch Hollywood movies and write the the language I learn from them. F anything beyond that.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      English also always had its dialects in England. Northern Middle English is harder to understand than London Middle English for example.

      Then the printing press decided to standardize on one form and didn’t keep up with pronunciation changes so “knight” was pronounced as it is spelled in Middle English but as its pronunciation changed, its spelling did not.

      • Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        “Caniguhit”?

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          Canicht is closer I think but I suck at onomatopoeia

          • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

            Damn. I was trying for funny….

            b&

        • Pete Moulton
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          Pretty close, Ben. You must’ve been watching “Holy Grail” recently. LOL

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            Listening to Terry Jones read Middle English is a treat! I have an audio book where he reads Chaucer and it’s very nice (if you’re a geek like that and like Middle English pronunciation).

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      I take it you mean, “A + C, which equals middle-English”?

      /@

    • Marella
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      You forgot the Celts. Some of the weirdest things about English, such as sentences like, “Are you going to go to the zoo?” Are derived from Celtic. Very few languages use “going to” in this fashion.

      • Merilee
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Je vais aller au zoo….

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        French does. “Allez-vous aller au zoo”.
        It’s almost the exact same construction. Maybe they got it from Celtic too?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

          If I were to guess, I’d say this is an Indo-European construction. I think all the IE languages I know use it.

          • Robert
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

            Portuguese and Spanish use similar constructions too.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:07 am | Permalink

            The statement form is *exactly* the same in English or French. I find this remarkable. Almost disconcerting.
            Je vais aller au zoo
            I / am going / to go / to the / zoo

            (In the question form, both word orders change a little so they’re no longer identical.)

  16. JBlilie
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    If you use language poorly, you risk being misunderstood.

    You also may reveal yourself as a fool (or as lazy or careless).

    And: Languages change, hence the bushy families of languages, analogous to the tree of life. To fly in the face of that is a fool’s errand.

    So, somewhere in the middle lies a compromise. I guess everyone finds their own spot to stand. Since that’s the case, best not to get too worked up about it.

    Really: If someone is using language poorly, they are going to look bad to others: It has a natural consequence.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Really: If someone is using language poorly, they are going to look bad to others: It has a natural consequence.

      While I appreciate an honest and heartfelt correction, I think it depends on the error. If it doesn’t take anything away from the meaning of the message, then I think it often is counterproductive.

      I’ve seen plenty of discussions derailed by an unnecessary focus on a small detail.

      Of course it also depends on the delivery of the correction.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Concur. It is occasionally quite obvious what the poster is saying, and does not require pole-vaulting a pismire.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      As a professor of literature and writing, I have a list of words and phrases, compiled over the years, that have shown a grammatical evolution, one that grates mightily upon me. In your post you write: ‘If someone. . . they are, etc.’ At sometime, while I wasn’t looking, singular indefinite pronouns became plural. Not that my strong preference makes any difference to the world of the English language. Still, for me to conform to the new usage is a personal impossibility: I therefore continue to say and write ‘someone. . . she.’

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        If you read the comments on Stamper’s blog you’ll learn that this “new” usage of singular they dates back to Chaucer.

        • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          And we all use singular “you” quite happily (to the dismay of neglected “thou”).

          /@

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            Interestingly, I have worked with native Orcadians who use “thou” (pronounced thoo) as the singular for “you” all the time. It made me think that this was probably the original pronunciation, since it rhymes with “you”.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Chalk it up to no acceptable neuter singular. One sounds odd in many circumstances and he/she becomes tedious. If we had an equivalent to the French “on” we’d be set.

        • Filippo
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          Isn’t the French “on” our “one,” the impersonal third-person singular? (Comme-di-t-on en Francaise,” if I correctly recall – “How does one say in French”. Adding the “t” after the “i” of “di” because for some reason one needs a consonant before the subsequent “o” of “on” to facilitate pronunciation?)

          Instead of she/he, how about “s/he”? I tried that once with an education prof. She wouldn’t have anythang to do with it, insisting on “he or she” (“she or he” 50% of the time?).

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

            Yes I was going to wrote somethi.g about “one” but “one” comes off as strange if used in some circumstances.

            • Filippo
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              So, how does “one” ( ;) ) know when “one” is in such a “strange” situation. Whey “ones” antagonist merely says so?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                I think the quote from the original start to this thread is a good example.

              • Filippo
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                OK,

                There should be a question mark after “situation.” And it’s “When,” not “Whey,” for crying out loud.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

              +1

              ‘on’ is fine in French. The equivalent ‘one’ in English is correct and would be very useful, unfortunately one can’t use it in one’s everyday conversation without one being uncomfortably aware that one is sounding pretentious or stilted, and even risking persons quietly laughing at one.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

                Actually I find “one” to be perfectly serviceable and use it routinely in such expressions as “One can’t help wondering,” “It makes one feel proud,” “How does one go about getting service,” and so on.

                One wishes more people would embrace it.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

                In those cases, you can also say “you”.

                Unrelated to this, English doesn’t have a plural “you” so I purposely say “yous” to punish English! :)

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

                What? No plural “you” in English? Y’all ain’t from around here, are you?

                Even outside the South, “you all” is a very common form of the plural “you.”

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

                You mean, “y’all” :)

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

                And then there’s the plural: all y’all

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                Not to mention “you guys”, applied equally to groups of either (or mixed) sex.

              • Robert
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

                I use the impersonal you and I honestly don’t know if many people understand it when I do these days.

                And y’all is very useful. Dialects with it are superior to dialects without it ;)

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                @Gregory
                “Actually I find “one” to be perfectly serviceable and use it routinely in such expressions as “One can’t help wondering,” “It makes one feel proud,” “How does one go about getting service,” and so on.
                One wishes more people would embrace it.”

                Yes BUT…
                all your examples are short phrases that start with ‘one’, in which case you can usually get away with it. But it rapidly becomes awkward if persisted with – take my example:
                “unfortunately one can’t use it in one’s everyday conversation without one being uncomfortably aware that one is sounding pretentious or stilted, and even risking persons quietly laughing at one.”
                Now try that with ‘you':
                “unfortunately you can’t use it in your everyday conversation without your being uncomfortably aware that you’re sounding pretentious or stilted, and even risking persons quietly laughing at you”.
                I think that sounds much more fluent and natural.

              • Filippo
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

                Fine, so long as the one to whom one is directing that comment is not so literal-minded as to believe that the “you” is the one to whom one is directing that comment.

                Of course, how can one be sure that “you” doesn’t actually mean “one” but rather you?

                Shall one preface his comments with, “Unless I say otherwise, by ‘you’ I mean the third impersonal singular, ‘one,’ just in case you think that the comment is directed to (“at”?) you personally”?

                “One never knows.”
                “I suppose so, whoever that may be.”

                “You never know.”
                “Really? How do you know that I never know?”

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

                @Robert
                “I use the impersonal you and I honestly don’t know if many people understand it when I do these days.”
                Not sure what you mean there. Do you mean they assume the ‘you’ apples to them personally? I think possibly the stressing of the word when spoken may influence it – if you stress the ‘you’ then it sounds like you do mean them personally.

                “And y’all is very useful. Dialects with it are superior to dialects without it” I agree, I’d find ‘y’all’ very useful, if only it didn’t make me sound like a wannabe-hillbilly every time I used it. ;)

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

                I like “yous” because it makes an ersatz plural of “you” which we don’t have in modern English. Also, it sucks people in to thinking you are dumb and then you can suddenly disarm them with eloquence. :)

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

                infinite:

                I find “your being uncomfortably aware” and “risking persons laughing at you” pretentious and stilted. Both phrases were clearly contrived merely to shoehorn in additional, unnecessary instances of “one”. So of course they sound awkward, no matter which pronoun you use.

                But beyond that, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. You seem to be saying that because it’s possible to contrive artificial examples that sound awkward, one shouldn’t use “one” in ordinary speech at all, and that doing so is somehow illegitimate.

                With all due respect, that’s just silly. Use it where it feels natural; don’t use it where it doesn’t.

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                Gregory, I agree with Diana. Whilst her example may seem contrived to you, I can certainly think of occasions when I have started down the route of using “one” the way she does, only to find that the paragraph becomes increasing stilted and pretentious-sounding.

                Diana, where I come from “yous” definitely marks you out as poorly educated, and goes with “I done that” instead of “I did that”. Anyway, you is plural. Thou need to be educating people on the correct singular ;-). Pronounce it thoo and it sounds less biblical.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                Yes, where I cone from as well. Also when you say, “alls” as on “alls I’m saying”.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

                @Gregory
                “Both phrases were clearly contrived merely to shoehorn in additional, unnecessary instances of “one”. ”

                Well, yes. Whereas all your examples were just short phrases starting with ‘one’ – which, as I said, one can usually get away with.

                My point is that as soon as the sentence gets more complex, and particularly if ‘one’ is the object of the verb, or the possessive (“one’s”) then it starts to sound awkward. More than once on this notablog, I’ve started a comment with a “one…” and then gone back and changed it to “you” or “I” because the sentence was getting confusing.

  17. kirkgray
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    From the great Stephen Fry:

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      This was posted in comment 6. Irregardless, it’s something that needs to be shared.

      • kirkgray
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        My apologizes. I missed it.

        Also, apologies to the group. The link embedded automatically. I don’t know how to stop it from happening. I will look into it further before posting a link in future.

        • Alex Shuffell
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          I delete the http:// before the link and just copy the http://www…. into the comments. There are some more talented people than I who can hide the link in words but I haven’t been able to do it yet and I’m afraid to practice here.

    • Merilee
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Fry is wonderful, as usual.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      This is very good Fryed food for thought. His last peeve is one of mine too. Still, I can’t abide by the query: “Do you Notebook?”

  18. darrelle
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I find these types of discussions very entertaining. Understanding is my primary concern and it doesn’t bother me if what I am listening to or reading has some novel or improper words, grammar, punctuation or spelling. The majority of the time someone uses a word like “irregardless” or “impactful,” or uses words in forms they are not typically used for, a noun as a verb for example, it is still pretty clear what they mean. In my experience the large majority of the time a grammar pedant corrects someone the pedant understands what the correctee was trying to say.

    Though in a general statistical context there may be a correlation, I think it is pretty shallow to judge another person’s ideas by their ability to conform to a set of prescribed rules for self expression. On an individual basis you are likely to judge incorrectly. Just as BMI may be useful for statistical use but is not a reliable indicator on an individual basis.

  19. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    There are no rules, even in dictionaries.

    I don’t think that’s an accurate summary of Stamper’s position, or of descriptivism in general.

    There are rules, but they don’t come from dictionaries. They come from actual usage in the wild. Dictionaries exist to document such usage, not to regulate it.

  20. Steve Bowen
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I found this an impactful post so I gift this comment to you in gratitude. Feel free to medal yourself…

  21. JScarry
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I thought it was interesting that she slipped the gender neutral singular pronoun ‘they’ into her list and no one noticed.

    “A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.”

    Many prescriptivists have a fit about that usage.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      “No one noticed”? There’s a flame war about it in her comment thread.

      • JScarry
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t read her thread. I was referring to this one.

  22. AndrewD
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Come on isn’t any one going to mention that wonderful site Language Log, here, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/
    where Geoffery Pullum has been known to fulminate against prescriptivists loudly and at length?

  23. davidintoronto
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Here, here! “Creative” spelling/grammer/usage doesn’t phase me in the least.

  24. bric
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    On ‘impactful': turns out it’s those sports journalists again

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5630

  25. Larry Gay
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Keep your eye on the ball and don’t descend into the weeds, unless it’s for fun or instruction of the very young.

  26. Grania Spingies
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Stephen Fry also has some choice and joyful words on the subject.

    Up on Youtube:

    Part 1 /watch?v=mToS_bd3ohE
    Part 2 /watch?v=wzMIKsrjcOI

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      (Relevant bit in part 2 if you want to skip the rest of the Fry Experience)

  27. gruebait
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I reserve my weariest groan of exasperation for “different to”.
    That is just rong. Rong, rong, rong!

    • Robert
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      lol, prepositions. Such silly things.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Meh. I refuse to obey that preposition rule as well.

        • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          I’d’ve expected different than you…

          /@

          • Merilee
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

            Don’t Brits say different to and North Americans say different from? To me from makes more sense, but to quote good ol’ Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

              I’m British and I’ve always understood different FROM to be the correct usage.

              I don’t see how ‘different to’ can make sense.

              (Similar to, different from)

              • Merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

                Yes, my point exactly! Similar to – bring something close to; different from as in away from. But I do seem to hear highly educated Brits say different to, which is what made me believe it was correct over the Pond!

              • Robert
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

                You don’t see how to can make sense because you are assigning meaning to the preposition that limits it to that usage.

                But prepositions don’t necessarily have to make sense, to and from don’t have to be pure opposites. When we’re adults though we try to make sense of language by other means than our natural ability to acquire it and that leads to a lot of scratching our heads at how other people say things.

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

                …such as my Southern boyfriend’s putting stuff “up”, even if it’s on the bottom shelf…

              • Marella
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

                Australians mostly say “different to”.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

                This is why we transported them… ;)

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

                But even in Australia, the verb ‘to differ’ always takes an indirect object with ‘from’. Never ‘to’ or ‘than’.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            I do like that I’d’ve. :)

            • merilee
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              I’ve always wondered about those two-apostrophe constructions;-)

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

                Wha’d’ya mean?

                b&

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                I do love them, but wonder if “one” would get nailed on an English exam for the use thereof (hey, does this count as ending a sentence with a prepostion??)

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                I would depend on the context, of course.

                But, in most types of writing where they’d problematic, any contraction would be. And, if you’d’a been writing dialog for characters who would normally speak that way and you didn’t write it like that, I’d’a flunked your sorry ass — or, at the least, spilt lots of red ink over the page.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

                @Ben
                “you’d’a” is definitely rong. It sounds like an abbreviation of ‘you would’a’ which is also rong.

                It oughta be ‘you’d’ve’ for ‘you would have’, no?
                ;)

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                Actually, “ah” is a common pronunciation in many American (at least) dialects for “have.” So, “you’d’a” is, indeed, a contraction for “you would have.”

                b&

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

                Then how would you “contract” the British you would have done?? You’d’a’done?

              • Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

                I wouldn’t…I’m not British, so it’s not a phrase I’d be likely to use….

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                Who’d’a thunk it?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

                @merilee
                “Then how would you “contract” the British you would have done?? You’d’a’done?”

                I’d say either “you’d have done” or “you would’ve done”. “you’d’ve done” sounds like one contraction too far. It’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of style. (Or, it isn’t wrong. But never it’sn’t ;)

                In fact, the two are slightly different – “you’d have done” put the emphasis on ‘you’ – ‘you’d have done it even if I wouldn’t’, while “you would’ve done” puts the emphasis on ‘would’ – ‘you would’ve done it anyway’.

  28. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    People who use ‘spend’ as a noun ['next month's spend'] or ‘workshop’ as a verb ['we'll workshop this'] – (like my boss) – should die screaming.

    The latest horror is ‘correct’ as a noun ['make your corrects to this report'].

    IMO, of course.

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      But you’re happy going to shops to shop?

      /@

    • Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      & you’ve got your first correct right there!

      /@

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        I claim usage. Some words are nouns, some words are verbs, some can be used as both.

        It’s either ignorance, arrogance or just plain laziness, though, to start using a word in a non-customary way. The only exception I’d make to that is when someone deliberately uses a word in an unconventional manner for dramatic effect. But this should be done rarely and judiciously, and the user should not expect other people to copy it.

        I’m quite happy with new coined words (like omnishambles or fubar) which generally have a well-defined meaning; but not with twisting the meaning of perfectly good existing words.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          Seems to me that if you do something for dramatic effect, and the effect is successful, then of course people are going to want to copy it.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but then it immediately stops being clever or dramatic and just starts being hackneyed.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

              For example, ‘awesome’, which by now just means… well, nothing much, really.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

                I try to make a virtue out of using “awesome” only when I am in awe of something.

                Is that an accepted usage of the word? :-)

              • Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

                I think that usage is, like, totally radical.

                b&

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                That’s like totally awes…wait a minute duuuude, that was a trap wasn’t it!?!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

                Totes!

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

                Right on, duderina!

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

                Totes??

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

                Totally, I assume. :-)

              • merilee
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

                most prob…

                Enough grammar for today and it’s actually Caturday now. Off to hit the hay.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

                Ditto. Time for zzzzzz’s. :-)

                Sleep tight.

              • Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

                Are we rolling in it?

                b&

              • merilee
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

                LOL!!! Good ol’ Frankensteen and Eyegor (who, when asked why his hump kept changing sides, said “What hump?”) Classic Mel!

              • Filippo
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                Reflecting on naval experience, as part of making headway as a result of getting up a good head of steam while steering a true course, I would think that the main objective would be to minimize “roll” and “yaw,” so as to optimize “pitch” and “target angle.”

                Also, here “one” (“you”?) would be “pitching” the right kind of “woo.” ;)

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

                [Wish WP would nest this in the right place!]

                @Jesper Both Pedersen
                “I try to make a virtue out of using “awesome” only when I am in awe of something.

                Is that an accepted usage of the word?”

                OK I know you were joking. But actually, that is the original and (IMO) the only acceptable usage of the word.

                But it’s now become so devalued through overuse it’s lost most of its meaning. It would be awesome if we could restore it… ; )

        • Gary W
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

          It’s either ignorance, arrogance or just plain laziness, though, to start using a word in a non-customary way.

          It can be. But it can also be creative and useful. Unconventional usage is how language evolves, and how different dialects and variations arise.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

            Yes BUT….

            I do know the argument that language evolves that way. I also love it when a talented writer uses a word in an unexpected context to convey a different shade of meaning. I love that sort of thing. But it can’t be carte blanche. Let’s imagine the perpetrator of the new usage is in court charged with wanton corruption of the language, the onus should be on them to demonstrate good cause. And “I was just too lazy to think of the correct word” would not be a defence.

            After all, if words can be made to have any meaning the user wishes, then language loses its stability and it becomes impossible to make a statement that has any clear precise meaning. Suppose I say “Harry is a raving menace” – that’s probably libellous, right? Well, no, when challenged I claim (a la Humpty Dumpty) that ‘raving’ means ‘speaking eloquently’ and ‘idiot’ means ‘worthy opponent’ – what have I just done to the language? Would a court agree with me?

            This is a close parallel to that descriptive / prescriptive clash to which Jerry referred.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

            Damn. Shoulda said “‘menace’ means ‘worthy opponent'” in my example. Wish WP had an Edit function… :(

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted August 31, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

              Wish WP had an Edit function…

              Ditto.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            No one has argued that people should just use language in whatever way they want, without any regard to meaning, comprehension, consistency, etc. That’s a strawman. You said that non-customary usage is “either ignorance, arrogance or just plan laziness.” That simply isn’t true. Dismissing non-customary usage in that way, ignores its necessary role in the evolution and diversification of language.

            • Robert
              Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

              It also leads to discrimination against communities that speak non-standard dialects.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Yes, indeed. Many people ignorantly claim that phrases like “He be working” or “Don’t nobody know” are “wrong.” But linguists recognize them as grammatically correct constructions in the American English dialect called Black English Vernacular, which is common in certain black communities.

                Pinker again: “American black culture is everywhere highly verbal; the subculture of street youths in particular is famous in the annals of anthropology for the value placed on linguistic virtuosity.”

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

                “You said that non-customary usage is “either ignorance, arrogance or just plan laziness.” That simply isn’t true.”

                Well, it’s either one of those, or it’s being done for effect.

                If it’s being done through ignorance (as with a non-English speaker or Robert’s minorities) I’d give them a pass, but native English speakers ought to know better. If it’s being done for effect, then we’re entitled to question whether the speaker is in fact using the non-standard language in a clever or witty way, or whether they’re just full of BS. (And I have certain post-modernist philosophers and business gurus squarely in my sights on this one, Robert’s minorities are just.. ahem.. collateral damage ;)

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                Well, it’s either one of those, or it’s being done for effect.

                I don’t know what that means. What “effect” is it being done for?

                If it’s being done through ignorance (as with a non-English speaker or Robert’s minorities) I’d give them a pass, but native English speakers ought to know better.

                Huh? “Ought to know better” than what? When a new or changed feature appears in a language and comes into widespread use, it’s probably because that feature serves some important purpose. It may improve clarity, or precision, or brevity, or simplicity, or aid communication in some other way. It may have important social benefits. It may simply make the language more beautiful. Your dismissive, judgmental attitude to new linguistic forms and variations simply doesn’t make sense.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 31, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

                infinite:

                Do Australians count as native English speakers in your book? When they use words differently than you do, is it your position that they’re doing so out of ignorance or carelessness? Or will you concede that they’re competent speakers of their own variety of English, which just happens to be different from yours?

                If you’re willing to grant such competence to Australians, then why deny it to Robert’s minorities, who are also native speakers fully fluent in their own variety of English?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:55 am | Permalink

                @gary

                “When a new or changed feature appears in a language and comes into widespread use, it’s probably because that feature serves some important purpose.”

                ‘probably’? Where do you get that from? It may be useful as you suggest, or it may be (and by Sturgeon’s Law, usually is) ugly pretentious rubbish. Probably fortunately, most such usages die out quite quickly when they cease to be seen as ‘trendy’ by the twittering masses.

                I did say (which you appear to have overlooked) that I am delighted when I see an original new usage that has any merit. Most do not.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 2:15 am | Permalink

                @gregory
                “If you’re willing to grant such competence to Australians, then why deny it to Robert’s minorities, who are also native speakers fully fluent in their own variety of English?”

                I’m not aware that (other than a colourful variety of phrases) Australian English differs in any substantial way from British English.
                I’ll certainly grant Robert’s minorities full competence in speaking their dialect. But whatever it is, it ain’t standard British English and I very much doubt if it’s standard American English either. To try to suggest that it is does a disservice both to English and to their dialect.
                My wife’s (second-language) English is fluent if slightly idiosyncratic. I don’t regard this as any reflection on her abilities (after all, she speaks fluently at least one more language than I do) but I certainly wouldn’t start using her unique (and IMO delightful – vive la difference!) phrasing myself. It would be phony.

                And anyway, my target as I said – did you miss it? – was not Robert’s minorities but native English speakers who should know better than to perpetrate the horrors that they do.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                infinite:

                My point (maybe you missed it) is that embedded in your remarks is the unquestioned assumption that your particular variety of English is the standard against which all other varieties are measured and found wanting, and that anybody who speaks a different variety is “not speaking English”.

                Go back to the Stamper’s essay and read Step 5 again: “In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.” That’s you she’s talking about.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                probably’? Where do you get that from?

                From the fact that people in general are not likely to adopt a new way of speaking or writing if it makes communication more difficult or has some other adverse effect.

                I did say (which you appear to have overlooked) that I am delighted when I see an original new usage that has any merit. Most do not.

                And know this, how? Please give us some examples of these new usages that have no merit, and explain to us how you have determined that they have no merit.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                My point (maybe you missed it) is that embedded in your remarks is the unquestioned assumption that your particular variety of English is the standard against which all other varieties are measured and found wanting

                Yes, infinite seems to think there is One Correct Way of using the English language (the way used by BBC television presenters, perhaps) and that all other forms of the language are a corruption. This attitude is particularly sad coming from a Brit (he’s British, right?), given the rich history alternative forms produced by his fellow countrymen, from cockney rhyming slang to the dialects spoken in Scotland and Wales.

              • Robert
                Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                @infinite

                You give them a pass? Wow, that’s awesome! We may be on our way to solving one of the most significant sources of racism and discrimination in our world!

                You’re way too flippant about that, but I guess I’ll give you a pass since you want to nitpick usages you aren’t giving people a pass on.

                Then again, nitpicking other uses but giving a pass when someone like me points out discrimination is sort of like the accomodationism of linguistics.

                What I got out of this was: “I am not like the big bad prescriptivist who not only corrects usage but demands that minorities speak “properly” even while ignoring why they don’t and not using useful approaches in the classroom that would help bridge standard – non-standard gaps. I am ok with “those people”… I’m just not ok with the ones who should know better.”

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 2, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

                Jeez, what a barricade of strawmen you lot are erecting. Arguing with y’all is like pushing shit uphill.

                O-kay. What I regard as ‘standard’ (maybe not quite the right term in this context but it’ll have to do) is the English in which 99% of the books in my bookshelf are written, from Darwin to DNA, the English which (making allowances for regional variations) is used by most of the websites I read including this one. Quite by chance, just today I refused to sign a letter at work because it said “these essential works has…” and “result in lose of service”. I realise now I was grievously trampling on the rights of the (white, native-English-speaking guy – in the ‘Communications’ department, yet!) who wrote it. [Yeah, /sarcasm].

                I am not, actually, a prescriptivist (much). I just seem to become one when confronted by a bunch of guys who want to do away with any notion of syntax or grammar (and that is no more a strawman of your views, than is your version of mine). In fact I don’t see how descriptivism can even work unless there’s something reasonably stable to describe.

                Oh, and Robert – no I don’t agree with the grammar-is-a-tool-of-oppression school of social activism. I wouldn’t discriminate against one of your [unspecified] minority for not speaking ‘proper’ English, but I wouldn’t accept whatever-it-is-he-speaks as English, either.

                I’m outta here!

              • Gary W
                Posted September 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                No one is claiming that the usage practised by most people isn’t standard usage. And no one has advocated anything like “doing away with any notion of syntax or grammar.” These are just more strawmen on your part. What we’re criticizing is your characterization of non-standard usage as ignorant, arrogant or lazy.

  29. Filippo
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Consider the word “quixotic.” I’ve heard certain folks (including the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens) pronounce it as “quip-zah-tic.”

    Consider the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote (pronounced “Kee-awh-teh”).

    Therefore, it seems to me that “quixotic” should be pronounced “kee-awh-tic,” even though certain Spanish words with an “x” in them, especially those related to Aztec culture, have the “x” pronounced as a “z.” Even conceding that the “x” has a “z” sound, where does the “p” sound (as in “quip”) come from?

    Reasonable?

    • Filippo
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      “qWip-zah-tic.”

      • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Actually, “quick – sock – tick” would be the more standard pronunciation; no “p” in there.

        And the unfortunate fellow’s name is usually pronounced, “key – haute (as in ‘cuisine’) – eh (as in, ‘Canada’).” Sometimes, it’s “donkey shoat,” too.

        No, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s English! It’s not supposed to.

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          I had an odd 18th C Lit prof who was British and would pronounce Don Quixote as Don “Quicks Oat”. It took me a while to figure out what he was saying & then I had to quietly snicker.

          • Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

            Somehow, it seems sadly fitting that nobody actually knows the poor old dude’s name….

            b&

            • MikeN
              Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

              -My English grandfather always used to pronounce the name of the great soccer player Pele as “peel”, and when anyone tried to correct him would reply “why doesn’t ‘e bloody well spell it proper then?”

              -I remember when Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was going through the nomination process and there were complaints from nativists that she didn’t even pronounce her name properly; it should be in good American style.

              One person who was silent on the issue was then-House Minority speaker John Boehner.

              -And given the recent Parliamentary vote by those Euroweenie chips-eating surrender monkeys, are we going to see the name change to “Freedom muffins”?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

                Speaking of which, do you suppose there would have been anything like that degree of opposition to getting involved in Syria, if it hadn’t been for the Iraq fiasco? Or ‘omnishambles’ if you prefer… That vote rather surprised me too, it just shows the extent of the damage that’s been done by Dubya and Bliar…

                (I might add, ‘Freedom’ for who, exactly? Halliburton and Blackwater?)

    • merilee
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      I wondered about the p as well.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      Way off topic, but I can’t resist:

      There’s a (probably apocryphal) story about a schoolteacher correcting book reviews of Don Quixote. In one of them, the student repeatedly refers to Sancho Panza’s mount as a “burrow”. Again and again, page after page, it’s “burrow” instead of “burro”. After red-penciling far too many of them, the teacher finally writes in the margin, “You obviously don’t know an ass from a hole in the ground.”

  30. TonyR
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I can remember reading a book on English language usage by a well-known author & editor (so well-known that I cannot remember his name) that included a chapter called “The -ize have it”. This was very critical of adding -ize to the end of words; he was especially indignant about “priorize” or “prioritize” instead of “set prorities”. I guess in my world of business & government, he lost that battle!

    I believe there have been many attempts over the past hundred years or so to reform the language. No less a genius at the use of language, George Bernard Shaw, made a number of attempts, even ridiculing pronunciation – how do you pronounce ghoti? For him it could be fish.

    Language is facinating and usage even more so. As a young Irish immigrant to Canada in 1970 when I agreed to meet a new friend the next day said “why don’t you knock me up in the morning”. I did not, at first, understand why everyone was laughing so hard!

    I love the English language; it is incredibly flexible and there are so many ways to say the same thing. (One famous British politician was was described as being full of rodomontade and hyperbole — in other words, of being a boastful braggart!)

    I think it may be one of the few languages that you can cpletely screw up and still understood. But some do use it well and write so well, a gift that I believe Jery Coyne has.

    Tony

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      The language that can be used in various contexts by British politicians is governed by Parliamentary rules, but this does not prevent the language becoming quite colourful, at times. Strictly speaking, one MP cannot sue another MP for defamation if the supposed slander or libel is used in the Houses of Parliament. This is probably a good thing, otherwise many MPs, and especially Ministers, would spend more time in court than they would running the country. Parliamentary rules don’t prevent MPs from hurling abuse and accusations across the benches at each other, but they do limit the words and phrases that can be used. Thus, one MP can’t accuse another of being a liar, but can say, for example, “The Honourable Member is skilled in the art of sophistry.”

      More recently, however, the most popular way of putting this seems to be “The Honourable Member seems to be guilty of a terminological inexactitude”, which seems to be just hurling as many syllables as possible, to how many will stick.

  31. TonyR
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I I tried so hard to get spelling & pronunciatin correct, but still made a few mistakes – especialy spelling Jerry’s name incorrectly! But you did understand me, didn’t you?!
    Tony

    • Larry Gay
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      The reason Jerry writes clearly is that he thinks clearly. He can’t possibly agonize over every sentence, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to do everything he does.

  32. Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps this will have an impactful effect on your understanding of the meaning of impactful:

    impactful¹ im·pact·ful adjective: having a forceful impact : producing a marked impression

    impactful² adjective having the power to affect the feelings or sympathies

    impactful³ (im·pact·ful) /im’paktf?l/ adjective having a major impact or effect: an eye-catching and impactful design
    impactful. 2013. In OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/impactful

    impactful⁴ – ADJECTIVE American English pronunciation: impactful /im’pæktf?l/ having a lot of effect or influence People describe her as impactful, unforgettable, and compassionate.
    Garrison Street Partners advises companies on impactful growth initiatives.

    impactful⁵ adj having a great impact or effect

    ¹ Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. “impactful,” accessed August 30, 2013, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com.
    ² impactful. 2013. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impactful
    ³ impactful. 2013. In OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/impactful
    ⁴ impactful. 2013. In MacMillanDictionary.com. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/impactful
    ⁵ impactful. 2013. In Dictionary.com. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/impactful

    • bric
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      OK then, OED 2nd edition (CD): no matches found.
      OED 3rd edition (online): No dictionary entries found for ‘impactful’.

      QED

      • Posted August 31, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Make up citation 3 I did not.

  33. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.

    Looks like a reasonable prescriptivist also prefers being gender neutral to having her possessive pronouns agree in number with their antecedents. Fine by me.

    I dig the Noah Webster anecdote, even if it is apocryphal. Hell, one good story beats a dozen true ones.

  34. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    A prescriptivist is someone who tells strangers and acquaintances what a descriptivist tells his kids when they’re writing their college entrance essays.

    • Gary W
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      To embellish and exaggerate their achievements?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        To mind arcane rules of grammar in case their essays get evaluated by some stickler prescriptivist.

  35. Gimmepaws
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Yes, don’t dismiss someone’s entire argument just because one or two small grammar or spelling mistakes.

    On the other hand, we would all be well-advised not to take too seriously those who consistently and grievously massacre grammar and spelling.

    Unless he/she is dyslexic, it’s a sign of an overall sloppy mind. And, unless we are doing a study on the subject of sloppy minds, do you really want to dedicate your time listening to them?

    • Larry Gay
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      NO I don’t. I often stop listening when I hear one or two butchered phrases. But of course there are some unlettered speakers who should be listened to and who are even eloquent in their own way.

  36. Gimmepaws
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I meant to write “because of one or two…”.

  37. Randy
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I feel like educators or my government should apologize for all the stress they put me under to achieve high marks in English, as if there were rules, because the rules don’t matter now, nor did they then.

    But English really jumped the shark when “literally”, a word used specifically to eliminate confusion, was redefined to mean “literally or not literally”, and now is devoid of any particular meaning at all, only conveying emotion like any other grunt or gasp.

    It’s almost worth starting a dedicated dictionary-trolling effort, to popularize new definitions like “nitrogen” meaning “hydrogen”, or “femur” meaning “monkey”.

    • Gary W
      Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      But English really jumped the shark when “literally”, a word used specifically to eliminate confusion, was redefined to mean “literally or not literally”, and now is devoid of any particular meaning at all, only conveying emotion like any other grunt or gasp.

      Yet another illogical and uninformed prescriptivist complaint.

      See this, from Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois: Literally has always been figurative.

  38. Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t read the entirety of this thread, there’s just too much already.

    One thing that struck me was the tirade against “I’m done”, which struck a chord with me – but the suggesting that it should be “I’m finished” is equally egregious. It should be “I *have* finished”.

    “I am finished” to me means “I am about to die.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      +1

      (I *knew* “I’m finished” sounded wrong but it didn’t ring an alarm bell loud enough for me to analyze it.)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        I think “I am done” is a statement of state rather than a present perfect tense like “I have done”.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          In most contexts, “I’m done” or “I’m finished” are perfectly fine as alternatives to “I have finished.”

          It’s rather unlikely that inviting a waiter to remove your empty plate with “I’m done” or “I’m finished” will be misunderstood as a declaration of imminent death.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            Never said that they weren’t interchangeable or that they meant “death”.

            • Gary W
              Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              I meant my last comment as a reply to donotwash and infinite, not you. I got the indentation wrong. I try to be pretty conscientious about that, but mistakes happens sometimes. I thought it would be clear from the content that I was responding to them, not you, but I guess not.

              • Posted September 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                Exchanges with you sound like those of a middle-aged philologistic schoolteacher with a stroppy teenager who knows everything.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          @Diana
          I’d agree. To me, the ‘I am done (or, finished)…’ implies that something has been done to me, whereas ‘I have finished …’ implies that I was doing whatever-it-was.

  39. Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I deliberately typed in an instant message to a colleague I was teleworking with the other day: “You may can do it now”, as it was quicker and more convenient that “you may be able to do it now”.

    I doubt it will catch on, but if it does, apologies to prescriptivists universewide.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      “I might could do it” is perfectly acceptable idiom in parts of the US.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      This is one case where French has the advantage. They have ‘pouvoir’ (can) and ‘devoir’ (must), both of which are highly irregular in English.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        German as well, müssen, können, darfen which English speakers will constantly screw up by using können for everything, I least I do!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      OK. Now how about an apology for “teleworking”?

      • Gary W
        Posted August 31, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        What’s wrong with “teleworking?”

  40. bric
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    thread is totes amazeballs!!!!

  41. Jiten
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    Because English is flexible and evolving it’s hard to be prescriptivist about it. I think advanced alien civilisations will have found a language that is rigid and precise and set in stone. Will they talk in mathematics? Or computer code?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 31, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Trouble with computer code, get one misprint and it crashes or gives ‘undefined output’.

      (I’ve heard an argument that Latin can only have been a written language not a spoken dialect for similar reasons – no redundancy).

  42. Sagra
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I just don’t think that the word “irregardless” is very cromulent.

  43. Sagra
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    For me, mistakes in the use of idioms and common phrases more likely to set my teeth on edge.

    1. “It’s a mute point.” Mute and moot have different meanings. Unless you mean to say that nobody heard your point, you probably meant “moot”.

    2. “Tow the line.” I’ve seen threads where people were arguing that this meant metaphorically pulling something with a boat. “Toe the line,” really means that there’s a standard (the line) and an expectation that it should be followed exactly. If you don’t literally put your toe on and not over the line before a footrace, you’ll get disqualified.

    3. “For all intensive purposes” is like nails on a chalkboard.

    • Gary W
      Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:48 am | Permalink

      Malapropisms can be quite charming. I like these from Gloria on Modern Family:

      “It’s a doggy dog world”
      “Blessings in the skies”
      “Carpool tunnel syndrome”

  44. Vaal
    Posted August 31, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    In…only for the self satisfaction of declaring that I will decry the horrendous “I could care less” (the hell-spawned perversion of “I couldn’t care less”) until the day I die…nay, until the sun burns out and until the universe has gone cold…

    Vaal

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 1, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      .. which means the exact opposite of what users of that phrase think it means.

      (I’ll take odds on how long it will be before someone from the Humpty Dumpty school of etymology insists that, because somebody’s used it, it must be acceptable… ;)

      • Gary W
        Posted September 1, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink

        Since the phrase is in widespread use and is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as an American colloquialism with the same meaning as “I couldn’t care less,” whether or not you consider it “acceptable” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) doesn’t seem terribly relevant.

        There seems to some controversy over the etymology of the phrase. Pinker argues that it’s sarcastic, but others have challenged that theory.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 1, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink

          Bingo!

          I probably wouldn’t’a got very good odds, though.

          • Posted September 1, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            I hope you realize that there is a world of difference between the “Humpty Dumpty school of etymology” (for an example of which you can see a thread above where someone is repeatedly asserting that “in this context” he meant “noun phrase” when he said “conjunction”), and the school of etymology where careful lexicographers study common patterns of usage across large geographical regions or populations and report on said patterns.

            For if not, then I’m sorry to break the news to you: you will find that by your yardstick, all the etymology, in almost any “alive” language including your beloved English, is of the Humpty Dumpty variety.

            • Gary W
              Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

              No, he wrote “conjunction” and he meant “conjunction.”

              • Posted September 1, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                I checked the thread again, and I see that the commenter in question (who, it seems, happened to be you) wrote “conjunction” for referring to a “noun phrase containing a conjunction” and when called out on using a commonly used technical term for something it did not mean, insisted that it was not his usage that had been somewhat off the mark, but that “in this context” what he meant was what the term actually meant.

                Compare Humpty Dumpty:

                ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

                — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

                I rest my case. :)

                More seriously though, the usage was completely harmless in context (this is, after all, a blog comment thread, not a linguistics journal). What I really found funny in that thread was the insistence on proving oneself right about this minor point.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                when called out on using a commonly used technical term for something it did not mean

                It does mean what I said it means. I wasn’t using the word to refer to a part of speech but to a phrase containing that part of speech, as I explained twice, and provided a quote from Pinker to support. The fact you keep quibbling over this trivial point rather addressing the substance of the dispute tells me that your true interest here is trying to score a silly debating point rather than a serious discussion of language. I suspect this goes back to a grudge you seem to have formed against me from a previous exchange between us in which you took great offense at statements I made regarding the Islamic world’s poor record of contributions to science.

              • Posted September 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                Gary W said:

                It does mean what I said it means. I wasn’t using the word to refer to a part of speech but to a phrase containing that part of speech, as I explained twice, and provided a quote from Pinker to support.

                Compare again with the Humpty Dumpty quote above :) I’ll just note that as far as I remember that thread, several others told you several times that this was a non-standard usage of a linguistic term.

                The fact you keep quibbling over this trivial point rather addressing the substance of the dispute tells me that your true interest here is trying to score a silly debating point rather than a serious discussion of language.

                Then what it tells you is, I’m afraid wrong. I was just amused that such a tempest in a teapot would arise in a thread about such a trivial issue (you’ll notice that I did not post on the thread; if you allow me to a little flippancy, I didn’t really find that debate worth trying to “score points” in).

                I suspect this goes back to a grudge you seem to have formed against me from a previous exchange between us in which you took great offense at statements I made regarding the Islamic world’s poor record of contributions to science.

                Frankly, I’m left speechless. I do not know how to put this politely, but I hope you do realize that life is much too precious—and online commentators and their sundry opinions far too unimportant—for someone to hold grudges from online discussions that took place so long ago that one finds it hard to even put a year or month to it?

              • Gary W
                Posted September 2, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

                You’re “speechless,” but you’ve now written three comments of increasing length quibbling about a side issue in a discussion earlier in this thread that you were not involved in at all.

                You’re not speechless; you’re obsessed.

        • Vaal
          Posted September 1, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          Which only adds to the outrage…

          Vaal

  45. Merilee
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Anyone notice how many of the younger generation seem to pronounce didn’t did-dent? Also could-dent, would-dent, etc…

  46. Posted September 1, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    May I invite people who are interested in language to take a look at my blog, Brandon Robshaw and the English Language? It’s a liberal pedant’s view of trends and quirks in English, including differences between American and British English,and is both prescriptive and descriptive. It’s at Brandonrobshaw.wordpress.com

  47. gbjames
    Posted September 11, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    I’m very late to this thread. Still, never pass up a chance to tell other people what linguistically annoys you. So here’s what I find grating:

    Political Prescriptive Gender Language.

    “Xe shouted out the window.” “Ze likes zirself.” “That is pers.”

    Aarrrrggggh.

    • Posted September 11, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Well, I kind of get it, but the need at least partly stems from an unnecessary aversion to singular they.

      /@

      PS. Father of a trans* daughter, btw.

      • gbjames
        Posted September 11, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Doesn’t “she” work for your daughter? (or “he”, depending on which side of the transition we’re referencing)

        • Posted September 11, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          Oh, it does for her! But, it turns out, others in the LGBTQ community identify as neither male nor female (whatever equipment they were born with).

          /@

          • gbjames
            Posted September 11, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            Perhaps. But it is a bit too Whorfian for me. If these changes could be engineered (unlikely under the best of circumstances) it is unlikely to actually solve the real world problems LGBTQ folk confront. It seems like advocacy for Esperanto in hopes that we would have less social conflict on our little planet.

            • Posted September 11, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              I think LGBTQ folks would argue that avoiding gendered pronouns at least helps to erode expectations of conformity to gender stereotypes (see: Julie Burchill). 

              But I agree with you about these novel coinages in at least this respect: They’re rebarbative – and unnecessary when singular “they” will work well enough. I doubt they’ll get any more traction in the long run than Le Guin’s “heesh” did.

              /@

              • gbjames
                Posted September 11, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                No doubt some would so argue. My claim wasn’t that political prescription advocates (a smallish subset of LGBTQ folk) don’t think they are justified, just that I’m not convinced and I am annoyed.

                The LGBTQ newspaper we have here in Milwaukee is a good example, IMO. It uses normal English pronouns and is quite readable. Meanwhile, the most common use of “xe” I encounter is from someone who isn’t L, G, B, T, or Q (to my knowledge).

              • Posted September 11, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                Interesting. My experience is different: I’ve come across those ugly pronouns only online and only by writers who I’ve understood to map to at least one of those labels.

                /@

              • gbjames
                Posted September 11, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                I should clarify… My example is personally known to me (son of old family friend). But the usage has also been online. I’m doubtful I’d hear it verbally.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 12, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

                Never seen it, but it sounds idiotic. Singular ‘they’ is way preferable.

  48. merilee
    Posted September 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Man (woman?) this thread has gotten long! Is xe supposed to stand for he/she??


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