How not to write a comment on this site

Re this morning’s discussion of grammar and words that irk the readers, the number of comments surprised me. Note, though, that my post was mainly about usages that disturb me and my readers, not whether they are taken by grammarians as correct. Ergo lots of people corrected me about the use of the word “hopefully” to mean “I hope that” (a usage I don’t like) versus the meaning “with hope” (the one I use). I recognize that both usages are seen by some experts as fine, and of course readers noted that.

But there are ways and ways of commenting. Here is the good way: a comment made by reader Don:

“Hopefully,” used as a sentence adverb, is fine. If I may repeat what I have posted below, Richard Nordquist writes, “The sentence adverb has served a useful function in English since the 14th century. In the past few decades, however, one sentence adverb in particular has come in for a lot of criticism.” He’s referring to “hopefully.”

He goes on to give a variety of examples, saying, “Unlike an ordinary adverb–which is conventionally defined as a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb–a sentence adverb modifies a sentence as a whole or a clause within a sentence.

“Dozens of words can be used as sentence adverbs, among them actually, apparently, basically, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, however, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, and wisely.”

Note that this is a polite and civil comment, and I took it in (though I still won’t use “hopefully” as an adverb).

Here is the way not to comment; I put this up and then banned the reader “malvolioblog” for incivility:

No, it doesn’t mean only that, any more than “thankfully” only means “done in a thankful manner.” Sorry, but this is a case, as with so-called “split infinitives,” where people are trying to be hyper-correct — and thereby getting it wrong. Please stick to your biology, Prof. Coyne, leave the grammar to us writers.

(I certainly agree with you, though, about ‘I could care less’, but that is becoming idiomatic, in speech, at least. Probably a losing battle. Never acceptable in writing, except as recorded speech.)

The part in bold is simply rude, and I don’t want people like this commenting here. If you’re a first-time reader, read “Da Roolz” for commenting on the left bar, or go here. You’ll then understand why a comment like that accrues its author a permanent ban.

I don’t understand why people can’t be civil like Don. Why must they pull rank and be rude to their host? Oh well, such is humanity.

86 Comments

  1. Stephen
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    It’s useful to remind ourselves that words don’t have meanings they have usages.

    The struggle I maintain to the point of being annoying is with using “begs the question” as a pretentious substitute for “raises the question”.

    People commit ‘petitio principia’ ALL the time and a usage that limits our ability to point that out is very bad. It obscures clear thinking.

    • Posted December 20, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention it results in logic (etc.) teachers having to explain stipulative definitions *again*. (They have to anyway, but it is my impression that an entrenched idiom is one of the hardest matters to overcome by stipulation. This is one reason why teaching about “valid” is so hard.)

    • Posted December 21, 2016 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      That’s also one of my pet peeves. It would help if anyone ever tempted to use the term understood its original usage – ‘It beggars the question’.

      Terms like ‘second of all’ drive me up a wall.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Crackers…Please tell us that comment was from Trump or something similar.

    One has to think there are people out there who somehow believe they can communicate that way on line and get away with it. In person…no chance.

  3. Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    sub

  4. J Cook
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you are a writer and a good one

    • dabertini
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Period!!

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        😀

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        + 😀

    • dabertini
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Period!!

    • darrelle
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      That was my thought as well. Though I’d bet that Jerry wouldn’t meet malvolioblog’s criteria to be qualified as “a writer.” Even though it is likely that Jerry has had more success as a writer than malvolioblog.

      Of course I may be wrong. It may be that malvolioblog simply isn’t aware of Jerry’s writing experience and assumed in order to condescend.

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      + 1

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. My first thought was to wonder just how many published books malvolio has to his/her credit…

    • somer
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      +1

  5. Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    There’s something about posting online that compels people to adopt a needlessly critical tone than they would in person. It’s a strange sort of entitlement where any content they view online must be to their liking, or even ‘perfect’. If not, insults and uncharitable attitudes are fair game. I’m certain this is not the way they would conduct in-person interactions.

    YouTube comments would make your head explode on this point……

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      “YouTube comments would make your head explode on this point……”

      I actually quite “enjoy” the youtube comment sections. Quite often people who aren’t interested in following rules, or being polite, make good points, and you certainly aren’t going hear your average gun toting, beer drinking, Nascar watching, redneck Trump supporter commenting here. That being said I enjoy the respite from the considerable face palming, and insults I experience there, when I’m here.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      It’s the same thing that allows people to engage in paroxysms of road-rage from within the safety of their cars. If you can’t look into the eyes of your antagoniser, then he or xe isn’t really real.

  6. Annon
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Surely when you write “read the “Da Roolz””, you have used “the” twice, because “da” means “the”. In a similar way some refer to “an ATM machine”.

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Oh for Chrissake. I’ll fix it; it was a typo. Grammar police HERE?

      • Ann German
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        I have observed that, generally, civility has rather “gone by the boards,” especially with the campaign and election of pussygrabber.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        I get mildly annoyed by the use of computer acronyms along with the word for which the last letter stands, the latter almost always being L for language.

        If a programmer speaks about the “SQL Language”, he means the “Source Query Language Language”. Wikipedia even has an article entitled “SQL Language”(!!!) One also runs across references to “CSS Scripting”, and “EDI Interchanges” in computer literature, when “CS Scripting and “ED Interchange” would be less redundant.

        • Taz
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          SQL stands for “Structured Query Language”.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 20, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          references to “CSS Scripting

          I thought that CSS was Cascading Style Sheets?

          • Posted December 20, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

            CS Script is also a thing – read “C Sharp Script”.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted December 20, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              Ah! Never got beyond the bondage and discipline of Pascal myself. Well, occasional paddling in the shallows of Java, but never really got into this OOP thing.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted December 20, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, obviously that should have been OOP programming.

      • dale
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

        My favourite example of hidden redundancy is

        The RCMP police.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 20, 2016 at 8:58 am | Permalink

          PIN number.

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      “In a similar way some refer to “an ATM machine”…

      I thought that the A stood for Automated, so the sentence “I withdrew money from an Automated Teller Machine” would be grammatically correct.

      • davidintoronto
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Hmmm… but it’s the M in ATM + machine that’s the redundancy. See “RAS Syndrome” (Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome). 😉

        • Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          And don’ forget The La Brea Tar Pits (The the tar tar pits). 🙂

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink

            I didn’t know that. Yo si tonto!
            But I’ll remember it. Though the last couple of papers I read – IIRC concerning fossil owls – referred to the Rancho La Brea tar pits. Which isn’t so bad.

        • Posted December 19, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          you are correct, I misread your comment.

          • Doug
            Posted December 19, 2016 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

            And then there’s “Enter your PIN number into the ATM machine.”

        • Posted December 21, 2016 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          +1 . Don’t know how I missed that one. 🙂

      • ladyatheist
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Rather than saying “grammatically correct,” one should say “ungrammatical.”

        Just sayin’

        • Posted December 19, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          Rather than saying “grammatically correct,” one should say “ungrammatical.”

          Why? Is it unclear what is meant if one writes “grammatically incorrect”? How is this different than writing “financially unstable” or “ethically challenged”?

          Just askin’

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

          Those are antonyms, far as I can see.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

            That too.

            😀

        • Posted December 20, 2016 at 7:16 am | Permalink

          Not a matter if grammar in any case, just usage–an everyday pleonasm, like “Please RSVP.”

    • Posted December 20, 2016 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      What do you think the ‘A’ in ATM stands for?

  7. Roger
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Yeah Prof. Coyne is a writer, so ironically the comment is hyper-incorrect.

  8. Jennifer Aimsworth
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why people can’t be civil like Don.

    In a similar vein, I don’t understand how people can block others from expressing their thoughts simply because they disagree with them. I do understand that incivility of that kind often leads to more incivility.

  9. Craw
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Is “accrue” the right word? Things that accrue do so gradually over time. “Earn”, “merit”, “receive” all seem a better fit.

  10. jardino
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Fair enough, Jerry -and I hope I haven’t transgressed.

    There is a lot of good thinking in this thread that I think should be preserved – don’t lose it.

    Alan (technical writer, retired!)

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Just a curious question. Do you get punched out much?

      • jardino
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        No – why?

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Trust me, on this site you know when you transgress.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      If you go back to posting under your full name, Alan, I promise never to razz you about being the Beach Boys’ rhythm guitarist again. 🙂

      • jardino
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 3:50 am | Permalink

        Fair enough, Ken.

        I may even buy myself a Beach Boys L.P. for Xmas!

        Regards,
        Alan (never Al) Jardine.

  11. Frank Bath
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Not only rude, smug and ignorant. You are a fine writer and he should be aware of it.

  12. Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    “Please stick to your biology, Prof. Coyne, leave the grammar to us writers.”

    He did say “please.” But seriously, that sentence itself is not grammatically correct. There should either be an “and” after the second comma, or the second comma should be a semi-colon.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      What bugged me most was “us writers.” Shouldn’t it be “we writers?”

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        But you’re correct about the and or semi-colon also imo.

        • Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I always use that punctuation. I think that’s from E. B. White (for me).

      • loren russell
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        No, you’d say “to us” not “to we”. Noun “writers” is, I believe, in apposition.

        This is probably a case where the evolution of English toward case-free grammar has hit a pothole…

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          It’s like all those auto-grammar checks that pick up false positives, mark your posts on them, and your posts go down the Google rankings even though there’s little or nothing wrong with them.

      • Craw
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        No, it would be us no matter what noun is in apposition. Writers modifies us and the pronoun must match its case within the sentence.
        “Nobody here but us chickens.”

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t saying I was right – I admit I’m wrong. Just commenting.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        The third-person pronoun in this instance is the object of the preposition “to” (and the phrase “us writers” is the indirect object in an independent clause) so is properly in the objective case.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

          “first-person plural pronoun,” sorry.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

          Seriously, none of that makes the slightest sense to me. I was taught a different way and I don’t know what any of those words mean. 🙂

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted December 19, 2016 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

            Here’s a quick guide, if you’re interested. There’s no need to know labels, and there’re no “rules” to speak of. Our only goal need be clear, efficient, effective communication. To that end, it often helps to follow certain conventions. 🙂

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      There’s a rule – whose name I forget – that all comments on grammar or spelling inevitably contain significant grammar and/ or spelling errors.
      I know it’s not Rule 34. But it probably interacts with Rule 34 in ways that are frightening to contemplate

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 20, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

          Hartman? Sounds somewhat familiar.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 20, 2016 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

          New one on me!

          The only one I ever remember is Muphry’s Law, but there’s at least one more as well–think it starts with an S….

  13. Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    As if YOU aren’t a WRITER TOO. And a damned fine one. Wow.

  14. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I’ll try to say this as respectfully and civilly as I can. The “Grammar that irks” thread may have been intended as harmless fun, but it can be read as an invitation to sneer at the way other people talk. And it’s sadly not all that surprising that many readers were eager to take you up on it.

    If you feel the need to ban the one commenter who was rude to you personally, that’s your privilege. But if I’m being honest, the whole thread struck me as an exercise in incivility from the getgo.

    • Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      One’s own misgivings about the aforementioned thread are no excuse for rudeness, which is off-putting at best, and entirely counter-productive at worst. But I must admit that I lack the constitution to even glance at the 200+ comments over there. Even descriptive linguists have preferences, but the attempts to justify those irkings in turn irk me. The “logic” invoked to explain such preferences always falls apart under scrutiny, and I find myself wishing people would just be honest with themselves — and with others — and be more upfront about their subjectivity.

      I was at a party just last night, and the issue of the non-literal use of “literally” came up, as though it were somehow a logical contradiction that ultimately serves only to bewilder and befuddle English speakers. But in these contexts, few ever mention the dozens of other antagonyms (e.g., “dust”) in circulation that somehow manage not to get under anyone’s skin. (In reality, non-literal “literally” doesn’t really fall into this class, but that’s another story.)

      • reasonshark
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        I find myself wishing people would just be honest with themselves — and with others — and be more upfront about their subjectivity

        I agree strongly. Language is ultimately an arbitrary assigning of meanings to bits of sound and written symbols. While there are objectively questionable aspects – such as overly long words that are simply too impractical to take seriously – most of it is flexible and mutable, and critics of particular language uses need to remember that more often.

        Worse still is when it crosses over into class and regional divisions. I’ve met people who cheerfully mock accents and idiosyncratic word uses which are considered unremarkable among certain cultures, and I swear I see the ghost of cultural supremacism lurking overhead each time. And they seem convinced their own contextual standard is somehow more “logical”, often for such petty reasons. I don’t mind admitting I feel uncomfortable around it.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      May I just say, in all civility, that I find the word “getgo” somewhat irritating. That’s just my personal view 🙂 YMMV.

    • Posted December 21, 2016 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I don’t know about this, as the usual suspects here seem to be very civil and thoughtful.
      I’ve seen a couple of people here who express themselves in very curious ways, but no one has taken them to task for their, shall we say,’eccentricities’. 🙂

  15. Alpha Neil
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Before commenting on this site, ask yourself “what would Don do?”

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 19, 2016 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      😀

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      If I’d thought of that line, I’d have set up a fake account, email address etc under the name of “Jesus”. Purely for fucking with the heads of god-squaddies.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Nordquist seems to be tracing only the sentence adverb as a general concept to the 14th century not “hopefully” in particular.

    Dictionary.com traces hopefully as a sentence adverb to the 1930s and Merriam-Webster traces it to the early 18th century, but says it has been widespread since the 1930s. M_W says this usage is a “disjunct” and lists other examples as “interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately”.

    However, let Constance Hale chime in:

    “Innocent though they may seem, sentence adverbs can stir wild passions in grammarians. By far the likeliest to raise hackles is hopefully, which can modify verbs (‘”It’s my birthday, you’re flush, and I’m hungry,” she hinted hopefully’; hopefully tells how she said it, in a hopeful manner.) But everyone seems to prefer hopefully as a sentence adverb (‘Hopefully, you’ll get the hint and take me out to dinner’). Some traditionalists disparage the vogue for hopefully as a sentence adverb, calling it ‘one of the ugliest changes in grammar in the twentieth century.’ Others see in the demise of ‘I hope that’ a thoroughly modern failure to take responsibility, and even worse, a contemporary spiritual crise, in which we have ceded even our ability to hope.”

    However, she ultimately opposes these and JAC by following with
    “Grammarians, get a grip. Hopefully as a sentence adverb is here to stay.”

    Constance Hale ”Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.”

    I hope that malvolioblog has learned a lesson.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    “Please stick to your biology, Prof. Coyne, leave the grammar to us writers.”

    None of real writers I know would’ve said anything like that (at least not to anybody wasn’t pestering the hell out of ’em). Most are happy to lend polite advice to fellow writers, since they know the traps and treacherous terrain that lie in wait for the wary and unwary alike.

    The others, the ones who aren’t built like that, keep their opinions to themselves and go on about their business.

    Anyway, if it came down to it, my guess is Jerry could write circles around this captious character “malvolioblog.”

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      This paragraph from a site called “Malvolio’s Blog”

      And if you sign the contract, ignore that particular provision as being unreasonable and get shopped to HMRC, what then? The rules for IR35 still apply, as does the usual defences, as do the usual win/loss ratios. Curiouser and curiouser, says I, somewhat ungrammatically.

      Pot/kettle?

      Of course, the name may just be a coincidence. The author appears to be a British IT consultant, not a professional writer like PCC(E).

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted December 20, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Reminds me of the kind of slightly insecure type of writer who resents the intrusion of scientists onto their own turf, along with the scientific mindset that favours rigour, clarity and precision of language over messy verbiage and the endless spinning out of a single, inchoate idea.

      Richard Dawkins writes exquisitely but never(I was going to write ‘never, ever’…:) ) wastes a word – this is much more difficult than spinning out one half-idea into a long article or even a whole book, which is what plenty of writers do.

      I read something recently in which the English writer Will Self unloaded on Orwell, ostensibly for being a soulless pedant or something, but basically(IMO) because people like Orwell, Pinker, Dawkins and others, who share the same mindset when it comes to writing, are all very good at spotting when someone is covering up a dearth of ideas with florid language and meaningless phrases. Will Self is a typical exponent of that kind of empty, narcissistic posturing, and he’s also, like a disappointing number of writers who come broadly from the humanities, quite heavily anti-science. Yet he’s absolutely everywhere – on political debate programmes, on radio ‘thought-pieces’, in newspapers. They even paid the miserable fucker to visit the LHC, which he found predictably pointless and wasteful. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him put forward an interesting idea in the time I’ve heard him speak – it’s almost a skill to be able to say that much, with such confidence and florid vocabulary usage, and yet say almost nothing at all.

      At a deeper level I think it represents a resentment that science and science writers are considered ‘authorities’ on matters of truth in a way that normal writers aren’t, and so one of the things that non-science-writers withhold as theirs and theirs alone is the ability to write ‘well’, whatever that means.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Richard Dawkins writes exquisitely but never [..] wastes a word – this is much more difficult than spinning out one half-idea into a long article or even a whole book, which is what plenty of writers do.

        It’s also much harder work than cranking out the verbiage. Which is why Will Self is probably afraid of people who can do it. (I recognise his name, but can’t think of anything significant that I’ve read of his. A non-event of a writer.)

  18. Mike
    Posted December 20, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    If I can understand what is written or spoken, I’m not too bothered about the Grammar.

    • Dominic
      Posted December 21, 2016 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      My Gramma is dead 😦

  19. Dominic
    Posted December 21, 2016 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    But Jerry IS a writer!!! Never read a book by malvolioblog…

    Hopefully is an English word – “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive” – but ALSO is a loan translation in English from German.

  20. Posted December 21, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I agree that the comment about you not being a writer was both rude and inaccurate. I can’t help noticing, however, that “Da Roolz” seem not to be in effect when it comes to rudeness toward people with religious convictions.

    To cite just one example among many, in the post about “The TLS osculates Christianity,” (Dec. 19) the observation that “…God can be expected to appear openly to those who truly search, but to remain hidden from those who do not seek” elicited this response:

    “Oh,how fucking convenient.”

    Which in turn elicited this:

    
”Just like Bigfoot then.”

    Which in turn elicited this:

    “So, if I find god, then I’ll also find Big-athletes-foot as a deistic encrustation?”

    Can you or someone explain to me why these comments are not considered “rude” or “uncivil”? Surely it’s possible to disagree with someone without resorting to ridicule. As with the regressive left’s championing of tolerance—for everyone except those who don’t share their views—there seems to be a blind spot here.


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