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That week-old hot dog is nauseous.
January 31, 2012 3:26 PM   Subscribe


 
I predict arguments.
posted by chavenet at 3:30 PM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


20 archaic conventions from Oxford and Cambridge originally intended to discern which people had studied Latin and were thus of a worthy social strata, now blessedly dropped by most English speakers.

(I mean, I like the article, but if almost everyone gets it wrong then it's not a mistake anymore, just an old convention without any modern value.)
posted by Navelgazer at 3:31 PM on January 31, 2012 [34 favorites]


It is true that these are common errors. But the explanation of correct usage is abominable.
posted by bearwife at 3:31 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

In American legal usage (at least), a "moot issue" is one that is resolved/over/doesn't matter any more.
posted by Cocodrillo at 3:35 PM on January 31, 2012 [18 favorites]


Since and Because

“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.


Haw may use this example in my Comp Class
posted by angrycat at 3:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

This isn't a grammar "mistake" but an issue of usage. Thus, this common "misuse" is simply another definition of the word, which a couple of minutes with a dictionary would have revealed to the author. E.g.:
moot
• subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision: whether the temperature rise was mainly due to the greenhouse effect was a moot point .
• having no practical significance, typically because the subject is too uncertain to allow a decision: it is moot whether this phrase should be treated as metaphor or not.
In fact it looks like most of the points in the article are about usage rather than grammar. The may/might, nauseous/nauseated, and farther/further distinctions are all examples of a traditionalist, prescriptivist view fighting against the way the words are actually used (i.e. interchangeably). In the case of nauseous, the usage the author derides as "embarrassing" is now standard.
posted by jedicus at 3:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [15 favorites]


(of course, the irony/coincidence thing drives me crazy, and the envy/jealousy thing could probably do with a look, so I'll get off any sort of high horse now.)
posted by Navelgazer at 3:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Although, no, that's a shitty example.

Since I quit drinking I've had three ham sandwiches -- would be a better illustration.
posted by angrycat at 3:37 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


At the end of the article he says "A few of these examples are listed in the book, and there’s plenty more. Good luck! ".

Presumably "there's plenty more" is a contraction of "there is plenty more". But isn't "plenty more" plural in this case, since he's talking about a number of discrete examples rather than a single large quantity? If so he should say "there are plenty more".

Anyway, I think it's pointless worrying about things like this. Impactful is a word if you want it to be. There's no law against inventing new words.
posted by rubber duck at 3:37 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Farther and Further

The word “farther” implies a concrete, measurable distance. “Further” should be reserved for abstract or hypothetical lengths. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet farther than Bill. e.g., The executive climbed further up the ladder of success.


Nope. It's just a pronunciation difference. In the magazine I edit, "further" is the only acceptable form.

Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

In my usage, a "moot" is a discussion in a pub with plenty of stout and ale. Nothing much matters after a few pints, to be honest.
posted by Jehan at 3:37 PM on January 31, 2012


Loose and lose are not the same thing (and this extends to loosing/losing and loosers/losers). Similarly, hoard and horde are not the same thing.

If you make these mistakes, I will physically fight you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:38 PM on January 31, 2012 [20 favorites]


There is a confusion here between grammar and usage

grammar is the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax.
posted by Postroad at 3:39 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


In the magazine I edit, "further" is the only acceptable form.

Then you're wrong. Why don't you explore that further? Or, get farther away from me so I can't punch you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:40 PM on January 31, 2012 [26 favorites]


“Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives.

There is never more than one alternative. There can be many options.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:41 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


In my usage, a "moot" is a discussion in a pub with plenty of stout and ale. Nothing much matters after a few pints, to be honest.

Would that be like a "Kingsmoot"? ;)
posted by Capricorn13 at 3:41 PM on January 31, 2012


Prescriptivists gonna prescribe.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:41 PM on January 31, 2012 [43 favorites]


In American legal usage (at least), a "moot issue" is one that is resolved/over/doesn't matter any more.

And moreover, it infers something that cannot ever be resolved, no matter how hard you try. "The man is dead. Therefore, his opinion on the color of the curtains is a moot point."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:42 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm ranted about this before, and I'm usually a descriptivist, but you know what misuse I can't stand? Nonplussed does not mean calm and serene, people. It means almost the exact opposite! I'm nonplussed about people's misuse of "nonplussed". This is a case where it is actually confusing when people misuse the word.

Loose and lose are not the same thing (and this extends to loosing/losing and loosers/losers). Similarly, hoard and horde are not the same thing.

If you make these mistakes, I will physically fight you.


Lose/loose drives me up the fucking wall, because the two words are pronounced differently. I don't mind hoard/horde, their/they're/there, you're/your, etc as much because my brain at least doesn't needlescratch.
posted by kmz at 3:43 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


A few of these examples are listed in the book, and there’s plenty more.

There is?
posted by headnsouth at 3:44 PM on January 31, 2012 [19 favorites]


I don't know whom he thinks he is. This is one of those articles which gives me a headache. I need to go lay down before I get all worked up. This language stuff, how it’s continually changing, it’s exasperating! I knew how to do everything when I was in school, but they keep changing them! I am jealous of the person who gets to decide these rules. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme nor reason! I might write an angry letter to this Jon Gingerich and ask him whom told him these rules and if I can have their phone number. Oh well, whatever. The less things I have to worry about the better. I’ve gotten farther in my life than most people my age since I was disinterested in partying and the drugs in college. Unlike the other kids, I was always anxious for my final grades. I always knew I was different than them. I knew distracting myself in the popularity game wouldn't bring me to where I needed to get in life. I knew I wanted an impactful career, one that would allow me to have a big affect on people. It’s ironic then that I am the most successful person out of all my class. Anyway, sorry to go off on that tangent, this article about solipsisms are making me nauseous.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 3:44 PM on January 31, 2012 [27 favorites]


The one (almost) everyone gets wrong is "its" versus "it's." It's CONTINUALLY misspelled, even on metafilter- even on FPPs on metafilter. And unlike this article's mostly trivial minutiae, it really does mark the writer as an idiot.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:45 PM on January 31, 2012 [13 favorites]


In American legal usage (at least), a "moot issue" is one that is resolved/over/doesn't matter any more.

Contrary evidence: Moot is occasionally used as a verb in legal circles to mean "argue a case" in a mock court.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:45 PM on January 31, 2012


I'm uninterested and disinterested.
posted by kozad at 3:46 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mistake #1

Thinking grammar rules are anything but descriptive.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:47 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dont get any of these wrong.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 3:47 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Contrary evidence: Moot is occasionally used as a verb in legal circles to mean "argue a case" in a mock court.

The key word there is mock. It's called moot court because you're not really deciding anything (or a real court already has).
posted by stopgap at 3:50 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Aren't many of these usage issues, not grammar errors? There are such things as grammar errors, damn it: in English, we don't end sentences with verbs, after all. The fact that there is no Platonic tablet, with this rule inscribed on it, does not mean that it is correct to do this in English!
posted by thelonius at 3:51 PM on January 31, 2012


One of the most common grammar errors is to confuse proper syntax and prescriptivist word usage for grammar, as grammar is the basic rules under which meaningful sentences can be constructed.
posted by klangklangston at 3:51 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


And moreover, it infers something that cannot ever be resolved

I think you mean it implies.
posted by Gator at 3:51 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like to append "onto the unsuspecting world" onto any sentence using loose instead of lose. It makes it much more fun.

This article brings back memories of being annoyed at my father lecturing me about how I was feeling nauseated and not nauseous, a point I cared little about right before vomiting.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 3:52 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I mean, not like the Germans do. You know perfectly well what I mean, damn you!
posted by thelonius at 3:52 PM on January 31, 2012


I mean, not like the Germans do.

Perfect.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:53 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is a horrible, horrible nightmare. Isn't it? Tell me I'm not awake.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:54 PM on January 31, 2012


I think you mean it implies.

Got me, fucker!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:55 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


This article doesn't address verbing at all and therefore I cannot favorite the post.
posted by carsonb at 3:55 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


I probably won't get drunk if I have 2 shots in 20 minutes.

"May get drunk" my ass...
posted by symbioid at 3:57 PM on January 31, 2012


The one (almost) everyone gets wrong is "its" versus "it's." It's CONTINUALLY misspelled, even on metafilter- even on FPPs on metafilter. And unlike this article's mostly trivial minutiae, it really does mark the writer as an idiot.

Eh, every time I see a misplaced apostrophe, I think, "why did we invent those things in the first place?" They only serve to help us look down on people who can't remember arbitrary rules. I mean, is it 1980's or 1980s? I only allow the latter, but fuck knows why one might be wronger than the other. Do other languages use apostrophes to mark a case? Wait, 1980s is a plural not a possessive, so we don't mark that with an apostrophe, do we? But we do mark contractions, so does it count under that rule?

You remember that person in school who used to "win" arguments by referring to the dictionary definition of a word you used? That's the apostrophe: stupid, fallacious, and irrelevant.

BOYCOTT APOSTROPHE'S!
posted by Jehan at 3:58 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm surprised "myself" didn't make his list. In almost all cases where it's used a better word would be "I" or "me".
posted by rocket88 at 3:59 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager.” To be “anxious” implies a looming fear, dread or anxiety. It doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to something.

Every dictionary I checked seems to have the second or third entry for anxious contradicting the author, e.g., earnestly desirous; eager (usually followed by an infinitive or for ): anxious to please; anxious for our happiness.
posted by justkevin at 4:00 PM on January 31, 2012


In the case of nauseous, the usage the author derides as "embarrassing" is now standard.

While this is true, it kind of drives me nuts. I was so frequently corrected by someone (I honestly can't recall who) about using "nauseous" when I actually meant "nauseated" that I can't help but notice when people use the "wrong" one.
posted by asnider at 4:02 PM on January 31, 2012


I, for one, am personally offended whenever someone arbitrarily omits the possessive 's' after an apostrophe.

Reading a sentence like "Those are Chris' slippers" makes me want to punch a kitten.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 4:02 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm surprised "myself" didn't make his list. In almost all cases where it's used a better word would be "I" or "me".

I find that, when people use "myself" incorrectly, it is usually in an attempt to make themselves sound smarter.
posted by asnider at 4:02 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Eh, every time I see a misplaced apostrophe, I think, 'why did we invent those things in the first place?' They only serve to help us look down on people who can't remember arbitrary rules."

The forgotten letter
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:04 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Twat and twit

Contrary to popular usage, these words aren’t synonymous. A twat introduces a relative clause, whilst a twit is a restrictive pronoun. e.g., what sort of twat writes like this about language, e.g., I hope my writing is never assessed by a twit like this.
posted by iotic at 4:06 PM on January 31, 2012 [13 favorites]


I hate it when people get mistakes wrong!
posted by RogerB at 4:06 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


Reading a sentence like "Those are Chris' slippers" makes me want to punch a kitten.

"Who's slipper's are those?"
"Their Chrisses slipper's."
posted by Jehan at 4:07 PM on January 31, 2012 [13 favorites]


My wife told me that grilled fishy was very healthy. I told her she was wrong, the fish was long dead, health was a distant memory for Mr Salmon. I didn't get the chance to explain the utility of the word "healthful", because she quite rightly punched me in the face.
posted by wilko at 4:07 PM on January 31, 2012 [18 favorites]


Lay and lie is one that I wish would stop bugging me, but it does. The annoying thing about misuse of irony is that it dilutes the meaning of the word for no good reason. Fewer and less rub me the wrong way.

Moot, anxious, nauseous, may and might mean what people use them to mean; words change their meaning all the damn time, so I'm not going to worry about these ones.

Haggling over "nor"? So not worth it.

I find that, when people use "myself" incorrectly, it is usually in an attempt to make themselves sound smarter.

These are the only category of silly grammar mistakes that bug me: ones made when trying to sound "smart." Talk like you talk; alter your vocabulary, maybe be more precise, if you want to sound smart, but don't sprinkle your sentences with words and grammatical constructs you obviously don't actually know how to use.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:08 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have seen so many people in so many different situations misuse "loose" in place of "lose" that when I see it used correctly, I'm disproportionately impressed/grateful/delighted and unable to process the rest of the sentence.

Conversely, when I see it misused I am so overwhelmed by homicidal rage that I can also no longer process the rest of the sentence.

the obvious moral of this story is that i have inappropriate emotional responses to mundane stimuli.

Also now I feel like I have misused "misuse" at least once in that previous paragraph.

ok now it doesn't even look like a word anymore misuse misuse misuse mooseurosre
posted by elizardbits at 4:14 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


ur all wrong bc dis is da way o da futur amiritelol
posted by PapaLobo at 4:14 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Similarly, hoard and horde are not the same thing

I said to my husband a couple weeks ago, "Let's go see the Anglo Saxon hoard at the National Geographic Society" (very cool exhibit, you should definitely see it if you're in DC). He said, "the what?!" I said, "the hoard. you know, the Anglo Saxon one some farmer found in England a couple years ago" He said, "really? they have, like, a real Anglo Saxon horde there?" Took us about 10 minutes to figure out what we were each talking about.
posted by Cocodrillo at 4:14 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I want to down vote this so bad. I'll link to MerriamWebsterOnline's youtube instead.
posted by 534154414E at 4:15 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


oh god also discreet/discrete i can't take it anymore

JUST KILL ME NOW
posted by elizardbits at 4:15 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not really in agreement with the because/since distinction. "Since" also gets used causative conjunction: e.g., "Since you don't seem to be using that dildo, I'll borrow it." or "I took your bone saw from the dungeon, since you never use it." Those both seem like perfectly valid, normal, unremarkable uses of "since."
posted by LMGM at 4:16 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope Language Log gets on to this one: fish in barrel time.

Who and whom: bollocks
Fewer and less: bollocks. MWDEU: "Here is the rule ... It has only one fault - it is not accurate for all usage".
Farther and further: bollocks. MWDEU: "both farther and further are in flourishing use whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved"
Whether and if: bollocks.
posted by raygirvan at 4:17 PM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]


They talk about "different from" versus "different than" but nary a mention of the constant use of "different to" which melts a tiny part of my brain ever time I see it.

Never mind; if at least two people use a wrong word it just mean the lexicographers haven't caught up with them yet
posted by ook at 4:18 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


After reading the article, I thought to myself... "Self, do you know if 'farther' and 'further' share a common etymological origin?" And my self replied, "I do not, sir. Let us investigate farther." To which I answered, "Surely, self, you mean to say, 'Let us investigate further'." And my self retorted, "Actually, what I meant to say was: Let us investigate both 'farther' and 'further', the single-quotes being key." So we did. Here is what we found:

An online dictionary resource has a few usage notes for 'farther' that suggest both the distinction the author wishes to draw between 'farther' and 'further', and further that such distinction is of relatively recent development. For much of their histories, the words 'further' and 'farther' have (apparently) commonly been used interchangeably. Further, the entry for 'further' reports etymological origins for both 'further' and 'farther', and they are rather different... sort of.

My self and I have agreed to disagree on whether to follow the modern conventional division of the words. While neither I nor my self is a strong prescriptivist, one of us is much lazier than the other.
posted by dilettanti at 4:19 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I've been chided by goons a couple of times for my use of "hopefully" as meaning "it is hoped that ____", rather than as in "thee ceorl strode hopefully onto the tourney field" or however they'd rather see it used. I'm kind of surprised that that one didn't make the list, considering it's the most frequent unsolicited correction I personally encounter!

I'm with the chorus that the enforcement of usage rules is misguided and possibly self-important, though I imagine proto-Indo-European X thousand years ago was moulded as much by the give and take dialectic between wanton innovation and staunch conservatism as English is today. When I'm feeling charitable I believe that both these viewpoints need to be present, like keeping an oar in the water on either side of the canoe.

I know where I stand with regards to it all though. The other day I saw a graphic (cartoon strippers) a friend posted on facebook supporting the Oxford comma because of those situations where it might clear up ambiguity. The thing is, any writer with a sliver of self-awareness would be able to avoid that ambiguity through any number of means, strategic comma deployment being just one of them, or they might choose to deliberately maintain the confusion for effect -- and if a writer without self-awareness is behind the maybe-ambiguous piece, consistent comma usage is probably the least of its problems. That some people feel there must be an across-the-board 'rule' to avoid a grammar hypothetical strikes me as a manifestation of the same thought process that legislates the "warning: beverage hot!" labels on coffee sleeves.
posted by metaman livingblog at 4:20 PM on January 31, 2012


I would agree those are totally standard uses of the word 'since'. Busybody prescriptivists, however, don't care how people actually use words, they care about making up imaginary rules and enforcing them, so your example is moot in their worldview.

Unrelatedly, if anyone can make my coworker stop saying 'hafting', I would very much appreciate it.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:20 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Aren't many of these usage issues, not grammar errors?

Yes, and I don't see why anyone would take the advice of someone who doesn't know what grammar is. And I'm glad you said "usage issues" rather than "errors," because most of them aren't errors at all. The final nail in the coffin comes at the end:

If you’re looking for a practical, quick guide to proper grammar, I suggest the tried-and-true classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

The tried-and-true classic discussed.
posted by languagehat at 4:21 PM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]


These are the only category of silly grammar mistakes that bug me: ones made when trying to sound "smart." Talk like you talk; alter your vocabulary, maybe be more precise, if you want to sound smart, but don't sprinkle your sentences with words and grammatical constructs you obviously don't actually know how to use.

I have often heard people use the form "that belongs to Steve and I", seemingly because they instinctively think that "Steve and me" is too common, or is wrong in some way. If a native speaker can ever really be "wrong" in speech, I guess this is an example of it, because I reckon they're not really saying what they want to say, they're saying what they feel should be the correct written form.
posted by wilko at 4:25 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh good! More ammo to make me hated at parties.
posted by dutcherino at 4:27 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I've been chided by goons a couple of times for my use of "hopefully" as meaning "it is hoped that ____"

Ask those people why it's OK to use "sadly" as a sentence adverb but not "hopefully." Or send them here ("If you really wanted to ensure that your English would be clearer because you used hopefully ... in only one way, you'd have to ensure that almost everyone else did the same; otherwise, they'll interpret what you say in terms of their own linguistic system") or here ("if you’re not willing to use a non-original meaning of a word, you’re going to have to excise a substantial portion of your vocabulary") or, if I may be immodest, here ("That's right, people essentially never use hopefully to mean 'in a hopeful manner' when they're speaking their native language").
posted by languagehat at 4:29 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


My personal hatreds, just from this morning:

- It isn't "have your cake and eat it too". Of course you're going to eat the god-damned cake if you've already got it. It's only crazy if you want to eat all the cake and then still have cake.

- It isn't a "dry reach". It's "retch". A dry reach is something you do with an unlubricated arm (you know what I'm talking about girls).

- "The exception that proves the rule" is not a contradictory piece of data that "proves", as in demonstrates the undeniable truth, of the argument you are making. An exception does not SUPPORT a line of reasoning. It either "proves" as in "tests" the rule, or it invalidates it entirely.

*screams*
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:29 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm with the chorus that the enforcement of usage rules is misguided and possibly self-important, though I imagine proto-Indo-European X thousand years ago was moulded as much by the give and take dialectic between wanton innovation and staunch conservatism as English is today.

"Why are you pronouncing 'hundred' like that?"
"Like what? 'Hundred.'"
"You know, like that! You sound like you have a lisp."
"No I do not!"
"You do. It's weird."
"Nevermind. Would you like some some peas for dinner, or how about cherries?"
"You're doing it again!"
posted by Jehan at 4:29 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did the author plagiarize this article from a year ago?
posted by mrnutty at 4:30 PM on January 31, 2012


you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager.”

You "love" them. Your friends are "important" to you. They would never "harm" you. You can "trust" your friends. They are not "all against you." They have "your best interests" in mind. They are not "wearing disguises." They do not have "wasps in their pockets" and are not waiting for you to "let down your guard"
posted by Greg Nog at 4:30 PM on January 31, 2012 [51 favorites]


20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong

The only way to get a mistake wrong is to do something right.
posted by DU at 4:31 PM on January 31, 2012 [15 favorites]


I get mentally stuck at the farther/further thing because I have to make sure I don't say "farther, yeah - he married me muvver" before replying.
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:35 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


This actually gives a good idea of what a prescriptivist in grammar is; it's someone who believes that there can be "almost ubiquitous misuse" by native speakers of their own language.
posted by layceepee at 4:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


> I have often heard people use the form "that belongs to Steve and I", seemingly because they instinctively think that "Steve and me" is too common, or is wrong in some way. If a native speaker can ever really be "wrong" in speech, I guess this is an example of it, because I reckon they're not really saying what they want to say, they're saying what they feel should be the correct written form.

No, that is not why they say it. There has been much discussion of the phenomenon; see, for instance, "The case for politeness: Pronoun variation in co-ordinate NPs in object position in English" by Philipp S. Angermeyer and John Victor Singler, or the analysis by Mark Liberman (MeFi's own myl) at Language Log.

In general, it's a bad idea to pull linguistic analysis out of one's navel, and in particular it's a bad idea to try to decide why other speakers use a form of which you disapprove, because your analysis is almost certain to be 1) insulting and 2) wrong.
posted by languagehat at 4:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


It isn't a "dry reach". It's "retch".

I've never seen anyone use the word "reach" here; usually they say "wretch". Which is also wrong of course oh wait we are all supposed to be descriptivists these days I forgot so that is perfectly fine too

You "love" them. Your friends are "important" to you. They would never "harm" you. You can "trust" your friends. They are not "all against you." They have "your best interests" in mind. They are not "wearing disguises." They do not have "wasps in their pockets" and are not waiting for you to "let down your guard"

Excellent decor, uneven service; $$$
posted by ook at 4:39 PM on January 31, 2012


No "begs the question"???

I reject this list.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:42 PM on January 31, 2012


The one (almost) everyone gets wrong is "its" versus "it's." It's CONTINUALLY misspelled, even on metafilter- even on FPPs on metafilter. And unlike this article's mostly trivial minutiae, it really does mark the writer as an idiot.

Oh, bullshit. It's a weird little exception case involving two very common bits of English glue, and one that almost never manifests itself in actual ambiguity, because the work of making sense of the meaning of its vs. it's is overwhelmingly done by the grammatical context in which it occurs rather than by the word itself.

I'm not claiming to be a certified genius or anything but I'm fairly certain that my tendency to get those wrong sometimes is a product of production errors when I'm typing rather than because I have some fundamental inability to comprehend basic possessive pronouns and contractions. If you want to go fishing for idiots, look to ideas, not typos.
posted by cortex at 4:42 PM on January 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


"Bring and Take " - do people actually get these wrong? They didn't even provide an example for this one.
posted by yath at 4:46 PM on January 31, 2012


The funny thing about the rise of iPhones is that you never have to actually type an apostrophe. Don't won't can't even ain't. Then you run into its and no apostrophe.
posted by smackfu at 4:47 PM on January 31, 2012


I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that rather than meaning to describe mistakes, he means to demonstrate mistakes.
posted by Flunkie at 4:47 PM on January 31, 2012


I've never seen anyone use the word "reach" here

Yeah, sorry, I meant my three examples are from IRL...that's the way I hear it pronounced more often than not.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:47 PM on January 31, 2012


One of the most common grammar errors is to confuse proper syntax and prescriptivist word usage for grammar, as grammar is the basic rules under which meaningful sentences can be constructed.

Not so. Grammatical sentences are not necessarily meaningful.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2012


Metafilter: bitter nerds who accumulate tweed jackets and crippling inferiority complexes
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2012


Interesting that the author doesn't make any mention of regional variation. "Different than" and "different from" strike me particularly as a case of British vs. American English, for example.

British vs. American English: Round One: Fight!
posted by jiawen at 4:50 PM on January 31, 2012


Despite the fact that almost no one ever uses it, there really is a speed limit, pretty much everywhere, at least in the US.
posted by kimota at 4:51 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


A pendant is a piece of jewelry suspended on a chain and hung about the neck. A pedant spends too much time composing long-winded lists of what everyone else does wrong when they speak write. One little letter eh?

I am myself frequently confusing orphan/often.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 4:55 PM on January 31, 2012


The subtle changes in a living language can be a real nigger in the woodpile.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2012


you can't "get a mistake wrong" without a mistake in grammar
posted by kitchenrat at 5:05 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


"In general, it's a bad idea to pull linguistic analysis out of one's navel, and in particular it's a bad idea to try to decide why other speakers use a form of which you disapprove, because your analysis is almost certain to be 1) insulting and 2) wrong."

I'm kinda surprised that you're even bothering, LH. Prescriptivist peeving is uncannily immune to facts and evidence. It's a very good example, in my opinion, of the accumulation and defense of cultural capital and therefore these debates take the same forms as, say, debates about artistic merit.

It's worth contesting when it shows up in small and manageable doses—in an individual case, the stakes aren't so high and people are more likely to listen to reason and examine evidence. But something like this? This thread exists primarily as an invitation to peeve and therefore demonstrate the possession of cultural capital.

Not only is MetaFilter not populated by the wealthy and powerful, but rather by the intellectual and arty, it's dominated by a group for whom language usage is an extremely important component of our accumulated cultural capital. This discussion is a defense of our prized possessions against the barbarian hordes who are attempting to plunder them. Reason be damned, this is a fight for identity and self-worth.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:06 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Bring and Take " - do people actually get these wrong? They didn't even provide an example for this one.
He does give an example. Unfortunately, the example makes me question whether or not he even knows what "subject" and "object" mean:
In order to employ proper usage of “bring” or “take,” the writer must know whether the object is being moved toward or away from the subject. If it is toward, use “bring.” If it is away, use “take.” e.g., Bring that here. e.g., Take that there. Your spouse may tell you to “take your clothes to the cleaners.” The owner of the dry cleaners would say “bring your clothes to the cleaners.”
posted by Flunkie at 5:06 PM on January 31, 2012


I find that, when people use "myself" incorrectly, it is usually in an attempt to make themselves sound smarter.

My boss uses "myself" instead of "me" all the time when he's writing letters. I change it when I type it up, and sometimes he'll make me change it back. Then I remember it's his name on it and I let him change it.
posted by Lucinda at 5:08 PM on January 31, 2012


*sings*

Farther along we'll know more about it
Farther along we'll understand why...

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:09 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reason be damned, this is a fight for identity and self-worth.

Oh speaking of pulling analysis out of one's navel sheesh
posted by ook at 5:12 PM on January 31, 2012


*sings*
posted by kneecapped at 5:22 PM on January 31, 2012


*sings*

Farther along we'll know more about it
Farther along we'll understand why...


I grew up with just a mother, and knew little about my dad. I often asked my mother about him, but try as I might, I sadly got no father information.
posted by Jehan at 5:30 PM on January 31, 2012


No "begs the question"???

I reject this list.


THIS ONE IS MY PET PEEVE. And people do it all. the. time. A guest on Talk of the Nation the other day did it and I found myself yelling at the radio.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:32 PM on January 31, 2012


You mean you got no father along with that line of questioning?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:32 PM on January 31, 2012


-- "In general, it's a bad idea to pull linguistic analysis out of one's navel, and in particular it's a bad idea to try to decide why other speakers use a form of which you disapprove, because your analysis is almost certain to be 1) insulting and 2) wrong."

I'm kinda surprised that you're even bothering, LH. Prescriptivist peeving is uncannily immune to facts and evidence.


Heavens, I wasn't trying to make a stand for prescriptivism, just making an observation about how people use speech. You know, I did put "wrong" in quotes... Admittedly I was being anecdotal, but I think it's uncontroversial that (to quote a source from LH's link) "It is not uncommon at the present time to hear I used instead of me after a Verb or Preposition, as though the speaker wished to avoid the latter form". As to why people do that, well in my own previous experience I'd hover between the two forms, and err on the side of what I think is more literary and correct - I say "given to Steve and I". Then a second later I would think "Ack, that's wrong, I'm just being high-falutin, I should have just said the words that came to mind". Now, if it turns out I should be more comfortable in my own use of the "wrong" form, because even though it's wrong, and it feels wrong, it's more right than the wrong one, then I guess I'll just have to work on that :D
posted by wilko at 5:32 PM on January 31, 2012


I would of included some different examples myself...
(I hate myself for writing that)
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:35 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting that the author doesn't make any mention of regional variation. "Different than" and "different from" strike me particularly as a case of British vs. American English, for example.

That would be American v British English, respectively.

I also feel that "farther" is an Americanism; not used elsewhere.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:37 PM on January 31, 2012


Postroad: There is a confusion here between grammar and usage

grammar is the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax.

And usage is the practice of how sentences of a language are constructed in morphology and syntax.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:38 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ye Gods, I came across a paper that was pretty well done but for all of these 'would of' 'could of.' I was like for the love of Christ, HAVE HAVE HAVE. Those 'of' blats felt like bad brain worms in my head.
posted by angrycat at 5:40 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


So let me see if I understand this: When most people use "nauseated" and "nauseous" to mean the same thing, then they mean the same thing, but when most people use grammar to refer to a set of prescriptivist concepts of how a language is best spoken, that's WRONG WRONG WRONG?
posted by Casuistry at 5:41 PM on January 31, 2012


These people are utter dicks who are doing the dickass thing of saying US usages are "wrong". In the US, "moot" means "irrelevant, not worthy of discussion" no matter who in the UK thinks it should be different.

Also, "stool pigeon" UK = "fall guy" US, and "stool pigeon" US = "grass" UK. Nobody's wrong here, it's just different usages.

And the title of the article hardly reflects good English syntax in any usage: either you get the correct usage wrong, or you make a mistake. You don't get a mistake wrong.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:50 PM on January 31, 2012


"in any usage community" in my last sentence. I have succumbed to the Great Karmic Law that any griping about someone else's grammar, syntax, word choice or punctuation will contain at least one glaring error.

As for "would of" and "could of" (which I loathe), people were doing that in the 19th century in both the US and England. It isn't some recent horror, it's a horror that goes way back.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:53 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


when most people use grammar to refer to a set of prescriptivist concepts of how a language is best spoken, that's WRONG WRONG WRONG?

People who expect other people to take them seriously when giving usage advice should be expected to know the difference.
posted by nangar at 5:54 PM on January 31, 2012


Kind of nice to see "that vs. which" addressed. I teach English as a foreign language and cannot express just how angry I get that the textbook pretends they're the same thing, and gives patently wrong examples ("This is a movie which makes us happy."). grumble grar
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:55 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


but when most people use grammar to refer to a set of prescriptivist concepts of how a language is best spoken, that's WRONG WRONG WRONG?

It's more that it's IRONIC IRONIC IRONIC. I have no real problem with people speaking casually and using "grammar" to refer generally to usage and style issues, but then I'm flexible like that. I'd object to someone using "grammar" to refer to something other than actual grammar only when they're pretending to speak with authority on matters of language. Using formal terminology imprecisely to complain about people in casual speech not hewing to perceived formal style is a kind of basic hypocrisy that is so pervasive in self-appointed grammar/usage peevers that it makes pretensions to correctness and righteousness in their supposed guardianship of language maddening to behold.

If you're a skilled editor and you're looking at the work you've been paid to do, by all means hold the language before you to the house style and usage guidelines, and god bless you for it. If you're a skilled editor and you're doing this to random people's writing in your free time, consider taking up a second job; you'll make more money and annoy fewer innocents. If you're anybody else, you're very likely just pissing about, which would not be a problem in and of itself but often innocent bystanders get spattered rather badly.
posted by cortex at 5:56 PM on January 31, 2012




You don't get a mistake wrong.

It's like a bogus sham! (Not that there's anything wrong with that ...)
posted by wilko at 5:56 PM on January 31, 2012


"Nauseous" meaning "affected with nausea" has been in dictionaries for over 20 years, and not just as some nonstandard usage.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:59 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hell, OED has that meaning for "nauseous" going back to the late 19th century. (There's also a few cites for a 17th century variant that means "disposed toward nausea".)
posted by cortex at 6:06 PM on January 31, 2012


"So, it would be "ironic" if “Barbara moved from California to New York to escape California men, but the first man she ended up meeting and falling in love with was a fellow Californian.”
posted by quoquo at 6:12 PM on January 31, 2012


I, for one, am personally offended whenever someone arbitrarily omits the possessive 's' after an apostrophe.

Reading a sentence like "Those are Chris' slippers" makes me want to punch a kitten.


Omitting a second s after a possessive apostrophe on a noun that already ends in an s is not arbitrary. It is in fact a standard grammatical rule. (Yep, that's a grammatical rule, not a usage convention.)

I hope you weren't being facetious?
posted by eviemath at 6:13 PM on January 31, 2012


Omitting a second s after a possessive apostrophe on a noun that already ends in an s is not arbitrary. It is in fact a standard grammatical rule.

Is not.
posted by naoko at 6:21 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Omitting a second s after a possessive apostrophe on a noun that already ends in an s is not arbitrary. It is in fact a standard grammatical rule. (Yep, that's a grammatical rule, not a usage convention.)

Say it out loud. The second 's' is there. "Those are Chrisses slippers." It's usage that a second 's' is sometimes omitted in writing.
posted by Jehan at 6:22 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


These are the only category of silly grammar mistakes that bug me: ones made when trying to sound "smart." Talk like you talk; alter your vocabulary, maybe be more precise, if you want to sound smart, but don't sprinkle your sentences with words and grammatical constructs you obviously don't actually know how to use.

The prescriptivist assumption is that these words and grammatical constructs actually have correct uses, that using them properly is in fact an apt gauge of intelligence. But isn't "trying to sound smart" a primary function of the whole system, of grammar and high vocabulary in general? People who follow the arbitrary rules well are trying just as hard to sound smart as those who follow them poorly. Arguably they're succeeding, but to what end? The rules have no inherent rightness, only what grammarians have instilled in them through authoritative screeds like this post. For whatever reasons we've become conditioned to respond to the rules positively and correlate them with smartness. We do this without thinking, as we read or listen, passing judgment on the communicator for reasons wholly unrelated to his or her message. We've bought into the charade.

The way I see it, the ability to follow pointless rules like these is just another way to classify people. On one side of the line is an elite literate caste, if we are to believe said elite literates (for they have the definitive privilege of setting themselves apart), and on the other is a sea of bumbling, inarticulate buffoons. A higher class and a lower one. Us and them.

There's value in communicating clearly. But there's a threshold where additional grammar can't make a message any clearer than it is already. Beyond that point the rules are just garnish, for tastes that are ultimately subjective (albeit culturally reinforced). In most cases it doesn't make a lick of difference if you insert unnecessary apostrophe's, madeupical words, or Oxford commas. The only purpose these stupid rules serve is to give the literate class reason to wring their hands over the foibles of their inferiors.

I'm not dismissing all rules of grammar but I do think they should be demoted to mere suggestions. I promise it won't drive clear communication to extinction, though clear communication will surely evolve into something different from what it is today. That's just change, the only thing constant in the world; it's not something we should fear. What we should fear, or at least recognize as something negative, is the divisive effect a prescriptivist attitude toward inane rules can have on society.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 6:36 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


"So, it would be "ironic" if “Barbara moved from California to New York to escape California men, but the first man she ended up meeting and falling in love with was a fellow Californian.”

No, it's only ironic if there is rain on their wedding day.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:44 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Not so. Grammatical sentences are not necessarily meaningful."

That you have inferred a "necessary" clause does not mean one was implied.

Also, I will say that I'm a pretty good editor, but I'm a pretty mediocre copy editor. (Just to be honest.) Proofreading is not my forte. (And God bless Howard Cosell for his rants on that word.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:46 PM on January 31, 2012


And, good Lord, nobody gets "shall" and "will" right anymore. It's VERY SIMPLE, people:

Will represents simple futurity: I will go to the grocery store sometime soon.
Shall represents compulsary futurity: I shall die if I don't eat some food.
In the second and third persons, shall suggests represents that the will of the person being discussed is not being taken into account: You shall eat it, and you shall like it!
Will also represents desire, or willingness: I will go to the movie if you pay for the tickets!
It also represents willfulness: He will do whatever he wants!

It's just that simple, and not at all archaic, and you shall seem a fool if you willfully refuse to get it right! But some of you will refuse, won't you?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:51 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


And don't you even get me started on the use of thee, thou, and thine!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:52 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It isn't a "dry reach". It's "retch". A dry reach is something you do with an unlubricated arm (you know what I'm talking about girls).

I've never heard of a "dry reach" in either meaning you are alluding to here, though I have heard it used to mean a dewatered stretch of a river.

Language is a beautiful thing; I am a total descriptivist, but also love the patterns and rhythms of "traditional" or prescriptionist grammar, which either makes me a hypocrite or a flexible kind of guy, I don't know.
posted by Forktine at 6:52 PM on January 31, 2012


If you're a skilled editor and you're doing this to random people's writing in your free time, consider taking up a second job [...] If you're anybody else, you're very likely just pissing about

There's something I really don't get about this descriptivism-only-unless-you're-an-editor argument (as I've said around here before): why bother dispensing with all authority in matters of usage if you're only going to let it straight in the back door again? Or if there's no true authority but attested common usage, then why should "skilled editors" still be allowed the privilege of their own prescriptivism, even in more limited form? You'd really think that descriptive linguists would be excited to read and compile and analyze "grammar" guidelines like the ones in this post, or in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or whatever — they're all essentially just compilations of folk beliefs and practices about language, more data grist for the sociolinguistic mill. (I'd be fascinated to see a study about what characteristics of "grammar mistakes" tend to rub people the wrong way enough to make one of these lists and why; why do some usages seem more "mistake"-like or rule-violating than others? Which categories of linguistic rule do prescriptive list-makers tend to endorse/infer/fabricate, and which do they ignore?) But instead these things, unique in the realm of language practice, are immediately greeted (by the anti-language-police police) with a chorus of WRONG FALSE BAD rather than "yeah, sometimes people say that, it's interesting, huh?"

Why isn't a list of prescriptive rules about usage, however arbitrary or ahistorical, just yet another interesting element of our common language practice in itself? What makes these lists of "mistakes," alone in the world of language, not just more usage to be described but instead a target to be ceaselessly railed against — and, come to that, why isn't every user of language equally entitled to have and to argue for her own preferences about its usage in her specific communities of linguistic practice, on whatever grounds she please or none at all? It's more than just "irony," because there really is a serious implicit contradiction in the Internet-knee-jerk-descriptivist attitude on this question: it's as if the only truly impermissible error is to claim that there is such a thing as error.
posted by RogerB at 6:53 PM on January 31, 2012


I'm glad the writer mentioned that vs. which. Not interchangeable, people!
posted by emelenjr at 7:20 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


The one (almost) everyone gets wrong is "its" versus "it's." It's CONTINUALLY misspelled, even on metafilter- even on FPPs on metafilter. And unlike this article's mostly trivial minutiae, it really does mark the writer as an idiot.

Maybe if you don't know the difference between them at all. But it's very easy to reach for "it's" when you mean "its" -- not just because the former is much more common, but because the "possessive = 's" rule is so strong that it's almost muscle memory.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:25 PM on January 31, 2012




There's something I really don't get about this descriptivism-only-unless-you're-an-editor argument (as I've said around here before): why bother dispensing with all authority in matters of usage if you're only going to let it straight in the back door again? Or if there's no true authority but attested common usage, then why should "skilled editors" still be allowed the privilege of their own prescriptivism, even in more limited form?

I'd guess it's because editors are often the guardians of the "corporate voice" or stylesheet. So, while it might be OK for private citizens to write however they like, the editors are preserving the voice of The Times, the Oxford Uni Press, or People Magazine.

Or, if you're talking about fiction editors, well, I certainly expect a more "professional" style of language in a novel I've bought, unless messing with language is a deliberate part of the author's style.

In other words, it's horses for courses. Published writing is the thoroughbred to the vernacular mule.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:28 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Favorite usage ever: I was a law school student playing roller hockey with a bunch of undergraduates. Some question regarding the rules came up---I can't remember but think it had something to do with the puck getting stuck in the fence---and after much discussion, one of the players said "It's a [M]oog point," and the others agreed.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 7:43 PM on January 31, 2012


"There's something I really don't get about this descriptivism-only-unless-you're-an-editor argument (as I've said around here before): why bother dispensing with all authority in matters of usage if you're only going to let it straight in the back door again? Or if there's no true authority but attested common usage, then why should "skilled editors" still be allowed the privilege of their own prescriptivism, even in more limited form? You'd really think that descriptive linguists would be excited to read and compile and analyze "grammar" guidelines like the ones in this post, or in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or whatever — they're all essentially just compilations of folk beliefs and practices about language, more data grist for the sociolinguistic mill. (I'd be fascinated to see a study about what characteristics of "grammar mistakes" tend to rub people the wrong way enough to make one of these lists and why; why do some usages seem more "mistake"-like or rule-violating than others? Which categories of linguistic rule do prescriptive list-makers tend to endorse/infer/fabricate, and which do they ignore?) But instead these things, unique in the realm of language practice, are immediately greeted (by the anti-language-police police) with a chorus of WRONG FALSE BAD rather than "yeah, sometimes people say that, it's interesting, huh?" "

Ubu touched on it, but consistency is something that people notice a lot when they're reading — or rather, inconsistency. So with a tremendous number of prescriptivist hangups, it's really that you're making an arbitrary decision (or a decision based on the class assumptions of your publication regarding your audience) and then have to hold yourself to it otherwise people will notice.

Oh, and newspapers still get reams and reams of cranky mail from the only people that still subscribe to newspapers — the crotchety old folks — bitching if they make "mistakes."

(That's ignoring the other reasons to have style prescriptions, which sometimes arise for practical considerations, e.g. the emphasis of the AP on brevity before all else is due to the constraints of wire transfer.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:06 PM on January 31, 2012


Oh, and newspapers still get reams and reams of cranky mail from the only people that still subscribe to newspapers — the crotchety old folks — bitching if they make "mistakes."

I almost wrote a cranky email to the Sydney Morning Herald last week, when an article about tattoos referred to Sanskrit as an "ancient Chinese language".
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:10 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to go fishing for idiots, look to ideas, not typos.

Or, try MetaFilterTM!
posted by Aizkolari at 8:16 PM on January 31, 2012


Lose/loose drives me up the fucking wall, because the two words are pronounced differently.

To you. By no means is this true of all English speakers. Indeed, lose/loose is a dialectical test, one of many, of course.
posted by eriko at 8:27 PM on January 31, 2012


Shouldn't it be "grammatical mistakes"?
posted by uosuaq at 8:35 PM on January 31, 2012


If you’re looking for a practical, quick guide to proper grammar, I suggest the tried-and-true classic The Elements of Style A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) (aka Fowler's)

There, fixed that for you.
posted by eriko at 8:36 PM on January 31, 2012


"Anything further, father? That can't be right. Isn't it 'anything farther further'?"

- Dr.Quincy Adams Wagstaff, President, Huxley College.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 8:36 PM on January 31, 2012


HENCHMAN #21: "Gentlemen, choose your weapons."
HENCHMAN #24: "Is this them?"
HENCHMAN #21: "'Are these they?'"
HENCHMAN #24: "Who talks like that?"
MONARCH: "Out of the way! I am the leader here; I will distribute the -- ffflahh. Are these they?"
posted by modernserf at 8:46 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


tumid dahlia: "The exception that proves the rule" is not a contradictory piece of data that "proves", as in demonstrates the undeniable truth, of the argument you are making. An exception does not SUPPORT a line of reasoning. It either "proves" as in "tests" the rule, or it invalidates it entirely.

You get annoyed when you see this "error", and I get annoyed when I see the error of it being corrected this way. From Wikipedia:

"The original meaning of this idiom is that the presence of an exception applying to a specific case establishes that a general rule existed."

For instance:

"We can't park here; the curb is red!"
"Well, the sign says 'No parking on weekdays'. As it's Sunday, it must be okay to park."

The exception of a specific case "proves" the general rule that parking is allowed on the weekend, even though it isn't explicitly stated. ("Implies the rule" is probably more clear, but "proves the rule" is, of course, the actual isiom.)
posted by gilrain at 8:49 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I admit that I originally thought this thread was going to suck if it stuck around, but the lack of an edit window is making it a lot more entertaining than I expected.
posted by Gator at 8:52 PM on January 31, 2012


Does the error impede communication? If so, correct it. If not, don't.

Or I will stab you in the neck with a fork. Swear to God. Right in the neck. Tell me I said "lay" and meant "lie" one more time. Bam. Right in the neck.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:00 PM on January 31, 2012


RogerB - because there are very real social consequences of prescriptivist attitudes. At the bottom of the "real harm" scale, these sorts of arbitrary peeves are used to just make people feel bad. Once you get into their use as a means of signifying race/class/gender/other, they can then be used to deny jobs, loans, housing, and so on.

The house style for the New York Times or whatever serves the unambiguous purpose of looking professional. Everyone that writes for the Times spends the necessary, er, time to ensure that a given piece matches the house style. Not only is this often aesthetically pleasing, it bespeaks a work ethic that is valuable in a news organization. It says "we're the sort of people that dot all our i's in the same fashion, just like we rigorously check our facts and do our best to present a balanced view of the situation." Different house styles serve different purposes, but that's the general idea, and that's why good editors are so prized.

The problem is when people try to export these arbitrary rules to the whole world so that they can say "I'm better than these other people who don't know the rules!" That's wrong, and it should stop.
posted by kavasa at 9:04 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Evacuation makes people nauseous.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:04 PM on January 31, 2012


Also - the linked article is truly awful and full of (IMO) terrible advice. If you describe a nasty old weiner as "nauseous," you're going to confuse some people.

Poor little ol' hotdog. It's got the flu.
posted by kavasa at 9:20 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is amusing me, as the first real thread I ever delved into on MeFi was about this same thing, and good god has my position changed since then. (Than then? Nah, "since then" feels right.)

I think realizing that dictionaries are fundamentally descriptivist was a big turning point for me. But now, I can picture a ton of analogies for how I view language and its place in culture. I picture the French ruling body on the French language, for instance, as something of a gold standard, which English has no use for and has more or less abandoned in favor of a more abstract standard of "grammar is as useful as the communication value of the message meant to be conveyed by it, within the expectations of the intended audience" or some such.

Similarly, I could compare the "true usage" pedants to constitutional originalists, pinning the accurate meaning of concepts we live with and use today to some arbitrary point in the past without explaining why that point in time (and place, really) had any source of greater wisdom than ours.

But the real analogy in my mind is to the system used in the tabletop game "Mage," which is probably a little esoteric, so I'll explain.

In "Mage," you play as a magic user (of many different schools) with the power to bend reality in certain ways tied to your school. Basically, if you can find a way within your powers to do something, you can do it, but the world around you has a collective unconscious, which has its own views on the ways in which the universe operates, and if you violate that collective unconscious viewpoint too drastically, you'll get slapped with "paradox," basically the collective view of reality punishing you for going outside of its rules.

But in "Mage," you are also trying, subtly or otherwise, to push the envelope a little. You know that a few centuries ago, magic was considered real, if still persecuted, and as such you could get away with more, and so you try to push what is considered possible. The Technocrats, on the other hand, are violently trying to enforce the modern view, and will shut down any deviations with force.

That's how I view language and culture now. People pushing at it, changing it, and while the collective unconscious has a vague idea of an ideal, and will recoil somewhat with deviations from it, but people keep pushing at the edges, and that ideal shifts and changes over time. Guys like the author of this piece are the Technocrats, trying to enforce order on a system which does just fine without it, thank you very much.

(Interestingly, the game supports this theory in other ways as well. One school - the Order of Hermes - places great emphasis on the "true names" for things, and manipulates that knowledge to their benefit. But the most notable support is probably that magic which flies in the face of the collective understanding of the universe - which you can perform, but at great risk - is called "vulgar.")
posted by Navelgazer at 9:20 PM on January 31, 2012


If everybody gets it wrong, it's no longer wrong. It's just different -- changed, in the precise way that language always changes.

By the ears, minds, and mouths of children.
posted by effugas at 9:57 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's something I really don't get about this descriptivism-only-unless-you're-an-editor argument (as I've said around here before): why bother dispensing with all authority in matters of usage if you're only going to let it straight in the back door again? Or if there's no true authority but attested common usage, then why should "skilled editors" still be allowed the privilege of their own prescriptivism, even in more limited form?

I have no problem with skilled editors doing editing work for pay not because I think it's divine work but because it is at least someone doing the work for a reason—if a publication is going to have a house style, paying someone to enforce it makes sense. If an author, or an author's publisher, wants that author's work to be given a more thorough editing pass than the author alone is willing or able to accomplish, having an editor do that work makes sense. In short, an editor doing a job of editing is doing a job, and good for them. Even so if it's volunteer work in a remunerative sense; it's not the money that makes the difference to me, it's the idea that someone said "please subject this to editorial review" as a prerequisite.

(Even at that, it's called a house style because the houses that care to enforce standards of consistency internally cannot agree between them on what those standards should be. But, hey, it's the conceit of a publication, or of a discipline, or of a community of practice, and if they see value in enforcing their private subset of English, they can do that for those who are opting in to that process. It does not make them gatekeepers of the English language, it makes them gatekeepers of their preferences, which is fine precisely and only as far as that goes.)

It's the volunteering of peevery that annoys me, and for two reasons: first, because it is obnoxious, like almost any sort of unsolicited advice; second, because (hopefully) unlike an editor being employed to do a specific job a specific way according to a specific style, the avocational pedant tends to employ little else than a set of acquired superstitions and a sense that by loudly having an opinion they are accomplishing something good. Ignorance of how language actually works is an annoyingly common characteristic of the people most willing to tell others, unsolicited and vehemently, that they are using language wrong. It's that habit of volunteering to be unknowingly wrong about being right that gets up my shirt.

And I am hardly an expert; I just know enough to know how little I know, and prefer to spend my time learning about and being delighted by linguistics as a science rather than wielding it at others as a superstition. There's so much that's fascinating and wonderful about natural language that I find time spent complaining about dis-preferred usage galling, and poorly footed complaints doubly so.

Why isn't a list of prescriptive rules about usage, however arbitrary or ahistorical, just yet another interesting element of our common language practice in itself?

It is! All sorts of language use, and human perception of and categorization of and reaction to language use, is interesting! All of it is a part of the weird wonderful tapestry that is our collective metalinguistic ompholaskepsis. I love that people spend time thinking about and having opinions about language.

But that stuff being interesting as specimens of the language complex doesn't make the wrongheaded peevers any less annoying to encounter in discussion or any less potentially corrosive to folk's actual joy in language engaged in for language's sake (rather than strangled self-consciously for the sake of avoiding some scold's blargworthy chides). The physiology and neurolinguistics behind the slurring of a drunk's speech are also really interesting, but that doesn't mean I want to be hollered at by drunks in bars either.
posted by cortex at 10:11 PM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'd add to cortex's excellent comments that prescriptivist peevers are far more often wrong than right on their own terms.

Claims about historical and contemporary usage are frequently wrong. Claims about a writer's own usages are frequently wrong. Claims based on Latin grammar are just silly (English isn't Latin). Claims about etymology are frequently folk etymologies.

I'd be far more tolerant of prescriptivism if, even in being profoundly wrong about what language is (hint: not math, not a designed artifact), the "facts" and arguments it relies upon weren't usually crap.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:22 PM on January 31, 2012


By my understanding, an editor on a novel isn't there to enforce rules of style so much. Rather, they take a shepherded project, create an internal consistency for it, and clean up issues within it while keeping as close to the authorial intent as possible. They may change and even slightly re-write some portions in order to make the finished product as polished as possible, but I doubt they care very much about oxford commas.

Think of them, rather, as highly literate professional #1 fanboys, entrusted with making sure the author doesn't embarrass themself.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:24 PM on January 31, 2012


Copy editors do indeed edit manuscripts to reflect the particular publisher's style sheet or stylebook. "Chris's sneakers" is correct in all of the style sheets and stylebooks I've worked with personally, but I know there are style sheets/stylebooks that call for "Chris' sneakers". I don't see the logic of "Chris' sneakers," but if I were copy editing for a client whose house style that was, I would bite my tongue and go with it, just as I have when copy editing for clients who are anti-Oxford comma.

Of course there are things that are objectively wrong--saying that the sentence "Dog weren't buckets near raisin, yes?" is synonymous with "The proper study of mankind is man" is objectively wrong--but this kind of nitpicking list doesn't really address that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:32 PM on January 31, 2012


To amplify my response to Navelgazer: when one writes a novel, one has an editor (who sees the project through to completion, makes suggestions about large changes, etc.) and a copy editor (who checks spelling, grammar, and punctuation and corrects them so that they conform to house style). One may or may not have had a lengthy email debate with one's copy editor about whether one could keep "Teheran" in one's book, even though "Tehran" was that publisher's house style. One may have lost.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is just horrifying to me that an editor could write a piece like this -- practically every bit of advice is either a pure mistake or a dubious stylistic doctrine. Imagine the violence he must do to the work of the writers he publishes. Imagine the embarrassment if his usage of "moot" goes out under your name.
posted by grobstein at 10:34 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd say I'm about 80% descriptivist, and 20% prescriptivist. I mean, there have to be some hard and fast rules, or else the primary purpose of language--communication--is defeated.

I can't believe that there is anyone here who isn't a prescriptivist about something.
posted by tzikeh at 10:34 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Bring and Take " - do people actually get these wrong? They didn't even provide an example for this one.

There are many local usages that invert the textbook usage of these. "Bring me out to the ballgame" isn't incorrect in many locales.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:36 PM on January 31, 2012


Imagine the embarrassment if his usage of "moot" goes out under your name.

It's the correct UK usage. It would be totally misleading in a US context, of course.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 PM on January 31, 2012


Pubic Service Announcement
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:42 PM on January 31, 2012


Bob the Angry Flower explains the difference between "its" and "it's" in this lovely poster.
posted by tzikeh at 10:47 PM on January 31, 2012


I'd say I'm about 80% descriptivist, and 20% prescriptivist. I mean, there have to be some hard and fast rules, or else the primary purpose of language--communication--is defeated.

The thing is, the rules are baked in. Natural language wasn't designed ahead of time; the rules, such as they are, are a description of how language emerges naturally from the interaction of human beings. If that weren't the case, if the only thing that made human verbal communication possible was some sort of externally enforced set of rules, we'd all still be speaking a single Ur-language from thousands or tens of thousands of years ago, or speaking nothing at all. We certainly wouldn't have the crazy (if now sadly shrinking) abundance of languages that we have; we certainly wouldn't see language steadily evolve over time while still retaining all its nuance and robustness.

There's nothing really at odds between being a descriptivist (in the sense of observing language as it actually happens) and being a prescriptivist (in the sense of having preferences about how language should ideally be presented for specific contexts). That the two ideas end up at odds is almost entirely the work of the sillier sorts of prescriptivists, the ones who mistake their preferred rules and superstitions for something other than just that.

Humans are natural descriptivists, or we'd never have gotten as far as sharing any languages. Natural language is an amazing emergent property of our neural wiring and our social interactions; that it is not static, that it by its nature defies prescriptivist instincts, is not a bug but a feature. Prescriptivism as an attempt to state a preference in some specific context is fine, everybody has their likes and dislikes; but prescriptivism as an attempt to trap language in amber, to freeze it in some presumed-perfect snapshot (though nobody can quite agree which snapshot that should be, even the people who think they agree) is a misguided, doomed, and frequently deeply annoying venture.
posted by cortex at 10:56 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about those who truly care about language and want to express themselves both as precisely and as poetically as possible? I think the extent to which the class angle is pushed is a little silly—sure there are many who may try to prove their superiority by sounding more technically correct and thus "discriminating" against people who have less knowledge, but honestly, there are people with a passion for language itself who are not merely trying to show off. Just because some are doesn't mean all are. You wouldn't accuse mathematicians of being pendantic twits because they insist on standard, correct usage of mathematical terms (I am not a mathematician so there may be arcane exceptions I am not aware of). I understand that language and mathematics are different, but they are certainly not opposites and from a certain view have much in common; in fact they could be called different forms of the same basic thing, ie. languages but for different applications. I know it's stretching the comparison, but the real issue is, does it make language better and clearer? If so, then you should be allowed to advocate for it all you want. Language is something that everyone must use and therefore it has to be flexible enough to accommodate all, but at the same time it is necessary to have standards to aim for. The important thing is to use language appropriately and honestly for the purpose and situation, not to be either lazy or conceited, and to embrace growth and change but still maintain some kind of order.
posted by blue shadows at 10:57 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about those who truly care about language and want to express themselves both as precisely and as poetically as possible?

I'm one of those people, which is why I would never follow these douchenuggets' advice in a kazillion years.

I think there's a huge difference between saying "It's confusing when people use 'beneficiary' where the standard usage is 'benefactor'" and saying "The US usage of 'moot' is wrong and everyone who uses it is wrong."

Language is a tool. You don't dial 999 when you're in the US and want to summon emergency help, even though that's correct in the UK.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:02 PM on January 31, 2012


Language is not like mathematics and they are not different forms of the same thing. To believe so is to deeply misunderstand both language and mathematics.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:10 PM on January 31, 2012


Different forms of the same thing is perhaps too strong, but there are some similarities nevertheless that I was trying to express although my wording may not have been adequate.
posted by blue shadows at 11:34 PM on January 31, 2012


"What about those who truly care about language and want to express themselves both as precisely and as poetically as possible?"

As your editor, I will tell you that there are two parts to any communication — what you intend to communicate and what your audience understands you to have communicated. As such, you pick your words and tools, but you ultimately have incomplete control of your message, and insisting on a layer of artificial rules not commonly held will often handicap your message.

Sure, yeah, when I write, I tend not to write "comprised of" when I mean "composed of"; that's a rule where adherence has no ill effect and improves clarity for those who care. But I find the utility of pedantry with "hopefully" very near nil, and my audience generally agrees. Therefore, I have little need of another layer of formality to alienate myself further.
posted by klangklangston at 11:51 PM on January 31, 2012


I don't think we disagree on the basics, I just think some of the examples in the article are actually useful while many are not.
posted by blue shadows at 12:12 AM on February 1, 2012


"Different forms of the same thing is perhaps too strong, but there are some similarities nevertheless that I was trying to express although my wording may not have been adequate."

No, I think I know what you meant. They do seem similar and I'm pretty sure that I would have argued the same point as you sometime in the past.

But, on the one hand, it's wrong to think that mathematics is more than minimally a communication tool. And, on the other hand, it's wrong to think that language is more than minimally a rational tool. "Minimally" may be overstating it; but my point is that the essence of language is communication and the essence of mathematics is rational analysis.

Because both are symbolic systems, and because mathematics has some communicative utility and language has some rational analysis utility, it's easy for people to believe that they're far more alike than they really are. And, in doing so, this emphasizes intuitions that math is essentially communicative and language is essentially rational, both of which are profoundly mistaken.

Language absolutely is not a consistent symbolic formal system. It is not an artifact of deliberate reason, as mathematics is; and there is no authority which determines its use, as mathematics has (though de facto). Perhaps most importantly, language is inherently ambiguous, it frequently sacrifices certainty for efficiency where math does exactly the opposite.

Linguists Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman, and others, have written numerous times about the fallacy that descriptivism is equivalent to asserting that there are no notions of correctness, no standards, that all utterances are necessarily equal. Pullum:
It's about whether an occurring utterance matches the correctness conditions (whatever they may be) for the speaker who uttered it. Either speakers or linguists can be wrong. Speakers will sometimes speak or write in a way that exhibits errors (errors that they themselves would agree, if asked later, were just slip-ups); and linguists will sometimes state correctness conditions in a way that incorporates errors in what is claimed about the language (errors that they themselves would agree, if asked later, were just mistaken hypotheses about the language). I claimed that I'm right about the correctness conditions on verb agreement in Standard English, and that the person who wrote the letter I quoted made a slip-up. That's not a contradiction — no one is attempting to be both an apple and an orange.

And none of the foregoing has anything to do with prescriptive claims about grammar, which are a whole different story. Prescriptivists claim that there are certain rules which have authority over us even if they are not respected as correctness conditions in the ordinary usage of anybody. You can tell them, "All writers of English sometimes use pronouns that have genitive noun phrase determiners as antecedents; Shakespeare did; Churchill did; Queen Elizabeth does; you did in your last book, a dozen times" (see here and here for early Language Log posts on this); and they just say, "Well then, I must try even harder, because regardless of what anyone says or writes, the prohibition against genitive antecedents is valid and ought to be respected by all of us." To prescriptivists of this sort, there is just nothing you can say, because they do not acknowledge any circumstances under which they might conceivably find that they are wrong about the language. If they believe infinitives shouldn't be split, it won't matter if you can show that every user of English on the planet has used split infinitives, they'll still say that nonetheless it's just wrong. That's the opposite insanity to "anything that occurs is correct": it says "nothing that occurs is relevant". Both positions are completely nuts. But there is a rather more subtle position in the middle that isn't. That is the interesting and conceptually rather difficult truth that Zink does not perceive.
Pullum wrote about "correctness" (revised from a talk he gave at the MLA in 2004):
I begin by taking it for granted that there are conditions we might call correctness conditions for natural languages. (Whether they are standard languages, non-standard dialects, or undescribed tribal languages of preliterate peoples does not matter: all have correctness conditions.) And I will also assume that it is possible in principle to be perfectly explicit about such conditions. In terms of the distinction drawn familiar thirty-?ve years ago by John Searle, They are constitutive, not regulative. They do not regulate the use of the language, in the sense that one could use it either in ways that comply or in ways that don’t; they constitute the language, in the sense that not respecting them amounts to not using it at all but doing something else instead.
...and in his conclusion, he argues:
It is a complete caricature of linguists’ attitudes to usage that they think anything goes and regard everything that occurs as grammatical. They don’t. Quite to the contrary, they insist that there are constitutive correctness conditions for natural languages, conditions that define the difference between right (grammatical) and wrong (ungrammatical) for individual languages. Grammaticality is not to be confused with choice of formal style, though: informal style is grammatical too.

Correctness conditions provide sufficient justification for saying that something is grammatical or ungrammatical, provided they are the correct conditions; but they need their own justification. Linguists seek to justify formal statements of proposed sets of correctness conditions by means of a basically scientific investigative methodology — it based on attention to evidence.

Prescriptive ideologues tacitly take the descriptive work to be already done (they do not spend any time on order of subject and predicate or preposing of relative pronouns, where there is no disagreement); their concern is solely with a superstratum of particular points on which usage is controversial and they have a view to present.

The regulative rules that the prescriptive ideologues advocate need their own justification, if they are to have any force. If the justification offered were to be simple compatibility with the facts of usage in uncontroversially admirable exemplars of good English prose, the prescriptivist project would collapse with that of the linguists, so that is never the justification cited. Instead an array of external sources of justification are vaguely alluded to.

These are very diverse, but what is clear is that none of them can be taken seriously. The prescriptive ideologues do not know what is found in the texts they take to illustrate good usage; they do not even know what their own usage is. Jacques Barzun, for example, recommends using only that for integrated relative clauses on one page of his book Simple and Direct (1975), and then opens a paragraph on the next page by using one with which. E. B. White does not even get through the second paragraph of his Stuart Little without using an integrated relative with which, which in The Elements of Style he deprecates.

Unjustified and perhaps unjustifiable, the rules of the prescriptive ideologues, dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar.
I don't think anyone critical of prescriptivism and the related peeving are arguing that there should be no standards applicable, ever. I certainly am not.

French, for example, has a widely taught and understood notion of register. I think it would be helpful if educators and others were to move from discussing English usage "rules" and traditions as if they were self-evidently universally true and necessary, and instead toward discussing these things as usage registers which are (or are not) appropriate for a given social context.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:28 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is not an artifact of deliberate reason, as mathematics is

Ha ha ha. If only.

and there is no authority which determines its use, as mathematics has (though de facto)

What? No, there's no authority, de facto or otherwise, for correct mathematical usage either. There are significant variations, both regional and topical, in what constitutes syntactically correct math. Or maths.



Oh, wait... did you mean arithmetic? That is not the same thing.
posted by erniepan at 12:39 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, I meant mathematics.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:55 AM on February 1, 2012


Three Strunks and you're White.
posted by Segundus at 1:17 AM on February 1, 2012


I mean, there have to be some hard and fast rules, or else the primary purpose of language--communication--is defeated.

No, hard and fast rules are not needed, because the necessity of communication will ensure that conventions exist.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:13 AM on February 1, 2012


@Pullum: uncontroversially admirable exemplars of good English prose ... is never the justification cited

That's one of the particularly ripe aspects of prescriptivism. It claims to admire great writers, but if the usage of such writers disagrees with prescriptivist rules, it disses the evidence by claiming either that it knows better than these writers on those points, or that great writers "know when to break the rules".
posted by raygirvan at 3:25 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


French, for example, has a widely taught and understood notion of register.

And English doesn't? Please instruct your audience further in the mysteries of French. You seem very well informed for a person who doesn't speak, write, or read French. And who has never taught English.
posted by Wolof at 4:01 AM on February 1, 2012


> I'd say I'm about 80% descriptivist, and 20% prescriptivist. I mean, there have to be some hard and fast rules, or else the primary purpose of language--communication--is defeated.

But think about those languages—the vast majority—that have never been written down, or only by the occasional linguist/anthropologist; how do you suppose their speakers manage to communicate without "hard and fast rules"? And what about people five hundred years ago, before grammar books for vernacular languages had been invented: didn't Shakespeare manage to communicate pretty well, and all the other people of the day who managed to sell their crops, buy beer, and arrange marriages without benefit of Strunk and White or spelling rules? The whole obsession with "grammar" (in the peever sense) and "correctness" is a very modern one, and (as I've said many times before) the clearly counterfactual pretense that it's necessary for communication is a fig leaf to cover up its true value, which is that of preserving the elitist structure of society. Making sure that people can speak and write "correctly" serves the same function as making sure they knew Latin in an earlier era, and I don't like it one bit.

Which is not to say I don't appreciate the pleasure to be had in manipulating the traditional rules; you will notice I write according to them, and I make my living from them as well (I'm a copyeditor). But language in general? It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on February 1, 2012


"You seem very well informed for a person who doesn't speak, write, or read French. And who has never taught English."

You seem to think you know me, when you clearly don't, and it's odd.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:33 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


To you. By no means is this true of all English speakers. Indeed, lose/loose is a dialectical test, one of many, of course.

Wait, really? I'm at least vaguely familiar with a lot of accents/dialects and I don't think I've ever heard of one where those two words were pronounced the same. I honestly would like to know more about it, if you have some sources. (Not trying to be snarky, genuinely curious.)
posted by kmz at 7:39 AM on February 1, 2012


Why is "jewelry" sometimes spelled as "jewellery"?
posted by grammiD at 7:41 AM on February 1, 2012


Why is "jewelry" sometimes spelled as "jewellery"?

Racism.
posted by Edison Carter at 7:45 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


My theory:

There is no prescriptivism. There is no descriptivism. These words don't describe mutually exclusive opposed positions. If you try to define them rigorously you will not be able to cleanly distinguish them. I think we owe their vernacular ubiquity to the success of Language Log (note that I'm not claiming LL invented them).

"Prescriptivism" in particular is a kind of culture-war tag for a certain family of popular, non-professional language criticism, like "Eats Shoots and Leaves" or "The Elements of Style." These works are often pedantic, and they often include stylistic pronouncements based on usage errors or false generalizations. Furthermore they often include a more-or-less explicit social conservatism (language was better in the good old days; it is okay to criticize poor people for deviating from Standard English). So the fit isn't one-to-one, but I think it makes sense to think of "prescriptivism" as a label for a family of populist linguistic-conservate rhetoric.

If you are a blogger and linguist, then, you have at least three independent reasons to come out against "prescriptivism":
1) Its practitioners are wrong on usage points.
2) It imports a conservative agenda.
3) It usurps professional privilege, because its practitioners are not trained as linguists.
I don't think I'm being unfair in suggesting that all three of these reasons from time to time may motivate attacks on "prescriptivism." And we can generalize 3) so that it applies not only to professional linguists but to educated liberal people generally:
3a) Prescriptivism represents vulgarity in the public sphere, because the uneducated and unsophisticated are usurping the privilege of the educated.
(Note that I think a lot of liberal criticism of populist conservatism takes this form -- "that's sexist, as you would realize if you'd taken Women's Studies 101," "that argument relies on Econ 101 reasoning." This is part of the psychological appeal of painting the opposing masses as racist, as well. Part of the reason "but I'm not racist" is an unpersuasive argument is because it signals unsophistication. Conversely, theories of what kinds of behavior are racist or sexist have become at least formally more sophisticated over the decades, as the Republicans became the party of whites and anti-racism became the distinguishing social feature of liberals.)

So much for "prescriptivism." The thing that bothers me about the culture-war usage of these terms, though, is that the activity of linguistic prescription gets subsumed under the label of the supposed thought-system of prescriptivism.

Prescription is merely the activity of offering guides or rules to language and usage; it doesn't depend on those guides and rules having any metaphysical status. You don't have to be a "prescriptivist" to see the value of prescription. For example, languagehat, no prescriptivist, can say:
Which is not to say I don't appreciate the pleasure to be had in manipulating the traditional rules; you will notice I write according to them, and I make my living from them as well (I'm a copyeditor).
The job of a copy editor is in part linguistic prescription. Nor, I think, do prescriptions have to have high statistical validity as descriptive linguistics to be useful. It is even possible, for example, to like "The Elements of Style," as I do, without any particular metaphysical commitments. I don't want to stake my whole argument on this, but it has always seemed like a useful and witty book to me. Geoffrey Pullum (of Language Log) obviously hates it, but he sees it as a symbol of the hated class, prescriptivism, and that makes him a very uncharitable reader of it. Get away from this essentially political division and there is still much to appreciate.

In sum, I think the whole "prescriptivism"-"descriptivism" opposition is an example of the ways that bloggy communication and political self-segregation limit and impoverish our discourse. It's a contrived distinction that makes it easy to signal your loyalties but harder to appreciate the world as it is. That's a loss for all of us.
posted by grobstein at 8:14 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've given up on party as a verb (last time I brought it up here or on another blog someone claimed that usage goes back many, many decades). I've even given up on the over/mis-use of awesome.

But when the hell did the defintion of fortuitous become not just "by accident" but also meaning "fortunate"? For several years I've been smugly assuming people were wrong when they used it the latter way.
posted by NorthernLite at 8:23 AM on February 1, 2012


(Having made a long post implicating Language Log, I should point out that there is a pretty good Language Log post discussing a similar thesis.)
posted by grobstein at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2012


The thing that bothers me about the culture-war usage of these terms, though, is that the activity of linguistic prescription gets subsumed under the label of the supposed thought-system of prescriptivism.

My feeling is that mostly this only happens when it's done in straw-man fashion by prescriptivists themselves, though, as a defense of prescriptivism as the only thing keeping language safe from chaos and collapse in the hands of the anarchic descriptivists, the madmen who want to ruin language &c.

You do not actually see folks who defend a descriptivist sensibility about language routinely arguing that prescription itself has no value or no place or that language should in fact be some incomprehensible free-for-all where all rules are rejected and purple cloudburst antipodal quickly snorkelers. It's an invented position, an imagined destructive force for peevers to position themselves in righteous opposition to.

Like you say (and like I said up thread), there's nothing fundamentally opposed about having a descriptivist appreciation of language as-it-is and having prescriptive opinions about language as-it-can-be-deployed-in-context. Most people who describe themselves as descriptivists wouldn't even need to do so if not as a definitional reaction to the silliness that is popular prescriptivism; they'd just call themselves "people actually paying attention to how natural language works", because that's the core qualifying practice. Prescription by someone paying attention is fine; prescription by someone who doesn't even know what they're talking about is the problem.

And those folks most capable of offering prescriptive advice that is thoughtful, well conveyed, and based on something other than superstitious nonsense, are as a rule descriptivist in bent, because it's that underlying attentiveness to language and the contexts in which it is used that makes it possible to offer reasonable counsel in the first place. In the absence of prescriptivist nonsense we wouldn't need the descriptivist label at all, and the idea of prescription as a kind of advice about communicative style in specific formal contexts would be entirely unmuddied.
posted by cortex at 8:49 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


tzikeh: I'd say I'm about 80% descriptivist, and 20% prescriptivist. I mean, there have to be some hard and fast rules, or else the primary purpose of language--communication--is defeated.

Citation? Because I can refute your hypothesis 10:1 with facts. 100:1, if we allow dialects.

I can't believe that there is anyone here who isn't a prescriptivist about something.

Red Herring. 3 yard penalty. The topic is language, not "traffic laws".
posted by IAmBroom at 8:57 AM on February 1, 2012


You do not actually see folks who defend a descriptivist sensibility about language routinely arguing that prescription itself has no value or no place or that language should in fact be some incomprehensible free-for-all where all rules are rejected and purple cloudburst antipodal quickly snorkelers. It's an invented position, an imagined destructive force for peevers to position themselves in righteous opposition to.

No, you don't see anyone going that far, it's an imagined and ridiculous position -- and one that I didn't attribute to anyone. What you do see is people attacking particular examples of prescription on the grounds that they're "prescriptivist" or similar, even though prescriptivism is a bugbear. They use the rhetoric of "prescriptivism" to license attacks on what may merely be innocuous prescription, or on prescription that they actually find objectionable for some suppressed other reason. When I posted my rant on my blog someone immediately posted an example in the comments; I feel like I've seen this sort of thing many times.
posted by grobstein at 9:34 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought this was going to be this article, which - and I am in no way snobbish about poor spelling - made me wonder whether some people actually think about the words they use.

I once had an argument with a boyfriend who was convinced it was 'button' down the hatches and not 'batten', and decided to correct me when I said the phrase. A completely understandable misconception as it makes logical sense to button something down, but not a good one upon which to base snark.

Why is "jewelry" sometimes spelled as "jewellery"?

We pronounce the extra syllable in British English, or at least RP speakers do.
posted by mippy at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2012


I don't get any of those wrong. Sadly, all Americans say "different than", and it depresses me. Mind you, they say "alternate" when they mean "alternative" too, and that's even more depressing. And they don't know what an adverb is. It's enough to make a person loose his mind.
posted by Decani at 12:15 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


it really does mark the writer as an idiot.

...Except when it happens to people who are painfully conscious of the correct usage in a typo (because it's also one of the easiest typos to make when typing in a hurry).

I'm not sure I completely buy the since/because distinction; "since" is used so frequently in the causal sense now that it seems like a moot point to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:09 PM on February 1, 2012


> people essentially never use hopefully to mean 'in a hopeful manner' when they're speaking
> their native language

Scene: kitchen
Self (slicing tomato): "Oh. Ow. Ow!"
Spouse: "What on earth?"
Self: "I cut my thumb!"
Son (8) (hopefully): "Off?"
posted by jfuller at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the article title.
posted by grobstein at 4:27 PM on February 1, 2012


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