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The Corrections
February 22, 2005 11:15 AM   Subscribe

The Grammarian. Miss Gould, as she was known to everyone at the New Yorker, died last week, at the age of eighty-seven. She worked at the magazine for fifty-four years, most of them as its Grammarian (a title invented for her). A typical “Gould proof” was filled with the lightly pencilled tracery of her objections, suggestions, and abbreviated queries: “emph?” “ind.,” “mean this?”. Writes David Remnick: "She confronted the galley proofs of writers as various as Joseph Mitchell, J. D. Salinger, Janet Flanner--well, everyone, really.". More inside.
posted by matteo (77 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
“My list of pet language peeves,” she once told The Key Reporter, the Phi Beta Kappa newsletter, “would certainly include writers’ use of indirection (i.e., slipping new information into a narrative as if the reader already knew it); confusion between restrictive and non-restrictive phrases and clauses (‘that’ goes with restrictive clauses, and, ordinarily, ‘which’ with nonrestrictive); careless repetition; and singular subjects with plural verbs and vice versa.” She was a fiend for problems of sequence and logic. In her presence, modifiers dared not dangle. She could find a solecism in a Stop sign.
(...)
In some cases, Miss Gould’s suggestions took the ideal of clarity to Monty Python-like extremes. For example, some years ago, she saw the phrase “. . . and now sat stone still, chewing gum throughout the proceedings” and suggested replacing the last bit with “sat stone still except for his jaw, which chewed gum.” Funny, yes, but the correction planted a red flag. Something was wrong, and needed fixing.
posted by matteo at 11:17 AM on February 22, 2005


;
posted by Vidiot at 11:20 AM on February 22, 2005


Is that semi-colon used correctly, Vidiot?

I am afraid to post more in this thread, for fear of any other honorary grammar correction.
posted by sdrawkcab at 11:23 AM on February 22, 2005


Is the passive voice really justified there, sdrawkcab? I suggest that you could have more your question more forcefully as "Did you use that semi-colon correctly, Vidiot?".
posted by kenko at 11:26 AM on February 22, 2005


Miss Gould would have changed "Writes David Remnick" to "David Remnick writes." Snarkity snark. I model my work self after the late Grammarian.
posted by scratch at 11:27 AM on February 22, 2005


She is my heroine.
posted by dame at 11:34 AM on February 22, 2005


My favorite detail in the piece:
In her late seventies, after reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World," Eleanor set off with [her adult daughter] Susan for the Antarctic.
Fabulous.
posted by enrevanche at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2005


Also, something silly those who like this thread may also enjoy: Someday I Will Copyedit the Great American Novel. (It's just the Onion, but I thought it was spot on.)
posted by dame at 11:41 AM on February 22, 2005


One of the things that I love about The New Yorker is the precision of its grammar. It might be elitist and it might be pedantic, but, dammit, I love the English language, and, to me, this kind of strictness is actually a real pleasure.
I especially love the magazine's insistence (pedantic, yes, but also, I am pretty sure, correct) that words with consecutive identical vowels take a diaeresis, e.g. "coöperation." (This has spilled over to the magazine's illustrations: I can think of at least one Jack Ziegler cartoon that uses it.)
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:42 AM on February 22, 2005


Correction: not ALL words with consecutive identical vowels take a diaeresis, just the ones in which the two vowels are parts of different syllables.
My apologies, Miss Gould.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:45 AM on February 22, 2005


yeah, that was a great Onion moment, thanks for the link dame -- I wish I had the presence of mind to link it myself.

I am reluctant to point this out -- don't want to derail the thread -- but I keep thinking about Miss Gould having an argument about grammar with Dr. Thompson.
posted by matteo at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2005


I can't imagine a better obituary.
At least I have a start on it as an Oberlin grad and grammar freak.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:50 AM on February 22, 2005


Very nice. "Her reading was detached, objective, scientific, as if she somehow believed that a kind of perfection in prose was possible." I entirely disagree with the view of language and "correctness" she represented, but I do enjoy seeing the game well played. If you're going to have those stupid diaereses (tell me, Dr. Wu, what makes you "pretty sure" they're correct, and what kind of evidence would convince you otherwise?), by all means use them consistently. The magazine is no longer capable of doing that (I noticed a word without the dieresis just the other day), and I'm pretty sure that's because Miss Gould was no longer there to maintain standards. Ave atque vale!
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on February 22, 2005


RIP, Grammarian. I admire people with that much knowledge of what is in style as "correct." Even though they are completely wrong on their views of language ;-)

I hope she is copy-editing the prophetic writings of the Almighty with glee.
posted by teece at 12:02 PM on February 22, 2005


languagehat: I'm "pretty sure" in the sense that, though I'm no grammarian myself, said usage of diaereses seems to be by those who know their grammatical stuff. I'm only "pretty sure" because most writers do not use that particular diacritical mark in this way. I'm not saying that the repeated, erroneous use of these things makes for a new precedent, but sometimes it's hard to counteract the years of incorrectness. You know, just like it's really really hard to convince someone that "err" is actually pronounced "urr" or that "forte" (in English) is not pronounced "for-tay" but "fort." You get funny looks.
Hey, I use the diaeresis in my writing. Proudly.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:19 PM on February 22, 2005


LH, I personally vounteer to go work for The New Yorker right away in order to restore all missing diaereses. Think they'll take me up on it?
posted by dame at 12:24 PM on February 22, 2005


Questions of "correctness" and whether there is any single standard English language, interesting as they are, are not quite so important in this context as are questions of an individual magazine's style. Any reputable publication will, over time, develop a style sheet that specifies a standard set of grammar practices. 'Style' in this sense doesn't mean flair; a magazine's 'style' is literally a list of preferred word choices, constructions, and spellings, sometimes annotated with examples. Having a style sheet ensures consistency at least within the pages of that publication; it would be jarring to see diacritical marks on a given word sometimes, then not see them on that word if used later in the same piece.

Beyond checking for basic spelling and punctuation errors and the occasional duplicate line or chopped-off paragraph ending, the job of the proofreader or copyeditor is to ensure that the copy that makes it to print matches the standards set by the publication's style sheet. Defense of the English language itself is ancillary, and more to the point, does not usually fall solely to the copyeditor. In fact, when styles do get changed, there's usually a long, boring editorial discussion preceding. Such as the one that took place when the New Yorker stopped requiring the use of the editorial "we" in Talk of the Town pieces (and started running bylines for them).

Most publications will reference a single dictionary as their standard spelling guide, and will craft policy on rules of grammar that are particular to their paper.
posted by Miko at 1:30 PM on February 22, 2005


Why did one comment suggest that The New Yorker was "elitist"? Merely because it was not People or Time magazine? What qualifies a magazine to be elitist? high price, small circulation, long words in long paragraphs? or ads for expensive items.
posted by Postroad at 2:23 PM on February 22, 2005


"forte" (in English) is not pronounced "for-tay" but "fort."

See, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm trying to stamp out. You have no basis for saying this except that somebody somewhere said it to you and you took it to heart unquestioningly. There is no historical basis for it. As I said in this AskMe thread devoted to the question:
it's not from French forte, it's from French fort (masculine) -- the French say "ce n'est pas mon fort" (my strong point). Which means the French pronunciation is "for" (no t), which means there is no "correct" pronunciation in English if you go by original-language rules, which is why this is one of my favorite demonstration words for the principle I constantly try to drum into people: you don't need to know any other language to speak English correctly. Most English speakers (including me) say FOR-tay, which means that's the English pronunciation, regardless of historical considerations.
You're welcome to pronounce the word however you like, and by all means add diereses to your words if they please you, but do not labor under the delusion that those who do otherwise are "wrong."

dame: I hope so! You and the New Yorker would be an excellent fit.

Miko: That's an excellent summary of what copyeditors do and what style means in this context; I'd use the [!] box to give it a pat on the back except I'm terrified by Matt's stern warning to use the positive notice only for comments that will save humanity, or at least merit a place on the sidebar. But I'll link to it whenever I think someone needs the information.
posted by languagehat at 2:26 PM on February 22, 2005


I would have thought most people say forTAY?
posted by kenko at 2:29 PM on February 22, 2005


I suggest that you could have more your question more forcefully...

Nobody's perfect, kenko.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:33 PM on February 22, 2005


This reminds me of the copy editor who looked over the journalist's shoulder, saw the phrase "Raise it up a little higher", crossed out the word up, and said, "That's why I'm your boss."

The managing editor, having witnessed this, reached over, crossed out the word higher, and said to the copy editor, "That's why I'm your boss."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:46 PM on February 22, 2005


Wow, I'm an idiot.
posted by kenko at 2:48 PM on February 22, 2005


languagehat: I know this is an important subject to you, but may I politely ask you to be slightly less huffy about it? I am interested in language and respect your opinion on it - really - but there's no need to make me look foolish.

As it happens, I haven't come to this conclusion "unquestioningly," but have actually read about this matter a little. (Don't ask me where - it was years ago.) You're right, obviously, that the "t" in the French word "fort" is silent. I know this. I also appreciate how language is a living, changing thing, and that, when enough people pronounce it "for-tay," that becomes its actual English pronunciation. I know this - really I do. One of the things I love about the English language is its capacity for diversity and ambiguity. You can pronounce it "fort" or "for" or "fortay" and I'll know what you mean. Me, I like "fort."

However, all I was trying to get at is the fact that I enjoy the way The New Yorker has always been a bit snooty about its grammar. Didn't say I agree with it, just that I like it. There's something in their perfectionism that is sort of charming to me.

And, Miko, you are absolutely right. I used to be a proofreader for a newspaper, and tried to instill in the editors that they must develop an internal style, but the place was too disorganized for it to take.

Postroad: I was the one who called The New Yorker "elitist," and I'll stand by it. It's one of the reasons I stopped reading it, actually. It has nothing to do with circulation or long words, but, yeah, it probably does have something to do with the ads it accepts. Mostly, though, it's a sort of general tone of self-absorption and taking-itself-too-seriously and thinking that it's still the most relevant filter of high culture that gradually got on my nerves. I think the reportage is pretty good, actually, but the magazine's "attitude" got in the way for me.
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:56 PM on February 22, 2005


Dr. Wu wrote:

"I know this. I also appreciate how language is a living, changing thing, and that, when enough people pronounce it 'for-tay,' that becomes its actual English pronunciation."

Two (or more) wrongs don't make a right.

Yeah sure, languages can and should change -- for valid reasons such as the introduction of new technologies. And there are differing styles of verbal expression. But I hate to see English reduced to the lowest common denominator.

Personally, I do not accept that the copy on this cereal box in front of me is proper English. Food is not "healthy," but rather "healthful." And this cereal may have "fewer calories" than some other cereals, but it does not have "less calories."
posted by parrot_person at 3:40 PM on February 22, 2005


Dr. Wu: My apologies if I misinterpreted you. You said:
You know, just like it's really really hard to convince someone that "err" is actually pronounced "urr" or that "forte" (in English) is not pronounced "for-tay" but "fort."
This read to me like an endorsement of the correctness of the latter pronunciation. If you were just saying that some theoretical person would have a hard time convincing some people of that alleged fact, then I certainly agree with you (since I would be one of those people). In any case, I didn't mean to come off as huffy or to make you look foolish. Sorry.

parrot_person: You, on the other hand, clearly would benefit from a course about language. Language doesn't change because of "the introduction of new technologies," it changes because it's a human thing and change is inherent in it. All languages are always changing, and to take that change as "corruption" or "decay" or "reduction to the lowest common denominator" is to doom oneself to a lifetime of disappointment and pessimism. Do you really think you have some secret insight into the English language that enables you to state with such confidence that everyone else who uses it is wrong to say "healthy" and "less calories"? And tell me, given the facts mentioned above, what is your position on the pronunciation of forte, and why?
posted by languagehat at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2005


Oh for god's sakes, people, it's pronounced "forty!"

*ducks; makes mental note that my original pronunciation of "for-tay" was apparently just fine, and I had no need to amend it to "fort" several years ago when a supervising editor called me out on it, and therefore I will go back to saying "for-tay"*
posted by scody at 4:59 PM on February 22, 2005


languagehat: It's all good. Thank you for your gracious apology. No hard feelings over here.

*pours contents of a forte on the ground for my dead homies*
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:08 PM on February 22, 2005


I think "forte" should be pronounced "strength." Let's call it a day.

By the way, has anyone here read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"? I'm reading it now, and I wonder if anyone else finds it entertaining but redundant and obvious. It's not quite the magnum opus I was expecting based on the hype.
posted by margarita at 6:15 PM on February 22, 2005


Correctness, experience, insight, etc., are often trampled by popularity. Half our vocabulary consists of ‘dead’ origins. It is difficult or perhaps impossible to be consistent. Who knows that ‘curfew’ comes from the French ‘couvre feu’ (cover the fire)? And who pronounces ‘ventilation’ or ‘residence’ with a French accent? The difficulty seems to be in the transition period, when the word hasn’t yet changed to the ‘common’ version. For example, I live in a wine region where most people say “savin-yawn” instead of “sauvignon”. There’s clearly a ‘u’ missing, even if you aren’t picky about the French pronunciation. You may pronounce it the French way, but don’t try to correct others. Eventually “infastructure” will replace “infrastructure”, because that’s the way most politicians pronounce it. “Anenemy” will succeed “anemone”, and so on. Sometimes informal language is a good thing, but I draw the line when obvious illiteracy reflects a lack of expertise in one’s occupation. I don’t care if my mechanic says ‘savin-yawn’. but if he tells me my ‘carbubator’ needs rebuilding, I’m outta there. And would someone please tell me how a computer that comes pre-programmed with NT differs from one that comes programmed with same? ‘Pre-planned’ takes the cake.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:20 PM on February 22, 2005


You have no basis for saying this except that somebody somewhere said it to you... There is no historical basis for it... it's not from French forte, it's from French fort (masculine)

See, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm trying to stamp out.

That's quite the red herring you've thrown us in, "if you go by original-language rules." Thank God there don't actually exist "original-language rules" in English. The English-speakers who actually adopted forte into our language sure didn't give a fig for them, and they happily pronounced the t from the beginning, "ignorant substitution of the feminine form" (OED) or not.

I won't go so far as to say you "have no basis for your pronouncement" equating what "most English speakers (including me)" say with "the English pronunciation." Perhaps you pronounce the second syllable of "chaise longue" LOWNJ — that certainly passes the 51% test, and if you accept it, then you've got a basis.

But forte is just not one of those words where bucking the vulgar trend is pedantic — if it were, we wouldn't have you complaining about people who have the audacity to enjoy keeping around a pronunciation that's done perfectly well in the mouths of our compatriots for the past 300 years, because they wouldn't be numerous enough to get your goat.

Perhaps it's really only people who tell you fortay is wrong who get your goat. I don't need to "correct" folks who repeat what they hear; I won't tell you about "the English pronunciation, regardless." But I'll continue to take some pleasure in keeping alive the traditional pronunciations that HAVEN'T died yet but are still current. The problem with the 51% rule is that it doesn't assign any value to the past when it lives on in the speech of a majority of the most literate speakers.

I teach Greek literature, & I believe I do my students a service when I acquaint them with pronunciations that not only pass a threshold of currency today but would be more or less recognized by Byron and Milton too. With the 51% rule, you get a lot of made-up-based-on-how-it-looks barbarisms, mishmashes of ancient and modern syllables (sort of like the trend today to Europeanize so many words, like mo-DARE-nity etc.).
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:02 PM on February 22, 2005


sort of like the trend today to Europeanize so many words, like mo-DARE-nity etc.

How else would one say that? (This is what I love about these coversations; there are so many pronounciations [pro-nun-cee-ay-shuns] that I haven't thought of an alternative to.)

I'm reading it now, and I wonder if anyone else finds it entertaining but redundant and obvious. It's not quite the magnum opus I was expecting based on the hype.

Yes.

LH: That's the only job for which I would leave my current one. The arcane rules are so attractive that my pencil just hums with anticipation.
posted by dame at 7:48 PM on February 22, 2005


What's strange to me, Language Hat, is that you act as if the battle between the descriptivist and prescriptivist notions of language has been fought and won by the informal former side. This is not so. Chiding someone to take a "course about language" to learn that "All languages are always changing" implies that all qualified instructors of university language courses are ardent descriptivists.

There are many situations in which to bow to the prevailing winds of popular usage results in less precise, less communicative language. The difference between "less" and "fewer" is the difference between amount and number. Maintaining the distinction between their usage makes the English language more conceptionally sound. Someone whose language ignores these abstractions will no doubt be someone less capable of understanding them.

In any case, however, there is a wrinkle to your argument regarding the correct pronunciation of "forte." The french word from which we get forte is both a noun and an adjective. In its adjectival form, an 'e' is added, and the word is pronounced with the 't' much as we used to in English. As words ending in silent consonants are uncommon on English, we've frequently adopted the feminine form when borrowing from the French, and have done so for centuries.

The pronunciation of the word "fort-ay" is generally assumed to have resulted out of confusion with forte, an Italian word used as a musical term. Therefore, you are arguing that , if we are not going to pronounce the word exactly like its foreign antecedant, we may as well validate a linguistic foul up occuring many centuries after the word originally was adopted into English.
posted by patnasty at 8:03 PM on February 22, 2005


Dame: I happened to be working for the imprint that published Eats, Shoot and Leaves in the U.S. when they acquired the book. Believe me, 'entertaining' was pretty much whole idea behind its publication here, or in the U.K.. Nobody had any inkling that it would sell as well as it did, nor was it meant to ever be considered a "magnum opus." To judge it bye its hype is to do it an injustice.
posted by patnasty at 8:11 PM on February 22, 2005


The problem with the 51% rule is that it doesn't assign any value to the past when it lives on in the speech of a majority of the most literate speakers.

The problem with the 51% rule is the problem with democracy: unfortunately, if more than half the population are idiots, they still win the prize by weight of sheer numbers. That doesn't mean you should stop fighting, however.

Also, and I really don't mean to be pendantic (even though this would be the perfect thread for such fun) but what's up with get your goat? I was under the impression that the correct word was goad. Normally I'd let it slide, but in reverence to the late Matron of Honor I feel duty-bound to ask.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:32 PM on February 22, 2005


Civil_Disobedient - nope, it's goat, although there's a very slim chance it may be etymologically linked to "goad" somehow. From "World Wide Words":

"It’s a perplexing expression right enough. Though the phrase is recorded from near the beginning of the twentieth century, nobody seems to know where it came from. It was Jack London who seems to have put it in print first, in his book Smoke Bellew of 1912, though he used it two years earlier in a letter: 'Honestly, I believe I’ve got Samuels’ goat! He’s afraid to come back'. But other examples show that it was pretty widely known around that date, so either it had been lurking in the language for some time, or it had suddenly burst on the scene as a result of some event or situation not now recallable.

"The most common story to explain the phrase relates to American horse racing. It is said to have once been common to put a goat in with a skittish thoroughbred racehorse to help calm it; enterprising villains capitalised on this by gambling on the horse to lose and then stealing the goat. Goats were certainly used to calm horses, and indeed still are, but I’d suggest that some measure of suspension of disbelief is needed to accept the story of stealing one at face value. Other people have tried to identify it in some way with scapegoat, have seen it as a variant form of goad, and have linked it with an old French phrase prendre la chèvre (to take the goat). But evidence is lacking for all of them."

Incidentally, you can put me down in being firmly in favor of whatever form of language usage sounds best to me, for whatever reason. The rest of you are therefore, as far as I am concerned, wrong. So there. :)
posted by kyrademon at 8:49 PM on February 22, 2005


patnasty: All the text-books I have on linguistics are completely in the descriptivist camp. All of the linguistic professors I had were descriptivist. Two of the said straight up: you don't study linguistics without being a descriptivist.

So is my sample just a bizarre quirk? All of my exposure to serious linguists has been of the descriptivist variety. Indeed, the prescriptivist view was only mentioned in passing as the antiquated view dead people.
posted by teece at 8:50 PM on February 22, 2005


And as you can see, they all failed me for proofreading too quickly: "two of them" " view of dead people."
posted by teece at 8:52 PM on February 22, 2005


Well, the problem is, "get your goad" doesn't make any more sense. A goad is a pointed stick used for prodding herd animals. It is often used metaphorically. Either way, if I've gotten your goad, what have I done besides spared the backsides of cattle? You could argue that if I "get your goad" and render you incapable of poking your livestock, you're liable to get upset. If that's the case, imagine how pissed off you'de be if I stole an entire goat!

I've heard a story that "get your goat" comes from horse racing. Apparently, they would keep goats or donkeys with race-horses because the high strung thoroughbreds were calmed by the steadier animals. It was not uncommon, though, for bettors to try to steal the companion goats of heavily favored horses to upset them, and make money of the resulting upset. Thus, if your horse was panicked and out of sorts, somebody must have gotten your goat.

Personally, I don't believe a word of it.
posted by patnasty at 9:03 PM on February 22, 2005


teece: A linguistics professor would have to be a descriptivist. Linguistics is a descriptive study of language, so by limiting your sample to linguistics professors you're pretty much guaranteeds a descriptivist bent by tautology.

Speak to semiotics professors, philosophy professors, semantic logicians, and the vast majority of literature professors any you'll get a very different viewpoint.

As to the prescriptivist view being "antiquated," I would argue that "out of vogue" is a better term. The pervasive relativistism of the 'Post-Modern' fever that has infected the majority of the academic sphere is quick to dismiss any philosophy promoting "absolutes" as either primitive or oppressive. I think it would be sad to let the English language become collateral damage in a war over the politics of cultural relativism.
posted by patnasty at 9:20 PM on February 22, 2005


As an editor (and lit major/semiotics dabbler back in my academic days), I tend rather strongly towards the prescriptivist side of things... still, I'm a fan enough of the extraordinary elasticisty of the English language to see the virtue in at least some descriptivist tendencies. I wonder if there's a good "are you a prescriptivist or descriptivist" linguistic quiz out there to see if my preferences shake out along certain lines, and if they're in line with various schools of thought (i.e., I think I'm probably more flexible with word usage than with grammar, say).
posted by scody at 9:54 PM on February 22, 2005


it's not from French forte, it's from French fort (masculine) -- the French say "ce n'est pas mon fort" (my strong point). Which means the French pronunciation is "for" (no t)

*coughs gently in languagehat's direction*

True, that is the pronunciation today blessed by the Académie, but surely at one time the t was not silent. I wonder when, exactly, that occurred, in which dialects of what has become Modern French, and when and from where the English pickpocketed the word. Not to mention that there's a difference, or so I've understood, between the British and American preferences, making this in some respect a dialect issue.
posted by dhartung at 10:56 PM on February 22, 2005


Personally, I don't believe a word of it.

You think they were just kidding?

I've always felt that whatever word usage you pick should have the best story to back it up, and this certainly wins. Thanks for the explanation.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:03 PM on February 22, 2005


To be fair and balanced, the French say 'le parking', 'le weekend', and 'les baskettes' with the accent on the last syllable. "Les baskettes' are sneakers, or 'basketball' shoes.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:35 PM on February 22, 2005


I think it would be sad to let the English language become collateral damage in a war over the politics of cultural relativism.

OK, I was almost going with you up until here, patnasty. If there is one thing that we have to take away from the descriptivists, it is that anyone's anxiety about change as "damage" is just plain wrong. Languages change. A lot of the change comes from "mistakes." That's life. There is no stopping it. Further, a language does not lose expressive power as it changes, at least not in any quantifiable way. When Old English moved stress to the first sylable, it sealed the fate of the inflected nature of English. Surely, a loss of inflections, for crying out loud, would destroy the language, right? Wrong. We adapted the syntax to make up for the loss of meanings that inflection had. We started to use more prepositions.

I am sure a the literary speaker of Old English was aghast at the changes that were coming in English ("these damn kids don't even inflect anymore...!") and felt a sense of dread that is identical to the cries of the prescriptivists today. But ultimately, you can't label the change that occurs in language as "bad." It just is. We can communicate just fine in English today. We will be able to do the same in a 1000 years with whatever language English becomes.

The greatest evidence that the strictures of the presciptivists are nothing but tongue wagging is this. After the Norman invasion, the official language of much of the English courts became French. The people of England still spoke English, but it fell out of favor as an "intelligent language." It was during this time, freed from the inertia of an academy (however informal) trying to halt change, that English under went some of its most radical changes, until at the end of this period we get the Great Vowel shift. The result was a language, modern English, which was completely unintelligible from Old English (the larval stage being Middle English). It was also the time when the language was "bastardized" with many French words.

But you know what? The world didn't end. The changes occurred so naturally that very few if any became consciously aware of them. Such is life. English never lost its ability to transmit ideas from human to human, which is at the end of the day what counts.
posted by teece at 12:27 AM on February 23, 2005


I pronounce 'forte', 'fort'. I'm a busy man: I don't have time for extra syllables.
posted by Ritchie at 12:49 AM on February 23, 2005


> ... an Oberlin grad and grammar freak
> posted by exceptinsects

Hey, I resemble that remark! Class of 1970.
posted by hank at 1:11 AM on February 23, 2005


Great post, matteo; I'm pouring a dry sherry on the antique oriental carpet right now in remembrance of Miss Gould. And to all the commenters here, I have to say, "See? This is why everyone wants to kiss us and strangle us at the same time". It's a love/haute relationship... (still, I'm re-applying the lipgloss, since mostly I'm moved to kiss. I'm especially kissing vidiot right now, and dame).
posted by taz at 3:39 AM on February 23, 2005


"Linguist" ? "grammarian" —To say that all linguists are descriptivists is beside the point, since linguists don't make the rules, they just study them. Furthermore, while a linguist qua linguist must be a descriptivist, she may be a prescriptivist in real life.

I'll throw my weight with patnasty:

There are many situations in which to bow to the prevailing winds of popular usage results in less precise, less communicative language. The difference between "less" and "fewer" is the difference between amount and number. Maintaining the distinction between their usage them makes the English language more conceptionally conceptually sound. Someone whose language ignores these abstractions distinctions will no doubt be someone less capable of understanding them.

That's what it comes down to for me: Is it a change for the better—i.e., a change in the direction of greater precision—or for the worse? For example, one of my pet peeves is the use of the word "comprise" to mean "compose" or "constitute." For crying out loud, there is already a perfectly good word that means "compose." Please don't twist "comprise" to make yourself sound like you have a bigger vocabulary than you actually have. Precision facilitates understanding, and we need all the understanding we can get. So much depends on our ability to grasp distinctions of greater and greater subtlety.

And I must say that, given the the subject matter of this thread, the quality of the copyediting has been shameful.

And can someone tell me, is it "copyedit," "copy-edit," or "copy edit"?
posted by bricoleur at 5:16 AM on February 23, 2005


Definately two words. Or maybe three.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:21 AM on February 23, 2005


I wonder when, exactly, that occurred, in which dialects of what has become Modern French, and when and from where the English pickpocketed the word.

*nods approvingly in dhartung's direction*

Excellent question. M.K. Pope, in From Latin to Modern French, tells us (p. 221): "Among the words ending with a supported consonant, e.g. cerf, banc, champ, fort, etc., the [loss of the final consonant] began sporadically in Later Old French and was very general in speech in Later Middle French." Ronsard rhymes fort with or in the 16th century (and poetry, of course, takes a long time to admit changes in the spoken language; classical Chinese poetry is still written using the rhyming syllables of a thousand years ago). Since fort(e) was borrowed into English in the 17th century, I think we can rule out any possibility of a spoken final -t having been borrowed.

I wonder if anyone else finds it entertaining but redundant and obvious.

Yeah, I was indignant about it until I learned the author doesn't pretend to any expertise, she's a humorist who was commissioned to write a funny book about punctuation. I can't fault her for taking the money, but those who smugly quote her as if she were an authority and use her to put down people who punctuate "wrongly" are pernicious idiots. (Read Louis Menand's New Yorker demolition of the book if you want more details.)

I teach Greek literature

So tell me, Mr. Proud to Buck the Vulgar Trend, how do you pronounce the names of Greek authors? Because there's no excuse for giving in to the degenerate versions that have crept in over the millennia. Thucydides pronounced his name (in rough transcription) "t-hoe-kü-DEE-dehs," where "t-h" is a t followed by an h, as in pothook, and the syllable I've capped (DEE) has a pitch, not a stress, accent. Oh, and the "oe," "ü," and "eh" are perceptibly longer than the "ee." Also, Herodotus, being from Ionia, didn't pronounce h, so his name should be "eh-RO-do-tos," with long "eh" and each "o" identical (more or less as in Spanish). E-mail me if you want more details, so you can begin correcting your pronunciation if it's not up to snuff. On the other hand, if you're not going to bother to get the Greek right (and it's your profession!), then you shouldn't be looking down on those who don't go back to the 17th century for their pronunciation of English words.


Therefore, you are arguing that , if we are not going to pronounce the word exactly like its foreign antecedant, we may as well validate a linguistic foul up occuring many centuries after the word originally was adopted into English.

I have no idea what you're trying to say here. My point is that it's silly to claim that you have to know a foreign language to speak English correctly, and forte provides an excellent reductio ad absurdum, because no matter how many foreign languages you know, there's no way to say it "correctly." (A further bonus is that those who think /fort/ is the correct pronunciation sound silly to everyone else whenever they use it: "That's not my fort." Oh yeah? What is your fort, Fort Knox?) The only definition for "correct" in terms of language is "accepted by most speakers in the relevant speech community." Thus aluminum is correct in the US and aluminium is correct in the UK; to ask which spelling and pronunciation is "correct" in some larger sense is to ask a meaningless question. I advocate kyrademon's attitude: "you can put me down [as] being firmly in favor of whatever form of language usage sounds best to me, for whatever reason."

linguists don't make the rules, they just study them

Very true. And grammarians and writers and editors and MeFites don't make the rules either. The speech community "makes the rules" by speaking, an incredibly complicated act that we will probably never fully understand, and there is no other way to figure out the rules of a language than by studying examples of use and trying to figure out the regularities. I suggest you try doing this from scratch (as all linguistics students used to have to do before the Chomskyan "all you need is English" plague; my informant was Toba Batak); you'll gain a deep respect for the subtlety and unpredictability of the ways language works.

And can someone tell me, is it "copyedit," "copy-edit," or "copy edit"?

Webster's says "copyedit," Cassell "copy-edit." This is the kind of thing for which style manuals exist. Pick one and stick to it.

Major props to teece for an excellent comment!

No kiss for me, taz?

*cries*

posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on February 23, 2005


dame: I say "moDERRnity".
posted by kenko at 7:19 AM on February 23, 2005


Thank you to languagehat for your usual eloquent explanation of how language works. Since this is the philosophy subscribed to by most lexicographers, I'm not sure what prescriptivists are supposed to use as their authorities.

On a slightly unrelated note, I have a friend who thinks that descriptivism means she can spell things however she wants, and anyone who tells her that "langwage" is incorrect is just a stuffy prescriptivist. Drives me nuts.
posted by grouse at 7:20 AM on February 23, 2005


Thanks for linking to that Louis Menand article, lh -- I read it with glee when it first appeared.

The first time I saw Eats Shoots and Leaves in the bookstore, I was wondering why "A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" didn't have a hyphen between "zero" and "tolerance."



So...how do you pronounce "sorbet"?
posted by Vidiot at 7:21 AM on February 23, 2005


I don't recall QWERTY typewriter keyboards having the diareses mark. Anyone? If so, it seems that that would pretty much finish it off - you can't demand the use of a "correct" subtlety that is missing from the dominant technology of written verbal production and expect good results.
posted by crunchburger at 7:23 AM on February 23, 2005


*Kisses languagehat, but begins to worry about the whole group-orgasmic aspect. Re-applies lipgloss, nevertheless.*
posted by taz at 7:44 AM on February 23, 2005


how do you pronounce the names of Greek authors? On the other hand, if you're not going to bother to get the Greek right (and it's your profession!), then you shouldn't be looking down on those who don't go back to the 17th century for their pronunciation of English words.

This hot-under-the-collar nonsense ("right") is just as intolerant and tyrannical as your previous "the English pronunciation, regardless." When reading Greek in Greek, I use Greek pronunciations (more or less imperfectly, compromised for pedagogical reasons, etc.). When speaking English, I say Plato, Aristotle, Achilles, etc. The duties of my profession, if I may be so bold as to define them, require me to be familiar with both languages. Thoo-SID-i-deez has the advantage of being the pronunciation both of the 51% today and of Thomas Hobbes, who understood him better and did more to make him talked about than any of us. But if, with a less familiar name, only 38% are keeping the traditional pronunciation alive, while some larger plurality have concocted something neither Greek nor Roman nor English, well, I'll stick with the 38%.

I made it crystal clear that I don't advocate "going back to the 17th c." for the pronunciation of any word. (Reread my post for the multiple occurrences of "current.") Monosyllable forte was more current in the 20th century, in which I was born and raised.

Even as a Classics scholar, I have met no one who even pretends to use authentic Greek pronunciations of names that come up in English discussions. To do so would be absurd and pedantic. I believe there was an SNL skit dealing quite authoritatively with this issue (something about the Sandanistas and ordering in burritos) some 15 years ago. What I personally eschew are not the pronunciations of the rare quixotic soul who wants to give that a try, but the pronunciations that half-assedly throw in a couple of ancient diphthongs or consonants while keeping the rest English.

I admit to a double standard, in that I don't go around Anglicizing every modern European name I run into. But with Greek and Latin names it's different. They've been comfortable items in our language's lexicon for such a long run now, and I'm not gonna break it. I don't resurrect dead pronunciations — Chaucer's "STAH-suh" won't fly with me, but Chaucer's feeling that dropping "STA-(hard)ti-us" into your dinnertime babblings would be unaccountably foreign and pretentious, that feeling lives on, and I'll say "STAY-shus" together with most others who read his poetry and pronounce its Latin passably right in their minds. The long stable presence of these words in our language is something alive today, if under some pressure, and I'd betray my own vocation much worse by taking your advice and trying to uproot it all in the name of some fake revival of "authenticity." But, as often, it's the "educated," often with Ph.D.'s, who often invent and spread the half-learned mongrels of mouthfuls against which I'm trying to hold the line.

I don't look down on people who adopt current pronunciations not my own. I do take offense when I'm told that refusing to break off the living branch of my linguistic culture if the number of people tugging down on it should increase from 43% to 54% is to be guilty of prescribing obsolete 17th century pronunciations!

Let me repeat it again, one-syllable "forte" and Greek authors disguised with Roman spellings and English pronunciations — these are current in 20th and 21st century English. In very many cases, among the 51%; in the others, I'll stick with my minority, and share with anyone interested the methods by which it's invented its preferred pronunciations, without despising or wincing at anyone, thank you. You, languagehat, speak of what's "right" and "the English pronunciation, regardless." You won't get it that strong from me.
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:46 AM on February 23, 2005


To think that matteo was worried about derailing the thread with an imagined conversation between Miss Gould and Dr. Thompson.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:19 AM on February 23, 2005


A major derail indeed — and not in the spirit of Gould's character, I get the impression. Mea culpa.

without despising or wincing at anyone

Granted, you might well imagine that I am wincing at something despicable (and no, I'm not pretentious enough to accent the first syllable of that one!) when I use phrases like "mongrels of mouthfuls" and "half-assed, half-learned." But hey, where would Metafilter be without a little rhetoric?
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:25 AM on February 23, 2005


"Forte" definitely goes on my list of forsworn words now. It's just too dangerous.
posted by bricoleur at 8:30 AM on February 23, 2005


I admit to a double standard

And that's what I was trying to get you to admit. It should be clear that I'm not claiming it's "right" to pronounce Greek names the way the Greeks did when speaking English, but that's where your position logically leads. But of course you're no more logical and consistent than anyone else, and as long as you're willing to use the forms that appeal to you and allow others to do the same, without looking down your nose at them, we have no quarrel. But you really shouldn't go around throwing out made-up statistics about the prevalence of one-syllable "forte" to support your preference. You have no idea what the percentages are, any more than I do.

Since this is the philosophy subscribed to by most lexicographers, I'm not sure what prescriptivists are supposed to use as their authorities.
On a slightly unrelated note, I have a friend who thinks that descriptivism means she can spell things however she wants, and anyone who tells her that "langwage" is incorrect is just a stuffy prescriptivist.


See, that's what drives prescriptivists nuts about modern dictionaries (starting with the huge controversy over Webster's Third International, more than forty years ago): once lexicographers accepted the findings of linguistic science and making decisions based on actual usage rather than what Samuel Johnson or somebody decided centuries ago, the stone tablets were shattered, and there was no Authority to turn to. Except each other, of course, so that's what they do. Sort of a solemn, nerdy circle-jerk.

As for your friend, explain to her that spelling is not language, it's a conventional representation of language, and like any convention it makes life easier and harder at the same time. Compare driving on one side of the road: yeah, it means you can't drive wherever you like, but on the other hand people don't collide as often. The spellings in dictionaries represent the collective convention developed over the last few centuries; she can ignore them if she chooses, but she runs the risk of 1) confusing people and 2) being taken for an ignoramus.

So...how do you pronounce "sorbet"?

Sor-BAY. I didn't know there was a controversy; how do you say it?
*nervously checks Webster's*
Oh no! The only pronunciation given is SOR-bet! I is saying it rong!
*flagellates self, wonders whether it's worth trying to change habits*
*has thought, checks American Heritage Dictionary*
Whew! The AHD gives both pronunciations!
*relaxes, rubs ointment on flagellation marks*
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on February 23, 2005


I still don't get the criterion of "logically consistent." Language is not logically consistent! I am being consistent in that, if I'm on the receiving end of a long and still living tradition of speech, I do it honor & continue it, until & unless I get befuddled stares because I'm bucking some new trend and making an ass of myself (again, the fact that we who don't say fortay are numerous enough to get your goat, means I'm not going to stop saying it yet — I only feel like an ass if you* are befuddled, not if you're annoyed or if you feel the victim of some showy sham out-propering). If there's no strong tradition to continue, I go with the flow, or spice my speech with bits of German-pronounced-like-German, or whatever.

There's no reason to be consistent between Greek & Latin names, and names from other languages, because the HISTORIES of their appropriation & domestication into English are so different. Language, like any other living being, is constituted the way it is because of its history & in its present form in your mouth or my mouth bears all the marks of the accidents and vagaries** of its passage through time.

I know you know all that, but I want you to see that my practice as an English speaker grows out of something you do understand and respect about language.

* You would be a good example of someone whose befuddlement would mean it's time to throw in the hat. 'Cause you know that some people are going to be befuddled by anything outside their narrow experience of the mother tongue.

** I'll let you guess how I pronounce this one.

posted by Zurishaddai at 9:14 AM on February 23, 2005


And can someone tell me, is it "copyedit," "copy-edit," or "copy edit"?

As I understand the evolution of language, two words become hyphenated, then become a single word. Zig zag becomes zig-zag, then zigzag. In the middle there is no clear choice.

So...how do you pronounce "sorbet"?
'Sherbert' seems to be the popular choice.

Language, like the violin, is a fretless instrument. That doesn’t mean anybody can play well. You recognize competence immediately, and it has to do with the ear and the heart and the gut--you can’t fully explain by citing rules. In fact, the best players bend the rules.

Disclaimer: I teach ten languages, including Buckminsterfullerese, and 16th century Navajo, which I taught myself by astro projection astro-projection astroprojection.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:20 AM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]


Woah, languagehat just put the verbal smack down. Smack-down? Smackdown? Whatev.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:23 AM on February 23, 2005


And can someone tell me, is it "copyedit," "copy-edit," or "copy edit"?

Whatever your stylebook says it is. And remember, the noun and verb may differ.

I say "moDERRnity".

Doesn't that make your mouth smush up? It makes me feel like there're marbles in there.

*smooches taz right back. pulls blinds so boys can't watch.*
posted by dame at 9:34 AM on February 23, 2005


I want you to see that my practice as an English speaker grows out of something you do understand and respect about language.

Yeah, I see that, and I respect your choices. Like I said, as long as you're willing to live and let live, I'm happy. It's the people who use their own choices to beat others over the head that get my Capra hircus.

Language, like the violin, is a fretless instrument. That doesn’t mean anybody can play well. You recognize competence immediately, and it has to do with the ear and the heart and the gut--you can’t fully explain by citing rules. In fact, the best players bend the rules.

This thread was worth it just for that.
posted by languagehat at 9:42 AM on February 23, 2005


Ha. This is all very interesting, but not so much to get so upset about. I have a very good time listening to my husband's telephone conversations in Greek, from my side (and his English is near-perfect). When he uses an English phrase with a heavy Greek accent, I understand he is speaking to a native Greek speaker; when he uses an English phrase with no accent, I understand that he is speaking to an Other-native speaker.

Once I asked him why he used the heavy Greek accent on English language phrases when he was speaking to other Greeks even though just about all of them speak English really well, etc. He told me, "because I would sound like a total asshole speaking English with a proper accent under those circumstances"... and, basically, "it isn't done"... which kind of harks back to quite a few SNL skits. "Nicaragua", anyone?
posted by taz at 9:55 AM on February 23, 2005


no Coke, Pepsi
posted by matteo at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2005


derailing the thread with an imagined conversation between Miss Gould and Dr. Thompson

HST: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

MG: Pardon me, "doctor," but the structure of that sentence is deeply flawed. If these are two independent imperative sentences, then they should be separated by a period. If they are related imperative sentences, then a semi-colon would be adequate. If, however, the action occurring in the second phrase is dependent on the action in the first, then you simply must make this explicit. Might I suggest: "If you buy the ticket, then you can take the ride"? Or perhaps: "After buying the ticket, take the ride"?

HST: Ye gods, lady, how can you even talk with all those bats crawling on your face?

[HST shambles off licking viscous liquid from a medicine dropper; MG pauses, shudders, returns to her knitting]

For the record, the protracted argument herein about the pronunciation of "forte" reminds me why copy editors have so often driven me batshit crazy. Which is also why you had me firmly in your camp, languagehat, until this bit . . .

Webster's says "copyedit," Cassell "copy-edit." This is the kind of thing for which style manuals exist. Pick one and stick to it.

Christ, the amount of time and energy I've wasted STET-ing the pedantic scratch marks of second-rate copy editors who think the Chicago Manual of Style is holy writ. Dictionaries, grammar guides, style guides - these are not answer keys. These are collections of the baselines from which discussions of what works in a piece of writing begin.

And with that, I'm off to set up camp over there on the edge of the battlefield near weapons-grade pandemonium's friends with the violins.
posted by gompa at 11:54 AM on February 23, 2005


Gompa, what exactly is your problem with saying pick one & be consistent (follow your stylebook)?
posted by dame at 2:13 PM on February 23, 2005


Gompa, what exactly is your problem with saying pick one & be consistent (follow your stylebook)?

My problem? It gets in the way of my style, and it often interferes with creating and sustaining voice, and it screws up pacing all to hell. If I'm writing a reportorial bit for a newspaper, I'm willing to defer to house style. But if I'm writing a feature for a magazine that encourages its writers to make their pieces their own, the last thing I need, after a long debate with my editor, a rewrite or two and a line edit, is some copy editor turning the sequential list I'd written as "this and that and another thing and one more thing" for reasons of voice and pacing into "this, that, another thing and one more thing" because that's what the Chicago Manual of Style says. (This is a hypothetical; I don't know what the CMS advices on this particular point.)

In the best case, it means I've got to go in and change everything back on the galleys, which is a mere inconvenience. In the worst case, the magazine in question is tight against deadline and can't find the time to let me have a look at the galleys at all - it happens - and then I get the finished product and have to stare at that speed bump every time I revisit the piece forever.

Or, to put it more artfully, what style guide anywhere would be capable of making allowances for (for example) the opening paragraph of Tom Wolfe's early-sixties Vegas piece for Esquire? (It begins like this: "Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia.")
posted by gompa at 3:21 PM on February 23, 2005


Language, like the violin, is a fretless instrument. That doesn’t mean anybody can play well.

Fabulous!

I'm with LH, that comment made this thread.
posted by somethingotherthan at 6:30 PM on February 23, 2005


Well, when you run a magazine, then your style can be it. As it is, balancing the house's needs against an author's needs can be difficult. Some copyeditors (especially new ones) don't know where that line is. Eventually they learn. So do authors who think they are so special that no one could improve their work. Now, I know you aren't one of these authors, but comparing yourself to Tom Wolfe might give people that opinion. As does assuming that encouraging copyeditors to be consistent in treating the word "copyedit" renders someone incapable of understanding when rules can be broken.
posted by dame at 7:31 PM on February 23, 2005


languagehat: What psychological problems cause you to respond to my post (and others, I see) with such malice? It's interesting that you so vehemently insist on the acceptability of people saying "healthy" when they mean "healthful," but in the next breath demand to know what credentials I have that give me the right to have an opinion!

In fact, I've had quite a few poems and short stories published, won a not-small cash award for an essay, and got a perfect score on my verbal SAT and near-perfect on the GRE.

Huffy doesn't do you justice. I am gifted enough in language to accurately label you a jackass -- with the emphasis on "ass."

Any future flames directed towards me will be ignored.
posted by parrot_person at 9:14 PM on February 23, 2005


dame, I do think I'm pretty damn special, actually, but the point's well taken. Didn't mean to besmirch the good name of copy editors as a whole, I've just run across a couple of pretty lousy ones in my day. May have something to do with writing for cash-strapped Canadian magazines that have to take what they can get for what they pay when it comes to copy-editing.

Believe me, there's nothing I appreciate more than a great editor (copy- or otherwise), and I'm actually pretty reasonable about searching for middle ground when I find one.
posted by gompa at 10:35 PM on February 23, 2005


parrot: I didn't ask for your "credentials," and I don't give a damn what you claim they are -- either of us could say whatever we like about our degrees, publications, and perfect SAT scores (!), and one nice thing about this place is that people judge you on your arguments, not your credentials. I asked if you had some secret insight into the English language to justify your claims to know what's "right." I submit that you don't, and that you're just blowing smoke like everybody else who makes such claims. As for the rest, I'll let anyone who's still reading the thread judge which of us is coming off as the jackass.
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on February 24, 2005


*ahem* If nobody minds, I'd like to change the subject just a little. Anybody notice this line from the link: "Miss Gould once found what she believed were four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence. " There's an implicit challenge here that I think we should not let go unmet. Can anyone among us write a three-word sentence with four grammatical errors? I want to see that.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:38 AM on February 27, 2005


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