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June 1, 2009 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Some common solecisms (grammatical absurdities) from the Style Guide of The Economist
posted by blasdelf (127 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite

 
Use this card to summon languagehat and end Prescriptivism for the duration of the thread. Requires Rampant Pedantry.
posted by blasdelf at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2009 [39 favorites]


Wouldn't it defeat random pedantry?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:09 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's nothing wrong with prescriptivism in a style guide. Style is style, and if you're going to have a style, you ought to tell your writers what it is.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:09 PM on June 1, 2009 [13 favorites]


I'm glad to know that I can rest easy with the knowledge that I'm an apostate rather than a mere heretic.
posted by blucevalo at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


What the hell is an agony aunt?
posted by condour75 at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Useful.

Also discouraging since an absurdity's presence in the guide comes after one or another editor has grown weary correcting that absurdity in prose contributed by ... professional writers.
posted by notyou at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2009


That's rich, seeing as entry #5 points one weird usage I see all the time in the Economist: they use the phrase "the two parties agreed a treaty" all the time.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2009


Oh God, I'm worse than they are.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:15 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


If BBC and IMF aren't acronyms, what are they?
posted by diogenes at 12:22 PM on June 1, 2009


Acronym: this is a word, like radar or NATO, not a set of initials, like the BBC or the IMF.

er, what?
posted by sanko at 12:23 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Abbreviations.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:23 PM on June 1, 2009


Sanko: I suppose they mean it's a set of initials that form a pronounceable word, and not merely a set of initials.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2009


Ah, the old arbitrary outcry against using "hopefully" as a sentence-modifying adverb!

Sadly, people still assert that this is a solecism, despite the presence of many other sentence-modifying adverbs in the language, just like "hopefully," which nobody complains about.

Unfortunately, as long as people get off on pedantry, this is not likely to change.

Possibly, we may live to see a day when such prescriptivist wankery is punished by flogging.

Hopefully, that day will come soon.
posted by edheil at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2009 [17 favorites]


If BBC and IMF aren't acronyms, what are they?
posted by diogenes at 3:22 PM on June 1 [+] [!]
My guess is they are initialisms.
posted by yeoz at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


^Agree, hard.
posted by Sova at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2009


Damn, I mean agree with:

we may live to see a day when such prescriptivist wankery is punished by flogging.
posted by Sova at 12:30 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


If the Economist weren't proscriptive in their style guide, it wouldn't be The Economist, but something much less readily identifiable. Not to speak for the 'hat, but his objections to proscriptivism usually revolve around telling people they're "wrong" and associating social markers with specific grammatical patterns. Just as long as y'all don't call people bad for actin' like they ain't got no grammer, ain't nothing wrong with havin' style.
posted by GuyZero at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Abbreviations.

My guess is they are initialisms.

The third definition in Wiktionary says "Any abbreviation so formed, regardless of pronunciation, such as TNT, IBM, or XML."

I was worried there for a minute. I'm a technical writer, so I use the word "acronym" more frequently than most. I was relieved to find that the definition of is up for debate.

On preview, I was wondering why you felt so strongly about initialisms Sova ;)
posted by diogenes at 12:34 PM on June 1, 2009


Style. The economist has it.
posted by zpousman at 12:38 PM on June 1, 2009


This post is a list of entries from a Style Guide, a Wikipedia link to a definition for a grammatical term, and the entry page of the Style Guide where the first link was found.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:38 PM on June 1, 2009


This tickles my word-nerd button. Thanks.
posted by Rykey at 12:40 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


As mentioned upthread, there is value in prescription with respect to grammar - especially as it relates to the establishment of a recognizable style of writing to which many different writers across a wide range of subjects must adhere.

Personally, I think grammatical prescriptivism is even more valuable than that. I think the communicative power of language increases when vocabularies are wide and grammars are narrow; when there's only one way to say something, what was meant by any particular utterance is clearer than when there are multiple valid alternatives.

Put more succinctly: grammatical neologism is doubleplus ungood.
posted by Fraxas at 12:45 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


This post is a list of entries from a Style Guide, a Wikipedia link to a definition for a grammatical term, and the entry page of the Style Guide where the first link was found.

That cab has a dent in it.
posted by spicynuts at 12:46 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I am not a prescriptivist, especially about transitive vs. instransitive usages, but I found some of these very interesting. Like bellwether being a sheep.
posted by mai at 12:47 PM on June 1, 2009


Style Guide: Agony column: when Sherlock Holmes perused this, it was a personal column...

Me: Buh?

Style Guide: ...not letters to an agony aunt.

Me: Zuh?
posted by sleevener at 12:49 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Common: this means "frequently or habitually observed," not to be confused with happened once and I've never let that bastard forget about it as, for example, that time when [reporter I hate] confused Aetiology with Etiolate.
posted by yoink at 12:51 PM on June 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


An "agony aunt" is what the Brits call an Ann Landers. I've never heard the expression "agony column" in all my born days. No doubt, though, every time the Economist's writers write about that one Sherlock Holmes story, they thank God for the Economist style guide.
posted by yoink at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


What the hell is an agony aunt?
posted by condour75 at 12:11 PM on June 1 "
An agony aunt writes a column for the lovelorn. Dear Abby, Ann Landers type.

I am thinking seriously of canceling this comment dew to rain.
posted by Cranberry at 12:56 PM on June 1, 2009


This kind of thing is much fun. "Wrack is an old word meaning vengeance, punishment or wreckage. It can also be seaweed." Stay weird, English!
posted by sleevener at 12:57 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


This prompts something I've been pondering recently. Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages? Are there people with such a passionate feeling toward, for example, German that debate usages that evolve over time? Who am I to think this may be somehow a trait of our bastardized English?
posted by kingbenny at 12:59 PM on June 1, 2009


Collapse is not transitive. You may collapse, but you may not collapse something.

What the hell am I supposed to do with my collapsible tent, then?
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:00 PM on June 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


pffft - grammatical absurdities?

I could care less.
posted by sloe at 1:02 PM on June 1, 2009


Yaaaay! Go Prescriptivism and anything that peeves the language anarchists.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:02 PM on June 1, 2009


And my wave form, can I not collapse it?
posted by imperium at 1:02 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


What the hell am I supposed to do with my collapsible tent, then?

Does it telescope like my collapsible fishing pole?
posted by sleevener at 1:03 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages?

I think it's far more heated in many other languages; English continues to be incredibly fluid and innovative. Of course, in many non-English languages the prime debate is about the incorporation of anglicisms and whether these reflect creeping US Imperialism / Globalism.
posted by yoink at 1:04 PM on June 1, 2009


What the hell am I supposed to do with my collapsible tent, then?

Fold it? Put it away? Pull the string that causes it to collapse?

Also, isn't "collapsible tent" redundant? If it is incapable of collapse, doesn't that make it a "building"?
posted by explosion at 1:05 PM on June 1, 2009 [19 favorites]


What the hell am I supposed to do with my collapsible tent, then?

Ensure that it collapses.
posted by yoink at 1:07 PM on June 1, 2009


Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages?
See L'Académie française.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:12 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: "Wouldn't it defeat random pedantry?"

Yes, that's why it needs to be present in the game for it to be defeated.

</pedantic card maker>

I don't know. English is not my first language, so I think I will fall prey to many of these even if I try real hard to write real good, yes, thank you.

Maybe it's supposed to be limited to British usage, because a quick online search shows that American Heritage lists "Assertive, bold, and energetic" for "aggressive" for example while the (online) Compact OED lists only "characterized by or resulting from aggression" and "unduly forceful". My English is some sort of bastardized mongrel, sure, but it's mainly UK-influenced and I for one would certainly use "aggressive" to mean "assertive", as in "swift implementation of a comprehensive health care system will require an aggressive approach".

Lastly, the obligatory link to DFW's "Authority and American Usage", which among many (many!) other things tackles the question of whether "if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto 'valid' part of the language".
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:13 PM on June 1, 2009


I agree with explosion on the matter of tent collapsibility.
posted by Mister_A at 1:14 PM on June 1, 2009


The problem with substituting infer for imply is that you then lose the really useful meaning of infer.
posted by Mister_A at 1:17 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


random, rampant, whatever
posted by Sys Rq at 1:18 PM on June 1, 2009


Also, isn't "collapsible tent" redundant? If it is incapable of collapse, doesn't that make it a "building"?

A normal tent does not collapse without being disassembled.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:25 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meh. I was hoping for fun grammatical absurdities, such as
I like to run and apples.
And
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
posted by msalt at 1:29 PM on June 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages?

See L'Académie française.


Not forgetting Real Academia Española
posted by IndigoJones at 1:37 PM on June 1, 2009


Yes, but what we really want to know about is the difference between further and farther.
posted by Chuffy at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2009


Is there a term for applying a noun to a person who asserts an argument instead of addressing the argument itself?

"I don't think you're using that correctly."

"Gasp! You're a prescriptivist!"

"Yeah, well you're a me-annoyer."
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:43 PM on June 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


English is not by far my first language. I've had many English teachers of all kinds, but something that all the good ones have in common is that they brought copies of The Economist to class and used them as examples of good written English.

In almost very issue I read, I find at least once sentence or paragraph that makes me go "That is good! I never thought of putting those words together like that. I really should take note.", only to immediately forget and go back to my normal standard of written English.

If it takes a style guide like this one to write so clearly and economically, I am all for it.
posted by dirty lies at 1:47 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Different to" and "different than" have always sounded so wrong to my ears. I'm glad The Economist agrees.
posted by emelenjr at 1:53 PM on June 1, 2009


Also, isn't "collapsible tent" redundant? If it is incapable of collapse, doesn't that make it a "building"?
posted by explosion at 1:05 PM...


I'm kind of surprised that you don't think of buildings as collapsible.
posted by madmethods at 1:54 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think that you would be hard pressed to find descriptivists that will argue with a straight face that style guides for publications are a bad thing, but rather that uncritical acceptance of the notion that such "rules" come from on high is a bad thing.
posted by kosem at 1:58 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it comes down to the question of authorial intent, madmethods. The authors of buildings don't intend for them to be collapsed quickly, easily, or repeatably; not necessarily so with the authors of tents.
posted by Mister_A at 2:01 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


My sentimonies exactery.

I'm a hard-core prescriptivist with only one rule: The definition of prescriptivism is that words are defined by their usage alone. I know this may sound like a contradictory rule, but it allows me to remain firmly prescriptivist while flurbing my doogles chicken barn to the maximallity.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:08 PM on June 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


I've had a long time to come to terms with the rule that I am not allowed to be aggravated by things... but don't make it worse by suggesting that I should say "I'm irritated" instead. Those words are not the same at all.
posted by moxiedoll at 2:15 PM on June 1, 2009


One of the problems with setting yourself up to be arbiter of others grammar is that you have to be perfect yourself. To wit:

If "Alternative: strictly, this is one of two, not one of three, four, five or more (which may be options)," then "Thus a dilemma offers the choice between two alternatives, each with equally nasty consequences" must be contain a redundancy, no?
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:18 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


If we're taking a critical view of constructs such as tents and buildings, I would argue that collapsibility is determined not by the author, but by the the critic, as in Bin Laden's 2001 work 9-11.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:21 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Er, "must contain a redundancy"? Note, I am not setting myself up as anyones arbiter and should be shot if I ever do.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:22 PM on June 1, 2009


Sometimes things aggravate me. The condition being aggravated is Testy Human Being SYndrome, and I do not care to elaborate.
posted by Jilder at 2:31 PM on June 1, 2009


One of the problems with setting yourself up to be arbiter of others grammar is that you have to be perfect yourself. To wit:

If "Alternative: strictly, this is one of two, not one of three, four, five or more (which may be options)," then "Thus a dilemma offers the choice between two alternatives, each with equally nasty consequences" must be contain a redundancy, no?


Who says that redundancy, in an of itself, is a stylistic error?
posted by yoink at 2:34 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Firm. Accountants', consultants', lawyers' and other partnerships are firms, not companies. Huge enterprises, like GE, GM, Ford, Microsoft and so on, should, by contrast, normally, be called companies, though such outfits can sometimes be called firms for variety.

That rule seems especially tenuous, unless I'm missing something.
posted by kingbenny at 2:39 PM on June 1, 2009


You can not have a style (house) sheet unless is is prescribes what is and is not ok for the outfit putting it out. The NY Times has one; AP has one etc...It is all fine and dandy to say you don't give a hoot and do as you see fit but don't expect to say that working for a place that has a dress code for language.
posted by Postroad at 2:44 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Compare: A is compared with B when you draw attention to the difference. A is compared to B only when you want to stress their similarity. (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”)

Bard fail.
posted by fleacircus at 2:59 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I disagree with quite a few of those, although not the general principle. But, by Thor, the style is so damned charming throughout. I can practically smell the pipe-smoke. And I do love that they finally cleared up the long-running confusion between etiolate and aetiology. It really grates on me when people confuse those.

I can't wait for them to dumb down, though. First, we'll see "'alot' is a non-word. Use 'a lot'". Then "Some sticklers insist that 'alot' should be written as two words". At last, "'allot' is the verb, 'alot' means either a great number or to a great degree: I would like it alot if you filed your copy at the allotted time."

I, for one, welcome our etiolated language-eroding Internet overlords.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:05 PM on June 1, 2009


If it is incapable of collapse, doesn't that make it a "building"?

I can only assume that you don't sell earthquake insurance.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:06 PM on June 1, 2009


Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages?

Ich bitte Euch, die neue Rechtschreibung nicht zu vergessen.
posted by syzygy at 3:16 PM on June 1, 2009


They overlooked 'speak to,' as in "I can speak to that issue..."
Also - Legos
posted by Flashman at 3:52 PM on June 1, 2009


What the hell am I supposed to do with my collapsible tent, then?

It's for collapsing in. Like a fainting couch, but outdoors.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:58 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Compare: A is compared with B when you draw attention to the difference. A is compared to B only when you want to stress their similarity. ( “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”)

Did they even read the rest of the poem they're taking this example from?? According to their own standard, Shakespeare should have compared the object of his affection with a summer's day, not to one. I'll take Shakespeare over The Economist, thank you very much.

------------

Hopefully: by all means begin an article hopefully, but never write Hopefully, it will be finished by Wednesday. Try With luck, if all goes well, it is hoped that...

I was quite the prescriptivist when I was in high school, but even I rolled my eyes when one of my classmates at the time tried to convince me of that one. And that was 20+ years ago. Hopefully, no reasonable person insists on avoiding that usage anymore.

------------

Aggravate means make worse, not irritate or annoy.

Then when do I get to use the wonderful word exacerbate?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:59 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bard fail.

They were economizing their time by not reading the rest of the sonnet.
posted by CKmtl at 4:05 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll take Shakespeare over The Economist, thank you very much.

It's a style guide for a mass-market magazine. It deliberately not trying to sound like Shakespeare and the suggestions don't apply outside of the magazine's covers. But I'd love to hear Shakespeare's take on the impact of the Nigerian lawsuits against Shell on the world price of crude oil.
posted by GuyZero at 4:06 PM on June 1, 2009


I always interpreted that as "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? No, I shan't! Thou art much more betterer." Is that wrong?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:12 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


sleevener: "Wrack is an old word meaning vengeance, punishment or wreckage. It can also be seaweed." Stay weird, English!

You might change your mind about that next time your house gets 'weeded by the neighbor's kids!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:29 PM on June 1, 2009


My game. My rules.Don't like? Play elsewhere.
posted by Postroad at 4:34 PM on June 1, 2009


It deliberately not trying to sound like Shakespeare..

It working.
posted by applemeat at 4:54 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This pedantic clusterfuck has embiggened us all with its cromulence.
posted by Krrrlson at 5:04 PM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


See, one of the things about descriptivism is that it describes reality. Reality is that there are different contexts for things. It's silly, for example, to try to banish "ain't" from the language (as they used to say in school, "ain't ain't a word"), when all you're trying to do is erase a lower-class speech marker for the good of the student -- and especially when you cross the Atlantic and find that ain't is an upper-class speech marker. Would a descriptivist then suggest that upper-class Brits and lower-class Yanks talk more like each other, or their local class counterparts? Of course not. That's not the point of descriptivism at all!

Obviously even in one country you're going to have a range of formal and informal contexts as well as oral vs. written language. The idea that a descriptivist would object to a publication style guide is a basic misunderstanding of what it's all about to be descriptivist.

All that said, a style guide contains elements of both description and prescription.

Oh, and the business about acronyms vs. initialisms is specific to British English. Americans commonly use acronym for both, unless they're trying to make a distinction.
posted by dhartung at 5:07 PM on June 1, 2009


...cross the Atlantic and find that ain't is an upper-class speech marker

What?
posted by matthewr at 5:16 PM on June 1, 2009


> There's nothing wrong with prescriptivism in a style guide.

Bingo. Every publication has a style guide, and they're entitled to enforce whatever silly rules they prefer (like the New Yorker's notorious diëereses). As long as you don't claim they're rules about the language, you're golden. (And as someone who makes his living as a copyeditor, I'm sure glad such rules exist.)

> This prompts something I've been pondering recently. Is this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist lingual evolution debate so heated in other languages? Are there people with such a passionate feeling toward, for example, German that debate usages that evolve over time?

Yes indeed. Aside from the examples others have mentioned, Russian language discussion is loaded with prescriptivist nonsense that a few brave descriptivists (like Anatoly Vorobey) try to combat.

> The problem with substituting infer for imply is that you then lose the really useful meaning of infer.

Come, come. Like the other supposed ambiguities panicked prescriptivists run around trying to scare us with, the meaning is clear from context, just as with cleave and other multivalent words.
posted by languagehat at 5:16 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


My facile take is that there are (at least) two different types of prescriptions going on in this style guide. The first group are fairly pedantic bits of fussiness that try to hold back a perceived tide of wrongitude that has little impact on actual communication. Their prescription on "aggravate" typify this group. I've never heard someone say they were "aggravated" and misunderstood what they meant. But the second, typified by their take on "reached a crescendo", truly are solecisms.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:25 PM on June 1, 2009


Huh.

I thought this stuff was taught to university level journalism students as a matter of routine. I'm surprised an employer would need to issue such a guide.

I remember sending an e-mail to a local newspaper journalist complaining of her use of the term "tin can", especially in a city like Seattle which places such a high emphasis on recycling. Surprisingly I got a reply, though somewhat flippant and dismissive; "talk to the city, they're the ones who sent out the press release."

For a non-professional such as myself, this is a thoroughly useful resource.

Upon reflection, perhaps the tin cans are recycled into tin foil...
posted by Tube at 5:27 PM on June 1, 2009


Come, come. Like the other supposed ambiguities panicked prescriptivists run around trying to scare us with, the meaning is clear from context, just as with cleave and other multivalent words.

Although I agree with the sentiment, I'm not sure that's true in this case. Context often doesn't make it clear whether the speaker actually intends to "infer" or "imply". "Are you inferring that I didn't go to work today?" and "Are you implying that I didn't go to work today?" imply quite different things about the second person's state of mind (and as a third person, I would infer different things about the speaker's state of mind).
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:32 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


As long as you don't claim they're rules about the language, you're golden.

I admit to an unfamiliarity with the term solecism, but from what I'm seeing, doesn't that imply "errors in usage," rather than "things to avoid when writing for this publication?"

------------

I always interpreted that as "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? No, I shan't! Thou art much more betterer." Is that wrong?

Fair enough. I hadn't considered that reading, which is plausible and would be consistent with The Economist's point on compare to vs. compare with. I withdraw my objection to that entry. Well, maybe not withdraw my objection, but at least withdraw my citation of Sonnet XVIII as a counterexample to the entry.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:33 PM on June 1, 2009


>...cross the Atlantic and find that ain't is an upper-class speech marker

What?


I don't know if this is still true, and volumes could be written on the curious history of "ain't". Written by someone far more knowledgeable than me, I would hope.

One interesting tidbit: as a contraction of "am not", ain't is grammatically correct in the form "ain't I?", as opposed to the more accepted "aren't I?", which is not. What led to the wholesale rejection of "ain't" was probably reaction to the misuse of it in "ain't he" and "ain't it", since "to be" does not conjugate to "am" in the case of "he" and "it". People were told it was wrong often enough that even the correct use fell out of "proper" usage.

If the upper classes in England held on to "ain't" longer than the middle classes, it's probably because, contrary to the popular perception outside the UK, it's always been the aspiring classes who go overboard with appearances -- the upper class give rather less of a damn.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:42 PM on June 1, 2009


"I think the communicative power of language increases when vocabularies are wide and grammars are narrow..."

If I understand correctly, you are saying that languages that are not organized like English are not good for communication.

So, a less-configurational language like Cayuga that nonetheless a rich morphology has less "communicative power?"

Admittedly, that's a different issue that prescriptivist ideas about one language, but sweeping generalizations like the above inadvertently dismiss the way that many languages work.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:55 PM on June 1, 2009


*nonetheless has a rich morphology
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:56 PM on June 1, 2009


I'm surprised an employer would need to issue such a guide.

Different publications have different styles. If you write for both the Economist and the New Yorker, you need to know the difference, and so your editors at each supply you with a copy of that particular publication's style guide. Much of it may be the same, except for the parts that are different.
posted by rtha at 6:58 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


[...] uncritical acceptance of the notion that such "rules" come from on high is a bad thing.

This is a silly straw man. Nobody believes that they come from on High.

It puzzles me that standards and conventions are considered good things in so many fields, yet somehow they're supposed to be bad things for language.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:21 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I disagree with quite a few of those, although not the general principle.

To me, a few of them seemed twitchy, hair-splitting, or describing some dialect that I'm not well-versed in. But it is a British publication which takes pains to not be overwhelmed by some dialect their readers might not be well-versed in.
posted by ardgedee at 7:25 PM on June 1, 2009


> What the hell is an agony aunt?

Dan Savage.
posted by ardgedee at 7:28 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


like the New Yorker's notorious diëereses

I'm considering using a dieresis in a document I'm working on right now. I have to use the work unionized, and though it should be clear from context (I'm talking about uniönized groups on molecules), every time I read over that section, I think about labor organizing. It's a proposal, so the style is up to me... I just don't know how the reviewers would take it.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:29 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


It puzzles me that standards and conventions are considered good things in so many fields, yet somehow they're supposed to be bad things for language.

They aren't, in general, but one could certainly form the view that some of the more hysterical self-identified descriptivists would suggest that there is no basis to object to someone referring to a four-legged animal which barks as a cat, on the grounds that there is no proper use of language.
posted by rodgerd at 9:10 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


mr_roboto: I would actually find that just as confusing. I would read that as "youni-ohnized." Maybe a hyphen would be clearer?
posted by sixswitch at 9:42 PM on June 1, 2009


Underprivileged. Since a privilege is a special favour or advantage, it is by definition not something to which everyone is entitled. So underprivileged, by implying the right to privileges for all, is not just ugly jargon but also nonsense.

huh.
posted by bigmusic at 9:49 PM on June 1, 2009


I likeseded these post.
posted by not_on_display at 10:43 PM on June 1, 2009


mr_roboto, you might consider the word "nonionized", which is a generally acceptable variant in referencing ground state species or particles that have otherwise not been converted into ions.

The word looks just as weird, but it at least has no homographs.

/chemistry pedantry
posted by darkstar at 1:29 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thank you for this -- I've only read perhaps the first third, but I've already found several examples of words that I've been using incorrectly.

Personally, I'm a prescriptivist, but with two caveats: firstly, sometimes it's just a lost goddamn cause (e.g. begging the question); and secondly, I reserve the right to imaginify my own words once in a while. Accidental incorrect usage should be avoided, but no one's gonna keep me from having fun.
posted by rifflesby at 1:41 AM on June 2, 2009


bigmusic: re Underprivileged

Draw a Venn diagram showing a small circle inside a larger one. The larger one is the population, the smaller one is those who are privileged. Those inside the large circle but outside the small one are un-privileged.

Personally I agree with the Economist's take if you are talking about one aspect of privilege only. However if you are considering several separate privileges in aggregate then there will indeed be a group of people who are at the top of the table in terms of falling outside the small circle.
posted by rongorongo at 2:58 AM on June 2, 2009


Epicentre means that point on the earth's surface above the centre of an earthquake. To say that Mr Putin was at the epicentre of the dispute suggests that the argument took place underground.

Fuck off.
posted by Summer at 4:24 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Common solecisms? I can just picture the hilarity at the Economist when it turns out old Snodgrass has mixed up aetiology with etiolated - yet again!
posted by Phanx at 4:43 AM on June 2, 2009


The people may also be Scotch, Scots or Scottish; choose as you like.

Who wants 'Scotch' readers, anyway?
posted by Phanx at 5:19 AM on June 2, 2009


>Then when do I get to use the wonderful word exacerbate? [versus aggravate]

To exacerbate is to make something that is already negative worse. To aggravate means the same thing. To exasperate is to irritate or annoy to an extreme degree. What’s the difference between exacerbate and aggravate? It seems to be in the etomology. “Aggravat” is Latin for “made heavy”, while “exacerbat” is Latin for “made harsh”. So one is a metaphor. Thanks MacOS dictionary, which also doesn't like aggravate as a stand in for exasperate and it states why: because irritation has nothing to do with being "heavy".

>Yes, but what we really want to know about is the difference between further and farther.

The difference between further and father is that the former is for distances that are more abstract. "It could not be further from the truth that I look like my father." Farther is for distances that you can quantify. "My house is farther from the school than your house is." See fewer/less for a similar distinction.
posted by about_time at 6:21 AM on June 2, 2009


Comprise means is composed of.

This explanation isn't exactly clear. I've understood comprise to mean that something is made partially up of something, where as compose is for the entire thing. Obama supporters comprised more than half the voters in the last election. Chocolate milk is composed of nothing except chocolate and milk.
posted by about_time at 6:32 AM on June 2, 2009


It puzzles me that standards and conventions are considered good things in so many fields, yet somehow they're supposed to be bad things for language.

Because it is about the sole field of human endeavour where amateurs dictate to professionals.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:39 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


...the sole field of human endeavour where amateurs dictate to professionals

"It often has been remarked that only in politics and the "arts" does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated "I didn't like it" from further scrutiny." -- Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares If You Listen?"
posted by sleevener at 7:04 AM on June 2, 2009


> I admit to an unfamiliarity with the term solecism, but from what I'm seeing, doesn't that imply "errors in usage," rather than "things to avoid when writing for this publication?"

Yes, and in general style guides are imbued with the false idea that they're stating facts about language rather than arbitrary rules for the particular publication, but that's an inevitable result of the general ignorance about language (other results of which are visible in this very thread). The point is not that the style guides are right about language but that their existence is necessary and the philosophy they espouse is irrelevant to their usefulness (except, of course, when idiots wave them around to "prove" things about language, as is so often the case with poor abused Strunk & White).

> I'm considering using a dieresis in a document I'm working on right now. I have to use the work unionized, and though it should be clear from context (I'm talking about uniönized groups on molecules), every time I read over that section, I think about labor organizing. It's a proposal, so the style is up to me... I just don't know how the reviewers would take it.

This is a very bad idea: "uniönized" looks terrible and nobody will know what you mean. As has been suggested, use nonionized instead. (I well remember how thrilled I was in high school to realize that you could use the pronunciation of unionized as a shibboleth to tell science majors and liberal arts types apart.)

> I've only read perhaps the first third, but I've already found several examples of words that I've been using incorrectly.

I beg you not to take this particular, more or less randomly chosen, style manual as an actual guide to what is right and wrong. I assure you that your own usage is a better guide than the prejudices and random decisions of the editors of The Economist. The eagerness of people to think they've been using their own language wrong just because some self-proclaimed authority tells them so fills me with despair. You are a native speaker of your language—stand up for your own authority! (N.b.: For extra credit, this has political implications as well.)
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on June 2, 2009


...the sole field of human endeavour where amateurs dictate to professionals

Balls. Language belongs to all of us. We created it, as a race. The ONLY reason to have common spelling and grammar is to get to the meaning as quickly and painlessly as possible. People need to remember that.
posted by Summer at 7:31 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I didn't mean as a race, I meant as a species. Although clearly my race's languages are better than yours.
posted by Summer at 7:33 AM on June 2, 2009


> it is about the sole field of human endeavour where amateurs dictate to professionals.

This is idiotic and authoritarian. We are all expert users of our own language; the true professionals, the linguists, study the usage of native speakers to find out how the language works and write grammars accordingly. The "professionals" you're talking about are just assholes who want everybody else to obey their dictates, and I say fuck 'em.
posted by languagehat at 7:33 AM on June 2, 2009


Or what Summer said so succinctly while I was typing indignantly.
posted by languagehat at 7:34 AM on June 2, 2009


This explanation isn't exactly clear. I've understood comprise to mean that something is made partially up of something, where as compose is for the entire thing.

This is certainly true (approximately) in US patents at least, and using one when you mean the other in a patent can be a costly mistake. (If you meant to patent a device composed of A, B, and C, but wrote in your patent "a device comprising A, B, and C," your competitor may be able to produce a device with A, B, C, and D without infringing your patent. Oops.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:41 AM on June 2, 2009


Spoken comes first, then written, then Dictionary Dickhead. Got it.

I didn't mean as a race, I meant as a species.

Ooh! Ooh! But surely they are synonymous; this is why racism is such a bad thing. (Then again, I am the type of person who rhymes the latter with feces, so what the hell do I know?)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:50 AM on June 2, 2009


Would a descriptivist then suggest that upper-class Brits and lower-class Yanks talk more like each other

Well, the English upper class love to hunt, have no central heating, speak with an incomprehensible accent and marry their cousins.
Nothing like rednecks in other words.
posted by atrazine at 9:14 AM on June 2, 2009


Hmm, that's interesting. They say no apostrophes in dates. Very, very interesting.
posted by asfuller at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2009


Fraxas: Personally, I think grammatical prescriptivism is even more valuable than that. I think the communicative power of language increases when vocabularies are wide and grammars are narrow; when there's only one way to say something, what was meant by any particular utterance is clearer than when there are multiple valid alternatives.

The problem is that you will never be able to hit on a single grammar that covers all the varieties of medium and context where language is used: from street signs, to the JAMA, from chat to online publication, from postcards to letters to the editor, from informal conversation to presidential speech. All of these have different grammars for very specific and important reasons. The abbreviations and emoticons used in text messaging are adaptations to deal with limited bandwidth and the absence of an emotive channel for communication, and the passive voice of JAMA attempts to distance the researcher from the research study.

Crabby Appelton: It puzzles me that standards and conventions are considered good things in so many fields, yet somehow they're supposed to be bad things for language.

Standards are great when used as a way to communicate what makes a work that's acceptable for publication. Standards are a bad thing when they are used in an evaluative way outside of their scope. What prescriptivists really defend in these debates is their right to use language as a shibboleth to judge a person's worthiness in other respects.
--
In regards to "critique." First, it is a verb that my dictionary traces back considerably further than the publication history of The Economist. Second, it is a verb that in the professional language of the arts has a very specific meaning distinct from "criticize." A critique is a formal method of examining a work of art in regards to content, theme, technique, or presentation. A criticism is less formal.

Critique: More contrast would make that text stand out a bit more. In the current version, it's murky and overpowered by other design elements.

Criticism: My five-year-old makes better images.

It's just dandy for The Economist to claim that critique is only a noun in their jargon, but they don't speak for all audiences.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 AM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Usage Note: Critique has been used as a verb meaning "to review or discuss critically" since the 18th century, but lately this usage has gained much wider currency, in part because the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense. But this use of critique is still regarded by many as pretentious jargon, although resistance appears to be weakening. In our 1997 ballot, 41 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence As mock inquisitors grill him, top aides take notes and critique the answers with the President afterward. Ten years earlier, 69 percent disapproved of this same sentence. Resistance is still high when a person is critiqued: 60 percent of the Usage Panel rejects its use in the sentence Students are taught how to do a business plan and then are critiqued on it. Thus, it may be preferable to avoid this word. There is no exact synonym, but in most contexts one can usually substitute go over, review, or analyze. · Note, however, that critique is widely accepted as a noun in a neutral context; 86 percent of the Panel approved of its use in the sentence The committee gave the report a thorough critique and found it both informed and intelligent.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2009


60 percent of the Usage Panel

Which highlights the absurdity seeing the dictionary as expressing some idealized prescriptive value.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:35 AM on June 2, 2009


The word looks just as weird, but it at least has no homographs.

The problem isn't the homo of the graphs, but the hetero of the phones.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:55 AM on June 2, 2009


I think any type of dictionary or grammar is more like a legal tome. It's localised, and refers only to the time of publication. It's based on commonly-held community standards as well as precedent. There are generally-accepted rules that aren't in it (slang), and the rules that are in it aren't particularly strictly followed by the population. There are also workplaces with their own stricter rules, like the Economist.

I the point of this analogy is that, in loose contexts, using a word "wrongly" is like smoking pot: technically illegal, but someone would be an arsehole to call you out on it.

Insisting that "critique" is only a noun is more like demanding your right to shoot a Scotsman with a bow-and-arrow at midnight in Berwick-upon-Tweed, according to the unrepealed statute. Actually telling someone that they're using it incorrectly is shooting said Scotsman.

I'm all for standing up for your own authority, but is it really a matter for "despair" that someone wants to refine their language use? (admittedly, this style-book is not the place to find that guidance, but...)

Also, other than "unionized" and "coax", any other good arts/sciences shibboleths?
I should refine my language use, or at least reduce it
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:05 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I assure you that your own usage is a better guide than the prejudices and random decisions of the editors of The Economist.

It struck me how The Economist's style guide is a guide to writing for The Economist. The style guide can be a worthwhile read and something to learn from, but it doesn't exist as a rulebook to follow except by those working for The Economist.

The Economist is rare among modern English-language publications in that most of its content is unsigned. A consistent authorial voice ensures that words and phrasing have consistent meaning across many articles and many issues, since there is no byline to provide the reader extra cues to meaning or context.

For example, take the following rule: Key: keys may be major or minor, but not low. So The Economist's phantom author would never say "low key". I have no idea whether "low key" is poor grammar, inappropriate jargon, or whatever -- the rule sounds arbitrary to me -- but at least I know enough to not use it if I were to write for them.

> Common solecisms? I can just picture the hilarity at the Economist when it turns out old Snodgrass has mixed up aetiology with etiolated - yet again!

Never underestimate the ability of a young writer to reach for the highest shelf with the most expensive words, and then misuse the ones he finds.
posted by ardgedee at 2:19 PM on June 2, 2009


I would like to write a style guide to place in every convenience store in New England indicating that "careful" is an adjective, not an adverb, and that the direction to "Drive careful!" makes no grammatical sense.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:37 PM on June 2, 2009


Think Different, grapefruitmoon.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:09 PM on June 2, 2009


languagehat writes: The "professionals" you're talking about are just assholes who want everybody else to obey their dictates, and I say fuck 'em.

KirkJobSluder writes: What prescriptivists really defend in these debates is their right to use language as a shibboleth to judge a person's worthiness in other respects.

Sorry, guys, but that just sounds nutty to me.

Maybe what prescriptivists are really interested in is precision, clarity, and concision of expression, and using standards and conventions to help achieve them (in writing, at least).
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:34 PM on June 2, 2009


See also the Economist's linguistic "Dos and don'ts" which is a more helpful as a guide to a clear (Economist) writing style.
posted by patricio at 6:52 AM on June 3, 2009


Not for the first time, I shall eat my words.

Talking to someone today, on the subject of obscure words, I mentioned the word "etiolated". Immediate response: "Is that something to do with aetiology?"
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2009


Hopefully: by all means begin an article hopefully, but never write Hopefully, it will be finished by Wednesday. Try With luck, if all goes well, it is hoped that...

If I were writing for The Economist, I would be sorely tempted to use "Insha'Allah" where I would normally use "hopefully" as a whole-sentence modifier. Although I don't suppose the editors would look too kindly on that, even if it's not specifically addressed in the style guide.

Compare: A is compared with B when you draw attention to the difference. A is compared to B only when you want to stress their similarity.

What if you want to draw attention to differences and similarities? Does the writer for The Economist have to write, "In this interview, Joe Steinway compares harpsichords to and with pianos?"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2009


What if you want to draw attention to differences and similarities? Does the writer for The Economist have to write, "In this interview, Joe Steinway compares harpsichords to and with pianos?"

Yeah, this was one of the lamer guidelines.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:53 AM on June 4, 2009


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