"It's only ugly because it's new and you don't like it."
October 20, 2010 10:40 AM   Subscribe

When asked to join in a "let's persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their 'five items or less' sign" I never join in.

"Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between 'less' and 'fewer', and between 'uninterested' and 'disinterested', and 'infer' and 'imply', and all of the rest of them, but none of these are of importance to me. 'None of these ARE of importance', I said there, you'll notice. The old pedantic me would have insisted on 'none of them IS of importance'."

Stephen Fry plays with words and calls out the pedants in his podgram, and a fellow called Mark Rogers makes an engaging little video. Mr. Fry approves via twitter.
posted by heyho (78 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am unaware of the technical distinction between 'podgram' and 'podcast'.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 10:46 AM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I can understand confusing "less" and "fewer" -- both have "more" as an antonym, and you're not going to confuse anyone if you use the wrong one.

Messing up "infer" and "imply", however, is like using "give" and "receive" interchangeably. You seriously fuck up the meaning of the sentence when you use one in place of the other, and it's hardly pedantic to say that people should avoid making that kind of error.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2010 [23 favorites]


Yay! I so hearted this.
posted by Ahab at 10:49 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The only way to watch that video and enjoy the message was to close your eyes. The words got in the way of the video about words.
posted by HuronBob at 10:52 AM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Good, except for him falling into the whole "people who care about things like grammar and punctiation don't appreciate art and beauty in language" straw man crap (around the 2:10 mark). Wanting to read good sentences or bristling at misused apostrophes doesn't make someone incapable of appreciating poetry, or use language in beautiful and artful ways. I am confused why he feels the need to say that.
posted by statolith at 11:03 AM on October 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


I was coming in to say what statolith just did. In my experience, the people who wince at "non-standard" grammar are the same ones who do, in fact, play with language and take joy in it. The reason they wince is not that language is being used in ways that they are not used to. They are wincing because the user appears to be careless with language, or even, to not know any better. It's only creative if it's done by choice, I think.
posted by bardophile at 11:06 AM on October 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Fry at his best. It's a shame he stopped doing the podgrams.

(Not as much of a shame as that he stopped doing The Dongle of Donald Trefusis though. Only 3 episodes out of a planned 12. I think it just didn't sell in sufficient numbers)
posted by DanCall at 11:09 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


He is a traitor, and he is now off my Christmas card list.
posted by Decani at 11:13 AM on October 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I find it a little funny that my comment up there has a bad spelling error and mis-conjugated verb. Ha! Typing with a new wrist brace is my excuse.
posted by statolith at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2010


They are wincing because the user appears to be careless with language, or even, to not know any better. It's only creative if it's done by choice, I think.


Language doesn't need to be treated carefully. Language doesn't require you to know any rules before you start using it. Language doesn't need to be creative at all times.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:17 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Language doesn't require you to know any rules before you start using it.

Having just returned from a foreign country, I found this to be untrue. I was armed with a huge vocabulary in the local language, and no understanding of the rules.
The result was a lot of apologizing and awkward, one word sentences while I pointed urgently at things.

Language does require a knowledge of the rules, whether you're conscious of it or not. A better understanding of those rules, allows for more effective communication.

You don't need them to buy a loaf of bread, but you certainly do need them to exist as a dynamic social creature.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:22 AM on October 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


GOD DAMN IT. Now I can't un-see all of my misplaced commas.
Someone fetch me an editor.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2010


In my experience, the people who wince at "non-standard" grammar are the same ones who do, in fact, play with language and take joy in it.

You've not yet had the pleasure of my mother, bardophile?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:26 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If we don't treat language carefully, then clarity does suffer. It's true that you don't have to know any rules for language before you start using it, but you do have to learn them if language is to continue to serve a social purpose. Certainly, when enough people use a word a different way, it starts first to become acceptable colloquially, and then, in "standard" language.

The part where I agree with Fry wholeheartedly is that in which he says that it is context that is most important. I think where he and the people he calls pedants disagree is which contexts are formal enough to require care with the conventions. Public signs are a good example of a kind of communication that some would regard as formal, and therefore requiring "standard" usage, while others would regard it as not important at all. In exactly the same way that some people would never go to work without a tie, while others would happily show up in jeans and t-shirt.

I guess I feel really strongly about this because I have seen the pendulum swing too far the other way. It really is chaotic when people write as if the conventions of language are completely irrelevant.

On preview:

Jody Tresidder: No, obviously, I have not. You'll notice my careful use of "in my experience."
posted by bardophile at 11:29 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You don't need them to buy a loaf of bread, but you certainly do need them to exist as a dynamic social creature.

You're right, I spoke too soon. Language does require to know some rules before you use it. However, "less vs. fewer" and "no grocer's apostrophes" (and every other peeve mentioned in the video) aren't among the rules one needs to know in order to be a dynamic social creature.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:32 AM on October 20, 2010


I'm with Fry in spirit, but I'm also with OxFCAF: some locutionary acts make the language poorer. If everybody uses "infer" to mean "imply" and "disinterested" to mean "uninterested", then we're short two perfectly good words, aren't we?
posted by steambadger at 11:33 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I thought he had lot's of good points, but Im not sure i agree that everyone that takes ombrage at correctable and slopy mistakes should be considered a joyless pendant.
posted by Shepherd at 11:34 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"It's only ugly because it's one of those obnoxious 'kinetic typography' things that gives me a headache, and because it fades out at the end, just when I'd like to hear more."

Srsly, though, I like this – just minimized it. Wish I could listen to this in full without stupid, stupid iTunes, though. I suspect someone will be along to explain how to extract this from the RSS feed presently.
posted by koeselitz at 11:35 AM on October 20, 2010


Weird Al did the 5 items thing, and this traffic sign
posted by DreamerFi at 11:37 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


23skidoo: Not even "infer" vs "imply"?
posted by bardophile at 11:38 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


23skidoo: “Language doesn't require you to know any rules before you start using it. Language doesn't need to be creative at all times.”

Stagger Lee: “Having just returned from a foreign country, I found this to be untrue. I was armed with a huge vocabulary in the local language, and no understanding of the rules.
The result was a lot of apologizing and awkward, one word sentences while I pointed urgently at things. Language does require a knowledge of the rules, whether you're conscious of it or not. A better understanding of those rules, allows for more effective communication.”


But those weren't rules you were learning – that's the important distinction I think we're talking about. Those were conventions. And it's worthwhile and sometimes even vital to know how people conventionally use language in whatever context you happen to find yourself; Mr Fry points this out when he mentions "dressing up" our language when we go to a job interview. But those conventions are not rules.
posted by koeselitz at 11:40 AM on October 20, 2010


"It's only creative if it's done by choice, I think."

aka "You can only break the rules if you know the rules."

This is one of those things that's always said to defend established ways in the face of evidence that non-established ways are just as good or better.

It's largely bullshit.

"You can only write hip-hop in black dialect if you *know* how to write sonnets in Elizabethan English, and are *choosing* to break those rules."

"You can only write a good rock song using three chords and the truth if you *know* how to compose a violin concerto."

"You can only draw good cartoons if you know how to produce perfect graphite drawings of plaster casts of classical statues."

There are people who learn how to do something a traditional way and then find a non-traditional way to do it, breaking the "rules" they learned, and doing wondeful things that way -- Picasso being trained in traditional painting is the obvious one.

It's often very creatively energizing to mix different ways of doing things, and in that way it can be very powerful to take traditional forms and techniques and put them together with radical new ideas.

But that's just an instance of the general "combining disparate things can be creatively powerful" rule; painting it in the way it often is -- suggesting that mastering the classical forms is a requirement before you can work in new forms -- is last-ditch reactionary crap, meant to preserve a cultural regime after it's been empirically shown not to be the sine qua non it claims to be.
posted by edheil at 11:41 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


23skidoo: Not even "infer" vs "imply"?

I don't think that people need to learn "infer means conclude" and "imply means suggest". I think that people need to learn "some people use infer and imply interchangeably, and being aware of that and asking people what they mean when the meaning is ambiguous will be alot easier than trying to convince them to stop doing something that lots of people are doing".
posted by 23skidoo at 11:44 AM on October 20, 2010


But those weren't rules you were learning [...] Those were conventions.

What is the difference?

There's no reason why you can't touch the ball with your hands just because everyone else isn't. But don't act all surprised when some guy in a zebra-patterned shirt gets mad at you.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:47 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


"and it's hardly pedantic to say that people should avoid making that kind of error"

/points and laughs at the pedant

Seriously. If you are going to be a pedantic bore, at least have the moxie to stand up and embrace it.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:50 AM on October 20, 2010


suggesting that mastering the classical forms is a requirement before you can work in new forms -- is last-ditch reactionary crap

Or it's not and you're just wrong. There's that possibility, too.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:50 AM on October 20, 2010


edheil: you're talking about treating one set of conventions as superior to another. I'm talking about people who are ostensibly using a particular set of conventions, but clearly do not really understand those conventions. I'm really sorry I'm not coming up with examples right now. As a teacher and debate coach I used to hear and see them all the time. I'm thinking more along the lines of "you can't spell was as wyx (as opposed to wuz which is non-standard but recognizable.) I realize that most of the examples Fry uses are not nearly as egregious as that. I have, however, heard his and your arguments used to justify the kinds of example I just gave you. And that doesn't wash with me.
posted by bardophile at 11:51 AM on October 20, 2010


Oh, and yes, I guess as a teacher, by definition I am a pedant. We have our uses. :)
posted by bardophile at 11:52 AM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


23skidoo: I think I agree with you, once a usage becomes what we call in Urdu "ghalat-ul-aam" (error-that-is-in-common-use).
posted by bardophile at 11:56 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think that people need to learn "infer means conclude" and "imply means suggest". I think that people need to learn "some people use infer and imply interchangeably, and being aware of that and asking people what they mean when the meaning is ambiguous will be alot easier than trying to convince them to stop doing something that lots of people are doing".

I'm sorry -- because I love Stephen Fry so much I almost went to jail for him once -- but people who use "infer" and "imply" interchangeably are idiots, as are people who use the word "irregardless".

Also there is no such word as "alot".
posted by The Bellman at 11:58 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that people need to learn "some people use infer and imply interchangeably, and being aware of that and asking people what they mean when the meaning is ambiguous will be alot easier than trying to convince them to stop doing something that lots of people are doing".

I will have to pay attention to this going forward, but I do not believe I have ever heard anyone use the word "infer" when it wasn't immediately clear from context which meaning they meant by it.
posted by not that girl at 11:58 AM on October 20, 2010


as are people who use the word "irregardless".

Right! I mean, name me one other word that came about because people just started using it? Just one!

Besides, you know... all of them.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


I had a terribly frustrating argument once with a girl over the word "sweet" and the various ways it is used around the world. In many languages, sweet and fatty are often taken together in ways that are not obvious to an American speaker. Cream cheese, for example, is considered sweet in many places, even though I don't consider it sweet at all. But the heart of the disagreement was not over the precise definition of the word, but rather that my momentary confusion at its use was interpreted as an attack on her understanding of English. I tried to explain that I was not claiming her use of the word was wrong, but it seemed impossible to move on, and she ended up sending me information about the lactose content of various cheeses.

I relate this story only because I think it illustrates quite well that while precision and clarity is often an important goal of language, it can be taken too far, and when that happens it actually impedes communication. Does sweet mean what I thought it meant or what she thought it meant? It doesn't matter, because after two seconds of confusion, we both knew what the other was saying. But because of this insistence of nailing down an exact definition, which would make one of us right and the other wrong, we were unable to continue. Communication was halted because of a stupid obsession with the minutia of the language we were using.

Of course it is important to choose words and phrasing that express your thoughts clearly and appropriately for your audience. But running about correcting people for things like using a restrictive which do nothing to improve clarity. That is language used as a class signifier. It's unpleasant.
posted by Nothing at 12:04 PM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry -- because I love Stephen Fry so much I almost went to jail for him once -- but people who use "infer" and "imply" interchangeably are idiots, as are people who use the word "irregardless".

In my opinion, people who pretend that they aren't aware that some people use the words interchangeably are alot bigger idiots than people who use the words interchangeably.

Seriously, if one doesn't know that some people mix up those words? That's criminally stupid.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:05 PM on October 20, 2010


I am a fan of language play. There are a number of delightful ways to play with language. The problem with sloppiness with language is that people, as my mentor would put it "hear what you say, but understand what they mean". Sloppiness in language makes it difficult to say anything new or unusual, because it is taken for yet another mistake and corrected for. One way to look at this is whether a way of using language tends to increase the variety of available statements (creating new distinctions, for example nealogisms and jargon), or tends to reduce variety by turning distinct terms into synonyms in a way that makes other usage of the misused term harder to understand (for example the usage of the word "chauvinist" to mean "sexist", or the butchery of Shakespearian English, saying "wherefore" to mean "where").

rsndom small errors like those caused by typing on a thumb keyboard are neithermhere nor there
posted by idiopath at 12:07 PM on October 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Also there is no such word as "alot".

YOU TAKE THAT BACK.
posted by sonika at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Seriously, if one doesn't know that some people mix up those words? That's criminally stupid.

Couldn't agree more.
posted by The Bellman at 12:10 PM on October 20, 2010


I enjoyed this piece, partly because I love language to bits and partly because I'm a recovering "your apostrophes make you look stupid" self-appointed critic. I really don't think he is creating a straw man here as much as he's just pointing out that time spent writing cross, but brilliantly-worded, letters to people complaining about their use of language is time spent not playing with language and not reveling in the joy of wordplay and not demonstrating the best uses of the mother tongue.

How many times does a tiff in an online forum turn into "your point is stupid, as evidenced by your inability to use 'it's' correctly," with this forum being the general exception to the rule? Merely wincing at grammatical disasters and artless malapropism is something other than stepping in to point out that the miscreant is, in fact, completely and utterly wrong and stupid-looking and honestly, you should thank me for saving you from looking bad...but I digress, as my own language is already surrendering to the rambling demands of style.

I suspect we could use far fewer critics in the realm of language and far more evangelists, showing the light and the way through example, in their pleasure in the play of words, and in how they can lift you up and carry you to an increasingly lush understanding of why we bother to talk at all.

It's true that one ought to know the rules of the game before breaking them, but we to easily ignore why so many people don't know the rules, and why they regard writing as a chore at best and a kind of hellish torture at worst. I love language because I'm half-Southern and half-Baltimore (two faces of a coin), with an extended family that loves a good story and isn't particularly bothered about precision, but not everyone had the luck I had, and they spent more time on TV and less with a nose in a book, all with the blessing of parents who were similarly unlucky.

I can catch the less-fortunate and make an example of them, calling them out on comma-splicing, dangling prepositions, split infinitives and the rest, but it just makes me look like a dick, to be perfectly frank, and does nothing to promote the idea that language can be joyous. It just makes it look hard, with incomprehensible rules and frustrating inconsistency, like something no one can master, and so people just give up, do the best they can, and mix up "your" and "you're" with alacrity.

Does it make language better to constantly point out that people do it wrong?

How's that working out with safe sex, overeating, and lousy driving?

I have a good time writing here at MetaFilter, and part of the nearly erotic charge of banging out a rambly, tangential comment in my own voice is that scary moment when I click Post Comment, because this goddamned comment engine won't let me go back and fix things, unless I really, really cry to a moderator for help (and that only rarely works). I hit that button and what's there is there, and I have had to get over my typos, extra commas, and weirdly-phrased lines that I was rewriting in my head, but forgot to update before I—and there it is, some little dangling orphan of a half-finished idea, caught between unwarranted punctuation with its grammar hanging out.

You just have to let these things go, or you'll never write anything.

Of course, I work with people that think "signage" is a word. It is a word, as it happens, but I just don't like it, and I don't like the way it's used, all businessy and gross, and I could object every time it gets trotted out at a staff meeting, but that would just make me "that guy," without doing any serious damage to the awful little troll of a word. I won't say it, though, or write it down, and I make my point, if there is one, by phrasing things the way I think they should be phrased and not surrendering to what I see as lesser usage. Sometimes, you just have to make a choice as to whether you want to be "that guy" or just live your life, celebrating the things you think deserve celebration, in the sincere hope that someone might read what you've written and feel inspired, instead of just thinking, "wow, what a dick."
posted by sonascope at 12:12 PM on October 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


"are idiots, as are people who use the word "irregardless". "

languagehat on irregardless - "...irregardless is a word like any other, but for whatever reason it attracted severe criticism from the usual crew of language Nazis..."

And I should likely go outside now.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:16 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Merely wincing at grammatical disasters and artless malapropism is something other than stepping in to point out that the miscreant is, in fact, completely and utterly wrong and stupid-looking and honestly, you should thank me for saving you from looking bad...

I'm not a fan of the pointed wince either, sonascope.

It's good to be right about other people's mistakes. But it's better to be lovably right.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:20 PM on October 20, 2010


If we don't maintain strict rules of grammar, how will we identify the uneducated? Where will our feelings of superiority come from then?
posted by rocket88 at 12:22 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fry is fantastic and I love that he drives conversations like this.

Apropos of nothing, casting him as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older smarter brother is a bit of genius.
posted by quin at 12:23 PM on October 20, 2010


Messing up "infer" and "imply", however, is like using "give" and "receive" interchangeably.

Huh?

I won't link to one of those nasty dictionary sites, but one of the meanings of infer is "imply" ... no?

From Random House dictionary:

"Infer has been used to mean "to hint or suggest" since the 16th century by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence: The next speaker criticized the proposal, inferring that it was made solely to embarrass the government. Despite its long history, many 20th-century usage guides condemn the use, maintaining that the proper word for the intended sense is imply and that to use infer is to lose a valuable distinction between the two words.

Although the claimed distinction has probably existed chiefly in the pronouncements of usage guides, and although the use of infer to mean "to suggest" usually produces no ambiguity, the distinction too has a long history and is widely observed by many speakers and writers. "


In fact, I had a (Will Shortz edited) crossword puzzle clue the other day that was "Hinted (8)" and the answer was "INFERRED." So there.

are idiots, as are people who use the word "irregardless".

I use "irregardless" all the time, and I am not an idiot. I will prove it if you would like. I also use "literally" when I mean "figuratively." Most people hate it.

Stephen Fry is a jackass. And not even a very funny jackass.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:25 PM on October 20, 2010


If we don't maintain strict rules of grammar, how will we identify the uneducated? Where will our feelings of superiority come from then?

Orthodontics.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:26 PM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I also use "literally" when I mean "figuratively." Most people hate it.

I actually used to get really annoyed when people used "literally" in place of "figuratively," until I realized how absolutely ridiculous that truly was.
posted by Pants McCracky at 12:31 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, forget it. I refudiate my earlier comment.
posted by The Bellman at 12:32 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Today I learned that Weird Al is more pedantic than Stephen Fry. So the day is not totally wasted.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


A medievalist recently pointed out to me that the possessive apostrophe started off as an error because writers confused the genitive suffix -s with a contraction.

Stagger Lee: Language does require a knowledge of the rules, whether you're conscious of it or not. A better understanding of those rules, allows for more effective communication.

Children understand almost all the rules of language by the time they're 4 years old. What gets taught in 12+ years of education isn't the rules of the language. It's a formal mode and style that is preferred by the dominant class.

bardophile: If we don't treat language carefully, then clarity does suffer. It's true that you don't have to know any rules for language before you start using it, but you do have to learn them if language is to continue to serve a social purpose.

There's not a problem here. Those rules are negotiated on an ad hoc basis in informal language by pragmatics, feedback, and body language. And those rules are enforced on a formal basis by editors and reviewers. "Barbarians at the gate," is a bad argument here because there's usually no conflict between using Oxford commas in formal copy and comma splices in informal speech. Candid spoken language is rife with comma splices, errors in noun-verb agreement, and accidental use of wrong words.

bardophile: I'm talking about people who are ostensibly using a particular set of conventions, but clearly do not really understand those conventions. I'm really sorry I'm not coming up with examples right now. As a teacher and debate coach I used to hear and see them all the time.

Well, as a teacher and debate coach, it's both your entitlement and your obligation to teach and enforce the standards of the modes you promote. As an editor, I'll add Oxford commas into lists and hyphens in adjectival phrases. It's our job after all.

But I don't have any pretense that I'm a paladin protecting the virtue of the English language when I do my job.

sonascope: How many times does a tiff in an online forum turn into "your point is stupid, as evidenced by your inability to use 'it's' correctly," with this forum being the general exception to the rule?

My response is that I'll take greater care in copyediting my posts when that particular community pays me to do so.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:43 PM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I actually used to get really annoyed when people used "literally" in place of "figuratively," until I realized how absolutely ridiculous that truly was.

I should have known that it would take a Pants McCracky-sized intelligence to infer that when I say "He's literally on fire!" I don't mean that the person is aflame.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:52 PM on October 20, 2010


I also use "literally" when I mean "figuratively." Most people hate it.

See, that's another one that I actually think is important. I you go around saying "My head literally exploded" when, in reality, your head has not exploded, then what are you going to say when it does explode? Taking that final "say" figuratively, of course.

Why do I fell like I should prefix anything I say in this discussion with "I'm not a prescriptivist, but..."?
posted by steambadger at 12:54 PM on October 20, 2010


Grammar pedantry, except in the vanishingly rare circumstances where it actually affects meaning, is a simple matter of social exclusion. Lower class people have bad grammar.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:55 PM on October 20, 2010


Lower class people have bad grammar.

That perception is precisely why learning "good" grammar can be a tool for social mobility, and is the main reason why some teachers who are deeply concerned about social justice insist on teaching "good" grammar to their students.
posted by bardophile at 12:59 PM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


takes ombrage at correctable and slopy mistakes

You did that on purpose, didn't you?
posted by 1000monkeys at 1:01 PM on October 20, 2010


The ability to say, "I don't understand" is a central feature, not a bug of language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:04 PM on October 20, 2010


Syntax Error: Unexpected apostrophe near "s" on Line 1 of supermarketsign.txt. The statement has been terminated.

Either we need better implementation standards, or we need better interpreters. I vote for the latter.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:32 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is it time for the ritual invocation of David Foster Wallace yet?
posted by steambadger at 1:42 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The English language doesn't have rules - it has conventions. Unconventional language is OK as long as it communicates ideas successfully.
posted by rocket88 at 1:54 PM on October 20, 2010


> Yay! I so hearted this.

And I hearted what you did there because, although I'm a bit of a crank sometimes when it comes to usage, I like a good noun-verbing every now and again.
posted by heyho at 1:59 PM on October 20, 2010


"I you go around saying "My head literally exploded" when, in reality, your head has not exploded, then what are you going to say when it does explode? Taking that final "say" figuratively, of course."

My head exploded. For real. Blood and skull and grey matter and white matter and skin flying everywhere according to the laws of physics. Considering the state of the walls, there is literally zero chance that we'll get our deposit when we move.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:24 PM on October 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


what are you going to say when it does explode?

Irregardless of my missing head, I doubt I would want to say "Oh no. My head literally exploded!" I would want to say "Oh no. Call 911!"

It's all about context.

"He got caught outside of the depressurized zone, and he died when his head literally exploded."

vs.

"He made a comment about the 8th amendment, and when the judge told him that she found no evidence of cruel or unusual punishment, his head literally exploded."

Weak examples, but you get the gist... my main point is it is unlikely that any English speaker would ever be confused by my use of "literally" for "figuratively," although it is possible to use the terms in a confusing manner.

I do think that sentences like "he literally jumped out of his seat" should be (avoided and) interpreted as physically leaving the seat by moving upwards quickly. Depending on context, of course.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:31 PM on October 20, 2010


mrgrimm, I'm curious (and not judging you) when I ask this: When confronted with choosing words to form a sentence, why is it preferable to use "literally" when you really mean "figuratively?"

Is it the habitual "misuse" of the word you hear in everyday conversation that leads you to opt for the former without really thinking about it, or is it that you're trying to normalize the usage? Something else?
posted by heyho at 2:56 PM on October 20, 2010


The "five items or less" complaint is the very height of grammatical pedantry. I get worn out every time I hear someone try to explain why that one matters (hint: it doesn't).

Now to pull out my broad brush, let's look at two other cultures with very different ideas about the preservation of language's formal rules:

French and Spanish.

The French are well known for national pride in their language, and the often snobbish way in which they protect its purity (ask any Quebecois about that). They refuse to adopt technological terms that come from other languages (such as e-mail or internet), instead coming up with their own French-only versions. The French are also often known (stereotypically of course) for being bastions of the avant-garde, gourmet food and drink, philosophy, film, photography, fashion, and for being insufferable snobs.

Contrast this with the Spanish language. Most Hispanic countries have taken such a free-wheeling view to their mother tongue that there are dozens of colorful accents and in some cases some differences of opinion on how sentences are structured. And Spanglish. And yet in spite of this (or perhaps because of it) Spanish is an extremely forgiving language. You can really bungle up your verb conjugation and everything and yet they'll still understand what you want, and they'll even be nice to you for trying to speak their language! They'll probably give you a hug and a pupusa or a paella a pan dulce (depending on the region you're in at the time).

Hispanics are also stereotypically famous for taking long naps at lunch time, having kickass parties for 15-year old girls, never showing up for anything on time, and yet despite all this they also gave us Cervantes, Borges, Marquez, Placido Domingo, Zorro!, Desi Arnaz, and of course EDWARD JAMES OLMOS.

That's right. Edward James Olmos. Because sometimes you gotta roll the hard six.

What is the lesson here? If we Anglophones take our language a little less seriously, we too may someday be able to create something as great as the Hispanic culture...someday years from now we too may have our own Olmos. And our children will weep tears of joy.

It starts with you. When you see the "five items or less" sign at the grocery store, give the cashier a high five and buy a Mars bar.
posted by jnrussell at 3:33 PM on October 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Excellent!
posted by OmieWise at 4:11 PM on October 20, 2010


If we don't maintain strict rules of grammar, how will we identify the uneducated? Where will our feelings of superiority come from then?

Once upon a time, back in the last century, I used to feel superior to people who thought the new millennium would start on January 1, 2000. "Those fools," I thought. "Don't they realize there was no Year Zero?"

Then, after a friend pointed out that I was acting like a real jerk about the whole millennium thing, I thought about it a bit, and I read a nifty book by Stephen Jay Gould; and I realized that centuries and millennia are artificial human constructs, and that our calendar is dated from a bad guess about when Jesus was born, and that the new millennium actually started whenever the hell we decided it did.

After that, I felt really superior to those anal-retentive eggheads who were so hung up over when the new millennium started.
posted by steambadger at 4:43 PM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Infer has been used to mean "to hint or suggest" since the 16th century by speakers and writers of unquestioned ability and eminence: The next speaker criticized the proposal, inferring that it was made solely to embarrass the government. Despite its long history, many 20th-century usage guides condemn the use, maintaining that the proper word for the intended sense is imply and that to use infer is to lose a valuable distinction between the two words.

Wow, what a lousy example.

Did the speaker infer (correct version) this -- ie. interpret the proposal as an attempt to embarrass the government, presumably making this interpretation clear to the speaker's audience?

Or did the speaker infer (sloppy version) this -- ie. suggest to the audience, without claiming it outright, that the proposal was an attempt to embarrass the government?

I guess I'm a pedant, but this is exactly the kind of thing that makes me infer sloppy thinking from sloppy language.
posted by bjrubble at 5:12 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


David Cross - Literally.
posted by team lowkey at 5:40 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


mrgrimm, point taken; I agree with you that context is vital in such cases. And, really, "literally" can be a pretty spiffy intensifier sometimes; so perhaps that's not the hill I want to die on. I will continue to hope, however, that "infer" and "imply" remain distinct words; and I have no interest whatsoever in losing the wonderful word "disinterested".
posted by steambadger at 6:04 PM on October 20, 2010


My favorite pedants are those who don't understand that some people use 'literally' figuratively.
posted by signal at 8:03 PM on October 20, 2010


I don't really like Kinetic Typography unless it has a point. Which it didn't, in this video: emphasis, unique effects/typefaces/size changes based on certain words or verbal inflection, interesting tricks: they were not at all present. It was just text changing directions. This one in the related videos is a better example, I think - if you're going to do KT, at least go full bore.
posted by stelas at 8:23 PM on October 20, 2010


His best point was that we fear that people don't care. We fear the threatened loss of our culture, history, and civilization. It's a good point. The world is not going to end tomorrow, and the sky is not falling.

It has taken me years to overcome my revulsion when people say "a myriad of". It can be done, folks. If I can do it, you can too.

However, I have no room in my heart for "irregardless", or "could care less". Those are just wrong.
posted by Xoebe at 10:34 PM on October 20, 2010


but people who use "infer" and "imply" interchangeably are idiots, as are people who use the word "irregardless".

I feel sorry for anyone who characterizes a person as an idiot because they make a mistake using language.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:50 PM on October 20, 2010


And for that matter, mistakes in language are only mistakes until people start using them.

Robotics was a made up word until it... wasn't.

Genocide as a word only dates back to 1944. And people started using it. Now it's a word.

Unravel makes the exact same "error" as irregardless - the exact same error that causes people to deny it can be a word - but it is common enough that it is accepted with no complaint whatsoever.

And this is English. I think we have more words that break the rules than we do ones that do not. I'm not even going to go into examples, really, though I do enjoy when homophobes start arguing that "homophobia" is improper asking them if hemophiliacs just really love blood. But I digress.

On the unravel issue, see also "Inflammable," which makes no fucking sense, but it's common, so we allow it.

On that note, Unboundless fits that pattern, and was a perfectly fine word, but it fell out of disfavor.

Which was probably just wrong when one guy decided it should be spelled that way instead of disfavour, but it caught on.

The internet started as "Internet," before we decided it was "the Internet," and then settled on "the internet." All were right at the time.

And ampersand... Good lord is that word just one big mistake that caught on, from kids mumbling "x,y,z, and per se and" when reciting the alphabet. And teachers I am sure told them they were wrong. And arguably they were... until, of course, it caught on, and everyone knew what it meant. And now someone who would argue that "ampersand" is wrong would sort of look like an idiot.

Know what word exists for about a century, everyone knows what it means, is in very common usage, and follows the same (admittedly unusual) rules as many other accepted English words?

Oh, hey, irregardless does.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:19 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Seriously, if one doesn't know that some people mix up those words? That's criminally stupid.

That's what it's all about, isn't it? Feeling better than somebody. Some people are right and some are wrong, but everybody's instincts are equally base on this question.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:46 AM on October 21, 2010


I am in general agreement with Fry except I think his discussion of nouns becoming verbs is a red herring. Nouns can become verbs all the time without offense when the new verb fills a need (often brought about by the noun in question). So "hand" as a verb is fine, "Google" as a verb, sure. It's when a neologism serves no purpose that I wince. I will never, ever accept "impact" when the word meant is "affect," and that's not because of the noun-to-verb transformation, it's because we already have "affect" and "impact" is used in a thoughtless way to puff up the perceived importance of what's being said.
posted by Trace McJoy at 8:13 AM on October 21, 2010


Mum: If your dad sees that, he will literally hit the roof!
Me: I don;t think he;ll literally hit the roof, mum.
Mum: YES HE WILL!

For years, I thought that if people got really angry, they'd show it by punching the celing.
posted by mippy at 8:13 AM on October 21, 2010


and then settled on "the internet."

Since when?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:49 AM on October 21, 2010


I suppose "settled" is an overstatement, though the process is clear and undeniable. For one that's completely, let's say....Phonograph, formerly capitalized, then later not. Then not mentioned at all, cause, you know, iPods. But you know what I mean.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 1:33 PM on October 21, 2010


Koeselitz: Wish I could listen to this in full without stupid, stupid iTunes, though. I suspect someone will be along to explain how to extract this from the RSS feed presently.

Try opening the rss feed in the feed reader of your choice, and it will probably show you links to the MP3 (or m4a, if you look at his other feed). Both Safari and Google Reader do. Or just look in the source of the rss feed for the <enclosure> tag containing the url of the episode you want.
posted by JiBB at 2:50 PM on October 21, 2010


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