One person’s gaffe is another’s peccadillo
June 20, 2004 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Common Errors In English :: an internet guide
posted by anastasiav (117 comments total)
 
Languagehat's favorite.
posted by kenko at 8:16 PM on June 20, 2004


hundreds/century:Using phrases like “eighteen hundreds” is a signal to your readers that you are weak in math and history alike.

I do not consider myself weak in either math or history but I always find it distracting to read about dates (e.g. 1453) and phrases such as 'in the fifteenth century' in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. It always feels to me as if the topic has been changed.

(quick! did i make a mistake above?)
posted by vacapinta at 8:27 PM on June 20, 2004


Thankfully uncommon error in web usability: Dumping an alphabetical list of links into a huge, screen-width paragraph.

Great reference, though!
posted by boredomjockey at 8:30 PM on June 20, 2004


My (least) favorite.
posted by psmealey at 8:33 PM on June 20, 2004


[neat]
posted by Grod at 8:44 PM on June 20, 2004


I would add "hot water heater" to that list. I'ts just a water heater. Hot water doesn't need to be heated.
posted by boredomjockey at 8:44 PM on June 20, 2004


Very useful, thanks.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:45 PM on June 20, 2004


(It's always smart to check your spelling.)
posted by boredomjockey at 8:46 PM on June 20, 2004


I'm starting to think that most people's apostrophe privileges should just be revoked. Maybe we should just stop using them altogether.

Yesterday, I was at the grocery store and saw a sign for "meat's".
posted by interrobang at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2004


Not to nitpick (okay, maybe a little) but the author requests that people link to here instead of linking directly to the errors page.

Aside from that I think this is a pretty cool post. If you think other otherwise you’ve got another think coming.
posted by djeo at 8:57 PM on June 20, 2004


for all intensive purposes, this post rule's... alot
posted by psmealey at 8:59 PM on June 20, 2004


Yeah, that one was educational for me. Glad I saw it. But now pretty much everyone will think I'm an idiot when I say "you've got another think coming". So now what to do?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:00 PM on June 20, 2004


My fav nit.

I fear, though, that much of this is a losing battle.
posted by Ayn Marx at 9:06 PM on June 20, 2004


Is it whoa or woah? I'll never know...
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:15 PM on June 20, 2004


Snuck is the donkey.
posted by the fire you left me at 9:23 PM on June 20, 2004


As long as we're on the subject of words, I found this the other day. It's a list of words which have definitions all starting with "of or pertaining to." Basically the one stop shop for all your pretension and prolixity-for-its-own-sake needs. Turns even the most pedestrian email into an impenetrable David Foster Wallace excerpt.
posted by pokeydonut at 10:06 PM on June 20, 2004


er, rather this
posted by pokeydonut at 10:11 PM on June 20, 2004


I'd have used the title 'Common English Errors'.

Ah well.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:56 PM on June 20, 2004


The lack of logic behind the very existance of the word whose still gets on my nerves. Stupid English language.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:59 PM on June 20, 2004


Yeah, well, you just used the word "existance".
posted by interrobang at 11:40 PM on June 20, 2004


d'oh. french immersion strikes again.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:27 AM on June 21, 2004


I'd lost track of this site years ago. Nice to have it bookmarked again. Thanks anastasiav.
posted by phewbertie at 1:29 AM on June 21, 2004


"“AM” stands for the Latin phrase Ante Meridiem —which means “before noon”—and “PM” stands for Post Meridiem"

I learned something new today. Thanks anastasiav.
posted by Keyser Soze at 1:54 AM on June 21, 2004


Shit. I've been using "begs the question" incorrectly all these years.


How annoying for you all.
posted by sic at 2:06 AM on June 21, 2004


Ahem.
posted by spazzm at 2:42 AM on June 21, 2004


Is it whoa or woah? I'll never know...

If never ask ask, you really won't ever know.

Really, I never got the whole "woah" thing, I see it here all the time and it drives me batty. A quick visual inspection would make it pretty clear that "woah" would quite likely rhyme with the name "Noah." Now, unless you've got a really really broad New Englander accent, the word you say to stop a horse only has one syllable and ends with a long "o" sound, not two syllables ending with an "ah" sound. It's whoa. That particular egregious misspelling provokes my ire even more than irregardless.

And I hate "irregardless."
posted by Dreama at 3:15 AM on June 21, 2004


“AM” stands for the Latin phrase Ante Meridiem —which means “before noon”—and “PM” stands for Post Meridiem"
I learned something new today. Thanks anastasiav.—Keyser
...which technically means that both 12:00 AM and 12:00 PM are correct for designating "midnight". "12:00" as "noon", though, should never be followed by AM or PM.

Convention now has it that 12AM is midnight and 12PM is noon; but everyone isn't aware of this. Anyway, it's technically wrong. A good rule to follow when one is restricted for some reason to using the HH:MM XM format is to use 12:01 AM for one-minute after midnight, and 12:01 PM for one-minute after noon in place of 12:00 AM or PM. This will avoid confusion.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:22 AM on June 21, 2004


Re: "begs the question". If it weren't a somewhat technical expression, at this point I'd say that that the supposed misuse is appropriate. I, like languagehat, tend toward the descriptivist side of the fence—and this common (mis)use of "begging the question" is, er, common and makes sense. In fact, the supposedly misused variety probably is more useful in everyday language than is the correctly used version. This is not unlike the problem with "irony".

You've got another think coming probably well reveals the fault line between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Hardly anyone uses the "correct" version and the "incorrect" version is sensible on its own (that is, it's not as if it's meaningless or misleading). Preferring the "think" version in most cases will hinder communication. A lot of prescriptivism hinders communication for the dubious benefit of underscoring class distinctions.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:36 AM on June 21, 2004


But isn't it also increasing communication if it lets them know you're better than them?
posted by biffa at 4:00 AM on June 21, 2004


(drool) Thanks, anasastiav.
posted by davidmsc at 4:36 AM on June 21, 2004


Ah AH ! "All your english belongs to latin" dixit elpapa, ex vagina gladium educens magno cum gaudio gladium suum metafilterianis demonstravit !
posted by elpapacito at 4:40 AM on June 21, 2004


Sorry to have touched a nerve there Dreama. I was being sarcastic--I was born in Texas, and I think that's the first word I was taught to spell. Heh.

Even worse? Whoah
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:45 AM on June 21, 2004


"You've got another think coming probably well reveals the fault line between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Hardly anyone uses the "correct" version and the "incorrect" version is sensible on its own (that is, it's not as if it's meaningless or misleading)."

I disagree in every possible way.
posted by nthdegx at 5:18 AM on June 21, 2004


Ethereal Bligh:
Convention now has it that 12AM is midnight and 12PM is noon; but everyone isn't aware of this. Anyway, it's technically wrong. A good rule to follow when one is restricted for some reason to using the HH:MM XM format is to use 12:01 AM for one-minute after midnight, and 12:01 PM for one-minute after noon in place of 12:00 AM or PM. This will avoid confusion.

I do believe it's more than convention, Ethereal. The problem doesn't span from human usage, but from computer usage. If you use any hardware or software in your life, you'll eventually encounter the point where the computer will tell you that 12:00:00:000PM == Noon.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:29 AM on June 21, 2004


I saw a cellphone place's business card in the mall, and it said

"Your on the phone with us"

or something similar. To be honest, I couldn't remember anything but the incorrect use of 'your'. That and they used a really clichéd font for their logo.
posted by angry modem at 5:37 AM on June 21, 2004


I question this. The OED merely defines religion as a "particular system of faith and worship", or even "a particular monastic or religious order". If it was true, you might argue that since Christians and Jews use the same holy text, they are of the same religion.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:58 AM on June 21, 2004


The slash/backslash thing is a HUGE pet peeve of mine.
posted by jpoulos at 5:59 AM on June 21, 2004


Working in and with other governments, I see far too many idiotic neologisms, but nothing bugs me more than impact cross-dressing as a verb.

Barbarians! To the walls!
posted by bonehead at 6:00 AM on June 21, 2004


Pronouncing "jewelry" joolereee is another peeve.
posted by jpoulos at 6:01 AM on June 21, 2004


This is also in the OED as valid usage. These guys seem to be ein bischen überpernsnickety.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:08 AM on June 21, 2004


I don't really see why "impact" bothers people so much. Language is very malleable. "To impact" seems like a very reasonable addition to the language. I prefer it in a more literal sense--"the meteor impacted on the surface of the moon"--than in the business gibberish sense. But still...
posted by jpoulos at 6:13 AM on June 21, 2004


I realize that "impact" is a lost cause, but imprimus: it's ugly, secundus: it reduces the subtlety of the language, replacing both of the verbs affect and effect, and tertius: every time I hear it, I think of molars.
posted by bonehead at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2004


It doesn't replace "effect", which only means "to bring about or accomplish". Which is clearly not the same as "to affect".
posted by Pretty_Generic at 7:00 AM on June 21, 2004


Strange. I would say that "an historic" is accepted usage in Canada, at least. This is one of my pet peeves, but the site doesn't include the immeasurably annoying "with baited breath." Oh, you've been eating worms again, have you?
posted by transient at 7:18 AM on June 21, 2004


Sorry to have touched a nerve there Dreama

That's all right. Forgive me if my response seemed too personally geared toward you. It's just that I've been wanting to rant at MeFites about that damned "woah" crap for ages, and never had a reason to, until now.

Seriously, though, people, no more "woah."
posted by Dreama at 7:19 AM on June 21, 2004


I think "impact" as a verb bothers me so much because I assume it comes from "business gibberish" as jpoulos so nicely puts it. And while I have no problem in a general way with language changing, I HATE the idea of it changing through business gibberish. Perhaps not rational, but there it is.
posted by JanetLand at 7:21 AM on June 21, 2004


They missed out a UK English peeve of mine. People who say 'should of', when they mean 'should have'. I want to burn them.
posted by armoured-ant at 7:24 AM on June 21, 2004


who/whom: "Just try the 'he or him' test, and if it’s still not clear, go with 'who.' You’ll bother fewer people and have a fair chance of being right."

So this guide offers more of crapshoots than foolproof solutions. If that's the case, what makes the guide any less different than this?
posted by ed at 7:53 AM on June 21, 2004


I have long obsessed over this. The neologists have broken through and a useful term is being killed off. To the ramparts!
posted by ahimsakid at 7:58 AM on June 21, 2004


EB:Re: "begs the question". If it weren't a somewhat technical expression, at this point I'd say that that the supposed misuse is appropriate. I, like languagehat, tend toward the descriptivist side of the fence—and this common (mis)use of "begging the question" is, er, common and makes sense.

No no no! See, this is where the descriptivists totally freaking lose me. "Begs the question" is a good way to say something very particular. When you use it incorrectly, it becomes just a boring phrase wherein the verb could be replaced with "demands," "raises," or a fair number of other verbs. This has the effect of turning "begs the question" into a lame cliché (is that redundant?).

Look, I'm all for change in the language, but change which makes it better, not ignorance dulling a beautiful instrument. Christ.

They missed out a UK English peeve of mine. People who say 'should of', when they mean 'should have'. I want to burn them.

What people are saying is "should've." In AmE, that's a legitimate construction (though I wouldn't write it). Is it not in BrE? Is it like the whole got/gotten difference or maybe saying "I've" for "I have" without a following verb (Brits will, Americans won't)?
posted by dame at 7:59 AM on June 21, 2004


Dame: there are many people who actually think it's "should of".
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2004


Is it whoa or woah? I'll never know...

Urban dictionary aside, I'd say "whoa" is what you say to stop a horse, and "woah" is what you say when the [fill in whatever potent material you just smoked] kicks in.
posted by raygirvan at 8:13 AM on June 21, 2004


Pretty_Generic: Well, then armoured-ant should have made that clear by contrasting "should've" and "should of," because that's where the confusion is taking place.
posted by dame at 8:15 AM on June 21, 2004


Shit. I've been using "begs the question" incorrectly all these years.

No you haven't. In a similar earlier thread, I called this site "sensible and useful (though sometimes wrongheaded in my opinion, as for instance regarding 'begs the question')"; Turd Ferguson said:
What is your objection? Is it one of those phrases that is misused by so many people that its meaning has changed? If so, that's sad. It was a good phrase. I'm going to have to start saying "Hey, man, you're really improperly assuming as true the very point you're trying to argue for here."
I responded
Exactly; its meaning has changed. (Or, to put it differently, the technical meaning used by philosophers changed when the phrase was picked up by the general public, a fate suffered by many such technical usages; ask any physicist about "relativity.") If I've had to come to terms with the change in "disinterested" (which distresses me a lot more), you can deal with this. And look on the bright side: if you say "Hey, man, you're really improperly assuming as true the very point you're trying to argue for here," your listener will actually understand you!
Which brings us to:

"Begs the question" is a good way to say something very particular. When you use it incorrectly, it becomes just a boring phrase...

No, it's a bad way to say something very particular. It's bad because no one will understand you except one of the very few people who's studied philosophy or memorized lists of "common errors in English" (note to stav: you can't say "common English errors" because that would imply "errors made in England or by the English"); all you get out of it is the smug feeling that you're one of the elect who "knows what the phrase really means," and your listener gets nothing out of it. The purpose of language is to communicate. If you'd rather show off, why not just go the whole hog and speak in Latin? Then you can say petitio principii and really get it right.

You've got another think coming probably well reveals the fault line between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Hardly anyone uses the "correct" version and the "incorrect" version is sensible on its own (that is, it's not as if it's meaningless or misleading). Preferring the "think" version in most cases will hinder communication.

Like nthdegx, I disagree in every possible way. I use "think," I generally hear "think," and although there are plenty of "thing" users, it's clearly not the case that the latter is "sensible on it's own." "You've got another thing coming": what "thing"? It's a misunderstanding plain and simple, as the site says. But if you're interested in the phrase, there's a good discussion at Wordorigins.
posted by languagehat at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2004


Languagehat: It isn't about feeling smug. I know plenty of people who know what "begs the question" means (which is to say, my friends are usage dorks). But how would you prefer to impart the same thought in three words?

Why is it that people accept that you have to study chemistry to understand how chemicals work, or physics to understand natural laws, but think that it's elitist to say you should study language to use it most effectively?

(God, that's murky. Please forgive. Working too.)
posted by dame at 8:46 AM on June 21, 2004


I'd had no idea that anyone said "You've got another thing coming" until this thread. "Think" is meaningful and infinitely less confusing.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:47 AM on June 21, 2004


IshmaelGraves - it was the exact reverse for me.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:05 AM on June 21, 2004


Ethereal Bligh: I think you mean "not everyone is", and not "everyone isn't".
posted by kenko at 9:06 AM on June 21, 2004


pedant hunting
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:10 AM on June 21, 2004


I fear, though, that much of this is a losing battle.

Any attempt to treat a human language as something less other than a dynamic, changing thing is going to be a losing battle.
posted by moonbiter at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2004


Ick. "less other?" Jeebus, I really need an editor.
posted by moonbiter at 9:31 AM on June 21, 2004


This bugs me. My last boss asked me to read a book he had written. Nine times out of ten he used "shall" instead of "will." It was like reading the Ten Commandments .
posted by btwillig at 9:57 AM on June 21, 2004


I'd had no idea that anyone said "You've got another thing coming" until this thread. "Think" is meaningful and infinitely less confusing.

did i wake up in bizarro world? another think? are you insane?

i go with the masses on this one.

and irregardless of what you might think, irregardless is a word.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:02 AM on June 21, 2004


Something from the second comment up there that needed addressing:

Thankfully uncommon error in web usability: Dumping an alphabetical list of links into a huge, screen-width paragraph.

It's not a bug, it's a feature: And as to the Think Coming / Thing Coming, count me solidly on the THINK side, not just because it's what I grew up with (I literally first heard or read the "thing" version maybe two years ago), but because it makes more sense, even as ungrammatical as it seems. Interestingly one of the posters on the page LH linked to above posits that the "thing" version carries a slightly different meaning, that of a threat, which I believe might be traceable to the Judas Priest song (on preview: Like mrgrimm said, only not completely and utterly wrong) that doubtlessly confused so many youngsters on what the phrase really was and was supposed to mean.

Obviously "thing" arose as mishearing of "think," and you could argue that it makes for an interesting saying on its own, but I find that a weak argument. First, "thing" is so vague that it saps the phrase of clarity and power. Second, predicting that someone is going to acquire a thought or opinion that you can see but they can't seems to be a wittier proposition than predicting they're going to encounter something bad, either from your hand or otherwise, that may or may not result in another "think."
posted by soyjoy at 10:05 AM on June 21, 2004


"...it's clearly not the case that the latter is "sensible on it's own." 'You've got another thing coming': what 'thing'?"

"Piece of information" is what I always thought the "thing" was.

"It's a misunderstanding plain and simple, as the site says."

Which is quite true of "begging the question". Your inconsistency here seems odd to me. Do we differ descriptivelely? That is, do you believe "thing" is considerably more rare than "begging [urges the asking of] the question"? I can't offer anything other than my own anecdotal evidence, but I've not seen "think" often enough in print to alert me to this error before today.

In Preview: mrgrimm's Google search seems pretty conclusive to me.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:13 AM on June 21, 2004




Using get/got: receive/have
posted by thomcatspike at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2004


ha. that "sensible on it's own" comment made me laugh. posting about grammar/usage is perilous.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:46 AM on June 21, 2004


Yeah, I feel better that languagehat made that error. I occasionally do so also from time to time and I hate it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2004


mrgrimm's Google search seems pretty conclusive to me.

A, B.

Using Google to determine correct usage is a fun game, but hardly "conclusive." The fact alone that one version of the phrase in question is the title of a popular song skews the results, but even if more people do say "thing," so what? That just means that more people are wrong about it than are right.
posted by soyjoy at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2004


LH and I are both descriptivists (with some prescriptivist sympathies). LH also clearly takes the descriptivist position on the matter of the phrase "begging the question". So, in that context, I think the Google search is conclusive—though I concede your point about it being a song title.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:15 AM on June 21, 2004


i'm not saying that Google is conclusive in any way. the song obviously skews the results. i'm just saying everyone i know uses "thing" and even if it was backformed from "think," it makes a heck of a lot more sense than "think" in this day and age.

i will say that Webster's is no more conclusive than Google. just b/c they list "think" as a noun, doesn't mean that anyone (in his/her right mind) actually uses it as a noun.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:19 AM on June 21, 2004


So, in that context, I think the Google search is conclusive

Then so it is on "worse comes to worse," right?
posted by soyjoy at 11:27 AM on June 21, 2004


yay! HIV Virus! makes me carazy!
posted by rhyax at 12:36 PM on June 21, 2004


Also, I don't understand that reason for the non-list, do any browsers not remember your scroll height when you hit the back button?
posted by rhyax at 12:38 PM on June 21, 2004


In terms of using Google as a manual of style, check out 756 hits for unabiding, most of which use it in some variation of "deep and unabiding" when they really mean to use "abiding" instead -- i.e. lasting for a long time. Somehow, the meaning of this "word" managed to get switched somehow and is now apparently used in a number of sources to mean an entirely contradictory idea. Of course, some of these sources are less reputable than others.
posted by pokeydonut at 12:57 PM on June 21, 2004


My teeth are going to explode! I was handling it (the concise descriptions of so much stupidity) pretty well until I got to Pretty_Generic's comment that there are many people who actually think it's "should of". It pushed me over the edge. My personal "favorite" is I/Me/Myself. So many halfwits.
posted by lobakgo at 2:34 PM on June 21, 2004


I feel better that languagehat made that error.

Whereas I, on the other hand, don't. Sigh. I was sure I picked it up from wherever I was quoting it from, but that turns out to be you, and of course you didn't put that apostrophe in there. It must have been... Satan! Yeah, that's the ticket!

Anyway, you are of course correct that as a descriptivist I will accept "another thing coming" (though not welcome it) as genuine language change if and when I see genuine evidence that it's ousting the original (and sensible) "think." However, the Google fight is inconclusive and lots of people I know (and here) use "think," so I regard the battle as still being waged. The "beg the question" battle, however, was lost almost as soon as it was begun. The recondite philosophical usage had no chance against the normal English meaning of "beg." And dame, there's probably no way to impart the same thought in three words; fortunately, it's not one of those thoughts that comes up so often it's necessary to have a three-word expression for it. "Assuming what you're trying to prove" will serve quite adequately, and your listener will actually understand you.
posted by languagehat at 4:02 PM on June 21, 2004


Yes, they'll understand. But it's ugly. And the glory of language is that it doesn't *have* to be ugly, especially with a bit of reading and a dab of effort.

But this makes me think of Garner's into to Modern American Usage: I suspect we are thinking of different registers.
posted by dame at 4:45 PM on June 21, 2004


where's that/who? i always am unsure about that.

The people that danced all night down by the lake.
The people who danced all night down by the lake.

???
posted by amberglow at 4:50 PM on June 21, 2004


Yes, they'll understand. But it's ugly.

Disagreement. "You're assuming what you're trying to prove" is clear, direct, and concise; the very opposite of ugly. There's nothing beautiful about "begs the question." It is not evocative in any way that sharpens the meaning with useful connotations. It is not mellifluous or sonorous. It is no more poetic than "The party of the first party."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:14 PM on June 21, 2004


Not sure if this was in the page (too lazy to to look), but there seems to be a mini-epidemic of phantom pun sighting, as in "blah blah some stuff with no curious word play or double meaning (no pun intended)."

I see this at least once a day as I bounce around various clog/blog/jibity-jog sites. "No pun intended." I look and look, and ... there's no fucking pun!

So, first, people need to learn just what a pun is, and then learn that when you write something that doesn't express what you want (e.g., you don't intend to make a pun), you can *edit* and *rewrite.* You know, as if you had free will and volition when you write.

OK, I feel better.
posted by Ayn Marx at 5:19 PM on June 21, 2004


lie/lay

I don't care what you descriptivists say, I'll keep my finger in the dike even if there's a a mile-wide breach in it.
Words have meanings, without agreement on what those meanings are, we have chaos not communication.
If we make both words mean the same thing, we've lost something, in this case the ability to distinguish a causal verb (eg. rise/raise, which hasn't yet suffered the indignities of lie/lay). The language would be the poorer for it.

(Of course, I may be the last prescriptivist. I rail against the rampant borrowing of english words into korean, a language I don't even speak, especially when a perfectly acceptable cognate already exists.)
posted by Octaviuz at 5:22 PM on June 21, 2004


I'll see your disagreement and raise you one, ROU.

The former ("You're assuming what you're trying to prove") is prosaic and repeats "you're" twice in seven words. It's a workhorse: it gets you where you're trying to go. "Begs the question" has wound up vowels in it that approximate the annoyance of what it denotes. That's fucking glorious.

And as for "the party of the first party," that's so wonderfully silly I can barely stop myself from mumbling it over and again.

Poetic isn't all melody and roses. It's matching itself.
posted by dame at 5:38 PM on June 21, 2004


Doesn't using "think" come from the line "If you think you're supposed to use thing, you've got another think coming!"

?

When I really want to know is how to use punctuation when the sentence ends with a quotation. Like what I just wrote above. How in the seven hells do I resolve that?
posted by casarkos at 5:46 PM on June 21, 2004


Commas and periods go inside no matter what if you're an American. If you're British (or Canadian, I think), they go inside if they belong to the quoted material and outside if they don't. Question marks and exclamation points follow the British comma and period rules in both American and British Englishes. For Americans, semicolons and colons are outside no matter what. I have no idea what the Brits do on that score.
posted by dame at 5:54 PM on June 21, 2004


yay! HIV Virus! makes me carazy!
Me too - add things like ABN number, as well as a whole raft of similar redundancies.

Also, "a couple times" etc. A couple of times - how hard is it to type three extra characters?
posted by dg at 6:17 PM on June 21, 2004


"ABN number", "HIV virus", and the like were given a general name a long, long while ago on alt.possessive.its.has.no.apostrophe: PNS syndrome ("PNS" stands for "PIN number syndrome". Yes, that is intentional.)
posted by kenko at 6:29 PM on June 21, 2004


"Commas and periods go inside no matter what if you're an American."

Screw that. It's stupid. It's an anachronism related to typesetting. And the prohibition against the serial comma is also stupid.

While we're at it—though the link admirably mentions this—if it's pronounced as a word, it's an acronym. If it's pronounced as initials, it's an initialism. But of course from a descriptivist perspective, acronym has already won the day.

For me, utility is the bottom line. If a minority usage is common enough that there's a significantly-more-than-negligible chance it will be correctly understood, and if this usage reflects a useful, not-easily-available-otherwise distinction, then it's worth fighting for. Otherwise, throw it out.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:37 PM on June 21, 2004


EB: It looks better. And as a descriptivist you should like it because it's a simple rule that doesn't involve learning much.
posted by dame at 7:27 PM on June 21, 2004


No, I'm with EB on this one, the inside-or-outside-quotes question. It makes perfect sense to have a style where periods and other ends of sentences fall inside, and I think it looks more elegant than the alternative (again, no doubt, having grown up with it). But there are times when adhering to this out of blind loyalty is just ludicrous, for instance when a sentence quotes another that has a different point to it.

"Get out now!" he yelled.
    Who yelled "get out now?"
No, that's ridiculous, unless he was one of those people who always sound like they're asking a question when they end their sentences. This is much more logical
    Who yelled "get out now"?
though I'd even consider, and probably prefer,
    Who yelled "get out now!"?
You have to make the punctuation serve the meaning.

If my daughter keeps quietly saying "Can I have a cookie" over and over until I blow my top, I may say
    Stop asking me, "Can I have a cookie?"!!!
right? Even though I'm raising my voice, it would be silly to say
    Stop asking me, "Can I have a cookie!!!"
conjuring up a huge cookie-monster or something. So on this one, you've got to use common sense and when the normal rule skews the sense of what's being said, place the punctuation so that it's the closest to conveying what's actually being meant and by whom. To me that's still prescriptivism, but I wind up at the same place as EB. Huh.

Oh, and casarkos - you've nailed it!posted by soyjoy at 9:23 PM on June 21, 2004


soyjoy: yah, well, I'm probably best described as a language utilitarian, which means that I swing both ways. Sometimes the prescriptivist preference makes utilitarian sense. Sometimes it does not...especially when the prescriptivist preference is such a minority preference that it storngly interferes with effective commuication.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:38 PM on June 21, 2004


"But... but... the prescriptivist is trying to prescribe effective communication!!!" he wailed.
posted by soyjoy at 9:45 PM on June 21, 2004


Is he? Quite often, I think he's not. When he is, though, I'm on his team. Go team!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:45 PM on June 21, 2004


Screw that. It's stupid. It's an anachronism related to typesetting.

That's absurd. Did the British not use typesetting? It's a style preference, nothing more, nothing less. If you don't like it, you may increase your comfort level by reading only British publications, but don't imagine your own preference has anything to do with rationality or the forward march of history.

"Begs the question" has wound up vowels in it that approximate the annoyance of what it denotes.

Oh? And what about the repeated "oo" sounds in "assuming what you're trying to prove"? Like EB, you're trying to justify a personal preference by claiming objective criteria that don't work. You like "beg the question," fine, like it. That doesn't make it "right."
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on June 22, 2004


"That's absurd. Did the British not use typesetting? It's a style preference, nothing more, nothing less."—languagehat
You disapoint me, LH.

As there are prescriptivists in the house, I call their attention to this passage from Fowler:
Neatness is the sole consideration; just as the ears may be regarded as not hearing organs, but 'handsome volutes of the human capital', so quotation marks may be welcomed as giving a good picturesque finish to a sentence; those who are of this way of thinking must feel that, if they allowed outside them anything short of fine handsome stops like the exclamation and question marks, they would be countenancing an anticlimax. But they are really mere conservatives, masquerading only as aesthetes; and their conservatism will soon have to yield. Argument on the subject is impossible; it is only a question whether the printer's love for the old ways that seem to him so neat, or the writer's and reader's desire to be understood and to understand fully, is to prevail.Fowler, The King's English, 1908
As to the history of the "inside the quotation marks" usage, alt.usage.english contributer William F. Phillips has this to say:
OK, I'm a little hazy on this, but I'll try. I picked this stuff up
ca. 25 years ago when I was into the history of printing and hand-setting
type, so it's been a long time...

Consider a piece of foundry type, i.e., type that comes in individual
pieces which are set by hand into a gizmo called a composing stick.
It is made of an alloy of (basically) lead and antimony, which has a
low melting point and is relatively soft, but harder (and somewhat
more brittle) than lead alone.

Think of a kid's rubber stamp set -- the sort you can make your own
stamps with by putting letters together (backwards!) in the little
slots on the base of the stamp. The characters consist of raised
bits of rubber that will pick up ink and transfer it to a piece of
paper (or whatever). Same principle.

Now, especially in the smaller sizes, such as you would find in text,
the raised bits of metal are very fine and delicate, which gives a
sharp, readable impression. Punctuation marks, especially periods
[full stops for our British readers] are the most delicate, and are
on the thinnest pieces of type (I forgot to mention that each character
has a different width, and so does the piece of type it is cast on --
so a period is about as narrow as you can get).

When a period is set at the end of a sentence, it is followed by a
piece of type with no character cast on it, i.e., a space. This
makes the period more vulnerable to damage, since there is no
raised character on one side. OK so far?

Now, watch:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Observe that the period is protected from breakage by the `g';

``The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog''.

Here the `g' provides no protection; neither does the quotation
mark, since it only covers the _upper_ portion of the piece of
type. Thus, the period is more likely to break off its moorings
than in the example above. By moving the period to the _left_
of the quotation mark, like this:

``The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.''

we regain the protection afforded by the preceding `g'.

The same applies, of course, to commas. Semicolons, colons, question
marks, exclamation points, etc. clearly do not cause this problem,
which could explain why some readers found them apparently exempted
from the rule.

Now you know.
...which later came to be ensconced in this entry in the a.u.e. FAQ. Yes, this is one person's (on USENET!) opinion; but this entry in the a.u.e FAQ has an almost decade longevity in a forum frequented by language professionals and insufferable pedants of all stripes.

Why would a typesetting practice persist (or take hold) in the US and not in the UK? Such divergences, you no doubt are aware, often merely the product of chance.

Not only do authorities as far back as Fowler argue for the utilitarian virtues of (not universal) "outside the quotes" rule, but for a solid portion of contemporary technical writing, being careful about punctuation inside quotations is not a style preference, it's critical. For example:
At the prompt, type "cd \archive."
...would be correct for American usage, but misleading to the reader and would cause an error. Many tech writing style guides argue against this usage.

That the "inside the quotation marks" preference introduces such an ambiguity where it otherwise wouldn't exist is a strong practical, not merely a stylistic, argument against it.

So, no it's not absurd, my historical explanation is not groundless, and it's not a matter of mere preference. Yes, the American prescriptivist and descriptivist views agree that the "inside" version is preferred. I protest. Yet no one will ever misunderstand anything I write because I've followed the "outside" convention.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:08 AM on June 22, 2004


Ethereal Bligh, I'm with you. Just seems more logical that way. I've even carried it to absurdities like
He said "foo.".
(If you're counting, I consider myself more of a prescriptivist than otherwise.)
posted by kenko at 12:42 PM on June 22, 2004


That doesn't make it "right."

No, it makes it better than the alternative. (To me, yes, obviously; if I'm writing it it's my opinion.) It also makes it something I'm sad to lose and would like to hang on to, so I will continue to make the distinction and suggest that others do so too.

Man, languagehat, through all my lurking and beyond, you always seemed so reasonable. But you seem to be assuming the worst of me here, besides ignoring the actual points where we might have some overlap (perhaps the suggestion that we are discussing different registers). Is it personal or just the topic?

The "oo" sound doesn't seem as wound up as the short "e" to me. But again: THAT'S AN OPINION
posted by dame at 3:56 PM on June 22, 2004


I'm sorry, I should have written "something we could discuss" and included other things such as why it is elitist to think that language is something worth studying, something that can be used well or poorly.
posted by dame at 4:05 PM on June 22, 2004


you seem to be assuming the worst of me here... Is it personal or just the topic?

Sorry I came off sounding that way, and it's definitely the topic. People insisting on (what I perceive as) elitist shibboleths push my buttons, and I don't tend to respond in the most helpful manner. All I was trying to say was "if you like it, fine; that's your preference, nothing more," in a friendly tone, but it clearly didn't come out that way. But put yourself in the place of someone trying to spread the word about what linguists have discovered about language (parallel to what biologists have discovered about the body, astronomers about the universe, &c) and constantly being assaulted with (what linguists perceive as) antiquated, prescientific views comparable to pre-Copernican astronomy or medieval medicine ("nowadays, we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach"), and try to imagine the frustration it causes. I'll try to rein myself in, though. I do have very fond feelings about anyone who cares so much about language!
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on June 22, 2004


LH: I'm glad it's a case of conflicting passions for a good cause then.

However, a biologist doesn't insist that someone is elitist if they are an athlete working to make beautiful a body that the biologist spends a lifetime exploring the innerworkings of, right? So why is it elitist to say that with study (excercise), language, like a body, can be made more beautiful, can be made to function at a higher level? It isn't to denigrate other bodies but to devote effort to something one loves.

I don't think someone who uses "beg the question" in its newer sense is stupid. I just think they don't care about words as much as I do. I'm sure they have their own passions that interest me not at all.

And I know there are pedants who insist that everyone is always wrong, but that's not my mission (unless I'm at work, but then again, that's what I get paid for). I feel more like someone on the Landmarks Commission, attempting to preserve some beautiful old structures because they are still worthwhile.
posted by dame at 5:53 PM on June 22, 2004


Since it's sort of off-topic, I refrained from dragging in my reaction to "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," which I read recently (namely: my jaw dropping at the number of flat-out punctuation errors in addtion to the many grey/gray areas of British style or possibly additional errors). But The New Yorker came today, complete with a bizarre piece by Louis Menand trashing the book for that very problem (for those who may not know, its subtitle is The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation). I wouldn't even mention this now except that insofar as I can refer to an esteemed New Yorker writer to back me up, I think we can put to bed EB's canard that American style will never admit of end-of-sentence punctuation occurring outside quotes: Among the book's errors, Menand cites this one:
    We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so (An American would not write "Who said 'I cannot tell a lie?'")
For some reason - this is the bizarre part - the second half of this article veers off into a discussion of "voice" in writing, one which has next to nothing to do with the part about "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," but which Menand must have needed to get off his chest, and this seemed like a good opportunity, or something.

Regardless, if you think I'm going to take as my authority on this issue some joker on Usenet over Louis Menand, well, you've got another think coming.
posted by soyjoy at 8:41 PM on June 22, 2004


Soyjoy: American punctuation *does* place question marks and exclamation points either inside or outside the quotes as appropriate. It's just commas and periods that go in no matter what ans colons and semicolons that stay without.
posted by dame at 9:56 PM on June 22, 2004


Yes, the American "inside" style and the UK "outside" style are from absolute rules. No one has claimed they weren't.

Soyjoy, you could have referred to any number of authorities to learn of the nuances of this usage. In fact, for your convenience, I linked to several, including the sine qua non for prescriptivists, Fowler. But drawing incorrect inferrences from a sloppy reading of this short discussion and then refuting them with a quote from The New Yorker is perhaps more par for the course.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:30 PM on June 22, 2004


Ethereal Bligh, I'm with you. Just seems more logical that way. I've even carried it to absurdities like
He said "foo.".
—kenko
That's not considered correct, though, by anyone, because the stop represented by the second period is redundant. Now, if it had been "He wrote..., I'd be in total agreement.

But, yeah, if one applies mathematical reasoning to the matter (almost always a mistake in the case of language, however), then punctuation within the quotation marks could not possibly punctuate anything outside them. But, this isn't math. That's why double-negatives are often intensifiers and don't cancel each other out.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:51 PM on June 22, 2004


Well, I meant "wrote". I wrote that quickly, y'know? Of course if he said it, there wasn't a period.
posted by kenko at 12:16 AM on June 23, 2004


So why is it elitist to say that with study (excercise), language, like a body, can be made more beautiful, can be made to function at a higher level?

It's not; the problem is that people who care about beautiful language, not having (for the most part) taken linguistics courses and thus not knowing how to distinguish normal linguistic functions and normal language change from poor use of the language, mix them up and rail against a perfectly good usage like "hopefully" as a sentence modifier with the same outrage they use for sloppy sentence construction (which we can all deplore). I keep meaning to write a LH post about this but haven't gotten around to it yet. Anyway, thanks for being willing to put up with my grouchiness!
posted by languagehat at 8:20 AM on June 23, 2004


But drawing incorrect inferrences from a sloppy reading of this short discussion and then refuting them with a quote from The New Yorker is perhaps more par for the course.

Wow. And all this time I thought your reputation as a pedantic blowhard was oversold. I do now agree with you that my statement "I'm with EB on this one" was incorrect. I did indeed "inferr" that your dismissal of the absolutism of the American rule was in favor of worthwhile exceptions such as those I noted, rather than a general disdain for the style. I stand corrected.

I would still find it ludicrous for an American to punctuate, say, a list of musical-comedy titles thus:
    My favorite musicals are "Oklahoma!," "Oliver!," "Streetcar!," and "Cats."
So even though my initial examples were limited to terminal punctuation, I still maintain that there are practical exceptions to the inside-the-quotes rule, not limited to exclamation points and question marks, and that one need be neither a British stylist or a "descriptivist" to accept same.

As to my quote from The New Yorker, I didn't intend it to "refute" anything in this "short [given your standards, of course] discussion," only to amplify in an entertaining manner something I thought we already agreed on. I found it noteworthy from a "synchronicity" standpoint, and then contrasted it with the Usenet reference so that I could tweak you about "think coming" (funny how you never got back to me on "worse comes to worse," isn't it?).

My "sloppiness" in reading your multi-screen comment helping me to "learn of the nuances of this usage" (*chortle*) was in assuming you quoted Fowler to highlight the silliness of prescriptivism ("Argument on the subject is impossible") rather than to bolster your own preference for British style. I guess I had thought we were both in agreement with the author of the site linked to in the FPP (remember that?), who says of the 1908 Fowler: "If you’re looking for confirmation of your views you may find solace, but the average reader has no way of knowing whether their advice still makes sense today. Would you use a 1908 dictionary to determine the meaning of a word now?" And out of politeness, I refrained from suggesting that in pasting text drawing explicit attention to the physical characteristics of quote marks you might have taken the time to correct the accent-grave and two-apostrophes-as-quote ASCII importation errors, but now that I better grasp your attitude, I won't make that mistake again.

LH: Hopefully, you'll post that here rather than just on your own blog. Fortunately, we can at least agree on this one.
posted by soyjoy at 10:18 AM on June 23, 2004


Soyjoy:

An American (at least one using Chicago style) wouldn't punctuate the list of show tunes as you have; s/he would dispense with the commas entirely.

Also, the show titles would be italicized, not in quotes, so that makes the example doubly irrelevant.
posted by dame at 2:05 PM on June 23, 2004


dame - Chicago style does not comprise all American usage; the very fact that there are legitimate variations on this side of the pond proves my point that you can be using American style and still have situations where the different terminals, and even commas, will fall outside the quotes (don't know if you noticed the period in my last one). I did include the serial comma just so any Chicagoites wouldn't get distracted by that, but as I've said here before, I prefer AP style, which is indeed to put quotes around works such as musical comedies.

And even so, I find the concept of leaving a list unpunctuated dubious. Such a sentence -

My favorite musicals are Oklahoma! Oliver! Streetcar! and Cats.

could, and would likely, be read first as though the writer kept thinking of another item and blurting it out as an interjection - especially if there were more than three initial items (it could happen!). Again, my objective is clear communication, and that would not fit the bill.
posted by soyjoy at 2:57 PM on June 23, 2004


Soyjoy, my reaction was primarily to your point that you'll take Menand over some joker on USENET. But the "joker on USENET" was describing the history of this usage, not its nuances. So why would you take Menand's word over Phillips's? I dunno. I figured you just glanced over the comment, assumed incorrectly what its point was, and then disputed something that I didn't claim. Which you certainly seemed to, since I never made any claims about the extent of the "inside the quotes" rule on this side of the Atlantic. You also incorrectly assume those were ASCII importation errors. That's how the post was originally written. You incorrectly assume my lengthy post was a tutorial on the nuances of this usage, when it was clearly no such thing. It was a defense of A) the contention that this usage has a typesetting genesis; and, B) that preferring the UK usage is not merely a style preference.

It's not "funny" that I didn't respond to your "worse comes to worse" comment. I didn't respond because it didn't need a response. I disagree. The "incorrect" usage is still literally meaningful and certainly it's meaningful as a practical matter. I don't think there's anything "wrong" with it. I'm not a prescriptivist. Apparently you are, when it suits you.

All in all, my snippy tone is the result of what I thought was a lot of false assumptions and carelessness on your part. It's also a general response to LH's snippiness in this thread combined with his inconsistencies and conspicuous silence when corrected on his exclamation that the typesetting theory is "absurd" and that the preference on this issue is merely a stylistic choice. Some of us have written documentation where it is a deeply utilitarian choice.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2004


AP Style? Isn't that what they wrap fish in?

Which is to say, fair enough. My point was simply that there is a way to deal with what you were bringing up that does not involve putting commas outside quotes, which I dislike on purely aesthetic grounds.
posted by dame at 4:19 PM on June 23, 2004


AP Style? Isn't that what they wrap fish in?

Among other things! See, that's one of its virtues - it's multipurpose!

Of course, I share your aesthetics on this - I only object to the contention that the rule is inviolate.

EB, I get the snippiness thing, but as I thought I'd already made clear, the reference to "some joker on Usenet," I thought was clearly off-base enough to identify it as a joke line, with (I thought) the punch line of "you've got another think coming" sealing the deal. Apparently the sealant failed to stick.

But watch out for assuming what other people have "incorrectly assumed." When I'm discussing or arguing over details such as these, I don't glance over comments and assume what their content is - even your magnum opera - if any of it seems to have been written for my benefit. Perhaps I should have quoted you at full length on the "nuances" line, but I thought "helping" would serve to encapsulate your offer for me to follow the links you'd provided. As for ASCII importation, I think you're being disingenuous there, unless you're trying to convince me that the author intentionally typed out
``The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.' '
in exactly the same way ASCII treats a certain type of open and close "smart" quotes. I didn't say it was your error, and maybe if I had it would have reduced the snippiness quotient.

And for the record, the "'worse comes to worse' comment" was actually just a question as to whether the Google search for those two variations was also "conclusive" as you had indicated the more bogus one for "think coming" was. I doubt you would apply such a standard to all possible variations of usage, but I could be wrong.
posted by soyjoy at 5:50 PM on June 23, 2004


The USENET post was in 1995. USENET is ascii. I think the author did, in fact, write the post that way.

When I said the Google search was conclusive, I meant it in the restricted sense where descriptivism is given. Some posters were asserting the opposite: that pretty much no one they knew thought it was "thing".

I think both "thing" and "worse" are sensible—it doesn't seem to me that one can convincingly argue that they are so sensless, so bizarre, as to be prima facie "incorrect". And because both are, I think, majority usages and everyone understands their meanings...well, that settles the matter for me. Cliches like this are, in my opinion, in a special class by themselves. They've lost almost all of their meanings in isolation, they're just markers for the understood connotation. So it's hard for me to take seriously the point of view that the original, forgotten by almost everyone, usage should be determinative. That's my point of view.

Peace?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:10 PM on June 23, 2004


I think the author did, in fact, write the post that way.

You'd know better than I, probably, though it seems like a bizarre thing to do intentionally - was there some kind of l33tspeak reason to do so? It's not as if there wasn't a quote key if one were typing it in. WTF?

Anyway, you can have that one, but I guess there's an impassable gulf between us on "incorrect."

Some usage is incorrect no matter how many people say it. That may be a statement that we can't agree on. But call me a prescriptivist if you must, it's just the case. That's the point of the page that started this thread. Doesn't need to be bizarre or senseless, just needs to not be correct. Doesn't mean you can't say it, or you're a stupid person to say it, only that it's incorrect. Go ahead and be incorrect, gleefully so, but don't say "maybe this's correct."

"Hone in on" is incorrect. "Take the wrong tact" is incorrect. "Statue of limitations" is incorrect. They may well be majority usages by now; if not, maybe soon. Their incorrectness is not incidental, because a useful specifc meaning is being lost, blurred into a splotch between the original meaning and that of a seemingly related homonym. With something that's more of a placeholder like "worse(t) comes to worst," the incorrect version is not that different, so no biggie. But again, with "think coming / thing coming," it's perfectly clear (unless you're disputing it) where the correct version came from, and what it evolved to convey - meanwhile, the incorrect version blurs that quirky notion into a vague, thuggish idiom that loses both the specificity and quirkiness of "think" in exchange for the most meaningless noun in the English language. We may have no choice but to accept the loss of "think coming" eventually (unless Missy Elliott has a big hit using it), but as it goes we can at least acknowledge it as correct.

Hopefully, we can agree to disagree, because otherwise we'll have to disagree to disagree.
posted by soyjoy at 10:15 PM on June 23, 2004


No, that's fine. Our debate is the debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists, distilled. The sticking point, and what makes you a prescriptivist, I think, is your statement that something is incorrect...period.

I, too, prefer to retain usages that serve a purpose that the replacement lacks. For example, "irony". (Actually, though, over a long time thinking about it, I've finally decided that it might make more sense to give in to the vulgar version and find something else to take the place of the "correct" version.) I also dislike replacements that are misleading or incomprehensible on their own and rely wholly on context for the understood meaning. And things like "statue of limitations" is not used vulgarly (?) in any useful sense, while it's still a very real, vital technical term (and the use to which the vulgar usage intends to refer!), so in my book, it's definitely "incorrect".

As in many things, I find the doctrinaire prescriptive/descriptive positions (is there a doctrinaire prescriptive position?) a false, or at least greatly exagerated, opposition. You won't find an argument from me against the idea that many things are "incorrect", even if widely used. But the argument from (a non-existant) authority or an arbitrary traditionalism is pretty unconvincing to me. (Not to mention that lots and lots of prescriptivism is folk prescriptivism and is, essentially, untrue, such as the "no ending a sentence with a preposition" rule.)

And it should also be mentioned that dogmatic, pedantic and superior attitudes on this (as well as most others) is asking for trouble—as there is always someone else around willing, and often able, to demonstrate that one's smug correctness is false. See your reaction to "Shoots, Eats, and Leaves". I thought I'd stayed out of the "this is correct" / "no, that's incorrect" arguments here and, instead, merely tried to explain why I think that some usages are reasonable and therefore acceptable, and some are not, and presented my arguments.

In spite of my descriptivist leanings, the majority usage of "inside the quotes" in the US is personally unacceptable to me because I firmly believe that, on balance, tradition is not a strong enough argument in favor of a usage that introduces ambiguity. On this, I'll go against the grain because change has to start somewhere and, importantly, my usage isn't going to confuse anyone. It will irritate certain folk that don't know anything but USA English usage, which I confess sort of delights me given that the context here on MetaFilter is what afu calls "TWIAVBP".

Oh, I'm pretty sure that Google, and DejaNews before them, did not introduce the grave accents and such when the webified the USENET archives. That leaves the author or his software. That the post was written long before "smart quotes", and long before people were using newsreaders that would handle anything other than ASCII, not to mention that Phillips has an elaborate ASCII art signature, all lead me to strongly believe that he wrote it that WAY. And I'm pretty sure that I've seen other people, limited to an ASCII environment, prefer to indicate open and close quotes in that manner.

Note: there's probably eight bazillion grammatical errors and a handful of spelling errors in the above comment. But I've got a splitting headache, am tired, and am just not in the mood to trouble myself with avoiding or eliminating them. Sorry.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:56 AM on June 24, 2004


The sticking point, and what makes you a prescriptivist, I think, is your statement that something is incorrect...period.

Yeah, I guess that's the sticking point. Not to be still more disagreeable (really, I'm not trying to), but I find the prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy to be a little specious in practice - i.e. nobody is truly one or the other. Everybody, it seems, is a "descriptivist" about usage they like and a "prescriptivist" about stuff they either know or think is wrong. On the punctuation-inside-quotes thing, a disinterested observer would probably call you the prescriptivist (for defending an absolute rule, even if it's used an ocean away) and me the descriptivist (for allowing for "common-sense" exceptions to a supposedly absolute rule). But each of us has legitimate reasons why this fits into our logical framework for good communication, and I don't see that parsing us into opposing armies helps work through that.

And of course there are people such as Lynne Truss who seem to revel in prescriptivism for its own sake, disregarding the actuality of what is or isn't correct. But that doesn't mean there's no such thing as "incorrect," or that something said by a lot of people is therefore not an error - otherwise how could there be "Common Errors in English"?
posted by soyjoy at 8:24 AM on June 24, 2004


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