Turn on the languagehat signal
August 29, 2005 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Language Corner by Columbia Journalism Review, is incredibly helpful when it comes to learning the English language's subtle nuances and rather obvious rules.
posted by riffola (20 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a language pedant I tip my hat to you, sir. Good stuff.
posted by killdevil at 1:32 PM on August 29, 2005

posted by solotoro at 4:48 PM on August 29, 2005

Great link, thanks. I'm teaching high-level English classes now, and I can use this as much as the students.
posted by zardoz at 6:39 PM on August 29, 2005

Bookmarked; thanks riffola.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2005

Why would anyone need help learning English's "rather obvious rules"?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:23 PM on August 29, 2005

Cool link. Thanks.
posted by sultan at 7:29 PM on August 29, 2005

Because your and you're are not the same.
posted by riffola at 7:29 PM on August 29, 2005

Because some of us could care less about the obvious.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:31 PM on August 29, 2005

I love you weapons-grade pandemonium!
posted by riffola at 7:35 PM on August 29, 2005

Is "You want I should come over there" in there?
posted by HiveMind at 10:09 PM on August 29, 2005

What about "Y'all be wanting me to come over there"?
posted by JParker at 10:40 PM on August 29, 2005

Great resource - thanks, riffy!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:23 PM on August 29, 2005

I'm pissed that ensure / insure doesn't have an entry... that's the one I always be getting wrong.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:22 AM on August 30, 2005

Well, it's better than I expected—I hardly gnashed my teeth at all. But like almost all usage guides that try to avoid the absurd dictates of yesteryear (Never split an infinitive! Never end a sentence with a preposition!), it falls between two stools. The CJR folks are aware, to their credit, that usage ultimately rules, but they're loyal to the "rules" they were trained in, and sometimes it drives them to odd pronouncements like the one in the split-infinitive page: "Splitting an infinitive is not a mortal sin, but it’s nice to avoid because it makes some grammarians and other thoughtful readers — the legions those grammarians taught — grind their teeth." Translation: it makes no sense to avoid splitting infinitives in English, that being a "rule" invented out of whole cloth in the nineteenth century because of an imagined parallel with Latin, but because a lot of people still cling to the idea, we should try to avoid disturbing them. By the same logic, we should avoid mentioning evolution.

And in the page on comprise, they say "the whole comprises the parts" because "Comprise comes through French from the Latin comprehendere, which also gave us the English word comprehend..." [Quoted forms changed to itals so I don't have to do the quotes-inside-quotes thing.] A word's etymology is irrelevant to its current meaning; otherwise we'd insist on using bead to mean 'prayer.' Merriam-Webster says, with its usual good sense:
Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 [using it like compose] is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up.
But I don't want to end on a sour note; CJR's "going with the flow" page gives examples of cases where logic leads purists astray, and concludes "Sometimes it's best to relax and take what the language gives us." (They can't resist going on to add "Within reason, of course.")

All in all, a useful resource, as long as you bear in mind its biases. I've bookmarked it. Thanks, riffola!
posted by languagehat at 6:37 AM on August 30, 2005

I write Language Corner for the Columbia Journalism Review and its Web site and was happy to read the comments about it posted here (I’m late responding because I was traveling).

For Meatbomb: Some publications insist on reserving INsure for fINancial matters, notably INsurance, and ensure for other meanings. I think that’s an arbitrary and needless complication. I’d keep life simple by using “insure” for both senses unless my editors forbade it.

For languagehat: Your views seem to be on an extreme end of the descriptive vs. prescriptive spectrum. Depending on where you live, that might lead you to endorse “ain’t” for serious writing. If you think “comprise” can be used to mean BOTH “make up” AND “consist of,” we clearly part ways. Yes, Merriam Webster’s is home to a good deal of sensible, informative discussion. And some of its conclusions are very much open to question, as the editors themselves suggest in the passage you quoted. It seems neutral, for example, on the notion that the powerful word “refute” can be used to mean simply “deny.” I find that unacceptable.

I’m somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I discard some things I was taught, including the two “absurd dictates” you mentioned, when sense persuades me to. And we sometimes have to abandon sense when usage positively swamps it. That hasn’t happened yet with “comprise” or “refute,” to name just two of my prescriptions for literacy. I hope it doesn’t.

Evan Jenkins
posted by evjenk at 12:34 PM on September 3, 2005

Evan, I shouldn't try to speak for LH, but he's probably closer to the middle of the spectrum than you think. My impression is that his "public face" in fora like metafilter is to act as a descriptivism corrective for what he sees as the harmful and dominant excessive prescriptivism.

I'm careful to use ensure as "to make certain", by the way.

In general, my own test for deciding between a descriptive or a prescriptive position on a given usage is whichever usage is the least ambiguous and/or most useful. For that reason I endorse ain't. However, your "serious writing" qualification seems to me to be something of a straw man because I think very few people, perhaps least of all descriptivists, would argue against preferring usages which are appropriately modulated for specific audiences. In a sense, part of the very essence of what I suspect you have in mind when you write "serious writing" is that it avoids usages like ain't. Asserting that ain't is (or "should" be) acceptable everywhere is, ironically, a prescriptivist point of view. Or so it seems to me.

It's unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, that the descriptivism corrective to prescriptivism is rooted in linguistics. In my view, they are more seperate domains than they are in competition. But the linguistics roots of descriptivism as a criticism of prescriptivism and presented as its alternative implicitly endorses the idea that this is ultimately a moral philosophy argument. That is to say, it is an argument about what people should do. Yes, yes, descriptivism explicitly claims that this is exactly what it's not doing; but in practice, when it criticizes prescriptivism, it seems to me that it works as a naturalistic argument works in moral philosophy: that this is the way things "naturally" are, thus this is as they should be. Which is of course a load of bunk.

Yet a big part of why descriptivism walks this ground is because prescriptivism is, in a sense, a metaphysical argument. It is a Platonism which sees languages ultimately as ideals which are debased by the ignorant and aims to enlighten the wayward to the True way of communicating using language. And so in this, linguistics as a scientific enterprise is doing what western empiricism has been doing for a long time now: refuting Platonism.

How I see things is that I disentagle the moral philosophy from the science. And thus I can probably best be described as a utilitarian prescriptivist who relies upon linguistics to provide the descriptive context for the moral philosophy.

Thus you'll notice that I conspicuously favor some non-standard usages (that is, usages which are non-standard in a specific context) because, in effect, I'm proseltytizing my linguistics morality. There's a great deal about my writing here on MetaFilter which is aggressively not modulated to conform to this sub-culture. It's deliberate.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:31 PM on September 3, 2005

My impression is that his "public face" in fora like metafilter is to act as a descriptivism corrective for what he sees as the harmful and dominant excessive prescriptivism.

EB is (as often) right. As it happens, I generally follow the rules in my own formal writing, and even get pleasure out of doing so; that doesn't change the fact that they're essentially arbitrary and often used as a shibboleth for social elitism, one more way to keep the lesser orders in their place, and I can't see them taken as written in stone without saying something.

I'm glad you showed up here; I hope you stick around for future language discussions!
posted by languagehat at 5:50 PM on September 3, 2005

EB, thank you for your trouble. Your overview of the de-pre argument was enlightening. Like LH, I try to offset “harmful and dominant excessive prescriptivism,” as you put it. I think that emerges often in the Language Corner material. But like you, I guess I’m also a “utilitarian prescriptivist.” There’s not much choice, when you think about it.

Are the rules arbitrary? Of course; it’s a truism. They were concocted by creatures who once communicated by grunting. Are some of them foolish? We’d all agree on that. And they’re useful, I hope we’d also agree.

Yet you and LH, acknowledging their usefulness, also seem to endorse the notion that attempting to arrive at and promulgate a widely acceptable set of standards for the use of language is somehow socially destructive – “one more way to keep the lesser orders in place,” in LH’s phrase. I think the opposite is true.

I would argue that the true, and dangerous, elitism is the position that it’s okay for US to know those rules, but we can’t impose them on the great unwashed.

Far from keeping the “lesser orders” down by imposing rigorous standards, this society perpetuates injustice by denying — systematically, I believe — a useful education, including consensus standard English, to those who need it most.

About 30 years ago, I was one of the liberals who delighted in reading that blacks aced an IQ test composed in “Black English” and whites flunked it dismally. I mentioned that in an interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark, the black psychologist whose work was so important in Brown v. Board of Education.

He hit the roof. He was eternally grateful, he said, to the (white) New York City teachers who pounded correct English into him. He believed that he would have achieved nothing without it, and he thought “Black English” was a cruel hoax.

So, as appealing as Ebonics, say, may be in literature or humor or indeed linguistics, it’s of very little use to the majority of the people who are stuck with it.

Thanks, all, for the visit. And Meatbomb, thanks for not guffawing publicly about my earnestness in taking your cry for help seriously. I do have a sense of humor, but I don’t always remember to keep it turned on.
posted by evjenk at 5:15 PM on September 5, 2005

Evan, thank you for adding your thoughts here. Welcome to MetaFilter! I hope you like it enough to actively participate.
posted by riffola at 7:51 PM on September 5, 2005

Thanks, riffola. It's been interesting and thought-provoking for me.
posted by evjenk at 9:12 AM on September 7, 2005

« Older Behold the dark underbelly of numismatics.   |   Singing, Painting and the Holocaust: Interview... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments