ACCEPTING WHAT CANNOT BE CHANGED.

I have more than once had occasion to point out that being a descriptivist does not exempt me from having feelings about language, and knowing that language inevitably changes does not keep me from resenting some of those changes. I’m human, all too human. But the absurdity of repeatedly feeling the same outrage at usages that are becoming more and more prevalent, the embarrassment of knowing myself to be repeating the idiocies of those who in days gone by objected to the house is being built (see this entry from the late lamented Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey) or thought the word decimate should be restricted to meaning ‘reduce by a tenth,’ have led me to make a conscious effort to conquer my aversion to some of these developments, just as I have conquered my aversion to certain foods (olives, say, or goat cheese). Now, there are some that I will never accept, any more than I will ever enjoy seafood; “may have” for “might have” is one of these. But I hope to make progress with others, and in the last couple of days I have heard examples of two mistakes innovations that have annoyed me all my life but that I think I can convince myself to get used to (though I have no intention of using them myself). One is the pronunciation of processes with the final syllable -eez, as though it were the plural of a Latin noun processis (on the model of analysis, analyses). Ahistorical? Sure, but so is half of English. It’s just good old reanalysis at work, and I have no problem with that in theory, so it’s time to practice what I preach. The other is to no end used for the traditional phrase no end ‘exceedingly’ (see the last section of the Merriam-Webster entry for end). I will allow myself a grim smile when I see someone using it in the very act of complaining about the errors of others (as Jeff Martin here: “Misspellings bug me to no end”), but otherwise I will tell myself “It’s only language change at work… it’s only language change….”

Comments

  1. Noetica says:

    …the pronunciation of processes with the final syllable -eez, as though it were the plural of a Latin noun processis
    Arrggh! No! Never! I will never accept that. I find no justification for it: of any sort, anywhere.
    In Australia it sounds SO American, which doesn’t help. It rumbles with menace, as one small wavelet in the Great Trans-Pacific Cultural Tsunami, for those of us with fully functional ears (who, I am convinced, are fewer and fewer as the years roll on).
    By the way, what is the difference between as if and as though? I find myself allergic to the latter. I can give reasons for this sensitivity, but will wait for another opinion to be expressed first.

  2. I’m 26, a non-native speaker of English and from a culture where prescriptivism is nearly a religion, so I’ve conditioned myself to not be bothered by any use of language, but…
    …everytime I pass the window display of a clothing store that prominently features the word “pant” (scare quotes intended, heck, I’d make blood drip from them if only I knew how) I have a momentary, yet powerful, urge to break through the window and strangle a mannequin with the shreds of a badly tailored t-shirt I’ve torn off its companion. I know that I’d be, as we say in Icelandic, hanging a baker in a carpenter’s stead, but rage has a way of suppressing logic.

  3. My first reaction was complete humiliation. I’ll have to be more careful. And while I agree (I still hold that decimate should be restricted to “reduce by a tenth”) I can’t get passed the first reaction.
    How can one err on one hand and condemn on the other? I think the only solution is to stop communicating.

  4. Tatyana says:

    S, I think the time came for me to admit: your relaxed attitude towards language crimes had significantly softened, over the years, my own rigid prescriptivism (regarding grammatically correct Russian, of course, I have no claims to English). And this was a torturous thing to say, believe me.
    Still, there are days (like like this that I can’t help but notice things…

  5. Being in the newspaper business gives one a front row seat to the evolution of English, as well as to every kind of error that can be made in rushing the product to the press every 24 hours. I’ve learned to be tolerant of a lot of things but I have my hot buttons, too. A discussion that “centers around” a subject is one. “Revolves around”, or “centers on” are fine with me, but “centering around” doesn’t work.

  6. …but “centering around” doesn’t work.
    Hmm, Martin. For me it’s more “based around” that doesn’t work. “Based on”, please.

  7. I will never use the phrase “my bad.” I will always cringe when I hear it. I hold on grimly, hoping it will go away, like “far out.”

  8. Another, for me: “land up in trouble [for example]“, as a fusion of “end up in trouble” and “land in trouble”.

  9. it sounds SO American
    And yet it was a Brit I heard use it on the radio.
    your relaxed attitude towards language crimes had significantly softened, over the years, my own rigid prescriptivism
    I’m glad to hear it. Now, the rest of you: get with the program!

  10. And yet it was a Brit I heard use it on the radio.
    And that is the problem!

  11. Mirroring something I heard on an old episode of Law and Order just the other day:
    … but I hate prescriptivism more.
    Kari,
    that prominently features the word “pant”
    haven’t we discussed that on this very forum a few weeks ago? I vaguely remember something about “pant” being an acceptable usage in some US states.

  12. Heh, it seems like the folks at Language Log could add this site to their growing list of venues for collective language-rage.
    Me, I prefer to keep my language bêtes-noires under wraps. That way, you never know whether I’m secretly cursing you unto the seventh generation for something you just said.

  13. haven’t we discussed that on this very forum a few weeks ago? I vaguely remember something about “pant” being an acceptable usage in some US states.
    “Pant” came up in the discussion of “diaper(s).” Strictly fashion-speak, unless it’s seeping into wider usage thanks to shows like Project Runway.

  14. I hate it when people say “I love you” when they mean “turn out the light”, or “let’s run away” when they just mean “stay the night”. Those are the worst.

  15. Yeah… but it is MUCH worse when they say “stay the night” and MEAN “let’s run away.”
    One is a drag and the other is a BIG PROBLEM.

  16. I’m sorry, but “processees” is a bridge too far. I am trying to adjust to “bruscetta”, though.

  17. Might have for may have, or vice versa?
    Funny thing: yesterday I was reading John Wells’ phonetics blog (he’s a retired professor of phonetics and author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, as you know) on the pronunciation of ‘diocese’ and ‘dioceses’, which surprised me.
    It certainly shows I wasn’t brought up by Anglicans!
    http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/blog0702b.htm
    (date February 28)

  18. It’s possible to relabel what you don’t like as “bad style” instead of “bad grammar” and continue to avoid it personally, the way people say “I am personally opposed to X but it needn’t be illegal”. Sort of a disestablishment or secularization, transforming a law into a voluntary personal preference or matter of taste.
    I frequently rewrite sentences to avoid split infinitives, and I’m almost always able to do that. I often rewrite in order to avoid the singular “they”, but sometimes the singular “they” is too useful to get rid of. “He or she” is just too clunky, and I mostly use it when trying to be funny. (Example: “A sociopathic dictator will never feel any remorse for his or her vicious crimes” How’s that for inclusive language, Ms. Feminist Lady?)
    Prescriptivism may serve as a vetting process, putting innovations under scrutiny to see if they can stand the pressure. Someone should do a study looking for cases of successful prescriptivism, when a tabooed form actually disappeared. Most slang dies out, to the point of making the slangiest literature unintelligible or quaint in a few decades, and perhaps prescriptivism plays a role in this.
    Or else not.
    In practice, prescriptivism is mostly class dialect, and part of the teacher’s establishment of *their* authority in the classroom, on a par with forbidding gumchewing in class. And for the upwardly-mobile, learning to talk educated is important even if there’s a certain amount of overkill.

  19. Might have for may have, or vice versa?
    Oops! Vice versa, of course. My bad (heh), and I’ll go fix the entry. Thanks.

  20. Richard Hershberger says:

    “It’s possible to relabel what you don’t like as “bad style” instead of “bad grammar” and continue to avoid it personally…”
    Certainly. It would be absurd for me to tell you that you must split infinitives. If you want to re-write your prose to avoid them, go forth with my blessing. To my mind it is silly to restrict yourself this way but that is your business.
    “Prescriptivism may serve as a vetting process, putting innovations under scrutiny to see if they can stand the pressure.”
    I very much doubt this. First off, many many prescriptions are not against innovations at all. The persons complaining may think that they are, but that is merely because the vast majority of such people don’t actually take their own complaints seriously enough to do their research. Even when it really is an innovation, it would be hard to show that prescriptive complaints affect matters one way or the other.
    “Someone should do a study looking for cases of successful prescriptivism, when a tabooed form actually disappeared. Most slang dies out, to the point of making the slangiest literature unintelligible or quaint in a few decades, and perhaps prescriptivism plays a role in this.”
    Slang is by its nature transitory. The occasional slang expression makes its way into the standard vocabulary, but they are the exception. I know of no evidence that prescriptive complaints enter into this. (Is there a record of condemnations of calling a handgun a “gat” or saying “23 Skidoo”?)
    You have to look hard to find examples where prescriptive grammars and manuals clearly had an effect. The non-standard status of “ain’t” is an example, and an illustration of the inability of prescriptivists to actually kill off a usage, even when they can drive it out of the standard language.

  21. Silly? Really? Just because I don’t like to use split infinitives?
    Richard, has anyone actually looked? We have a lot of prescriptivist rants, and a lot of anti-prescriptivist rants, but has anyone ever asked whether prescriptivists have actually accomplished anything in their own terms?
    In my high school, the prescriptivist teachers worked on dialect pronunciations (“warsh”) and grammar (“he ain’t got none”, “I done it”.) To the extent that any of her students were ever going to present themselves in polite society, the teachers were probably doing the right thing, even though the locals still talk that way.
    Recently I’ve done casual comparisons of modern translations of Rabelais with Urquhart’s. I have the feeling that Urquhart’s language sense is closer to Rabelais’s, and the difference is that prescriptivists from Sam Johnson onward have taught people to prefer certain usages, sentence forms, and ways of constructing paragraphs. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it speaks against the idea that prescriptivists are silly, futile people. (The debate over prescriptivism tends to gravitate to the not-quite-successful battles which are still being fought and refought.)
    During one of these discussions I asked me how many classic American authors could have got past Strunk and White. Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman certainly couldn’t have. Twain, maybe. Emerson and Thoreau, maybe.
    I’m not actually pro-prescriptivist. I guess I just think that the standing argument against prescriptivism is a bit impoverished.

  22. I know I used to be a terrible prescriptivist not many years ago. Actually learning a bit about grammar and linguistics have been an enormous help, and LanguageLog has become my holy writ.
    That said I’m still irked by Danes who cannot get their reflexive possessives right (“sin, sit, sine”), but mix them up with the simple possessive (“hans, hendes, deres” most egregiously).
    Re Tulinius’ (Tulinii?) remark about “hanging a baker in a carpenter’s stead”: The Danish expression is “kill the baker for the blacksmith” (most often quoted the wrong way round). It’s from a humourous verse by the Norwegian poet Johan Herman Wessel. I’ve only heard it performed once, sadly. Impromptu by our old verger.

  23. It’s very human to decide that the world should be ‘just so’ (‘just so’ being our own construct of what the world should be like) when in reality it maddeningly goes off and does its own thing.
    I have a few of my own:
    People who pronounce ‘accomplish’ as acCOMplish (it should be acCUMplish), ‘constable’ as CONstable (it should be CUNstable), and all the other examples of this type (Coventry, covenant, etc.)
    People who use ‘data’ and ‘media’ as a singular. (Yes, I know, in the media it’s now “accepted usage” to treat it as a singular, but I can’t accept it myself!)
    Young Australians who pronounce ‘lemonade’ as lemonEId instead of the national standard lemonAId (often misheard as lemonId — I as in the pronoun “I” — by visitors from overseas). What are these young people doing to our Australian English!!??
    I am sure I could find 500 more.
    But it’s ridiculous to obssess when the world refuses to conform to our own personal standards… (sigh)

  24. James,
    I hate it when people say “I love you” when they mean “turn out the light”
    Amen to that. “I love you” = “hello” is the WOOORST.

  25. badisgood says:

    I *LOVE* “my bad”. It means “Well, fair enough, I made a mistake, but it was so trivial that your pointing it out reflects badly on you rather than me.” How succinct! Sadly, I can only use it online, because in my neck of the woods it’s only spoken by skateboarders in Korn hoodies.

  26. Noetica says:

    People who pronounce ‘accomplish’ as acCOMplish (it should be acCUMplish), ‘constable’ as CONstable (it should be CUNstable), and all the other examples of this type (Coventry, covenant, etc.)
    I’ll sing you a song and it won’t take long:
    “All coppers are CUN… stables.”
    How do say conjure, Bathrobe? The Oz way was ever CON-, but now we hear CUN- more and more. Cringing mock-Brit, or what?
    Pomegranate is still, of course, to be pronounced PUMgranit. I’ll hear no other.

  27. Haha!
    I say CUNjer.
    But pomegranate? That’s POMMY granite.
    I also hate paddock and stomach with schwa. It has to be paddick and stumick. I also mourn the passing of pungkyin (for pumpkin). :( And the tendency to say fore-head for forehead. So many hangups!

  28. Noetica says:

    Don’t get me started on the great Australian schwa-shift, Bathrobe. Comp’ny, rhet’ric, and so on. Ubiquitous. It’s meant as a mark of culture, but is more a mark of fawning before an imagined British norm. I agree about fore-head, of course. How about advertise-ment? Very common, now.

  29. Terry Collmann says:

    Adver-teyese-ment instead of ad-vertissment is standard Irish pronunciation – as is Thigh-land for the country once known as Siam.
    The one that raises my blood pressure is “compared to” used when no comparison is being made – as in
    “Profits were £26 million this year compared to £20 million last year”
    Does nobody who writes that realise that they have to put in a comparative if they use “compared to”?

  30. I’m curious. What’s wrong with the following statement? The year over year comparison is no good?
    “Profits were £26 million this year compared to £20 million last year”

  31. Allan Beatty says:

    At a deep level, is the objection to this use of “compared to” like the objection to sentence-initial “hopefully”? The person who is comparing or hoping is the writer, not someone mentioned in the sentence itself.

  32. I can hardly tell the difference between a comma and a coma but the misuse of decimate gets my goat. Why can’t they say what they mean? Try mostlymate or nearlyallimate or… there must be a word or phrase which conveys the meaning better than decimate.

  33. there must be a word or phrase which conveys the meaning better than decimate.
    The word decimate conveys the meaning perfectly well; it just doesn’t convey the same meaning as the Romans did when they used the Latin verb decimare. There is no particular reason why English verbs should carry Latin meanings. If you’re on a crusade for original meanings, I trust you also deplore the use of bead to mean ‘small perforated ball’ rather than ‘prayer,’ which is its etymological and thus “correct” sense.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Thiki was obviously joking.

  35. LemonAId?
    As an Australian, sounding that out makes me nauseous. The first segment of the diphthong is probably lowered a little bit, but not that much.
    The most I’m willing to give on that pronunciation (as much as I’ve personally heard it in different parts of the country) is ‘lemon/æi/d’.

  36. Thiki was obviously joking.
    You think? I dunno, reading it over it still doesn’t look like it to me. But we’ll let the original author decide. Thiki? Joke or genuine gripe?

  37. Sorry, I didn’t use IPA.
    I was objecting to the tendency among some young people, most likely under the influence of overseas television, to completely ‘flatten’ the diphthong in ‘lemonade’. The normal Australian is (I think — I’m not sure of the precise symbols) /lemənaɪd/. But it seems to be becoming common for some people to say /lemənæɪd/ or even /leməneɪd/. This was previously only seen among people who’d studied too much ‘Speech & Drama’. Now some young’uns seem to be flattening the /aɪ/ from a feeling that the Aussie broad /aɪ/ is ‘uncool’! Hmmmph!

  38. Andrew Dunbar says:

    Well I don’t know if I’m a “young’un” but I’m a 39-year old Australian and I’ve always said /leməneɪd/ and can’t recall hearing another pronunciation. /lemənaɪd/ instantly reminds me of Meryl Streep’s hopeless Australian accent in “A Cry in the Dark” where she says “The dingo took my bye-bye”.

  39. Yes, there are some delicate phonetic distinctions here. I agree that the Australian pronunciation is not exactly /lemənaɪd/, but it’s not really /lemənæɪd/ either. That is why I said I wasn’t sure of the exact phonetic symbols. It is, however, definitely closer to Meryl Streep’s “accent” than it is to /leməneɪd/, which is decidedly a minority pronunciation.

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