COMMONER, CLEVERER, ET AL.

Arnold Zwicky at the Log has a post about “inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives,” a topic on which there is a huge literature; it was sparked off by a correspondent who asked whether commoner shouldn’t be more common (adding, winningly, “I ask, fully expecting to be proven incorrect”), and Zwicky quite properly chastises “belief in One Right Way, in this case the assumption that an adjective or adverb takes inflection or periphrasis, but not both as alternatives. If you also judge X to be not what you would say, then it must be wrong and the periphrastic variant must be right.” He goes on to provide an astonishing anecdote:

Back in August 2005, Jon Lighter reported on ADS-L about Fox News anchor E. D. Hill, who maintained vehemently, on camera, that cleverer was not a word. Later she stated on air that a colleague had found it in a dictionary, so it was after all a word. But then (as Lighter wrote),
… in a surprising twist that left linguists in the viewing audience reeling, minutes before the show ended, Hill laughed as she said, “We’ve received an email from a viewer [name unintelligible] who has a doctorate, and she writes as follows : ” ‘Cleverer’ is not a word. It is not a verb and cannot be declined or inflected.’ ” Hill concluded, “So I was right all along ! It’s not a word ! “

As Zwicky says, “It is to weep.”


And to my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving! We’re eating at my stepson’s house this afternoon, which means my wife doesn’t have to do a lot of cooking and the cats can doze in peace.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    In imperial China individuals’ given names were regarded as having a kind of magical power and were not used except by superiors; official nicknames were used in almost all circumstances, and individuals avoided using the words in the tabooed personal names of their fathers and grandfathers after their deaths, so that if your father’s given name was Great Benevolence you’d call the Great Lakes the “Large Lakes” or the “Big Lakes”. (I’m sure that this kind of rule was not strictly followed everywhere, but it was a real custom).
    During a given dynasty, it was the custom to avoid the given names of all deceased emperors of the dynasty in that way, so that printed books can be dated by the taboos honored and not honored. This has corrupted the text of Lao Tzu, for example, where the most-used editions avoid the words xuan “dark, bang “state, and ying “full”.
    As a result of this custom, an individual would cast a lexical shadow in proportion to his importance in the world. (Honored local worthies could also have their names tabooed). A humble man woukld only be honored by a few people, whereas an emperor would be honored by tens or hundreds of millions.
    This has been the long way around the barn, but a lot of the arbitrary rules of prescriptive grammar are, in effect, that kind of lexical shadow. They first of all mark the territory of a given prescriptivist. (For example, MS Word honors Strunk and White).
    But more to the point, I think that given sets of rules mark the territory of corresponding educational regimes. What I remember of this teaching consisted of teachers trying to force students of a country background to avoid certain pronunciations, words, or usages characteristic of the local dialect. The teachers were usually of a country background too, and in most cases had also been forced by teachers to follow the rules in question.
    Learning these rules marked middle-class status, aspirations toward middle-class status, or in some cases subservience, whereas refusal marked defiance or, in some cases, a different kind of subservience (“No use me trying to learn that stuff, I’m dumb”).
    Conceivably someone could do a study of the rule-sets of competing educational regimes, for example Catholic parochial v. progressive public, and use the discovered differences as cultural markers of the scope of the various regimes. You could probably also find regional variations in prescriptive regimes depending on the particular local dialects being suppresed.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    Very interesting and to the point, JE. “Going the long way around the barn” is a time-honoured technique of French essayists (among others).
    I don’t know of any study such as you envisage, but it would be very worthwhile. (It there have been, they would probably be found in sociolinguistics and/or educational journals).

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Back to the title: When I was studying English, the comparative and superlative of words starting with well started with better, best, as in well-known: better-known: best-known, but it is quite a while since I have seen better- or best-known in current prose (such as in the press or in blogs), instead it is more or most well-known. This may result from a tightening bond between well and the following word, making well into a prefix rather than a modifier.
    And speaking of known, I also notice (what seems to me to be) an increasing use of reknown instead of renowned or even of renown, even among presumably well-educated writers such as academics, in spite of (or in ignorance of?) the difference in pronunciation.

  4. People will always reduce the number of sounds uttered /written to the very minimum if they can get away with it. Thus tex[t]ing will win the day
    LOL

  5. I frequently heard “gooder” when I was growing up. People were sometimes trying to be funny and sometimes not.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I remember writing reknown just the other day. I looked twice, thinking the Latin prefix looked odd on the Germanic stem, but I think I let it stand as that. I didn’t think of renom(mée) and noun.

  7. This is one very agreeable thing about Dutch: “slim” (“clever”) paradigms “slimmer”, “slimst” (the orthography just conserves wovel length here); “belangrijk” (“important”) goes “belangrijker”, “belangrijkst”; and all other comparativeables do likewise.
    Also we don’t have Fox “News”. Coincidence? You tell me…

  8. mollymooly says:

    Eggcorn DB noted reknown(ed) in 2005.
    The baddest man is not necessarily the worst man. Polysemy influencing inflection. Also little > littler, less, lesser.
    I hate “most well-known” but tolerate “more well-known” and prefer “more well-intentioned” to “better-intentioned”.
    Also, “more well-known” and “better-known” may have different hyphenation requirements, but then I hyphenate purely by visual instinct.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    2005 sounds right for a mention of “reknown(ed)”. It seems to me recent and of increasing use, but “recent” does not just mean “in the immediate past”.

  10. No use me trying to learn that stuff,
    Wouldn’t that be “no use trying to learn me that stuff”…

  11. It is not a verb
    FoxGoebbels cleverers its viewers yet again.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Why does anyone care about Faux Noise? What next, YouTube comments!?!

    but it is quite a while since I have seen better- or best-known in current prose

    Both are very common in scientific articles about poorly known fossils. :-)

  13. If you can “other” someone you can “it” something. “It” is a verb.
    “Mon, she’s itting me again. I am not an it!”
    “He itted me first! He its me whenever your back is turned, and then he blames me.”

  14. marie-lucie says:

    better- or best-known in current prose
    David, Both are very common in scientific articles about poorly known fossils. :-)
    By “current prose” I mean basically mass media, as I indicated. For specialized publications, editors are likely to correct an author’s style so that it conforms to a journal’s stylistic preferences, so articles in such journals are not as reflective of general language trends as works meant for a much larger audience.

  15. “rule-sets of competing educational regimes, for example Catholic parochial v. progressive public”
    I have heard tell that here in Australia, the Catholic schools taught that the name of the letter H was “haitch”, apparently inspired by Irish pronunciation. Other schools, following the English model would say “aitch”.
    By the time I went through the catholic education system (1980s & 1990s), it was much more multicultural and there were no Irish teachers who insisted on teaching us to say Haitch.

  16. Things like that are so convenient when you’re trying to organize a proper massacre. It’s a shame that the old traditions are dying out.

  17. B for Bathrobe says:

    I went through the public Australian school system (not Catholic-run or otherwise private) in 1960s-70s, and ‘haitch’ was extremely common in the ordinary speech of fellow students. I only realised late in the piece that strictly speaking ‘aitch’ is correct, but I still use ‘haitch’ at times. Did this usage spill over from Catholic schools?

  18. I’d no idea that haitch was Australian and originated in Ireland. That’s a great piece of information. When I grew up in London (1960s) it was a quite common Cockney pronunciation, but I don’t think it was thought of as an Irish borrowing.

  19. Our hens watch Fox News.

  20. mollymooly: “I…prefer ‘more well-intentioned’ to ‘better-intentioned’.”
    I do as well, and I’m pretty sure that there’s a difference of scope between the two. “More well-intentioned” seems like it’s offering a comparison of some quality of being well-intentioned (thus, the comparative has scope over the whole modifier phrase), and “better-intentioned” seems as if the comparative has scope just over the “intention”.
    I know it’s somewhat more complex than that, but at least in this case it seems as if the inflected comparative has (for me) a strong low-scope interpretation.
    As far as “most well-known”, it (and its comparative sibling) roll off my tongue with perfect ease. “Pink Floyd was one of the most well-known prog-rock bands of the twentieth century” seems to work just fine.
    And I will admit that using the inflected “better-known” and “best-known” leads me to low-scope interpretation as a first instinct in this case as well, though not quite as strongly. I can grant that “one of the best-known prog-rock bands” could be interpreted as a statement of the band’s popularity, but I can also see it being a statement of the band’s transparency–or, rather, a statement of how much about the band is known, rather than of how many people know of the band.
    …And with that convoluted last sentence, I will retire for the night.

  21. mollymooly says:

    Haitch is still the norm in (the Republic of) Ireland. RTÉ newsreaders seem to use aitch, but they also use /Isju/ for “issue” and /ar/ for “R” which other RTÉ personnel don’t. I suspect a single eccentric is in charge of pronunciation policy. That said, there’s now an ad for HDTV where a Cork accent voiceover says “aitch dee tee vee”.
    I suspect haitch in England is an independent regionalism, which may be gaining ground. I think aitch-sayers are far snootier about haitch-sayers in Australia than in England.

  22. I think aitch-sayers are far snootier about haitch-sayers in Australia than in England.
    I wouldn’t count on it, MacMooly.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    For specialized publications, editors are likely to correct an author’s style so that it conforms to a journal’s stylistic preferences

    On the one hand, yes. On the other, most journals simply lack preferences on anything other than citation formats, uses of dashes, and the like. On the third hand, many journals are sloppily edited, if at all. I’ve seen tuberocity and similar mistakes in print in the most widely cited journal of all, Nature, and uncorrected nonnative grammar – all the way to papers, in English, that can only be understood in full if you know German – in others. It’s a question of money.
    Money is not everything!
    But without money, everything is nothing!
    – On a wall of Scrooge McDuck’s office in his money bin.

    it was a quite common Cockney pronunciation

    Looks like an independently developped hypercorrectivism to me. After all, Cockney is famous for H-dropping.

  24. Looks like an independently developped hypercorrectivism to me.
    You may both be right, but don’t forget there are more Irish in London than there are in the whole of Israel and Boston, Mass.

  25. Haitch/aitch is apparently one of the shibboleths in Northern Ireland used to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants.

  26. i recalled once when my English was much more poorer i said he was shoot(not even shot), meaning fired in a conversation with my Japanese coworker, his English was better than mine, i could see how his face is changing, but not in like he’s trying to suppress laugh, but how his opinion of me is dropping steeply, i thought oh, they take their English conversations pretty seriously

  27. Haitch/aitch is apparently one of the shibboleths in Northern Ireland used to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants.
    The ancient traditions are still honored in a few places.

  28. Something off topic (but peculiar).
    Jamessal, in a post at Caviar & Codfish, links to a Wall Street Journal article that begins:
    Acting on an informant’s tip, in June 1973, French tax inspectors barged into the offices of the 155-year-old Cruse et Fils Frères wine shippers
    “X et Fils Frères”. Is that, like, a normal company name in France? It gets 51,000 hits, so I assume it is. In English you’d at least write “X & Son, Brothers” with a comma. But it still doesn’t make any sense to me.

  29. laughter

  30. Just a guess, but could “haitch” be one of the gifts to Ireland of Cromwell’s soldiers? I wouldn’t expect the Ulster Protestants to use it since they’d use the Scots “aitch”.

  31. i could see how his face is changing, but not in like he’s trying to suppress laugh, but how his opinion of me is dropping steeply, i thought oh, they take their English conversations pretty seriously
    read, I had never thought of it like that. Some people laugh at you when you make a mistake, others frown at you. Yet others find the mistake funny, and laugh with you.
    By “they” do you mean “the Japanese”, or just your coworkers? I suppose these reactions can be culturally conditioned.

  32. By the way, read, it really is funny to say “shot” instead of “fired”.
    When I was learning German, I was once being shown a outdoor glass-ceilinged building that was used to cultivate (grow) flowers commercially. (I don’t know if “hothouse” is the right word for that). A German root word for “cultivation” is -zucht, as in Blumenzucht (the cultivation of flowers). A hothouse is a Treibhaus (house for letting things germinate, i.e. grow).
    While I was in the building, I met a guy whom I hadn’t known before. Several days later, his name came up in a conversation I was having with other people in a completely different context. I wanted to say “Oh, I met him recently in a hothouse”. I couldn’t remember Treibhaus, but knew that the word I wanted ended in -haus. So I tried to splice Blumenzucht and Treibhaus, and said I met him in a Zuchthaus. But that means prison!

  33. yeah, me too, couldn’t recall the word, something shooting, firing meaning dismissed from one’s job
    i meant my coworker who was Japanese, the ability to speak English is kinda like valued there, i’ve noticed
    well, it’s valuable everywhere, but there it’s like a kind of statusy thing too
    i could be wrong and shouldn’t generalize from one incident :) only, of course
    as for me, i’m like shameless regarding language mistakes, but still prefer people who would say me directly that’s incorrect, we say like this etc

  34. i’m like shameless regarding language mistakes
    Ok, then one important difference:
    say [something]
    say [something] *to* me
    tell me [something]
    So:
    who would say *to* me directly “that’s incorrect, we say *it* like this”
    I’ve never thought about these differences between “say” and “tell”. If I were learning English, I would be annoyed at such a stupid complication. Oh well …

  35. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t know if “hothouse” is the right word for that

    Greenhouse? As in greenhouse effect?

    I’ve never thought about these differences between “say” and “tell”. If I were learning English, I would be annoyed at such a stupid complication. Oh well …

    Interestingly, I grasped that distinction right away and never had problems with it.

  36. Thanks, GS! I’ll remember that

  37. Why does anyone care about Faux Noise?
    Not necessarily “care about” in the sense of ‘feel affection/respect for’ or ‘take responsibility for keeping healthy’, but certainly in the sense of ‘pay attention to its audience, who might be inspired by it to vote‘.
    Complacency towards the FoxGoebbels/Wall Street Pravda ‘accumulation = freedom’ consensus (and its cultural-’conservative’ button-pushing issue confusers) is unwisely smug, David M.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    OK, do care. Just point and laugh.

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