I keep forgetting to mention an incident that happened the other day while my wife and I were waiting in the waiting room (in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks). It was a tiny waiting room, with two chairs across from us and three on our side (one of them strategically placed beneath the receptionist’s window so that it was unusable), and when two women entered and sat opposite us it was impossible not to overhear their conversation. One of them was eighty (she gave her birthdate to the receptionist), the other perhaps in her forties—they were on good terms but didn’t seem to be close friends or relatives (the younger woman said “my husband” rather than mention him by name). There were some striking moments, as when the octogenarian said “They give you last rites in the machine that kills you” (and no, I don’t know what she was talking about), but the one of Languagehat relevance came a little later, when the younger woman was telling a story and the older one interrupted: “You made a mistake.” The younger woman looked puzzled. “You said ‘all them boys.’ It should be those: ‘all those boys.'” “All those boys,” the other repeated obediently, with an air of gratitude, and continued her story.
It was the perfect distillation of prescriptivism, the pure essence. This was not a parent or teacher correcting a child, preparing him or her for the demands of society, nor was it an editor fixing up a bit of wayward prose; there was no rational excuse for it, no clarification of an ambiguous reference or anything else that might fall under the “communication” rubric trotted out by the mavens as they insist on their shibboleths. This was two adults talking as equals, communication was perfect, a story was being told, and yet this woman felt the need to interrupt the storyteller with what from any rational standpoint was a completely gratuitous “correction.” And yet neither party felt it as such; the older woman clearly expected her interlocutor to accept the rebuke without demur, and she was not disappointed. If I could understand exactly what was happening there on both ends, I would have a better handle on what usage griping is all about. But I don’t.
While I’m here, let me apologize for the outage this morning; my domain had expired (warnings were sent to a defunct e-mail address, it’s a long story), and I had some anxious moments before gandi.net, my domain name provider, fixed things, excellent fellows that they are. I was terrified some internet vulture was sitting around just waiting to scoop up my helpless domain and I’d never get it back; I had to contemplate the horrible prospect of Life Without Languagehat. It made me realize how much a part of my life you are, Gentle Readers, in your capacities as charming players of conversational badminton as well as providers of nuggets of elusive fact—and I seek those nuggets as eagerly as my cat Pushkin seeks lost corks and artificial mice, I claw at Google and reference works as assiduously as he claws at the gap under the refrigerator (where such things so often wind up), and I am as grateful to those of you who provide them as Pushkin is to my wife when she fetches the broom, sweeps the handle under the fridge, and pulls out the ardently desired playthings. And if in aught I have given offense, I do heartily repent me. I seem to have lost at least one internet pal of whom I was inordinately fond, owing to some pronunciamento I don’t even remember pronouncing, and I’ve had enough friends and acquaintances drift away in the course of my life not to want to lose more. I grew up arguing with brothers and friends, and self-assured ideamongering is the stuff of lively conversation to me, to be enjoyed as sportier folk enjoy a good game of handball; I tend to forget that when the ball bounces wrong, people can get hurt. If bluff and bluster be a fault, God help the wicked! No, my good readers; banish Kos, banish Wonkette, banish Instapundit: but for sweet Languagehat, kind Languagehat, true Languagehat, valiant Languagehat, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Languagehat, banish not him your company!