Don’t Say That.

Edwin Battistella has a sensible post for OUPblog on how, as Edward Sapir once wrote, “All grammars leak.” He describes one example:

Many of our most common words have come to serve more than a single grammatical role, so a word serving one part of speech will often have a homonym—a grammatical doppelganger—that serves as a different part of speech. Often this arises from what is called functional shift, when we take a noun and make it into a verb as in to adult or to gym. This shiftiness makes it hard, and perhaps impossible, to think of a word as having just one categorization.

All well and good, and he gives a bunch of examples, but what stopped me in my tracks and made me want to post it was what came next:

Here’s an example. Recently, a friend told me that her daughter’s teacher had told her to never use the word that. She wondered if the advice was legit.

I’ve heard and seen a lot of peevery in my day, but “never use the word that” is a new one, and not only self-evidently idiotic but opaque, to me at least. Anybody know what might be going on here?

Comments

  1. What is this verb adult? It is known neither to the OED3 nor to Urban Dictionary. A quick google shows only a show called How to Adult.

  2. It means “act as an adult should,” i.e. pay your bills, have a savings account, do your laundry, cook for yourself, etc. I don’t recall seeing it more than, say, 5 years ago, but if someone said to me “I’m tired of dating guys who refuse to adult” I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

    As for the peevery, after eliminating the impossible I conclude that the daughter has the teacher for Oulipo class. Elementary.

    (But seriously, the piece goes on to explain: “That can also be a straight up subordinating conjunction introducing a clause functioning as a noun: I told you that I would be right back. This that is the one that writers often cut to make prose move along more quickly: I told you I would be right back is often preferred on grounds of conciseness. This is what my friends’ daughter’s teacher was talking about.” And actually I have also heard the advice to always omit that in constructions like this, as sub-advice to “Omit needless words”.)

  3. Ah, I missed that bit in my baffled outrage. Thanks!

  4. An inevitable peeving commenter says,

    I was disappointed to see common errors in your examples. “Have you seen the person that was just here.” If you are referring to people, you should use “who.” “I saw the person who you mentioned.” Who should be “whom.”

    This type of that-relativizer peevers forbid that whenever who or which can be used instead

  5. forbid that whenever who or which can be used instead

    I wouldn’t put it that way. Standard peevery does forbid that when it can be replaced with who(m), but on the other hand it forbids which when it can be replaced with that.

  6. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Never say that we should never say that again!

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Sometimes it isn’t the teacher’s fault, the student might misunderstand and only catch one part of the recommendation, if at all. One student told me that you could not say “funnier”. Of course the teacher had said “funner”. Another thought you could not say “persons”, the plural of “person” being “people”. And many more such!

  8. Eli Nelson says:

    you could not say “persons”, the plural of “person” being “people”.

    This is actually useful, if simplified, advice for non-native speakers, who are more likely to use “persons” in an inappropriate context than to avoid using it in contexts where it would be appropriate (which are quite rare). I think it’s possible the teacher had not even mentioned the possibility of using “persons,” and I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a mistake so much as a “lies to children” situation.

    i have seen references on line to a supposed rule that “persons” is more correct when preceded by an exact number (“five persons”); it would actually be outrageous to teach this as a rule, as it does not describe modern usage at all. (For example, it’s mentioned in this Daily Writing Tips article–see the comments for more truly astounding examples of clueless, misguided peevery.)

    Edit: I couldn’t resist quoting one comment that helpfully explains proper usage:

    The general rule of thumb that I use would be to eliminate the additional individuals in a sentence and listen to how it reads.

    For example:
    “John and Ann are my favorite persons at the party.”
    If you eliminate John, the sentence would read, “Ann is my favorite person at the party,” not, “Ann is my favorite people at the party.”

    It’s just like the difference between “I” and “me.” You might hear people say, “The coach played John, Ann, and I in the last quarter.” This may sound correct, but it isn’t. If you eliminate John and Ann, the sentence would read, “The coach played I in the last quarter.” Everyone would recognize that using “I” is incorrect and that “me” would be the proper choice.

    Since people is a singular noun, you would use it in cases where you are talking about a group that collectively make a single unit. For example: “Of the people in the room, John and Ann are my favorite persons.” The people in the room are a group. John and Ann are two individuals that can be separated from the group.

  9. D Syrovy says:

    I find it rather heartless to eliminate so many people (or persons) for the sake of false logic

  10. Good lord. The ideas people have about language…

  11. wonderclock says:

    As a college writing instructor, I can shed a little light on the proscription against “that.”

    It’s not the word itself that’s proscribed; it’s its use as a subordinating conjunction or complementizer. Over the years, many of my students have told me that they’ve been taught never to use the word as I’ve done earlier in this sentence.

    I think the thinking, such as it is, goes like this: If you can leave it out in some cases (as of course you can, as I’ve done at the beginning of the previous sentence), you should leave it out in all cases.

    I tell my students that this is yet another item on the long list of things they’ve been taught that are wrong.

  12. I also prefer to avoid it and find it is usually easy to rephrase things better. E.g., “People what say this sort of thing want their heads lookin at.”

  13. I tell my students that this is yet another item on the long list of things they’ve been taught that are wrong.

    Good for you! Keep smiting the many-headed dragon of senseless proscriptions.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    senseless proscriptions

    This may be a case of “recency fallacy”, but I seem to run into more and more cases where prOscription/prOscribe are being used with the meaning of prEscription/prEscribe. After all, “pro” means ‘for’, not ‘against’. I think that these words should be avoided altogether, or at least the prO words should be. A misunderstanding of “The doctor is pr@scribing me X” could lead to a serious, even life and death, situation.

  15. I was using the word with its dictionary definition, and I do not see any ambiguity, or for that matter any need to avoid a perfectly good word.

  16. Is that the ‘that’ that one should omit?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    LH, of course you were using the word prEscription unambiguously, but my point is that a lot of people are using prOscription instead, and the “pro” form seems to be gaining ground. I would prEscribe avoiding prOscription since many people misunderstand it.

    It occurs to me that much prEscriptive grammar could be redefined as prOscriptive.

  18. the “pro” form seems to be gaining ground.

    I haven’t been noticing this; where do you see it? I’m sure there have always been occasional misuses and confusion, but “proscription” is a fairly uncommon word, and I find it hard to believe it’s in enough people’s minds to be used as a substitute. Writing “e” for “o” or the reverse is a simple spelling error.

  19. I think readers and writers are unlikely to confuse “proscribe” and “prescribe”, except perhaps for undetected mis-autocorrections. But they are homophones for some speakers. Oxford warns against confusion.

  20. Jim (another one) says:

    This kind of thing is what Geoffrey Pullum called “the linguistically-improbable English-based conlang that forbids starting sentences with conjunctions, or splitting verb phrases, or stranding prepositions.”
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3539

  21. marie-lucie says:

    mollymooly,

    Yes, the words are often homophones, like “principle” and “principal”, but they are also antonyms, which makes distinguishing them important. I rarely hear “proscription” in conversation, the word is not in everyday vocabulary like “prescription” is (almost always in the medical context), but recently I have seen “proscription” written in a number of newspaper and magazine articles when the meaning was clearly “prescription”.

  22. Is that the ‘that’ that one should omit?

    It’s said that that that is the that that one should omit, but on the other hand that it’s that that but not this that that should be omitted is that which makes that that that problematic.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    What other cases there are of pairs of antonyms that are nearly homophonous? The only example I can think of is French “au-dessus” and “au-dessous”.

    I think there are also a few cases of different senses of the same word developing into antonyms, but I can’t recall any specifically. (Though it does bring to mind my old joke about an English word that can mean three different things – two of which are “bad” and “average”, and the third one came up in this joke already.)

  24. Eli Nelson says:

    What other cases there are of pairs of antonyms that are nearly homophonous?

    In English, hypertension and hypotension (especially in non-rhotic accents), along with all the other pairs of words formed with “hyper-” and “hypo-.” This can lead to real problems if the two are confused in a medical context (relevant link: “Commonly used, easily confused: let’s eliminate hyper and hypo“).

  25. Yeah, I think that was brought up here not long ago. I don’t know what alternatives the authors of that piece are advocating, but my suggestion would simply be to encourage people to say hypo with /oʊ/.

  26. I was talking about that that that that that modifies.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    French “au-dessus” and “au-dessous”.

    I can see that they could be homophonous for most foreigners (unless they have a vowel distinction in their own languages, but I don’t find them homophonous at all! There is a phrase sens dessus dessous meaning literally “direction above below”, that is “upside down (and down side up”), used mostly to suggest a “big mess” in a room. (It is pronounced in 3 syllables, the -e-‘s being elided, and the final s’s in each word are all silent, so “sandsudsou”).

  28. It seems to me that that teacher thinks that, when in doubt, leave it out.

    Or would she say it seems to me she thinks, when in doubt, leave it out?

  29. To be fair, January First-of-May did say “nearly homophonous”.

    A building can be raised, or razed. IME people that mean the latter use “razed to the ground” to be clear.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    an English word that can mean three different things – two of which are “bad” and “average”

    “I’ll beat you up bad, but good!”
    – Donald Duck to his nephews, back in the day. Lost without a trace in German translation.

  31. Enantiosemy is the Greekest name Wikipedia lists for homonym-antonyms, so I guess pseudoenantiosemy would extend this to almost-homonyms.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    “What other cases there are of pairs of antonyms that are nearly homophonous?”

    “Sanction.” Though admittedly, rather a pair of exact homophones that are nearly antonymous …

    (1) “permit”
    (2) “impose penalties on” “remove authorisation for”

    No actual ambiguity in my usage because the constructions are different, but it’s not hard to find (or concoct) ambiguous examples. The sense (2) seems to be characteristic especially of (UK?) officialese, and speakers of that debased tongue often don’t care enough about the people on the receiving end of their ukazes to be much troubled by any ambiguity.

  33. Rodger C says:

    sens dessus dessous

    Marie-Lucie, thank you! I’d seen that phrase only as sans dessus dessous (in a quotation of a Verne title in an English sentence), and though I inferred its meaning, I couldn’t construe it at all.

  34. On the topic of auto-antonyms, a (counter-)peeve of mine is when people claim that “literally”, in current usage, is one of them – in other words, that the well-known non-standard use of “literally” means “figuratively”. As far as I know, no one has ever used “literally” to mean “figuratively”: plenty of people use it as a semantially bleached intensifier, just like “really” or “seriously”, but that’s not the same thing.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    “Sanction.” Though admittedly, rather a pair of exact homophones that are nearly antonymous …

    Cleave is another example of that, right?

  36. Historically cleave is the merger of two separate OE words, whereas sanction is the result of a single word going separate ways as a verb ‘punish’ and a noun ‘approval’, which then gave birth to a denominal verb and a deverbal noun.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Rodger: sens/sans dessus dessous

    The funny thing is that in sans ‘without’ the final s is not sounded unless folllowed by a vowel, as in sans-abri ‘homeless’ (sounding like ‘sanzabri’), but on the other hand, sens normally ends in the sound s, but not in the phrase in question.

  38. “As far as I know, no one has ever used “literally” to mean “figuratively”: plenty of people use it as a semantially bleached intensifier, just like “really” or “seriously”, but that’s not the same thing.”

    I hear people say things like:

    “I couldn’t believe it! I literally died, right then and there!”

    “My reply was classic! I literally kicked him in the nuts, right in front of everyone!”

  39. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Rick: that’s precisely an example of what Lazar was saying. You can replace literally with really or seriously in any of those sentences, and they would still make pragmatic sense. However, ?I figuratively died, right then and there! would be infelicitous: the speaker’s intention is to emphasise the event, not minimise it.

    If literally and figuratively had actually become synonymous, one could write the whole world according to that account is divided into two parts, the righteous and the unrighteous, literally called the sheep and the goats, and a sentence like Spanish-dominant bilinguals [process] literally used idioms faster than figuratively used ones would be impossible to interpret.

  40. @Alon

    “that’s precisely an example of what Lazar was saying.”

    No shit. The purpose of my post was to give examples of it as I hear them.

    Anyway, you can easily see how they actually are synonymous in these cases. You could replace one for the other and have the same meaning (but less emphasis), as long as the audience had a modern and broad vocabulary of ~30,000 English words.

    This is the same for your other examples. ‘Really’ means ‘not really, but with emphasis’.

    This does not mean that it is synonymous for all usage, which is your implication. That is rarely true for any word.

  41. Tim May says:

    A quick google shows only a show called How to Adult.

    You’d have done better to search for “adulting”, which gives me ~1,850,000 unambiguously verb-based hits and opens with an Urban Dictionary definition, rather than “to adult”, which has many false positives like “Essential guide to adult social care”, &c.

  42. @David:
    “I’ll beat you up bad, but good!”
    – Donald Duck to his nephews, back in the day. Lost without a trace in German translation.

    There are things like this: “Ihr seid mir aber ein rechtes linkes Pack !” Or: “Ihr seid falsche Fünfziger, aber so richtige !”

  43. Der Schein ist echt falsch. 😉

  44. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Rick:

    No shit. The purpose of my post was to give examples of it as I hear them.

    I may not have explained myself clearly. What I’m saying is that your examples precisely illustrate usages of literally that are not synonymous with figuratively.

    If they were, people would write things like I figuratively died, right then and there!. But they don’t.

  45. They don’t literally write things like I figuratively died, right then and there!. Instead they write.I literally died, right then and there!, intending it in a figurative sense.

  46. “It’s just like the difference between ‘I’ and ‘me.’ You might hear people say, ‘The coach played John, Ann, and I in the last quarter.’ This may sound correct, but it isn’t. If you eliminate John and Ann, the sentence would read, ‘The coach played I in the last quarter.’ Everyone would recognize that using ‘I’ is incorrect and that ‘me’ would be the proper choice.”

    Er, not quite.

    Language peevers do love these sorts of silly substitution exercises. You can’t prove the grammar of one statement is “incorrect” by offering a different, entirely hypothetical statement. No native English speaker – even those who might use the “I hypercorrection” elsewhere – is likely to ever say something like ‘The coach played I in the last quarter”.

    I could just as easily claim “aren’t I?” is incorrect because we don’t say “I aren’t”.

  47. @Alon

    “If they were, people would write things like I figuratively died, right then and there!. But they don’t.”

    But they could say that, and it would mean exactly the same thing, except they would have to be yelling, or otherwise changing their tone to indicate emphasis.

    In fact, many in the up and coming hipper crowd are indeed saying things like this, substituting figuratively for the ‘incorrect’ literally.

    In that case, is the new figuratively not even a synonym of the original figuratively?

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Der Schein ist echt falsch. 😉

    Similarly, the widespread intensifier voll can be used to express that something is “fully full” or “fully empty” (voll voll, voll leer)… yay, grammaticalization.

  49. David Fried says:

    I agree with D. Syrovy. As so often, the best way to avoid the problem is to rephrase the sentence, for example: “I didn’t like anybody at the party.”

  50. Ian Press says:

    Crumbs, I always pronounce(d) ‘sens dessus dessous’ with an [s] at the end of ‘sens’; didn’t even voice it! Thank you.

  51. Ian Press says:

    And I’ve never massively worried about ‘that’, ‘who(m)’, ‘which’, and ‘zero’. I’m a native speaker of English and have always left it that way, no pretending to be a grammarian or whatever. I did get a thrill many years ago when I ‘found out’ that the noun-clause introducer ‘that’ might just be seen as a demonstrative adjective. I’m throwing terminology out of the window, as you can see.

  52. And I’ve never massively worried about ‘that’, ‘who(m)’, ‘which’, and ‘zero’. I’m a native speaker of English and have always left it that way, no pretending to be a grammarian or whatever.

    And that’s how it should be! One of the great lessons of linguistics, the single most important one to drum into people’s heads from the first years of school, is that native speakers of any language do not need lessons in order to speak their own language grammatically — that’s automatic. (What they do need lessons for is to internalize stupid, pointless, invented rules that get passed off as grammar.)

  53. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Rick:

    they could say that

    Linguistics is not in the business of observing what people could say. If people don’t use figuratively in the contexts in which they use literally, then describing the terms as synonymous is an empirical falsehood.

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