FREEMAN’S FAREWELL.

When I saw Jan Freeman’s latest (and last) language column or the Boston Globe, I feared the worst—that, like the NY Times, the Globe was turning its back on language as a regular topic. But I was quickly reassured; Jan says “I decided … that after 600-plus language columns I was ready to step off the print treadmill. The Word column will continue in these pages, written by my current coauthor, Erin McKean, and others; I’ll stay on the language beat, on a less structured schedule, at my blog, Throw Grammar from the Train” (which I urge everyone to bookmark if they haven’t already). Her final piece consists mainly of a look back at the changes since 1997, when she began the column:

Even if the questions haven’t changed, the resources available to help answer them have expanded vastly. For word sleuths and other researchers, 1997 was still the old days, a time when newspapers were just getting connected to the Internet. Staff members could search the Globe archives and occasionally the Nexis news database (I think it was charging by the minute back then). Google had been named but not launched; the Oxford English Dictionary was available on disk, but wasn’t yet online; today’s huge English corpora — collections of searchable text — were nowhere to be found. …
The Internet also allows everyone to talk back, instantly and publicly, to the usage mavens. The New York Times’s style editor, Philip Corbett, told his blog readers last year that only a disease can be “diagnosed” — you can’t say “I was diagnosed with strep.” An M.D. promptly responded in the comments, advising Corbett to forget the outdated shibboleth. (And I can add, thanks to Google Books, that we’ve been diagnosing people as well as diseases for more than a century.)

I like her conclusion:

And that’s the best part, I’ve discovered, of digging deeper into usage. Whether your source is old books (available online!) or new blogs, it’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year, long after popular usage has moved on. There’s probably no hope of teaching the world to conjugate lay and lie, but we can have a wonderful time — I promise — finding out why it’s impossible.

Erin’s still doing the column, Jan’s still doing her blog, life is good (except, of course, at the Times).

Comments

  1. Men effectively – i.e. without necessarily being conscious of the verbal distinction – know the difference between “lay” and “lie” better than women. German even adds a helpful prefix for those in doubt: flachlegen as contrasted with liegen.

  2. Roger Depledge says:

    So at least one style editor follows, and presumably enforces, outdated shibboleths.
    Can anyone in the business tell us how, if ever, house style sheets are revised?

  3. Roger: Much of the US press bases its style on the AP style book. I’m not sure how individual items are updated, but I presume it is by notes on the AP news wires which all AP members/subscribers would see. The whole book is re-issued regularly. Individual in-house style usually evolves piecemeal as new terms are adopted.

  4. Individual in-house style usually evolves piecemeal as new terms are adopted.
    Yes, and headaches and disagreements are a constant accompaniment.
    What’s the right way to spell Koran / Qur’an?
    Should the name of a book be italicized or placed in quotation marks?
    Is what I’m posting to a web site, a Web site or a website?

  5. Should the name of a book be italicized or placed in quotation marks?
    I would not think this would be a problem; I mean, it’s one or the other by fiat, and that’s surely addressed in all style guides. Why would there be any argument about it? It’s not the kind of thing that evolves (I would think). Mind you, I think it’s dumb to put it in quotation marks, but if I worked at the New Yorker, I’d just have to get used to it.

  6. I mean, it’s one or the other by fiat, and that’s surely addressed in all style guides. Why would there be any argument about it? It’s not the kind of thing that evolves (I would think). Mind you, I think it’s dumb to put it in quotation marks, but if I worked at the New Yorker, I’d just have to get used to it.
    The situation is similar in the IT business, with regard to various aspects of programming style. Although there are arguments about the “best” way to code this and that, there is no evolution. The goats and the sheep must swim in the same gene pool.
    Unfortunately there is no way to ship the sheep off to a distant island so that they can mutate independently. I too must accomodate myself to fiatricious rules and regulations that differ from one project to another. It doesn’t bother me, because it has taught me how to sew a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

  7. I teach my college students lay and lie. Anything that makes them focus on language qua language is a novelty, and is good.

  8. Men effectively – i.e. without necessarily being conscious of the verbal distinction – know the difference between “lay” and “lie” better than women. German even adds a helpful prefix for those in doubt: flachlegen as contrasted with liegen.
    Stu, you are saying that men more reliably get the lay/lie distinction right than women? I don’t think I believe that.
    By the way, you can say “lay flat” in English, too, but that won’t stop some people from saying, for example, “lie it down flat”.
    And note that German doesn’t lay (ha!) the same terrible trap as English. I mean the one where the past tense of one (transitive, regular) verb looks and sounds like the present tense of the other (intransitive, irregular) verb.

  9. Sorry, I mean the present tense of one (transitive, regular) verb looks and sounds like the past tense of the other (intransitive, irregular) verb.

  10. I believe Guttery Stu, as his name implied, was making a schoolboy joke. I recall some sniggering the first time we were introduced to Lays of Ancient Rome.

  11. Oh, I see, he’s slinging slang over my head. Well, Google translates “flachlegen” as “lie flat”, so I give up.

  12. Sorry about that, empty. I had assumed that people would pass over my comment in agonies of grown-up embarassment. Flachlegen means … well … “to fasten together, as parts of an Ikea cabinet”.

  13. Formally it can mean “lay (out) flat”, or in another context even “to make (them) lie down”, for instance someone in shock after a traffic accident. But in this last situation there would be radio interference from the other meaning, so one would tend to hear something like sorgen Sie dafür, daß die Person flach liegt, in eine liegende Stellung gebracht wird, sich vorsichtig hinlegt.

  14. It’s a bit like the labours of Hercules, but after he’s finished the book of Mandelstam translations I wouldn’t mind at all if Language were to write a style book. Then we could say “Right, it IS dumb, I’m never going to use quotations round a book name again!” and then go on to advice about commas, instead of having to pick up these crumbs piecemeal.

  15. The reason that AP style uses quotations around the names of books is that AP wires couldn’t transmit markup for italics, and most newspapers didn’t have italic fonts in the old days.

  16. Her contributions will be missed, but hopefully there will be a chance for continued commentary and dialogue to follow up.

  17. A workaround to avoid having to change to a different font that you sometimes see in old books is printing emphasized words with the letters spaced out. For some reason, I wonder why, this was far more common in German printing than in either the U.S. or Britain, but you do see it in English language now and then.

  18. Vasha: Because there was no italic equivalent of Fraktur. Italic was known, of course, but only used in the specific context of Antiqua (non-Fraktur) fonts. Letterspacing, then, took on the role of italics, as in the famous remark about the conduct of Georgi Dimitrov during his trial for complicity in the Reichstag fire: “Es gibt  e i n  Mann in Deutschland heute, und er ist Bulgare”; that is, “one man”, not simply “a man”.

  19. Es gibt e i n e n Mann …. That’s embarassingly interesting, John, about the role of letterspacing to “stress” words in Fraktur simply because no italics were available. I say embarassing, because it’s almost obvious when one is told that. Previously I had been content merely to gripe to myself about the spacing, because it seemed to be merely a willful, annoying deviation from what one is accustomed to in other fonts – like Fraktur itself, if you ask me.
    The German printing term for this letterspacing technique is sperren: a spaced-out word is gesperrt. I’ve always found that meaning of the word curious, because gesperrt otherwise means (on the average) “banned”, “blocked” (a toll bar or Schlagbaum is a kind of Sperre, for instance).
    I just checked in Duden, which explains this meaning of sperren with the word “spationieren“. What that ?? I read on, and find that it comes from Latin spatium = “space”. This gives me furiously to think.
    In the old lead-typing days, letters were mounted on strips of lead set close together all in a row – like fence palings, which are also barriers. A space lead is just a paling without a letter perched on it. Could that be the idea behind sperren = to space letters ?

  20. Something else just occurred to me in connection with sperren, namely one of the more-or-less-antonyms aufsperren (unlock, prop open = block in open position, as the lid of a wooden chest). Somebody’s mouth is weit aufgesperrt when it is gaping wide, as if held open by something. So perhaps an association with (auseinander) gesperrt was at work here, i.e. the letters are being “propped apart”.

  21. Well, you also have German sperrig “bulky, unwieldy”. I assume behind this is the concept of something being too long or broad to fit through a passage and blocking it.

  22. Could it simply be that this spacing of the letters is reminiscent of a picket fence?

  23. empty: I believe that is what I said above. Although now I’m not sure that’s plausible for the German, since I don’t know whether picket fences ever existed in a big way in Germany. I think I am being misled by my images – in any case, a picket fence is not something one would call a Sperre.

  24. hans: Well, you also have German sperrig “bulky, unwieldy”. I assume behind this is the concept of something being too long or broad to fit through a passage and blocking it.
    Yes, I thought of sperrig, but couldn’t quite see how that would apply to “putting spaces between”. The overall effect, of course, is a bulky appearance. Still: why gesperrt rather than sperrig ? Don’t you find this meaning of gesperrt rather strange, in comparison with the other basic meanings “blocked (out), locked (up), banned …” ?

  25. Stu: You compared the wooden holders of the lead type letters to the fenceposts, whereas I compared the letters themselves. Same difference, I guess.
    Do we know what sort of barrier/gate/fence was the first to be called Sperre?

  26. They use the spacing thing in Russian too, or they used to; it’s called разрядка [razryadka].

  27. empty: the wooden holders of the lead type letters
    D’oh. I was imagining the holders to be of lead too. That wouldn’t have worked very well …
    Do we know what sort of barrier/gate/fence was the first to be called Sperre?
    Must be quite a ways back, since the word is related to the Latin word for a hunting spear:

    Speer, der; -[e]s, -e [mhd. sper, spar(e), ahd. sper, eigtl. = Sparren, Stange, verw. mit lat. sparum, sparus = kurzer Jagdspeer]

  28. разрядка
    GooT says “discharge” ??

  29. Isn’t Sperre cognate with English spar, in the sense of a bar? Which would seem to perhaps lead to both sperren as ‘space out with bars’ and sperren as ‘lock’ in Computer Engineering (via ‘bar’ for putting a beam across a doorway).

  30. MMcM: Yes ! ‘Space out with bars’ puts it most plausibly.

  31. GooT says “discharge” ??
    It’s one of those multivalent words. The root ряд ‘row, (straight) line; order, arrangement’ is capable of wide extension, as is the prefix раз- (‘division into parts,’ ‘distribution,’ ‘action in reverse,’ ‘cessation,’ ‘intensification’); put them together and ‘discharge (of a gun or battery)’ and ‘spacing out’ are just two possibilities (it can also, for example, mean ‘détente’).

  32. “Multivalent”. Hmpf. Recently I have pondered certain German words that are like that – in fact there seem to be no end of them. But only briefly did I ponder, because the more I thought, the more confused I became. It appeared “theoretically unlikely” that one could ever use such words effectively to make particular sense.
    It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that English has many instances of the same thing. One knows how to use the words, and in general they are understood with the particular meaning intended in the particular context – but the kind of “theory of how that might work” that I try to apply leads to confusion. So it’s the wrong theory. Still: do lexicographers often end up in the looney bin ?

  33. Still: do lexicographers often end up in the looney bin?
    When talking about lexicographers in asylums one certainly needs to mention William Chester Minor, but he was put in the asylum before he became a lexicographer.
    On sperren,Grimms’s Deutsches Wörterbuch quotes “mit sparren, balken versehen” as the oldest meaning;
    “der eigentliche gebrauchsumfang des hd. sperren entwickelt sich anscheinend im anschlusz an die bedeutung: durch sparren, balken festhalten oder abschränken. diese differenziert sich nach zwei richtungen mit mannigfachen verzweigungen: 1) abschlieszen, verschlieszen, hemmen. … 2) auseinander thun oder halten, dehnen, spannen.”

  34. certain German words that are like that
    Yes, after I posted my comment it occurred to me that I should have added a preemptive “Anyone conversant with the German language should not raise an eyebrow at such semantic shenanigans.” But really, it’s a common phenomenon in all languages (that I know of); language is simply not a logical “one word per meaning, one meaning per word” thing, no matter how much certain philosophers would like it to be so. We humans are very good at using context.

  35. put in the asylum before he became a lexicographer
    Not so. Winchester makes no mention of it, but Minor worked under James D. Dana, the mineralogist, on scientific vocabulary in the great 1864 American Dictionary of the English Language. I’m pretty sure he’s explicitly acknowledged there, but I can’t prove it because bizarrely there do not seem to be any scans of it online.

  36. Okay, here we go.

    It has already been stated that Professor James D. Dana had several years since been employed in the departments of Geology, Natural History, etc., to prepare new definitions, to recast the old, and to select new words. At his suggestion, William C. Minor, M. D., was employed to render assistance in these departments, and he has labored with great ability and zeal in connection with Professor Dana, who has, in every instance, carefully reviewed and expressly sanctioned his work.

    Also, Minor donated a folio of Shakespeare to his alma mater (Yale), their first. The Professor and the Madman prefers a simple tale.

  37. That’s Winchester for you. He’s a simple man.

  38. @ MMcM – good to know about Minor’s earlier work. So maybe lexicography does cause mental disturbance? ;-)

  39. rootlesscosmo says:

    As I recall, the Penguin editions of Shaw’s plays used wide spacing to indicate emphasis. I thought when I read them that this was another of Shaw’s quirks, like his idiosyncratic use of colons and his insistence on “shew” for “show,” but maybe Penguins had limited font resources. Anyone know?

  40. That’s right. Italics were reserved for stage directions (and sometimes the personal pronoun I). But the Standard Edition used a different font (Baskerville) for words underlined in the manuscript instead.
    Shaw got his overall ideas about page layout, like wide margins and the elimination of mutton quads, from Morris. See, for instance, The Roots of the Mountains (use that large edition in the IA and don’t look at the GB version, where the scanner didn’t have the pages in straight and the desired effects are entirely negated by curling.

  41. Thanks for the correction, Grumbly. I was busy getting the  s right and forgot to get the inflection right.

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