NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY.

I wouldn’t accord the cockamamie notion of “National Grammar Day” any attention except that it inspired a lively column by Nathan Bierma, who says he is “one of those people who cares about the difference between a gerund and a participle, between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause” but has come to realize that “most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.”

So I can’t join the witch hunt of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (which goes by the unappetizing acronym of SPOGG), which is sponsoring National Grammar Day as a chance to flag any violation of standard English usage in any situation.
“If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper,” urges SPOGG at nationalgrammarday.com. “If your local newscaster says ‘Between you and I,’ set him straight with a friendly e-mail.” Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary. They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed.
The policewoman behind National Grammar Day and SPOGG is Martha Brockenbrough, who serves as grammar guru for Microsoft’s Encarta Web site (encarta.msn.com), where she writes a column called “Grumpy Martha’s Guide to Grammar and Usage.”
There she urges readers to avoid using an adverb with a word like “unique” (too bad for our founding fathers, who dreamed of “a more perfect union”), and to avoid saying “decimate” unless you mean “reduce by one tenth” (if 10 percent of educated English speakers know and care about that distinction, I’ll give Grumpy Martha one tenth of my candy bar).
Brockenbrough reprimands pop stars for grammar gaffes in song lyrics, including Bryan Adams for singing “if she ever found out about you and I” (it should be “you and me,” she says) — even though that’s the best way to rhyme with the line before it: “She says her love for me could never die.” And she takes Elvis to task — is no one sacred? — for singing “I’m all shook up” instead of the proper “all shaken up.”
Raise your hand if you prefer this correction. That’s what I thought.

He goes easier on the malign stupidity of this kind of thing than I would (“self-righteous, irritating and misinformed” is a mere slap on the wrist), but I heartily applaud his attitude.


I found the column via Arnold Zwicky at Language Log; while Zwicky has good things to say about “the assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and therefore impede communication” and “the very odd view of ‘communication’, in which respecting and honoring ‘the rules of English’ is what permits people to convey meaning to others,” but he finishes up with what to me is a misguided excursus on how English suffers because “there’s essentially no one to speak with any authority for rational reform, no one to accord some sort of official status to variants”; he seems to think we need some sort of “official regulatory body” to guide us. The idea that bodies like the Académie française do anything other than try to enforce fading standards of “correctness” is so bizarre I can only suppose it stems from the kind of wishful thinking that made so many people fall for the technocratic ideal back in the 1930s. Freedom is a better guide than any “properly constituted” body of “experts.”

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Stan Freberg did a bit in the 1950′s about a radio network standards exec insisting on correcting song lyrics for usage and tact. The result as I recall began:
    Elderly Man River
    That Elderly Man River
    He must know something
    But he doesn’t say anything…

  2. In the post following Zwicky’s at Language Log, Geoff Pullum does a similar thing with some Elvis song titles. It’s funny.
    And yes,”self-righteous, irritating and misinformed” is indeed a mere slap on the wrist. Tweaking this morning, I followed the link to the Grammar Day site and from there found another link to something called Grammarblog — actually subtitled “We’re not neurotic, just correct.” Here’s a sample:
    “I’ve lived in the North East of England for nearly eight years, and at some point in the last four or five, I began to notice what I assumed to be a quaint dialectical turn of phrase. Let me give you an example:
    Tom: “Two sausage rolls and a steak bake, please.”
    Greggs member of staff: “That’s seven pence please, pet.”
    Tom: “Here you go: the exact change.”
    Greggs member of staff: “Thanks now.”
    Erm, I’m sorry? Thanks now? Why explicitly thank me now? Is there a regional need for temporal clarity and has it embarrassingly passed me by? Should I thank someone later or earlier in certain social circumstances?”
    He then recreates a few more conversations, calls the way these apparently kind and polite people spoke “a plague,” and ends by exhorting his readers: “If you hear it, correct it.”
    I was tempted to comment but didn’t see the point.

  3. Arnold, Geoff, and Nathan have my complete agreement. The radio show I co-host is participating in NGD, but as you’ll hear on this weekend’s episode, we’re using it as an opportunity say, “Hey, whoa, grammar! What awesome work you do!”
    We’re not trotting out any of the erroneous injunctions. We’re simply celebrating language, a pretty cool human tool that has incredible fault tolerance, and encouraging people to limit their public judgment of other people’s language to occasions when a) they are paid to do it (copyeditors, for example); b) they are teaching someone to speak (parents or professors of English); c) when they are asked to do it; and/or d) when they know for certain they’re right, not just because “it seems wrong” or “Mrs. Frobisher in fifth grade always said…”

  4. Even to my Italian ears the pedantry about the use of ‘decimate’ sounds ridiculous.
    In Italian the cognate verb ‘decimare’ totally lost its semantic connection with the number ten and simply means ‘to reduce greatly’, even if it’s clear its connection to the word ‘decimo’ (

  5. I hereby propose a counter-holiday. March 4th, the Antigrammar Day. We will split infinitives, let prepositions dangle, use ‘which’ and ‘that’ indiscriminately and do all those things that drive people like Ms. Brockenbrough off the wall. Then we go for a beer.
    Oh and in the spirit of the upcoming Antigrammar Day, I hereby offer what has become my favorite summary of this issue:

    In fact, the people who write the manuals [on correct grammar and usage] are more akin to doctors than mechanics because they take the view that a great deal of language use is unhealthy and that a large proportion of the population is linguistically sick without realizing it. Having persuaded others that they are unwell, they then offer remedies in the form of usage tablets of their own devising. Talk or write like me, they say, and you will be well again. The word doctor was wrong: these are the equivalent of 19th century quacks.
    David Crystal “How Language Works“, p. 422 (Chapter 69 “How Not To Look After Languages”)

  6. d) when they know for certain they’re right
    The problem is, these grammar quacks are always dead certain and no amount of evidence will convince them they are wrong.

  7. OK, but could we maybe have an exception and allow criticism of people who use apostrophes to form plurals of ordinary words? There’s a restaurant down the street from my house with a large sign advertising “Wing’s” and “Sub’s.” The traditional rules about apostrophe use aren’t hard, and this sort of thing just looks weird to me.
    The last time I was in Germany I noticed a tendency there toward using apostrophes to form possessives on signs, even for German names. They’ll be sorry.

  8. Funny, I always thought that decimate meant to reduce to one tenth not by one tenth. It makes more sense to me in the way the word is used today. Reducing to 90% of what you started with doesn’t seem like very much decimation.

  9. Can I even say “very much decimation?” And where is the proper place to put the question mark in the previous sentence? The sentence I’m quoting doesn’t have one so it seems to me it should go outside the quotes. I’m sure Grumpy Martha would know.

  10. rootlesscosmo says:

    The origin of “decimate” was explained to me as a Roman army disciplinary measure: killing every tenth man by way of punishing the entire unit. In which case “reducing by 10%”–i.e. each soldier facing a one-in-ten chance of death–would be pretty severe.

  11. when they know for certain they’re right
    What bulbul said. These people always know for certain they’re right.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    What. Zwicky wants to import the inanity of the Académie Française???
    In German, the orthography is regulated. But if anyone would dare to try to regulate the language itself — even though Written German is already a pretty artificial idiom –, they’d all be dead within three hours, heads staked to town gates and all.

  13. I don’t know why she bothered taking Elvis to task when the Beatles got away with song titles like “Within You Without You” (a nonsense in dire need of punctuation) and “A Hard Day’s Night” (which is illogical and confusing, and should therefore be amended to “A Night Spent Vigorously Working” or similar).

  14. At the risk of coming off all spammy, I wrote my own response to this little kerfluffle. I thought that line in the middle of the Bierma to be terribly interesting: “even though that’s the best way to rhyme with the line before it”. I said this:
    “But what that quote brings to mind is, in my mind, a better counter-argument: people have *better things to do* with their language than simply convey facts. … Everybody else, though, and I mean everybody, is answering to a series of more pressing concerns. Even when speaking prose, we are participating in aesthetic creation. Every utterance obeys rules of meter and rhythm as fundamental to language as its grammatical structure.

    Sometimes it makes a body really want to rap these critics on the head; don’t you see that people are speaking here? … Can you allow in your worldview the possibility that the greengrocer or urban youth has his own sense of language, and is actively wielding it, rather than simply trying and failing to follow all the rules?”
    If you want to read the rest, the link for my name leads to the post.
    Also, jamessai: I have to imagine that there is some overlap between the population that imagines slightly dialectical politeness to be a ‘plague’ and the population that feels the smug need to announce that they’ve just given exact change to a waiter. Just imagine! ‘Here you go? Why here? I’m not going anywhere! Yegods man, I’m sitting down for lord’s sake!” etc. etc.

  15. But if anyone would dare to try to regulate the language itself — even though Written German is already a pretty artificial idiom –, they’d all be dead within three hours, heads staked to town gates and all.
    Will somebody please text me before that party? Thanks.
    If Arnold wants to see one a properly constituted official regulatory body, let him come to Slovakia. He’ll find that the unofficial grammar quacks still abound (I have collected no fewer than 12 quack grammar and usage manuals published between 1991 and 2003), only they speak with more authority than the English ones, because
    a) most people believe that anyone with an academic title pronouncing judgements on what is correct and what is not speaks for and on behalf of the official bodies;
    b) no one actually cares to find out what the official bodies really say;
    c) the official bodies – like all government bodies – suck. The only official publication is the orthography guide and that’s it – no official grammar, no official usage guide, nothing but the dictionary and that doesn’t help*. Even though there is a properly constituted official body, there still remains a void and the quack grammar and usage manuals fill it. And where there is not void, they simply compete with the official view.
    *I know, I know, the review, I know…

  16. Z. D. Smith: Thanks, that’s a great response, and I actively encourage people to link to their relevant blog posts here, so don’t worry about “spamming” (or, as they say on MetaFilter, “self-linking”).
    bulbul: Say, about that review…

  17. Oh, and I too would like an invite to the head-staking party.

  18. Richard Hershberger says:

    “The problem is, these grammar quacks are always dead certain and no amount of evidence will convince them they are wrong.”
    It is worse than that. Since the evidence has a perverse habit of going the wrong way, they reject the use of evidence even in principle. I have had people explain to me with a straight face that under no circumstances should you ever refer to the OED for a usage question. To do so is an indication of sloppy thinking. Some hide this tendency better than others, but it comes out eventually.
    Bryan Garner affects a public face of sweet reason, but in at least one entry (discussing the purported that/which distinction, as I recall) he warns his readers that some people will cite actual evidence to dispute his assertion, but we should disregard this. He then makes the ad hominem argument that those people who cite actual evidence are bad writers. It was interesting to see the mask of reasonableness drop.

  19. Martha responds to Bierma and Zwicky. She takes a much milder position:
    ‘Most people are subject to general expectations about grammar and correctness. When you include what is perceived to be an error on your resume, you can’t get all huffy and say, “But lots of people do it this way.”‘
    Compare this with the National Grammar Day manifesto and its wild unsupported claims.

  20. Yes, I do remember him flatly stating that people who ignore the that-which distinction are bad writers. Just when I thought Joyce and Nabokov had secure spots in the canon!

  21. That was Bryan Garner I was talking about.

  22. Richard Hershberger says:

    I just looked at Brockenbrough’s page on Encarta. It is worse than I anticipated. Much of it is the usual pablum, but she also has items which are factually incorrect, or at least incomplete but worded so as to suggest that they are complete.
    She states “Affect is a verb” and describes how to use it. Then she states “Effect is a verb or a noun” and describes (poorly) its uses. She seems unaware of the noun “affect”.
    She has a section on when to use the construction “Adam and I” and when to use “Adam and me”. She follows this with a parenthetical aside:
    “(By the way, when you want to get fancy and use the word myself, use it only for emphasis. It’s not a substitute for me. “I love grammar, myself,” you might say, when discussing language with your friends. But don’t say, “Give myself a potato chip, please.” Or “Talk to myself about your problems.”)”
    Taken at face value, she seems to dismiss without discussion the reflexive use. More likely, she didn’t actually think all that much about what she was writing.
    She seems rather sloppy and ill-informed even by the low standards of the genre.

  23. Judging from the Wikipedia article about Garner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_A._Garner), he is quite a guy and has a lot of achievements under his belt.

  24. goofy: Thanks for linking to that column, it gave me a good chuckle. “Linguists would have much less to do if everyone wrote and spoke according to the standard rules of English”!

  25. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Martha responds to Bierma and Zwicky. She takes a much milder position”
    I call bullshit. This is a standard bully’s tactic. If someone complains about the bullying, claim it was a joke and denounce the complainer for humorlessness. Notice also that she follows this by accusing her critics of being motivated by a desire to protect their tenure. Or was that supposed to be funny, too?

  26. Z.D. Smith: I liked that post a great deal. The aesthetic point is a good one, and well made.
    Bathrobe: No doubt; I even use his usage guide. But he does say some absurd things.

  27. Richard Hershberger says:

    On the “humor” question, I just looked at the SPOGG blog. I mainly consists of nitpicking items in the news. The top item currently is a criticism of Barack Obama for using “they” with an antecedent of “somebody”. But an older item is this:
    “Erin McKean of the Oxford English Dictionary has founded the Semicolon Appreciation Society. SPOGG is enthused.”
    I’m unable to decide if this is meant ironically, if she is unaware of objections to the back-formation “enthuse”, or if she wasn’t paying attention and inadvertantly wrote naturally.

  28. bathrobe: But those achievements do not include a study of linguistics; he is a lawyer who studied English in college. He is well qualified to pontificate on usage, but not to discuss its scientific basis; when he appeals to authority, it is the authority of other grammar mavens, not to the only authority that counts—that of the people who use the language. (Also, I strongly suspect he wrote the Wikipedia article himself; who else would say something like “For his senior thesis [...] Cable proclaimed that the University should award him a Ph.D. instead of a B.A.–that his senior thesis was as good as any Ph.D. dissertation he’d seen in the previous 25 years”?)

  29. I call bullshit. This is a standard bully’s tactic.
    Spot on, Richard. I particularly enjoyed her jabs at the ivory-tower-dwelling academics – or, as she says, “people cooled by the eucalyptus-scented breezes at Stanford”.
    But this is the real deal:

    It’s never wrong to do your best to speak and write correctly.

    Apparently Ms. Brockenbrough still doesn’t get it: it’s not speaking and writing correctly that we object to. It’s HER ideas of what is correct that we find ridiculous.

  30. Am I the only one disturbed by the image of angry German mobs cutting people’s heads off?

  31. From goofy’s link to the SPOGG blog:
    “We understand less the desire to call people names, especially without taking the time to understand what they’re saying, and just as important, how they’re saying it.”
    The irony in this sentence just about made my head explode. And I’m still waiting to meet all these linguists who favor unclear and incorrect speaking and writing.

  32. ‘I’m unable to decide if this is meant ironically, if she is unaware of objections to the back-formation “enthuse”, or if she wasn’t paying attention and inadvertantly wrote naturally.’
    Richard, you bring up another excellent point. Because of the—shall we say—unscientific nature of your average grammar maven’s opinions, because they’ve basically just picked up in school whichever burrs of pedantry they happen to brush up against, our Ms. SPOGG has no real rule-of-thumb as to whether she should be irritated by ‘enthused’. The previous generation of grammatical pince-nezs, for whatever it’s worth, tried to erect principles of conservatism and classicism against which they could tie the vines of their language. It didn’t work, for reasons obvious to both of our modern combatants: English is not Latin, for one.
    But our current crop of complainers has no actual basis for their beliefs. They are, as has been demonstrated above, thoroughly unschooled. So who knows? If her 10th grade English teacher had held slightly different opinions, she might be condemning ‘enthused’ while never considering her own usage of ‘myself’. On such fragile foundations is our Correctness laid.

  33. Michael Scott says:

    The main problem with the “Erin McKean of the Oxford English Dictionary has founded the Semicolon Appreciation Society. SPOGG is enthused.” is that Erin McKean is not of the Oxford English Dictionary. As it says here, “She was most recently Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and was the editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2e.”

  34. I should add that when I say “Arnold, Geoff, and Nathan have my complete agreement,” I mean that I agree with them when they dispute false grammar rules. What I often do not agree with is their tone and attitudes. They’re sometimes as bad as the grammar snobs: uncharitable, unkind, and prone to outrage at the tiniest of things. I see some of that in the comments on this thread.
    I appreciate that the self-appointed grammar mavens are often wrong, but there seems to be an all-around inability to let the small things go.

  35. “They’re sometimes as bad as the grammar snobs: uncharitable, unkind, and prone to outrage at the tiniest of things. I see some of that in the comments on this thread.”
    Oh, do name names.

  36. Grant, don’t you think there’s a difference between those who are harsh in the service of ideas that are not only wrong (in the xkcd “wrong on the internet” sense) but harmful to human beings, and those who are harsh in criticizing the former? I suppose it would be saintly to be all “Oh, well, perhaps they will learn the error of their ways, and I’m sure they’re nice to their mothers,” but come on, that’s asking a lot of people.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    To be fair, I didn’t come up with the “heads staked to town gates and all” image myself. It comes from Ghostbusters:

    VENKMAN: I trust you’re moving us to a better space somewhere on campus.
    DEAN YAEGER: No, we’re moving you OFF CAMPUS. The Board of Regents has decided to terminate your grant. You are to vacate these premises immediately.
    VENKMAN: This is preposterous! I demand an explanation.
    DEAN YAEGER: Fine. This University will no longer continue any funding of any kind for your group’s activities.
    VENKMAN: But why? The students love us!
    DEAN YAEGER: Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of “dodge” or “hustle.” Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You’re a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman, and you have no place in this department or in this University.
    VENKMAN: I see. I guess my confidence in the Regents was misplaced. They did this to Galileo, too.
    DEAN YAEGER: It could be worse, Dr. Venkman. They took the astronomer Phileas and staked his head to the town gate.

    And to my shame, I must confess I didn’t even watch Ghostbusters myself. The quote comes from a comment on a blog that reported the latest inanity by the Intelligent Design creationist William Dembski.
    Which brings me to the next point. The above comments on prescriptivists and their resistance to evidence are uncannily familiar.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, shit, two different kinds of page breaks… let me try again:

    VENKMAN: I trust you’re moving us to a better space somewhere on campus.
    DEAN YAEGER: No, we’re moving you OFF CAMPUS. The Board of Regents has decided to terminate your grant. You are to vacate these premises
    immediately.
    VENKMAN: This is preposterous! I demand an explanation.
    DEAN YAEGER: Fine. This University will no longer continue any funding of any kind for your group’s activities.
    VENKMAN: But why? The students love us!
    DEAN YAEGER: Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of “dodge” or “hustle.” Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods
    are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You’re a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman, and you have no place in this department or in this University.
    VENKMAN: I see. I guess my confidence in the Regents was misplaced. They did this to Galileo, too.
    DEAN YAEGER: It could be worse, Dr. Venkman. They took the astronomer Phileas and staked his head to the town gate.

    Also, the ones that would get most angry would be the Bavarians, the Austrians and the Swiss. A mob of angry Swiss would not be good for anyone’s health, though…

  39. David Marjanović says:

    WTF. Looks like I should actually have used <br>.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    …and by “page breaks” I actually meant “line breaks”… something tells me I should, for a change, go to bed…

  41. “Apparently Ms. Brockenbrough still doesn’t get it: it’s not speaking and writing correctly that we object to. It’s HER ideas of what is correct that we find ridiculous.”
    Discussions like this tend to muddle the distinction mentioned here. Some people, especially those of a “scientific” bent, insist that all criticisms of usage are wrong; if someone has said something and the meaning is not in doubt, no one else may complain, because English is whatever its users write and say. Others object to claims about usage that are mistaken, like the insistence that “they” is always plural, or “none” always singular, or Garner’s notion that Fowler’s proposed distinction between “which” and “that” is an actual rule of English usage. It would help, I think, if we made it clear which argument we are making. What particularly puzzles me is the tendency of some writers to take both of these positions–to insist that anything goes, and also to complain about usage advice that is wrong. I don’t think this is consistent: if anything goes, then usage advice can’t be “wrong” (or “right” either). So I’ll join the chorus of those unhappy with Ms. Brockenbrough’s specific complaints, but not that of the many commenters here who seem to be saying that nobody ought ever to complain about any usage.

  42. They may be separate arguments, but there’s nothing inconsistent about disagreeing with much of the advice in prescriptivist usage guides and finding it obnoxious when people fatuously object to the way other people talk.

  43. “…if anything goes, then usage advice can’t be “wrong” (or “right” either).”
    I don’t see how that follows at all. Just because people who study language find it silly to call dialectical variations “wrong” clearly doesn’t mean that advice or attitudes about language shouldn’t be criticized.

  44. Some people, especially those of a “scientific” bent, insist that all criticisms of usage are wrong; if someone has said something and the meaning is not in doubt, no one else may complain, because English is whatever its users write and say.
    I have often seen this straw man trotted out, but I have never seen an actual exemplar. I’m perfectly happy with criticisms of usage in terms of vagueness, vapidity, clutter, clichés, and any number of other sins; I deplore criticisms in terms of made-up standards that have nothing to do with the living English language.

  45. “I’m perfectly happy with criticisms of usage in terms of vagueness, vapidity, clutter, clichés, and any number of other sins; I deplore criticisms in terms of made-up standards that have nothing to do with the living English language.”
    OK, but what about criticisms in terms of things like using words which have had a particular meaning to mean something else, without good reason? For instance, it is common today to see “transpire” used to mean “take place.” This meaning is now so usual that one probably shouldn’t use “transpire” in the traditional sense, lest one be misunderstood. Do we really gain by having a long, French-sounding word for “take place”? Furthermore, “transpire,” read literally, means “breathe through,” which explains why it can mean “become known,” but which has no evident connection to “take place.” To be sure, the newer use isn’t about to go away, as it’s been around for hundreds of years, but surely one ought to be allowed to advise people not to adopt it. Similarly, the use of “may” in place of “might” in counterfactuals is spreading, particularly in sportscasting (“If he hadn’t gotten such a late start, he may have caught the ball.”) To me, this is jarring, and while I can’t stop it, can’t I at least grumble a bit? These newer uses are certainly “part of the living language,” but aren’t there reasons other than “made-up standards” for unhappiness about their spread?

  46. to insist that anything goes
    Descriptivists do not do this. Descriptivism is about the scientific method, and looking at the relevant evidence: if I want to write well, I should at how English is used by good writers.

  47. Neal Deesit says:

    …particularly in sportscasting (“If he hadn’t gotten such a late start, he may have caught the ball.”)
    It’s much worse than that. The sports commentariat apparently doesn’t like to venture beyond the present indicative, even to express contrary-to-fact conditionals, such as “If he doesn’t get such a late start, he catches the ball.”

  48. like using words which have had a particular meaning to mean something else, without good reason
    And just what would a “good reason” be and who will determine the “goodness” of a particular reason?
    To be sure, the newer use isn’t about to go away, as it’s been around for hundreds of years, but surely one ought to be allowed to advise people not to adopt it.
    By all means, go right ahead. I for one could imagine a better use of my time, but hey, to each their own.
    These newer uses are certainly “part of the living language,” but aren’t there reasons other than “made-up standards” for unhappiness about their spread?
    Certainly, a psychologist could probably tell you more.

  49. Grant, don’t you think there’s a difference between those who are harsh in the service of ideas that are not only wrong (in the xkcd “wrong on the internet” sense) but harmful to human beings, and those who are harsh in criticizing the former?
    Yes, of course there’s a difference. But I see so much of both. Tons of this stuff, both amateur and professional, online and off.
    With all the various public faces I have that concern language, I see the same wrong information come up repeatedly and the same responses come from my colleagues at LL and elsewhere. Neither side seems to be gaining ground. The misinformation continues and the rebuttals abound.
    There’s an idea I have, one that I cannot prove, about why this battle is doomed to be fought forever. I think that stomping on wrongheaded grammar rules draws more attention to the wrong information than it deserves. I think such attention increases the likelihood that the wrong information will be spread further to and by new people.
    Small examples: I think lists of frequently misspelled words actually increase the chance those words will be misspelled. I think lists of common grammar errors will increase the chance that those errors will be committed. Same for lists of style and usage blunders.
    I know from the radio show and elsewhere that people tend to remember only that there was a dispute about a language point. They tend not to remember the winning answer to that dispute.
    At some point the exercise seems to be futile. There must be a better way. I don’t know what it is, though I am looking.

  50. – Furthermore, “transpire,” read literally, means “breathe through,” –
    Not really. It does derive from the Latin TRANS (through) and SPIRARE (breathe), but we’re talking about English, and in English “transpire” literally means “to occur; happen; take place.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy)
    If we were to start speaking according to what various parts of words use to mean in various different languages, we wouldn’t be speaking English anymore.
    (Also, can anyone tell me how to italicize when leaving comments?)

  51. Itals are made by putting either i or em between angle brackets before the text to be italicized, and /i or /em in angle brackets after. Thus <i>ital</i> turns into ital. (Bold is similar except with b instead of i or em.)

  52. Thanks, Steve! Ha! It works!

  53. “– Furthermore, “transpire,” read literally, means “breathe through,” –
    Not really. It does derive from the Latin TRANS (through) and SPIRARE (breathe), but we’re talking about English, and in English “transpire” literally means “to occur; happen; take place.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy)”
    Well, the OED, not a bastion of prescriptivism, still calls this meaning of “transpire” a mistake (an easy mistake for those who didn’t know the original English meaning of the word to make). I’m not suggesting that we should speak Latin. But when a word has a pretty plain meaning in the language from which it derives, it seems odd to see it used to mean something quite different in English. If we had a real need for a longer substitute for “take place,” I’d see it differently. But we don’t, and now we don’t have a good one-word way to say “become known” either, as the newer use of “transpire” is so common that using it in the old way is likely to be misunderstood. As the new use is just a pompous way to say “occur” and the old one has been largely forgotten, “transpire” has become a word that good writers probably won’t use at all, except in its scientific sense (where it still means something like “breathe through”). No great loss, maybe, but not an improvement, either.

  54. I don’t even know what that means — that the OED calls it a “mistake.” How can the most common sense of word, used by millions of English speakers and almost never misunderstood, be a mistake?
    But, leaving that aside for now, I’m more curious about your attitude about language in general. Do you really think it’s necessary that we make a case for the utility of words? Aside from a few a function words, there are no words that don’t have synonyms, or at least whose meanings can’t easily be expressed through other words. No word is vital to the language. But a lot of them, even those that some find particularly useless or even pompous, are pleasing to some people for one reason or another. Isn’t that enough?
    You also say that a good writer would avoid “transpire” altogether, but that’s simply not true. The word may be a little pompous, but sometimes pompous is just the note you want to strike — and hey, come to think of it, until this “newer” sense of “transpire” we didn’t have a single word for expressing “occur” in a pompous manner. Isn’t that worth something?

  55. I also should add, since I have been holding forth a tad grandly, that I’m no linguist and I welcome correction from those who are.

  56. and now we don’t have a good one-word way to say “become known” either, as the newer use of “transpire” is so common that using it in the old way is likely to be misunderstood.
    Why do we need to encode each concept in a single lexical item?
    No great loss, maybe, but not an improvement, either.
    That’s certainly how I think about language change.

  57. Chaps,
    Gez here (from GrammarBlog). I think perhaps you are tarring too many pedants with the same brush. Anyone reading our blog will soon see that tongues are usually kept firmly in cheeks. Surely some of our changing tag lines allude to that (smug is good; we love a well-used colon)?
    We also enjoy debating the evolution of language. I have frequently mentioned my dislike of people who still insist that a preposition mustn’t appear at the end of a sentence. And I was quite happy not using the gerund ‘disliking’ in the last sentence. Admittedly I’m going to have to strap on the old cilice for a few hours as atonement.
    By acting in a militant anti-stickler fashion, some of you are in danger of becoming that which you detest most: self-righteous, irritating and misinformed. Please keep your senses of levity. Don’t become that guy.
    Tom’s post, detailed above, was simply pointing out a turn of phrase that seems to be creeping into general use in the UK. The post was smug, self-satisfied and amusing.
    Why do we write in these smug, pedantic personnas if we aren’t 100% sincere? Entertainment. We are simply enjoying the English language.
    Total sincerity can be rather drab. Take this slice of dry white bread for example. Dull dull dull — yet admittedly informative.
    All the best to you all. I shall continue to read this blog with interest.

  58. See, I even made a typo in the above comment and I don’t mind one bit… honestly.

  59. Why do we write in these smug, pedantic personnas if we aren’t 100% sincere? Entertainment. We are simply enjoying the English language.
    No, I’m sorry, if that “smug,” “pedantic” post was representative of your site, then whether or not you view your online personas as somehow vaguely ironic, what you’re doing is not enjoying the English language but simply making fun of people, and in doing so carrying on a nasty tradition of reinforcing classicism through shibboleths. No, it isn’t the most serious thing in the world — I’m not about to write my Congressman — but it ain’t wholly innocent either.

  60. But when a word has a pretty plain meaning in the language from which it derives, it seems odd to see it used to mean something quite different in English.
    No, actually it’s perfectly normal. The only time you notice it is when you happen to know the original language and usage. It doesn’t bother you at all when meanings get changed that you’re unaware of, and why should it? Languages borrow, meanings change, it’s like getting old: you might as well get used to it, because there’s no alternative.
    And I have to agree with jamessal about “smug, pedantic personas.” Entertaining yourself by being smug about, say, store-bought bread or yappy dogs is one thing; being smug about other people’s natural use of their own language is nasty and causes the kind of pathetic self-doubt and purchase of stupid grammar-maven books that I deplore in the strongest terms. I suggest you find some other target for your personae.

  61. Take this slice of dry white bread for example.
    What I see over at bradshaw’s place is a plate of home-made penne all’arrabbiata with the sauce made from the best tomatoes on this planet, basil whose smell fills the entire kitchen and won’t go away for days and with just the right amount of chili to accentuate the taste of tomatoes and leave that spicy aftertaste somewhere on the back of your tongue.
    But I guess you’ve been eating muddy boots so long you can’t feel the difference.
    We are simply enjoying the English language.
    Please. You don’t even know the English language.

  62. Oops! That of course should have been “classism” earlier, not “classicism.” Kind of a funny typo.

  63. Anyone who’d characterize Bradshaw as ‘dry white bread’ probably needs a new hobby, since it’s obvious that language isn’t their forte (quick, maven! Did I pronounce that ‘fort-AY’, ‘FOR-tay’, or ‘fort’?) The difference between Bradshaw and Lynne Truss-style grousing and snobbery is the difference between going down to the pub for a taste of some delicious and hilariously named Belgian and making jokes in public about Mexicans pissing in Coronas.
    I’m really not a wrathful or prickly person when it comes to this. But I think it’s clear, if you’re going to dismiss such a wonderful, rich, enjoyable column as Bradshaw’s, that your own sphere of thought hardly has room for an enjoyment of the English language.

  64. Yeah, I don’t want to be too harsh on a LH fan, but geez, Gez, I find it hard to see how anyone interested in language could think Bradshaw boring.

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