TYPOS AREN’T BAD GRAMMAR.

Jan Freeman, who used to write an excellent Boston Globe column on language and now writes the equally excellent blog Throw Grammar from the Train, has a post making what should be an obvious point, but one that I have rarely seen put so explicitly:

At Grammarphobia, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wandered into the “confusion” quagmire and couldn’t get unstuck. A reader asked whether using its for it’s was a grammatical error or a spelling error; here’s their answer,* with my objections:
A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.
But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.

What “deeper level”? You’re saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes “it’s tires are flat” because he thinks it’s OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup — reign in for rein in — could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don’t confuse them grammatically.

And here’s the footnote attached to “answer*” above:

*I actually first wrote “here’s there answer,” though I caught it immediately. And no, I am not confused about the difference between their and there.

Brava! (Of course, the people who make such claims aren’t actually making intellectual points, they’re just slinging whatever mud comes to hand to express their revulsion—which reminds me of the nasty verbal tics in the later reviews of Pauline Kael, so memorably analyzed by the austerely eloquent Renata Adler in this classic 1980 takedown, which everybody who cared about movies read and argued about back in that time when people actually cared about movies.)

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:


    Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

    Tell me how you really feel.

  2. This sentence and others like it mark this as writing from a different era:
    “What happens after a longer time is that he settles down.”
    The writer, a women, apparently felt it was ok to use ‘he’ or ‘his’ when ‘he or she’/'his or her’ was meant — even though the butt of her criticism turns out to be a woman.

  3. they’re just slinging whatever mud comes to hand to express their revulsion
    Well, it’s rather in the territory of authoritarian dicks accusing people of “bad grammar” for anything they dislike about the speaker’s language (dialect, colloquialisms, pronunciation, and maybe sometimes actual grammar).

  4. Bathrobe,
    Speaking of a different era, Adler also considered the title of Kael’s book I Lost It At the Movies to be “coarse”. How quaint.

  5. *I actually first wrote “here’s there answer,” though I caught it immediately.
    It is interesting that when we are typing fast and on autopilot (for example, taking dictation or transcribing something we have in paper form) the homophone errors come out: there/their/they’re, your/you’re… I don’t think this ever happens to me when I’m paying attention to the actual act of typing. Seems like you could get scientific proof for Freeman’s argument there: the part that decides which word (sound) to use functions on a different level than the part which decides how to spell it, which in turn is really more of a simple filter.

  6. In recent years, it was having insuperable problems with its other movie critic.
    That would have been Penelope Gilliat?
    A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work…Hilton Kramer, something in the realm of ideas.
    My God, really? Even back in 1981?
    Though this is a fairly brilliant piece by Renata Adler, it would have been even better if she had disclosed in it just what had caused her to want to be so mean.

  7. The review of the new LoA anthology from last weekend’s Book Review gives some context.

  8. On the morning before I saw Jan’s post I happened to see a bumper sticker: Somewhere in Rhode Island a Village has Lost It’s Idiot. For reasons of small print plus unfamiliarity with local politics, I was unable to identify the target of the joke. But another sticker indicated that the car belonged to a Tea Party supporter, so my indignation about the error overflowed easily to “Oh god these people are so dumb they can’t even spell”. If I hadn’t had the other sticker to tell me which side they were on, I would surely have felt differently about the spelling error.

  9. All the more reason for SPELLING REFORM!!!

  10. Gary Gapinski says:

    A recent NPR article may be of interest.

  11. it would have been even better if she had disclosed in it just what had caused her to want to be so mean.
    There may have been personal stuff as well (this can never be ruled out in the incestuous New York literary/critical world), but there needn’t have been: Kael was ripe for a demolition job, having been (as the essay so convincingly lays out) writing indefensible crap for years and yet (due to the usual Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome) not being called on it. I vividly remember the combination of horror and glee with which I read the piece—like many others, I had been letting my memories of Kael’s early work cloud my reaction to the recent stuff, and seeing the evidence laid out shook my intellectual world. My movie-loving brothers and I had long, intense conversations about it. It’s sad that it’s now impossible to conceive of anyone being able to inspire such reactions with their criticism.
    (N.b.: When I first hit Post, I got “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: incest.” Hoist by my own lazy Blacklist habits!)

  12. From the piece Gary links to:

    In an excellent 1995 essay that he wrote about Kael for The New York Review of Books, literary critic Louis Menand tells an anecdote about how the eminent public intellectual Dwight Macdonald reviewed Kael’s book I Lost It at the Movies in 1965. In that review, Macdonald asked, in puzzlement, “What did she lose at the movies?”

    Ha! Poor old Dwight.

  13. rootlesscosmo says:

    I have conflicted feelings about this. My knowledge of Kael goes back to when she was programming, and writing program notes for, a tiny repertory house in Berkeley in the late 50′s; not only did she introduce me to some terrific movies (often in whiplash-inducing double bills), she also was the first critic I read who admitted that low-budget genre flicks could be more fun and better made than the upholstered studio products that used to win Oscars and get good reviews from Bosley Crowther. On the other hand, Adler has her later stuff dead to rights, and a plausible guess about what happened in between. On the third hand, Adler’s sniffy tone is pretty irritating–almost Crowtherish, in fact.

  14. j. del col says:

    The straw horse isn’t dead enough yet?

  15. “The writer, a women, apparently felt it was ok to use ‘he’ or ‘his’ when ‘he or she’/'his or her’ was meant”. Well of course it was OK. “He” in my childhood was called the masculine pronoun but did not, we were instructed, necessarily refer to a male person. It’s not that ‘he or she’ was meant so much as that ‘he’ then meant what is now laboriously spelled out as ‘he or she’. Who it was that first pretended that he misunderstood ‘he’ I don’t know. Presumably he was from California or Manhattan, and, I dare say, was a female person.

  16. Well, now I’ve read an awful lot about Pauline Kael, and except for what Rootless writes she does seem to have been pretty awful most of the time. I still believe Renata Adler’s piece would be improved if it were less vicious.
    I always enjoyed Andrew Sarris’s reviews in the Voice. The idea of a horrible clash over the auteur theory seems pretty quaint nowadays – of course a good director produces a body of work, just as a good actor or cinematographer does; it just contains a different selection of films, how could you dispute that? Sarris wrote a typically self-effacing piece about their relationship when she died.

  17. dearieme, did you see the Stephen Colbert clip where he interviews the people from OWS in his office? The woman refers to herself as a “female-bodied person” because to call herself a “woman” or a “female” would be exclusionary to non-female-bodied persons who identify as “women” or “females.”
    What’s really (to me, anyway) hilarious about that is that they don’t seem to realize that that means that only person who can refer to [christ, whatever-]self as a “woman” is a “male-bodied person.”

  18. Crown, you underestimate the evils of auteurism in its original form: it’s not just the theory that directors have a body of work, it’s the theory that directors create movies in the same sense that poets create poetry, that nobody but the director contributes anything to a film except in the sense that the typesetter contributes something to a book of verse. Cassavetes is my favorite refutation of auteurism: he may be a muscular director, but he only succeeds when he gets some poor shmuck to actually write his movies.

  19. For evils read evilness. Sorry.

  20. rootlesscosmo says:

    I have the impression that there’s a weak version of auteurism which is just the recognition that the studio system didn’t eliminate every trace of originality or distinctiveness from Hitchcock or Sirk or even the less-well-known journeymen, though they were studio employees under contract like writers and cinematographers etc. in the old days. I don’t know enough about the history of film criticism to know if it took Cahiers du Cinéma to get this point across, but I think it was worth making.

  21. Mark Hazard says:

    “I don’t know enough about the history of film criticism to know if it took Cahiers du Cinéma to get this point across, but I think it was worth making.”
    Check out “The Genius of the System,” by Thomas Schatz. It came out in 1988, so it’s post-’Cahiers,’ but IIRC the whole point of the book had to do with this issue of the sometimes-fruitful relationship between studio system and director. There’s a lot of discussion of Hitchcock’s first years in Hollywood, and his aggravated collaborations with Selznick.

  22. michael farris says:

    I still have a lot of affection for Kael up through the late 70′s. Yeah she had her tics (what writer doesn’t?) and blind spots (what critic doesn’t) and past a certain point became of a poh (parody of herself) but the tone of the Adler piece is far too nasty for my taste. It makes me think worse of Adler rather than Kael.
    Kael’s biggest problem was one that she outlined in one of her books (KKBB?) the more movies you see the harder it is to get enthused about one particular movie. Less experienced viewers find it easier to find something new or interesting in a movie than experienced viewers who will become fixed and sedate in their tastes.
    I think she should have been forced out of her comfort zone and made to review stage and/or tv (or books or ballet). It might have refreshened her perspective.

  23. the tone of the Adler piece is far too nasty for my taste. It makes me think worse of Adler rather than Kael.
    You have the luxury of looking back on it from the distance of thirty years; Kael is now seen as a semi-revered figure from antiquity when she’s remembered at all. You have to try to put yourself back in a time when nobody dared say a bad word about her, when she was (so to speak) the Putin of movie reviewing, and imagine that you are (or feel like you are) the only person who sees through the hype to the rottenness beneath. You’d be nasty too. I remember thinking at the time it was a bit over the top, but I understood why. You tend to use a little extra dynamite if you want to make sure the statue falls.

  24. It is interesting that when we are typing fast and on autopilot (for example, taking dictation or transcribing something we have in paper form) the homophone errors come out: there/their/they’re, your/you’re…
    I have a theory that this mostly happens when one of the pair of homophones has an irregular spelling. Thus you don’t get confusion of hair/hare, hour/our, dear/deer, or, stretching the notion of regularity, right/write/rite. Of course, its/it’s are both regular, but I’ll blame interference from the possessive ‘s for that. The /ðɛɚ/s are a three-way irregular set, so it’s a miracle anyone gets them right.

  25. xyzzyva: I love your theory, but I have actually found myself typing “have” for “of” (I never type “of” for “have”; but “‘ve” for a homonym of “of”…)
    I couldn’t believe I’d done it. Your mileage must vary!
    Overcompensation?

  26. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve seen knowledgeable people claim that homonyms are stored as the same word in the brain, however disparate their meanings, and to discern them in writing we have to, so to speak, overrule our native language. If so, there’s some truth to the cited article’s deeper level and failure to discern, although the errors say nothing about the writer’s command of grammar. True or not, it makes me almost proud of doing those errors in my non-native English!

  27. the tone of the Adler piece is far too nasty for my taste. It makes me think worse of Adler rather than Kael.
    I don’t mind her nastiness, except that I thought it weakened her argument to write in a style that imitated Kael’s own (but wasn’t parody).

  28. xyzzyva: Their is spelled regularly, because ei regularly represents the FACE vowel in English ever since the vain-vein merger (which is complete in all living accents).

  29. I knew a German who pronounced “height” like “hate”. I never corrected him.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps because he was thinking of “weight”. “What’s your height and weight?” should rhyme, no? (How do Australians say it?).
    A British prof once told me that he grew up pronouncing “weight” and “wait” differently and had to unlearn the difference in order for his speech to become more acceptable.

  31. Most Australians pronounce it, roughly, “wozza”.

  32. Marie-Lucie: Australians say vain, vein, weight with their regular PRICE vowel, which is [ʌɪ~ɐɪ~ɑɪ] depending on sociolect.
    Your professor probably had a Yorkshire accent. In Middle English, weight was pronounced /wɛxt/, which later became /wɛɪxt/ as a result of a general diphthongization of /ɛx/. In the varieties leading to the standard, /x/ was lost, and this /ɛɪ/ merged with the /ai/ of wait (a French borrowing) and the /aː/ of late to give the FACE vowel. But in Yorkshire, /x/ survived longer, so that /ɛɪ/ < /ɛɪx/ did not merge with the FACE vowel. Instead, the WEIGHT vowel remained /ɛɪ/ while the FACE vowel surfaced as /eː/.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, JC, but “wait” as a French borrowing?

  34. It’s apparently from Old North French waitier, which is of Germanic origin.

  35. The original Germanic verb’s modern English reflexes are wake and (with palatalization) watch. See the PIE root *weg-.

  36. I remember that the “its/it’s” difference was one which took me the longest to learn, because of course in proper names one does put the apostrophe for a possessive. So we might say “Jane’s bag” (due to the historical ‘e’ that the apostrophe is replacing) but similarly one could say “Jane’s going to the shop” where the apostrophe replaces the “i” of “is”. It’s easy with “his/hers” versus “he’s/she’s” but when you get to “its/it’s” the answer isn’t nearly so straightforward.

  37. “It’s” was indeed the original and etymological spelling of its, which only replaced the original form his around 1600. The conservative language of the original King James Version uses his or periphrases with thereof. Modern KJVs have one instance of its at Lev. 25:5, but the 1611 version read it there, another competitor for the role of neuter possessive pronoun that was lost early on except in the dialects of the northwest of England. The last use of neuter his the OED knows was 1675; of possessive it’s, ca. 1800.

  38. The last use of neuter his the OED knows was 1675; of possessive it’s, ca. 1800.
    1800? I thought lexicographers weren’t prescriptivist. Tons of people write possessive it’s today, John.

  39. Well, oooookay: the OED basically describes Standard English, like all general dictionaries of English, so that was the last time possessive it’s was in standard use as far as the OED knows:
    1801 M[aria] Edgeworth “Forester” in Moral Tales I. 57 Her warning only accelerated it’s fate.
    See a modern version with its fate at Project Gutenberg, and an 1806 edition with it’s fate at Google Books.

  40. John, two quibbles:
    Even if ‹ei› is etymologically justified as /eɪ/, its large variability among /eɪ/, /aɪ/, /iː/ surely makes it irregular in the minds of most. Though what is and is not irregular spelling in English is more a matter of opinion than of fact anyway.

    Marie-Lucie: Australians say vain, vein, weight with their regular PRICE vowel, which is [ʌɪ~ɐɪ~ɑɪ] depending on sociolect.

    Surely you mean their FACE vowel [æɪ], which happens to sound like others’ PRICE vowel?

  41. xyzzyva: Indeed, what you said is what I meant.

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