USAGE UKASES.

Jan Freeman, the excellent Boston Globe language columnist, spent a couple of recent columns relentlessly mocking the absurdity of invented diktats about what shouldn’t be said. “Rule by whim,” from December 21, gives examples of some of the things crazed rulemongers have pulled out of thin air: not should not conclude a sentence, we should “reserve wholesome for food, healthful for living conditions, and healthy for living beings,” you can’t use over for more than, and my personal favorite:

It reminded me of a recent e-mail from Kevin, whose high school English teacher had a similarly inventive usage theory. She rejected the sentence “The pitcher threw no strikes,” he recalled: “She asked me to show her how to throw ‘no strike.’ She said the correct way to say it would be, ‘The pitcher didn’t throw any strikes.’ ”
This doctrine, of course, was just plain nutty. No in this construction means “not any,” as it has since Old English. No grammarian or usagist has banned it. Yet Kevin was successfully browbeaten: “For years I avoided writing things such as “The store had no bananas,” “I have no opinion,” “I ate no onions,” he wrote.

Mind-boggling! And in her December 28 column, “The language dustbin,” she goes back a century to look at some of the things the pedants of yesteryear tried to get us to eschew, like “presidential campaign” and “blame on”: “Indefensible slang. We blame a person for a fault, or lay the blame upon him. Not, as in a New York newspaper, after the last Presidential election, ‘I do not blame the defeat on the President,’ but ‘I do not blame the President for the defeat.'” Again, my favorite bit:

Sleuth “denotes the track of a living creature, in particular the track of a wild animal. . . . In a semi-humorous way the newspapers commonly mention a detective as a sleuth; their readers, not thinking of the humor, take sleuth to be a regular synonym of detective. The only meaning the word has in sober English is track or footprint.” (Joseph Fitzgerald, “Word and Phrase: True and False Usage in English,”1901)

Keep it up, Jan!

Comments

  1. I had an English teacher in 9th grade who was most enamored of these made-up rules. I cannot remember any of her rules, alas! I have blocked most of the experience of that class out of my memory. I remember my strategy was, when she gave us one of these made-up usage rules, I would track down a counterexample in a book — something canon that she would not be able to gainsay. After a few times of this she happened on the response, “It’s proper English when Thoreau (or whoever it was) does it, but you should avoid it.”

  2. The “over” vs. “more than” rubbish is still alive and kicking. I heard it recently at work being bandied about by a bunch of mid-level functionaries. I had never heard of this supposed rule, but as an outside contractor with nothing to gain, I didn’t bother to correct them.
    As an exchange student in Germany in the late 1980s, I had an English teacher at my Gymnasium who insisted that the verb “to have” had exactly 14 uses (most of which were fixed idioms) and scoffed at my American ignorance of them.
    The same teacher later dismissed my thorough explanation of American vs. British usage of “drunk” and “drunken”, proclaiming, “Well, Americans can talk however they want, now can’t they?” I called her out, staying just within the bounds of the level of cheek for which she could have sent me for disciplining. Happily, the episode gave me some cred among my German classmates for putting her in her place.
    As a bonus, at the end of the semester, she took a leave “for her nerves”. She had made us out to the administration to be the worst class she had ever had, even though we were merely the most intellectually demanding. 🙂

  3. The OED claims that sleuth meant ‘bloodhound’ on its way from ‘track’ to ‘detective’, but displays no quotations for this sense. However the oldest quotation for sleuth ‘detective’ is 1872.
    More interesting, the most recent quotation for sleuth ‘track’ is 1470. So for four centuries the word only existed, as far as the record shows, as part of the compounds sleuth-dog and sleuth-hound, which latter has also been used for ‘detective’ from 1849 onward.

  4. My grade 9 English teacher was of the view that one could not modify “absolute” adjectives such as “perfect” with “more”. My enquiry as to whether she considered the Preamble to the US Constitution (“a more perfect union”) to be flawed did not result in any elucidation of her position.

  5. From an old LH:

    – An artificial rule
    The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of French’s most artificial. Its introduction can be dated with precision: the poet Clément Marot formulated it in 1538. Marot took as his example Italian, which has since partially eliminated this rule.

    – A political matter?
    It almost happened that Marot’s rule was abolished politically. In 1900, a courageous Public Education Minister, Georges Leygues, published a decree that “permitted” non-agreement. But the French Academy pressed so strongly that the Minister was forced to replace his decree in 1901, with a text that did away with the acceptance of non-agreement, except when the participle was followed by an infinitive or a past or present participle: [example of a sentence where agreement and non-agreement are both allowed]. See paragraph 139.

    I admire Marot for his versatility and am willing to forgive him this. I’d even follow the rule in French in honor of him. He also wrote epigrams tending somewhat toward the smutty , translated Psalms which are still in the Huguenot Psalter (even though his language skills were mediocre), edited Villon, and was effectively a martyr of the early, humanistic, freethinking Reformation.
    So in his honor I think that we should exempt that one prescriptive rule from the anathema.

  6. From an old LH:

    – An artificial rule
    The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of French’s most artificial. Its introduction can be dated with precision: the poet Clément Marot formulated it in 1538. Marot took as his example Italian, which has since partially eliminated this rule.

    – A political matter?
    It almost happened that Marot’s rule was abolished politically. In 1900, a courageous Public Education Minister, Georges Leygues, published a decree that “permitted” non-agreement. But the French Academy pressed so strongly that the Minister was forced to replace his decree in 1901, with a text that did away with the acceptance of non-agreement, except when the participle was followed by an infinitive or a past or present participle: [example of a sentence where agreement and non-agreement are both allowed]. See paragraph 139.

    I admire Marot for his versatility and am willing to forgive him this. I’d even follow the rule in French in honor of him. He also wrote epigrams tending somewhat toward the smutty , translated Psalms which are still in the Huguenot Psalter (even though his language skills were mediocre), edited Villon, and was effectively a martyr of the early, humanistic, freethinking Reformation.
    So in his honor I think that we should exempt that one prescriptive rule from the anathema.

  7. some of the things crazed rulemongers have pulled out of thin air: “not” should not conclude a sentence
    I agree with that one very strongly. It was funny for a few months when Wayne and Garth did it, and then it became tired and annoying from overuse.

  8. John,
    it appears to me that you are actually just taking your pick from among the choices a non-prescriptive non-rule can offer you rather than exempting a “rule from the anathema”. If not, I would have to bring forward a petition to exempt all the rules that my very nice English high-school teacher instilled me with – including the requirement to place negations within the predicate – on account of his being a generally nice and knowledgeable guy whou could even explain Shakespearean metaphors that completeley stumped some of his lazier non-prescriptivist, pop-culture-focused colleagues.
    The whole issue is, of course, as fraught with ideology as it ever was. Recently Der Spiegel´s Latin America correspondent criticized Bolivia´s Evo Morales as not even speaking proper Spanish (in addition to other misdemeanors such as not chiming in with Washington in denouncing Hugo Chavez). That seems to have been based on the fact that Morales employs linguistic variants common among the mestizo population but largely frowned upon by the elite.
    I´d also claim that a tendency towards prescriptivism among foreign-language teachers would seem to be a more excusable – indeed, at times even helpful, i.e. “complexity-reducing” – deformation professionelle than among teachers of the native language. (As a foreign- language teacher you should, of course, make sure that you defer to the native knowledge of exchange students whenever any happen to be present in your classes.)

  9. marie-lucie says:

    The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of French’s most artificial.
    I for one don’t find it artificial as it is the way I (and my family) both speak and write. I don’t remember ever learning it formally. The way I explained it to my students is: if the object (a noun) is after the verb, the person hearing the verb doesn’t know yet what the object is going to be, so no agreement, but if the object (a pronoun) is before the verb, the hearer knows what it refers to, hence agreement is possible. Examples: C’est moi qui ai fait ce gâteau – c’est moi qui l’ai fait — C’est moi qui ai fait cette tarte – c’est moi qui l’ai faite. The confusion arises with past participles in é where there is (in Standard French) no audible distinction between the masculine and feminine endings (there is in some dialects, eg masc. passé versus fem. passeye), but where the participle ends in a written consonant, this consonant is sounded in the feminine: pris/prise, écrit/écrite, etc. However, I do agree that there are more complex cases where hesitation is possible. The ministry of Education has now relaxed the rules, probably because many teachers were confused about them.

  10. I agree with that one very strongly.
    Not sure if you’re joking, but just in case: the objection is not to the Wayne/Garth “…not!” as a humorous sentence negation, but to any sentence-final “not” at all, e.g. “No, she did not.”

  11. Clement Marot can not be flouted! All those other mothers, yes.

  12. Clement Marot can not be flouted! All those other mothers, yes.

  13. My grade 9 English teacher was of the view that one could not modify “absolute” adjectives such as “perfect” with “more”.
    That’s not a grammatical issue, it’s usually just common sense.
    And “more perfect union” is certainly a mistake if you’re concerned about accuracy and precise language – the founders didn’t have a perfect union when they wrote the preamble, so how could they make a “more” perfect one? But it scans better so it doesn’t bother me.

  14. Is sleuth cognate with the Russian след? The OED only takes it back as far as the Norwegian slod.

  15. Actually, they take it back to Old Norse slóð, which presumably comes from a preform in *-t-. Russian след comes from *-dh- (cf. Sanskrit sredhati) and is cognate to English slide (according to Vasmer).
    And “more perfect union” is certainly a mistake if you’re concerned about accuracy and precise language
    It is extremely important to separate language from logic. Whatever your feelings about the logical validity of “more perfect,” it is perfectly good English. People are people, not computers, and they do not (nor, in my opinion, should they try to) use language logically except when discussing logic.

  16. a more perfect union
    Language does change over time. I suspect that either “perfect” or “more” (or both) have changed meaning since those words were written. The phrase has the sort of stiffness I associate with writing of that time period.
    The framers of the constitution were well aware that they were doing something historically unique and gave a great deal of thought to why they were forming the government as they did. In particular the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution gave a lot of independence to the states, to the point that the federal government had to request donations from the individuals states instead of collecting taxes. George Washington’s army had continuous problems with supplies because of this. The constitution did consolidate more power in the federal government. It went a long way towards fixing the “unity” problems that plagued the 13 colonies. It was far from being absolutely perfect, or we wouldn’t have needed a supreme court system that continues to define the relationship between state and federal governments, but was probably “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation.

  17. AJP Crown says:

    Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with the logic.
    If X union is imperfect and Y union is less imperfect, then Y union is more perfect than X.

  18. “blame on”…
    ‘I do not blame the defeat on the President,’
    ‘I do not blame the President for the defeat.’

    Is there a difference in meaning between the two? Like maybe one is more diluted, like the effect of passive voice?
    So what about “hating on”? I have only seen this in intenet use, here’s three from the same thread:

    Tweety is the best around because he is cute and addorible no matter how big his head may be. Tweety is still very attractive to me. So please stop hating on my baby.

    4 AlL u HaT3Rz Dat r HatIn on Tweety he RoCkZ Hell Y3Ah SO iF u HatIN FUK U!!!

    Why are they hatin on tweety he’s so cute and innocent and for all yall that be hatin on my favorite cartoon character can go where the sun dont shine he might be fake but his character is makin more money than his haters…..Love ya Tweety

    I’m not exactly sure what this “hating on” consists of either, since no one posted any remark that was even remotely negative about the cartoon character. But I fervently hope that a hundred years from now this bit of *indefensible slang* is not even a memory.

  19. rootlesscosmo says:

    I’d venture that the writers of the Preamble, like lawyers today, routinely used the transitive verb “perfect” (stress on the second syllable) to mean something like “bring into conformity with law or principle.” (“The plaintiff has 30 days to perfect her complaint” doesn’t anticipate that the revised version will be [adjectival] perfect, only that it will have been cured of specific defects.) Thus “a more perfect Union” is one which has been brought nearer–presumably by comparison with the Articles of Confederation state–to correspondence with the principles of sound government.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    It’s like people who say there’s no such thing as ‘more unique’, it’s just rubbish.
    ‘Hating on’ probably comes from ‘hitting on’, don’t you think?

  21. michael farris says:

    I like ‘hating on’. I don’t think I’d use it, but I like it just fine, expressive and not really covered by any other construction AFAIK.

  22. off of.

  23. AJP, Americans use “hitting on” to mean flirting, or maybe a coarser variation of it, something like the Brits would use “talking (someone) up”. They both would happen in a bar. Not at all the same meaning as “hitting”, which is more like “striking”. “Hating on” is related to hate, apparently. Here is another example that uses both “hatred” and “hating on”.

    Why you all haters hating on my “Tweety”? and I do say “MY Tweety” cause I collect him and things that have his picture. What has he done to you all? He’s just the cutest cartoon, that’s all, so stop “Hating”. You all just jealous cause he’s too cute. Anyways, one important aspect in all this hating hides a reason for hatred in it self, cause hatred is causing killings around the world, if you know what I mean. So stop hating already, bet ya you all don’t even like you all selves.

  24. based out of.

  25. off of…
    “It went a long way towards fixing
    in my previous post I originally typed as “a long ways” and corrected it on the proofread. Now “a long ways” sounds “funny” but it was my original automatic choice.
    So here’s another question.
    blame on, hit on, hate on…are they two word verbs or just verbs that take a particular preposition?

  26. To hate on: To be envious of someone’s style (used in a broad sense) and therefore ridicule it.
    I like it a lot myself, and even use it sometimes.
    I’d also agree that “hit on” is more crude, or rather more aggressive, than “flirt with.” I’d be tickled, maybe a little jealous, to see my girlfriend flirting with someone else. I’d be pissed if she were hitting on him.

  27. To me, “hate on” seems to mean active expression of hatred, whereas “hate” is a disposition or attitude.

  28. To me, “hate on” seems to mean active expression of hatred, whereas “hate” is a disposition or attitude.

  29. I’d be tickled, maybe a little jealous, to see my girlfriend flirting with someone else
    One definition of flirting: “attention without intention”. I’d kill him. If he’s got me, he doesn’t need anything else.
    Note to AJP: in America, someone who is “pissed” is angry, not drunk.
    For some reason, I also thought “hating on” was an entirely African American expression.

  30. AJP Crown says:

    Nidge, I understand the meaning of ‘hitting on’ and that it isn’t the same as simply ‘hitting’ (hence, in fact, the use of the additional word ‘on’). As far as I know, there is no phrase in England ‘talking up’, I only know ‘chatting up’. My point is not that ‘hitting on’ and ‘hating on’ have the same meaning, but that they have a similar SOUND.
    Jesus.

  31. AJP Crown says:

    Note to Nidge: Stop it.

  32. Nidge who?
    I don’t really answer to “Jesus”, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.
    Chatting up, yeah that’s the one, chatting up. I knew it was something like that. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get over there. Never had a romance with an English–what’s the word–“bloke”..either. England is just so..so.. finished; Denmark too. I need someplace more wild and woolly.

  33. …the Brits would use “talking (someone) up”
    I’m not sure we would, “Chatting up” maybe. You might “talk up” the reaction you got to impress your friends.
    PK

  34. AJP Crown says:

    Could always try the Antarctic, I guess.

  35. Antarctica is fraught with political turmoil.

  36. I think an American could “talk up” something in the sense of promoting it informally. “Let’s talk up the new advertising campaign.” It’s definitely not a mating strategy.

  37. komfo,amonan says:

    No one has mentioned it explicitly, maybe because it’s obvious, but “hate on” is AAVE AFAIK. Earliest usage example I could find was in Dr. Dre’s “Forgot about Dre”, recorded in 1999. It seems basically to have originally meant “be jealous of”, although I’m sure there’s nuance I’m missing. (Hard to believe Dre is 43.)

  38. Forgot about Dre video, hated on at about 0:18. Language alert.

  39. AJP Crown says:

    Hard to believe Dre is 43
    Does he seem older to you? Yeah, 43, those were the days.

  40. I like “hating on,” though I don’t use it myself. I think John Emerson has it right; this is a usage which indicates an “active” sense. As in, I hate pigeons, but I’m not really “hating on” pigeons until I’m actively throwing rocks at them.
    This usage doesn’t strike me as “new” in any way, as I’ve learned English since it came about, apparently! But I find that I frequently use that “on” after plenty of other verbs to intensify or colorize them. I’d say “Crocodiles eat puppies” most of the time, but “Crocodiles feed on puppies” adds a little dash of narrative flava, doesn’t it?
    What about “kissing on” someone? Kids use this a lot, as in “I saw you kissing on that boy!” It wouldn’t seem that there’s much difference between “kissing” and “kissing on” as used in the above sentence, but the latter certainly seems more titillating, which is kind of the point.

  41. It seems basically to have originally meant “be jealous of”
    Okay, here’s part of the lyrics:

    Y’all know me, still the same O.G., but I been low key
    Hated on by most these niggaz wit no cheese, no deals and no G’s
    No wheels and no keys, no boats no snowmobiles, and no ski’s
    Mad at me cause I can finally afford to provide my family wit groceries
    Got a crib wit a studio and it’s all full of tracks
    to add to the wall full of plaques
    Hangin up in the office in back of my house like trophies
    Did y’all think I’ma let my dough freeze? Hoe please
    You better bow down on both knees
    Who you think taught you to smoke trees?
    Who you think brought you the oldies?

    Yes, jealosy.
    ~I saw you kissing on that boy!
    ~I saw you kissing that boy!
    The extra word seems to put distance between the verb and the object, making it less personal. In the first example the focus is on the kissing, in the second it’s on the boy. To me the second has more emotional value, the first is more neutral, ..cooler? Maybe it would sound different when spoken.

  42. jealosy>jealousy

  43. I’ve been teaching myself languages for years now and I find reading bilingual books to be a great way to learn. There are also lots of different types of flash cards out there. Make sure to try them all and find the ones that work for you. (Check my site for some that I’ve created) It’s important to review vocab ALL the time since it can be hard to actually USE the language with others.

  44. O.k., nobody disagreed with my comment – so I will ask a question: does it imply a prescriptivist mindset if I am slightly puzzled by usages like “the China government” becoming standard in places like the Reuters newsfeed? Also, it´s been explained to me that the “California governor” cannot possibly ever be the Californian governor because he is Austrian. Really? He is not of Austria extraction, is he? Am I wrong in supposing that in a non-prescriptivist world, he would at least occasionally be thought of as being Californian? It appears that there is no such thing as a Germany government. Therefore I am interested in being told if Reuters´ usage just represents linguistic change or if it is definitely the choice of a small minority and could therefore – at least in principle – come to be considered as a case where even non-prescriptivists (who would, I believe, accept competing usages, but not go so far as consent to the linguistic equivalent of Paul Feyerabend´s philosophical slogan “Anything goes”) might raise eyebrows?
    (Note that I´m more interested in an answer to my question than in proving that my interpretation of Feyerabend is correct. Anyone protesting that I´m misusing Feyerabend gets all their wishes granted a priori. Alternatively, I could just describe the viewpoint I have in mind as supply-side linguistics: speakers are always deemed correct and listeners and readers just have to put up with what their eyes and ears are being fed. Doublespeak will no longer be doublespeak but doublehear in the future.)

  45. “Hating on” does not include throwing rocks. It’s also neutral with regard to whether the person hatin’ actually feels hatred or not. In current usage it simply means “to ridicule or verbally attack something, usually unjustifiably.” (I don’t think jealousy is a required component of the definition anymore, although it’s certainly the case that being accused of hatin’ often suggests that one is compensating for one’s own inadequacy). In that sense, it’s certainly less “active” than regular hatred. I can hate on Kanye’s new album even if I just think it’s not impressive.

  46. “the China government” – interesting, that. Football (soccer) commentators now refer to the Denmark team and so on.

  47. does it imply a prescriptivist mindset if I am slightly puzzled by usages like “the China government” becoming standard in places like the Reuters newsfeed?
    Not at all. In the first place, being puzzled by unfamiliar usages is more descriptivist than prescriptivist; descriptivists want to explain, prescriptivists merely to condemn. In the second place, I personally find “the China government” odd and slightly unpleasing; being descriptivist (and thus fully accepting that language change is in the natural order of things) does not mean that one does not have human reactions to language change.
    Also, it´s been explained to me that the “California governor” cannot possibly ever be the Californian governor because he is Austrian. Really?
    No. That’s both wrong and silly.

  48. komfo,amonan says:

    Hard to believe Dre is 43

    Does he seem older to you?

    It seemed as though he should be younger. But I am not up on my rap history. I, too, ‘forgot about Dre’.

  49. AJP Crown says:

    Komfo, I was only joking about Dre’s age because 43 doesn’t seem so old to me (I am 55).

  50. AJP Crown says:

    the China government
    the Denmark team
    the Meissen dinner service

  51. AJP Crown says:

    the Waterford glass

  52. AJP Crown says:

    the Yorkshire Pudding

  53. AJP Crown says:

    …but the Danish pastry

  54. Sleuth “denotes the track of a living creature, in particular the track of a wild animal. . . .” I love the assertion that any other usage is only ‘semi-humorous’ – reminds me of the occasion when one of my school-fellows received on his school report the comment “This boy thinks he’s a wit. He’s only half right.”
    On the other hand, as a word denoting the track of a living creature, ‘sleuth’ is quite evocative: the sleuth of a sloth, for example…

  55. Is THAT what a Yorkshire pudding looks like? It looks like those currach boat thingies the Irish months used to get to Iceland before the Vikings.
    And Kron, I’ve been telling everyone I’m your age, roughly, so I think you should say you’re 39. It’s not like we’re as old as say, Lauren Bacall, I mean, she was born in 1924.

  56. Irish monks. I hate this stupid screen.

  57. Kruunu and Nidge have a complex relationship.

  58. Kruunu and Nidge have a complex relationship.

  59. What is this nidge of which you speak?

  60. A nidge in time saves Stein.

  61. Gesundheit!

  62. In modern Icelandic slóð means tracks or track (path made by people or animals) and it’s also come to mean url.

  63. Sleuth was a Northern form, there are plenty of citations for “slot”, its Southern counterpart, in the meaning of track or trail. Though I personally hadn’t been aware of this meaning before today.

  64. We’re getting perilously close to Derrid’s “spur, spoor, trace”, etc. I say let’s quit.

  65. We’re getting perilously close to Derrid’s “spur, spoor, trace”, etc. I say let’s quit.

  66. R.M. Crown says:

    ‘I am not a quitter’, said Nixon, of reading Derrida.

  67. Jongseong Park says:

    I agree that the other examples are mind-boggling, but the “wholesome for food, healthful for living conditions, and healthy for living beings” bit seems to be the kind of advice that are useful for EFL students, who are not familiar with the nuances of those synonyms. Such usage guides come in many dictionaries of English, both those intended for native speakers and those for learners, and are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because some rule-lovers will happily pick these up and make them into The Law doesn’t mean these guides are entirely worthless.

  68. True, and a good point to keep in mind.

  69. the “wholesome for food, healthful for living conditions, and healthy for living beings” bit seems to be the kind of advice that are useful for EFL students
    Really? You think it’d be useful to non-native speakers if they went around saying strange words like “healthful” and eschewed impeccable phrases like “healthy snack”?
    Like Hat, though, I do agree with the principle that “Just because some rule-lovers will happily pick these up and make them into The Law doesn’t mean these guides are entirely worthless.”

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