I keep forgetting to mention an incident that happened the other day while my wife and I were waiting in the waiting room (in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks). It was a tiny waiting room, with two chairs across from us and three on our side (one of them strategically placed beneath the receptionist’s window so that it was unusable), and when two women entered and sat opposite us it was impossible not to overhear their conversation. One of them was eighty (she gave her birthdate to the receptionist), the other perhaps in her forties—they were on good terms but didn’t seem to be close friends or relatives (the younger woman said “my husband” rather than mention him by name). There were some striking moments, as when the octogenarian said “They give you last rites in the machine that kills you” (and no, I don’t know what she was talking about), but the one of Languagehat relevance came a little later, when the younger woman was telling a story and the older one interrupted: “You made a mistake.” The younger woman looked puzzled. “You said ‘all them boys.’ It should be those: ‘all those boys.'” “All those boys,” the other repeated obediently, with an air of gratitude, and continued her story.

It was the perfect distillation of prescriptivism, the pure essence. This was not a parent or teacher correcting a child, preparing him or her for the demands of society, nor was it an editor fixing up a bit of wayward prose; there was no rational excuse for it, no clarification of an ambiguous reference or anything else that might fall under the “communication” rubric trotted out by the mavens as they insist on their shibboleths. This was two adults talking as equals, communication was perfect, a story was being told, and yet this woman felt the need to interrupt the storyteller with what from any rational standpoint was a completely gratuitous “correction.” And yet neither party felt it as such; the older woman clearly expected her interlocutor to accept the rebuke without demur, and she was not disappointed. If I could understand exactly what was happening there on both ends, I would have a better handle on what usage griping is all about. But I don’t.

While I’m here, let me apologize for the outage this morning; my domain had expired (warnings were sent to a defunct e-mail address, it’s a long story), and I had some anxious moments before, my domain name provider, fixed things, excellent fellows that they are. I was terrified some internet vulture was sitting around just waiting to scoop up my helpless domain and I’d never get it back; I had to contemplate the horrible prospect of Life Without Languagehat. It made me realize how much a part of my life you are, Gentle Readers, in your capacities as charming players of conversational badminton as well as providers of nuggets of elusive fact—and I seek those nuggets as eagerly as my cat Pushkin seeks lost corks and artificial mice, I claw at Google and reference works as assiduously as he claws at the gap under the refrigerator (where such things so often wind up), and I am as grateful to those of you who provide them as Pushkin is to my wife when she fetches the broom, sweeps the handle under the fridge, and pulls out the ardently desired playthings. And if in aught I have given offense, I do heartily repent me. I seem to have lost at least one internet pal of whom I was inordinately fond, owing to some pronunciamento I don’t even remember pronouncing, and I’ve had enough friends and acquaintances drift away in the course of my life not to want to lose more. I grew up arguing with brothers and friends, and self-assured ideamongering is the stuff of lively conversation to me, to be enjoyed as sportier folk enjoy a good game of handball; I tend to forget that when the ball bounces wrong, people can get hurt. If bluff and bluster be a fault, God help the wicked! No, my good readers; banish Kos, banish Wonkette, banish Instapundit: but for sweet Languagehat, kind Languagehat, true Languagehat, valiant Languagehat, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Languagehat, banish not him your company!


  1. Thou be not banished from mine humble eyes, forsooth! An thou wert, twould be an horrible day indeed. And prithee, tweakest thou this poor untimely prose to thine heart’s content, for thy prose-tweaking hath risen to high art, and not the low mucking that is my wont.

  2. One of my great-aunts, upon turning eighty, said that the best part of passing that milestone was that you could say anything you wanted to, no matter how crazy, and nobody would mind. Which may explain some of what was going on. The old lady felt entitled, by virtue of age, to interrupt and correct; the younger one tolerated this behavior as nuttiness normal to geezerhood.

  3. Beshrew me if a Steve by any other name would not sound as sweet; as for those others you mentioned, I banished ’em long ago. But yon beldame’s meaning methinks was as plain as a pikestaff: she was correcting a fault not in comprehension but in courtoisie. “All them boys” may be well enough for rag, tag, and bobtail, but most sternly to be avoided when having speech with a lady.
    The “”machine that kills you” mayhap is what now we call an “assisted suicide device”, and ‘twould astony me not if a canting teacher of some sect might administer what he suppos’d the last rites to a sufferer therein.
    Good Joel, ’tis “tweak thou” thou mean’st, sithen the mood of thy sentence be Imperative, or in plain English, a command.

  4. This doesn’t strike me as an example of pure prescriptivism in the pernicious sense – where the prescriptivist is really expressing his self-perceived moral superiority over those who speak differently. This example is actually quite sweet – it sounds more like an older lady trying to keep a fading speech tradition alive among a younger generation.

  5. To Master Cowan mine hat, had I one, I would most humbly doff. I heartily commend thee for correcting my command and, withal, leaving my glamour so well betwoken.

  6. My lord, no leave take I, for I will ride
    As far as land will let me by your side.
    “To me, the best thing about Leonardo’s Sistine Chapel–”
    “No dear, it was Michelangelo.”
    “Oh, OK. The best thing about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel…”

  7. This were worthy Discourse for Holye Weeke, Joel and eke John. (“Et poures le Jeudy absolu!” comme diroient nos confrères de France.) This many a day have I not borne witness to high sentence of like Temper, nay nor yet such an infinitesimale Studye of right speache, brother John. Easter benisons vpon you bothe!

  8. Martin,
    I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered ‘geezerhood’ applied equally to both genders. Perhaps we’ve crossed a new and welcome threshold in that regard.

  9. If I could understand exactly what was happening there on both ends, …

    That’s exactly the sort of correction I love having in a second language. If I sound very different than I intend and I’m not aware of it, please tell me.

  10. I had occasion, as a small child, to tell my principal – a nun, that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital the night before. I was upset, and began my sentence, “My grandmother… (I hesitated, she was Granny to me) she…” And Sr. interrupted to correct my grammar.
    “Not ‘my grandmother, she.’ Just ‘my grandmother.’ She told me sharply, hurtfully.
    I finished my sentence, and vowed never to voluntarily speak to her again. There are times to correct grammar, and times not to.

  11. It’s not complicated– prescriptivism enforces a social norm, not a linguistic norm.

  12. MattF: indeed, and even more that that: most “lingustic” norms are social norms applied to speech. Also, old people as bearers of tradition are responsible for passing it on to the young, who are in their turn responsible for keeping it, modified as necessary. Nothing wrong with it if you ask me. The wrong kind of prescriptivist has nothing to support her purist contentions except her purely linguistic ideas; the right kind has extralinguistic authority.

  13. David Marjanović says

    leaving my glamour so well betwoken
    Betwixt? 😉

  14. “Function is the key/
    Inside the waiting room” – Fugazi

  15. The question of “geezer” and “geezerhood” calls attention to the divergence between British and American English. In British English the sense of “man” is the primary one, so geezerhood might be read as “manhood” or “dudehood” (but with a slight pejorative implication?). In my own American English, a geezer is still an old man, but its shift to ungendered old age has apparently happened for Martin, if I’m not mistaken. This range of meanings makes it especially entertaining for Americans to listen to the UK Garage song “Geezers Need Excitement” by The Streets, with the chorus “Geezers need excitement/ If their lives don’t provide them this they incite violence.” It cracked me up, at least.

  16. Joel,
    I’m happy to have struck a blow for gender neutrality in geezerhood.

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