My wife asked if she should turn off the radio yesterday morning while we were listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition; I said no, the stimulation of hollering at the radio was good for me. What occasioned my high blood pressure and her solicitude was an interview with James Cochrane, a former editor at Penguin Books who’s written the latest in an endless series of interchangeable English-is-going-to-hell books, with entries on all the usual suspects: disinterested/uninterested, comprised/composed, free gift, you know the drill. What particularly got my goat, however, was an especially ill-informed rant about may and might; alas, just as I was composing my own rant in response, my site (for mysterious reasons) used up its bandwidth allotment for the month and I was unable to post. Now I don’t have to compose a detailed analysis of the man’s idiocy, because Geoff Pullum (“Q: Is James Cochran, then, nothing but a mendacious pontificating old windbag? A: Yes, it would appear that he is an utter fraud.”) and Arnold Zwicky (“he’s also ignorant, lazy, and self-important”) have done it for me. Thanks, Language Log! And don’t anybody buy that book, or I’ll have to smack you upside the head.


  1. Rants about how English is going to hell in a handbasket are going to hell in a handbasket!
    But in fact if one switches to a sufficiently sociolinguistic point of view then these such traffic-accidents of analytic incompetence become data (about the linguistic taboos and conservatism of tribal, if soi-disant elders with respect to the ceremonial registers of which they feel themselves to be custodians) rather than theory (in which capacity they are manifestly utterly useless).
    Why refute, when you can dissect? (It’s a von Bladet family motto, although the metaphorical scalpel has lately replaced the literal halberd, thanks to so-called “political correctness”.)

  2. Non refello sed disseco, eh? With a halberd sable on a field gules?

  3. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    One would think, what with all the political garbage going unreported, that NPR would have something better to do with its airtime than to devote several minutes to snarky prescriptivists. But, alas, one would be wrong. If you’d prefer not to holler at the radio, try tuning into the Beeb’s “My Word”. (by the way, I always thought the phrase was “to hell in a handbucket” — can’t chalk it up to the eggcorn phenomenon, just plain ignorance!) (but then again, a basket is somehow too delicate for a place like hell.)

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    It could, and has been, worse. KPBS in San Diego has a locally produced program “A Way With Words”. It used to be co-hosted by Richard Lederer and Charles Harrington Elster. Lederer is mostly harmless, being more of a whacky word games type than a shout-and-spout curmudgeon. But Elster is very much of the latter sort. His specialty is pronunciation, using name-calling to disparage anyone who pronounces a word in a way he doesn’t favor. I listened to the show a few times over the internet. It mostly consists of callers asking questions, with one host engaging the caller in idle chit-chat while the other looks up the answer. But I heard one program where one of them worked himself in a circle on some point of prescriptive usage, concluding that the received rule doesn’t actually make sense. He realized what he had done, and fell back on saying that we must follow the rule anyway, because it’s the rule. I wish I had taken notes on the specifics, because it was priceless. In any case, Elster has since left the show and been replaced by “author/journalist” Martha Barnette. I’m not familiar with her, but books include _Ladyfingers and Nun’s Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names_ and _Dog Days and Dandelions: A Lively Guide to the Animal Meanings Behind Everyday Words_. I suspect that she is largely benign. I wouldn’t trust anything she said without verification, but she doesn’t sound like she is making a career out of intimidating people.
    WNYC’s Leonard Lopate has Patricia O’Conner on as a regular guest to talk about language. She is woefully unqualified, but relatively benign as these things go.
    The only actual linguist who appears regularly on NPR is Geoffrey Nunberg, with his commentaries on “Fresh Air”: yet another reason to respect Terry Gross.

  5. Yes, I always perk up when she announces his name.

  6. DvB: the data for what, later theorizing? By new, better qualified socio-linguist?
    Ah, those natural cycles…

  7. Tatyana: It’s one of the social processes governing langwidge, in particular formal/ceremonial registers, isn’t it?
    So a sociologist of langwidge would be interested in how these discourses were organised, and the conception of langwidge that they exhibit.
    And it’s one of the few true langwidge universals discovered to date: I’ve never heard of (and I have certainly listened) a society where tedious old farts didn’t complain that the kids today with their slang and their grammar!

  8. I believe that that was also the White Queen’s slogan, wasn’t it? In English, “Off with their heads!”

  9. Yes, among the Esquimeaux the elders are always reminding the kids to use the correct words for the various kinds of snow — the snow that “from the distance looks like flies”, for example.

  10. I didn’t even know the Esquimaux had an emperor!

  11. Was he the Emperor of Ice Cream?

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