Archive for the ‘Usage advice’ Category

Getting it all wrong

December 2, 2014

Back on November 3rd, Ben Zimmer posted on Language Log about another episode in the New Yorker‘s getting usage issues (“descriptive” vs. “prescriptive”) wrong, especially when Steve Pinker is involved: “Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions”, in which

another New Yorker critic, Nathan Heller, makes a mess of things in his review of Pinker’s book The Sense of Style. [“Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar”]

Heller accuses Pinker of “sentences [that] do not add up” and says that his usage suggestions “actually make the language more confused.” But I found Heller’s piece to be deeply confused, even while it purports to elevate clarity above all else.

Ben is actually being kind here; what Heller wrote is a monstrous fruitcake of flat-out wrongness, misunderstandings of both terminology and facts, and unexpressed (and confused) assumptions about language.


Paralellism watch

November 17, 2014

Read this sentence, from “G.O.P. Senate Challenger in Alaska Wins” by Kirk Johnson, NYT 11/13/14, p. A23, quickly and, as far as you can manage it, without reflecting on its syntax:

His Senate race featured bruising attacks, including a pro-Begich television ad suggesting that Mr. Sullivan was soft on a crime – a claim that many voters scoffed at and angered others.

And then note any responses you have to it.

(Yes, yes, I know, it’s hard to behave in an everyday unmonitored way in a context that calls attention to language.)


Monday quartet

November 10, 2014

Four varied cartoons in this morning’s crop: a Zits on address terms; a Scenes From a Multiverse on ; a Rhymes With Orange on case-marking of pronouns with than; and a Zippy reviving Doggie Diner.





One by one …


Not ending with a preposition

September 13, 2014

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm:

Not ending a sentence with a preposition is one of those grammar myths debunked by virtually every usage authority. Here it surfaces in the supremely silly version that you should never end a sentence with “a preposition”. Note that the proscription violates itself.


Three diverse

May 21, 2014

This morning: a classic Doonesbury on foul language; a Rhymes With Orange citing the spurious “rule” that an English clause must not end in a preposition; and a Zippy looking back at an ad icon of the 1940s and 50s (“drink more flavored liqueurs”, says Judge Arrow).


Less captions

February 28, 2014

Recently from mild-mannered editor John McIntyre (as he describes himself on the net), this captioned page (which he got from Chris Green on Facebook), entitled “Pedants’ Revolt” — a play on “Peasants’ Revolt” —  from an illuminated manuscript, captioned with usage advice:

There is a considerable literature, in the handbooks, on Language Log, and this blog, on the choice between less and fewer. The usual story is that less is to be used for mass nouns (less shrubbery) and fewer for count nouns (fewer shrubs) — for the opposite concept, more is used in both situations — but there is variation, even for educated and careful writers, and some circumstances where less is clearly impinging on fewer; I myself see no point in objecting to the grocery store usage ten items or less. The case above is not so clear.

(I don’t know the source of the manuscript page, or the identity of the captioner.)

More Recency Illusion

February 24, 2014

From Tom Grano, a CBS News report from yesterday, from Bill Flanagan, representing the “grammar police”:

Time now for a public service announcement from our contributor and first-person-singular-pronoun policeman Bill Flanagan of VH1:

I know it sounds snobby to point this out, but in the last 10 or 15 years, millions of intelligent English-speaking people have become flummoxed by when to use “I,” and when to use “me.” You hear it all the time:

Are you coming to the movie with Madonna and I?
Won’t you join Oprah and I for dinner?
The Trumps are throwing a party for Barack and I.

It’s embarrassing!

At least people who mess up the other way — “Goober and me are going to town” — sound folksy, colloquial, down-to-Earth. But people who say “I” when they should say “me” sound like they are trying to be sophisticated and they’re getting it wrong.

There’s a lot to criticize here. But I’ll start with the phenomenon, known in the syntax business as the Nominative Conjoined Object (NomConjObj for short) and the claim that it’s arisen only recently.



December 31, 2013

On the Baltimore Sun blog on the 4th, a piece by John McIntyre on last and past, “Not, unfortunately, the last word”, beginning:

No sooner do I put up a post about copy editors’ preoccupation with dog-whistle distinctions than someone turns up commenting on a post from 2011 on the newspaper last/past crotchet

What’s at issue is the ambiguity of last.


Not dead, but…

June 10, 2013

A postcard from Chris Ambidge, with a lovely quotation from a May 31, 1811 letter of Jane Austen’s:

Letting her correspondent down gently: rather than asserting baldly that the mulberry trees are not alive (or even more baldy, that they are dead), Austen merely appears to be reporting her mental state about the matter, her fears. Nevertheless, afraid with a complement clause is often used to convey the content of the complement clause; the hedging with afraid in such cases is a matter of politeness, rather than truth value. Which understanding is intended is something you have to work out from the context.


Spouse vocabulary

February 21, 2013

The AP Stylebook, which I often mock for its attention to entirely inconsequential details and its belief that it could legislate these details for writers all over the US, sometimes takes on somewhat weightier matters. Today, a revision:

husband, wife: Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.

This is nicely nuanced in one way: it says that husband and wife are acceptable, but doesn’t require those usages, offering alternatives. On the other hand, it assumes (without mentioning it) that husband and wife will be used with appropriate sex reference (husband for a man, wife for a woman), rather than by role reference (husband for the more dominant partner, wife for the more submissive partner, leaving a lot of room for deciding on what constitutes dominance/submission).



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