Zombie rules I: blame, love, graduate

Jan Freeman’s Boston Globe column on usage advice that hasn’t aged well includes several items that are simply astounding to modern speakers and readers (sleuth can only mean ‘track, footprint’, according to some people), but there are some others that have trudged on, zombie-like, to recent times. (And then there’s have got / ‘ve got vs. have, where there are complex dialectal differences in usage.) Three in particular: blame on, love for like, and graduate from.

1. Blame. Mark Liberman and I posted on blame on (“blame the failure on the software” vs. “blame the software for the failure”) a while back on Language Log. This was a hot usage item a hundred years ago, but the blame on variant has become entirely standard. Nevertheless, the proscription against blame on stuck around in usage advice for many years — MWDEU lists 16 items from 1906 through 1983 — and Mark and I were astonished to see it in Bryan Garner’s Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (2000), in this sniffy advice:

In the best usage, one blames a person; one does not, properly, blame a thing on a person. E.g.: “I blame the fires on him.” (Read: I blame him for the fires .)

The Blame Zombie lurches on.

2. Love. I recall this one from any number of schoolteachers in my childhood who chastised kids for saying (or, worse, writing) things like “I love ice cream”; you cannot love food, movies, sleep, etc., we were told. MWDEU reports that others were taught the same thing, but that this advice seems to have petered out in the advice manuals; Evans & Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American English (1957), is the last proscription of this use of love that MWDEU found.

MWDEU notes that the OED tried to draw a distinction between two senses: ‘to have a strong liking for; to be fond of; to be devoted or addicted to’ (listed without any usage label) and a sense synonymous with like (stigmatized as a frequent vulgarism in the U.S.). This distinction is preserved in a very recent revision of the entry, but the second (‘to like, to be partial to’) is now labeled “chiefly U.S. regional (south. and south Midland)”.

Like the MWDEU staff, I find it largely impossible to draw a clear line between the two senses, a stronger vs. a weaker liking. And though love ‘like’ was listed as an Americanism in 1859, the cites that clearly illustrate this “weakened” use are in interrogative offers like “Do you love pumpkin pie?” and “Do you love sass [apple sauce]?”, which might indeed be regional U.S. Otherwise, the cites, from both British and American sources and spread over centuries, have people loving (that is, liking a lot) all sorts of things — just the usage that some schoolteachers inveighed against in decades past.

MWDEU concludes, “Let’s be glad that this issue seems to have died.” But I’d guess that the Love Zombie hasn’t been entirely put down; there are probably some people who have it on their list of pet peeves in language.

3. Graduate. The point at issue is the choice between the two patterns

(2) STUDENT(S) graduate from INSTITUTION

“Princeton graduated many students in June” vs. “Many students graduated from Princeton in June”. This is a classic “diathesis alternation” situation, with the participants in some situation differently aligned with syntactic arguments in different constructions (blame on vs. blame for is another diathesis alternation). The pattern in (1) is the older one, and if that’s the only pattern you have, then the way to get STUDENT(S) into subject position is via the passive:

(1′) STUDENT(S) be graduated from/by INSTITUTION

“Many students were graduated by/from Princeton in June”. (By would be the expected preposition here, but from is also possible, and I believe that from is in fact more common — though my judgments here count for little, since both (1) and (1′) are unnatural for me.)

In any case, the pattern in (1′) is still possible, but it’s judged by many to be distinctly old-fashioned; (2) is the norm these days. Still, it’s not hard to find people inveighing against (2) — it’s a fairly frequent item on pet peeves lists — on the grounds that it fails to Include All Necessary Words; the claim is that (2) involves “dropping” the “necessary” form of be. (Yes, I know, the reasoning here turns out to be circular when you look at it carefully.)

[MWDEU has a nice account of the history of these usages, plus some discussion of the transitive version of (2) —


(“Many students graduated Princeton in June”), which is more recent and is still, I think, non-standard, though it’s very common.]

In any case, the ship sailed on (2) some time ago, but there are still people reviling it as an alternative to (1) or (1′). The Graduate Zombie has some legs.

9 Responses to “Zombie rules I: blame, love, graduate”

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  3. Alex O'Neal Says:

    I love it! A beautiful explication of language zombies. I blogged about why zombie ideas are dangerous in 2007 (see linked website), but seeing you show how they pervade language itself emphasizes the danger even more. If you corrupt language, you corrupt thought.

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