Commenter Jim G on Mark Liberman’s recent Language Log posting about Charles Krauthammer and passive/active voice:

The Language Loggers have twice found my quibble-button today.

You could have gone all day without using ‘reference’ as a verb, and I’d have been happier as a result.

And Prof. Pullum had earlier upset my pepsia by writing [here] that he was going to ruminate over lunch, although he was probably going to ruminate the lunch itself while he was thinking.

My main purpose in this posting is to ask what the point of this quibbling is. But there are some other matters to clear up before that.

First, another commenter pointed out that OED2 has cites for intransitive ruminate in the sense ‘muse, meditate, ponder’ from the 16th century on (one from 1575, then a 1591 cite from Shakespeare). There are also cites (from 1574) for this verb in combination with various prepositions, among them about (which is the way Geoff Pullum used it). The sense ‘chew the cud’ (reflecting the verb’s etymology) is still available for reference to ruminants, but the verb’s principal use these days (and for some considerable time now) is in the (originally metaphorical) ‘think deeply’ sense.

Second, Mark Liberman in this posting and Geoff Pullum in another Krauthammer posting did not use reference as a verb. They quoted Krauthammer using it, about Barack Obama:

On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, …

They could hardly be expected to edit Krauthammer’s words to suit Jim G’s tastes.

Third, I assume that the usage Jim G is objecting to is to the verb reference as an alternative to refer to or make reference to. There are two other current uses of reference as a verb for which these alternatives aren’t available: a bookish sense ‘provide with references, give a reference to (a passage)’ (in OED2 from 1891 on) and a more recent scientific/technical use related to reference point (‘relate (a measurement) to a defined base or zero level’), in OED2 from 1971 on.

So the objection can’t be to verbing the noun reference in general, but to certain instances of this verbing — instances that some people find unnecessary, because there already are ways of saying this. This is a standard objection to verbings — that verbings are pointless innovations. But again and again it turns out that although in many contexts the alternatives seem to be interchangeable, in certain contexts some people see subtle differences between them.

I don’t have any particular insight into the reference/make reference to/refer to case, but I do note that all three (plus make a reference to and make references to) are robustly attested. “He referred to” gets a huge number of raw Google webhits (1,840,000, possibly reflecting a wide range of meanings for refer), but the other two get substantial numbers (86,800 for “he made reference to”, 87,200 for “he referenced”). You might not like reference as a verb, but you’re going to have to live with it.

Now to quibbling. There’s a rich literature of venting about language (see my latest discussion on Language Log, here), in particular in peeveblogging. Here’s Jan Freeman in a recent “The Word” column:

Peeveblogging, as Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has named it, is ideally suited to the medium [of the Web]. Instead of boring your friends with your obsession, you put up a blog devoted to misuses of literally, or apostrophe protection, or business buzzwords. Commenters, too, now have a safe place to show off their peeves. Quote, bemoan, repeat at the next thread, ad infinitum.

Some people go beyond this. People send me e-mail saying that they dislike some usage in my writing, and people insert comments in other people’s blogs objecting to the bloggers’ usages. That is, they say, I don’t like this.

At which point, I ask: why are these people telling me what they don’t like, and doing that in my e-mail and blogs? Perhaps they just want to demonstrate their superiority, but the message I get is: Don’t offend me; stop doing this. And I resent this imposition, bridle at it. Where do you get off, telling me to write and talk the way you’d like?

I rarely reply to these messages.

4 Responses to “Quibbling”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Ugh! You’ve used “venting” intransitively! Shame on you, sir!

    Actually, I usually find transitive>intransitive conversion more appealing/less grating than noun>verb conversion. Maybe because the gap being bridged is smaller. Or maybe it’s just me.

  2. John Baker Says:

    Arnold, I would like to commend you on leaving comments open. I know that you feel that they often produce nothing of value but, with rare exceptions, I think it’s helpful to enable a discussion.

    Turning to your substantive point, I think that there are two questions involved: Why do people feel compelled to comment on what they see as others’ poor usage, and why specifically do they do it by bringing the message to you, by (in this case) making a comment to a blog post. The first question is the more interesting for our purposes, since the second is just a matter of personal etiquette.

    I think that many people have a sense of defending against (what they see as) a complete loss of standards, that it falls by default to them to salvage what remains of the mother tongue. In carrying out this mission, are they going to attack clear and obvious errors, of which there are many on Language Log? No, there is no merit in that, when anybody can see that it’s a mistake. The place to direct one’s attention is to the margin, the increasing encroachments on “correct” usage.

    And, in truth, I’m not totally opposed to this sentiment. For example, I am totally in sympathy with the recent Language Log posts on the misuse of the term “passive voice.” But it turns out that people who take this view are almost always wrong. The reason why the perceived “mistakes” are so common is that they are not mistakes at all. One might here interject commentary on the state of language instruction, though typically the problem is not so much the lack of it as the things people are taught that just aren’t so.

    Still, the adherents of correctness have a cri de coeur, and it must be heard. Typically lacking their own pulpit, they naturally gravitate to that of the original speaker. Besides, isn’t it their duty to bring others’ errors to their attention? And so quibblers such as JimG suppose that they have educated professional linguists on language.

  3. peeve vocabulary « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Just another WordPress.com weblog « Quibbling […]

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly: there are two main routes to intransitivization: by “preposition addition” and by “object deletion”. I’ve posted to Language Log several times about intransitivizing P addition, but not about intransitivizing object deletion, although there’s a considerable literature on it. In the first case the constructions have an overt NP denoting a notional object, but it appears as an oblique object rather than a direct object. In the second case the constructions are “understood transitively”, but there’s no overt NP denoting a notional object; instead, a referent is supplied from context or background information. The object that is missing can be a direct object (as in “Kim ate”) or an oblique object (as in “I object!”).

    Many instances of the second sort of intransitivization are of considerable age, but new ones appear every so often. Intransitive “vent” ‘vent feelings, opinions’ seems to be new enough not to have made it into the OED. A Google Books search on “I was just venting” pulls up some instances where “venting” has a direct object (venting frustration, rage, etc.), and some intransitives of the form “venting about X”, and quite a few of “venting” on its own — in several books a year from 2001 on; the earliest hit for this very particular expression is in the 1998 book Face-Time. No doubt earlier instances of intransitive “vent” can be found.

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