Thomas wrote: I disagree that prescriptive linguists are, ipso facto, peddling myths.
September 17, 2004
SIDNEY GOLDBERG ON NYT GRAMMAR: ZERO FOR THREE
Sidney Goldberg at The National Review claims that the reputed 150 copy editors over at The New York Times are either illiterate or asleep. He fulminates; he positively foams at the mouth about it. Naturally, Language Log felt it had to investigate. And having had my rabies shots, I was handed this plum assignment. So let's take a look.
The article begins with grumbles that are entirely about spelling. The Times twice misspelled lectern as lecturn; once misspelled "took effect" as "took affect"; and often misspells the preterite form of the verb lead as lead. (It should be led. Nasty little point, that: the metal known as lead has the sound of led but the spelling of lead; and meanwhile the verb read has a preterite that rhymes with led but has the spelling read, which looks like lead, only led is not spelled lead... Are you confused? Then it shouldn't be you that casts the first stone.) I'm with Goldberg all the way on these: these are spelling errors, and you've just got to get your spelling right.
So at this point I was hoping for some grammar examples to get us into more serious territory, but instead Goldberg wanders off for a while into a strange tirade against the The New York Times for ridiculing Dan Quayle, who long ago misspelled potato as potatoe when MC-ing a spelling bee (his flashcard was wrong), but not writing any jokey stories about how Chief Justice Warren Burger used to misspell homicide as "homocide" and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (whose papers were recently released) used to circle the misspelling angrily when commenting on the Chief Justice's draft opinions.
However, Goldberg finally pulls himself out of this bitter rumination on political bias: "All of this concerns orthographic ignorance," he says; "But the Times commits innumerable errors in syntax and style as well. "Innumerable" you say? Aha! I'm all ears: I'm waiting for a long, juicy list of errors of syntax and style. Unfortunately, only three are supplied, and only one is illustrated from The Times itself.
1. That and which. The first charge is that the Times "consistently proves that it does not know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ greatly favoring the latter." There's only one thing he could be alluding to here: he's one of those people who believe the old nonsense about which being disallowed in what The Cambridge Grammar calls integrated relative clauses (the old-fashioned term is "restrictive" or "defining" relative clauses). Strunk and White perpetuate that myth. I've discussed it elsewhere. The notion that phrases like any book which you would want to read are ungrammatical is so utterly in conflict with the facts that you can refute it by looking in... well, any book which you would want to read. As I said before about which in integrated relatives:
As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative with which, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:
A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%...
Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you've read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.
May 17, 2004
MORE TIMEWASTING GARBAGE, ANOTHER COPY-EDITING MORON
Mark Pilgrim is nearly done with his (online) python programming book Dive Into Python, but is currently being subjected to that bane of the author's life, the copy editing phase.
Dive into Python is almost finished. ... Now the copy editor is wielding her virtual pen and striking through every word I’ve ever written. Incorporating her revisions is simultaneously humbling, enlightening, and mind-numbingly tedious.
Here are the main things I’ve learned so far:
I use have to when I mean need to.
I misplace the word only. Instead of you can only walk through a stream once, the copy editor prefers you can walk through a stream only once.
I use lots when I mean a lot.
I use which when I mean that.
I overuse footnotes to be cute. This is a bad habit I picked up from the interactive fiction version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the infamous footnote 12.
I use like when I mean such as.
I use then immediately after a comma, when I mean and then.
I overuse semicolons for no particular reason except that I’ve always liked them.
I use note when I mean notice, and vice-versa.
I use we when I mean you. As we saw in the previous chapter… We’ll work through this example line by line. And so forth. Apparently we won’t be working through this example. You will be working through this example; I will be in the Bahamas drinking my royalty check.
Well, I don't know who is paying that copy editor, but if she were working for me she would be toast, because every single thing about English grammar here is wrong.
There are some style suggestions included: don't overuse footnotes, don't be too liberal with the rather literary device of the semicolon. On things like this, advice from an opinionated reader or a publisher with style guidelines can be helpful. I won't say anything about them. And the last point is also about style, though I think the style advice is dead wrong: inviting the reader into your deliberations and saying as we saw in the previous chapters feels much warmer and more supportive than the alternatives (as I stated in the previous chapters is all pay-attention-to-me, and as you saw in the previous chapters suggests authorial omniscience about the reader's mental state). But the rest (familiar copy-editor changes all) are based on nothing more or less than flatly false claims about what is grammatical in contemporary Standard English. This copy editor should be told not just to lay off, but to go to school and take a serious grammar course. Enough of these 19th-century snippets of grammatical nonsense that waste authors' time all over the English-speaking world. Let me go through the grammar points on which poor Mark is being corrected, one by one:
They are, Thomas, and they have been peddling these myths for a good long time. Unfortunately, time can't help in changing a myth to a truism.
. . . but what "myths" are you talking about?
Quote:. . . but what "myths" are you talking about?
This is like jumping into the middle of somebody else's conversation, but what "myths" are you talking about?
Yeah, a lot of those things on your list are more in the nature of "myths" than grammatical rules, but then that doesn't mean that all grammatical rules are myths.
For instance, the rule about forming possessives is pretty useful, and it's worth getting it right (even though Strunk & White don't get it entirely correct). Adding "apostrophe s" to all singular possessives isn't a myth, and a prescriptivist would be entirely correct to say that "Charles' chair" isn't right, even though a descriptivist might point out many instances where the possessive of "Charles" is formed just by adding an apostrophe.
Those aren't the rules I was talking about, Joe. [Did S&W ever get anything correct?] Those are merely conventions for an artificial part of language, that of spelling and punctuation.
To bravely go into the fray..
Is prescriptivism a word in the language world? I am unknowledgeable here. I'd have guessed it as 'proscriptivism'.
I'm not sure I understand your distinction here. How is the rule on forming possessives any more or less of an artificial convention than the "rule" about not splitting infinitives?
Form the possessive of a singular noun by adding an apostrophe and an s. Follow this rule no matter what the final letter.
the child’s ball
the boss’s memo
Joan Baez’s concert
Writing is an artificial construct. It's been cobbled together in order to replicate the sounds we make in speech.
In speech, we can and do form the possessive for names ending in 's' in two ways; [don't be put off by the location of the apostrophe]
This is Charles' chair.
This is Charles's chair.
But for writing, an artificial construct [underlined above] has been created to handle an issue that relates to writing. As you well know, there are a large number of these artificial constructs for writing. There's one now, that little dot thing just before "There's".
'that' for restrictive clauses vs 'which' for non-restrictive
No 'can' for permission
No 'was' for the subjunctive mood
No sentence ending prepositions
No conjunctions to start sentences
The President and the pronoun
August 3, 2009 @ 11:17 am · Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Language and politics, Prescriptivist Poppycock, singular "they"
A nice example of the way singular they works was overlooked (like health care, the economy, and everything else in the past week of "racial politics") during the brouhaha over President Obama's press conference remarks about the arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Obama said:
. . . the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.
Why would he use they and their, when the antecedent, somebody, is syntactically singular, and we actually know that the somebody he is talking about in this case was Professor Henry Louis Gates, who is male? Why did he not say proof that he was in his own home?
The answer is: that is not how things work in contemporary Standard English. Obama (and any native speaker) would use he if the antecedent were a name: he would say The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Professor Gates when there was already proof that he was in his own home. (The version with they would be The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Professor Gates when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and that could only have the absurd meaning that the police officers in question were in their home.) But antecedents like somebody are different.
Again, Gardner (2003) is perfectly fine with the singular "they".
Judging by your examples so far, your real problem is not with prescriptivists as opposed to descriptivists. It's with wannabe linguists with chips on their shoulders, as opposed to real linguists.