Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics

For someone so progressive, Sam Smith is shamefully conservative with language.

Advertisements

In researching a book on English usage (called Junk English; review coming soon), I came across an article from 2007 by Sam Smith, the journalist, essayist and co-founder of Green Party. Smith’s article is a lesson in how to NOT write about language, as he gets a number of things wrong. One day I’ll write a general post about these kinds of articles, but for now, let’s go through Smith’s post and see where the train goes off the tracks.

The article starts with this:

Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”

Ugh. Like, gag me with a spoon. This kind of comment is a red flag inside a bell inside a whistle telling me that what is about to come is going to be a bunch of pretentious crap about the good ol’ days when people knew how to use The Language (a time which was probably also when Sam Smith was in his thirties; when he was looking forward to his life, not back on it) Continue reading “Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics”

25 words That Do Mean What You Think They Do

These words mean exactly what you think they mean. And dictionaries are here to back you up.

An article in Mental Floss called “25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do” attempts to educate readers on the One True Meaning™ of words in a listicle. It’s written by Paul Anthony Jones, who runs the Haggard Hawks account on Twitter and has written several books on language. I like Haggard Hawks and I enjoyed Jones’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4. That’s what makes this article so puzzling. It takes a prescriptivist stance in the meaning of words, claiming for the most part that what the words in the list originally meant is what they mean now. I find this position wrongheaded and contradictory. Words change meaning, which I’m sure Jones has no problem acknowledging, but to insist that their original meaning (or some former meaning) is the only one that’s correct is like claiming that women shouldn’t have the right to vote because, well… they used to not have the right to vote. Things change, and you either change with them or you will be left out. Language is no different in this regard.

What’s especially strange about this position (and the Mental Floss article) is that the history of English undermines the argument itself. For example, is there a certain date we can look back to when a word’s meaning was “correct”? The word deer originally meant any animal that was hunted. Are we using it wrong when we refer to what everyone knows of as a deer? No. Likewise, the word nice originally meant foolish. Now it means nice. There are scores more words like this in English. So why do some words deserve a place on lists like the one in the Mental Floss article while others do not?

Speaking of undermining the argument, the Mental Floss article references dictionaries which directly undermine the article’s claims. Lexicographers today use corpora (databases of language) to determine the meaning of words. When there are several meanings, dictionaries usually list them in descending order of how frequently each is used. Not every dictionary does this, but Merriam-Webster does and that’s the one that the Mental Floss references. (Macmillan does too)

Let’s take a look at the words in the list and see what’s going on. To be perfectly clear, this article claims that “in the dictionary […] there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted”. Dictionaries are written by lexicographers and their first job is to discover what words mean. So this article is basically saying that lexicographers aren’t doing their job. The first salvo made in the article is an attack on the figurative use of literally. It’s not on the listicle (thankfully), so I’m not going to cover it. You can see how the “misuse” of figurative literally has been confirmed to death here and here.

I won’t go through the whole listicle. Some of the entries on it are correct. For example, the first item on the listicle says “barter doesn’t mean haggle”, which it doesn’t, but it’s still unclear who is using barter to mean haggle. The numbers below refer to the numbers from the listicle.

2. Bemused doesn’t mean amused

Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”

Here we see the article contradicting itself by linking to a dictionary which defines bemused as “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing”.

3. Depreciate doesn’t mean “deprecate”

Here the Mental Floss article acknowledges that self-deprecating = self-depreciating, but it links to a site called Grammarist and claims that self-deprecating is 40 times more common than self-depreciating. I couldn’t find out who runs Grammarist and they do not say where they get their figures from. But in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio of self-deprecating to self-depreciating is 512:2. That makes it 256 times more common.

4. Dilemma doesn’t mean quandary

Ugh, why do we have to do this? The writer claims that dilemma must be a choice between only two alternatives because di– means “two”. This is nonsense and MW even says so. The word disperse has the same di– prefix, so must it mean spreading things into only TWO directions? No. Prefixes from other dead languages do not determine today’s meaning of a word. That shit is bananas.

5. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested”

Except sometimes to totally does.

6. Electrocute does not mean “to get an electric shock”

Lol wut?

** By the way, the meaning “give an electric shock to” was recorded the year after the original meaning was recorded (source: OED). This word couldn’t even hold on to its meaning for a year. Sad!

9. Flaunt does not mean “flout”

K.

15. Nonplussed does not mean “not bothered”

“Many people use nonplussed to mean ‘unperturbed’ or ‘unaffected’”.

Well, that settles it then. I guess you better update your lexicon or you’re going to be left out of the conversation because the people using nonplussed to mean “not bothered” are not going to get the memo. Unless you already know that nonplussed can be used to mean “not bothered”… Wait, you do? Well, then I guess everything is sorted.

16. Oblivious doesn’t mean “unaware”

Or at least, it didn’t originally.

Aaaaand we’re back to appealing to antiquity, that old etymological fallacy. Now please explain what deer, nice, silly, and A THOUSAND OTHER WORDS mean.

17. Peruse doesn’t mean “browse”

perusing something actually means studying it in great detail.

Technically, peruse originally meant “to use up”, so you’re both wrong. If we’re going to be pedantic, why not go all the way?

As the OED notes, peruse has been used as a “broad synonym for read” since the goddamn 16th Century! (curse word mine, but it’s totally implied by the OED):

“Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.” (OED, peruse)

You should definitely peruse this Mental Floss article and not take in the details.

17. Plethora doesn’t mean “a lot of”

Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

//

I don’t have any more time for this. Remember when I said that it was unclear who is using barter to mean haggle? Well, that’s one way that language changes. If enough people use barter to mean haggle – and everyone understands what is meant – then barter means haggle. Just like how enough people use(d) literally to be an an intensifier like really and now literally is an intensifier, in addition to its other meanings. Lexicographers are just doing their job by updating the dictionary to include new meanings.

Stop trying to force people into using words the way you think they should be used, especially if you know what people mean when they use those words! Instead, let’s celebrate that we are witnessing language change happen.

Speaking as David Brooks is hard

David Brooks has an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Speaking as a White Male…”. It’s about identity politics and it features the usual headscratcher ideas that we have come to expect from the Times‘ opinion page, including this nonsense right here:

Brooks Opinion Speaking as a White Male - nonsense paragraph
Wat.

 

Brooks’ column may be full of the stuff that only white dudes could ever think of, but I want to look at one particular thing that he says:

Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?

Brooks’ choice of words is telling (“rise up”, “Latina”, “queer”, and “Jew”), but I’m not going to get into that here (or just yet). I can’t remember hearing anybody rise up in conversation and say “Speaking as a(n) X”. So I thought I’d have a look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if we can find this phrase. The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA comes from transcripts of news shows. Not all of it is entirely spontaneous, but it’s good enough for what we’re looking for. Here’s a search for “SPEAK as _at*” (that is: all forms of the lemma speak, followed by the word as, followed by an article):

COCA Spoken - SPEAK as _article_
Search in COCA for “SPEAK as _a*”

The first thing we can see is that speaking as a is the most common form of this construction, but that it seems to be trailing off in usage from the 1990s to 2017. On top of that, 63 hits are not that much (48 hits for speaking as a + 15 hits for speaking as an = 63). Let’s take a look at the two most common constructions.

Of those 63 hits, 35 fit the form that Brooks used. I’m excluding examples like “I’m not speaking as X” or “I was speaking as X” or when the speaking as X was put into the person’s mouth, such as in this example from NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Show:

Peter Sagal: And speaking as an esteemed historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, do in fact, in your scholarly opinion, the Yankees suck?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Without a question.

Peter Sagal: Thank you.

Of the 35 hits that are similar to the form Brooks made up, most of the words that appear after speaking as a(n) are unique, so most of them appear only once. Some favorites of mine are

Speaking as a(n)

old-time criminal defense lawyer

guy

reporter who missed that story

There are 2 hits each for Speaking as a followed by woman, individual, and mom. The words Latina, queer or Jew do not appear in the search results. There is, however, one example of speaking as a homosexual and one example of speaking as an Israeli dove. So two out of three ain’t bad?

What’s going on here, then? My guess is that Brooks inflated the number of times he has heard Speaking as a(n) X to suit his argument. It’s probable that he has heard it a couple of times, but he makes it seem like it’s an everyday thing. Of course, maybe just hearing speaking as a queer person once is one too many times for some people.

The scant results from the search could also indicate that the data in the corpus doesn’t include speech from enough people who identify as a Latina, queer or Jew. That is probably true (these people need to be represented more on our news shows), but I also think that people do not need to say speaking as a(n) X because often in conversation a person’s identity is known by the participants. Think about it: would any of your friends or family members unironically say speaking as a(n) X? When people are being interviewed, their identity is often spelled out before the interview starts. And of course there are many other ways to indicate aspects of your identity in conversation without saying speaking as a(n) X.

I don’t recommend you read Brooks’ column (read this instead). It’s bad. It’s by a white guy who claims he doesn’t understand identity politics. Come on, David. You have a column in the New York Times. You get it. You just don’t want to. If you really need some help, give up your column and hand it to a Latina person, or a queer person, or a Jewish person. Then sit back and read what they have to say. I guarantee it won’t “Speaking as a(n) X…”

Mistakes will be made…

When economists do linguistics

There’s an article coming out in the Journal of Comparative Economics called “Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment” (Mavisakalyan et al. 2018). The authors claim:

  • We identify future tense marking in language as a determinant of environmental action.
  • Individuals speaking such languages are less likely to behave pro-environmentally.
  • Climate change policies are less stringent in places where language marks the future.

This has my Whorfian alarm bells going off like crazy. The language I speak determines how I feel and act towards the environment?! Say what? That is just too bonkers to be true.

Because it’s not true. But let’s check out why.

Note: This article is long, so I’m adding a Read More tag here. If you’d prefer reading this as a PDF, click here. Continue reading “Mistakes will be made…”

I, me and Oxford Dictionaries

I’m sure I’ve tweeted about this already, but the Oxford Dictionaries’ advice on the usage of pronouns just came across my interwebs again (they sent out this quiz in their email newsletter). It’s hard to imagine how a dictionary’s website gets this so wrong, but let’s go through it to see what’s up.

In their advice article “‘I’ or ‘me’?”, Oxford Dictionaries claims that in coordinated constructions where a pronoun and a proper name form the subject of a sentence, the pronoun used must be the subjective form of the pronoun (also called the nominative form). What this means is that in a sentence like “John and I went to the GWAR concert”, it is incorrect to use me instead of I. Let’s leave aside the fact that everyone everywhere naturally uses me in sentences like this. Let’s instead think about the advice that Oxford Dictionaries is giving. We’ll use the sentence that they use: Clare and I are going for a coffee. According to Oxford, it’s not just the subjective pronoun I that must be used in this sentence, only subjective pronouns must be used when the pronoun helps form the subject of a sentence. But how does this work? See if any of the sentences below sound odd to you.

  1. Clare and I are going for a coffee
  2. Clare and me are going for a coffee
  3. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  4. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  5. Clare and she are going for a coffee OR Clare and he are going for a coffee
  6. Clare and her are going for a coffee OR Clare and him are going for a coffee
  7. Clare and they are going for a coffee
  8. Clare and them are going for a coffee

If you’re like me, the first four sound fine (obviously, there’s no difference between the subjective and objective form of the 2nd person pronoun, they’re both you). The fifth one, however, sounds a bit stuffy compared to the sixth one (stuffy is a totally legit linguistics term). And the seventh is bordering on unacceptable. Does Oxford really think that Clare and they are going for a coffee is correct, while Clare and them are going for a coffee is not? Maybe? They didn’t use that sentence as an example. They focused instead on the 1st person pronoun – where there is more variation.

This topic boils down to a few things. First, English tends to favor me as the default pronoun in all cases except for when the pronoun stands alone as the subject. There is such a strong tendency to use me in all cases that this form is sometimes referred to as the oblique form, meaning that in addition to being the object, it fulfills other roles in sentences. And so English quite naturally uses the me form in coordinated structures, or phrases where there’s a pronoun and something else joined together with the word and:

John and me went to the GWAR concert.

Me and the bouncer got into an arm wrestling match.

Me and this other guy partied with GWAR after the show.

Second, using the subjective pronoun I in coordinated constructions isn’t wrong. English allows for both constructions and the choice of which one to use usually breaks along formality of the occasion – John and I seems more formal, while John and me seems more informal. But there is evidence of both structures throughout history in many different styles of writing. The John and I form is dictated by prescriptivist grammarians (and apparently some dictionaries), while the John and me form is proscribed, despite being used by everyone. In constructions with the first person singular pronoun, you can’t go grammatically wrong choosing I or me. But notice, however, that me is more versatile in where it can be placed:

Clare and me are going for a coffee

Me and Clare are going for a coffee

Clare and I are going for a coffee

*I and Clare are going for a coffee

As we have seen, in constructions with the 3rd person pronouns, things are potentially more cut and dry. With the 3rd person singular, it seems we should use the subjective forms (him, her) for all but the most formal registers. With the 3rd person plural, however, it seems we should always use the objective form them.

Finally, there is a piece of advice out there that I’ve seen in a lot of places. It goes like this:

In coordinated constructions (noun + pronoun), take out the noun and leave the pronoun. This will show you which case you want.

This advice is dumb. Why would I take something out of a sentence to decide how I should say the rest of the sentence after I put that thing back in the sentence?! This makes no sense at all. This advice is only given with coordinated subjects because it makes it seem like the subjective pronoun is always correct. Here’s Oxford using it at the end of their article:

An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional pronoun:

I am going for a coffee. ✗ Me am going for a coffee.

And here’s the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.

Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, “me travel”?)

But what happens when I take the pronoun out of the sentence? I’m left with Bob travel a good deal. 😐

Y U NO give better advice, grammer peeple?

Ok, I’m being awful hard on Oxford Dictionaries. The thing is, their advice column could have been cleared up with a line that explained they were talking about Standard English only. Or that outside of standard written and spoken English, people are more likely to come across the form X and me. The X and me construction is so common in informal written and spoken English that using X and I may be out of place. Non-standard and informal English are the default forms of the language, whether they are written or spoken, so users of English will hear/read these forms most often in day to day circumstances. The split in choosing I or me along formal/informal or standard/non-standard lines isn’t a lot of linguistic knowledge for people to understand. They shouldn’t be forced into thinking there is only One True Way to use pronouns in English.

I might post more on this later and include the advice given by other style guides, grammars and dictionaries. If you want to see some of them backing up my claims right now, check out:

  • Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, page 778
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage 4th edition (edited by Butterfield), page 509
  • A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, page 107

Hackneyed language hacks

Medium has an article called “5 language hacks to instantly become a better copywriter”. It’s a rehash of all the tired “advice” that I’ve heard before about copywriting. But let’s go through it and see why articles like this one are usually such hot messes. Screenshots and quotes come from the Medium piece.

What the holy hell is going on here? Words are barriers? Because we can’t communicate telepathically? And how come that comma after reader isn’t a barrier?

Set a course for… MAXIMUM ACCURACY!

“Strike the word ‘get’ from your vocabulary.” lol. Got milk?

“The word ‘get’ means absolutely nothing by itself.” Ok. The dictionary entry for get is PAGES long. It literally means a boatload of things. It means all the things.

Apparently, “You understand the idea” is better than “You get the idea”. Understand it?

“So when you’re tempted to write ‘get’… **CUE FORESHADOWING MUSIC**

2. Avoid the word “very”

[blah blah blah]

The word ‘very’ is also vague.

The word very is intentionally vague, ya dinkus. Case in point, your bonkers example:

o_O…

(Also, the second example sentence – the “better” one – has a passive in it. **MORE FORESHADOWING**)

3. When in doubt, use contractions

[blahbedy blah] The more friction there is in your sentence, the more difficult it is to mentally read, the less likely is a person to want to continue reading.

Friction is a totally legit word to describe reading and writing. And this sentence is totally frictionless, especially the part that says “the less likely is a person to want”. No friction there whatsoever. Feel it slide.

It’s all about the flow, bro. Also, writing and speaking = one and the same. Judge one how you would judge the other.

Did you think I was going to read them out loud?

“nr.” is not how English abbreviates the word number. Quit breaking my flow!

Dun dun DUN. Now is the moment that was foretold! Of course this “advice” is on here. Of course it is. And how do they define “passive voice”? With a definition from Google. Because it’s not like there are dictionaries or grammar books ANYWHERE AT ALL.

In layman’s terms, [passive voice is] when the action is more important than the subject of the sentence.

No, it is not. But good try!

Ok, they correctly identified passive sentences. Credit where credit’s due. This is the first bar to clear when whining about the passive. Did they copy/paste these sentences from somewhere?

1. Your sentences do not show that the active is more convincing. I don’t need to be convinced that an author wrote a book. Spend more than half a second on coming up with examples ffs.

2. Your active sentences have fewer words because you used fewer words. Don’t hang that on the passive. Also, what are “fewers” words?

3. The passive sentences here are just as clear about who is responsible as the active ones. In fact, the second sentence is entirely unclear – unless “research” is responsible.

4. Y U no avoid passive sentences in this article?

 

Advice gem #5 is called “Improvise with punctuation, bolds and italics”. Yes, go ahead and do that. It will seem totally natural. Like. The. Kids. These… Days?

Wait. Placing periods between words isn’t bad for the flow of reading, but placing spaces between words that can be contracted is bad for the flow of reading? Wtf?

Those aren’t hyphens, Mr. Bond.

And the word you want is emphasize. Remove the d.

So very is verboten but really is right on?

If it wasn’t already clear, this article on Medium is nothing more than an info-tisment (adver-tainment? adver-mation?). It’s by a company trying to sell themselves by appealing to copywriters’ insecurities. That’s why they can get away with not knowing what they’re talking about and providing scant, vague and contradictory advice about copywriting. Don’t buy it.

Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease

A recent article (blog post?) by Mary Wilson in Slate discusses the language used by the Russian trolls who were indicted for subverting the 2016 US presidential election. But perhaps unsurprisingly in an online article about grammar, the writer gets grammar totally wrong. Let’s take a look at the grammar “mistakes” that the writer points out.

One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? [italics original]

1. “a Satan”. Fine, but Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. Sorry, I meant to write the Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. See how weird that sounds? That’s because proper nouns do not usually take any articles. In fact, adding the definite article is what would make this construction seem like there is a class of satans. Compare: That’s not the Satan I was referring to. Maybe that’s what Wilson was going for, but I doubt it.

In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.

2. I agree huge lot is not a common construction, but what is grammatically wrong with it? Not to mention “the awkwardly deployed somehow” has nothing to do with grammar.

As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.

3. This whole paragraph. A revealing characteristic of the Russian language is the Russian language. The sentence should read “a revealing characteristic of English mistakes made by people whose L1 does not have articles is the misuse of articles in English. Russian is one such language, but there are thousands more.” This one is also on the Washington Post. The next sentence describes social media discourse as “sloppily written”. This is a bunch of shit. Language written online isn’t supposed to follow standard English norms. That’s part of what makes it funner than standard written English. People know that they don’t have to follow the rules of standard English when they write online, so they don’t. But somehow – somehow! – they are still understood. Could it be that the rules of standard English aren’t as important to clarity and understanding as grammar scolds would have us believe?

The Mary Wilson tells us that these grammar “mistakes” imply “that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue”. If it’s uncool to fixate on bad grammar, that’s because many of the grammar scolds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve commandeered the word grammar to mean “any stylistic feature that I internalized in high school, in either speech or writing, and have decided to apply system-wide across the language”. It’s a catch-all condemnation for people who want to point out their superiority. Don’t believe the hype.

Wilson ends the post by saying that paying attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles is “patriotic”. I wonder why she didn’t mention sentence fragments and dangling participles in her scolding of the Russian trolls. Is it because sentence fragments and dangling participles are not part of grammar? It is.