Arrant Pedantry

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One Fewer Usage Error

In my mind, less and fewer illustrates quite well virtually all of the problems of prescriptivism: the codification of the opinion of some eighteenth-century writer, the disregard for well over a millennium of usage, the insistence on the utility in a superfluous distinction, and the oversimplification of the original rule leading to hypercorrection.

I found a very lovely example of hypercorrection the other day in The New York Times: “The figures are adjusted for one fewer selling day this September than a year ago.” Not even stuffy constructions like “10 items or fewer” make me cringe the way that made me cringe.

No usage or style guide that I know of recommends this usage. In my experience, most guides that enforce the less/fewer distinction grant exceptions when dealing with things like money, distance, or time or when following the word one. And why, exactly, is one an exception? I’m really not sure, but my best guess is that it sounds so strange that even the most strictly logical prescriptivists admit that less must be the correct choice.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on less/fewer, but surprisingly, regarding the “one fewer” issue it says only, “And of course [less] follows one.” Perhaps the use of “one fewer” is so rare that the editors didn’t think to say more about it. Obviously someone should’ve said something to the copy editor at The New York Times.

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The Passive Voice Is Corrected by Buzzword

I was just reading this article about Adobe’s new online word processor, and something caught my eye. In the screenshot, there’s a sentence that’s highlighted, and a bubble in the margin says, “Passive wording fixed.” First of all, it makes me groan to think that so many people still think that the passive voice is simply something that should be fixed, but that’s a topic that’s been covered in a lot of depth elsewhere, notably Language Log, so I won’t get into that right now.

The real head-scratcher is that the sentence “It has some very nice features” is not one that can easily be made into a passive. Yes, it is transitive, so it meets the basic requirements, but I can’t imagine that any native English speaker would produce the sentence “Some very nice features are had [by it]” unless they were intentionally trying to create an example of when the passive voice is a poor choice.

More likely, I think, is that Buzzword misidentified some other type of construction—perhaps there is/are—as the passive voice and then corrected it. There’s a lot of grammatical advice out there right now that makes the same sort of mistakes. Heck, even Brian Garner and staff members of the Chicago Manual of Style get it wrong.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the trial of Buzzword, so I can’t test out its grammar checker to see if this is the case. If anyone knows more about it, please let me know.

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Grammar quiz

From time to time, websites such as MSN and Yahoo challenge their readers to quizzes on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. These quizzes are often written more to stump than to educate, so the questions are worded in confusing ways, and the answers are masked in vagueness to the point where even those who know the answer get the question wrong.

A recent grammar quiz was so chock full of errors that I, being on the nitpicky side of things myself, felt a need to address. Let’s look at the directions first, followed by each question individually.

Directions

Judge the quality of the writing in the questions below. Look for wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation. Potential errors are underlined.

Considering this is a grammar quiz, I take issue with the first sentence. Grammar comprises morphology and syntax, neither of which has much to do with the quality of a person’s writing. I’ve known plenty of people who have good syntax whose writing leaves much to be desired.

The second sentence of the directions gives a laundry list of potential errors: “wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation.” Some of these issues are related to grammar, namely misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, and problems with parallelism. Wordiness, incorrect word choice, and punctuation have nothing to do with grammar and should have been left out of this quiz. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky; after all, grammar has come to be used as an umbrella term for everything an editor or red-pen-happy teacher might change or judge about our use of language.

Question 1

As the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a), enjoying the great outdoors (b) was easy for Hagrid (c) and his magical creatures.
a) The error is here.
b) The error is here.
c) The error is here.
d) The sentence is correct.

The answer to this one is easy. Since the subject of the main clause is enjoying, it should be the noun that the first phrase modifies. But enjoying is not the gamekeeper of Hogwarts; Hagrid is. Therefore, we have a misplaced modifier. Easy enough.

But what’s up with the sentence in the first place? “Enjoying the great outdoors was easy for Hagrid and his magical creatures?” Have you heard anyone talk like that before? I mean, really. Enjoying reading is easy for me. Talk about wordiness (which, as I recall, is one of the things we’re supposed to be looking for). It’s obvious the awkward sentence was concocted just so it could have a misplaced modifier.

Question 2

The reason she’s (a) sleeping is because (b) she’s tired (c).

Note: In the future, I won’t include the options with the question since they are identical to the ones in question 1.

The answer to this question is b. The reasoning, according to grammar police, is that it’s redundant to use “the reason is” with “because,” since they define because as “for the reason that.” The correct wording would be, “The reason is . . . that. . . . ” (There are convoluted, ultimately groundless grammatical arguments against the phrase as well, which I’ll spare you for the sake of keeping this post as brief as possible.)

I, on the other hand, firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with the construction. It’s only redundant insomuch as you define because in precisely that way. But if you look at Merriam Webster’s second definition of because, you’ll see that it can also mean “the fact that.” Also note that this exact construction is used as an example.

One good way to tell whether a usage rule is worth anything is to see whether the alternative is more awkward than the “bad” usage. For instance, the admonition against ending sentences with prepositions often results in horrid workarounds that are harder to understand than the original, preposition-ending version would have been. In this case, I’d wager that if you tried to change “because” to “that” in your speech whenever you use “the reason is,” you’d find it surprisingly awkward and difficult to do. This is another example of pedants frowning on a natural, comfortable way of wording a sentence just because it makes them feel smart to have “noticed” the “error.”

Question 3

The three-piece suit (a) was taken to the dry cleaner (b) by the maid, (c) but picked up by the butler.

This question has several problems. The error in section b is “was taken,” which is a passive construction. Never mind that passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong or that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether it’s appropriate or not out of context. Brockenbrough warned us in her directions that we should look for passive voice, so it’s fair game in this question. But the bigger problem is that “[was] picked up by the butler” is also passive, so c is an equally acceptable answer. Too bad the quiz only allows you to pick one.

Finally, the comma before “but picked up” is unnecessary. Commas are needed before conjunctions only when the conjunctions link two complete sentences. “Picked up by the butler” is a verb phrase, not a sentence, so the comma should have been left out.

Question 4

I’m a (a) cowboy (b), on a steel horse I ride (c).

Are you stumped by this one? So was I. The obvious error is the comma, which should be a semicolon. But it’s not underlined. That makes “cowboy” and “on a steel horse I ride” equal contenstants, since they surround the error. I picked the latter, since, I figured, if it had a conjunction of some kind in it, the comma would be all right. I should have picked the former, I guess because it’s closer to the comma. Maybe it was just a typo, and the comma should have been included in the underlining for “cowboy.” It’s a pretty sloppy typo for a quiz that compares itself to the SAT, though.

Question 5

They’re (a) dream house burned (b) to the ground last week (c).

This is a good question. I’ve seen some pretty intelligent people mix up there, they’re, and their. (The answer is a, by the way.)

Question 6

Rarely is (a) the question asked, (b) “Is our children (c) learning?”

Did anyone actually miss this one? If you’re like most people, “Is our children” sounds positively alien to your ears, as well it should. Many actual grammatical errors sound like this one. Believe it or not, you know English grammar pretty well. You know that children are, not is, for instance, without looking it up or second-guessing yourself. You’d probably know just as well that “Our is children learning?” is bad grammar. My biggest beef with this question is that it seems too easy to belong on this test.

Beyond that, “Rarely is the question asked” is a passive construction. If you’re supposed to correct the passive in question 3, why not in this question as well?

Question 7

The general consensus (a) is that elephants mourn (b) their dead (c).

If you want to be really picky, you’ll notice that a consensus is already general, so the word general is redundant. It’s like talking about a big elephant. At the same time, I don’t personally mind if people say “general consensus” (or “big elephant,” for that matter) for many of the same reasons I don’t have a problem with “the reason is because.” There’s a shade of difference, at least for me, between consensus and general consensus. After all, a consensus among experts isn’t the same as a general consensus. Sometimes it’s important to distinguish that a particular elephant is the big one; sometimes it isn’t. It’s impossible to say out of context whether something that appears redundant actually is.

Question 8

Look besides (a) the television; (b) the phone book is there (c).

I have the same problem with this that I had with question 6. No native English speaker would ever make this mistake. As such, it’s a pointless, unchallenging question.

Question 9

The professor taught John and I (a) the difference between (b) right and wrong (c).

This is the best question in the whole quiz, in my opinion. It’s tricky because everyone’s been taught that you’re supposed to say “John and I,” not “John and me.” Right? But take John out of the sentence. Suddenly it becomes clear that “The professor taught I” is wrong. Sometimes it’s right to say “John and me,” and this is one of those times.

I’m so thrilled that she included this question that I won’t nitpick the fact that I hope most people learn the difference between right and wrong before they get to college.

Question 10

Known by some as “terrible lizards,” carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat, laid eggs, and tore the flesh of their prey with sharp claws and teeth.

Did you catch that pesky passive again? “Known by some” is apparently less appalling to Brockenbrough than “was taken by the maid” because the answer to this question is that there’s nothing wrong with it. Not that I have a problem with the passive, of course, but let’s be consistent at least.

And if you’re going to frown on apparent redundancies like “the reason is because” and “general consensus,” then surely you’ll take issue with “carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat.” Also, the sentence seems to imply that only carnivorous dinosaurs laid eggs and were known as terrible lizards, when both of these facts apply to all dinosaurs. Finally, tearing the flesh of prey is something that all carnivores do, so it is doubly redundant. Here’s a perfect example of a sentence with decent grammar yet much to be desired in the quality of the writing.

The moral of the story, dear readers, is that you shouldn’t trust everything you read on the internet. We’re all pretty self-conscious that our use of English will make us sound dumb to some grammarian who might be listening in, but here’s a secret: sometimes it’s the grammarians who make mistakes. There, doesn’t that make you feel better about the time your third-grade teacher wrote all over your report with red pen?

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Eggcorns

The other day, while researching baseball facts for a project at work, I discovered two eggcorns—my very first—that are apparently undocumented. They’re not to be found in the Eggcorn Database. One of them was a very common type of error (“in” for “and”): “the life in times” instead of “the life and times.” The eggcorn form returns 6.5 percent as many hits as the correct form: 91,000 to 1,410,000. [Edited because I’ve apparently forgotten how to do math.]

The second was more surprising and much more rare: “pictures mound” for “pitcher’s mound.” The pronunciation of “picture” as “pitcher” is fairly common, but I would’ve expected the error to run in the other direction. Google only showed 53 hits for “the pictures mound.” A few were irrelevant, and most were obviously duplicates that had been cribbed from a baseball facts site.

I’ll let you know if and when they’re accepted into the database. Oh, and if you have no idea what an eggcorn is, check out the About Page at the Eggcorn Database and the Language Log post that started it all.

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Scriptivists

The dispute between prescriptivism and descriptivism has sometimes been described as “a war that never ends.” Indeed, it often seems that the two sides are locked in an eternal struggle at polar opposites of the debate, neither willing to yield an inch. The prescriptivists are striving to uphold time-honored standards and defend the language from decay; the descriptivists are trying to overthrow the system and allow linguistic chaos to rein in its place.

But is that really a true picture of the situation?

I have met one or two descriptivists who felt that any English sentence produced by a native speaker should be considered perfectly correct. I’ve also edited enough writing to firmly disagree with that notion. But by and large, the descriptivists I’ve known have not been the anything-goes types that the prescriptivists often make them out to be. They may oppose the grammar nazis, but they are not grammar anarchists or grammar free-love hippies; they’re more along the lines of grammar democrats, in my opinion.

If the argument over grammatical standards really is a war that never ends, as Mark Halpern says, then perhaps the primary impetus that keeps it going is the fact that it is such a poorly defined conflict. Both sides have misrepresented the other, though from my perspective it seems that it is the descriptivists who are most misunderstood.

And though both sides will often make more moderate, conciliatory statements like “Well, of course there should be some sort of standard” or “Well, of course language changes and the rules need to change with it,” I’ve never seen editors and linguists sit down together and figure out just how much they really agree on. I think there are many instances where a prescriptivist might say, “English should be x,” and a descriptivist would say, “English is x” ; that is, they’re agreeing on an aspect of the language, even if they’re approaching it from different angles.

The debate, of course, arises from those areas in which the descriptivist says, “English is x,” and the prescriptivist says, “Yeah, but it should be y.” But I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer when I’ve asked, “But why should it be y?” And this, I think, is where prescriptivism goes astray.

Mark Halpern says, “Arbitrary laws—conventions—are just the ones that need enforcement, not the natural laws. The law of gravity can take care of itself; the law that you go on green and stop on red needs all the help it can get.” Reading this, I can’t help but wonder what sorts of linguistic car accidents or traffic jams would occur if we abandoned all of our arbitrary prescriptions. Does language really need our help, or can it take care of itself, too?

If language does need help—and I think that in areas like spelling and punctuation, it clearly does—how much does it need? How much does the strict separation between less and fewer contribute to the laudable goal of a standard form of the language? What about the proscription against they as an indefinite singular pronoun?

How often do prescriptivist rules really help anyone, and how often do they simply cultivate an air of disdain for those who don’t follow the rules? Mark Halpern says that nobody cares about split infinitives or ain’t anymore, but this is far from the truth. I’ve known too many editors and language buffs, read too many internet discussions about linguistic pet peeves to believe that.

Far too often, prescriptions serve not to facilitate the smooth and orderly flow of traffic but to impose regulations on a system that got by just fine for centuries without them. And far too often, prescriptivism serves only to create a class of self-appointed grammar police and to make those who can’t remember the arbitrary conventions self-conscious and insecure about their language.

The truth is this: as long as prescriptivism reigns, there will be an awful lot of arrant pedants in the world. And as long as descriptivists are falling down on the job of educating society about language, prescriptivists will never understand that change is not degeneration and that freedom is not anarchy.

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A New Look, a New Name

Well, I’ve finally taken the plunge and spun off the English blog from the rest of my site. Hopefully this will give me more motivation to write new posts here. Maybe I’ll get really crazy and add some other stuff, too, like the FAQ and style guide that I’ve always dreamed about.

But for now I’m just worried about ironing out the kinks in my new skin. I’m pretty pleased with it so far, especially since it’s basically the product of one day’s work.

I apologize to all those who will have to unsubscribe from the old blog and subscribe to this one instead, but the old installation was messy—I was running two blogs on one installation thanks to a plug-in called Multiply. I thought it would be nice to have everything on one installation, but it caused a lot of other complications (like the inadvertent death of the Arts & Letters blog). So hopefully the move will have a few different advantages.

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In the Order It Was Received

I was on hold just now, listening to the prerecorded voice tell me every thirty seconds that my call would be answered in the order it was received, and I wondered what the heck was going on in the grammar of that sentence. In colloquial English, there would be an “in” at the end, and in formal English, it would be “in the order in which it was received.” But instead the preposition was just missing.

What’s going on here? My instinct is that the speaker (or author of the line) is uncomfortable with that stranded preposition, but the traditionally correct alternative sounds so stuffy and wordy as to be unacceptable. Instead the preposition quietly disappears, like when children hide their vegetables or feed them to the dog instead of choosing between the unacceptable alternatives of either eating them or leaving them on the plate.

Unfortunately there’s not really a way to test this hypothesis. After all, when a word is missing, it doesn’t exactly leave an indication of where it went or why it went there, and most people are so unaware of their own linguistic impulses that you could never get a reliable response by asking people. Plus, I’ve found that most people don’t really like being cornered by linguists and interrogated about their missing words. I can’t imagine why.

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Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive*, it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voila! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing

–Staff

So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.

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*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.