Arrant Pedantry

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Not Surprising, This Sounds Awkward

The other day at work I came across a strange construction: an author had used “not surprising” as a sentence adverb, as in “Not surprising, the data show that. . . .” I assumed it was simply an error, so I changed it to “not surprisingly” and went on. But then I saw the same construction again. And again. And then I saw a similar construction (“Quite possible, yada yada yada”) within a quotation within the article, at which point I really started to feel weirded out.

I checked the source of the quote, and it turned out that it was actually a grammatically normal “Quite possibly” that the author of the article I was editing had accidentally changed (or intentionally fixed?). My suspicion was that the author was extending the pseudo-rule against the sentence adverb more importantly and was thus avoiding sentence adverbs more generally.

This particular article is for inclusion in a sociology book, so I thought that perhaps there was a broader rule against sentence adverbs in the APA style guide. I didn’t find any such rule there, but I did find something interesting when I did a search on the string “. Not surprising,” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found sixteen relevant hits. All the hits appeared to occur in social science or journalistic works, ranging from the New York Times to PBS New Hour to the journal Military History. A similar search for the string “. Not surprisingly,” returned over 1200 hits. (I did not bother to sort through these to determine their relevancy.)

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. As I said above, the only explanation I can come up with is that someone has extended the rule against more importantly or perhaps other sentence adverbs like hopefully that don’t modify anything in the sentence. Not that the sentence adjective version modifies anything either, of course, but that’s a different issue.

If anyone has any alternative explanation for or justification of this construction, I’d be interested to hear it. It still strikes me as a rather awkward bit of English.

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Linguists and Straw Men

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long (I know I say that a lot)—I’ve been busy with school and things. Anyway, a couple months back I got a comment on an old post of mine, and I wanted to address it. I know it’s a bit lame to respond to two-month-old comments, but it was on a two-year-old post, so I figure it’s okay.

The comment is here, under a post of mine entitled “Scriptivists”. I believe the comment is supposed to be a rebuttal of that post, but I’m a little confused by the attempt. The commenter apparently accuses me of burning straw men, but ironically, he sets up a massive straw man of his own.

His first point seems to make fun of linguists for using technical terminology, but I’m not sure what that really proves. After all, technical terminology allows you to be very specific about abstract or complicated issues, so how is that really a criticism? I suppose it keeps a lot of laypeople from understanding what you’re saying, but if that’s the worst criticism you’ve got, then I guess I’ve got to shrug my shoulders and say, “Guilty as charged.”

The second point just makes me scratch my head. Using usage evidence from the greatest writers is a bad thing now? Honestly, how do you determine what usage features are good and worthy of emulation if not by looking to the most respected writers in the language?

The last point is just stupid. How often do you see Geoffrey Pullum or Languagehat or any of the other linguistics bloggers whipping out the fact that they have graduate degrees?

And I must disagree with Mr. Kevin S. that the “Mrs. Grundys” of the world don’t actually exist. I’ve heard too many stupid usage superstitions being perpetuated today and seen too much Strunk & White worship to believe that that sort of prescriptivist is extinct. Take, for example, Sonia Sotomayor, who says that split infinities make her “blister”. Or takeone of my sister-in-law’s professors, who insisted that her students could not use the following features in their writing:

  • The first person
  • The passive voice
  • Phrases like “this paper will show . . .” or “the data suggest . . .” because, according to her, papers are not capable of showing and data is not capable of suggesting.

How, exactly, are you supposed to write an academic paper without resorting to one of those devices—none of which, by the way, are actually wrong—at one time or another? These proscriptions were absolutely nonsensical, supported by neither logic nor usage nor common sense.

There’s still an awful lot of absolute bloody nonsense coming from the prescriptivists of the world. (Of course, this is not to say that all or even most prescriptivists are like this; take, for example, the inimitable John McIntyre, who is one of the most sensible and well-informed prescriptivists I’ve ever encountered.) And sorry to say, I don’t see the same sort of stubborn and ill-informed arguments coming from the descriptivists’ camp. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a descriptivist who resembled the straw man that Kevin S. constructed.

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Reflections on National Grammar Day

I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’ve been thinking a lot about National Grammar Day and want to blog about it anyway. Please forgive me for my untimeliness.

First off, I should say for those who don’t know me that I work as a copy editor. I clearly understand the value of using Standard American English when it is called for, and I know its rules and conventions quite well. I’m also a student of linguistics, and I find language fascinating. I understand the desire to celebrate language and to promote its good use, but unfortunately it appears that National Grammar Day does neither.

If you go to National Grammar Day’s web site and click on “About SPOGG” at the top of the page, you find this:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar is for pen-toters appalled by wanton displays of Bad English. . . . SPOGG is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It’s about clarity.

I can get behind those last two sentences (noting, of course, this description seems to exclude spoken English), but the first obviously flies in the face of the society’s name—is it trying to promote “good” (read “standard”) grammar, or simply ridicule what it deems to be displays of bad English? Well, if you read the SPOGG Blog, it appears to be the latter. None of the posts on the front page seem to deal with clarity; in each case it seems quite clear what the author intended, so obviously SPOGG is not about clarity after all.

In fact, what I gather from this post in particular is that SPOGG is more about the social value of using Standard English than it is about anything else. The message here is quite clear: using nonstandard English is like having spinach in your teeth. It’s like wearing a speedo on the bus. SPOGG isn’t about good, clean English or about clarity. It’s only about mocking those who violate a set of taboos. By following the rules, you signal to others that you belong to a certain group, one whose members care about linguistic manners in the same way that some people care about not putting their elbows on the table while they eat.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. If you delight in fussy little rules about spelling and punctuation, that’s your choice. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rules that are truly important and the guidelines and conventions that are more flexible and optional. John McIntyre made this point quite well in his post today on his blog, You Don’t Say.

Unfortunately, I find that SPOGG’s founder, Martha Brockenbrough, quite frequently fails to make this distinction. She also shows an appalling lack of knowledge on issues like how language changes, what linguists do, and, to top it all off, what grammar actually is. Of course, she falls back on the “Geez, can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already noted.

As I said at the start, I can appreciate the desire to celebrate grammar. I just wish National Grammar Day actually did that.

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Do You Agree That We Ask for Your Consent?

I just finished filing my federal taxes with H&R Block’s free e-filing (which I highly recommend, by the way), and at the end I encountered some rather confusing language. After submitting my return, I came to a page asking if I consented to let H&R Block use my information for marketing purposes. (I always wonder who explicitly consents to such things—who honestly says, “Yes, please try to sell me more of your tax-related products and services!”?) Unfortunately, I can’t get back to the page now, so I’ll have to reconstruct it from memory.

At the top it explained that they were requesting permission to use the information provided in my return to inform me of other stuff that I might be interested in purchasing from them. Then there was a paragraph saying something like “I, Jonathon, hereby consent to blah blah blah.” Next to this paragraph there was a check box. I took this to mean that by checking the box, I was allowing them to use my information. By leaving it unchecked, I was not. Pretty clear and straightforward so far.

Below this paragraph were two buttons, labelled “I Disagree” and “I Agree”, respectively. And here I paused for a little while, trying to figure out what exactly I was potentially agreeing or disagreeing with. Was I agreeing or disagreeing with the entire process of giving or not giving my consent? But the whole process was essentially an implicit question—can we use your information to try to sell you stuff?—and you can’t agree or disagree with a question, because it has no truth value to either confirm or deny. And anyway, if you could disagree with it, you’d just be agreeing to answer the question in the negative by refusing to answer it in the affirmative. I thought that perhaps I was reading it a little too literally, but I asked my wife what she thought about it, and she was similarly perplexed.

I finally figured out what they were really after when I moused over each button to see what appeared in my browser’s status bar. The disagree button had something about withholding consent or whatnot, so I decided that that was the option I wanted. In other words, it appears that the check box was entirely superfluous (though maybe it wasn’t—I don’t actually know what would have happened if I’d checked it and clicked “I Disagree” or left it unchecked and clicked “I Agree”), and the buttons were providing the wrong answers to the implicit question being asked. Of course, “I Agree” could have worked if it had not been answering an implicit question but rather a proposed course of action: “I agree to give my consent.” However, this does not work in the negative, producing the ungrammatical *I disagree to give my consent.

This problem wasn’t quite as troublesome as Geoffrey Pullum’s latest run-in with bad interfaces, but the basic problem is the same: the buttons don’t make a lick of sense by themselves because of fundamental breakdowns in semantics, and the user is left with no recourse but to take a stab at it and hope they got it right.

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