Arrant Pedantry

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It’s Not Wrong, but You Still Shouldn’t Do It

A couple of weeks ago, in my post “The Value of Prescriptivism,” I mentioned some strange reasoning that I wanted to talk about later—the idea that there are many usages that are not technically wrong, but you should still avoid them because other people think they’re wrong. I used the example of a Grammar Girl post on hopefully wherein she lays out the arguments in favor of disjunct hopefully and debunks some of the arguments against it—and then advises, “I still have to say, don’t do it.” She then adds, however, “I am hopeful that starting a sentence with hopefully will become more acceptable in the future.”

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty reasonable approach. Sometimes the considerations of the reader have to take precedence over the facts of usage. If the majority of your readers will object to your word choice, then it may be wise to pick a different word. But there’s a different way to look at this, which is that the misinformed opinions of a very small but very vocal subset of readers take precedence over the facts and the opinions of others. Arnold Zwicky wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in a Language Log post titled “Crazies win”.

Addressing split infinitives and the equivocal advice to avoid them unless it’s better not to, Zwicky says that “in practice, [split infinitive as last resort] is scarcely an improvement over [no split infinitives] and in fact works to preserve the belief that split infinitives are tainted in some way.” He then adds that the “only intellectually justifiable advice” is to “say flatly that there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives and you should use them whenever they suit you”. I agree wholeheartedly, and I’ll explain why.

The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage.

Even more neutral and descriptive pieces like this New York Times “On Language” article on singular they ends with a wistful, “It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they,” adding, “Like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language.” Even though the authors seem to be avoiding giving out advice, it’s still implicit in the conclusion. It’s great to inform readers about the history of usage debates, but what they’ll most likely come away with is the conclusion that it’s wrong—or at least tainted—so they shouldn’t use it.

The worst thing about this waffly kind of advice, I think, is that it lets usage commentators duck responsibility for influencing usage. They tell you all the reasons why it should be alright to use hopefully or split infinitives or singular they, but then they sigh and put them away in the linguistic hope chest, telling you that you can’t use them yet, but maybe someday. Well, when? If all the usage commentators are saying, “It’s not acceptable yet,” at what point are they going to decide that it suddenly is acceptable? If you always defer to the peevers and crazies, it will never be acceptable (unless they all happen to die off without transmitting their ideas to the next generation).

And furthermore, I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try to avoid offending or annoying anyone in your writing. It reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the man, the boy, and the donkey: people will always find something to criticize, so it’s impossible to behave (or write) in such a way as to always avoid criticism. As the old man at the end says, “Please all, and you will please none.” You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics. And perhaps through your reasonable but firm advice and your own exemplary writing, you’ll help a few of those crazies come around.

13 Responses to It’s Not Wrong, but You Still Shouldn’t Do It

  1. Thanks so much for this provocative post.

    I agree with your points. As you said, just because people find things easier to do doesn’t make them right. Second, what kind of a precedent does this set if we start altering rules for word usage or grammar?

    This reminds me of how awkward it is to avoid using a nonsexist plural. Take this sentence: “no one picked up his or her suitcase.” That’s correct but many people think that it sounds stilted, so they will substitute the word their. “No one picked up their suitcase.” Sounds good but it’s wrong, and Grammar Girl has given in on this one. She doesn’t like it but she concedes that it is being used more frequently among technical writers and others. Still not a great solution, in my opinion.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Fellow blogger,
    Sigrid

  2. Tricia says:

    “Hopefully” is news to me. Though it was probably on that list of “Deadly composition Errors” that included “because of” that my AP English teacher gave us. It was a long list, it also included “Secondly”. But the overriding principle was “no adverbs” anyhow.

  3. Bonnie says:

    I fully agree with you but I’m left with a serious question about where to draw the line. For the past 4 years I’ve been teaching at a University in Trinidad where I’m gradually learn to accept that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with sentences like “We walking to lunch. You come with we?” Even though the grammar errors grate on the ear of even the most tolerant North Americans, the meaning is still clear and unambiguous. When we judge people’s intellect and refinement based on their use of “proper” English grammar we create a barrier for those who did not grow up speaking standard English in their homes and impart an unearned advantage on those of us who did.

    Yet its pretty undeniably true that if my students speak and write in standard English rather than the local dialect, they will be judged to be smarter, better educated and more refined than if they don’t. Though I firmly believe it should not be that way, it is. So while I will continue to argue that the local dialect is not fundamentally less correct or valid than standard English, I still teach my students to use standard English and penalize them when they do not.

    This subject is one that raises considerable controversy among educators in this region. Teaching standard English in the schools puts students from poorer, less educated families at a considerable disadvantage as they must effectively learn a foreign language to be literate. But what is the alternative?

  4. Jonathon says:

    Sigrid: Thanks for the feedback. Trying to avoid offending readers certainly leads to a lot of awkwardness. I worked with an author last year who very carefully avoided split infinitives because he didn’t want to annoy readers who still thought it was a valid rule. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it his writing a little awkward for everyone else. I don’t think it’s a good trade-off.

    Tricia: That’s another problem with trying to avoid the shibboleths: no normal human being can keep track of them all, and it seems that new ones are always popping up. Is it even possible to teach students about every possible usage debate?

    Bonnie: That’s a very tricky problem, and I don’t know if there’s any clear answer. Whether it’s instinctive or whether we’re socialized to think this way, linguistic value judgements will probably never go away. But I think there’s a pretty big difference between the examples you provide and the usage items I’m talking about. Unfortunately, I think we typically don’t distinguish between peeves, nonstandard dialectal or regional forms, and flat-out errors. We American English speakers are especially bad about tolerating nonstandard varieties of English, I think. I don’t know what the solution is, but if you want a more in-depth look at related issues, you might want to check out You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene.

  5. Quite a provocative post! In my opinion, “hopefully” is meaningless as commonly used, but split infinitives are one of those rules dreamt up by 19th-century grammarians that are both unjustified and unjustifiable.

    Singular “they” does sound clunky, but that’s because English lacks the appropriate neutral pronoun. Last year, I edited a book in which the author had alternated between “he” and “she” when in each case both were implied. I changed them all to “they” as the least worst option.

    As a “prescriptivist”, I’m more concerned about how sloppy use of words can blunt their meaning (ones that really grate include “awesome” and “enormity”). I make this point in more detail in Mind Your Language.

  6. The Ridger says:

    “Hopefully” is meaningless as commonly used? No, it’s not. Clearly, it’s a sentential adverb and it’s giving you the speaker’s attitude toward what he’s saying.

    Frankly, what baffles me is why poor old “hopefully” is the only adverb so denigrated. Candidly, people use this structure all time. It’s time to say, with Rhett Butler “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” about the prohibition.

  7. Catherine Barber says:

    I happily use ‘they’ and ‘their’ as a singular/gender-neutral pronoun. Simple reason being I don’t like the alternatives: ‘s/he’ ‘he or she’ or the lone ‘he’.
    How are you supposed to pronounce ‘s/he’ anyway?
    ‘He or she’ sounds just plain annoying. And the lone ‘he’, well is just that. As if ‘she’ doesn’t exist.

    I also happily use ‘hopefully’, ‘secondly’ ‘firstly’ – though, I hope, not too frequently. (In fact this is the first time I heard ‘it wasn’t wrong but one still shouldn’t do this’).

    OK, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but suffice it to say: I shall carry on as before. One’s always going to displease SOMEbody along the line.

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  9. adj says:

    Sorry to come so late to this – still it doesn’t matter, probably nobody will read it.

    @Sigrid: “just because people find things easier to do doesn’t make them right”:
    – this is of course ambiguous – indeed I had to re-read the original blog to work out which meaning she intended, as it appears at first to be in the ‘prescriptivist’ camp. Which – or if you prefer, And that – leads on to pointing out that we are all trying to tell people how to write better (isn’t that an ugly phrase ?), when we should be telling them how to write clearly for their intended audience. This is Dennis Hodgson’s point, and one that I hope would go some way (clearly, not all the way) to resolving Bonnie’s cultural dilemma. The descriptivist / prescriptivist conflict evades the real point. Just as the new corpora may offer a wide variety of usages but it is much harder to determine without individual analysis whether all, some or any are correct in the sense of conveying what they want to say. (And no, I have not forgotten that there is no perfect translation.)

    It may be worth reminding ourselves that this was, within the temper of his time, Fowler’s approach, albeit informed by a vaster experience of language than most of us can hope for. His explanation of the non-defining (which) and the defining (that) clause has examples that make the issues perfectly clear: but this is where I have difficulty with this blog post. It aims to be ‘positively neutral’ as opposed to the ‘wistfully neutral’ approach attributed to the New York Times, but gives no instance of what it would now find unacceptable.

    Personally I find that it is better to travel hopefully than to hopefully arrive at a conclusion which leaves no-one any the wiser. So: 1. ‘hopefully’ as a sentence-modifying adverb (rather than a verb-modifying one) can often be better, or differently and more clearly, expressed: ‘Hopefully he will win’ is a short-hand way of saying ‘I hope / It is to be hoped that he will win’, and works well in speech. It can sometimes even have more emphasis than ‘I hope’ (in a different way – blunter but despairing) when written: ‘He is going to sue News International. Hopefully he will win’. Equally it sometimes does not work, as in the first sentence of this paragraph. This American loan to British English of the German ‘hoffentlich’ has not effaced the verb-modifying adverb (as I once feared it would): the word just has two uses: naturally, as one might say. What it does not have is the ability to ride two horses at once, as Gowers/Fraser noted in ‘Our team will start their innings hopefully immediately after tea’

    2. The point about not splitting infinitives is that is too easy to obscure the syntactical relation.
    If you are going to always do it, then you will find you are going to every time you start a phrase do it. The Economist, a journal that boasts (apologizes for ?) a column called ‘Johnson’, is aware that Doctor J split infinitives with the best of them, but like yourself is mealy mouthed about saying when to do so and when not to – for instance here – do so.

    3. They: as Dennis Hodgson says, English lacks the correct pronoun, but I find Catherine Barber’s objections puzzling. What is annoying about ‘her or she’ ? I have no problem with ‘he’, though you may argue that as a male I would say that: but my view actually is based on conventional past usage, not gender. ‘S/he’ is a very useful shorthand when writing notes e.g. for my students – and you pronounce it ‘she or he’. There is also often the option of ‘one’. In the particular case of the plural genitive pronoun for a singular, sexless referent: Fowler set out the three possibilities, his preference being for ‘his’ on the grounds that no-one is likely to suppose it excludes ‘her’. Nowadays some people cheerfully just write ‘her’, which is fine as long as you alternate with ‘his’. But I prefer Fowler’s middle option of ‘their’ on the grounds that we simply lack the appropriate pronoun in English and ‘their’ has for centuries been used to do the job: if it aint broke … (And Fowler’s other option of ‘his or her’ is available if you need it.) But maybe it is time for a new word: ‘hizzer’, anybody ? ‘heriz’ ?

  10. Catherine Barber says:

    I’m sorry if I come across as ‘puzzling’ but it’s only my opinion/feelings after all. I certainly wasn’t intending to come across as a dictator: telling people what ‘shouldn’t’ be done.

    Well, below is my own ‘two ha’penny-worth’ of the genderneutrals and titles I’ve assembled (not all of my own making):

    Msr = Mr/Mrs (pronounced ‘mezzr’) Msrs = Messieurs/Mesdames (pronounced ‘mezzrs’)

    Seh = He/she Hir = him/her/(it) Hirself = himself/herself Hirs = his/hers/(its)

    (I’d continue to use the words ‘it’ and ‘its’ as separate)

    Seh said = He/she said It’s hirs = It’s his/hers It’s hir = It’s him/her Hir clothes/name = His/her clothes/name

  11. Catherine Barber says:

    Sorry to double-post but – not having a Preview option here – I then saw my comment wouldn’t make sense unless I re-arranged it as below:

    Msr = Mr/Mrs (pronounced ‘mezzr’)
    Msrs = Messieurs/Mesdames (pronounced ‘mezzrs’)

    Seh = He/she
    Hir = him/her/(it)
    Hirself = himself/herself
    Hirs = his/hers/(its)

    (I’d continue to use the words ‘it’ and ‘its’ as separate)

    Seh said = He/she said
    It’s hirs = It’s his/hers
    It’s hir = It’s him/her
    Hir clothes/name = His/her clothes/name

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