Arrant Pedantry


Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

A recent Twitter exchange about the term beg the question got me thinking again about the notion of skunked terms. David Ehrlich said that at some point the new sense of beg the question was going to become the correct one, and I said that that point had already come and gone.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s that begging the question is traditionally a type of circular reasoning. Increasingly, though, it’s being used in the newer sense of ‘raising the question’ or ‘demanding that we ask the question’. A couple of years ago, Stan Carey found that the newer sense makes up about 90 percent of the hits in the GloWbE corpus (and the percentage is even higher if you exclude mentions and only count uses).

On Language Log Neal Goldfarb wrote that the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers. On Twitter, many others agreed that the term was skunked, to borrow a term from Bryan Garner.

In his Modern American Usage, Garner writes, “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become ‘skunked.'”

Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change?

In some cases, though, it’s not clear what declaring a word skunked accomplishes. For instance, Garner says that data is skunked because some people object to its use with a plural verb, while others object to its use with a singular. Either way, you might annoy someone. But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.

And sometimes, as with beg the question, it almost seems silly to keep calling a new use skunked. If upwards of 90 percent of the uses of a term are in the new sense (and I suspect it’s even higher in speech), then the battle is all but over. We can’t realistically say that you should avoid using beg the question because it’s ambiguous, because it’s always clear in context. And the new sense certainly isn’t unclear or unfamiliar—how could it be if it’s the one that most people are using? The old sense may be unclear to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case, because it’s a rather technical term. The new use doesn’t change that.

So what it really comes down to is the fact that a very small but very vocal minority don’t like the new use and would rather say that it’s been ruined for everyone than to admit defeat. The question is, should that be enough reason to declare the term off-limits to everybody? Many editors and usage commentators argue that there’s no harm in avoidance, but Geoff Nunberg calls this rationale “the pedant’s veto“: “It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath.” (Arnold Zwicky, somewhat less charitably, calls this rationale “crazies win“.) Nunberg says that this sort of avoidance can be a wise course of action, but other times it seems a bit ridiculous.

Consider, for example, the Economist style guide, which is often mocked for its avoidance of split infinitives. It reads, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Who are all these people who find split infinitives so annoying? And even if there are still a few people who cling to this non-rule, why should everybody else change just to make them happy? Indeed, it seems that most other usage guides have moved on at this point.

Perhaps the biggest problem with declaring a term skunked is that it’s not clear what the criteria are. How many sticklers does it take to skunk a term? How contentious does the debate need to be? And how do we know when it stops being skunked?

I have to wonder, though, if the entire notion of skunked terms is ultimately self-defeating. The people who are most likely to heed a warning to avoid a contentious usage are also the people who are most likely to adhere to traditional usage in the first place. The people who use beg the question in the new sense, for example, are most likely unaware not only of the traditional meaning but also of the fact that there’s a debate about its meaning. If the traditionalists all start avoiding the term, then all that will remain will be the new use. By declaring a term skunked and saying it should be avoided, it could be that all we really accomplish is to drive the old use out even faster.

Ultimately, the question is, how much do we care about the opinions of that small but vocal minority? Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I hate giving such a small group such disproportionate power over the language we all use. I’d rather spend my efforts trying to change opinions on usage than trying to placate the peevers. But I have to admit that there’s no easy answer. If there were, there’d be no reason to call a term skunked in the first place.


Relative Pronoun Redux

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Pullum wrote on Lingua Franca about the that/which rule, which he calls “a rule which will live in infamy”. (For my own previous posts on the subject, see here, here, and here.) He runs through the whole gamut of objections to the rule—that the rule is an invention, that it started as a suggestion and became canonized as grammatical law, that it has “an ugly clutch of exceptions”, that great writers (including E. B. White himself) have long used restrictive which, and that it’s really the commas that distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as they do with other relative pronouns like who.

It’s a pretty thorough deconstruction of the rule, but in a subsequent Language Log post, he despairs of converting anyone, saying, “You can’t talk people out of their positions on this; they do not want to be confused with facts.” And sure enough, the commenters on his Lingua Franca post proved him right. Perhaps most maddening was this one from someone posting as losemygrip:

Just what the hell is wrong with trying to regularize English and make it a little more consistent? Sounds like a good thing to me. Just because there are inconsistent precedents doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to regularize things. I get so tired of people smugly proclaiming that others are being officious because they want things to make sense.

The desire to fix a problem with the language may seem noble, but in this case the desire stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the grammar of relative pronouns, and the that/which rule, rather than regularizing the language and making it a little more consistent, actually introduces a rather significant irregularity and inconsistency. The real problem is that few if any grammarians realize that English has two separate systems of relativization: the wh words and that, and they work differently.

If we ignore the various prescriptions about relative pronouns, we find that the wh words (the pronouns who/whom/whose and which, the adverbs where, when, why, whither, and whence, and the where + preposition compounds) form a complete system on their own. The pronouns who and which distinguish between personhood or animacy—people and sometimes animals or other personified things get who, while everything else gets which. But both pronouns function restrictively and nonrestrictively, and so do most of the other wh relatives. (Why occurs almost exclusively as a restrictive relative adverb after reason.)

With all of these relative pronouns and adverbs, restrictiveness is indicated with commas in writing or a small pause in speech. There’s no need for a lexical or morphological distinction to show restrictiveness with who or where or any of the others—intonation or punctuation does it all. There are a few irregularities in the system—for instance, which has no genitive form and must use whose or of which, and who declines for cases while which does not—but on the whole it’s rather orderly.

That, on the other hand, is a system all by itself, and it’s rather restricted in its range. It only forms restrictive relative clauses, and then only in a narrow range of syntactic constructions. It can’t follow a preposition (the book of which I spoke rather than *the book of that I spoke) or the demonstrative that (they want that which they can’t have rather than *they want that that they can’t have), and it usually doesn’t occur after coordinating conjunctions. But it doesn’t make the same personhood distinction that who and which do, and it functions as a relative adverb sometimes. In short, the distribution of that is a subset of the distribution of the wh words. They are simply two different ways to make relative clauses, one of which is more constrained.

Proscribing which in its role as a restrictive relative where it overlaps with that doesn’t make the system more regular—it creates a rather strange hole in the middle of the wh relative paradigm and forces speakers to use a word from a completely different paradigm instead. It actually makes the system irregular. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. Grammarians have looked at the distribution of which and that, misunderstood it, and tried to fix it based on their misunderstanding. But if they’d step back and look at the system as a whole, they’d see that the problem is an imagined one. If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes. And it makes perfect sense as it is.

I’m sure, as Professor Pullum was, that I’m not going to make a lot of converts. I can practically hear copy editors’ responses: But following the rule doesn’t hurt anything! Some readers will write us angry letters if we don’t follow it! It decreases ambiguity! To the first I say, of course it hurts, in that it has a cost that we blithely ignore: every change a copy editor makes takes time, and that time costs money. Are we adding enough value to the works we edit to recoup that cost? I once saw a proof of a book wherein the proofreader had marked every single restrictive which—and there were four or five per page—to be changed to that. How much time did it take to mark all those whiches for two hundred or more pages? How much more time would it have taken for the typesetter to enter those corrections and then deal with all the reflowed text? I didn’t want to find out the answer—I stetted every last one of those changes. Furthermore, the rule hurts all those who don’t follow it and are therefore judged as being sub-par writers at best or idiots at worst, as Pullum discussed in his Lingua Franca post.

To the second response, I’ve said before that I don’t believe we should give so much power to the cranks. Why should they hold veto power for everyone else’s usage? If their displeasure is such a problem, give me some evidence that we should spend so much time and money pleasing them. Show me that the economic cost of not following the rule in print is greater than the cost of following it. But stop saying that we as a society need to cater to this group and assuming that this ends the discussion.

To the last response: No, it really doesn’t. Commas do all the work of disambiguation, as Stan Carey explains. The car which I drive is no more ambiguous than The man who came to dinner. They’re only ambiguous if you have no faith in the writer’s or editor’s ability to punctuate and thus assume that there should be a comma where there isn’t one. But requiring that in place of which doesn’t really solve this problem, because the same ambiguity exists for every other relative clause that doesn’t use that. Note that Bryan Garner allows either who or that with people; why not allow either which or that with things? Stop and ask yourself how you’re able to understand phrases like The house in which I live or The woman whose hair is brown without using a different word to mark that it’s a restrictive clause. And if the that/which rule really is an aid to understanding, give me some evidence. Show me the results of an eye-tracking study or fMRI or at least a well-designed reading comprehension test geared to show the understanding of relative clauses. But don’t insist on enforcing a language-wide change without some compelling evidence.

The problem with all the justifications for the rule is that they’re post hoc. Someone made a bad analysis of the English system of relative pronouns and proposed a rule to tidy up an imagined problem. Everything since then has been a rationalization to continue to support a flawed rule. Mark Liberman said it well on Language Log yesterday:

This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.

Unfortunately, this is often par for the course with prescriptive rules. The rule is taken a priori as correct and authoritative, and all evidence refuting the rule is ignored or waved away so as not to undermine it. Prescriptivism has come a long way in the last century, especially in the last decade or so as corpus tools have made research easy and data more accessible. But there’s still a long way to go.

Update: Mark Liberman has a new post on the that/which rule which includes links to many of the previous Language Log posts on the subject.


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 Bryan 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.


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


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.


*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.

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