Arrant Pedantry

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The Enormity of a Usage Problem

Recently on Twitter, Mark Allen wrote, “Despite once being synonyms, ‘enormity’ and ‘enormousness’ are different. Try to keep ‘enormity’ for something evil or outrageous.” I’ll admit right off that this usage problem interests me because I didn’t learn about the distinction until a few years ago. To me, they’re completely synonymous, and the idea of using enormity to mean “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” and not “the quality or state of being huge”, as Merriam-Webster defines it, seems almost quaint.

Of course, such usage advice presupposes that people are using the two words synonymously; if they weren’t, there’d be no reason to tell them to keep the words separate, so the assertion that they’re different is really an exhortation to make them different. Given that, I had to wonder how different they really are. I turned to Mark Davies Corpus of Contemporary American English to get an idea of how often enormity is used in the sense of great size rather than outrageousness or immorality. I looked at the first hundred results from the keyword-in-context option, which randomly samples the corpus, and tried to determine which of the four Merriam-Webster definitions was being used. For reference, here are the four definitions:

1 : an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act enormities of state power — Susan Sontag> enormities too juvenile to mention — Richard Freedman>
2 : the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich — G. A. Craig>
3 : the quality or state of being huge : immensity
enormity of the universe>
4 : a quality of momentous importance or impact
enormity of the decision>

In some cases it was a tough call; for instance, when someone writes about the enormity of poverty in India, enormity has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t seem right to substitute a word like monstrousness or wickedness. It seems that the author simply means the size of the problem. I tried to use my best judgement based on the context the corpus provides, but in some cases I weaseled out by assigning a particular use to two definitions. Here’s my count:

1: 1
2: 19
2/3: 3
3: 67
3/4: 1
4: 9

By far the most common use is in the sense of “enormousness”; the supposedly correct senses of great wickedness (definitions 1 and 2) are used just under a quarter of the time. So why did Mr. Allen say that enormity and enormousness were once synonyms? Even the Oxford English Dictionary marks the “enormousness” sense as obsolete and says, “Recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” Perhaps? It’s clear from the evidence that it’s still quite common—about three times as common as the prescribed “monstrous wickedness” sense.

It’s true that the sense of immoderateness or wickedness came along before the sense of great size. The first uses as recorded in the OED are in the sense of “a breach of law or morality” (1477), “deviation from moral or legal rectitude” (1480), “something that is abnormal” (a1513), and “divergence from a normal standard or type” (a1538). The sense of “excess in magnitude”—the one that the OED marks as obsolete and incorrect—didn’t come along until 1792. In all these senses the etymology is clear: the word comes from enorm, meaning “out of the norm”.

As is to be expected, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent entry on the topic. It notes that many of the uses of enormity considered objectionable carry shades of meaning or connotations not shown by enormousness:

Quite often enormity will be used to suggest a size that is beyond normal bounds, a size that is unexpectedly great. Hence the notion of monstrousness may creep in, but without the notion of wickedness. . . .

In many instances the notion of great size is colored by aspects of the first sense of enormity as defined in Webster’s Second. One common figurative use blends together notions of immoderateness, excess, and monstrousness to suggest a size that is daunting or overwhelming.

Indeed, it’s the blending of senses that made it hard to categorize some of the uses that I came across in COCA. Enormousness does not seem to be a fitting replacement for those blended or intermediate senses, and, as MWDEU notes, it’s never been a popular word anyway. Interestingly, MWDEU also notes that “the reasons for stigmatizing the size sense of enormity are not known.” Perhaps it became rare in the 1800s, when the OED marked it obsolete, and the rule was created before the sense enjoyed a resurgence in the twentieth century. Whatever the reason, I don’t think it makes much sense to condemn the more widely used sense of a word just because it’s newer or was rare at some point in the past. MWDEU sensibly concludes, “We have seen that there is no clear basis for the ‘rule’ at all. We suggest that you follow the writers rather than the critics: writers use enormity with a richness and subtlety that the critics have failed to take account of. The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for more than a century and a half.”

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It’s All Grammar—So What?

It’s a frequent complaint among linguists that laypeople use the term grammar in such a loose and unsystematic way that it’s more or less useless. They say that it’s overly broad, encompassing many different types of rules, and that it allows people to confuse things as different as syntax and spelling. They insist that spelling, punctuation, and ideas such as style or formality are not grammar at all, that grammar is really just the rules of syntax and morphology that define the language.

Arnold Zwicky, for instance, has complained that grammar as it’s typically used refers to nothing more than a “grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers”. I think this is an overly negative view; yes, there are a lot of people who peeve about grammar, but I think that most people, when they talk about grammar, are thinking about how to say things well or correctly.

Some people take linguists’ insistence on the narrower, more technical meaning of grammar as a sign of hypocrisy. After all, they say, with something of a smirk, shouldn’t we just accept the usage of the majority? If almost everyone uses grammar in a broad and vague way, shouldn’t we consider that usage standard? Linguists counter that this really is an important distinction, though I think it’s fair to say that they have a personal interest here; they teach grammar in the technical sense and are dismayed when people misunderstand what they do.

I’ve complained about this myself, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really something to worry about. (Of course, I’m probably doubly a hypocrite, what with all the shirts I sell with the word grammar on them.) After all, we see similar splits between technical and popular terminology in a lot of other fields, and they seem to get by just fine.

Take the terms fruit and vegetable, for instance. In popular use, fruits are generally sweeter, while vegetables are more savory or bitter. And while most people have probably heard the argument that tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables, they might not realize that squash, eggplants, peppers, peas, green beans, nuts, and grains are fruits too, at least by the botanical definition. And vegetable doesn’t even have a botanical definition—it’s just any part of a plant (other than fruits or seeds) that’s edible. It’s not a natural class at all.

In a bit of editorializing, the Oxford English Dictionary adds this note after its first definition of grammar:

As above defined, grammar is a body of statements of fact—a ‘science’; but a large portion of it may be viewed as consisting of rules for practice, and so as forming an ‘art’. The old-fashioned definition of grammar as ‘the art of speaking and writing a language correctly’ is from the modern point of view in one respect too narrow, because it applies only to a portion of this branch of study; in another respect, it is too wide, and was so even from the older point of view, because many questions of ‘correctness’ in language were recognized as outside the province of grammar: e.g. the use of a word in a wrong sense, or a bad pronunciation or spelling, would not have been called a grammatical mistake. At the same time, it was and is customary, on grounds of convenience, for books professedly treating of grammar to include more or less information on points not strictly belonging to the subject.

There are a few points here to consider. The definition of grammar has not been solely limited to syntax and morphology for many years. Once it started branching out into notions of correctness, it made sense to treat grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation together. From there it’s a short leap to calling the whole collection grammar, since there isn’t really another handy label. And since few people are taught much in the way of syntax and morphology unless they’re majoring in linguistics, it’s really no surprise that the loose sense of grammar predominates. I’ll admit, however, that it’s still a little exasperating to see lists of grammar rules that everyone gets wrong that are just spelling rules or, at best, misused words.

The root of the problem is that laypeople use words in ways that are useful and meaningful to them, and these ways don’t always jibe with scientific facts. It’s the same thing with grammar; laypeople use it to refer to language rules in general, especially the ones they’re most conscious of, which tend to be the ones that are the most highly regulated—usage, spelling, and style. Again, issues of syntax, morphology, semantics, usage, spelling, and style don’t constitute a natural class, but it’s handy to have a word that refers to the aspects of language that most people are conscious of and concerned with.

I think there still is a problem, though, and it’s that most people generally have a pretty poor understanding of things like syntax, morphology, and semantics. Grammar isn’t taught much in schools anymore, so many people graduate from high school and even college without much of an understanding of grammar beyond spelling and mechanics. I got out of high school without knowing anything more advanced than prepositional phrases. My first grammar class in college was a bit of a shock, because I’d never even learned about things like the passive voice or dependent clauses before that point, so I have some sympathy for those people who think that grammar is mostly just spelling and punctuation with a few minor points of usage or syntax thrown in.

So what’s the solution? Well, maybe I’m just biased, but I think it’s to teach more grammar. I know this is easier said than done, but I think it’s important for people to have an understanding of how language works. A lot of people are naturally interested in or curious about language, and I think we do those students a disservice if all we teach them is never to use infer for imply and to avoid the passive voice. Grammar isn’t just a set of rules telling you what not to do; it’s also a fascinatingly complex and mostly subconscious system that governs the singular human gift of language. Maybe we just need to accept the broader sense of grammar and start teaching people all of what it is.

Addendum: I just came across a blog post criticizing the word funner as bad grammar, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!” It’s always easier to preach than to practice, but my reaction has me reconsidering my laissez-faire attitude. While it seems handy to have a catch-all term for language errors, regardless of what type they are, it also seems handy—probably more so—to distinguish between violations of the regulative rules and constitutive rules of language. But this leaves us right where we started.

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Most Awarded

The other day a friend of mine complained about the use of the phrase “most-awarded” in a commercial for the Jeep Cherokee, which called it the “most-awarded SUV ever.” It bothered him, he said, because “they are saying lots of Cherokees get given away as awards, but that’s not what they mean.” I was surprised—I thought it was pretty clear that it meant “the SUV that has been given the most awards”—but several other people chimed in to say that they read it the other way—the SUV most given as an award. One person suggested that it was just another example of advertisers bastardizing the language, while another thought that it was an attempt to be funny by saying one thing but meaning another. And of course the question came up, “Can you correctly say that something has been ‘awarded’ if it is not the award?

There’s absolutely nothing incorrect about it, though it is technically ambiguous. The problem is that in this instance, “awarded” is a passive construction (technically a reduced one), meaning that what is normally an object has been moved to subject position. But it’s ambiguous because “awarded” is ditransitive, which means that it can take both a direct and an indirect object. Most transitive verbs (that is, verbs that take objects) can take only one object, as in “The boy kicked the ball,” but some can take two, as in “The boy gave his friend the ball.” In both sentences, the ball is the direct object, but in the second sentence, we also have an indirect object, his friend.

The same holds for the verb award—you award something to someone (or something), like “The committee awarded him (indirect object) the Nobel Prize (direct object)” or “Car and Driver awarded the Cherokee (indirect object) SUV of the Year (direct object).” (I don’t know if they actually did.) To put the sentence in the passive voice, we can move either one of the objects to subject position, giving us either “The Cherokee was awarded SUV of the Year (by Car and Driver)” or “SUV of the Year was awarded to the Cherokee (by Car and Driver).”

The structural ambiguity comes in when you turn a sentence like this into a reduced passive, as in “most-awarded SUV.” The adjectival phrase “most-awarded” derives from the fuller passive clause “The Cherokee was awarded the most.” Structurally speaking, because award is ditransitive, this could derive from something like either “The Cherokee was awarded to people the most” or “The Cherokee was awarded the most awards.” (Ignore the awkward repetition of the latter; we’re just interested in the structure here, not in elegance.)

Put back into the active voice, this could be either “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee to the most people” or “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee the most awards.” (In either case, it’s not relevant who the subject is, especially since it’s presumably multiple someones.) In the first sentence, the Cherokee is being given as an award; in the second, it’s receiving the awards.

At first, my intuition was that there was something strange about giving a car as an award; it could be a reward or a prize, but in my mind an award is something like the Nobel Prize or an Academy Award or some sort of cash prize. But then I remembered the infamous leg lamp from A Christmas Story, which the father repeatedly describes as “a major award.” So obviously an award could be something other than a medal or a cash amount.

Corpus data wasn’t very helpful, either. COCA gives only five hits for “most awarded,” but all of them support my reading—“the SUV that has received the most awards”—by making the subject the recipient of the award, not the thing being awarded to someone. The Google Books corpus provides more hits, and though most of them still use the “has received the most awards” sense, there’s a little more variation here, with some employing the “most given as an award” sense, such as “The Nobel Prize in physics is the most awarded of all the five prize categories.”

Next I turned to Twitter to solve the argument. I wrote, “Help me settle an argument: Does ‘most-awarded SUV’ mean ‘SUV most given as an award’ or ‘SUV that has received the most awards’?” The results were not terribly helpful. Out of five responses, three voted for “most given as an award” and two voted for “has received the most awards,” though one noted that either was possible.

Honestly, I was baffled, though I think there’s something of an answer in here somewhere. In most of the examples I came across in the corpora, it’s very clear from context what the award is and who or what is receiving it. If I tell you that Schindler’s List is the most-awarded movie in history (at least it was in 1994, when one of the corpus examples was written), you know that the movie received awards, not that someone received a movie as an award. And if I tell you that the PhD is the most-awarded degree, you know that someone is receiving the degree, not that the degree is receiving an award.

But with a car, it’s more ambiguous. Cars can receive awards, and people can presumably receive cars as awards. And although I think it’s clear that the first meaning is intended, a lot of people are irked by it or don’t get the intended meaning at all.

The upshot of this is that it underscores the importance of researching points of usage before declaring an answer. At first I was convinced that I was clearly right and everyone else was wrong. But though my intuition coincides with the intended meaning, intuition alone isn’t enough to explain what’s going on. You need real-world data for that, and sometimes you find that the answer is not as simple as you thought.

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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.