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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However

Several weeks ago, Bob Scopatz asked in a comment about the word however, specifically whether it should be preceded by a comma or a semicolon when it’s used between two clauses. He says that a comma always seems fine to him, but apparently this causes people to look askance at him.

The rule here is pretty straightforward, and Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has a nice explanation. Independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions are separated by a comma; independent clauses that are not joined by coordinating conjunctions or are joined by what OWL calls “conjunctive adverbs” require a semicolon.

I’ve also seen the terms “transitional adverb” and “transitional phrase,” though the latter usually refers to multiword constructions like as a result, for example, and so on. These terms are probably more accurate since (I believe) words and phrases like however are not, strictly speaking, conjunctions. Though they do show a relationship between two clauses, that relationship is more semantic or rhetorical than grammatical.

Since however falls into this group, it should be preceded by a semicolon, though it can also start a new sentence. Grammar-Monster.com has some nice illustrative examples:

I am leaving on Tuesday, however, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
I am leaving on Tuesday; however, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
I am leaving on Tuesday. However, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.

The first example is incorrect, while the latter two are correct. Note that “however” is also followed by a comma. (But would also work here, though in that case it would be preceded by a comma and not followed by one.)

Bob also mentioned that he sometimes starts a sentence with “however,” and this usage is a little more controversial. Strunk & White and others forbade however in sentence- or clause-initial position, sometimes with the argument that in this position it can only mean “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”

It’s true that however is sometimes used this way, as in “However it is defined, the middle class is standing on shaky ground,” to borrow an example from COCA. But this is clearly different from the Grammar-Monster sentences above. In those, the punctuation—namely the comma after “however”—indicates that this is not the “in whatever way” however, but rather the “on the contrary” or “in spite of that” one.

Some editors fastidiously move sentence-initial “howevers” to a position later in the sentence, as in I will be back on Wednesday, however, to collect my wages. As long as it’s punctuated correctly, it’s fine in either location, so there’s no need to move it. But note that when it occurs in the middle of a clause, it’s surrounded by commas.

It’s possible that sentence-initial however could be ambiguous without the following comma, but even then the confusion is likely to be momentary. I don’t see this as a compelling reason to avoid sentence-initial however, though I do believe it’s important to punctuate it properly, with both a preceding semicolon or period and a following comma, to avoid tripping up the reader.

In a nutshell, however is an adverb, not a true conjunction, so it can’t join two independent clauses with just a comma. You can either join those clauses with a semicolon or separate them with a period. But either way, however should be set off by commas. When it’s in the middle of a clause, the commas go on both sides; when it’s at the beginning of a clause, it just needs a following comma. Hopefully this will help Bob (and others) stop getting those funny looks.

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Till Kingdom Come

The other day on Twitter, Bryan A. Garner posted, “May I ask a favor? Would all who read this please use the prep. ‘till’ in a tweet? Not till then will we start getting people used to it.” I didn’t help out, partly because I hate pleas of the “Repost this if you agree!” variety and partly because I knew it would be merely a symbolic gesture. Even if all of Garner’s followers and all of their followers used “till” in a tweet, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar of usage.

But it did get me thinking about the word till and the fact that a lot of people seem to regard it as incorrect and forms like 'til as correct. The assumption for many people seems to be that it’s a shortened form of until, so it requires an apostrophe to signal the omission. Traditionalists, however, know that although the two words are related, till actually came first, appearing in the language about four hundred years before until.

Both words came into English via Old Norse, where the preposition til had replaced the preposition to. (As I understand it, modern-day North Germanic languages like Swedish and Danish still use it this way.) Despite their similar appearances, to and till are not related; till comes from a different root meaning ‘end’ or ‘goal’ (compare modern German Ziel ‘goal’). Norse settlers brought the word til with them when they started raiding and colonizing northeastern Britain in the 800s.

There was also a compound form, until, from und + til. Und was another Old Norse preposition deriving from the noun und, which is cognate with the English word end. Till and until have been more or less synonymous throughout their history in English, despite their slightly different forms. And as a result of the haphazard process of spelling standardization in English, we ended up with two ls on till but only one on until. The apostrophized form 'til is an occasional variant that shows up far more in unedited than edited writing. Interestingly, the OED’s first citation for 'til comes from P. G. Perrin’s An Index to English in 1939: “Till, until, (’til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since ’til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned.”

Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English, however, tells a slightly different story. It shows a slight increase in 'til since the mid-twentieth century, though it has been declining again slightly in the last thirty years. And keep in mind that these numbers come from a corpus of edited writing drawn from books, magazines, and newspapers. It may well be increasing much faster in unedited writing, with only the efforts of copy editors keeping it (mostly) out of print. This chart shows the relative proportions of the three forms—that is, the proportion of each compared to the total of all three.

Relative proportions of till, until, and 'til.

As Garner laments, till is becoming less and less common in writing and may all but disappear within the next century, though predicting the future of usage is always a guessing game, even with clear trends like this. Sometimes they spontaneously reverse, and it’s often not clear why. But why is till in decline? I honestly don’t know for sure, but I suspect it stems from either the idea that longer words are more formal or the perception that it’s a shortened form of until. Contractions and clipped forms are generally avoided in formal writing, so this could be driving till out of use.

Note that we don’t have this problem with to and unto, probably because to is one of the most common words in the language, occurring about 9,000 times per million words in the last decade in COHA. By comparison, unto occurs just under 70 times per million words. There’s no uncertainty or confusion about the use of spelling of to. We tend to be less sure of the meanings and spellings of less frequent words, and this uncertainty can lead to avoidance. If you don’t know which form is right, it’s easy to just not use it.

At any rate, many people are definitely unfamiliar with till and may well think that the correct form is 'til, as Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar did in this post four years ago, though he checked his facts and found that his original hunch was wrong.

He’s far from the only person who thought that 'til was correct. When my then-fiancee and I got our wedding announcements printed over eight years ago, the printer asked us if we really wanted “till” instead of “'til” (“from six till eight that evening”). I told him that yes, it was right, and he kind of shrugged and dropped the point, though I got the feeling he still thought I was wrong. He probably didn’t want to annoy a paying customer, though.

And though this is anecdotal and possibly falls prey to the recency illusion, it seems that 'til is on the rise in signage (frequently as ‘til, with a single opening quotation mark rather than an apostrophe), and I even spotted a til' the other day. (I wish I’d thought to get a picture of it.)

I think the evidence is pretty clear that, barring some amazing turnaround, till is dying. It’s showing up less in print, where it’s mostly been replaced by until, and the traditionally incorrect 'til may be hastening its death as people become unsure of which form is correct or even become convinced that till is wrong and 'til is right. I’ll keep using till myself, but I’m not holding out hope for a revival. Sorry, Garner.

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What Is a Namesake?

I just came across the sentence “George A. Smith became the namesake for St. George, Utah” while editing. A previous editor had changed it to “In 1861 St. George, Utah, became the namesake of George A. Smith.” Slightly awkward wording aside, I preferred the unedited form. Apparently, though, this is an issue of divided usage, with some saying that a namesake is named after someone else, some saying that a namesake is someone after whom someone else is named, some saying that both are correct, and some saying that namesakes simply share the same name without one being named after the other.

But I’d like to get a better idea of which definitions are most common, so I’m putting up this nice little poll. Let me know your feelings on the matter, and feel free to explain your vote in the comments below.

[poll id="2"]

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Smelly Grammar

Earlier today on Twitter, Mark Allen posted a link to this column on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website about a few points of usage. It begins with a familiar anecdote about dictionary maker Samuel Johnson and proceeds to analyze the grammar and usage of the exchange between him and an unidentified woman.

Pretty quickly, though, the grammatical analysis goes astray. The author says that in Johnson’s time, the proper use of smell was as an intransitive verb, hence Johnson’s gentle but clever reproach. But the woman did indeed use smell as an intransitive verb—note that she didn’t say “I smell you“—so that can’t possibly be the reason why Johnson objected to it. And furthermore, the OED gives both transitive and intransitive senses of the verb smell tracing back to the late 1100s and early 1200s.

Johnson’s own dictionary simply defines smell as “to perceive by the nose” but does not say anything about transitivity. But note that it only identifies the perception of smell and not the production of it. Johnson produced a smell; the lady perceived it. Perhaps this is what his repartee was about, not the verb’s transitivity but who its subject was. But even this doesn’t hold up against the evidence: the OED lists both the “perceive an odor” and “emit an odor” senses, dating to 1200 and 1175, respectively. And the more specific sense of “emit an unpleasant odor” dates to 1400. By Johnson’s day, English speakers had been saying “You smell” to mean “You stink” for at least three hundred years. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says nothing on this point, though it’s possible that other usage guides have addressed it.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the story is that I can’t find an attestation of it earlier than 1950 in Google Books. (If you can find an earlier one, let me know in the comments.) This anecdote seems more like a modern fabrication about a spurious point of usage than a real story that encapsulates an example of language change. But the most disappointing thing about the Columbia Journalism Review piece is its sloppy grammatical analysis. Transitivity is a pretty basic concept in grammar, but the author consistently gets it wrong; she’s really talking about thematic roles. And the historical facts of usage don’t line up with the argument, either.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But you’re missing the point! The point is that good usage matters.” But my point is that the facts matter, too, and you can’t talk about good usage without being aware of the facts. You can’t come to a better understanding of the truth by combining apocryphal anecdotes with a little misguided grammatical analysis. The sad truth is that an awful lot of usage commentators really don’t understand the grammatical points on which they comment, and I think that’s unfortunate, because understanding those points gives one better tools with which to analyze real usage.

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It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.

I know I just barely posted about the rhetoric of prescriptivism, but it’s still on my mind, especially after the recent post by David Bentley Hart and the responses by response by John E. McIntyre (here and here) and Robert Lane Greene. I know things are just settling down, but my intent here is not to throw more fuel on the fire, but to draw attention to what I believe is a problematic trend in the rhetoric of prescriptivism. Hart claims that his piece is just some light-hearted humor, but as McIntyre, Greene, and others have complained, it doesn’t really feel like humor.

That is, while it is clear that Hart doesn’t really believe that the acceptance of solecisms leads to the acceptance of cannibalism, it seems that he really does believe that solecisms are a serious problem. Indeed, Hart says, “Nothing less than the future of civilization itself is at issue—honestly—and I am merely doing my part to stave off the advent of an age of barbarism.” If it’s all a joke, as he says, then this statement is somewhat less than honest. And as at least one person says in the comments, Hart’s style is close to self-parody. (As an intellectual exercise, just try to imagine what a real parody would look like.) Perhaps I’m just being thick, but I can only see two reasons for such a style: first, it’s a genuine parody designed to show just how ridiculous the peevers are, or second, it’s a cover for genuine peeving.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon at work in the writings of Lynne Truss, Martha Brockenbrough, and others. They make some ridiculously over-the-top statements about the degenerate state of language today, they get called on it, and then they or their supporters put up the unassailable defense: It’s just a joke, see? Geez, lighten up! Also, you’re kind of a dimwit for not getting it.

That is, not only is it a perfect defense for real peeving, but it’s a booby-trap for anyone who dares to criticize the peever—by refusing to play the game, they put themselves firmly in the out group, while the peeve-fest typically continues unabated. But as Arnold Zwicky once noted, the “dead-serious advocacy of what [they take] to be the standard rules of English . . . makes the just-kidding defense of the enterprise ring hollow.” But I think it does more than just that: I think it undermines the credibility of prescriptivism in general. Joking or not, the rhetoric is polarizing and admits of no criticism. It reinforces the notion that “Discussion is not part of the agenda of the prescriptive grammarian.”[1] It makes me dislike prescriptivism in general, even though I actually agree with several of Hart’s points of usage.

As I said above, the point of this post was not to reignite a dying debate between Hart and his critics, but to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem surrounding the whole issue. In other words, I may not be worried about the state of the language, but I certainly am worried about the state of the language debate.

  1. [1] James Milroy, “The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive Linguistics,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (New York: Routledge, 1999), 21.