September 12, 2011

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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