August 21, 2015

This Is Not the Grammatical Promised Land

I recently became aware of a column in the Chicago Daily Herald by the paper’s managing editor, Jim Baumann, who has taken upon himself the name Grammar Moses. In his debut column, he’s quick to point out that he’s not like the real Moses—“My tablets are not carved in stone. Grammar is a fluid thing.”

He goes on to say, “Some of the rules we learned in high school have evolved with us. For instance, I don’t know a lot of people outside of church who still employ ‘thine’ in common parlance.” (He was taught in high school to use thine in common parlance?)

But then he ends—after a rather lengthy windup—with the old shibboleth of using anxious to mean eager. He says that “generally speaking, the word you’re grasping for is ‘eager,’” ending with the admonition, “Write carefully!”

But as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, this rule is an invention in American usage dating to the early 1900s, and anxious had been used to mean eager for 160 years before the rule proscribing this use was invented. They conclude, “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

Not a good start for a column that aims for a grammatical middle ground.

And Baumann certainly seems to think he’s aiming for the middle ground. In a later column, he says, “Grammarians fall along a spectrum. There are the fundamentalists, who hold their 50-year-old texts as close to their bosoms as one might a Bible. There are the libertines, who believe that if it feels or sounds right, use it. . . . You’ll find me somewhere in the middle.” He again insists that he’s not a grammar fundamentalist before launching into more invented rules: the supposed misuse of like to mean “such as” or “including” and feel to mean “think”.

He says, “If you listen to a car dealer’s pitch that a new SUV has features like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo, do you really know what you’re getting? Nope. Because ‘like’ means similar to, but not the same.” The argument here is simple, straightforward, and completely wrong.

First, it assumes an overly narrow definition of like. Second, it pretends complete ignorance of any meaning outside of that narrow definition. If a car salesperson tells you that a new SUV has features like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo, you know exactly what you’re getting. In technical terms, pretending that you don’t understand someone is called engaging in uncooperative communication. In layman’s terms, it’s called being an ass.

And yet, strangely, Baumann promotes this rule on the basis of clarity. He says that if something is clear to 9 out of 10 readers, then it’s acceptable, but if you can write something that’s clear to all your readers, then that’s even better. While it’s certainly a good idea to make sure your writing is clear to everyone, I’m also fairly certain that no one would be legitimately confused by “features like anti-lock brakes”. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but it lists several examples and says, “In none of the examples that follow can you detect any ambiguity of meaning.” The supposed lack of clarity simply isn’t there.

Baumann ends by saying, “The lesson is: Think about whom you’re talking to and learn to appreciate his or her or their sensitivities. Then you will achieve clarity.” The problem is that we don’t really know who our readers are and what their sensitivities are. Instead we simply internalize new rules that we learn, and then we project them onto a sort of perversely idealized reader, one who is not merely bothered by such alleged misuses but is impossibly confused by them. How do we know that they’re really confused—or even just irritated—by like to mean “such as” or “including”? We don’t. We just assume that they’re out there and that it’s our job to protect them.

My advice is to try to be as informed as possible about the rules. Be curious, and be willing to question not just others’ claims about the language but also your own assumptions. Read a lot, and pay attention to how good writing works. Get a good usage dictionary and use it. And don’t follow Grammar Moses unless you like wandering in the grammatical wilderness.

Editing, Prescriptivism 29 Replies to “This Is Not the Grammatical Promised Land”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


29 thoughts on “This Is Not the Grammatical Promised Land

    Author’s gravatar

    “In layman’s terms, it’s called being an ass.” Bahahahahahahaha! YES. Yesterday I addressed the difference between “healthful” and “healthy” on Get Word Wise, as someone had requested. I’m relatively confident that the requester did not intend for me to tell everyone that it is totally okay to say that carrots are healthy, meaning they are conducive to good health. I said the thing that is NOT okay is to tell someone they are wrong for doing so. Healthy is an acceptable synonym for healthful.

      Author’s gravatar

      “There are a few “good” usage dictionaries that concur with Mr. Moses’ guidance.”

      This statement say loads.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Read a lot, and pay attention to how good writing works. Get a good usage dictionary and use it. And don’t follow Grammar Moses unless you like wandering in the grammatical wilderness.”

    Yes, a few of us do read a lot, and we do pay attention to good writing; therefore, some of us prefer to follow Grammar Moses’ advice.

    Furthermore, there are a few “good” usage dictionaries that concur with Mr. Moses’ guidance.

    “How do we know that they’re really confused—or even just irritated—by like to mean “such as” or “including”? We don’t. We just assume that they’re out there and that it’s our job to protect them.”

    Precisely, therefore, one who follows the rule that “like” is not a conjunction won’t have to worry about confusing or irritating someone.

    I would think that the majority prefer clarity to ambiguity, because in the end that’s is the issue.

      Author’s gravatar

      Sure, everyone prefers clarity to ambiguity, but this isn’t really about ambiguity. Nobody is honestly confused by “features like anti-lock brakes” or “I’m anxious to start.” Ambiguity is just the guise under which people express their peeves.

    Author’s gravatar

    With regard to your comments on “anxious” versus “eager,” sorry, I disagree with your opinion. Perhaps this old adage would apply: All cows are animals but all animals are not cows. In other words, although “anxious” might be used to mean “eager,” it also might, clearly, mean something else. Why not use the word, “eager” to eliminate any ambiguity? I rest my case.

      Author’s gravatar

      I’ve never seen a use of anxious that was actually unclear in context. So if it’s clear in context, why waste time changing it? If you can find an example that isn’t just potentially ambiguous to an uncooperative reader but is truly ambiguous in context, I’d love to see it.

        Author’s gravatar

        “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us.”

          Author’s gravatar

          Okay, but can you find an example that’s ambiguous in context rather than inventing one that’s ambiguous out of context?

            Author’s gravatar

            Your point is that you think it’s ambiguous. I asked you to provide some evidence that it’s ambiguous. Inventing a sentence that has no context and is designed to be ambiguous does not really prove that this usage is problematic.

      Author’s gravatar

      “Why not use the word, “eager” to eliminate any ambiguity?”

      Perhaps the surrounding sentences use “eager” a few more times, and you want to provide some variety in your language so readers don’t go cross-eyed.

      Maybe the sentence also uses the word “meager,” or the words on either side of “eager” also end with -er, and you want to avoid a rhyme or tongue twister.

      Remember: There’s more to writing than grammar and clarity.

    Author’s gravatar

    I’m with you, Mike. But I don’t know I’ve ever run across a situation where “anxious” meant “eager”, and using it that way does not promote good communication:
    Me: I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that.
    My sister: Really? What’s wrong? I thought you were looking forward to it.
    Me: I am. I’m eager.
    My sister: then why not say “eager”?
    I think it comes down to this: if you are “anxiously awaiting” some announcement, you are probably both a little worried and a little eager. But if you are “eagerly awaiting” something, there’s probably no fear or worry involved.

      Author’s gravatar

      Thanks, Mary; your first line says it all.

    Author’s gravatar

    That sample sentence gives the game away, because “I’m anxious about” starting a new job is what someone would say to express misgivings. If the person said, “My new job begins next week and I’m anxious to start,” the sense of “eager” would be perfectly clear in context.

    Author’s gravatar

    Frankly, I love that you use the word “shibboleth” in a grammar article.

    Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

    Argue with *that*, Grammar Moses!

    Author’s gravatar

    ““My new job begins next week and I’m anxious to start,” the sense of “eager” would be perfectly clear in context.”

    Not necessarily, if that person were actually anxious (uneasy) to start. Perhaps the context would be more apparent in oral communication, but not “precisely” in writing.

    Conversely, we wouldn’t say, ” John was eager about his wife’s mastectomy.”

      Author’s gravatar

      Except that, as Mr. McIntyre says above, people who are experiencing anxiety never say anxious to. When it’s followed by to, it’s always in the “eager” sense.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Conversely” doesn’t enter into it. Synonyms are not required to be fully reciprocal. “Anxious” CAN mean “eager,” as citations by the hundreds and thousands can attest. But “eager” does not mean “causing anxiety.”

    I understand that there are people who do not like “anxious” in the “eager” sense, and they are perfectly free to eschew it. But campaigning against the sense is fruitless. When people use the word in that sense, and other people understand it, that is part of the meaning of the word.

    Author’s gravatar

    It seems to be a new trend to claim to understand that language changes and language rules aren’t necessarily set in stone. Hooray for getting out PART of the message!

    But though many make the claim, not all follow through. I’ve just reviewed “May I Quote You on That?” a new book on grammar and usage (the article will post on Copyediting on August 25). The author also claims to understand the language changes, but a good chunk of the advice in the book–including “anxioux” vs. “eager”–is following the same old shibboleths. Sigh.

      Author’s gravatar

      Oops. “Anxious,” not “anxioux.”

        Author’s gravatar

        I see that a lot. “I know language changes, but . . .”

    Author’s gravatar

    “It seems to be a new trend to claim to understand that language changes and language rules aren’t necessarily set in stone. Hooray for getting out PART of the message!”

    This message has been inculcated ad nauseam, it’s clearly understood that language evolves, but some of us might prefer a different or better direction for that evolution.

    I think perhaps a more edifying and interesting topic would be why and how language changes. Language is inanimate; therefore, it cannot change arbitrarily, it needs human guidance, and that guidance is frequently manufactured by ignorance ensued by misusage.

    “I see that a lot. “I know language changes, but . . .”

    Yes, there is a “but”, because some of us might not like the change. Is evolution the de facto response for any misusage in language?

      Author’s gravatar

      I get what you mean here. There’s the unfettered evolution that turned dinosaurs into birds, and then there’s the kind of controlled evolution — breeding — that turned wolves into chihuahuas. for the general public, language might as well just evolve naturally, when in fact there are some breeders involved in guiding the language’s evolution: writers, editors, lexicographers. These are the people who can, and sometimes should, take charge of the direction of particulars of English to guide its evolution in the best direction.

      Problem is, we don’t always agree on the best direction. We’ve tried to breed out, for example, “literally” to mean “figuratively,” but, one by one, we’ve accepted failure. We have, though, guided the language into eliminated the old acceptable usage of using the masculine pronoun as a default.

      So what this particular argument comes down to is people who want to establish a differentiation between eager and anxious versus those who are happy to accept them as synonyms.

      In the end, I can’t force you to pet the chihuahua, but that won’t keep it from yipping annoyingly.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Remember: There’s more to writing than grammar and clarity.”

    Absolutely, but this would apply mainly to narrative writing, because grammar and clarity is indispensable in expository writing. Facts must be precisely written, for one misplaced comma can void a multi-million dollar contract.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Like” anti-lock brakes and airbags works just fine for advertising, until your car that came with an anchor (because it’s “like” anti-lock brakes) or seat belts (because they’re “like” airbags) ends up in a lawsuit, and some scheister makes the distinction in front of a jury. “Similar to” is not the same as “such as.” Better, I think, in those cases to be a live ass. And while we’re on the topic of what “everybody knows” (a phrase I find particularly egregious), four centuries ago, everybody knew the world was flat, and the sun moved around the Earth.

      Author’s gravatar

      Is there any evidence that anyone has ever made this sort of argument in court? I’d think that if anything like this had ever happened or even could happen, corporate legal departments would be all over it and would stop marketing departments from making claims like that. I think this is an invented concern.

      And I’m afraid that I don’t know what the “everybody knows” bit is supposed to refer to, but it’s not entirely true. People have known that the world was round and have even known its circumference since the ancient Greeks.

    Author’s gravatar

    Sorry, my example was meant to be humorous and may have been unclear. We’re approaching the argument from different directions with a similar goal. People have a clear idea what “like anti-lock brakes and a deluxe stereo” means because of a narrow definition. However, Mr. Baumann is clearly wrong about the definition being “similar to but not the same as” (my poorly drawn example notwithstanding).” Merriam-Webster defines like as “the same or nearly the same (as in appearance, character, or quantity).” but it doesn’t mention “including” at all. The problem, I think, is the implied use of the word for each item, which people take to mean “including.” So, if everybody knows (from the same paragraph) the sales pitch means “including,” and not “these things so closely resembling other similar things as to be indistinguishable,” then what everybody knows is incorrect. We may know what we’re getting from the car dealer, but for the wrong reason. It may be meaning changing over time, but I don’t think, “It was a day like any other,” will ever mean, “It was a day including any other.”

    Yes, I’m familiar with Eratosthenes et al. My second point was simply to illustrate what everybody may or may not know about a word’s meaning, may or may not be correct (again, sorry). This is why we need good linguists and editors. With regard to common knowledge, as late as 1674, Robert Hooke wrote “To one who has been conversant only with illiterate persons, or such as understand not the principles of Astronomy and Geometry,…who can scarce imagine the Earth is globous, but…imagine it to be a round plain covered with the Sky as with a Hemisphere” (round meaning pie-plate round and not globe round to the average farmer). And in 1595 the Jesuits recorded that the Chinese still referred to the Earth as flat. The globe-type Earth notion didn’t take hold there until the 1600s (thanks, Jesuits). So, in 1600, the average person knew the Earth was as round (like, but not including) a pie plate. Thanks for your indulgence. Great site, by the way. 🙂

    Author’s gravatar

    This is a little bit complicated. Writing has his own language, That does not mean accuracy in grammar.

      Author’s gravatar

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Could you explain?

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