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One for the Usage Books

What a heartwarming response to my latest contest! Earlier, when I invited limericks about language, there were all of 85 responses. But for this contest, for a new bogus rule of usage, as of the close of the contest yesterday, there were 192. Clearly there are more usageasters (to use a word coined by the late Thomas Clark) than poetasters entering the fray. (Perhaps I should say “language mavens” and “limericksters” in the sentence just past, so as to offend nobody.)

Why do it? Well, as jpk77 said, “Everyone should experience the joy of participating in a grammar contest at least once in their lives.” Or as trecht said in response to ahannaasmi, “This is mere pedantic quibbling.” Exactly!

So, down to business. You will remember the contest stipulations:

  • State your new rule,
  • explain its logic, and
  • give an example of a sentence that violates the rule, and show how to correct it.

And I explained: “The rule has to be a brand new one, not announced in any previous usage manual, but—and this is the hard part—it has to look venerable. Nobody is going to pay attention to a rule that looks new and arbitrary and idiosyncratic. No, you want a rule that appears to have been followed by careful writers all along, while being misused or ignored by careless writers.”

Looking over the serried ranks of entries, I realize that I should have added one more qualification:

  • Make the rule clear and simple enough that linguistically unsophisticated teachers and editors can understand and apply it.

As Milan No wrote, “I’m looking forward to future linguist bloggers tracking down some ‘rule’s’ origin to this very post.” Exactly! Our aim is to make history.

My previous contest was a piece of cake compared with this one. Dank48 succinctly explained the difficulty here: “The English language has been evolving a long time, and at this late date I don’t believe it’s possible to formulate a coherent albeit bogus grammar ‘rule’ that some jackass hasn’t already promulgated, seriously, with a straight face, oblivious to its uselessness and futility.” In the event, though, our usageasters proved themselves up to the challenge.

There were some hilarious proposals, though unfortunately they had to be dismissed. For a new rule to be taken seriously, it had to be serious. But my day was made again and again by

  • “Squirrels are nesting in a my desk,” stevenkass’s example for Aaron Mandel’s rule.
  • “One loves you madly,” Kate Emma West’s example for her rule that it’s incorrect to refer to oneself as “I.”
  • “Fish xor cut bait,” Luke Sedney’s illustration of Will Fitzgerald’s rule never to use “or” to mean “exclusive or.”
  • Jeff Guenther’s “Etymologists are different from entomologists in that an etymologist is one who knows the difference between an entomologist and an etymologist.”
  • Magyarorszag’s “Áj du lájk det. Ólszo, áj hev enadör ájdia: Váj nat adapt magyar szpelling…?”

If I had a prize for the funniest, though, it would go to cplanti’s “anna count off” rule, with its examples:

  • Wrong: “Hear ye, hear ye. In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved because he ain’t had a normal home.”
  • Correct: “Hear ye … this child is depraved Anna count off not having a normal home.”

OK, down to serious business. Keeping simplicity in mind (and sorry I didn’t think of it before), of many worthy entrants these were my finalists:

 

Mollymooly’s rule:

The pronouns “somebody” and “someone” are illogical, and one should use “a person” instead.

Reasoning: “Some” means either “a number of” (with plural nouns) or “an amount of” (with singular nouns). Since “body” and “one” are singular, “somebody” and “someone” mean “an amount of person” and is thus only appropriate for cannibals: “Would you like somebody? I’ve just taken a juicy missionary out of the oven.”

 

Makkapakka’s rule:

With verbs containing prefixes like in- or ex-, the corresponding prepositions should never be used. For example, “import” means to “carry in” so one cannot say “The drugs were imported into the U.K.” because this is equivalent to “The drugs were carried in into the U.K.” Instead, say “The drugs were imported to the U.K.”

The same applies to “enter into,” “export from,” “embed in,” “exit out of” and similar verbs, and to nouns derived from such verbs.

 

Ran’s rule:

“Because of” should not be used to modify a sentence in the future tense, since it is a logical fallacy to impute a cause to something that is not (yet) true. Rather, a construction such as “due to” or “owing to” should be used, or the sentence should be rewritten to be more clear.

For example, instead of “He’s going to Florida next week, because of a friend’s wedding,” one should write, “He’s going to Florida next week *for* a friend’s wedding.”

Writers who observe this rule thereby uphold an important distinction; a sentence such as “Because of the promised bonus, he decided to teach an extra class next summer” makes clear that the promised bonus is the cause of the *decision* (which has already happened), not the cause of the *teaching an extra class* (which hasn’t happened yet, so doesn’t yet have a cause).

 

All three are masterpieces of logic and obfuscation. They all call for precision in language, the motivation for so many rules.

Mollymooly’s is truly lucid, especially with its shocking example, but it’s enough over the top that it might be viewed with suspicion by would-be adopters.

Makkapakka’s is earnest and plausible, but a little complicated in its range of application.

So my award goes to Ran, for inventing a bogus distinction with regard to one common phrase, “because of.” Rules regarding “because of” are already extant, so naïve followers of usage books might think of this as just one more stricture to obey.

Yes, my prize goes to Ran. But I’m awarding a second prize to the also-ran, Makkapakka, for prolixity in providing plausible entries. Ran and Makkapakka, send your postal addresses to me at allan.metcalf@mac.edu, and I’ll send you your rewards.

And, dear readers, thank you so much, but now, enough is enough. Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee!

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