June 19, 2013, 12:01 am
I got into a Twitter beef the other day, yo. Don’t get the wrong idea—this wasn’t a hip-hop-style beef, with threats of bodily harm and profane insults about my opponent’s manhood, parentage, and rhyming skills. No, I got into a dustup with members of the American Copy Editors Society—ACES, for short.
It all started when ACES initiated a Twitter “chat.” A series of questions were thrown out, to be addressed by their distinguished guest, Erin Brenner (@ebrenner), or the public at large. The one that caught my attention was Q5 (that is, the fifth one): “AP [the Associated Press] used to be strict about using since only for time. Now I see since and because used interchangeably. Why?”
Mark Allen (@EditorMark) stepped up to the plate. Here’s his tweet, my response, and his response to me.
Ooh, snap. Before I had a chance to come up with a suitable comeback, Brenner…
June 17, 2013, 12:01 am
How do senior copy editors at major newspapers, magazines, and publishers react when academics point out to them that their decisions about usage are decisively at odds with the evidence about what is grammatical in Standard English?
They often simply avoid discussing the matter. A copy editor for the academic publisher Lawrence Erlbaum, when asked why all occurrences of though had been changed to although in my prose, said she would allow me to stet them; but she refused to answer my polite inquiries about what could possibly have motivated the alterations.
And a senior editor at Cambridge University Press in New York ignored a courteous letter by Rodney Huddleston and me explaining in detail that the sternly enforced ban on restrictive relative which is due to a century-old misunderstanding. Months later she communicated via a third party that no answer to our letter would be for…
June 4, 2013, 12:01 am
Descriptive grammarians get mistaken for the grammar police—vigilant, judgmental, and punitive. New acquaintances who learn that I’m a linguist working on the grammar of Standard English often say nervously, “Ooh, I’d better watch my language then!” or something similar. Sometimes I just smile weakly; or sometimes, stifling a sigh, I will protest gently that linguists are not trying to catch them committing solecisms, that we do not seek to rule, that we’re interested in how language actually works and not in embarrassing people over those few occasions when it doesn’t. … The usual disclaimers.
But the fact that I do not see myself as a nitpicking usage warden doesn’t mean that I think everything is grammatical. People do screw up. For example, student writers frequently write coordinations that are ungrammatical because of a failure of parallel structure, which is why we find…
May 29, 2013, 12:01 am
Living, as I do, near Bishops Corner, not far from Corbins Corner, in easy reach of a Walgreens and a Marshalls, not to mention Lyons Gulf service station, I wasn[’]t completely surprised to learn that the United States Board on Geographic Names has clamped down on the efforts of citizens in Thurman, N.Y., to name a nearby mountain Jimmy’s Peak. They[’]ve been removing (in what, misheard, might sound like a different form of mutilation) “the genitive apostrophe and the ‘s’” since 1890, after all, though “the Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy.”
I was surprised, however, to discover that there are warring groups devoted on the one hand to the apostrophe, genitive or otherwise, and on the other to its defeat. Of course, the apostrophe hasn[’]t been around all that long—only since the 16th or 17th century, depending on its…
May 22, 2013, 12:01 am
An author publishes a book containing a sentence beginning with “Even more strikingly, …” His mother points this out to him as “a glaring error,” feeling strongly that the sentence’s main clause should not be introduced with the adverb strikingly but rather with the adjective striking. The son disagrees. The question lands in my e-mail box for arbitration.
The mother is far from alone in her objection, but the objectors’ case is not a strong one.
As I wrote to the mother, it is fine to use either the adverb or the adjective in this sentence: “Even more strikingly, …” or “Even more striking, …” Strikingly functions as a sentence adverb here (modified by even more to make an adverb phrase), expressing the writer’s attitude or stance toward the assertion contained in the main clause. The writer believes that what follows is more striking than what came…
May 20, 2013, 12:01 am
Hundreds of readers opened their New York Times Book Review recently to see a review of a novel that had already been reviewed in April . . . no, wait. That earlier book was Life After Life by the terrific British novelist Kate Atkinson. This book is Life After Life by the terrific American novelist Jill McCorkle. A galumphing typo by the compiler of the table of contents at NYTBR? Nope. There’s the review, glowing about McCorkle’s book much as the reviewer of Atkinson’s book had glowed a mere two weeks earlier.
You cannot copyright a title, and good thing too. Otherwise, the dozen iterations of Forever that have appeared in print in the last two years alone (romance, fantasy, werewolves, YA—name your own genre) would have to resort to the thesaurus for Evermore, Ever and Anon, Till Hell Freezes Over, Semper Eadem. But although McCorkle’s and Atkinson’s publishers are…
May 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Over the past two decades, the use of they as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.
I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and…
April 10, 2013, 12:01 am
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
As a result,…
April 4, 2013, 12:01 am
George Orwell is well known to have legions of admirers who will leap to the keyboard to attack anyone who criticizes their hero. We academics are all supposed to admire him, and especially to regard his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL) as a deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight, and to urge our students to read it. Two distinguished evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis Spurgin.
Well, apologies in advance to Orwell fans, but I have always found P&EL sickening. A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational. Let me comment on just one of its sillinesses.
Orwell famously instructs you to expunge from your prose every…
March 14, 2013, 12:01 am
A student in my “History of the English Language” course stopped me after class a few weeks ago and asked, “I was just wondering—how do you feel about the Oxford comma?” She could have asked about the rationale behind the Oxford comma (the comma after the penultimate item in a list—e.g., apples, chocolate, and peanut butter) or about the history of the Oxford comma. But instead, she asked how I felt about the Oxford comma, the suggestion being that a punctuation mark could be meaningful enough to arouse personal feelings.
I like the Oxford comma (she was right: I do have feelings about it), and I told her so. I am not an advocate of comma proliferation, but this one can support clarity and even usefully disambiguate some lists—e.g., my two brothers, the doctor, and the nurse (to indicate there are four people, not just my brothers, who happen to be a doctor and a nurse)….