Tag Archives: Prescriptivism

Line by line

12 Apr

It is not, as a rule, this blog’s desire to be too literal-minded about cartoons. After all, it is still smarting at the incident, some years ago now, where the readers’ editor ran a correction – an actual correction – over a cartoon in the Tribune’s business pages showing the Greek prime minister and the head of the European Commission crashing into each other on a mountain road. The “mistake” was that their cars had been drawn as right hand drive, when they should have been left hand drive.

However, it is also this blog’s position that a typo spoils a joke (such as for example, the case of another Tribune business cartoon showing the word BREXIT hewn in vast letters of stone in an abandoned desert, only inadvertently without the “R”.) So there is a fine line to tread between presenting things to their best advantage and stepping all over the laugh.

Certainly on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, there are periodic objections to the careful subbing cartoons appear to receive in the New Yorker, even down to the famous diaeresis:

“Must be fun working there”, observes one group member. Although what are you supposed to do, have a different style guide for the jokes? I think I’d rather have that than this under-edited example from the Sydney Morning Herald:

That’s Olivia Newton-John: Newton with an N, not an M, so ONJ Wellness Centre.

And as for this recent example

again, I don’t want to be pedantic, but Sims’s unknown assailant would have made a much faster job of cutting the hole if he’d turned the saw the right way round.

ї before е

1 Mar

It began on a faintly sceptical note – “what is the BBC up to now?” – but the Daily Mail’s change of heart, and change of house style from Kiev to Kyiv, happened quickly.

Last Wednesday, this article appeared on its website: for the Mail, a rare discussion of the implications of language that came close to publicly acknowledging the existence of the Daily Mail style guide (and how one would love to get a sight of that). And although the headline and first paragraph are redolent of the usual suspicion of the national broadcaster,

the rest of the article is actually an informative and lucid discussion of the question:

“Ukraine’s capital is known as Київ in Ukrainian and Киев in Russian. Both terms do not have a direct translation into the Roman alphabet, with Kiev, Kyiv, Kyyiv or Kiyev all being possibilities. 

But the spelling ‘Kiev’ is intrinsically linked with the old USSR due to its widespread use by the British and Americans while the city was under Soviet rule. 

This continued after independence in 1991, until ‘Kyiv’ was legally approved by the Ukrainian government …

Young Ukrainians see ‘Kiev’ as a relic of the Soviet past, and this view is now shared by the government, which launched a ‘KyivNotKiev’ campaign in 2018. 

At this stage, the Mail is still keeping its journalistic distance – the last line of the article is a brisk “MailOnline has contacted the BBC for comment”, interrogating the corporation on the reader’s behalf. But by Friday morning, the following note had appeared in the print edition:

and by Friday lunchtime, the website was leaping on board a social media bandwagon to get others to follow suit:

A style guide change within two days of first raising a style issue in public, and an explicitly advertised one at that: that’s unusual behaviour for the Mail.

Of course, commentators were not slow to point out that acknowledging preferred terms in this way might set an awkward precedent for Britain’s leading scourge of wokeness. As Neil Fisher of the Times acutely put it: “I love the distinction here between ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘a symbolic show of support’.”

But there seems no disagreement in the Mail, or among its critics, or in linguistic circles, about another aspect of the decision, which is the necessity and desirability of prescriptivism in these instances. Although linguists frequently condemn the imposition of editors’ arbitrary (sometimes very arbitrary) rules on published writing, few ever object when an oppressed group pleads for a deliberate change in language to be enforced. On Google Ngrams, which offers results for English up to 2019, the use of Kiev (blue line) always comfortably outstrips Kyiv (red line), which barely figures on the graph until the 1990s – one guesses as a result of independence – and then kicks up sharply from the early 2000s onwards, at around the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Kiev is, strictly speaking, the popular choice over time. But in circumstances like these, no one contends that corpus results should decide an argument on usage. Other considerations prevail.

These debates are not always easy ones: names and spellings matter to oppressors as well as the oppressed, as dictators’ renamings of cities and countries (and, in the case of President Nyazov of Turkmenistan, even days of the week) remind us. The Guardian thought hard before replacing “Burma” with “Myanmar” in copy, weighing the balance between an old name redolent of empire and a new one chosen by a brutal junta.

But the point is: these choices matter. They matter not just to editors in the newsroom, but to the people we are reporting on. Using a name, or shunning it, is, in the words of David Marsh, the Guardian’s former style guide editor, “a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval” – a way of signalling your support, and your values. Popularity and precedent, the principles on which descriptivism runs, are not equal to these circumstances. This is the other, not always acknowledged, side of prescriptivism – progressive, rather than regressive, and alive to the resonances embedded in a word, or even a spelling, that a purely descriptivist approach cannot hear.

The wonder of Woolsworths

10 Nov

It turned out not to be true: Woolworths was not reopening in Britain. It was a hoax, announced from a stunted-up Twitter account and unwisely seized upon by numerous British media outlets. And how did people begin to realise it was a fake? Because of the typos.

As the BBC reports, the Twitter feed (now suspended) referred to the brand as “Woolsworths” more than once – deliberately, its teenage creator says – and although some of the media may have been fooled, several people on social media weren’t:

As we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging or corporate communications, its absence is suspicious. Posts that purport to be from an official body written in casual – specifically, unedited – English seem as jarringly inauthentic as jokey Halloween Twitter handles do in serious news reports.

It is one of this blog’s hobby-horses that formality has its uses: however absurd “proper English” seems to linguists, it is the language authority speaks, and to which it most readily responds. In anyone’s mouth, it has the power to command. And it also serves another purpose, even today: as an implicit guarantor of authenticity. This is why consumer rights groups still advise customers to be alert to language errors on suspicious websites. As Which? puts it: “Watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or phrases that don’t sound quite right.”

Scammers and pranksters could solve many of their authenticity problems by hiring editors, of course. But, perhaps fortunately, they seem to have as little respect for the craft of editing as many news organisations.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”

‘Either is acceptable’

3 Mar

The style guide used to say this about “all right”:

Now it says this:

The Who, noted. Kingley Amis, noted. There are many voices. But what’s the style now? Is it all right? Is it alright? Is it both? (Also, doesn’t the difference between “she got the answers all right” and “she got the answers, alright!” depend on the presence of the comma, not the style of the word?)

Elsewhere in the guide, the entry for “swath” says:

Well, yes, they’re acceptable. They’re just variant spellings – they’re all acceptable. But that’s not the point.

Sometimes, a style choice signifies a particular way of thinking about a topic, a considered taking of sides on an important issue. But even when it’s just choosing between two versions of words that mean the same thing, the choice is still important. Successfully adhering to one style adds to the subliminal impression of an organisation as competent, alert and professional. The Guardian’s catastrophic history with misprints haunts it, in its nickname, to this day, even though there was nothing substantively inaccurate about the stories it published in those typo-strewn days. The accusation was an easy one to make – that imprecise spellers are also imprecise thinkers – and the mud stuck.

The most distinctive style choices can even act as canaries in the verbal coalmine: if the New Yorker ever starts getting inconsistent about the use of the diaeresis in “coöperate”, we will know something’s seriously wrong. Failing to specify a style in such instances may not change the meaning of a sentence, but it might start to change the way that your staff thinks about its job. “Either” should never be acceptable.

Fortunately, however, the style guide remains resonant and clear on the things that really matter:

 

 

Let it be

7 Jan

© Jane Draycott, 2016

There are times when one longs not to be an editor – such as, for example, when reading this poem in Jane Draycott’s wonderful recent collection The Occupant. “It Won’t Be Long” is a mesmerising meditation on the fact (of which I was unaware) that With The Beatles, the Beatles’ second album, came out on the same day that John F Kennedy was assassinated: 22 November 1963.

Named after the first song on the album, the poem is set in Draycott’s childhood home on the day in question, where father is struggling to make dinner for the family because mother is ill, and rapidly the political, cultural and domestic all get swirled together. The title of the poem simultaneously refers to the record, the progress in the kitchen and the events soon to occur in Dallas, six hours behind. Mention of the Vesta instant curry brings to mind Vesta, Roman goddess of hearth and home, who then seems to appear, flickeringly, in the outfit Jacqueline Kennedy wore that day (“navy trim and matching pillbox hat“). And because it’s 1963, no one (in the Beatles, presumably) has “even thought of going to India” – at least, not yet.

© EMI Records

But if it is 1963, that brings me to the thing I trip over in the first line, that brings the editor in me to alert and stops me being captivated straightaway (although I end up being captivated in the end). If you are an editor or a Beatles fan, you probably noticed it too. “Here Comes The Sun” isn’t on With The Beatles. It’s on Abbey Road. On 22 November 1963, it was still five years away from being written.

It’s a wonderful first line. And of course the purpose of the sun in the poem is not just to be a Beatles reference but to provide the light source that creates the shadow over America’s future, the globe in black and white, and perhaps even the half-moon faces of the Fab Four on the album’s famous cover. The poem would go dark without it.

Maybe if it wasn’t in italics, I wouldn’t trip over it so hard. Certainly elsewhere in the poem there are anachronistic echoes of lyrics from Come Together and I Am The Walrus (“come together now”, “we are all together”) that intrude less. But the fact that “Here comes the sun” is emphasised, and the fact that it comes directly after the citation “With The Beatles (Parlophone)”, makes it impossible for my literalistic, fact-checking soul to overlook. A lifetime on the desk leaves you mentally Googling everything. There are times when one longs not to be an editor.

Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per yourdictionary.com.

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.

 

(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

Prescribed listening

11 Dec

I’ve always basically agreed with this position, but I’ve never heard it expressed so starkly as the BBC does here:

Years ago, the inaugural post on this blog was about precisely this problem: should you follow common prescriptivist norms when editing, for a quiet life and to save your writers from the peevers? Or should you assist in the debunking of language myths by allowing new or common usages into print?

I thought the decision was an uncomfortable one then and still do. But there’s no agonising about it here. Although there’s a certain amount of rhetorical loading – by “good English”, the writer means “formal English”, and “bad” means “informal” – this doesn’t seem to be an argument based on conservatism. Rather, it’s the raw pragmatism that’s so arresting. The argument is simple: “Some listeners are pedants. Some are not. Only pedants complain. So write for the pedants.” It even uses the word “appease”.

And if that were not clear enough on its own, the entry in the accompanying style guide for “enormity” removes all doubt:

It should be said that this is from a guide to writing radio news that dates back to 2002. It’s still on the BBC website, but it’s not clear that it’s still the current advice. The BBC Academy, where many resources for the corporation’s journalists are now held, appears to have no equivalent passage on tone, and the latest style guide, although still prohibiting “enormity” meaning “size”, contains no observations about pedantry.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC’s underlying approach to language was still just as cautious. For an organisation that gets trapped in the middle of every political and cultural row in Britain, it probably doesn’t take long to decide that there’s no point getting shouted at over “decimate” as well.

Happy anniversary

3 Apr

Ten Minutes Past Deadline is five! I’d like to say “five today”, but in fact it was five last Friday: the first post on this site went up on 30 March 2013.

Although many subjects have attracted its attention, including baseball, cartoons and the rise of IMDb’s formidable robot copydesk, this blog has all too frequently returned to the subject that first inspired it: prescriptivism and formal English. The first post that ever appeared here arose from years of reading two inspiring blogs – You Don’t Say and HeadsUp – and, through them, becoming increasingly engaged with editing’s big issues: ethics, grammar, ambiguity, statistics, and, above all, language change.

Written in response to a debate on how forward-thinking one should be when editing someone else’s writing, that post was motivated by a slightly defensive sense that although formal English was indefensible, it was somehow important too: and that, even though the case against prescriptivist crotchets was unanswerable, deadline was not the right moment to get into an argument with a writer over notional agreement.

Five years later, that debate is as hard to resolve as ever, but the advice, tips and ideas readers have offered over that time have helped move the blog forward immeasurably. Thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, shared, liked, quoted, linked to, disagreed with and retweeted it over the past half-decade. And, by way of celebration, here is a distillation of what Ten Minutes Past Deadline now thinks it thinks (at least currently) about formal English:

 

Formal English is absurd, but unmistakable

There is no academic justification for the ban on split infinitives, or the stricture that forbids qualifying a sentence with “hopefully”, or the objection to ending a sentence with a preposition, or for many of the other rules taught or followed as being “good English”. And yet, taken together, those rules have come to create a recognisable register: a tone, a rhetoric, a voice. However baseless its antecedents, when formal English is spoken, everyone recognises it for what it is: the language in which power speaks and expects to be addressed.

 

Formal English is not imposed from above

The English language has no central authority, not even an ineffectual one like the Academie Française. Everyone who has tried to suggest usage changes, or best practice, or new words, has had to do so from a position as a private citizen – or, at best, as part of a self-appointed body. None of them have had the power to compel correct usage. The mechanism by which, say, a language commentator’s suggestion becomes a teaching point in primary-school English, which is then carried forward into the solicitors’ letters and leading articles of a generation of adults, is an achievement of influence, not enforcement. Prescriptivism in English has to win hearts and minds; there is no state imprimatur to reinforce the message. Which leads us to a surprising conclusion:

 

Formal English is a descriptivist phenomenon

In Modern English Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1930s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, some of which caught on: some, but not all. Proposing, it appears, is not enough: every piece of language change, from the accidental to the intentional, has to pass the test of usage.

Some of Fowler’s ideas were terrible, but some – such as his forgotten proposals for punctuating parentheses – were just as useful as his “which/that” distinction, which has become a staple of legal English. Similarly, the BBC committee failed in its primary task of inventing a new word for one who watches television (the corporation rejected  “auralooker” and went for “viewer”), but it did successfully popularise the term “roundabout” for the road junction. The unpredictability of these successes and failures suggests that prescription, just like natural language change, is subject to the mysterious processes of acceptance by which English is ultimately formed. That means many prescriptivist initiatives are doomed to failure: but it does suggest that the ones that have survived to create what we now call “formal English” have passed the stern test of public approval.

A new hopefully

28 Nov

I fear the people who don’t like sentence adverbs are not going to like this:

And, although I don’t normally have a problem with “hopefully”, for once I might agree.

Sentence adverbs – or, as linguists call them, “modal adjuncts” – are adverbs that, rather than modifying the verb in a sentence, express an attitude towards the sentence itself. They frequently appear at the start of the sentence, set off by a comma: “Hopefully, I’ll find them”; Honestly, you may not”; “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Although all such words can operate as standard adverbs* – “she looked up hopefully”; “he spoke honestly for the first time”; “his eyes gazed frankly into hers” – when placed in certain contexts they take on a higher function: one of commenting on the thought being expressed.

Of all the common sentence adverbs, “hopefully” is the one that resonates with editors most, because it became the subject of a brief but heated usage debate about 50 years ago, as Geoffrey Pullum recounts in a blogpost on Lingua Franca:

The 1960s saw an increase in the frequency of modal-adjunct use for another adverb: hopefully. Alongside They’ll wait hopefully (“They’ll wait with hope in their hearts”), it became increasingly popular to use sentences like Hopefully they’ll wait (“It is to be hoped that they’ll wait”).

This unremarkable little piece of linguistic evolution might have gone unnoticed, if the aging usage specialist Wilson Follett had not bristled. It is “un-English and eccentric” to use the word that way, he asserted dogmatically (Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966), page 170), even though (as he said) the German equivalent “hoffentlich” is fine in modal-adjunct use.

Follett was dead by 1963 (his posthumous usage book was completed by Jacques Barzun and others), but he left a legacy: By the late 1960s, using hopefully as a modal adjunct was widely taken to be a grammatical sin.

As John McIntyre observes in You Don’t Say, Follett’s language was ferocious enough to have quite an impact – “how readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel”, he says at one point – and the disapproval spread to other style manuals. But it proved to have shallow roots: faced with popular usage and the existence of other unproblematic sentence adverbs in English, such as “mercifully”, people began to retreat from their positions. As Prof Pullum says:

For a few years, battles raged and peevers fumed. But the opposition peaked when disco was young, and Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra were hot. By 1979, [conservative language columnist] William Safire had accepted the modal-adjunct use of hopefully … The dispute was basically over.

It was, having started and finished in less than two decades – although Associated Press, out of an abundance of caution, prohibited the usage until 2012 before finally caving in.

But although the acceptability of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb is now settled, that does not mean that it succeeds as one in all situations. While it is certainly not true that modal adjuncts always need to be at the start of a sentence, or even set off with commas, to work, as Prof Pullum shows in the following example –

Compare “He was flirting with her too obviously”, which comments on the manner of the flirting, and “He was obviously flirting with her”, which doesn’t.

– there is nonetheless something amiss with the Gary Younge standfirst that prevents “hopefully” from functioning as intended.

The sentence is an intricate one: the main subject and verb, “I decided”, is then followed by a long, comparative construction: “ignoring a feted white supremacist was more dangerous than hopefully exposing him”. In fact, the comparative construction functions as a complete sentence on its own; the main verb is “was”, and the subject of the sentence is “ignoring a feted white supremacist” – a verb phrase functioning as a noun, or, in other words, a gerund.

The object in the more/than construction is also a gerund – “exposing him” – and it is this idea of exposure that “hopefully” is trying to comment on, rather than directly modify. But, if anything, it really only succeeds in doing the latter and creating the idea of “exposing in a hopeful manner”.

It is possible to use modal adjuncts with gerundive constructions – “Hopefully, going to the coffee shop won’t make me late” – but I can’t think of an example where they succeed other than when placed at the start or the end of a simple sentence. In this standfirst, however, we have a “sentence adverb” that is neither intended to modify the verb that it sits next to, nor the sentence as a whole, but instead act as a comment on one of two gerunds contained in an independent clause. Setting it off in commas might help a bit, but, I fear, not enough. Sentence adverbs can do a lot, but I don’t think they can do that much.

 

*Also known as “manner adjuncts”.