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May 23, 2012

English usage rant
Posted by Patrick at 07:33 PM * 308 comments

I realize that we’re all traumatized from having been corrected when we would say “Dad and me went to the store” at age five, and that we suffer from hypercorrection as a result. But holy cow, it boggles my mind when really good writers use “I” when they should use “me,” as in “Take a look at this picture of Melvin and I.”

Some of my smartest and most well-spoken colleagues at Tor do this all the time, too, and I often wind up biting off bits of my tongue to avoid being an annoying real-time grammar cop. But this is Making Light, where I can be an annoying timeshifted grammar cop instead! Seriously, folks, forget any technical grammar explanations you may have been forced to learn. Instead, whenever you’re making a sentence about yourself and another person and you’re not sure whether to say “I” or “me,” just cut the other person out of the sentence and see which one you’d naturally use:

Melvin and me immanentized the Eschaton.
WRONG, because would you say “Me immanentized the Eschaton”? You would not!
Melvin and I immanentized the Eschaton IS CORRECT.

The last survivors of the horrific massacre were Melvin and I.
WRONG, because you wouldn’t say “The last survivor of the horrific massacre was I”, now would you?
The last survivors of the horrific massacre were Melvin and me IS CORRECT.

(Disclaimer: I myself make all kinds of equally annoying usage and pronounciation mistakes. English is unruly. I’m just venting about the one that happens to get on my personal last nerve LIKE MAKING THAT SQUEAKY SOUND WHEN YOU RUB A BALLOON ARGH STOP. You know. How. It is. I’ll go lie down now.)

UPDATE: See “pronounciation”, above. This post is a self-demonstrating artifact. (H/t David Goldfarb in the comments.)

Comments on English usage rant:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:36 PM:

(That said, it also doesn't do to be too prescriptivist about this stuff, either, as this post on Language Log explains.)

#2 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:40 PM:

That's the best explanation of this point of usage that I've heard.

#3 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:52 PM:

If you say "methinks", do you say "My brother and methinks" or "My brother and Ithinks"?

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:55 PM:

I-man not down with dat. I an I want di I to sight dat I an I like I English Ital. Seen, I? Irie.

#6 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:59 PM:

#3, Erik Nelson: If you say "methinks," your problems are beyond the scope of this blog rant.

#7 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 07:59 PM:

About the 2nd example... In 1959's "Journey to the Center of the Earth", Arlene Dahl exclaims to James Mason something like "If someone is tired of this, it is me." Mason then says "No, it is *I*." Was Mason's character BSing her?

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:01 PM:

"So then he said that he used to be a member of the choir himself, so who was he to cast the first rock at a girl like I."

-- Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

#10 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:04 PM:

The "me" in "methinks" isn't the subject; it's actually a leftover dative, because it's the indirect object of what was originally the Old English verb þyncan, "to seem". So "methinks"="it seems to me that, etc."

(I don't play a pedant on TV, but I am one in real life.)

#12 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:05 PM:

Debra Doyle, #10: You win an internet. [Does "We Are Not Worthy" dance.]

#13 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:11 PM:

Melvin and me immanentized the Eschaton.

This is incorrect, but not for the reason given. Here, "me" should have been capitalized. Melvin (Melvin H. Graustark, LCDR, RN, ret.) and Me N. Whan, PhD., were the persons who immanentized the Eschaton (see: Taylor & Lubnitz, Seeking Enlightenment, Haversham Ltd., London, 1934, pp. 134-140).


Dr. Whan's given name was supposed to have been Frederick, but some confusion occurred at the Registry when the clerk was faced by Dr. Whan's mother, Mrs. Soon Whan (nee Noo), father Mr. Tom Orro Whan, paternal uncle the Right Honourable Toady Whan, godparents Miss Yostarday Immidetely and Mr. I. (for Ittis) Nott, maternal aunt Mrs. Heem Watt, and family friends Father Repete Claerly (a priest), Commander Who Chieldsnom, and Madame Ishouldsay Mutha. All of those worthies arrived at once, filling the clerk's office near-to-bursting, and demanded (nearly simultaneously and in loud tones, for they were all forceful personalities) that the Birth Certificate be made out At Once, for the family was to depart on the Cardiff Boat-Train within the hour, and they had need of the documentation forthwith.

The unfortunate scribal error was not noticed until the family arrived at their summer home in Madeira, by which time it was impossible to correct.

#14 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:12 PM:

Patrick @ 11... Ahah. Thanks!

#15 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:22 PM:

Me, too, have noticed this error -- and been irritated by it -- for years.

#16 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:24 PM:

English is unruly? Nah, English is way, way too ruly for its own users.

#17 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:29 PM:

I cannot believe that we are 17 posts into the thread without anybody mentioning the misspelling of "pronunciation"....I guess everybody else around here is just more polite than I! (Sc. "am", hence the subjective not objective.)

#18 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:32 PM:

Ginger @ 15...

"Me am Superman."
- Bizarro

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:33 PM:

No, everyone here is probably just as bad at spelling as I am.

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:34 PM:

Jim, I am stunned.

#21 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:44 PM:

It is I, Leclerc.

On whether it's I or me, Here is a page that argues for "it's me".


In Norwegian, as far as I know, the correct formation is "det er jeg" - which indeed translates to "it is I". When speaking I'll keep doing it the wrong way though - "d'e eg" doesn't flow, while "d'e meg" works perfectly well. Nobody will be correcting it anyway - my local dialect has far weirder stuff going on than that.

#22 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:52 PM:

And here I was, going to say that "no, Melvin and I immanentized the Eschaton is WRONG. I don't even know a Melvin (well, except for this one), and I never even tried Eschating!"

Well, maybe once. But I didn't inhale. And thanks for introducing me to a new to me word.

#23 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 08:56 PM:

Pedantic? I?

#24 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:05 PM:

Or just skip the whole problem by referring to yourself in the third person:

"Hulk immanentize puny Eschaton."

#25 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:06 PM:

you wouldn’t say “The last survivor of the horrific massacre was I”, now would you?

Er -- yes, I might, actually. The "was" here is a linking verb. It doesn't take an object. "I was the last survivor" and "The last survivor was I" are equivalent. (Now, would the second be a natural or idiomatic way to express that concept, especially in dialogue or other privileged speech? Different question.)

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:29 PM:

They must have stopped teaching that method of parsing the sentence some time back, as the kids on my lawn don't really know any better.

#27 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:30 PM:

"Give the forms to either Joe or myself."

Very popular among public speakers.

#28 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:33 PM:

Bruce Arthurs @24: Where would you like your internet shipped, sir?

#29 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:36 PM:

"Don't let me immanentize the Eschaton!"?

#30 ::: Naomi Kritzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:38 PM:

I was raised by a copyeditor (well, NOW she's a professor, but back when Mom was making me repeat my sentences from the beginning using the correct grammar this time, she hadn't yet gone to graduate school) and I got basically the same explanation as Patrick gave, above. I actually remember the example: "You wouldn't say 'me went sledding' -- that's how you know that 'me and Nadine went sledding' is wrong."

I found being interrupted with grammatical corrections irritating enough that I resolved not to do it to my own children.

And I haven't. But my older child considers this sheer laziness on my part, and has conscientiously corrected her younger sister's grammatical errors for YEARS. Thus illustrating either that intrusive pedantry skips generations, or that there is no joy in the world quite like feeling morally justified in tormenting your sibling.

#31 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:40 PM:

Naomi: It does not seem to me that those two are mutually exclusive. (grin)

#32 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 09:51 PM:

Allan, #2: Yes, and it's one I was taught... well, I don't recall when, but no later than junior high English class. And it was presented as if it was something as well-known as "I before E except after C", so it always surprises me when I encounter a well-educated person who doesn't know it!

Erik, #3: As I understand it, "methinks" is an outdated way of saying "it seems to me", and therefore doesn't fit in that grammatical slot in the sentence.

David G., #17: Ah yes, one of my personal pet peeves. Why in the forty green hells is it "pronounce" but "pronunciation"?!!

#33 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:02 PM:

Without doing actual research, I'd just like to start a pernicious internet rumor that 'it is I' is just another example of people trying to Latinize English (see prepositions, ending sentences with, and infinitives, splitting). In Latin, the case is how you show the role of the pronoun in the sentence (if you even bother to use one, since verb forms are pretty strongly marked for number and person as well). In English, the work is done by word order, so the cases are more flexible.

Either that or there's a change happening in English to regularize verb usage, and the distinction between linking verbs and substantive verbs is being lost. Frankly I don't see a huge semantic difference anyway, though my dialect has some restrictions in that regard (see my comments a while back about how I can only contract 'have' and 'going to' when they're tense indicators, and not when they're substantive).

I have yet to meet anyone not raised by an English teacher for whom 'it is I' is not an affectation. But maybe that's just me.

#34 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:05 PM:

One of the difficulties with the nominative case after a copulative verb is that those who disdain the form typically present unrealistic castings to exhibit its supposed unidiomatic nature. "It is I" is the poster child for those who like to mock such usages, but that thought is normally rendered in the real world as "I am." (As in reply to "Who's there?") Similarly, few would write "The last survivors of the horrific massacre were Melvin and I," but many would write "Melvin and I were the last survivors of the horrific massacre."

#35 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:11 PM:

Lee, when you stop expecting English to obey the rules of an artificial language (the only ones that are ever perfectly consistent), and realize that it's a patchwork quilt, and that the patches are made of leaves and spiderwebs and little kids' drawings and bits of sod and rocks tied together with string and the occasional bit of leather...you will be happier.

'Wrong' means 'not right', right? So you should be able to substitute 'wrong' anywhere 'not right' appears. That's true in math, but not in English: '$MEDICATION is not right for everyone' is a different statement than '$MEDICATION is wrong for everyone.'

There IS a logic to it (in that case, the scope of a positive isn't read the same as the scope of a negative). It just isn't the same logic as math or C or even Latin.

#36 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:14 PM:

For reasons beyond my comprehension, there's a gnome in my head who insists on chanting: "Immanentize the Eschaton, parlez-vouz!" to the tune of -- you know.

Me tired, me go lie down now.

#37 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:14 PM:

Yeah, Eric, but "Who's there?" is usually answered "It's me!" ...assuming the person will recognize your voice, of course.

#38 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:18 PM:

As I wrote once (and said in a student film), "Solidified functional anataxis precludes the theromorphic eschaton." I can't remember if I also said "Pictographic osmogenesis details the reconstitution of neoarchaic psychomimesis," but I might have. I wrote a bunch of those, and some of them made it into the final script.

#39 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:20 PM:

And may I also say that I'm inordinately* proud of the word 'neoarchaic'.

*No, I'm not just using it to mean "extraordinarily," like most uses of that word I've seen. I mean it really is inappropriate and out of proper scale how proud I am of that word.

#40 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:21 PM:

And rats, someone used it as the name of a web design company. I HAD IT FIRST YOU BASTIDS!!!! :-)

#41 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:22 PM:

38
Xopher, just being able to say those should get you an award!

#42 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 10:44 PM:

Xopher: "Who's there?" is usually answered "It's me!" Well, "usually" is an interesting word there. Many wrong forms are in common use; that's one thing. Another is that I daresay there is no metric by which to evaluate the claim. I would not use it; perhaps you would; I cannot know. But "I am" seems far more natural (or, light-heartedly, "c'est moi").

On another tack: the distinction between linking verbs and substantive verbs is being lost. I think, raher, that one of the major unheralded shifts in English is a growing tendency to sense more and more verbs as copulative. Where once it was mandatory to write "The division operates independently of its parent company," today "The division operates independent of its parent company" is common and, to most, not only acceptable but preferable. The shift is in our feeling of whether the quality in such a sentence belongs to the action or to the actor, and assignment to the actor is gaining eminence.

That is, to me, A Good Thing: I'll take an adjective over an adverb any day.

#43 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:07 PM:

Many wrong forms are in common use

Well, no, not if you're not a prescriptivist. If you're not, 'wrong forms' is nonsense; they're either grammatical (by usage) or not.

Even if you're a little more of a prescriptivist, 'wrong form in common use' is a contradiction. If it's in common use, it's no longer wrong.

Now, if you ARE a prescriptivist, and it seems that you are: who is the authority for English? And how did they rise to this lofty estate? Do you think there's general agreement? There isn't.

#44 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:21 PM:

Well, Webster's Third notwithstanding, I don't think that "ain't" is considered good, sound English by many. Forms such as "Fetch me them bricks" have been in fairly common use for many centuries, but I don't reckon anyone thinks them sound English grammar.

Language is a set of conventional symbols and conventional rules for their arrangement constituting a tool for placing thoughts in the minds of others; the desiderata are precision and elegance (in both senses of that word). It seems clear that the more nearly universal the agreement on the symbols and rules, the greater the precision and elegance possible, and the less the standardization, the less the precision and elegance possible.

That is not, as it is sometimes falsely held to be, a doctrine of rigid, eternal inflexibility. To begin with, new things come into the world of human experience by the hour, and we need new terms for them. For another, slow, gradual shifts in the basic modes of thought produce slow but sure evolution in the language that expresses that thought, whether that evolution be infinite predication, modal auxiliaries, or an increase in verbs considered copulative.

None of that pattern of slow evolution justifies claims that because many people say "Jack is taller then me," that is sound English grammar.

#45 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:34 PM:

I absolutely *would* say "the last survivor of the massacre was I" for the same reason that I would *not* say "me was the last survivor of the massacre".

Generally I favor descriptivism over prescriptivism and have no patience for fools who complain about split infinitives or the word "hopefully". But in this case, I side with the grammarians; the rule about nominative case after a copula makes sense and I've never had trouble following it.

If the example had been "The Great Old One flayed the souls of everyone except Melvin and me", then I would have agreed with you that "me" is correct.

#46 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:36 PM:

Eric Walker @44: Them sound English grammar to Thud.

#47 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:46 PM:

I'm inclined to think that 'me' has an emphatic use, as well as a direct/indirect object use. I'm an awkward customer, me.

(I think this explains 'It's me', and indeed, 'Who's there?' 'Me'. 'Who's there?' 'I' can't be right. (I mean, no-one at all says that).

#48 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:46 PM:

Grammar Girl vs. Tom Terrific

"A bumble bee or a tree,
It's ---"

It ain't I babe. No, no, no ....

#49 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2012, 11:51 PM:

Something about contractions thrown into the mix that seems to change things.

#50 ::: grackle ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:08 AM:

I would also quite easily say 'it was I,' or 'the last survivor...was I,' and I see no problem with Henry Farrell's tweet since the understood verb might be 'have written' (as is certainly true) following the joint subject. So I see a 50% rate of Patrick's examples that, if nothing else, exhibit a marvelous ambiguity in being battened down under the hatch of rules. Ain't grammar grand? I could also say 'it was me,' given the right circumstances. I like to think of it as an idiomatic expression, thus covering all sins.

#51 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:27 AM:

Xopher, #38 -- I love you. Please marry me.
What's that? Pshaw. Mere details.

MKK

#52 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:28 AM:

Xopher, #38 -- I love you. Please marry me.
What's that? Pshaw. Mere details.

MKK

#53 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:48 AM:

Xopher, she loves ya once, she loves ya twice, she loves ya more than beans and rice.

#54 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:55 AM:

Lee @32: I would guess that "pronounce" came to us via French, with a spelling shift along the way, while "pronunciation" was taken more directly from the Latin. (Warning! The preceding was half-baked speculation. Perhaps I should ask Brian Scott, I bet he'd know.)

Mary Kay@51: Is that the sort of thing Jordin says to you? (Perhaps less sociological-sounding and more rocket-sciency.)

#55 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:23 AM:

I just noticed that there is a thread on the original subject just begun this morning on alt.usage.english. Coincidence?

#56 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:39 AM:

In re the "It's me" sentence, I remember my college Spanish teacher spending minutes on end attempting to help me figure out how, idiomatically, you would say things in Spanish whose English idiomatic equivalents work like "What's the weather today? / It's raining." Because that latter sentence, in English, gets more and more complex the longer you look at it. What's raining? The universe? God (not that there's anything wrong with that)? "It's" looks like it ought to be a contraction of "It is" in this use, but there isn't any "it" there, really. Fascinating.

David Goldfarb @54: I am assured by people I know who have seriously studied linguistics that one of the way English verbs useter work back in Ye Olde Dayeth was that they would change tense by shifting their vowels -- sing/sang/sung is another example. I would guess pronounce/pronunciation rhymes with that, somewhat.

#57 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:23 AM:

Elliiott: But these aren't verbs, nor are they English. (Not in the way that "sing/sang/sung" is.) What you're talking about is called "umlaut" and I'm pretty sure it doesn't apply here.

Even modern English speakers use umlaut sometimes, btw: until relatively recently the only past tense of "sneak" was the regular "sneaked", and then people came up with "snuck".

#58 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:57 AM:

Xopher@35: Although your "not right" example is merely an associativity issue, and that arises in artificial languages quite a lot. Consider that 2 + 2 is 4, but if you substitute 4 into 2 + 2 * 5 (which is 12), you get 4 * 5, which is 20.

This comes up an awful lot in computer programming with macro substitutions, because there one is telling the computer to do this sort of literal substitution before compiling the program, and it leads to quite genuine bugs.

The problem with substituting "wrong" for "not right" is simply that "not right for everyone" is associated as "not {right for everyone}", and so you're substituting into the middle of the associative clump. It's exactly the same as the 2 + 2 * 5 issue, which is really "2 + {2 * 5}".

#59 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 04:56 AM:

I retain a deep admiration for the works of Henry Watson Fowler, and agree with his guiding principle that the point is to be understood, rather than a pedantic adherence to the use of the straitjacket of a dead language.

I would expect he would approve of our good host's rule.

#60 ::: etv13 ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 05:03 AM:

So I went to my Itunes for a soundtrack for this thread: Robert Goulet singing "C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I."

(It didn't last the whole thread, and I diverged into singing "I loved you once in silence" like a country song, but I digress.)

#61 ::: Zander ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 05:09 AM:

Amazing how many different ways there are to say "yes, it's a rule, but we don't care," starting with Patrick's second example which, as some have pointed out, was in fact grammatically correct if awkwardly expressed. Also how "prescriptivist" can become a dirty word even in a blog with a spelling reference at the end.

I say "it's me" and such quite a lot, because I've become sloppy. Inconsistent? Conflicted? That would be I.

But it's still a rule.

#62 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:21 AM:

I see that you and I were thinking of the same thing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9YMU0WeBwU&ob=av2e

#63 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:33 AM:

'I don't think that "ain't" is considered good...'

I was teaching English to a Peruvian Indian(excuse the term, I can't remember the exact tribe she was from - I'm thinking Jivaro), and it struck me that many usages that would never or almost never be corrected when coming from a native speaker would almost always be corrected when coming from someone with a noticeable accent.

#64 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:38 AM:

actually I know someone named Eun Mee, pronounced basically You an' Me.

It's funny when you have to talk about something you an me and I did.

#65 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:56 AM:

Xopher @43 Now, if you ARE a prescriptivist, and it seems that you are: who is the authority for English?

It is I! No, it is me. No wait, what was the question? I resign.

And how did they rise to this lofty estate? Do you think there's general agreement? There isn't.

General Agreement was late to the events described by Jim Macdonald @13. "Do you think there's General Agreement?" "No, me don't."

#66 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:31 AM:

Lizzy L: Here's the whole verse for you.

Immanatize the eschaton, parlez-vous?
Immanatize the eschaton, parlez-vous?
Immanatize the eschaton!
That'll be fun for me and Jon,
Ma, and toi, and parlez-vous?

#67 ::: David Perry ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:47 AM:

Learning Latin solved this problem for, uh, me. Yes. For me.

#68 ::: David Perry ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:49 AM:

The really odd thing here, of course, is why pronouns in Romance still decline according to case and no other category of words does. I'm sure linguists have a theory.

#69 ::: Kat S ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:13 AM:

THANK YOU!

#70 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:18 AM:

Pronouns in Romance decline because good pronouns don't do that sort of thing (at least before marriage).

#71 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:20 AM:

"Who's next to bat?"
"'Tis I."
"'Tis you?"
"'Tis I."
"Then go, with aid divine, and hit that Pabst Blue Ribbon sign."

Wayne & Shuster, 'Shakespearian Baseball.'

#72 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:29 AM:

I've been wondering about the use and the definition of "blatant."

When I was young, a look at the dictionary seemed to suggest that blatant only meant loud, and yet people always seemed to use it as if it meant flagrant. To explain to myself why the misuse of the word was so universal, I guessed that it was originally used metaphorically, and thus all mistakes could be explained away as metaphor, whether intentionally or ignorantly.

Modern checks of dictionaries suggest that either dictionaries have caught up with the common usage, or the dictionaries of my youth were incomplete.

#73 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:31 AM:

Oh, and there's that word with the silent "T." You don't say "list ten" instead of listen. Except that many people do, thinking it makes them sound more educated.

Oh, and the word isn't listen. I just can't remember the exact word right now.

#74 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:38 AM:

@David #68:

The really odd thing here, of course, is why pronouns in Romance still decline according to case and no other category of words does. I'm sure linguists have a theory.

Usage frequency is the most common theory. You probably use and hear pronouns more often than you use any other single noun, so you are not likely to forget that it is irregular.

Same reason that "to be" is irregular - is, am, are, was, were, been - but if it turns out that the past tense of "immanentize" was actually "immanentose", few people would know, and fewer of them will be around to model the correct usage for you.

That explains why some irregular verbs eventually get regularized to the most common paradigm (-ed in this case; historical linguistics calls this paradigm levelling).

It doesn't explain why, say, "dove" arose as a new alternative to "dived", and "snuck" to "sneaked."

People remember that there is a set of irregular verbs, but don't remember which ones are there, so tend to go by similarity: "I know it's drive-drove, so it should be dive-dove, shouldn't it?" The term for that is paradigm extension.

#75 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:43 AM:

I don't think that Latinizing is the reason. After all, French is both more Latinate and more regular (in the root sense) than English, and yet it's "c'est moi". Indeed, sometimes it's both in the same sentence, as in "moi, je suis content".

#76 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:49 AM:

I don't think that Latinizing is the reason. After all, French is both more Latinate and more regular (in the root sense) than English, and yet it's "c'est moi". Indeed, sometimes it's both in the same sentence, as in "moi, je suis content".

The French pronoun "je" has actually become a clitic - a part of speech that must attach to a "host" part of speech, and cannot bear stress. In the case of French, "je" must come before the verb (or before another clitic that comes before the verb, as in "j'y suis"). If French needs to have a first-person pronoun that comes after the verb, or bears stress, insofar as French has stress which is a can of worms in itself, it must use "moi".

#77 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:53 AM:

Steven Pinker's "Words and Rules" presents, I think, a pretty solid theory on regular and irregular verbs/nouns in general, that I think applies to why pronouns have case in English and other nouns don't.

In the brain, inflection is managed by either rules or a separate dictionary entry. Past tense of most verbs? Add "-ed," you're done. Past tense of "go"? You need a separate mental dictionary entry for "went." And to maintain a separate mental dictionary entry, you need to see the word with some level of frequency. For a lot of English words, we used to have a rule (like the family of sing/sang/sung, ring/rang/rung, cling/clung) but then linguistic changes disrupted the rule -- but the words were still common enough that we could keep them in our mental dictionaries as irregulars. Words we don't see as often lose their irregular past tenses, because we don't see them often enough to remember them. (The past tense of "geld" used to be "gelt," but I think most people would say "gelded.")

So, it makes sense that the most weirdly irregular verbs in English -- be/was/were and go/went -- are also some of the most common. And it makes sense that even if almost all of the English case system was lost, it would survive in pronouns, since they're so much more common than other nouns.

#78 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:56 AM:

Theophylact @ 75... French is both more Latinate and more regular (in the root sense) than English, and yet it's "c'est moi".

C'est moi! C'est moi, I'm forced to admit.
'Tis I, I humbly reply.
That mortal who
These marvels can do,
C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I.

#79 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:57 AM:

Eric 44: Well, Webster's Third notwithstanding, I don't think that "ain't" is considered good, sound English by many.

You would be wrong. There are many people who do, and you can tell because they use it and understand it.

It's not considered good, sound English by people who speak dialects in which it doesn't occur, especially those who have learned those dialect as second dialects. That dialects with "ain't" are socially deprecated doesn't change the scientific fact.

Language is a set of conventional symbols and conventional rules for their arrangement constituting a tool for placing thoughts in the minds of others; the desiderata are precision and elegance (in both senses of that word). It seems clear that the more nearly universal the agreement on the symbols and rules, the greater the precision and elegance possible, and the less the standardization, the less the precision and elegance possible.

You recognize that this is a description of your values, rather than a statement of any kind of scientific or verifiable fact, right? I'd suggest that if you tried employing locutions like "it seems to me" or "I feel that" when speaking about your own personal preferences, that would communicate more precisely and elegantly. If, on the other hand, you think the statements in that paragraph are simply universal truth, you are mistaken.

I think the key difference is that you believe English grammar is something decided on by "the best people" and enforced for the benefit of all, whereas actually it is a natural phenomenon that can be observed and described; various versions of it (dialects) exist, and the subset of dialects spoken by the favored classes of society are the favored dialects: people who speak them natively have the easy difficulty setting (on that particular slider), and everyone else has to learn them in order to be successful.

None of that pattern of slow evolution justifies claims that because many people say "Jack is taller then me," that [it] is sound English grammar.

Well, yes it does, and moreover it's evidence that 'be taller than' is construed as a transitive verb by the people who say it.

Mary Kay 51-2: Aww, shucks! *blushes, kicks small stones*

Elliott 56: It's called a "dummy 'it'." German has even more of that than English; for example, you can say "es wurde getanzt" ("it was danced") to mean "there was dancing."

Brooks 58: Just so. The brackets are scope indicators. Spoken English doesn't have them (and written English only by association with mathematics).

David 67: As a great lady once said, "The language Latin that same thing as English not is."

#80 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:04 AM:

Xopher @ 79...

"What's this, then? 'Romanes eunt domus'? People called Romanes, they go, the house?"

#81 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:14 AM:

Jo at 66: Aaaaargh!

(And BTW, vast congratulations!!!!)

#82 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:15 AM:

Xopher @35:

'Wrong' means 'not right', right? So you should be able to substitute 'wrong' anywhere 'not right' appears. That's true in math, but not in English: '$MEDICATION is not right for everyone' is a different statement than '$MEDICATION is wrong for everyone.'

There IS a logic to it (in that case, the scope of a positive isn't read the same as the scope of a negative). It just isn't the same logic as math or C or even Latin.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "scope of a positive" versus "scope of a negative". As I interpret it, the reason why the substitution doesn't work here is because "not right" isn't a single phrase. "Not" in the first formulation is modifying "right for everyone", and the proposed substitution splits that.

In math language, you're replacing "not (right for everyone)" with "(not right) for everyone" by doing this - shifting the groupings around, which isn't valid in math any more than it is for English. Or am I misunderstanding your explanation?

#83 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:20 AM:

@Xopher #79:

*claps*

I think the key difference is that you believe English grammar is something decided on by "the best people" and enforced for the benefit of all, whereas actually it is a natural phenomenon that can be observed and described; various versions of it (dialects) exist, and the subset of dialects spoken by the favored classes of society are the favored dialects: people who speak them natively have the easy difficulty setting (on that particular slider), and everyone else has to learn them in order to be successful.

Not only that, but people who speak them natively have the power to change the rules --- the moment the harder-difficulty-setting classes adopt a particular trait or word of the favored-class dialect, it becomes "how the common people speak; we don't speak like that in this house."

This phenomenon is less clear with written syntactic constructions like the ones we are discussing, but clearer with word choice (serviette vs table napkin, etc.) or pronunciations. But this, the flight of the elite, definitely does occur.

#84 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:31 AM:

Thank you, sir. Thank you. I have the same pet peeve and my (lovely and intelligent and well-educated) co-workers do this; I don't want to be all Sheldon Cooper correcting everyone but inside I'm screaming.

I am just concerned that this particular usage is so rampant that it will pass into general usage (that is, "I" used as an object pronoun). See also, "myself" used as an object when "I" is not the subject.

Next, can we bring back the semicolon, please? I miss it.

#85 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:37 AM:

lorax, that's just what I'm saying: the scope is explicit in math, or can be made so, whereas the default scope in English is what is heard, and it differs for the negative and positive forms; moreover, there's no way to make the grouping explicit.

#86 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:49 AM:

Xopher @79--

Honey, I ain't even a little happy to see you write this, I'm ready to hurl bouquets and sacks of cocoa nibs and vanilla beans at you.

Coming from one region where the use of 'ain't' and constructions such as 'them bricks' are not rare among people who don't speak Standard American English, and now living in another one, I'd like to note that while they may be incorrect in Standard English they do have a place in those dialects where they occur naturally. In the case of Appalachian and Ozark dialects, they're survivors from an earlier stage of the English language.

I also point out that if you try to make 'am not' into a contraction, you're like to end up with something that sounds a lot like 'ain't', and if your 'r' in 'aren't' is weak, you'll have a similar situation. I've heard 'ain't' with a somewhat shorter 'a'* than the 'i' might suggest from more than one user; I wonder if the general nasality of the speaker's vowels might affect that.

Another thing English doesn't seem to use as much as the Romance languages and some others is relexive pronouns and reflexive verbs.

*Still not a short 'a', though; just not stretched out into a long, diphthong 'ayyy'.

#87 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 10:55 AM:

I don't care if it was you or you and Melvin who immanentized the Eschaton.
It was just plain wrong.

#88 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 11:07 AM:

I'd also like to say it would be nice if English-speakers, especially the ones who feel the urge to die on the parapets defending the purity of Standard English (see James Nicoll on that folly) were a little more relaxed about the existence of regional dialects. I don't know if Americans are worse about this than other Anglophones, but when I see a local dialect being penalized as a marker of general ignorance my Scots and Swabian ancestors start stirring in their graves and muttering rude things about Edward I and "Wir können alles. Außer Hochdeutsch."

Yes, being able to communicate in Stadard English is an economically valuable skill, and a socially useful one. It is not a marker of moral or intellectual development. Twitching over incorrect usage in Standard English is the same as twitching because you hear someone sing off-key or hold a hammer incorrectly--a reaction to seeing something done badly. But be sure the person is using Standard English in the first place before you draw any conclusions.

#89 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 11:12 AM:

The rules of grammar are not rules in the same sense that the rules of baseball, or chess, or tiddlywinks are rules. The latter are prescriptive: if you want to play those games, they describe how you must play them. (Note, however, that even rules of this sort allow for locally recognized variants.) Rules of grammar, however, are descriptive: they exist to set forth the range of utterances which can be made and understood by native speakers of a language. In that sense, "It's me" is in fact grammatical -- no native speaker of English is going to misunderstand what is meant by it.

Grammar, however, is not the same thing as usage, or as idiom, even though prescriptivist grammarians try to conflate the three. "It's me" is colloquial usage, or casual written usage; "It is I" is formal written usage, in that a contemporary native speaker is highly unlikely to utter it in normal conversation. Similarly, "ain't" is grammatical -- a native speaker of English will understand what is meant by it -- but in terms of usage it is at best colloquial, in addition to being strongly marked for region and class. A good teacher of English will make sure that his/her students are able to recognize and employ standard usage; a really good teacher of English will do so without stigmatizing his/her students' own speech habits. There are not as many really good teachers of English as there should be.

"It's me" is also an English idiom -- idioms being those bits and bobs of a language that don't fit into any of the standard tables at the back of the textbook, the ones where the instructor informs the class, grimly, that they're just going to have to memorize those bits because they don't make any regular sense. Every language has them: the fossilized snippets of extinct grammar, the vocabulary items borrowed whole from other sources and only halfway bashed into regularity, the words and phrases whose sound or meaning or function has shifted so far from the original that the logical connection has been severed.

Most of the time, when native speakers of a language complain about the grammar of other native speakers of a language, it's actually their usage that's being complained about (and thus, indirectly, their social or economic status.)

#90 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 11:20 AM:

Debra Doyle @ 89... the words and phrases whose sound or meaning or function has shifted so far from the original that the logical connection has been severed

For example, in French, 'lingerie' is not restricted to a lady's intimate apparel. 'Figure' is more likely to refer to a person's face. Oh, and 'douche' means 'shower'.

#91 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 11:46 AM:

Nangleator @73: Often?

#92 ::: ramsr ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:01 PM:

I'm still fighting a rearguard action against inserting an apostrophe into a simple plural, but I'm grateful for this post. To balance the boat, the outmoded-correct can be almost equally irritating; I once saw Fred Rogers, who had been waiting for visitors, go to the window, look out and exclaim "It's they!"

#93 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:21 PM:

On "pronounce" vs. "pronunciation", the technical terminology in question is "trisyllabic laxing" (with many excellent examples provided at Wikipedia). In short, a "tense" vowel (long vowels or diphthongs) in a stressed syllable become "lax" (shortened or undiphthongized) when a sufficiency of the right sort of additional syllables are added after it.

On "X-er than I" vs. "X-er than me", one of the things that's going on is that "than" has evolved to a function that is ambiguous between a conjunction and a preposition. When followed by a full sentence-equivalent, it partakes of the nature of a conjunction and more importantly the subject-equivalent of the following sentence-equivalent is ruled in its form by its role in that sentence-equivalent. But when "than" is followed by a simple noun phrase, then "than" partakes of the nature of a preposition, and prepositions take the objective case.

Now, one might object "but conjunctions can't just turn into preposition just because people use them that way", but that objection would be wrong. Prepositions may, at any given point in time, be a "closed class", but languages regularly invent new prepositions all the time and take them from some unexpected sources. (One of English's favorite sources for new prepositions has been present participles of verbs.) An interesting parallel case of a word functioning both as conjunction and preposition can be found in Welsh ... but don't get me started because that falls within the topic I wrote my doctoral dissertation on, which means I could go on at extreme length (and I'm supposed to be working at the moment).

#94 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:24 PM:

etv13@60 -- "Ah Luved Yew Wunce in Sahlence" is my earworm for the morning. May I have your home address so I can thank you properly?

#95 ::: pensnest ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:27 PM:

There's a song from (I think) the 1960s, by Peter and Gordon, with a lyric which has annoyed me for a very long time:

Nobody I know could love you more than me.

It is, at least, open to misinterpretation.

And thank you, ramsr @ #92, for your rearguard action. When they take me away, it will be for standing in the middle of the market square bellowing "An apostrophe does not mean OMG here comes an S!"

#96 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:29 PM:

THANK you. Now if people would just stop trying to "hone in on a solution"....

#97 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:30 PM:

It is, at least, open to misinterpretation.

Well, I haven't heard the rest of the song, but it seems more like humorous deliberate ambiguity to me.

#98 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:31 PM:

Brooks, #58: Thank you! I was trying to figure out why that example didn't feel right, and you've provided a concise explanation.

Nangleator, #73: Oh, that's an entire class of words. Hustle, bustle, pestle... one of the non-jewelry things I sell is mortar-and-pestle sets, and if I had a dime for every time someone has said "pes-tel" I could buy myself some very good chocolate. Doesn't anybody watch Court Jester any more? I find myself muttering, "the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle," a lot.

tnv, #74: Sometimes paradigm extension is done just for fun, too. Many science fiction fans refer to groups of ourselves as "fen", because man/men, fan/fen. And I know several people who (jokingly) insist that the plural of "spouse" is "spice" -- mouse/mice, louse/lice, spouse/spice.

#99 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:37 PM:

"Give me a martinus."

"You mean 'martini'?"

"If I wanted two I'd ask for 'em."

#100 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:40 PM:

Analogic change usually goes from irregular to regular, unless people are doing it deliberately for fun. Though I have heard people on the radio say "rooves" as the plural of 'roof', and I don't think they were doing it on purpose (and that one is at the heart of my personal theory of why the word 'rooftop' is still used...don't have to decide if 'roof' ends in that special F if the plural of 'roof' is 'rooftops').

And sometimes a word is deliberately split by a reverse of that process. The plural of 'dwarf' is 'dwarfs', not 'dwarves', but when Tolkien created a race of nonhumans named after the word, he used 'Dwarves' as the plural. And I know people who insist that 'boxes' is the plural of 'box' only in the sense of a (usually cardboard or wooden) container, and that when the "box" in question is a server, the plural is 'boxen'.

And the team is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

#101 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:43 PM:

Jim, one time when I was eating broccoli in a Chinese restaurant, I offered a friend "a broccolus or two."

#102 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:45 PM:

ramsr @ 92 & pensnest @ 95: Thank you--I don't feel so alone. Pensnest, with your permission I'm totally going to (savor and) use your, "An apostrophe does not mean OMG here comes an S!" It made me spit water from laughing.

Nangleator @ 73, I think you may be thinking about "often," in which the T is, IIRC, properly silent, but people frequently hypercorrect to "off-ten." Makes me wince every time.

Lee @ 98, my sociolect also includes "box" in that irregular plural--ox/oxen, box/boxen.

#103 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:52 PM:

JM and alsafi, yes, it's "often" of which I was thinking!

#104 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 12:55 PM:

Serge Broom @7: "c'est moi"

#105 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:05 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue @37: but "Who's there?" is usually answered "It's me!" ...assuming the person will recognize your voice, of course.

"Dave's not here, man."
—Jacque, who's endeavoring to be No Help At All.

#106 ::: Jacque, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:07 PM:

Nope, no unspaced commas...?

#107 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:22 PM:

The discussion about "ain't" (and whether people who use it consider it "correct English") points out a distinction that we haven't mentioned: Even for a single speaker, there is no such thing as a single English. It's contextually dependent; what would be appropriate in the formal register of the language is, y'know, not quite the same as what's okay in informal.

We also tend to use "correct" as a proxy for "accepted in formal English", and "ain't" is almost a canonical example of something that's prevalent throughout informal English and yet not accepted in the formal register even by most of the people who use it informally.

This is also where a lot of the prescriptivist rules come in; there are ways in which "correct" use of the formal form of the language is a class marker (for probably loose definitions of class), and a lot of that is based on rules that were set by Victorian prescriptivists who were descriptively quite wrong and were rather full of themselves besides -- or, at least, is based on the ways that people tend to apply those rules (or omit them), which is an interesting descriptivist study in itself.

I'd also point out that one of the things going on here with the dismissal of prescriptivism is that nearly all of us on Making Light have a sufficiently good ear for formal English -- I expect almost universally by virtue of having read enormous numbers of quality texts across a wide range of genres -- that we can write formal English by ear, without getting it mixed up in the informal. And we can recognize it intuitively as well. That ability isn't a universal trait, and for people who have less of that ear, the prescriptive rules matter a great deal for being able to operate in parts of the world that value formal language. Saying "rules don't matter; use what sounds right" is a bit elitist.

#108 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:26 PM:

The best defense of barring "ain't" from standard English I ever heard (early 70s -- William Safire?) pointed out that if it were to become standard it would lose its transgressive tang. Who, after all, wants to sing "It Isn't Necessarily So," or "I Am Not Misbehaving?" Sing ho for the forbidden!

#109 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:31 PM:

#98, 100: I am of the firm opinion that the plural of the computer peripheral is "mouses".

#110 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:36 PM:

David @ 57: "Umlaut" should be "ablaut"--umlaut is that vowel sound that I suspect presents a challenge to many first-year German students (and whose diacritical mark indicates heavy-metal guitar culture).

Xopher @79: At least the first part of Eric's characterization of language as sets of conventions pretty much matches what I learned in my linguistics courses nearly 50 years ago and remained the standard model for the two decades I was teaching. The "precision and elegance" part, not so much, though those were certainly qualities valued in, say, teaching writing. I remember trying to bridge the gap between the linguist's view of language as an historically-evolving set of behaviors and the comp teacher's view of it as a social practice that needs to attend to conventions--of rhetoric, grammar, and register, among others. And of these, register is the hardest to "teach"--not unlike trying to teach a musician how to swing. Debra @89 presents one of the ways that we comp teachers explained the complexities of English as a socio-linguistic enterprise.

#111 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:41 PM:

Russel, the difference lies in whether you consider the language a set of conventions to be discovered in use by native (preferably naïve) speakers, and updated as your observations change; or as a set of rules to be imposed by authority and forced upon the masses for their own good.

#112 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:45 PM:

pensnest @95: "An apostrophe does not mean OMG here comes an S!"

Ow: cookie up the nose.

#113 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:46 PM:

Carrie S. (109): I genuinely wasn't sure which was the proper plural, back when such peripherals were becoming a common part of my world*. I finally asked my brother the computer science professor, who told me firmly that 'mice' is correct. So I say 'mice'. But there is certainly room for disagreement on that point.

*call it the mid- to late 1990s.

#114 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 01:53 PM:

Nangleator @103: yes, it's "often" of which I was thinking!

I have a coworker who consistently, and very carefully and deliberately articulates the "t" in "button," instead of using the more usual glottal stop: "Bu'tton." I'm still trying to figure out if it's an affectation or a regionalism. (I heard her do it with another word last week.) It's so conspicuously marked in her speach that I miss what she's actually saying.

#115 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:06 PM:

Lee @ 98:

"The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison. The flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true." - said wayyyy too many times for any normal human to be able to pronounce it.

Mary Aileen @ 113:

There was a movement to make the plural of "mouse" "meece" in the early 1980s, when I first started working with them. I guess people thought that was too whimsical (which was the reason I liked it).


#116 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:29 PM:

Bruce Cohen (115): That same brother and I agreed as children that 'meece' is either the plural of 'moose' or a sort of super-plural of 'mouse'. (One mouse, a few mice, many-many meece (or meeces).)

#117 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:41 PM:

Jacque@114: I have a coworker who consistently, and very carefully and deliberately articulates the "t" in "button," instead of using the more usual glottal stop: "Bu'tton." I'm still trying to figure out if it's an affectation or a regionalism.

Possibly, it's a hypercorrection from a native dialect where the intervocalic consonant in words like "button" or "mitten" or "kitten" is the glottal stop alone ("bu'on"). Where is your co-worker from?

#118 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 02:49 PM:

It's only meeces if you hates 'em to pieces.

We (meaning my wife and I, not me and the turd in my pocket) have been noticing de-glottalization (if that's what I hear as a half-swallowed schwa is) in didn't-->didunt, which we now hear in actors' diction on TV.

We hates it to pieces, we do.

#119 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:00 PM:

Debra, I pronounce that with an unrealeased t followed by a glottal stop, and there's only one vowel in it. I say /bət'n/, where t is the unreleased t and the apostrophe is a glottal stop. My last name ends the same way. Sometimes the unreleased t isn't even there.

#120 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:09 PM:

"Often", "button": In my dialect (UK English, northern (Mancunian) base but with some years further south), the "t" is pronounced in both of those. "Ofen" and "bu'un"? Not here!

#121 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:11 PM:

"Often", "button": In my dialect (UK English, northern (Mancunian) base but with some years further south), the "t" is pronounced in both of those. "Ofen" and "bu'un"? Not here!

#122 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:11 PM:

"Often", "button": In my dialect (UK English, northern (Mancunian) base but with some years further south), the "t" is pronounced in both of those. "Ofen" and "bu'un"? Not here!

#123 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:13 PM:

Apologies - mobile broadband on a train going through tunnels and it kept saying it hadn't posted...

#124 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:17 PM:

In The Pirates of Penzance, one bit included two groups, one of which pronounced "often" and "orphan" the same, while the other pronounced "orphan" and "often" the same, trying to discuss parentless children.

#125 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:19 PM:

I'm another one of the people who twitches when people get the I/me thing wrong; since PNH and I work in the same place, we often twitch together. I have less self-control than PNH, though, and sometimes correct people.

That said, I pronounce the "t" in often a bit more than half the time, without really thinking about it. It's just the way I talk, and I can't find any internal reason for why I sometimes say the "t" and sometimes don't.

One of my biggest pet peeves is "people who put apostrophes where they don't belong, especially in plurals." Another site I visit is plagued by folks--many of them holders of advanced degrees--who write things like "mom's" and "poll's" and mean "moms" and "polls". Drives me nuts.

#126 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:25 PM:

dcb, a British coworker of mine found that his British pronunciation of 'twenty' left token clerks confused. He said /twenti/, with a released t in the last syllable. The noise and garbling on the subway kept them from understanding; the only number words that have a released t in that position in New York dialect are ones that are spelled '-teen' at the end, but since there's no *'twenteen', they were at a loss; and of course it was the only word they heard him say, so they couldn't adjust for the dialect difference.

He had to adopt the New York pronunciation, /tweni/, to get what he wanted.

#127 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:26 PM:

dcb @ #123

"What I tell you three times is true."

(No Snark was used in the making of this post.)

#128 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:31 PM:

Jim: "...apprenticed to a Π-rayte!"

#129 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:37 PM:

Xopher (126): IANB*, but I (usually) pronounce the second 't' in 'twenty'. It does tend to get softened into a 'd', however. (Is that what you mean by a 'released t'? I'm not familiar with the term.)

I have also been known to pronounce the 't' in 'often', usually (if not always) when trying hard to enunciate clearly after being misunderstood.

*I Am Not British

#130 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 03:56 PM:

I keep running into dead ends. I'm still trying to figure out how to monetize the Eschaton.

#131 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 04:02 PM:

Kip #130.

It's pretty easy, if you have a good enough hydraulic press. You just take Captain America's shield and stamp out coins. There you go, you've monetized the escutcheon. Piece of cake.

#132 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 04:56 PM:

Here's a good press: http://eb-misfit.blogspot.com/2012/05/squiiiiiish.html

Do a few coins at a time.

#133 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 05:18 PM:

Debra Doyle @117: Possibly, it's a hypercorrection from a native dialect where the intervocalic consonant in words like "button" or "mitten" or "kitten" is the glottal stop alone ("bu'on"). Where is your co-worker from?

I don't know where she's from, and I don't really know her well enough to snoop ask. Her speech has a very subtle nasality to it that might be personal style, or might be accent. If I was to guess, I'd say southeast, but I'm not well calibrated for those accents unless they're really strong, and even then, the best I can do is "Southern."

What makes it stand out is that the usual Colorado pronunciation is "bu'on," which I never noticed before this came up. Or, more accurately, like Xopher describes it. Before I really started thinking about it, I would have said I pronounce the "t", but on close examination, I realize that what fakes me out is that the "n" comes along quickly enough that it feels like a "t".

It does sound like a compensation, but she's very consistent about it, which suggests it's very carefully practiced.

On a similar note, I've been listening to a lot of Spider Robinson lately, and I've noticed that he manages to slide an "R" into the first syllable of "awkward" that I've never noticed before. I gather he is originally of Brooklynish extraction, but I've never noticed, say, Jon Singer doing that.

I finally worked out that the phantom "R" I hear in some Brittish and New York accents actually stands in place of the glottal stop between the vowels separating two words, like say, "Alabama apples." Now I can actually reproduce the sound; couldn't before.

Melissa Singer @125: I can't find any internal reason for why I sometimes say the "t" and sometimes don't.

I've noticed that things like that will often slide around with context, like the phantom "R" above.

Being the local web-weenie, I will actually sneak in and delete grocer's apostrophes when no one is looking. Saves me having twitchy fits when coworkers do that in email. I'm very proud of myself when I refrain from going all Righteous Pedantic on their ass.

Xopher HalfTongue 126: /tweni/

I'm always amused watching broadcast personalities negotiate Curtis Jackson's stage name. The spelling is no help, since he uses the numerals. It seems to be pronounced with (what I think of as) a strong East Coast cast: "Fitty Cent."

And, as we speak, there's a discussion going on in the lobby about the different ways to pronounce "Colorado." Do you pronounce the third vowel as the "o" in "odd," or as the "a" in "advertise?" Me,* I do the former.

* Which neatly loops around to the opening post.

#134 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 05:53 PM:

Oh, Jacque@133 I do adore you -- grocer's apostrophe?!? And it reminds me that in Going Postal Terry Pratchet has a grocer who not only puts an apostrophe in plurals in his written signs but, if you pay attention, in his speech as well. Would have loved to see the look on the line editor's face.

#135 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 06:02 PM:

rams: I wish I could take credit for the coinage, but I first encountered it here, some years ago. "If you're going to steal, steal from the best."

#136 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 06:05 PM:

Are you sure, Jacque? I've seen "grocers' quotes" here, but I think "grocer's apostrophe" is yours.

#137 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 06:15 PM:

My introduction to the phrase "greengrocer's apostrophe" was Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, so it's not *new*. Having said that, she also pointed out that it was, in fact, common to use the apostrophe for plurals of foreign words ending in a vowel (at least so says Wikipedia, but I remember hearing it in her radio series). So, Banana's, to make it clear that it's "banana" plural, rather than something called a bananas; logo's for multiple logos rather than λόγος. That's sensible, but has been deprecated in the last two centuries - but now we're back into "is English what is written down as correct, or what people actually do?" territory.

That doesn't mean I don't hate's them, I doessss, my preciousss...

#138 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 06:19 PM:

Xopher: Nope; Rikibeth's.

@137: That URL is a response to Jim Macdonald's @131.

#139 ::: Nanette ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:05 PM:

Jacque 133-
Had this exact discussion at the table the other day. Daughter's boyfriend is from Virginia, and we
were trying to explain "Colorado" to him. My ear hears the final "o" as very close to a schwa. But not quite.

#140 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:06 PM:

Xopher @100:

I'm fairly certain that "boxen" was coined by analogy with "VAXen", VAX being a line of minicomputers from Digital Equipment Corporation that were very popular, especially in academic and scientific computing around the time that Unix and early computer networks were both spreading.

http://catb.org/jargon/html/B/boxen.html

#141 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:11 PM:

Mycroft W (138): We also seem to be losing the apostrophe used in pluralizing a number or acronym. I learned to write such plurals this way:

1970's
CD's*

And now I usually see:

1970s
CDs

*not that CD's existed at the time...

#142 ::: Walter Hawn ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 08:48 PM:

Here, here!
Their, their!

#143 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 09:34 PM:

141
ISTR that there were two potential plurals of VAX: VAXen and VEX.

#144 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 12:34 AM:

In #32 Lee writes:

Why in the forty green hells is it "pronounce" but "pronunciation"?!!

Once that puzzle is solved, please explain to me "maintain" and "maintenance."

#145 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 01:15 AM:

"Greengrocer's Apostrophe" is indeed a pre-existing term, though had it not existed, Jacque is awesome enough to have invented it.

In Dutch, much of spelling is concerned with preserving vowel length, because long versus short vowels really matter. There are lots of common-use minimal pairs, and some really funny mistakes you can make if you don't get the right one. (Ask me about the year I lived in a whorehouse sometime.)

One of the rules‡ is that a single vowel in an open syllable -- one without a consonant at the end -- is long†. A single vowel in a closed syllable is short; if you want it long, you write it twice*.

The majority of Dutch words become plural with -en, but those that end with liquids or vowels go plural with -s. Making things plural with -en gets into all kinds of opening previously closed syllables, and there's lots of halving of vowels and doubling of consonants to preserve vowel length.

But adding -s to a word does the opposite: it makes long vowels positionally short. Sometimes this ends up in a syntactic impossibility, like for words that end in -y; other times it would simply be wrong. So the solution, for words that end in a vowel (except diminutives) is to subtly separate the s from the word, using an apostrophe.

My Dutch language text taught this rule with the word for bell peppers (paprika's), in a little scene set at a greengrocer's.

-----
‡ and by "rule", I mean "linguistic observation that it has become useful to codify for the instruction of non-native speakers."
† except** if the word is a diminutive. Then it ends in -je, with an unstressed, short e, pronounced as a schwa.
** see, you can tell it's a linguistic rule because I can't get more than sixteen words into it without bringing up an exception.
* except if you want a long "i". Then you write "ij", which can also be written y, but rarely is.

#146 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 01:20 AM:

(And by "syntactic impossibility, of course I mean "orthographic impossibility", or possibly "programmatic", "elegaic", or "superfantastic".)

#147 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 01:51 AM:

Jeremy Leader @ 141 et al:

Box - boxen must surely be inspired by
ox - oxen.

#148 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 01:59 AM:

"Oxen" was where "VAX" -> "VAXen" came from; "boxen" was a generalization of that to non-DEC hardware.

#149 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 03:17 AM:

Lee @ #98, thank you kindly for explaining where the dickens "fen" came from. I've seen it a lot (often here) and wondered. I knew what it meant from context, but the derivation puzzled me. No longer!

#150 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 03:51 AM:

Russell Letson @110: Thanks for the correction touching "ablaut". I knew I should have looked that up before posting.

#151 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 04:19 AM:

Mary Aileen @ 142... I am one of those who commit 1970s.

#152 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:05 AM:

@143: Am I the only one whose mental pronunciation of *some* words draws distinctions that I don't make when I speak?

My mind is a bit too fuzzy to think of examples at the moment (there's a reason for the timestamp, I swear), but there are some homophones I read in print that I don't think of as homophones until I say them out loud.

#153 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:33 AM:

153: maybe the marry/merry/Mary distinction? All pronounced the same in some US dialects...

#154 ::: iliadawry ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:34 AM:

pensnest @95 (and beyond!): My cats have felt it necessary to look at me condescendingly for making funny noises upwards of half a dozen times as I have exclaimed to them regarding oncoming sibilants and dissolved into hour-inappropriate giggles. Thank you.

#155 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:35 AM:

And Jim's 124: there are still dialects in which the joke would work. A Glaswegian would pronounced "orphan" and "often" something like "oh-fen" (unlike standard English, which is more like aw-fun and off'n.

#156 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 07:37 AM:

"grocer's apostrophe" is an old one - common in the UK.

In Wisconsin a while back, I had real problems with the name Patty (pronounced "Paddy" - which always seemed wrong to me, even after three months), and I always had to consciously change how I was going to say her name.

More confusing, there was the problem that in the UK, I tend to refer to simplified stuff as "the Noddy version" - meaning "the version for children" - or what Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart call "lies to children"*. Wisconsin accent, what I said sounds exactly like "the naughty version" would sound - AND the Noddy books apparently never made it over the pond. Definite change of meaning!

* then there's the slightly more complex stuff but still incorrect, which they call "lies to adults".

#157 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 07:49 AM:

There's a point I've been wanting to articulate for some time now: a consciously formulated grammatical rule, like "a pronoun in a coordinated noun phrase takes the same case as would a pronoun replacing that phrase", is essentially a theory about how a language works. Like a theory in physics, it's a hypothesis that can be falsified. If you were a physicist, and you discovered that your theory failed to predict the results of an experiment, you wouldn't complain that physical reality was at fault for not following your idea of what it ought to be doing. But with grammar, people are way too willing to blame language for failing to live up to the rules, rather than the rules for failing to describe language correctly.

(I had a second paragraph here about how this isn't an exact analogy, and various ways language is unlike physics, and that there are things you can legitimately call wrong as long as you're clear about what "wrong" means, and how criticizing someone's grammar isn't quite as silly as telling projectiles off for not following Aristotelian physics. But it was getting pretty long and most of the points seemed obvious, so I cut it out.)

Incidentally, there's another Language Log post about the pronoun issue here.

#158 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:22 AM:

Xopher @ 100

"Though I have heard people on the radio say "rooves" as the plural of 'roof', and I don't think they were doing it on purpose."

You are probably mistaken in assuming that. As I learned it, "rooves" is the correct pronunciation, roofs is the correct spelling, and I have absolutely no problem with that dichotomy.

As an aside, I see no reason why Eric @ 44 should extend a level of modesty which you have so far failed to demonstrate in your own posts on this thread. But if your intent was to silence dissent from your personally-held convictions regarding language philosophy, I believe you've accomplished your goal.

#159 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:50 AM:

Whatever happened to hyphens?

#160 ::: Kate Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:56 AM:

I've tried consciously to stop being so uptight about spoken language in the last few years. Rules are loose in English, dialects are fascinating, and I'm the person who still occasionally slips up and says 'tooken' as a past-tense of 'took' (something I picked up as a small child and never quite lost). Besides, English is something of a work of art--dada, possibly, certainly impressionistic.

Then I hear someone on TV say, "The Eschaton was immanentized by Melvin and myself" and flip out because they are WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Then I have to have a cookie and lie down for a while in a dark room.

#161 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:24 AM:

Kate Shaw... Long time no post, eh?

#162 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:26 AM:

Serge @160--They were all scared away by proscriptivists and are now hiding in the linguistic equivalent of the hills and hollers and the woods and the tall grass out on the prairies. Very shy and easily-startled things, hyphens. It took me a good fifteen minutes and a handful of M&Ms to get the one I used to come out from under my desk.

#163 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:55 AM:

Bill @ 145 -- see my post @93; it covers both with the same explanation: trisyllabic laxing.

(I'm almost miffed. I post a nice geeky linguistics post and nobody notices. *sniff*)

#164 ::: Linda ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 01:58 PM:

@86, 107 -

Visiting a friend in Dublin in 1980, I often heard her host family & friends use "amn't" in some of the same ways "ain't" is used, IIRC. For instance, they'd say, "amn't I" where someone in the US would say "ain't I." It made sense to me as a contracted form of "am I not," but I haven't heard it anywhere since. (I'm guessing at the spelling, since I only heard it spoken.)

Another colloquial usage that I've always thought made more sense than the formal usage is "you all" - contracted or not. I"ve often found it useful, even necessary, to clarify that the scope of my statement is directed at "all of you" rather than a particular individual, without a lot of what I think of as "mopping up" verbiage.

#165 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 02:08 PM:

Linda @ 165

My family uses "amn't" playfully to fill that need. But as far as I recall, it was something we just created one day as a logical extension. Totally nonstandard, just useful.

#166 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 02:28 PM:

If Lord Peter Wimsey can say "ain't," that's good enough for me.

#167 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 02:33 PM:

fidelio @ 163... Curs'd proscriptivists!

#168 ::: Cassy B ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:20 PM:

Linda @165,

I'm told that in certain Southern (US) dialects, it is necessarily to use "all y'all" to differentiate a plural "y'all" from a singular "y'all".

I honestly don't know if I was having my leg pulled when given that explanation; all I can tell you is that she said it with a straight face...

#169 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 05:39 PM:

HelenS @ 167... WWLPWS?

#170 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 06:12 PM:

fidelio @ 163:

There are unsubstantiated reports of emdash predation on true hyphens.

#171 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 06:34 PM:

#169 ::: Cassy B

That's where we get the form all'a'y'all'll.

#172 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 06:44 PM:

Cassy B @169 As I understand it, you is singular, y'all is plural and all y'all is universally inclusive. Whether that's right or not, all y'all certainly exists. It was "might could" that was a revelation to me -- "I thought you might could use this," and a Southern friend assures me that if you asked her mother if she'd care to go to the mall, her reply was liable to be "Might could!"

#173 ::: Cassy B ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 07:20 PM:

rams @173,

Well, although "might could" is a foreign construction to me (I'm a Chicagoan; that is definitely NOT in my dialect); "maybe could" is actually a phrase I sometimes use. "I maybe could stop at the store on the way, if you need something..."; it's a conditional offer, with extra conditionality drizzled on top.

I'm guessing "might could" has the same meaning.

#174 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 07:28 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue @ 79 "Language is a set of conventional symbols and conventional rules for their arrangement constituting a tool for placing thoughts in the minds of others; the desiderata are precision and elegance (in both senses of that word). It seems clear that the more nearly universal the agreement on the symbols and rules, the greater the precision and elegance possible, and the less the standardization, the less the precision and elegance possible."

You recognize that this is a description of your values, rather than a statement of any kind of scientific or verifiable fact, right? I'd suggest that if you tried employing locutions like "it seems to me" or "I feel that" when speaking about your own personal preferences, that would communicate more precisely and elegantly. If, on the other hand, you think the statements in that paragraph are simply universal truth, you are mistaken.

It would be helpful if, instead of merely asserting error, you explain what you think in error, and why. Is language not a construct of conventional symbols and rules? Is it not a tool for placing thoughts in the minds of others? If it is such a tool, how, then, would imprecision and inelegance be matters of little or no weight? (And if it is not, what, then, is it?) If they are matters of weight, how can disagreement on the nature of the symbols and the rules governing their use be irrelevant to precision or elegance?

I suspect that your remark I think the key difference is that you believe English grammar is something decided on by "the best people" and enforced for the benefit of all, and references to favored classes of society, explain much. My concern is with preserving and augmenting the powers of the tongue for expression; yours appears to be related to undefined issues of a political or sociological nature. The clash is not between favored classes of society and (presumably) disfavored classes of society: it is between those who habitually attend to their words and those who do not. Examples of each of those sorts can be found scattered throughout all "classes of society".

If you have wrangles with folk who try to use language as some sort of discriminatory badge, well and good, because that is a terribly wrong thing to do. That has, however, no relevance to the concept of linguistic soundness, meaning choosing and arranging one's words in accordance with recognized rules so as to maximize the chances that those words will place in the minds of others what you wish them to place there.

#175 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 08:05 PM:

Xopher @ 100 - ...wait. You mean the plural isn't pronounced "rooves?" I was taught that it followed that rule in 2nd grade; hoof/hooves, roof/rooves. There was a rule! And it was on the quiz! (I got it wrong...)

HRJ @ 164 - Actually, I was looking for your geeky post, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I knew you would have to weigh in eventually.

English codification is one of those areas where I admire those who attempt to describe usage accurately, and get us rules out of it. Learning German gave me an entirely new set of rules, several of which migrated into my everyday code. Word endings with regards to plurals and verbs, esp., but also tense, gender, and sentence structure. It's most obvious if I've been thinking in German and switch.* The language, and this includes the 'code' or mode of speaking in a single tongue, effects thought patterns and processes. Using someone else's "voice" also can do this, as I would assume this crowd knows. It is hard to be gloomy when writing in the manner of Dr. Seuss, and hard to think in straight lines after reading something suitably circuitous or obfuscatory, e.g. gothic or victorian. Prescriptivism is unfortunate - there is no need to beat people over the head for using the wrong code. On the other hand, the rules make learning and using the language simpler, esp. if they are viewed as guides rather than absolutes.**

*How to tell which language group a history student at my university was taking involved how we referred to the Professors Phillips, and to Carla specifically. Professor Phillips did medieval to early modern Spain, Professorin/Professora/etc. Phillips does 18th/19th c. Spain. Unlikely to have both at the same time, but close enough that distinguishing was *important*.

**I explained to my German exchange family that in English, colloquial usage did gender some nouns. Forms of transportation are most commonly female, I said, and they didn't believe me. No really - ships, trains, cars (generic), planes, and space shuttles are all feminine. It's not a rule, but it's not wrong....

#176 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 08:07 PM:

Bruce Cohen @171--I am sad but not surprised to hear this.

rams @173--This dissection of y'all/all y'all is correct. USAGE EXAMPLE:
Querent: "We're going to barbecue next weekend. Would y'all care to come?"
Respondent: "We'd love to, but my sister-in-law and her family will be in town."
Querent: "Oh, we're doing up a lot, so if you don't have other plans made, all y'all are welcome. We'd love to have you all."

(I will also note that this usage of barbecue does not involve hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill. I realize that may be a losing battle.)

Cassy B @174. You would be correct in that surmise. We're talking about regional variants of a concept, not a unique usage. And I suspect the tongue-in-cheek employment of the local term occurs in Chicago as well as in the southern states. It might could be because it makes for a gentle jest, in response to a query.

Eric Walker @175--so if people understand what I mean when I use "ain't" it's OK? Just thought I'd check.

#177 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 08:21 PM:

Cassy B (174): In my lexicon, 'might could' means 'might be able to'.

And 'used to could' means 'used to be able to'.

#178 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:02 PM:

165/166
Gee, there are other families that use "amn't"? (We 'invented' that one too. Must be a really easy way to deal with "you shouldn't use ain't".

Mary Aileen, I'm clearly familiar with the same dialect. Is your past tense for 'might' something closer to 'mought'?

#179 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:20 PM:

fidelio @177 There are limits to how much can be set forth in a forum post. One of the drawbacks to poor usages that are nonetheless comprehensible is that they have a corrosive effect on one's sense of sound usages. But perhaps more germane, what is the point of "ain't"? It ain't as if you don't know how to say "isn't". One of the things I always find amusing about these sorts of discussions is that the folk most vigorously championing the irregular and the idiolectic invariably do so in prose most perfectly Fowlerian. Sloppy usages are just fine--for the other fellow.

#180 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:36 PM:

It seems to me that it arose in and is primarily used in speech, where it has the advantage of fewer phonemes being involved; for an expression of an often-used concept, this makes sense.

This says nothing about its use in print — but once it has a foothold in the language, as indeed it does and has for years, it's not correct to simply assert that it is wrong. It is a linguistic fact.

Also: on a meta level, you're making a good argument for what prescriptivism looks like. You've staked out that which must be considered "poor usages" and "sound usages", and are now trying to defend the perimeter.

Language as it is used in the real world somewhat notoriously does not care about prescriptive rules.

#181 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:44 PM:

My favourite metaphor for the English language is that it's much more like the sort of "construction brick box" that you're likely to get in the household of a very large, active and inter-involved extended family about two or three generations down the track. In it are mixed up the remnants of the original set of wooden bricks that great-grandpa and great-grandma bought for their children, the remnants of the original Meccano set that was supplied by Great-Uncle Julius (and supplemented a couple of years later by Great-Uncle Claudius), the legacy Lego bricks brought for the use of Uncle Cerdic and Uncle Bert (full name Aethelbert; you can see why he chose the shorter version), the Capsella sets that cousin William brought with him when he moved into the family home, various bits and pieces out of Dad and Grandpa's back sheds (various nuts, bolts and assorted thingamies), subsequent additions of later versions of Lego, Meccano and Capsella, the last few shapes from the Tupperware Shape-O, as well as various bits and pieces from all kinds of plastic toys which have been accumulated over the years (is that three Transformers ray guns, four wheels from a total of three different Hot Wheels cars, a comb from one of "My Little Ponies" and a half a Barbie torso I see?). Not everything works well together, and some bits just will not play nicely with others, no matter how large the hammer you use, or how much you force them.

Occasionally efforts are made to sort everything out, and impose some order on the tub. Smaller containers are provided, in the hope that the kids will take their constructions and contraptions to pieces when they've finished making them and disassemble things neatly, and sort them out. This works about as well as you'd expect.

(All of this metaphoric might was originally mustered in an effort to explain just why my brain revolts at the sight of the words "silverette", "ravenette" and "blackette" as hair colour descriptors for characters in fan fiction. C16th French suffixes do not marry well with Old English germanic-origined root words. Stop trying to force the Capsella to work with the Lego, damnit!)

#182 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:47 PM:

P J Evans (179): No, sorry. I've seen 'mought' in print, but never heard it. I'm trying, and failing, to come up with a past tense for 'might'. Do conditionals even have past tenses? I suppose 'might've' might count.

Sample sentence: I might've done that if I'd thought of it, but I didn't.

Is that what you mean by past tense in this case?

#183 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 09:58 PM:

"Might" is the conditional of "may," and Fidelio and Mary Aileen's explanations agree with my usages.

#184 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:01 PM:

Using 'if I was' when it should be 'if I werre'...
Grrrr...

#185 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:05 PM:

183
'I mought could've done that if I'd've thought of it'?

#186 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:09 PM:

182
We managed to have a box like that in only one generation. Three different sets of alphabet blocks, a set of building blocks (and the dowels intended to hold them together), an assortment of scrap wood of various dimensions... It made building anything an exercise in structural engineering. I can't remember if there was anything else in it, but I suspect there were plastic building bricks and gears before it was donated to the preschool class at church.

#187 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:48 PM:

I can't get over the suggestion that someone use a hydraulic press on Captain America's shield considering the physical properties of the thing. I think I'll stay as far away as possible, thank you.

#188 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:48 PM:

I see that this is being broken down into camps, but I'm not entirely sure why that's necessary.

I recognize that:
- Language is what people use to communicate (rather than only those forms of communication that I choose to acknowledge as valid).

- In this culture, at this time, there is a standardized dialect, the use of which is broadly recognized as indicating one is "well-educated."

- In this same culture, at this same time, there are a wide range of other ("non-standard") dialects the use of which is considered a sign of poor education.

- The perception of "non-standard" dialects as a sign of "poor education" and sometimes "low intelligence" or "laziness" is problematic, because they are often associated with low-income or low-status populations, and due to the current distribution of wealth and resources in our society, people in low-income or low-status situations do not consistently have the same access to education and instruction in high-status language patterns. It is oversimplified to assert that everyone is equally capable of learning to speak properly.

But my awareness of those social and political dynamics only makes me more likely to engage in formal, "educated" speech, when I want to persuade someone. I will teach my daughter to handle both formal language and regional dialects, as two separate skill sets.

I find it a little disconcerting to hear that there is no legitimate definition of "proper" writing, from a community that prides itself on its participants' skillful use of language, that indulges (dare I say, "takes pride in"?) the tendency of some members toward linguistic pedantry, and which generally shares great enjoyment in the written creative works of others.

We know it when we see it. And whether we like it or not, there is a culturally-imposed aesthetic preference for formal language following standardized rules.

I'm concerned that ignoring the status quo in favor of asserting that there are no legitimate arbiters of linguistic correctness is not quite an accurate portrayal, and may actually impede our ability to effect useful change.

I am also not certain that the existence of a "universal language" with more rigid standards is not a useful tool for improving understanding during inter-regional exchanges.

#189 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:49 PM:

Serge @ 183... "If I *were*", cursed typo!

#190 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 10:59 PM:

Bill Higgins @145:
Once that puzzle is solved, please explain to me "maintain" and "maintenance."

The -tenir verbs from French were imported into English as -tain, while their -tenance noun forms were imported as-is.

#191 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:02 PM:

Megpie71 @182, so what you're saying is, you could use a 3-D printer to run off some copies of the Free Universal Constructor Kit.

#192 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:04 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 115: "The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison. The flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true."

And when the beetles battle in a bottle on a noodle-eating poodle... wait.

Elsewhere on this thread, I got an Allen Sherman earworm like woah. "One hippopotami / Cannot get on a bus / Because one hippopotami / Is two hippopotamus"

Serge @ 152: I am one of those who commit 1970s.

I commit 1970s and CDs gleefully and emphatically. "Apostrophes are not a tool for causing plurals" is a firm tenet of my personal linguistic religion. I do try to refrain from proselytizing on that point, but I am strong in my faith and will not be moved from my personal path of righteousness.

(I've heard "Apostrophes don't mean 'Look out, here comes an s!' somewhere before; it appears to be all over the intarwebs these days, though, so I can't say where I first heard it.)

ObLink: Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots

#193 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:15 PM:

Nicole J Leboeuf-Little @ 193... 'Look out, here comes an s!'

Don't you love acronyms where the plural thankfully ditches the apostrophe, but uses an uppercase S. I mean, what *is* a CDS? Oh, it really means there's more than one CD?

#194 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:28 PM:

Thanks to Magpie71 I've been looking at pictures of Capsella toys. (Include "toy" in your Google image search, because there are other kinds of capsellas.)

#195 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:29 PM:

Megpie71, sorry.

#196 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:50 PM:

KayTei @189 My problem is with the 'privileging' of a specific dialect and the demonization of many others. If Standard American English was in fact a 'universal' American setting rather than being derived from a standard set in the literary circles of New England and New York in the nineteenth century, and with much of that era's and regions' patronizing dismissal of outsiders whose usages deviated from and did not conform to their particular standard. The US is a big enough country that some usages from outside those circles have worked their way into the standard, but while it may be a standard, it got that way by dismissing the validity of other choices and usages, often with contumely.


I recognize the value of a standard dialect, and I am grateful that I am able to use the American version competently and effectively; that doesn't mean I am blind as to how we got ours, or that I appreciate seeing the dialects of my family and friends dismissed as a sign of ignorance or inability to learn better.

Dr. Doyle wrote with great truth when she said, a good many comments back, that a very good English teacher manages to teach the standard dialect without demeaning the students' own dialect.

Eric Walker @180. Yes, I can code switch fluently; I am privileged in that respect. This not possible for everyone, and I doubt you'd take any arguments coming from someone who couldn't any more seriously that you are prepared to accept mine.

#197 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2012, 11:53 PM:

fidelio @ 197

That makes sense to me. I don't have anything to add, but I think it makes a lot of sense.

#198 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 12:03 AM:

KayTei @198--Thank you for considering where I'm coming from on this.

#199 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 12:28 AM:

KayTei @ 189

How about this metaphor? The English language is like a dog. Like all dogs. Like the set of all breeds of dogs (and especially including all mixed-breeds). What are the characteristics of a "proper dog"? What is the set of dogs that should be considered officially approved? What is the best dog? It really comes down to a matter of purpose. In any given context, for any given purpose, there may be a "best correct dog", but change the context or the purpose...? Yet all dogs share a common origin and clearly form a natural class. There are dogs that will never enter the gates of the Westminster Kennel Club (perhaps despite having official breed organizations) and yet they are still perfectly good dogs. You could, perhaps, train a chihuahua to herd sheep, but if you really really want to herd sheep it would be better to get a collie. There are breeds of dogs that have bad reputations ... but often it's because the people who want to own "bad dogs" believe the reputation and choose to own that breed. (I.e., there are dialects that are considered undesirable, but usually it's because the speakers of that dialect have been stigmatized for some other reason and the dialect is condemned by association. It's not due to some objective inherent property of the dialect itself.) The metaphor can be run quite a while before losing speed.

For example, you note: But my awareness of those social and political dynamics only makes me more likely to engage in formal, "educated" speech, when I want to persuade someone.

But your success really depends on whom you want to persuade. Witness the habit of some politicians of deliberately adopting non-"educated" dialects of English in order to persuade voters who associate "educated speech" with negative stereotypes.

The real power is in having mastery of as many different Englishes as you're likely to need for all your purposes and be able to code-switch as necessary. Both the extremes of rigid prescriptivism and rigid anti-prescriptivism are to be avoided.

#200 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 12:48 AM:

In the Benjamin January mystery novels by Barbara Hambly, it is repeatedly noted that language code-switching is one of Ben's major advantages. He can speak pretty much any dialect from the purest Parisian French to the slurry "gombo" of the New Orleans slums, along with a similar range of English dialects and the major classical languages. This greatly improves his chances of being respected by the upper classes and trusted by the lower ones at need.

Ben's friend Hannibal Sefton isn't quite as good in variety of languages, but he has at least English, French, Italian, and German (along with the classical languages), and an encyclopedic knowledge of classical literature, which he tosses off at the drop of a hat. This makes him a damnably hard character to write fanfic for!

#201 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 01:32 AM:

Sisuile@176: Not all words ending in f pluralize in "-ves". Some counterexamples: proof; belief; gulf; chief; cliff; brief; riff; serif; waif; and, once upon a time, dwarf.

(I once got into an argument with my cousins because I thought the plural of "roof" should be "roofs" and they insisted on "rooves", so there is room for disagreement on that one among native speakers.)

So far as I know there is no general rule for which words do get "-ves" and which don't. You just have to learn on a case-by-case basis.

#202 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 09:23 AM:

David G., #202: I can't offhand think of any words ending in "ff" which pluralize to "v", so I think the only time you need to worry about exceptions is with words ending in a single "f" -- and even then, I think only WRT "oof". But it's too early in the morning and my brain is full of fuzz, so I may be way off about this.

#203 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 09:57 AM:

P J Evans (186): Right. (If I'm reading your example correctly, 'mought' isn't a stand-alone past tense; it's still used with 'have'. Is that correct?)

Serge (152)/Nicole (193): I usually use '1970s' and 'CDs' now, too. My point is that that was not how I was taught. We've lost those apostrophes, for good or ill.

Lee (203): Oof! It's too early in the morning to think about such things.

#204 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 10:00 AM:

The past tense of toof* would be toofs**, not tooves.

*tooth, in small-child dialect
** or teef

#205 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 10:38 AM:

204
Yep.
(Danged if I know where it came from in my family. The people who would have had a clue are all dead.)

205
Oh yeah!

#206 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 01:40 PM:

pensnest@95:

> Nobody I know could love you more than me.

Yes, 'than' is tricky that way; there's a good thread on Language Log on the question of whether than is a preposition or a conjunction.

When I'm made King Of The English Language I will reform the pronoun system and sort all this out. There'll be a proper reflexive pronoun too.

#207 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 01:49 PM:

Steve @#207: Can we get a good epicene pronoun while you're at it?

#208 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 02:32 PM:

Carrie S.@208: is 'they' not good enough? Good writers have been using it for a long time, no matter what the naysayers say.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little@193: I think there are emergency cases where you have to shove an apostrophe in to maintain readability. The BBC used to abbreviate Police Constable to Pc instead of the more usual PC, like this. It always looked very odd to me; if one is going to do this I think that you have to break the usual rules and, with regret, go for Pc's as the plural. I don't have my copy of Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage any more but ISTRT he advised using an apostrophe to separate an abbreviation from pluralizing s in some cases.

My personal grammatical stumbling block is negating 'used to'. 'I didn't used to' sounds wrong but 'I used not to' sounds a bit prissy.

#209 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 02:52 PM:

Steve: I don't like "they" for the same reason I wish we still "thee/thou" for 2.sing. It's not that I think "they" is wrong, I just want the singular to have its own pronoun. (I suggest se/hir/hir, myself, but many people don't seem to like that.)

#210 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 04:12 PM:

se/hir/hir

Those won't do, since they're already English words. (Se: Nominative singular masculine definite article; hir: possessive of 'they,' which you said you didn't like.)

"They" is perfectly acceptable and has been used for centuries by educated writers as the non-gendered singular pronoun: e.g. Everyone and their cat.

#211 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 05:56 PM:

Re: "might could":

I picked up that phrase in college, from some friends raised in more rural parts of NC than I was*. At first I used it ironically/self-consciously/jokingly, with a slightly exaggerated Southern accent (as did those friends -- very much a "I caught myself talking country, I'm going to gently mock myself" thing). But eventually I started just using it, in my normal "Standard American" accent (scare quotes because Standard American was just discussed, and I'm aware of the disagreement, but it's still the best name I know for the accent in which I normally speak English). I find "might could" to be a handy, efficient phrase. It certainly sounds informal and colloquial to me (in more formal situations I say "might be able to"), but not wrong or silly.

An Ohioan grad-school colleague teased me about saying "might could." I pointed out that it's a lot shorter than "might be able to." Efficient. He looked thoughtful and said "Huh. You're right." He didn't start using it himself, but he didn't say anything more about my using it.

I code-switch into and out of Southern a lot, depending on the situation, but "might could" has become part of my "informal spoken English" code, not just my "informal spoken Southern English" code.

*I did just write "than I was" without thinking about it, and then realized this had just been a topic of discussion. Huh. I don't think I always make that choice, but clearly I do sometimes.

#212 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 06:06 PM:

Carrie S.@210: Sweden has a newish gender-neutral pronoun. It'll be interesting to see how they get on with it. List 1.2 on this page shows that 'he' is much commoner in one English corpus than either 'she' or 'they'; I wonder where a gender-neutral pronoun would turn up in the frequency list if it replaced he/she/they where appropriate?

#213 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 06:24 PM:

David @ 202 - the rule as stated involved "-oof". Hooves is not the only example, but the only one my brain is coming up with right now. 2nd grade was a while ago, and roof/rooves may have been on of the examples.

It may have a relation in proof to proves. There just aren't that many words with that letter combo.

#214 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 06:25 PM:

According to my father, the plural of "goof" is "gooves".

"What a bunch of gooves those guys are!"

#215 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 06:27 PM:

Then there are the Toronto Maple Leafs.

#216 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 06:57 PM:

Caroline @212--Strictly speaking, dialect involves more than the accent (AKA pronunciation system, I suppose) you are speaking with at the time. It includes grammar, syntax, and vocabulary choices as well. A Real Linguist may be persuaded to drop in and give us a formal definition sometime soon, perhaps. I think the British term for their standard dialect's pronunciation is "Received Pronunciation"; I think the equivalent term is the US is General American.* I know I slide back and forth, depending on circumstances.

Words do naturally travel between dialects,** though, given the acquisitive nature of English in this matter in all the dialects I know of. It's part of the immense flexibility of the beast, I do believe.


*Not, so far as I know, in Captain America'a chain of command. Possibly a multinational corporation of nonexistent virture.***

**Or other languages; even when we practice strict immigration controls on people, the words slip across the border as if it's not even there. Should I insert "Ob. James Nicoll ref at this point?

***There was a tentacle reference that was going to follow, based on the old cartoons about Trusts, but I decided this was the wrong crowd to leave an opening for comments involving tentacle porn.

#217 ::: Kate Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 07:32 PM:

Serge @162: I post here very occasionally (although I'm usually lurking), but I can never remember which email address I used last time. Isn't that how comments are linked? So since I have three email addresses that I commonly use, plus a few that I use occasionally, I probably have two or three inadvertent aliases here.

Regarding picking up phrases from other dialects, I grew up in East Tennessee but went to college in Kentucky. I came back from Kentucky with an education and new phrases like "get a shower" (before then, I'd only heard and used "take a shower") and "pissant" (an insult, which a friend explained referred to those teeny-tiny ants that are annoying but not harmful). Oh, and I can no longer pronounce Reese's Cups properly. They're "Reesy Cups," and for some reason that's stuck with me more than the content of most of my classes.

#218 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 07:50 PM:

Lee@202: "Staff" --> "staves". A little archaic, to be sure.

#219 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 09:54 PM:

Also, 'turf' and 'turves', which is an alternate usage.

#220 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 11:10 PM:

megpie71 at 182:
That reminds me of this:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/04/05/how-a-geek-dad-and-his-3d-printer-aim-to-liberate-legos/

#221 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 11:12 PM:

fidelio, 220: Huh, I thought turves were what you called pieces of dried turf that you used if you didn't have firewood handy.

#222 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 11:14 PM:

fidelio @ 217: Strictly speaking, dialect involves more than the accent (AKA pronunciation system, I suppose) you are speaking with at the time. It includes grammar, syntax, and vocabulary choices as well.

Absolutely. I think what I described in my post agrees with all of that -- "might could" being a particular grammatical choice that started out being associated with a particular pronunciation system for me, along with other particular grammar, syntax, and vocab choices, but then moved into use with a different pronunciation system, and gets used even when I'm not using the other previously-associated grammar, syntax, and vocab choices.

Unless you're saying that "Standard American" is a name for a dialect, not just an accent? I suppose that's true. Still, I think it's what I speak the majority of the time -- accent, grammar, syntax, and vocab.

Or are we just in violent agreement? (I think this may be the most likely.)

#223 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2012, 11:57 PM:

David G., #219: Archaic only if you're discussing a quarterstaff; it's still in common usage WRT music. I did say my brain was full of fuzz; that's one I should have thought of.

#224 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 12:51 AM:

Caroline @223--we are pretty much in violent agreement, except it's my understanding that the pronunciation is General American, and the dialect is Standard American English. Which could be wrong.

#225 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 12:56 AM:

TexAnne @222--this was my thought as well, and so the dictionary I consulted attests. This, of course, is for the usage of 'turf' meaning 'chunk of peat'. I don't know if it's the preferred plural for the 'grassy area' or 'claimed area' senses of turf, though. I'm not used to thinking of either of those in the plural.

#226 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 10:20 AM:

I have no native pronunciation or pluralization of turf, turves, because it was an impossibly exotic substance.

I picked up might could from a California boy, though he and his father had both served in the military, which linguistically is the equivalent of spending some time living south of the Mason-Dixon line. I've heard others use it since then, though I have yet to see it used in a business letter.

It seems to me that might could gets used when you're talking about the interactions of two or more sets of uncertain possibilities, one of which is the speaker's conditional willingness and ability to do this thing. That's the could part, which I believe is used in the same sense you get in used to could, "I used to be able to."

I've never heard used to could used to describe something which used to be possible in theory, but which the speaker never chose to do. When I experimentally try it in sentences where the idea is that it was possible but the user never did it, the sentences squirm around and try to change into other things. For example, if I run You used to could get certified by the county through the speaker in my head, it wants to say We used to could claim we'd been certified by the county. The closest I can come is You used to could get those at the Post Office, but Minnie never picked one up, which still has a residual element of willingness: One could and did, but Minnie didn't.

I have likewise never heard might could used when the speaker is saying they flat-out don't want to do the thing. Thus, my full-scale translation of I might could do that would be something like I am not averse to this idea, and I believe it would be possible for me to do it.

Kate Shaw @218, I've heard that use of "pissant", always by people who pronounced it pissaint. The other version I know is "pismire", which means the same thing: small vexing critters which have the power to irritate but not ultimately do harm. You have to have a pretty low opinion of someone to call him a pismire.

Like you, I've picked up regional pronunciations I can't get rid of. Living in Boston, I got Dooahchestah and Wusstah stuck to my tongue, and New York City has done the same to me with seltzah.

=====

Since we're doing accents and linguistics, is there a term for automatically dropping the first syllable of a word if it's unstressed and starts with a vowel? I've lived long enough among people who don't do that to be able to hear myself doing it. It takes conscious effort for me to not drop the first syllables of words like Elizabeth and Apache. The syllable comes back if it's preceded by some words (Queen Elizabeth, native Apaches) but not by others (my cousin 'Lizabeth). (Actually, my cousin 'Lisbeth. It feels like it's part of the same transformation.)

What is that, and who else does it?

#227 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 11:44 AM:

227
I don't have a name for that, but it might be elision. (I finally figured out that's what's happening when I hear 'destino'ltimado' in the subway announcements. The 'l' in the middle is almost silent, if that's possible.)

#228 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 01:43 PM:

I've been away and internetless for a few days, so I'm just catching up. As usual, all the really good points have been made by others by now, and better than I could have made them, drat you fidelio!*

Mary Aileen 142: We also seem to be losing the apostrophe used in pluralizing a number or acronym.

I've always preferred the apostrophyless version. The other seems like a grocer's apostrophe to me. Consider the following:

I have lost the CDs.
I have lost this CD's case.
I have lost these CDs' cases.

With the initialism-plural apostrophe, the word in the third instance would be the very weird-looking CD's', which to me looks like I was trying to single-quote a letter ess and lost a space.

ajay 154: Including mine. I was taught that the isogloss (geographic line dividing two dialect variations) for this is the Alleghenies, but that was years and years ago, and the isogloss may have shifted or vanished.

Tim 158: Bravo! Excellent analogy.

KayTei 159: As an aside, I see no reason why Eric @ 44 should extend a level of modesty which you have so far failed to demonstrate in your own posts on this thread. But if your intent was to silence dissent from your personally-held convictions regarding language philosophy, I believe you've accomplished your goal.

My initial reaction to this was "what the hell?" because I had no such intention. After reading Eric 175, though, I think I see (and also it proves that your last statement is incorrect, thank gods).

I think the disconnect here is that I thought the conversation was about the science of linguistics, while you (and possibly Eric) thought it was about language philosophy.

I don't have anything to add to fidelio 197. Well said, fidelio.

Eric 175: I was mainly focusing on the desiderata are precision and elegance (in both senses of that word). While I agree that those are both fine things, they're not universal values.

I think the rest of your comment here has been addressed adequately by others.

Teresa 227: That might be syncope, if I'm remembering my terms right, though it might also be elision.

Are you sure it's the word preceding that determines it? I ask because I can well imagine someone carefully pronouncing the full name of Elizabeth, Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while making the name of their cousin 'Lisbeth all homey. Can you think of a phrase you might say about your cousin that wouldn't get this treatment? IOW from what you've said so far it still seems possible that it's a formality switch.

*This should be read as "you go, fidelio!" or perhaps "right on, fidelio!"

#229 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 01:49 PM:

Teresa (227): Your understanding of 'might could' matches my usage and understanding. I doubt you'll ever see it in a business letter; it's colloquial rather than formal.

I think you're also correct about 'used to could'. I use it for things that I could do, and did do, but no longer can. ("I used to could get up off the floor without using my hands to push me up.")

#230 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 01:56 PM:

Teresa @ 227: Since we're doing accents and linguistics, is there a term for automatically dropping the first syllable of a word if it's unstressed and starts with a vowel?

I believe the most specific term is Apheresis. It's a subset of elision.

#231 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 03:53 PM:

Xopher @239--It's a sore spot for me (who could have guessed?!). I'm glad you got to do something wonderful on your time away from us!

#232 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 06:47 PM:

Xopher @ 229

I'm trying to think of a way to say this without escalating, because that is very much not my intent. At the same time, no, the reason I reacted badly is that your post comes across to me as aggressive, borderline contemptuous, and attempting to shut down further discussion.

I appreciate from your most recent post that this was not your intent, and I'm glad to have that confirmed. I apologize that I misjudged you.

#233 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 08:33 PM:

I first heard "might could" from a friend who grew up in North Carolina. Tying into some previous comments on code switching, I only heard her use it when she was in comfortable settings.

There's a general class of these "double modals", but I don't know the full range. A graduate student I knew who grew up in rural Tennessee used several (when using his "home dialect") and considered "m'ought" to be a contracted "might ought". His code switching was the most extreme and (deliberately) comical: he would drop into his most exaggerated home accent for effect, and then stay in it when reading Attic Greek.

#234 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 09:35 PM:

David, 234: Hey, I've been known to say "might oughta," as in "Telling your boss exactly what you think of him? You might oughta think about that before you do it." Or "I might oughta notice when I use double modals, so my ESL students don't get all confused."

#235 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2012, 11:29 PM:

TNH @ 227 reminds me:
A suburb of Ottawa is Gloucester (Gloster to Canadians, and British.) One of the delights of the local (one hour south) PBS pledge drive is listening to upstate New York accents mangle that name into Glou-ses-ter. (PBS Watertown has more Canadian members than US ones.)

Related - in Toronto, there is a subway stop called Islington, iz-ling-tun; spelled the same is eye-ling-tun in London (and on the British Monopoly board).

#236 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 12:10 AM:

#229 Xopher HalfTongue: I was mainly focusing on the desiderata are precision and elegance (in both senses of that word). While I agree that those are both fine things, they're not universal values.

I don't want to flog this relentlessly, and I don't mean my next remark in a provocative way; I am merely hard put to it to see how, if language is a tool we use to place thoughts in the minds of others (and I can see no conflicting definition), how can the precision with which our language use crafts those thoughts, and our elegance in the crafting (if "elegance" is too elegant, "information density" can be haled in), not be the chief criteria of our writing or speech? Do they not serve, between them, to judge our success in using words? Assuredly (I almost wrote certes), felicity, even beauty (which might be thought subsumed in the other sense of "elegance", characterized by dignified richness and grace) are important, but must not achieving our fundamental intention--the creation of certain thoughts--be paramount?

#237 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 12:32 AM:

Eric Walker @237:
The greatest eloquence and precision is wasted if not understood in its precision by the listener. The point is to be understood; strict precision may be indistinguishable from indecipherable jargon, and excessive eloquence from obfuscation.

#238 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 12:45 AM:

#238 geekosaur: Surely comprehensibility is implicit in precision? Language that was not readily comprehended can scarcely be said to have been "precise" in the sense of carefully crafting in the reader's or auditor's mind the thoughts the writer or speaker intended to place there; if it fails in that, it is imprecise. In like manner, "excessive eloquence" is a textbook oxymoron.

#239 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 01:46 AM:

Eric @ 239

"Surely comprehensibility is implicit in precision?"

It's very easy to be so precise that you obscure meaning in a glut of detail.

In the same way, you can obscure meaning by using constructions and vocabulary which are overwhelmingly unfamiliar to one's audience -- even though they more precisely and accurately convey your exact meaning.

When I read geeokosaur's post, that is the type of precision that comes to mind. I don't really care if you call it excessive eloquence or whateverall else, it's a real-world problem.

#240 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 01:49 AM:

Linda @165: amn't is indeed a perfectly ordinary contraction here in Ireland, while ain't sounds American to us.

We don't have y'all, but in Dublin we have yez or yiz, and in the rest of the country, ye.

There also forms like yir (possessive of ye) and yizzer (likewise of yiz), and even reflexive forms, as in:

"Yiz shot yizzerselves in yizzer foots when yiz started posting cocks everywhere."

... which I think is a perfectly cromulent sentence.

#241 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 02:21 AM:

Eric, #239: "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

Simple, precise, and absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't know the jargon. (Also incorrect, but that doesn't affect this example.)

Does anyone know if there's a specific term for pronouncing initial "hu" as "yoo"? I've had a couple of friends who did that, and it sort of becroggled me.

#242 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 02:38 AM:

KayTei@240: With several bridge partners I play a slightly unusual system. So, my partner opens one club; I say "alert". When the opponents inquire, technically the Laws require me to explain in full detail every hand my partner could hold. In practice, if I do that their eyes glaze over. I've evolved a simplified explanation that gets across the basic idea. Then I say, "There are more details, which I will be happy to provide if you wish." Nobody ever wishes.

#243 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:14 AM:

Eric @ 237 & 239 (not meaning to dog-pile, but this whole thread falls in my sandbox and I have lots of opinions to share)

The type of precision you seem to be describing is only possible (and only a guarantor of communicative success, in the sense you seem to be intending) if all speakers of a language have exactly the same word-to-denotation/connotation mapping, and if none of those mappings are ambiguous. This is the type of goal that has led any number of people to construct and promote artificial languages from which the inherent messiness of natural languages has been removed. Alas for the purpose, even those languages typically evolve into messier, more ambiguous systems than originally planned. (Assuming they don't die still-born.)

Further, I would argue that precise and unambiguous communication isn't the only -- or even always the most desirable -- goal of language. Consider, for example, the effects on politeness if communication is always clear, precise, and unambiguous. There are many types of communicative success, and no guarantee that both parties to a conversation have the same win-conditions in mind.

#244 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:14 AM:

David @ 243

Yes, exactly. I learn by writing up all the trivial details that nobody but me needs to understand.

Then I strip it down to the absolute minimum level possible, so my colleagues can get what they need from it.

#245 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:19 AM:

Heather Rose Jones @ 200

(Apologies for late response; I keep thinking I've already posted this.)

Yes, I think that's some of the middle ground I was trying to locate. (That breed metaphor is disturbingly accurate, the more I push on it.)

Also, just to note that I have been tracking your posts in this thread with appreciation. I just don't always have very much to add. :)

#246 ::: Eric Walker ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:31 AM:

KayTei @ 240 et al: Re It's very easy to be so precise that you obscure meaning in a glut of detail. Apparently what I thought explicit is not. The "precision" is not a precise setting forth of all related to a topic: it is a precise crafting in the mind of another the set of thoughts one wishes to place there. Those thoughts may be falsehoods, oversimplifications, vile slanders, or the essence of goodness and marvel; what matters--where the precision is wanted--is in inducing just precisely those thoughts. Considered so, it should be clear that as much or as little clarity as the writer or speaker intends is inherent in that concept of "precision".

A sharp tool can often be used to make ill things; but a dull tool cannot ever make good things.

#247 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:34 AM:

Lee #242 Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny

I once mistyped this as "Ontology recapitulates philology". On reflection, I decided that was actually more true than Haeckel's version: once you have a nice set of words for dividing up the world, you tend to believe the world really is like that.

#248 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 06:52 AM:

Henry Troup @236 Related - in Toronto, there is a subway stop called Islington, iz-ling-tun; spelled the same is eye-ling-tun in London (and on the British Monopoly board).

I've been to and through Islington London several times* and everyone, including the robot announcer on the tube for Highbury and Islington, has pronounced the "Is-" as "is".

* Also played British Monopoly a bit as well

#249 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 07:14 AM:

Eric @ 247

No, you were clear enough. But I felt your re-definition of precision was narrow, beyond what the word reasonably was intended to mean. Your redefinition of scope didn't address the main point I thought geekosaur was getting at, which was that sometimes, skill and precision involve knowing your audience, and speaking to them in comfortable terms. Even when those "comfortable terms" are nonstandard.


Re: dull tools.
With sufficient skill and attention, I've found that most people can find ways to improvise around poor tools. And in language, even more so.

But even more to the point -- as a fluent English speaker, I insist on the freedom to play with the language, to twist it and mangle it, and to stretch it to the absolute limits of its capability. If there's one thing I wish could be taken away from this conversation, it's that not everyone gets that grace, and it's based on prejudice, rather than objective fluency.

I have a real problem with that double-standard. Not least because I think that playing with language and drawing in linguistic diversity both enrich our language, giving us access to a wide range of different flavors and nuances and verbal tools.

I also think that ideas are shaped by the way we shape language, and so I think that opening things up so that people are comfortable communicating in their own words opens us up to a lot of ideas and voices we wouldn't be hearing otherwise. That's important to me, too.

I think that language, like music, needs to be owned by everyone. I think it's fantastic when people do things they love, in ways they find fulfilling. And whether I hear poetry in that, or you hear it as rough-hewn and chaotic, I think there's a beauty in just being creative and experimenting and having confidence in what you have to say.

You have a chance to view the infinite, and you're focused on infinitives. I don't get it.

#250 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 10:00 AM:

During the process of building a Viking boat in a garage in southern Ohio, someone dropped a chisel on the concrete floor and chipped its edge. It was ruined as a chisel, but after the rest of the edge was ground off it was a highly useful caulking iron. Sometimes a dull tool is exactly what's needed.

#251 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 10:31 AM:

Butter knives are dull tools. And they work just fine as tools for butter (or soft cheese).

#252 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 10:33 AM:

TNH #227:

'Round here the folks who say pissaint spell it "puissant." A pissant fella is tray formidable.

#253 ::: David Wald ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 11:13 AM:

KayTei@250: You have a chance to view the infinite, and you're focused on infinitives.

Thank you for the general point, but specifically for this turn of phrase.

#254 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 12:09 PM:

Yes, yes, yes! KayTei, I agree with David on both points. That's a thing of beauty.

I'm just going to point out here the skilled manipulation of ambiguity is a) one aspect of the nature of poetry, b) a thing on which many excellent jokes turn, c) the skill of a punster, but also d) what deceitful people do when they want to be able to claim they didn't lie, exactly.

So: not an unmixed good, either; but not something we ever would want to discard.

#255 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 12:26 PM:

I'd also just like to point out that taking someone's metaphor and quibbling over the literal side of it, and never discussing the implications for the analogic side, might not be the best way to argue against the point of the metaphor. It starts to seems like obtuseness, deliberate or not. I am as guilty of this as anyone, and I fight constantly to resist the temptation.

Sometimes the purpose of language is soft like butter, and precision is less the goal than beauty. This is done a fair amount in English, but in Sanskrit it's huge, to the point where translations of some Sanskrit texts is virtually impossible. You cannot, for example, translate the word OM into English; you could write a whole book on its meaning (not the same as translating it), and a person who has read the book would still not understand it in some key ways which are only accessible by actually chanting it. Part of the meaning of the word is the physical sensation of saying it, so it cannot be translated into another language; it can only be borrowed.

These powers can be used for good or evil, of course. There are people who, though they'd deny it if expressed this way, fundamentally believe that anything that rhymes* is true. "If you do the crime you should do the time" is the slogan of an evil, evil movement in society, and lots of people believe it uncritically, because the rhyme turns off what critical faculty they have.

*Or even just sounds good in some other way, like alliterating or whatever. I've used this to my own ends; for example, I've repeated the six words "Ein Volk, ein Reich, Ayn Rand" to people in the guise of a mnemonic for the pronunciation of that unpleasant woman's name, but of course the real purpose is to associate Rand with the greatest evil of the 20th Century. Probably not very fairly, actually. I can defend this only by saying that people who are knowledgeable enough to get the point (or even recognize the first four words) probably won't be influenced by it.

#256 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 01:14 PM:

A further point on the question of precision: one-to-one communications can be made as precise as desired, given time and effort on both sides. One-to-many communications -- not so much. This is the implication of Heather's comment at 244. In that situation, you quickly run into "The perfect is the enemy of the good" -- if I'm trying to get people to evacuate a building because of poison gas, it's a lot quicker to yell "Out! Now! Fast!" than it is to explain what's going on -- and if I put the proper intonation into that phrase, it's very effective. But a lot of people are going to think there's a fire or something else going on.

And some people will argue with whatever I'm trying to tell them. I don't want the other people to get a serious dose of whatever while I'm persuading them. I have much less problem with this when I'm talking one-to-one than when I'm talking one-to-many.

#257 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 01:23 PM:

Further note: I can speak with great precision using very different words with (to pick local examples) each one of PNH, THN, David Goldfarb, David Wald, Elise, Lizzy and several other people here, because we have shared specific experiences. And I can evoke those experiences in a single word or phrase, in many cases: car door, Jesse Ventura, Balrog, 'Becca, roller coaster round, The Cellar. Some of those stories might have been told enough that many people here would get some of the denotations; the connotations are quite different to those who weren't there.

#258 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 01:24 PM:

If communication is the art of eliciting responses, and the meaning of communication is the response that it gets (the rather behavioristic Frogs into Princes definitions), then people running out of the building right away is the meaning of "Out! Now! Fast!" and whether they think there's a fire or poison gas is irrelevant.

I don't actually entirely accept that myself, but it's certainly very functional for that situation. If some of the people obeyed because they thought it was fire, and would have stayed to "tough it out" if they'd known it was poison gas, there could be trouble later...but not as much as if you explained the whole situation thoroughly and most of the people didn't get out in time.

#259 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 02:02 PM:

"The meaning of communication is the response that it gets" is a pernicious doctrine. Else the meaning of the Beatles "Helter Skelter" really is Go Horrifically Murder A Bunch of Total Strangers.

#260 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 02:28 PM:

Well, it would be part of the meaning, yes. The meaning of anything is distorted in the minds of psychopaths and their followers. But I take your point.

#261 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 03:02 PM:

Eric, if what you're saying is true, why is it so hard to figure out what you're saying?

#262 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 05:19 PM:

Eric@247: English is as precise as any other mathematical notation, when what you're doing with it is expressing math. (1)

Other times, not so much.

1) I wish more people would realize that when they ARE talking about math. The classic first-week-of-first-semester statistics question is usually asked the wrong way by professors, resulting in one of three different correct-as-asked-but-not-what-he-meant answers.

#263 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 06:30 PM:

KaiTei, I'm glad you figured it out on your own, but I'll superfluously confirm that Xopher is a good guy, and a humble one where it matters. Also, that few people are less likely to want to shut down a conversation.

Eric Walker @239:

Surely comprehensibility is implicit in precision?
No, not at all. Precision is a characteristic; comprehensibility is a result. It's arguable that some degree of precision is necessary for comprehensibility, but a high degree of precision may be present in a text without rendering it generally comprehensible. After all, Einstein's 1917 "Kosmologische Betrachtungen zur allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie" and the Credo are both precise.

"Precise" describes how you do something, not what you're doing. Who was the more precise essayist: Sir Thomas Browne, or Samuel Johnson? The answer is that they were both precise, but they were doing different things. They were also writing for different audiences, and for different reasons.

The pertinent concept here is "rhetorical stance" -- roughly speaking, who's your audience, and what are you trying to convey, to what effect. If you don't pause to consider it, you can find yourself doing precisely the wrong thing. (See also: spherical cow of uniform density.)

Language that was not readily comprehended can scarcely be said to have been "precise" in the sense of carefully crafting in the reader's or auditor's mind the thoughts the writer or speaker intended to place there;
That's not precision. That's successfully achieving an outcome which is similar but not identical to communicating an idea.
if it fails in that, it is imprecise.
Word. Not what you think it does.
In like manner, "excessive eloquence" is a textbook oxymoron.
No. It's a common phrase. "Eloquence" by itself is graceful, forceful, or persuasive speech. "Excessive eloquence" is speech which was intended to be eloquent, but as delivered by the manufacturer proved to be considerably more floriated.

I think you've been shortchanged. Somewhere along the line, one of your teachers convinced you that complex interdependent sentence structures and difficult syntax = good language. What that actually produces is prose that's nearly impossible for anyone to decrypt who hasn't spent a lot of time in school. It's a class marker, not an effective communication strategy.

Trust me on this: language is a lot more powerful, and a lot more fun, than your teachers ever let on.

Stick around.

#264 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 06:39 PM:

Heather Rose Jones, I went looking for apheresis and found this job listing:

Clinical Services Specialist
American Red Cross - Lansing, MI
Under the direction of the Medical Director and Apheresis Supervisor/Manager, has the responsibility to perform clinical apheresis procedures.
I just remove vowels. The Red Cross goes after whole syllables.

#265 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 06:46 PM:

Thanks, Teresa!

#266 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 06:50 PM:

Annnnd I just realized that I never responded to KaiTei saying I apologize that I misjudged you.

We're good. I was being kinda snotty. And sorry I didn't respond earlier; I didn't mean to be rude.

#267 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 07:50 PM:

Thomas@248: "I once mistyped this as "Ontology recapitulates philology". On reflection, I decided that was actually more true than Haeckel's version: once you have a nice set of words for dividing up the world, you tend to believe the world really is like that."

Wouldn't that be "Ontology recapitulates phenomenology"? So Haeckel would become Hegel. Whoa.

#268 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 08:01 PM:

I keep reading that as 'oncology'. What would oncology recapitulate?

philosopy?
phrenology?

#269 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 09:08 PM:

Oncology recapitulates proctology. Wait, that's too grim.

Oncology...you know, everything that starts with 'oncology' is too grim.

#270 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 09:47 PM:

Xopher (270): Sorry. I didn't mean to hit a tender spot.

Oncology is pretty grim. But I'm very glad the medical specialty exists. For both our sakes.

#271 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2012, 11:56 PM:

So say we all, Mary Aileen. So say we all.

#272 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 12:16 AM:

Xopher @ 270

I think we may be back to "oncology recapitulates phylogeny" ... except that it hasn't quite made it past the "Whoa! We're cells! We're alive! We can divide!" stage.

#273 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 12:40 AM:

O gods, Mary Aileen, I just got your joke! I'm laughing my ass off!

#274 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 01:34 AM:

Back when I was living in California the Red Cross got me donating platelets via apheresis. I haven't managed to bring myself to volunteer to do that (as opposed to whole blood donation) in Houston because the process takes much longer and is hugely more uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Fun facts about the word: it's "ap-heresis" rather than "a-pheresis", and the "heresis" part is related to "heresy".

#275 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 01:45 AM:

Even in math precision is not the end goal, but a means to get it, and one that can be overused. Accuracy is what we try to have, and precision in a result extended beyond the accuracy of the input variables is called "empty precision".

I would claim that ambiguity is a fundamental part of natural language, which is why artificial languages haven't been successful. Aside from the fact that you can't write poetry without ambiguity (and that's important to me), it turns out that useful thinking with analogies and metaphors1 doesn't work without some ambiguity2. Ambiguity allows metaphors to suggest other metaphors, or to blur the details that detract from the metaphor.

1. And I agree with Lakoff that metaphor is the fundamental coin of human language and thought.

2. "Slippage" as Douglas Hofstadter called it in the descriptions of the analogy-making software his Fluid Analogies Research Group created.

#276 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 01:59 AM:

Xopher @ 267

If you're cool, we're cool. No point adding unnecessary stress to things.

#277 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 11:07 AM:

Bruce StM #276: And I remember the first course I took in Engineering talked about the problems with false precision (as well as discussing how precision promulgates under arithmetic, it talked about the fact that a 5.0m piece of steel could be $1000, but a 5.00m piece would be $3000, and a 5.000m piece would be $10000. Is "within 5cm" enough?

"Practical" was the first word we heard in Engineering (we wuz smarter at the end, so it was "Pragmatic" by then), but "accuracy and precision" might have been the next two.

#278 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 12:33 PM:

abi @146: "Greengrocer's Apostrophe" is indeed a pre-existing term, though had it not existed, Jacque is awesome enough to have invented it.

Awwww. ::blush::

Ask me about the year I lived in a whorehouse sometime.

Snerk! When my cat Squeakie came to live with us, I constructed a little open-latticed den out of fruit crates to house his litter box (it did double duty as a end-table, with a fashionable glass top). This, I proudly announced to my parents, was (by analogy to a dog house) a cat house. After they got done snickering, they explained the more common use of the term to me.

Okay, time for my rant: What is up with prepositions, these days? Usage seems to be slipping all over the map. "Different from" becomes "different to" and so on. I deduce that at least part of it is trans-Atlantic leakage (e.g., British usage differs from (ahem) American usage), but usage seems to be even looser than that would account for. Is this just another of those things that have fallen by the wayside in modern usage? (Too early for other examples to come to mind, ahem.)

Bruce Cohen @171: There are unsubstantiated reports of emdash predation on true hyphens.

Not to mention virulent mutations of the rare endash.

Megpie71 @182: You're forgetting the Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys, not to mention the Play-Doh and Sculpey.

"silverette"

Isn't that a form of dinnerware?

Plural "f"s: wolf > wolves

"might could"—"useta was?"

Lee @242: "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."*

Favorite bumper sticker: "Eschew Obfuscation"

* "Breakfast recapitulates phylogeny" —Spider Robinson

Heather Rose Jones @244: The type of precision you seem to be describing is only possible (and only a guarantor of communicative success, in the sense you seem to be intending) if all speakers of a language have exactly the same word-to-denotation/connotation mapping, and if none of those mappings are ambiguous.

::happy wiggle:: Do that some more. :-) (Zathras likes language geekery)

Eric Walker @247: what matters--where the precision is wanted--is in inducing just precisely those thoughts.

Erm...except: the speaker has no way to control the listener's experience, or which of the listener's experience will be brought to bear on the desired thoughts.

A sharp tool can often be used to make ill things; but a dull tool cannot ever make good things.

Nu, you see no use for hammer and anvil, those bluntest of blunt instruments?

#279 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 01:16 PM:

And when you get given food poisoning, phylogeny recapitulates breakfast.

No, I have no recent experience with that.

#280 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 01:59 PM:

Jacque @279

Okay, time for my rant: What is up with prepositions, these days? Usage seems to be slipping all over the map. "Different from" becomes "different to" and so on. I deduce that at least part of it is trans-Atlantic leakage (e.g., British usage differs from (ahem) American usage), but usage seems to be even looser than that would account for. Is this just another of those things that have fallen by the wayside in modern usage? (Too early for other examples to come to mind, ahem.)

Oooh! Ooooh! Pick me! Pick me! This is exactly what my doctoral dissertation was on (although with respect to Medieval Welsh).

The short version (I just deleted the longer version because I don't have examples and citations to hand) is that while the use of prepositions to mark semantic roles associated with other words (especially verbs, but not always as in the case of "different") is influenced both by historic usage and the underlying metaphoric structure of the semantic field of the word, the fact that the prepositions are not operating in concrete senses means that alternation, substitution, and even complete replacement are fairly normal processes over time. In the case of "different from/to" one of the factors that allows variation is that there's really only one possible semantic role that the preposition could be marking (that of the item to which something is being compared). Both "from" and "to", marking endpoints of a path, create the metaphoric understanding of spatial separation with the focus item and its comparand occupying locations at either end of the path.

"From" is perhaps more concretely motivated in this case, since it implies motion of the comparand away from the focal item, resulting in separation. One might think that "to" would be much less motivated (since it implies motion towards the comparand resulting in co-location -- compare "similar to" which does not normally alternate with "similar from"). This is, to some extent, overridden by the general semantic bleaching of "to" to indicate an unmarked relationship between two entities (as witnessed by the many near-grammatical functions it serves).

In short (wait, I said that already and I lied): you can have "different to" because "to" can be understood to carry almost no actual semantic content.

Oops, gotta go to a meeting.

#281 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 02:45 PM:

Fascinating, Heather! That actually makes a lot of sense.

#282 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 03:04 PM:

Heather, that is, as Xopher says, fascinating. I'd love to to hear more. (I think the traditional formulation is "subscribe to your newsletter," though "get the title for your dissertation so I can look it up" would also work.)

#283 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 03:12 PM:

Heather @ 281: That's so clear and intuitive that I am probably protected from "different to" forevermore. Previously this had struck me as a bad case of a distinction without a difference. Of a sudden the flavour is changed.

#284 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 03:26 PM:

What I didn't have time for in the above essay was to note that shifts in preposition choice for semantic role marking is also influenced by analogy (especially noticeable when one preposition starts to infiltrate lots of different semantic contexts, as with "to"). Somewhere in my files is a fascinating article tracking some massive changes in prepositional choice in this type of context in Middle English, when "of" elbowed out a much larger variety of other prepositions, evidently due in part to calquing French uses of "de" in similar contexts.

For those masochistic enough to want to look at my dissertation, you can find a pdf here.

#285 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 04:15 PM:

Jacque, #279: Also calf/calves and half/halves.

#286 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 05:27 PM:

Heather Rose Jones @281: Damn. That actually makes sense. (And in High Geek, to boot!) Cool.

I have sort of vaguely deduced as well that, English being English, we're probably also seeing a certain amount of leakage from other languages that have different relationships to their prepositions, mediated via teh IntarWeebz. (Sort of a more modern variant of @285.)

Still bugs me, though. Them kids; my lawn.

So is anybody tracking the spread InterNese into daily usage, yet?

#287 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 08:12 PM:

Heather, that was really illuminating. Thanks!

It occurred to me this morning that one of the really important uses of good language is precisely to break down inappropriate precision - to try and establish a sense that A and B have something significant in common despite their different particulars. It might be artistic symbolism, or moral and ethical argument, or any of a bunch of things, but in each case the goal is to find language that makes the things under discussion seem less distinct and separate, more parts of some whole, or just more alike, than the audience may have realized.

#288 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 08:33 PM:

Omelas recapitulates Philomelas?

#289 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2012, 09:19 PM:

Apostrophe seen on a sign in Streetview:
Brother's Leal (a woodworking place)

#290 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 09:09 AM:

Heather: So "differentiated from" was when it went hiking off on its own, and "different from" is the result of that hike?

Different from, similar to. Never thought of it before in terms of relative movement. That's wonderful. Thank you!

#291 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 09:10 AM:

Heather: So "differentiated from" was when it went hiking off on its own, and "different from" is the result of that hike?

Different from, similar to. Never thought of it before in terms of relative movement. That's wonderful. Thank you!

#292 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 11:08 AM:

Teresa @291

Yes, with this understanding that this is a motivation not a "rule". And when looking for motivations for word-choice, it's often only in the broad patterns that these things emerge, rather than the individual word behaviors. For example, when looking at part-whole relationships, you can just as easily find language emphasizing the difference (separation) of the part from the conceptual whole (e.g., "a part *of* the whole") as language emphasizing the connection (co-location) of the part and the whole ("to" is used this way, although as noted before, it's a weak argument due to it's semantic bleaching). When looking at the individual expressions, there's a danger of simply making up plausible "just so stories". (Which is why research of the sort I did involves massive corpus analysis.)

#293 ::: Carol Witt ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 01:56 PM:

*student of Middle Welsh language/literature/history geekily downloads the dissertation for future reading*

#294 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 03:16 PM:

Erik Nelson @289, !!!!!

#295 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 05:41 PM:

Creating a profile for the Careers page of a huge organization, I came across this sentence in the Password Restrictions section: "More than three consecutive characters in your password is not allowed."

And no, they don't mean it. The minimum length of a password is eight characters.

Good news about that: they need someone like me to fix crap like this. Bad news: they're almost certainly unaware they do.

#296 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2012, 06:00 PM:

In med school, my third year resident told one of our homeless patients: "Tomorrow we're going to work up your bleeding diathesis." Made perfect sense to me.

The patient was less tolerant of med speak (or less afraid of doctors--good for him!) and said, "Say what, Jack?"

I told the patient, "Tomorrow, we're gonna find out why your blood don't clot."

"Well, why din't ya say so in the first place?"

Then my resident (who was raised in Europe) chided me soto voce for allowing patients to address me by my first name (which is Jackie).

Precision seldom equals communication at least in my profession.

By the way, I didn't answer either of them, just walked away rolling my eyes.

#297 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 02:17 PM:

throwmearope:

Precision seldom equals communication at least in my profession.

IME in the context of doctor-patient relationships precision often results in the opposite of communication, ending with the patient knowing less after the exchange than before.

Usually when Eva or I have to consult with a doctor we both go to the appointment; I spent years working for and with doctors in both clinical and research situations, and she hasn't. Often I will understand things the doctor said that make no sense to her, and she will ask for further explanation when what the doctor said made sense but failed to communicate important information that was of minor importance to the doctor but vital to us.

#298 ::: Nancy ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 02:53 PM:

*bliss at all the grammar-speak* :D :D :D
Everywhere people speak differently, and use different stress on the various syllables; shortening and lengthening vowels, and meaning different things than I mean with the same words.
It's so nice to hear [read] people having a discussion who understand the difference between a verb and a noun!

#299 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 06:57 PM:

@297: I remember my mother telling me a story that ran pretty much the opposite way. She was doing a medical residency in a free clinic in Chicago in the late 1940s, and was told that the clientele didn't always understand medical terms, so use vernacular expressions. So she sat down with this black patient two or three times her age and asked him as professionally as she could, "So, Mr. Something, have you ever, um, had the clap?"

He looked at her wryly and said, "No, ma'am. But I had the gonorrhea."

She felt kinda small, I believe.

#300 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 07:35 PM:

Heather Rose Jones (various): But what about 'different than'? My high school English teacher, a grammarian of the old* school (of the strict prescriptivist based-on-Latin-grammar bent) insisted that 'different from' was a barbarism and only 'different than' is correct.

I've since run into multiple people, most of them here, who were told the exact opposite. ::rueful shrug::

*She retired after my class; I'm fairly sure she started teaching in the early 1930s.

#301 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 11:05 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 301 re: "different than" versus "different from"

While this is a thought-experiment rather than a conclusion based on extensive data, I suspect what we're seeing here is that "different" overlaps semantically with the class of comparative adjectives, which currently take "than" to mark the comparand. If so, then "different than" is likely to be an analogical innovation.

I hesitate to use the dated citations in the OED to try to support this sort of thing because they're known to be far from exhaustive, but the earlier comparative-type uses of "different" tend to take "to", "from" (also more rarely "against", "with") while the use of "than" in this context is first cited in the mid 18th century.

In any case, if age lends authority, there's no reason to scorn either "different from" or "different than". (But then, the theme of this whole thread is that usages are scorned for subjective reasons, not objective ones.)

#302 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2012, 11:39 PM:

*rolls around in delight because of all the cool stuff Heather Rose Jones is posting*

Yummy, yummy word-lore.

#303 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2012, 11:19 AM:

Heather Rose Jones (302): That makes sense. Thanks!

And the thought that Mrs. Davis was advocating the (comparatively) modern, newfangled usage is quite amusing.

#304 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 01:12 AM:

Reading again an offhand reference to abi's passing comment about having lived in a whorehouse, AAAANNND seeing all the ruleslawyering and talking about boundary cases, reminds me of a perhaps interesting little anecdote about why Chicago's universities (of which we have many) do not have fraternity/sorority houses ... except the ones that do. And why.

Back In The Day (when political machines knew how to take care of their voters PROPERLY, darnit), our Tenderloin district became so famous as a red-light brothel-haven of scum and villainy that similar neighborhoods across the country were named for it; ours was called the Tenderloin because it was a little compact area in the middle of all the meat-packing plants.

Alternating mayors would (a) swear to clean up All That Sex And Drinking in the campaign, and then do nothing about it, or (b) complain that City Hall Is Interfering Too Much In Your Perfectly Legal Entertainments, and then do nothing much about the vice. For variety, every once in a while some police squads would make an example of certain troublemakers who hadn't maintained a sufficiently close relationship with their feudal overlords (have I mentioned, Chicago is effectively an elected feudal dictatorship, and has been since the mid-1800s?).

Eventually, the Right-Thinking People of Chicago got sufficiently upset about all this scum and villainy that they got ordinances passed shoving it around into new and less-desirable neighborhoods -- the highlight of this was Mr. Streeter setting up a floating satrapy offshore in the lake and claiming that as he was not on land he was not only not under Chicago's laws, he wasn't even in the United States anymore and could do just as he liked. He got away with it for a while (roughly until the city wanted to turn his domain into landfill and expand into it); the area is now called Streeterville, is significantly inland from the lakeshore, and supports very many apartment towers.

However, because the Scum-And-Villainy supporters could afford quite good lawyers, the scum-exclusion ordinances had to become wider and wider in their phrasing ... for much the same reasons that Ankh-Mopork has a Seamstress' Guild.

As the law currently stands (and has for many decades), the definition of 'brothel' in law in Chicago is so broad that it includes any reasonable implementation of sorority/fraternity houses, as collections of unrelated young unmarried people living together in one facility without paying individual rent to a landlord, and a few other fillips.

However, universities with frat houses that predate the law are grandfathered in, as are universities whose houses were not ON land belonging to Chicago when they were founded (even though the city has since amoebically spread to engulf them). Any Greek clubs old enough and fortunate enough to have such a facility at their disposal must keep it current and occupied continuously (even summer breaks) by some minimum number of residents in order to maintain their grandfathered-ness; if they fall fallow, the exemption is revoked and they cannot institute a new one, because that would be illegal.

#305 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:50 PM:

Is the "different from/than" distinction properly between "different from" and "differently than"? E.g. "Noun A is different from Noun B." vs. "Person A thinks differently than other people do."?

"Different to" just seems wrong - English may have mushed the ablative case into the dative, and both of them together with the accusative, and sometimes handles them with prepositions or sentence position instead of noun/pronoun endings, and dative may be indicated by the preposition "to" while ablative is more likely "from", but still... Using "to" instead of "from" gives me the image of a couple of animals glaring at each other.

#306 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:55 PM:

"You can talk all you want to but it's different than it was!"

So no.

#307 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2012, 09:57 PM:

Oh, also, I forgot to thank Patrick for clarifying who the "them" are that we shouldn't let immanentize the Eschaton. It was him and Melvin. Thanks!

#308 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2012, 07:19 PM:

Bill Stewart @306: Exactly.

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