Soon, a new English Today interactive feature will become available, first online and later in print. This time, the topic will be flat adverbs. Please let us have your views on the flat adverb by filling in the brief survey on the subject. And there are other surveys as well for which we would greatly appreciate your input!
Linguists often debunk language prescriptions on the basis of their inaccuracy and their authors’ misunderstandings of linguistic concepts (see our comments on Heffer’s Strictly English). One of the most commonly confused and wrongly exemplified prescriptions is the one against passive constructions, the so-called passivophobia. Language Log’s Geoff Pullum, Mark Lieberman and Arnold Zwicky have diligently recorded and discussed many instances of the wrongly defined and exemplified passive constructions in the period between 2003 and 2013 in 72 blog entries (and counting). Pullum (2014) went on to publish a full-length article Fear and Loathing of the English Passive in the journal Language and Communication. Examples of passivophobia gone wrong include Michael Gove’s memo on letter writing:
Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this Government.
The BBC’s News Styleguide (2003):
There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths. Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
and the fourth edition of the Elements of Style (2000):
There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. Dead leaves covered the ground.
None of the underlined sentences includes a passive construction. Existential clauses (There were riots…) in particular seem to be subject to wrong analyses.
Another type of an error found in prescriptive corrections runs even closer to the surface – the incorrection – a correction that includes a mistake itself. To explain how incorrections work John Bangsund (1992) of the Victorian Society of Editors in Australia introduced Muphry’s Law, the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s law, which he defines in four points:
- if you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written,
- if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book,
- the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault,
- any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.
Here is an example taken from the recently published Style manual for amendments to bills of the UK’s Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and Cabinet Office spotted by a Twitter user:
Many more examples are available if you look up #MuphrysLaw on Twitter.
For more instances of prescriptive fallacies, you can tune into British Council’s YouTube channel and listen to the talk by Michael Rundell, editor-in-chief of the Macmillan Dictionary. He discusses the extreme prescriptivists’ lack of consideration for register variation, introduction of etymological and logical fallacies, and made up rules (including further discussion on passivophobia).
What are your favourite examples of prescriptive advice gone wrong?
Tell us in the comment section below!
For Joan Beal, to commemorate her retirement, and to celebrate her wonderful research over the years!
Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid and Viktorija Kostadinova (2015), Have went – an American usage problem. English Language & Linguistics 19/2, 293-312).
And lots of other interesting papers.
The former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been appointed Lord Chancellor and Secretary of Justice, has been criticised for ‘patronising’ civil servants with his take on grammar. As an English graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, Gove is known not to play coy when voicing his opinion on correct usage. In 2013, he instructed civil servants in the Department for Education by providing his 10 golden rules. Now, he is back again with his grammatical ‘preferences’ which include avoiding impact as a verb and starting sentences with however, using contractions such as doesn’t or don’t as well as the word ensure.
Intrigued by this, the Independent looked at some articles which Gove wrote for The Times during his time as a journalist and found that, despite his disapproval of starting sentences with however, Gove doesn’t strictly follow his own rule.(Or should I say does not?)
What is interesting, however, are not just his 10 golden rules, but also the reactions towards these rules, such as a source in Whitehall quoted in the article states: “It does feel like the sort of thing someone would do when they have too much time on their hands.” What do you think about his 10 golden rules? Are they the product of a man with too much time on his hands?
The sixth installment in the Bridging the Unbridgeable series of interactive features was published in the June 2015 issue of the English Today journal. In this feature, we ask readers to contribute to investigating the issue of the non-literal, intensifier use of literally, one of the most common pet usage peeves nowadays.
Examples such as I’ll literally turn your world upside down, where literally is used to emphasise a metaphorical or hyperbolic expression are seen as problematic by many, and are the subject of numerous articles, memes, and running jokes in popular sitcoms, such as Archer and Parks and Recreation.
Despite proscriptions against its use, the intensifier literally is becoming more and more common and it is increasingly difficult to dismiss the occurrence of such instances merely as language abuse. An important factor in this process of language change, as noted by Claridge, may be the affective component in the intensifier use of literally.
Once we go beyond the proscriptive comments on literally, and focus on the language change aspects of this use, a host of other questions gain relevance, not only because literally is an interesting case semantically, but also because it is prescriptively targeted. Have attitudes to this usage changed under the influence of its increased use? Do speakers associate this usage with particular styles of speech or groups of people? To investigate these and related questions further, I created a short survey included in the English Today feature. Make sure to read the text, available both through the English Today website and on our blog), and let us have your thoughts on the subject!
This is an important question in the context of this project, but it will be one that I have come to decide is impossible to answer. Unfortunately, and (perhaps, for some) frustratingly so.
One important tool (or so I thought originally) to try and answer this question is the ten-page “Timeline of Books on Usage” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009). But the problem with the list is that everything is lumped together indiscriminately: “dictionaries of usage … discursive treatments of the subject … [books with] usage glossaries within them” (p. 925). Bryan Garner already very helpfully answered my question on whether English As She Is Taught, by Caroline LeRow (New York, 1887) is a usage guide or not (it isn’t, he tweeted: many thanks for the quick answer, Bryan!). But surely I can’t ask him to help me classify the items on his list into usage guides and studies on usage!
I do think this would be a really good idea though for a next edition of the book, for which it is probably about time, as doing a little arithmetic suggests – 1st edition: 1998, 2nd edition: 2003; 3rd edition: 2009; 4th ed.: 2016?.
Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains a lengthy list of works dealing with English usage, studies as well as usage guides. Very useful for our project! There is one item which I can’t quite classify offhand as belonging to either of these categories: English As She Is Taught, by Caroline LeRow (New York, 1887). There is a copy of the book for sale on eBay, but before I order it, I’d like to know if this is a usage guide or not.
The question is really for Bryan Garner, because he may have seen it when he decided to include it in his list. But I’d be happy with an answer from anyone else. And also, if anyone knows more about this writer.