Linguistic Change Again

rogersgeorge on October 7th, 2016

I mentioned this topic a while back, but this comic brought it up, so I thought I’d do a repeat. First the comic (The Barn):

The Barn

Okay. The tendency in English is to go from a common pair of words to the same pair hyphenated (this step sometimes gets skipped), and finally to a compound word. It looks like seat belt is making that trip. Writing seatbelt already feels correct, though it’s not in my spell checker yet. Recently Microsoft, in their style guide, changed web site to website. Email used to be e-mail. Pickup truck used to be pick-up truck. Go back a little farther, and today used to be to-day. And today I ran into a new one. Quoting my favorite blogger, Mike Peterson, in Comic Strip of the Day,

…I remember when Ross Perot chose former POW Admiral James Stockdale as his runningmate in 1992, setting up an honorable man for a disastrous face plant.

“Runningmate” is new to me.

Is it a “backup” or a “back-up”? (If you want the verb, it’s back up.) How about “onboard instrument” or “on-board instrument”?  From the October 2016 Scientific American: “present-day abundance,” “empty-handed detection efforts,” “double-edged sword,” “next-generation detectors,” and “so-called WIMP miracle” are still correctly hyphenated. But these are also correct: “the downside is that…,” “upgraded versions,” “a playground,” but what about “dark horse candidate”? Shouldn’t that be hyphenated?

So if you’re in doubt about whether a pair of words should be separate or together, feel somewhat free to combine them. That’s what’s likely to happen eventually anyway.

Which leads to a joke of sorts. German is older than English, and it’s had more time to make compounds; in fact they’re famous for it. The other day, in conversation with a German friend, we ran into this word:


Figure that one out!

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Geek, Curmudgeon, or Nazi?

rogersgeorge on May 1st, 2016

Prefix those three words with “Grammar” and you have the topic of today’s post. You could add a few other terms to the list: expert, teacher, nuisance. But that would make for an awkward title.

What are the differences?  (Yes, I know, it could be “What’s the difference?”)

Grammar Geek—likes grammar, likes to discuss the topic, likes to play with grammar and analyze differences in meaning.

Grammar Curmudgeon—complains about bad grammar in general, often stimulated when he sees instances of the same. Frequently uses the word “harrumpf,” generally more good-natured than he pretends to be. (The female version is a curmudgeonne, but I digress.)

Grammar Nazi—someone who corrects others’ grammar, often without being asked to do so. Most people consider these folks to be rude nit pickers.

Grammar Expert—any of the above if you ask them for their opinion about grammar.

Grammar Teacher—me, a century ago. Most grammar teachers are paid for their service, and have an opportunity to change people’s lives, teaching them how to communicate well, and protecting them from nazis and curmudgeons, but sometimes turning them into geeks.

Grammar Nuisance—I leave this definition as an exercise for the reader.

My thanks to Mike Peterson for (unintentionally) giving me the idea to write this post when he wrote this:

It’s like a columnist using an apostrophe that doesn’t belong, thus offering the Grammar Nazis a chance to fling tomatoes over that instead of over the actual content.”

Comments on a Longish Passage

rogersgeorge on April 21st, 2016

This passage is long, but it contains several gems that I think are worth commenting on. I found it one of my favorite blogs; He was quoting a frontiers in Psychology article:

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases,” which you can tell is serious because it has a colon to introduce the over-long subtitle.

It’s all interesting, but the relevant part today is that, among pop-psych fallacies, they include “Autism Epidemic,” noting:

there is meager evidence that this purported epidemic reflects a genuine increase in the rates of autism per se as opposed to an increase in autism diagnoses stemming from several biases and artifacts, including heightened societal awareness of the features of autism (“detection bias”), growing incentives for school districts to report autism diagnoses, and a lowering of the diagnostic thresholds for autism across successive editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Gernsbacher et al., 2005; Lilienfeld and Arkowitz, 2007). Indeed, data indicate when the diagnostic criteria for autism were held constant, the rates of this disorder remained essentially constant between 1990 and 2010 (Baxter et al., 2015).

To which I will add some amateur analysis that would, no doubt … well … I was going to say “drive them crazy” but let’s just say, “probably upset them.”

  1. Some correct tricky plurals: diagnoses, biases, data, criteria
  2. Pretentiousisms: “as opposed to” instead of “compared with”; and how about using  “more public” instead of “heightened societal”? Maybe the Latin “per se” is a pretentious version of “itself,” but it is, after all, an academic article.
  3. Getting rid of “drive them crazy” and replacing it with “probably upset them” is a good example of replacing metaphorical language with straightforward language.
  4. Actually saying that he was replacing the phrase fits the good-natured humor of the piece. If he were editing something more serious, he would have just gone with the better phrase.

I don’t read all this academic stuff; I found it about a third of the way down this article.

Another Lesson about Less and Fewer

rogersgeorge on April 15th, 2016

You might remember an old post about less and few. (I can’t find it right now, or I’d make a link to it.) The gist of the post is that you use few and fewer with things you count, and less with things you measure. Someone pointed out that you use fewer with plurals, and less with singulars. This latter rule works most of the time, but it stumbles on some things that you measure, but you name them as if you were counting. Time falls into this category. You correctly say

I have less time to finish my assignment; about 30 minutes less than I had before.

Here’s an example where it’s correct to use fewer with a singular, though I think you could get away with using less. This is from one of my favorite columnists, Mike Peterson, he of Comic Strip of the Day.

It’s still a good cartoon, however, because, each time a PP clinic closes, that’s one fewer place for women who do seek a safe abortion.

So it’s counting, but only one thing. It qualifies under both rules. You pays your money and you takes your pick.

Prove that rule!

rogersgeorge on February 24th, 2014

I’m pretty sure I mentioned this in the past, but I found a good example, and the idea is worth repeating. Besides, the guy who made the mistake (and he might have made it on purpose. He is, after all, literate.) is a worthwhile daily read. First, here’s the quote:

So, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to show you what is actually not the exception that proves the rule, because in this brilliant animated piece, Rina Piccolo not only does none of those things I object to, but she makes me laugh aloud several times and generally delivers not only a bravura performance on its own but a model of how to avoid undermining good cartooning in a cross-media interpretation:

The source is Mike Peterson’s for February 19, 2014. Mike and I are alike in that we both like to use comics to illustrate whatever point we want to make, though I generally limit myself to matters of writing, and his topics fare far farther. The mistake is the expression “the exception that proves the rule.”

To prove in the expression “proving a rule” is an old usage meaning to test, not show. You might remember this usage from the book of Malachi 3:10, where God says “Prove me now herewith…” about tithing.  (This, by the way is the only place in the Bible where God invites us to test Him.) You can find a few other examples of prove meaning to test in the King James Version, but that passage is the most famous.

So making an exception tests whether something is actually a rule, or merely a suggestion. Break the rule, and if you get into trouble for it, it’s a rule. If not, then it’s not.

My advice: If you’re going to make an allusion to an old idiom, use it correctly. Otherwise, use plain English.