Linguistic change

rogersgeorge on January 26th, 2014

This comic,um, literally addresses an issue I mentioned not so long ago, so I won’t go into that. It also addresses another issue–linguistic change. As a technical writer, I am tempted to wish that language didn’t change. Eliminating the ambiguity of having new meanings for words would certainly make it easier to be understood. I think this is the rationale for the French Academy, which is infamous for its insistence that the French language not change.

But language has to change over time. After all, the world changes over time. New ideas mean neologisms (and if you know what neologism means, I don’t need to explain this to you). A principle in linguistics is that all languages are sufficient. That is, for their environment. A corollary of this is that when something new comes along, we make or borrow a word for it.

Language also changes for less justifiable reasons, and that’s what makes me roll my curmudgeonly eyes.

Let’s look at the comic, from January 17, 2014:

Basic InstructionsDefinition creep is a neologism, by the way, derived perhaps, from “scope creep,” a term you hear too often in software development circles. The comic dances around the point, dear to my heart, that if you mush around the meanings, you can lose the use of perfectly good words. If if “literal” and “figurative” both mean “figurative,” how can you say that something is literal? Here’s another example: nauseous means “making one want to throw up,” and nauseated means feeling like throwing up. Both ideas are useful (in the right context), so don’t make both words mean the same thing.

We’re going to lose a lot of these battles, but I recommend that when you write, you exercise care to use the right word. In fact, here’s some evidence that we’re going to lose the nauseous/nauseated battle. The character speaking in the center panel is one of the intellectuals in the Luann Strip (Nov 9, 1998).


On the other hand, perhaps Greg Evans has already gone over to the dark side. This one is from 1992.


One last comment: Note that the guy on the left in Basic Instructions said “…in a recent dictionary.” It’s been a running battle in the lexicographical world whether dictionaries should prescribe the “correct” meaning, or merely describe what people are saying, without casting judgement. Currently the trend is toward being merely descriptive. Alas.

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Case again

rogersgeorge on January 8th, 2014

I know I mention case a lot, but I like to post comics about grammar, and I happened to run into one that uses case both correctly and incorrectly in a construction that can be tricky to get right—comparison. First the comic.

Basic Instructions

I like Scott Meyer’s work because of his clever humor. Apparently that’s Scott on the right. I don’t know if the fellow on the left represents an actual person, but usually he’s the one who makes the mistakes. This time he gets it right and Scott makes the mistake. Look at the first speech.

I heard the boss yelling. Did you tell him that you’re smarter than him again?

Remember the last post, about copulatives and predicate nominatives? Yup, he should have said “…you’re smarter than he.” The uncompressed sentence is “…that you are smarter than he is.” “He” sounds correct now, doesn’t it?

Go to the last cell, first speech.

Why shouldn’t I be able to tell people that I’m smarter than they?

“They” is correct! The expanded sentence is “…I am smarter than they are.” Sounds right, doesn’t it?

As a footnote, I should point out that the captions on to two last cells use “its” and “it’s” correctly. But you noticed that, didn’t you?

An unlikely place for a grammar goof

rogersgeorge on November 20th, 2011

I read the funnies. They were my favorite part of the daily paper when I was a kid, and now I read them online regularly. I recently realized  that I never see a mistake in grammar in a comic unless the mistake is deliberate. Many strips have a row of buttons underneath so you can look at earlier or later episodes. Even the button that you click to see the previous comic is correct. It says “Previous,” not “Prior.”

What caused me to realize the rarity of grammar mistakes in comics was when I saw one recently. Scott Meyer writes a very funny comic. His comic, Basic Instructions, is one of my favorites. The humor is at once subtle, and to me, anyway, hilarious.

Full disclosure: He fixed the goof. If you go to his site, you'll see the corrected version.

You see the mistake, right? (It’s the first “you’re” in the last panel.) A lot of people mix up words that sound alike, and getting “your” and “you’re” wrong is a favorite for sixth-grade English teachers to pounce on. In Scott’s case, I’m pretty sure it was a slip of the fingers since he’s obviously a professional.

The lesson here is to proofread your writing. Make sure you don’t accidentally write something you don’t intend.