The Badges of Pride

WHO doesn't have their own little language peeve? 'Literally' should be reserved for literal situations; there are plenty of ways to intensify a statement rather than saying, 'We literally walked a million miles.' 'To beg the question' is an old term from logic that means 'to assume one's own conclusion in an argument'; today, most people use it to mean 'to prompt the question'. Two clauses connected by a comma, the 'comma splice', is jarring in good writing; people should avoid it.

But some people take peeves to another level entirely. They choose words or phrases that have a widely understood, long-standing second meaning, and treat the second, perhaps metaphorical or new meaning, with a shocked seriousness that should be reserved for the apocalypse.

Someone has recently created a new Twitter account, @over_morethan, dedicated to the idea that 'over' may not be used with numbers: one thing may physically only sit over another thing, in this view. But to write, as The Economist has recently, of 'over two-thirds', 'over 150 fellows of the Royal Society' or 'over a year' is to take a pure preposition and debase it with metaphorical usage. The purists would say that these should be 'more than two- thirds', 'more than 150 fellows' and 'more than a year'.

And it wasn't just @over_morethan. Using 'over' with numbers was even banned by the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, which many American newspapers use as their own, and which thus gives it a kind of sanctified status. According to one account, there was an audible gasp at the meeting of the American Copy Editors' Society when AP announced that it was abandoning the 'rule'. Never mind that, as Jonathan Owen, an editor, pointed out, languages from Swedish to ancient Greek can use their 'over' preposition in exactly the same way, or that 'over' has been used like this for centuries in English. Some people are quite simply attached to this pseudo-rule - no 'over' with numbers - and they have treated AP's more-than-justifiable abandonment as a lowering of intellectual standards.

Then take Bryan Henderson, a man who has 'corrected' tens of thousands of Wikipedia articles, removing 'comprised of'. His rationale was that a 'whole comprises the parts', so the phrase 'comprised of' is meaningless gobbledygook probably inspired by confusion with 'composed of'. If it is meaningless, a lot of native speakers seem to disagree: the phrase turns up almost 4,000 hits on The Economist's website and 63m results on Google. Odd that a meaningless phrase can be used so meaningfully by so many people.

The case for making language rules based on how speakers actually use their language - rather than a dreamed-up ideal for how it should be used - is straightforward. Language is an arbitrary system of signs agreed on by a community. If English-speakers agree that the sound 'dog' should go with a barking four-legged mammal, then that ends the discussion about what a 'dog' is.

Most English-speakers have no problem with 'over' plus a number. The anonymous Twitter pundit has clearly enjoyed herself (it turned out to be a woman, even though in Johnson's experience it is men who complain most about grammar), correcting the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsweek, along with AP, for using 'over' with a number. It does not seem to have occurred to her to wonder why such a variety of publications - which agree on barely anything else - should agree that 'over' can be used with a number. And they can hardly be accused of confusing their readers. The same could be said for the thousands of Wikipedia editors that Mr Henderson has corrected - nearly all highly educated native-speakers keen on sharing knowledge. They know their readers will understand; who says they cannot use their language properly?

Language change happens slowly. 'Over' with a number seems to have ancient roots; 'comprised of' began rising in English books more than (or is that 'over') a century ago; and nobody is confused by either. Of Johnson's own peeves, it seems that careful writers still mostly use 'literally' literally - something worth fighting for. But 'to beg the question' meaning 'to prompt the question' is fully mainstream. It is all well and good to oppose a change that has not yet taken hold, or one that still confuses people. But when the language has truly moved on, so should its guardians.

(Economist 4 June 2016)




What you already knew - Grammar Nazis are really just snobs English For The Natives


What is right and wrong? Grammar Nazis have superstitious ideas about how language should work

AA Gill on Grammar

Those little things, the slips of coherence and exactitude that drive you mad, like breathless sportsmen saying they're 'giving it 1000%', or people who declare they're 'disinterested' when they are, in fact, uninterested. Or pronouncing 'harassed' with the stress on the second syllable when it ought to be on the first, or talking about 'legs akimbo' when only arms have elbows and therefore can be akimbo. And on and on and on, and so forth fulsomely, which, incidentally, means both generous and insincere, and is the only example I can find of a word literally committing suicide by definition.

You know what you have to do about all of them: bite your lip, suck it up, zip it. Correcting other people's grammar is a worse solecism than misplacing words, solecism meaning both a grammatical fault and a lapse in manners. It's not the same as solipsism, which is what most grammatical pedants suffer from: a belief that only what they consider correct matters. They are etymological maypoles - definition and words revolve around them. Well, they don't. Language is as happy snogging the mouths of those who misuse it as those who wear a jacket and tie to declaim it, but there are things, inexactitudes in the veracity that I simply cannot let go. Not grammar but factoids that slip from one argument to the next without anyone patting them down in cerebral security, like those social epidemiologists who want to shame ingredients and the people who eat them. A doctor writes that sugar should be treated like tobacco and taxed, rationed, then banned because it costs the health service millions to treat people who suffer from sugar addiction. We're all too sweet and it should be thought of like alcohol and drugs. Well, as someone who's been addicted to both alcohol and drugs, let me tell you, it's not the same.

The Rules

Feb 22
William Flew’s comes with a dressed watercress and grated horseradish salad and is essentially two smallish slices of white bread with a strip of rib-eye running through. The bread has been compressed, making it chewier while looking less like a sandwich and more like a cake. For the first time I use the knife and fork provided. The anchovy butter elevates it from beef in bread to something with real piquancy and zest. The bread-to-filling ratio is just right. It’s posh, it isn’t democratic, it hasn’t transcended class and culture — but I really like it. Maybe I should stop worrying about the credentials of a sandwich, and just enjoy? The Mount Street Deli, in Mayfair, offers a take-out service. I order a lobster and pickled cucumber on a toasted brioche bun with wasabi mayonnaise. It comes, wrapped in wax paper, in a sturdy brown cardboard box and costs £12.80. It doesn’t feel like eating a sandwich, it’s like taking part in an event. It’s good. The lobster is tasty and fresh, but I can’t help but feel that, when the filling is such high quality, the bread smothers the taste. Call me a chav, but I think I’d prefer to have the filling on a plate, with a bread roll alongside. Poshness in a sandwich depends on the details. Hence the bacon sarnie becomes posh when we’re told the breed of pig. An ordinary sandwich will contain mere butter, a posh one will use unsalted, Normandy butter, made with milk from the herd of Charolais cattle kept in pastures outside Bayeux. The bread, which will usually be sourdough, will be intricately cut and certainly won’t contain more than two crusts. It’ll come with cutlery. So ... yes: you can dress it up all you want, but a sandwich is a sandwich. It’s good when it’s good and not because it’s posh. Like my friend’s mum’s egg mayonnaise sandwich, sometimes it simply does its job.

Nov 8
6 William Flew Another “rescue” story that ends up in bed. Andromeda has been chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Perseus, flushed from his recent success in eliminating the Gorgon, Medusa (the one with a look able to turn anyone to stone), kills the sea monster and marries Andromeda. The art they inspired: Frederic Leighton, Perseus and Andromeda Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 7 William Flew mother and, in one of those curious mythological unions, the lover of Jupiter. Although she is in prison, Jupiter manages to impregnate her in the form of a shower of gold. It proved a challenging story to represent convincingly on canvas. The art they inspired: Auguste Rodin, Danaïd (sculpture) Musée Rodin, Paris 8 William Flew Another of Jupiter’s mistresses. He seduces her by taking the form of a little white bull. As soon as young Europa goes to pat the creature and climb on it back, she is whisked away. The art they inspired: François Boucher, The Rape Of Europa Wallace Collection, London 9 William Flew The heroine of another bovine story. Jupiter has his way with this girl in the form of a cloud, then turns her into a heifer to hide her from his wife Juno. But Juno asks for the beast as a gift. The art they inspired: Correggio, Jupiter and Io Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 10 William Flew The anti-hero of the classic story of youthful bad driving. He’s the child of the sun god who persuades his father to let him drive the sun’s chariot through the heavens. He crashes it, nearly burning up the Earth in the process.