You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘philosophy’ category.
I’ve re-read an old column by Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor (a job title I would not have thought existed), discussing a complaint that Noam Chomsky committed a linguistic error by using anticipate in place of expect.
The column was a rollercoaster for me, because my many interactions with honest-to-goodness prescriptivists has rendered me unable to detect well-crafted satires until it’s too late. I swallowed Chivers’s faux stance, clucking my tongue all the while, only to realize at the end, pulling into the station, that there was no real danger there at all. In fact, I felt pretty happy for having read it.
But I had committed myself to becoming miserable from reading something, and in the idiotic hopes of providing that misery, I proceeded to the comments. Why do I do this? Is it some misguided penance for imagined crimes? Well, whatever, here’s a comment:
“Thinking of ’10 items or less’ reminded me of another sign of the times, ‘this door is alarmed’ – alarmed, presumably, by the widespread misuse of the English language.”
Maybe I’ve been suckered once again, and that’s not a complaint from the commenter — but it probably is. And if so, it’s a foolish one; alarmed here is a predicative adjective formed from the past participle of the verb alarm. This sort of functional shift is really common in English, and very productive (by which I mean that it can be generated on the fly and with a wide range of verbs). And it doesn’t cause any distress in other instances, such as “the trap is set”, “the painting is finished”, “the parking meters are bagged”, “the door is locked”, and so on.
It’s not a hard thing to notice that there isn’t really anything unusual or wrong about this sign. I mean, yeah, I can see thinking at first “hmm, that’s an odd turn of phrase.” But it really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that it’s nothing unordinary. And in general, a lot of the misguided complaints I see are ones where a small amount of thought will reveal that, if the construction isn’t obviously right, it at least isn’t obviously wrong.
Which is a little bit weird, isn’t it? So many of the complaints about grammar are based on this idea that people are saying things without thinking about them (e.g., you’re and your) or saying things only because they hear other people saying them and thus assume they’re acceptable. But in fact, that’s just what the complainers are doing; either they’re not thinking at all and just repeating the condemnation they heard from some some authority figure, or they are thinking, but only in order to amass evidence against the usage.
If you want to be an authority on language — and especially if you’re really as devoted to improving and protecting the language as so many people say they are — then you can’t fall prey to the knee-jerk “doesn’t sound right to me” reaction. You can’t decide you want to complain about a usage and then sit and think only about reasons to discredit it. And, similarly, you can’t do the opposite, deciding that you want to accept something and then only looking for reasons to accept it.* If you can’t do that, then you’re as lazy about policing the language as you think others are about using it.
*: This is a problem that is much rarer, of course, but I’ll confess to the occasional attack of it when I attempt to argue that some rare or confusing bit of my dialect ought to be considered standard in formal written prose just because it sounds fine to me. “What do you mean we shouldn’t use positive anymore here? You’re trampling my linguistic heritage!”
This blog was linked to a while ago in a Reddit discussion of uninterested and disinterested. (My opinion on them is that uninterested is restricted to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “impartial”, and that’s an opinion based on both historical and modern usage. In fact, despite the dire cries that people are causing the two words to smear together, it actually looks like the distinction between them is growing over time.)
The reason I bring this up again is that one of the Redditors was proposing that having a strong distinction could make sense, because:
“Some people draw a distinction between disinterested and uninterested. There is nothing to lose and perhaps subtlety to be gained by using that distinction yourself. Therefore observing the distinction should always be recommended.”
But I’ve already asked my question about this in the title: is there really nothing to lose? Is there no cost to maintaining a strict distinction between words? Or, more generally, is there no cost to maintaining a grammar rule?
Well, in a myopic sense, no, there’s nothing much to lose by having the rule. In the case of uninterested and disinterested, it would be hard to argue that not being able to use disinterested to mean “unconcerned” is a substantial loss. It can be done, though: I, for instance, am a great lover of alliteration, and as a result, I like to have synonyms with as many different initial letters as possible. There’s a cost, small though it may be, to not having disinterested available as I’m constructing sentences. But that’s a triviality.
A more substantial consequence is that it introduces a discontinuity in the historical record. If we decide that from now on disinterested only means “impartial”, then historical and current uses of the “unconcerned” sense will be opaque to people taught the hard-and-fast rule. That’s problematic because, despite the belief of some people that this is an illiterate usage, it’s actually common even for good writers to use. This, again, isn’t a big problem; we regularly understand misused words, especially ones whose intended meanings are very close to their actual meanings. Saying that we can’t have a rule of grammar because sometimes it isn’t followed is the sort of whateverism that people accuse descriptivists of, not a reasonable concern.*
No, the true cost is a higher-level cost: the overhead of having another distinction. This might also seem trivial. After all, we have tons and tons of usage rules and distinctions, and a lexical distinction like this is really little more than remembering a definition. But let me illustrate my point with an example I recently saw on Tumblr (sorry for the illegibility):
The distinction here is well-established: affect is almost always the verb, effect almost always the noun.** Yet here we see that it is costly to maintain the distinction. First, it’s costly to remember which homophone goes in which role. Second, it’s costly to make an error, as people may mock you for it. Third, it’s very easy to get it wrong, as the replier did here.
If there were really no downside to adding an additional rule, we’d expect to see every possibly useful distinction be made. We’d expect, for instance, to have a clear singular/plural second-person distinction in English (instead of just you). I’d expect to see an inclusive/exclusive first-person plural distinction as well, as I sometimes want to establish whether I’m saying we to include the person I’m speaking to or not. The subjunctive wouldn’t be disappearing, nor would whom.
But all distinctions are not made. In fact, relatively few of the possible distinctions we could make at the word level are made. And that suggests that even if the reasons I’ve listed for not maintaining a lot of distinctions aren’t valid, there must be something that keeps us from making all the distinctions we could make.
So next time someone says “there oughta be a rule”, think about why there isn’t. Rules aren’t free, and only the ones whose benefits outweigh their costs are going to be created and maintained. The costs and benefits change over time, and that’s part of why languages are forever changing.
*: Of course, if the distinction is regularly violated, then it’s hardly whateverist to say that it doesn’t exist.
**: Affect is a noun in psychology, effect a verb meaning “to cause” that is largely reviled by prescriptivists.
A woman drove past me recently in a car with a license plate holder reading “ALUMNI — BOSTON COLLEGE”. It’s a perfectly standard thing to have on one’s car — although BC was a bit of a surprise given that I’m in San Diego –, but it also presented a minor choice point in my day. I could either think of it as totally unremarkable and move on, or I could fret over its grammaticality.*
The problem with the license plate holder is a minor one that you’d easily never know if you’re unfamiliar with Latin. I was unaware of it until college, and even then it was perhaps only because I went to a school so fond of Latin as a scholarly language that our degrees were not BAs but ABs (Artium Baccalaureus instead of Bachelor of Arts) and our diplomas were written entirely in Latin.**
Anyway, the problem is that alumni is, at least in Latin, plural. Furthermore, it’s masculine (or mixed-gender). For a single graduate, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnus for a male or alumna for a female. And for multiple female graduates, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnae.
I imagine many of you readers already knew that, but maybe you didn’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t. Why? Because I can’t help noticing it. I suspect that a majority of the English speaking population doesn’t think that alumni has even the hint of inherent plurality about it. I’m looking at the Corpus of Contemporary American English right now, and there are 70 hits for “an alumni”, 61 of them in writing.*** That’s more common than “an alumna” and “an alum”, and only 29 hits less than “an alumnus”. Quite simply, singular alumni is standard in all but the most formal of Englishes, and I’m not sure it’s non-standard even there.
Why is singular alumni standard? Because it fits better with English. We don’t really like gender on our nouns (at least not anymore — Old English was fond of it). And we don’t really care about adjusting the plurality of borrowed words, especially not from Latin — see agenda or stamina. Rather than having to remember a fairly idiosyncratic gender/number system, it’s easier to treat alumni as a base singular form with a zero-plural, just like strong ol’ Germanic words like sheep or fish. And it saves university bookstores from having to stock four different license plate holders.
To return to the point of the opening paragraph, I can’t, much as I’d like to, stop myself from correcting singular alumni. It’s not even like it’s a choice, or a conscious decision — I see singular alumni, and my brain says “alumnus” or “alumna”. That much is automatic.
Where the choice comes in is whether I say something about it or judge people for it. In almost every situation, I don’t. For seemingly everybody, singular alumni is acceptable. For many of the rest, they’re okay when it’s used in a reasonable situation (such as when you don’t know the gender of the person buying the item). It’s only in very formal or very edited English (or around close friends who I think will be interested) that I would raise the issue. In other situations, bringing it up would just seem like an attempt to show off my passing familiarity with Latin, which would be a especially pathetic boast.
This is not linguistic whateverism. I’m not saying that editing is stupid or that nothing should be corrected. Editing, I can’t stress enough, is critical. But my point is that for all of you who insist that, say, it’s for its kills you and you can’t stop yourself from correcting it: yes, you can. We’re not beasts; we have self-control. When it’s something trifling, or in an ephemeral setting, or clearly not indicative of a larger ignorance of the language, you can and should let it pass. You’ll be happier for it, and you might even see a drop in your overall peevishness levels.
*: This is a false dichotomy; there is clearly a third way — to base a blog post upon it, thereby spending far more effort than if I had been content to simply complain about its grammaticality. Given that I’m going to berate that choice as a foolish use of one’s time, I’m aware of the irony in mine.
**: In fact, we are so enamored of traditional uses of Latin that to this day the salutorian of the class delivers their graduation speech entirely in Latin. The graduating seniors are given a copy of the speech in both Latin and English, with the Latinate portion marked for where to laugh, cheer, applaud, etc. I don’t think the rest of the audience is given this cheat sheet, thereby creating the illusion that we all speak Latin fluently enough to understand it in oratorical form.
I know, it sounds stupid and pretentious and ridiculous, and it is. But it was also great silly fun to overlaugh at something incomprehensible, sort of like being a member of a studio audience clapping at “APPLAUSE” signs must be. I highly recommend you petition your alma mater to do the same.
***: Many of these are in noun-noun compounds like “an alumni club” or “an alumni trustee”, where the grammatical number of alumni is unclear. Though my original intuition is that it’s being thought of as plural in these cases, English does tend to disprefer plural first nouns in noun-noun compounds (cf. mousetrap, cowcatcher, leafblower). Also, if one were to replace alumni in these compounds with some standardly pluralized noun like student, it’d be “student club”, not “students club”. Thus, I’m inclined to think of these examples as further, though weaker, evidence of singular usage alumni.