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Mark Krikorian of the National Review Online is upset that he’s supposed to pronounce Sonia Sotomayor’s last name with the stress on the final syllable:

“Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English […] and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.”

Now, Krikorian is right that final stress is rare in multisyllabic English words.  But it is certainly not unheard of, and it’s certainly not “unnatural”.  Consider these common English words, all of which have final-syllable stress:

  1. personnel
  2. Japanese
  3. volunteer

In fact, according to a study of the subset of English in the Hoosier Mental Lexicon (Clopper 2002), 11% of the multisyllabic words had their primary stress on the final syllable.  By comparison, Wikipedia notes that about 2-6% of the U.S. population has red hair, and around 10% is left-handed.  So if final-syllable stress is unnatural, so’s red hair and left-handedness.

Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that Krikorian isn’t always so obstinate.  I’ll bet he doesn’t go into Victoria’s Secret and ask to buy “lingery” because the pseudo-French pronuciation is too unnatural.  I’d be surprised to hear he refers to a sauté pan as a “soat” pan to avoid that unnatural final stress.  And I’d be shocked if he can’t go to a Starbucks because it’s a café.

What Krikorian is complaining about is having to use a stress pattern that occurs in a full 10% of multisyllabic English words.  He’s looking for an excuse to be lazy, and does a terrible job justifying it with his foray into armchair phonology.

Oh, and Krikorian also whines about “the whole Latina/Latino thing — English dropped gender in nouns, what, 1,000 years ago?”  He’s spot-on there.  That’s why you can say that Brad Pitt is a hunky actress and that Joan of Arc was burnt for being a warlock.  Or that Sonia Sotomayor is an intelligent man and Mark Krikorian is a confused woman.  Right?

On occasion, I look up at the tagline of this blog (“Prescriptivism Must Die”) and wonder if perhaps I’m being too harsh.  But then I read something like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Disagreeable English, and realize that the tagline is, if anything, understating the case.

Fiske seems to believe he is in some sort of competition for the title of King Prescriptivist, and his book seems to be his equivalent of the Eveningwear Competition.  His book flaunts everything that is wrong with prescriptivism: ad hominem attacks, unresearched prescriptions, illogic, wild invective against those who disagree with him.  You might remember his quote that the to no end idiom, which many of you well-educated readers use, is a “bastardization born of mishearing”, when — of course — he presented no evidence for this claim.

In his books, Fiske is a bully who asserts that disagreeing with him or making a simple usage error is evidence of poor mental faculties.  As it is with anyone who argues by bluster and bluff, proving Fiske wrong is an exercise in futility.  It’s like nailing jelly to the wall; you can do it, sure, but he’s just going to ignore the nail of evidence and continue his descent to the floor of absurdity.  It is a complete and utter waste of time.  That said, I haven’t much of a stomach for bullies, and have some time to waste.

Let’s start with an example of a bald assertion made without any effort made to back it up.  Check out this weaselly use of the passive: “Though both words are in common use, normality is considered preferable to normalcy.”  Who considers normality preferable, exactly? Certainly not The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which, by the way, is being sold through Fiske’s website), in which it is written that “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE [American English] as legitimate alternatives.”  This sort of unsourced claim is exactly why everyone’s always up in arms about the passive voice.  This is “mistakes were made” territory.

Most of the book consists of these unjustified ipse dixit proclamations. I can see why; when Fiske does offer justifications, he often contradicts himself. Here’s a line from page 284: “Preventive is preferable to preventative because it has one fewer syllable.” Hey, look, I’m fine with that. Speaking as a light dyslexic, I am all too willing to accept shorter words; there’s less for me to transpose. But a mere 12 pages earlier in the book, Fiske talks about perquisite, which he sneers is “commonly called a perk by the ever-monosyllabic, ever-hasty everyman”. So is conciseness the sign of an efficient mind or a hasty mind?  We are left to wonder.

And then he does the same thing again when talking about one of the only: “Only does not mean two or more; it means one, sole, alone. One of the only then is altogether nonsensical—and further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean.” This is quite incorrect, and there are so many ways to show it — in fact, I did so in a previous post. One could cite the 20-odd pre-1800 usages of the phrase “one of the only” in Google Books, or perhaps the 634 pre-1800 usages of the phrase “the only two“, which surely would be ruled out if only could not possibly refer to two or more objects. One could even go back a bit farther and point out the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation of a plural usage of only in Pecock’s Repressor, printed around 1450. Yes, yes, all of these would be well and good, and would serve to illustrate that there is no historical injunction against only modifying a plural noun. But the particular usages I choose to cite in defense of one of the only are a bit more modern:

(1) “We have words aplenty that mean to annoy; the only other words that mean to aggravate are worsen and exacerbate.”
(2) “[…] the only people inclined to use & in place of and […]” [Italics author’s, boldface mine.]

These usages are from pages 30 and 43 of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Clearly, Fiske himself scarcely knows what only means, since his stated definition doesn’t match his observed usage of plural only.  So if (1) and (2) are fine, why would Fiske object to saying that “worsen is one of the only words that mean to aggravate,” or that “the new copywriter is one of the only people inclined to use &”? It’s beyond me.

All right, enough of that. So Fiske occasionally contradicts himself. Who doesn’t?  So Fiske sometimes doesn’t support his beliefs. Is it fair to excoriate someone for that? In most cases I’d say no. But Fiske is a bully, one who launches vicious ad hominem attacks against the intelligence of other writers. For instance, when Burt Sugar, a boxing writer for the Los Angeles Times decided to get a bit cute, writing of an out-of-shape boxer that he “has gone north–as in north of 250 pounds,” Fiske responded that “Mr. Sugar, like some of the boxers he writes about, has apparently had his ear deformed, his brains addled.” After all, he’s used north of, which Fiske describes as “[i]diotic for more than.” Never mind that I found this usage to actually be rather clever, with its implication that the boxer had metaphorically gone on vacation. Fiske clearly did not, and that makes Sugar an idiot.

Another example: Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, is apparently a fool. After all, he used the wrong tense in this sentence: “If I would have been a publishing house, I would’ve eagerly taken David’s book.” Yeah, it’s not right, but it doesn’t reveal any glaring intellectual deficit, right? Wrong! Fiske writes “Mr. Lowry’s use of would have exposes an inability to reason well—as does his imagining he might conceivably have been a publishing house.” Yep, I’m sure that Lowry was really imagining that.

So if I may be excused for the well-worn phrase, Fiske is really a pot calling a kettle black.  If these writers have addled brains and an inability to reason, then one can scarcely imagine what Fiske has.

One last point, and perhaps the most frustrating one, is that on rare occasions Fiske shows admirable lucidity. For instance, he admonishes one questioner that “[p]erhaps you have trouble understanding why fixing to is improper because—dislike it though you may—it is not improper; it is, as you say, Southern.” Oh, if only that reasonable Robert Hartwell Fiske could sit down and talk to the Fiske who spazzes over Sugar’s north of, or the one who baldly asserts that normalcy is to be avoided.  Maybe then we would have been spared Fiske’s disagreeable complaints.  But instead, we are treated to the vitriol of a crank who views any error, whether large or small, as incontrovertible evidence of the end of English.

Apparently this blog has become sufficiently well-known that I have begun to receive gifts as a result of my writing. I don’t know why anyone would do such a thing, but I greatly appreciate it, because I love nothing more than free things.  (It’s an unfortunate family trait.) Over the past few months, I’ve received a number of grammar books, and slowly it dawned on me that these weren’t truly free gifts; presumably, it would be proper for me to review the books I’ve received. And so I’m starting up a series of book reviews.  If you have a book that you’d like to see reviewed, let me know (motivatedgrammar gmail com).  If you have any thoughts about what you’d like to see in these reviews, also let me know.

The first book I’m going to review is the first one I received: Martha Brockenbrough‘s Things That Make Us [Sic]. Looking at the dust jacket when it arrived, I figured the book was just going to be like the Apostrophe Protection Society’s web page, a series of pictures of grammar errors with condescending finger-wagging. I was pleased to find that it was not a picture-book, but that was about the high point for me.

Brockenbrough, as you may know, is the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. We don’t see eye-to-eye on grammar, so I was expecting to find that I’d mark up the book with red pen, gnashing my teeth all the while.  That expectation was slightly off; while there were points I disagreed with, on the whole her advice was relatively uncontroversial, and she did include the now-obligatory section of debunked grammar myths. There were two points I strongly disagreed with:

  • staunch should not be used as a verb [debunked here]
  • People that I know should always be people who I know [debunked here and here]

Pretty minor disagreements, really.  But then there was the part where for five pages Brockenbrough fantasizes that Justin Timberlake is checked into grammar rehab.  At the climax of the fantasy, Timberlake reports to his grammar therapist that he has found an error in Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone: “When you got nothing, you got nothing left to lose,” notes Timberlake, ought to be “when you‘ve got nothing, you‘ve got nothing left to lose.”

The reader is stunned!  Justin Timberlake, grammatical imbecile, has now been converted into the pedant we’d always hoped he’d be!  His therapist responds, teary-eyed, “That’s where the artistry of the song comes in. […] Dylan is increasing the folsky feel of his song by playing a bit with the verb tenses.”  I have absolutely no objection to that argument.  That’s the point of poetic license, and I think the song would be slightly worse with the change.  But to lionize Dylan for using a grammatical error to relate to his audience after excoriating Timberlake for his grammatical errors strikes me as a bit unfair — especially seeing what happens to Timberlake’s song after Brockenbrough corrects it!  The original lyrics are:

“When you cheated, girl / My heart bleeded, girl.”

You wouldn’t mistake this couplet for Alexander Pope’s work, but it has a nice three-syllable end-rhyme.  That long end-rhyme makes up for the repetition of girl; I think it’s cheap to rhyme two lines by repeating a word, but not if it’s as part of a long rhyme.  I really don’t mind this, and in fact, the use of bleeded strikes me as charming.  But putting my poetic sensibilities aside, here’s Brockenbrough’s preferred form:

“When you cheated, girl / My heart did bleed, girl.”

Oof.  If ungrammaticality is the price we must pay to avoid lines like this, I accept the trade.

The book continues on like this, swapping between basic grammar lessons and these weird excursuses, many of which take the form of letters written by Brockenbrough to those who have incurred the wrath of SPOGG.  As I mentioned above, the points in the grammar lessons were mostly valid.  A few times Brockenbrough overreached in arguing that her usage preferences could be justified by improving clarity, and there was the occasional appearance of the recency illusion (i.e., claiming that some “error” is only recently attested when it’s actually been commonplace for years).  Otherwise, I mostly agreed with her advice — or at least didn’t strongly oppose it — and, again, I did appreciate the mentioning of grammar myths at the end. I would have liked to see more convincing arguments against the myths, of course, but this book wasn’t written with me in mind.  So, in terms of content, the book was alright.  If you’re someone who makes a lot of common grammatical errors, the information is pretty good.  People with pretty decent grammar, though, won’t get much out of it.

But, alas, I’m not here to tell you the book is alright, and that’s because I had two stylistic problems with the book.  I wish these points hadn’t skewed my opinion so much, but these were huge distractions, and are the things that still stick in my craw after putting the book down.  First, the whole book has that creepy but-of-course-I’m-only-joking vibe that makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Some of the jokes were funny, like the proposal that Dekalb, Illinois be renamed “Deka#”. (Pound symbol, “lb”, get it?)  But the self-righteous-haha-it’s-meta! tone of the letters and other excursuses quickly grows tiresome.  For instance, immediately following the discussion that staunch can be a verb, but shouldn’t, there is a letter to Rep. Jay Inslee, condescendingly reprimanding him for using staunch as a verb — even though the previous page said it’s technically acceptable!  The letters aren’t really funny — they’re nagging, they’re awkward, and they usually harp on obvious points, like correcting obvious spelling errors in text messages.  And, outside the letters, there’s this one paragraph where Brockenbrough goes moderately insane, launching ad hominem attacks against people who don’t fawn over apostrophes.  Sure, I get that it’s all probably supposed to be an over-the-top joke, but after two hundred pages of it, it’s hard to believe there’s no truth underlying the jest.

I’d perhaps have been able to overlook this joking-or-am-I? tone of the book if it weren’t for the fact that the whole book is written in first-person plural, or as Brockenbrough calls it when writing to the Queen of England, “the royal we”.  It starts off on page 2, when Brockenbrough writes “As we write, Billboard‘s list of top-selling albums contains two serious spelling errors.” (One of the errors, by the way, is kingz, which I would be reluctant to call serious.) Perhaps there is a ghostwriter to this book, but otherwise, this usage is just weird.  It continues throughout the book; I didn’t notice a single instance of I or me or myself or my in the book, except in quotes or example sentences.  This is also standard practice on the SPOGG website and blog, although not in Brockenbrough’s Encarta column.  I get the idea; Brockenbrough is claiming to speak for the SPOGG as a whole.  Maybe that’s standard practice for people who found organizations and write books — I’ve done neither, so I wouldn’t know.  But when you’re talking about grammar, which is so idiosyncratic, I doubt one can speak for the membership as a whole.  The use of this royal we throughout really grated on me, especially as it felt like a crutch.  It was as though Brockenbrough wasn’t confident enough in her grammatical opinions, and had to constantly imply that other people felt the same way she did.

So, on the whole, the book has some good points: it’s not overly prescriptivist, it argues against some common grammar myths, and it has some decent jokes.  It’s a quick and easy read as well, and does a pretty good job of explaining some less intuitive aspects of grammar.   But those are needles of goodness lost in a haystack of poorly justified condescension, royal wes, only-half-joking tones, and discomfitting fantasies.  It’s like Eats, Shoots and Leaves if Lynne Truss weren’t quite so mean.

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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