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I had so much fun doing a Christmas-themed post last week that I found myself compelled to follow it up with another holiday-themed post. This time it’s Nochevieja y el Día de Año Nuevo, or as people who aren’t still giddy from managing to pass the first quarter of undergraduate Spanish might call them, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.* The obvious question, as with so many holidays, is whether there’s an apostrophe, and if so where it goes. New Year’s is pretty easy; unlike other holidays, there’s only one new year revelant on that day, so neither New Years Day nor New Years’ Day work, because they suggest more than one new year is starting. (This issue of multiple new years was the subject of a brilliant satirical post last year.) The correct version being New Year’s Day is confirmed in Title 5, Section 6103 of the U.S. Code, and the Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1971 in the U.K.

So maybe New Year’s Day is a bit boring. Where the real fun comes is when you try to pluralize New Year’s Day. Suddenly you have multiple new years, so New Years Days and New Years’ Days become reasonable possibilities again. Since all three are fairly reasonable, the matter would seem to be one of personal taste. If you’re the sort of person who likes to pluralize early in the construction of complex noun phrases, the sort to say things like passers-by or Attorneys General, then go ahead as pluralize the year before possessivizing, netting New Years’ Days. You’ll be in the company of G. E. Sargent and the Charles-Dickens-edited weekly Household Words. If you’re the sort to treat set phrases as a single word, preferring passer-bys and Attorney Generals, leave it as New Year’s Days. It’s been seen in the weeklies Every Saturday (1873) and the Charles-Dickens-Jr.-edited All the Year Round (1894). If you’re indecisive, omit the apostrophe to avoid having to go one way or the other. That’s done by David Jennings (1730) and others, but this approach seems much rarer than either of the apostrophized versions.

Which version’s “right”, though? I think you all know me well enough to know that I’ll defer on that point.

*: It’s sort of sad that I consider this a substantial accomplishment, what with being in my fourth year in a linguistics doctoral program, and given the fact that a moderately intelligent four-year-old could do the same thing if raised in a Spanish-speaking home.

I spent the day today walking around the suburbs of Pittsburgh, soaking up the cold and the snow as best I could, storing it away mentally to be recalled throughout the long bright winter in San Diego. And with the all the lights, signs, and half-inflated Santas, well, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Or might one say Xmas?

One might of course, but in so doing one runs the risk of offending a few people. For instance, these folks, who view the use of Xmas as a way for the secular to omit Christ from Christmas. This is a widely held belief, and one that people often feel strongly about; a search for “Christmas not Xmas” on Facebook netted 200 groups and 34 pages pushing for use of the word Christmas instead of Xmas. It’s even led to poetry:

We surely would not write “X-ian”
For the Christians here on earth,
Then why do many write “X-mas”
For the day of the Savior’s birth?

But, as so often happens, the poem is mistaken. There is nothing devious or censorious about Xmas, or even Xian for that matter; X is an old abbreviation for Christ. And when I say old, I mean old: 900 years old in English, and 1700 in Latin/Greek.

In fact, it all goes back to the Roman Emperor Constantine I, best known for his giant marble head, his founding of Constantinople, and his much-publicized acceptance of Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. After the battle, Constantine adopted the labarum — ☧, a juxtaposition of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) as a symbol for Christ — as his monogram. Although the symbol ☧ itself and the abbreviation XP pre-dated Constantine, it was his use of them that really launched them to prominence.

So why use “Chi-Rho” anyway? Well, it’s an abbreviation for “Christ”, which in Greek is “Χριστός”. Note those first two letters, chi and rho. That means people have been abbreviating Christ with an X (or an XP) for 1700 years. In fact, these sorts of abbreviations and word games were something of a calling card of the early Christian church. The “Jesus fish” so prevalent on on the back-ends of cars has “ΙΧΘΥΣ” inside of it, an acrostic for the ancient Greek “ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ”, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior”. Before it became a foot soldier in the bumper sticker wars, this acrostic was used as a marker in the early Christian underground. Other common abbreviations — also known as Christograms — include the INRI (from the Latin for “Jesus Nazarene, King of the Jews”) on crucifixes, the IHS (from the first three letters in “Jesus” in Greek) on tombstones, or the contracted nomina sacra in early Greek scriptures. These abbreviations are throwbacks to the exciting early years of Christianity, not some modern plot to snuff out Jesus.

That’s all well and good, but what about the X in English? Was it just a Roman-era Christian symbol that’s only now being resurrected by heathens to cover up the Christ in Christmas? Nope. In the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written sometime before 1123, we see the chi-rho abbreviation in Christ’s mass, the progenitor of the word Christmas:

Her on {th}isum {asg}eare to X{ptilde}es. mæssan heold se cyng Heanri{asg} his hired on Westmynstre.

The OED lists further examples of such X abbreviations from then until now — not just in Xmas, but also in Xtian (for Christian). Aldous Huxley used it in 1915 (The ethics are identical with Xtian ethics), Ezra Pound in 1940 (They drove the Xtians out of Japan), and D. Jones in 1960 (what the present notion of Xtianity boils down to). So the poet I quoted above is completely mistaken; we surely might write X-tian for the Christians here on Earth. It’s not a common abbreviation anymore, but Xmas still is. Here’s even a neat example from Wikipedia, with Xmas used in a postcard in the good ol’ days around 1910:

So fear not, traditionalists! You can use Xmas without fear of offending God! The only concern with Xmas is that as an abbreviation, it’s a bit informal. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it on your letterhead, but if someone suggests you’re impious for using Xmas, let ’em know how traditional you are. 1700 years traditional, baby!

There is nothing wrong in English with splitting an infinitive. There never was anything wrong with it, either. You probably all knew that already. Unfortunately, the loudest grammar snobs are the ones who’ve put the least research into their opinions, and so, for every ten people quietly aware that infinitives can and sometimes should be split, there’s one vocal grammaticaster shouting over them that split infinitives are an abomination in the eyes of Pope. That means that there’re still a substantial number of people out there either objecting to or grinding their teeth over Star Trek’s to boldly go.

These people are mistaken. But the fact that they are mistaken will not stop them from complaining and possibly thinking less of you. And you may very well be in a position where the opinion of the misinformed matters to you; you might be an author, editor, or even a job applicant whose cover letter will be read by a lunkhead whose personal grammatical prejudices may blind him to your outstanding qualities. This leads a large number of people aware that there is no linguistic reason to avoid split infinitives (or singular they, or sentential hopefully, etc.) to still avoid using them for fear that someone of some importance will judge them harshly. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, best summarized by Ann Daingerfield & Arnold Zwicky’s line: “Crazies win“.

Now, in many cases, it’s not so bad. It’s unfortunate that reasonable people have to bow to the whims of the mad, but that’s life, innit? After all, would you really notice if someone changed (1a) to (1b)?

(1a) I’m going to angrily split infinitives.
(1b) I’m going to split infinitives angrily.

And sometimes it even sounds better to not split an infinitive:

(2a) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to gracefully dance.
(2b) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to dance gracefully.

But these bad-to-split situations are not as pervasive as some people seem to think. That’s because prescriptivists have a bad habit of not actually looking at the language that they’re claiming domain over.  For example, the normally reasonable folks at AskOxford write that “Split infinitives are frequently poor style, but they are not strictly bad grammar,” and illustrate this claim with exactly zero examples. In so doing, they completely ignore the fact that sometimes the split infinitive is the only right way of doing it. For example, consider

(3a) She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3b) She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3c) She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.
(3d) She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3e) She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3f) She decided to get rid of gradually the teddy bears she had collected.

This is an example from R. L. Trask. (3b) and (3c) unsplit the infinitive, but make it unclear where gradually is attached; is she gradually getting rid of the bears, gradually deciding to get rid of them, or getting rid of bears collected gradually? And (3d), (3e), and (3f) are just plain awkward, so if someone thinks a split infinitive is poor style, surely they’d think these ones still worse. A reasonable person might avoid split infinitives in other situations, so as not to incur the wrath of idiots, but in cases like this, no one would intentionally ruin their sentence in order to placate the misinformed.

Or so I’d figured. But then Amy McDaniel posted a worksheet from a class taught by David Foster Wallace, who very well may have been a talented writer, but also held some severely backward prescriptivist views, as discussed/destroyed at Language Hat. The worksheet is a list of sentences, each of which Wallace claims contains an error. One of the sentences is:

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

Now, in light of all this discussion about split infinitives, it’s clear that Wallace’s objection will be to the phrase to ever stop. But how do you fix it? The answer, given by McDaniel in the comments on the post, may surprise you:

the easy, unawkward fix, according to Wallace, is “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking.”

I don’t often use interrobangs, but: WHAT?! I could see “She didn’t ever seem to stop talking.” I could see “She didn’t seem to stop talking, ever.” Heck, I think I might even prefer one of those to the original.  If you’re willing to change the words, you could also use: “She never seemed to stop talking.”; “It seemed she never stopped talking.”; “She seemingly never stopped talking.”  Any of those would be reasonable, unawkward replacements.

But “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking”? Does anyone find to be that a good sentence, or even an “unawkward” one? It sounds awful to me, but then, being from Pittsburgh, I’m not entirely standard in my usage of negative polarity items like ever or anymore. If you like this sentence, please say so.

This is the weird thing with this worksheet: Wallace was a well-renowned writer, as well as a native speaker of English.  How can someone so close to the language be so blind to what does and doesn’t sound like English?  Because his re-phrased sentence most certainly does not.

Please, dear reader, I beg of you. Don’t let fear of what other people will say about your writing cause you to write something obviously awkward. And if you should disregard my plea, at least don’t pull a David Foster Wallace and convince people who respect you to fly in the face of all that sounds right in English.

[Hat tip to bradshaw of the future for pushing me to finish this post.]

Wallace’s other sentence revisions have already been intelligently discussed (attacked) in many other blogs, among them Arnold Zwicky’s discussion of each other and one another, Chris Potts’s succinct dismissal at Language Log, the truly stunning point-by-point gutting of the test delivered at Mackerel Economics, and another equally stunning point-by-point evisceration from Starlingford Chronicles. I highly recommend you check these out.

What’re you doing this Friday? If you’re around Whistler, Canada, you should come to the “Applications for Topic Models: Text and Beyond” workshop at NIPS, where you can learn about all sorts of new, well, applications for topic models! I’ll be delivering a talk on financial applications of topic models, such as identifying industrial sectors and discovering the underlying relationships between companies. It’s a way of learning about the economy without having any distracting chance of making money off of it!

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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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