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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!”
You know I hate it when people mock English-as-a-second-language speakers for their grammatical missteps. If your sense of humor is so unrefined as to find ESL speakers’ errors jestworthy, I think you’re a boor. Internet society doesn’t think the same, but then again, Internet society also thinks it’s acceptable to shout “FIRST!” in a comment thread and that being racist when you know better is somehow subversive.
So I hope you won’t think me hypocritical for mocking someone whose knowledge of English is clearly lacking. There’s a key difference, though, in that English is this person’s native language. On an old post talking about one of the only, I recently got this comment:
“‘One of the only’ is poor grammar because ‘one of’ implies plural and ‘the only’ implies one. ‘One of the one’ doesn’t do much for logic.”
If you have gone a sizable portion of your life speaking and hearing English (which I assume one has to have to be bloviating on what’s poor grammar) and you think that only implies one, then you do not know English. And yet, this is a common misconception:
“How can something be ‘one of the only’ when ‘only’ means ‘one?'”
“‘One of the only’ – could this be correct usage? ‘Only’ means ‘alone, solely.'”
“Only refers to one or sole and has no meaning.”
Guys, I don’t know where you think you’ve gotten the authority to lecture people on English, but if you can’t understand the meaning of only, you do not have that authority.* Sure, in some situations, only refers to a single item, as in:
(1a) This is my only stick of gum. Do not eat it.
But only really means “this and no more”, where “this” can be singular or plural or mass. I could just as readily say:
(1b) These are my only sticks of gum. Do not eat them.
You absolutely cannot be fluent in English and not have been exposed to perfectly acceptable usages of plural only. Google Books N-grams shows that over the past 200 years of published works, one in every 100,000 pairs of words is only two. Including only 3/4/5 gets us up to 1 in 50,000. Given that a person hears around that many words each day, and that there are many other uses of plural only, it’s a conservative estimate to say that a fluent English speaker is exposed to plural only at least once a day.
Non-singular only isn’t questionable, it isn’t obscure, it isn’t rare, it isn’t debatable. Only does not mean or imply or refer to “one” in general. If you think it does, you are not sufficiently informed to correct anyone’s usage.
*: Which is weird, because even some authors who are well-regarded by the literary set (though not by linguists) claim this. Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis’s book “Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay” contains an absurd assertion that one of the only both is oxymoronic and new. Neither is true, not even a little, and yet Lederer is the author of a newspaper column as well as tens of books on English.
A while ago, I had a brief online conversation with someone who had claimed that “cakes are done, people are finished”. The conversation, if it can be called such, had three exchanges: I sent a link explaining why this is distinction is utter hokum, the respondent agreed and resolved that she would not complain about it anymore, and then she tweeted another unexplained claim that something else was ungrammatical.
More recently, I found a column starting out thus:
“I’ve always had a problem with split infinitives. That is, I seem to always be guilty of writing them. My publisher […] used to always correct me. I would argue with him that the sentence doesn’t sound right when it’s grammatically correct. […] Like my former publisher, I have my own grammatical pet peeves”
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
These situations are one of the more frustrating types of interactions I have with the grammatically inclined. Sure, many of them won’t listen to reason at all, and keep on insisting that, e.g., split infinitives are killing English, no matter how much evidence you amass against that point. That kind of person is easy to recognize and their conversations easy to excuse oneself from. But there’re also a lot of people who will listen to reason, agree that one of their most firmly held grammatical convictions is invalid, and then unquestioningly bring up another one. Grammar rules, in their minds, are valid until proven invalid.
These are the conversations I can’t extricate myself from. I want to stay and disprove each next claim in the hopes that eventually they’ll recognize that they ought to scrutinize their beliefs. But that scrutiny never comes. “Oh, this rule’s wrong? Well, surely this one isn’t. It is? Well, surely this one isn’t. It is? Well…”
It’s twisting Occam’s Razor on its head; it’s grabbing a piece of candy from a bowl, tasting it and hating it, and then grabbing another; it’s burning one’s hand on a kettle, then touching the burner to see if it’s hot too.
It’s all nonsense. The assumption that new rules are valid is bad because there’s nothing to prevent the excessive proliferation of rules. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Anyone can learn to use English standardly, but it takes dedication to go through and learn an ever-expanding set of rules that don’t square with the language you’ve used your entire life. Doing that surely proves one’s intelligence.*
If there’s only one thing you ever take from this blog, I hope it’s a spirit of grammatical skepticism, both toward what other people tell you and what you tell yourself. If someone says you’re speaking ungrammatically, I hope you look into whether they’re right, and ask them why they think they are. And if you think someone else’s grammar is wrong, I hope you look into whether you know as much as you think you do about language.
*: Lest I be too dismissive, there is one good reason to accept rules until they’re proven wrong: concern that adherents to the rules will think you stupid.