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A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version (http://www.oed.com). And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

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And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. I can’t help but feel cynical about the day, in the same way that Matt Lane at Math Goes Pop! felt cynical about yesterday’s “Square Root Day”. The problem is that Square Root Day doesn’t get anyone excited about real math, but rather about simple arithmetic coincidences. Likewise, to the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language.

As such, I might as well do what I can with National Grammar Day and debunk a few of the grammar myths you might encounter today. That also gives me an excuse to go through and call up a few interesting posts that I’d forgotten about, both my own and others’. So here are 10 facts about the English language that go against the unjustified beliefs peddled by prescriptivists. I’m putting summaries of the posts here, with links to the original posts so that you can see why the prescriptivists’ claims should be regarded as myths, no matter how loudly they are proclaimed. To prevent misinterpretation, I am not going to state the myths here, only the corresponding truths:

You can use that in relative clauses with people. (Part I, Part II) Whether you’re speaking historically or restricting yourself to present usage, you’re mistaken if you think that is strictly for things. Phrases like the people that I know are actually more common in contemporary English than the people who(m) I know.

10 items or less lines are perfectly fine, grammatically speaking. The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses. Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically. Please stop complaining about this.

Different than is perfectly acceptable. There are three major arguments claiming from is the only preposition that can be used with different. They’re all invalid. Not only that, but historical usage justifies the continued usage of different than.

Alright is all right. Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although. I think to many people (including myself), the two spellings have slightly different meanings and could reasonably be considered two separate and equally valid words.

Over can mean “more than”. The idea that over can’t mean “more than” is such rubbish that I wouldn’t have believed anyone believed it, were I not constantly dealing with prescriptivist idiocy. Truth is, over has been used to mean “more than” for 1000 years.

Nauseous can mean “sickened”. nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”. Anyone concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion is either naive or shedding crocodile tears. If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

From Language Log:

You can end a sentence with a preposition, Dryden be damned! I wrote about this in the context of the question “Where are you at?”, but it’s a more general problem than that, and is one of the best-known grammatical bugaboos. No serious scholar of the English language holds this view.

They can be singular in certain situations. To quote an idol of mine, Geoff Pullum: “Avoid singular they if you want to; nobody is making you use it. But don’t ever think that it is new (it goes back to early English centuries ago), or that it is illogical (there is no logical conflict between being syntactically singular and semantically plural), or that it is ungrammatical (it is used by the finest writers who ever used English, writers who uncontroversially knew what they were doing).”

Often a passive sentence is better than its active counterpart. In my younger years, I was repeatedly admonished for using the passive voice in my writing. The admonishers were mistaken, though. Many famous detractors of the passive voice (the passive is opposed by many) consistently use the passive voice in appropriate circumstances. Don’t be scared away from it. Honestly, it’s very useful.

And one from the Volokh Conspiracy:

Split infinitives when you feel like it. Honestly, if you think that it’s improper to split an infinitive in English, you need help. This has never been a rational or justifiable rule of English, and just looking at competent English writing should be enough to disabuse you of this notion. Split infinitives are commonly quite beautiful, especially when compared to the often-barbarous sound of an unsplit infinitive.

[Update 03/04/2010: For National Grammar Day 2010, I’ve listed 10 more bogus grammar myths, addressing topics such as sentence-adverbial hopefully, healthy/healthful, between/among, and more on singular they.]

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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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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