You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘robert hartwell fiske’ tag.

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.

The prescriptivists are on my last nerve.  Some of them really believe that there is something wrong with this sentence:

(1) One of the only things I liked about living in Ottawa was the strong film community.

Reasonable readers, can you find the error in (1)?  The construction that “doesn’t convey any information”, the one that Richard Lederer calls a “strange and illogical expression”, the one Robert Hartwell Fiske cites as “further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean”? Give up? It’s one of the only!

Oh, you didn’t find that to be illogical?  You thought you got some information out of those words?  Well then, congratulations; you’re a normal speaker of English.  Honestly, I couldn’t see what could the problem with one of the only possibly be.  Well, let’s look at Lederer’s argument against it:

“This strange and illogical expression began showing up a few years ago, and English took a step backward when it did.  The expression has been defended on the basis that it is no worse than only two, because only means ‘one’ and only two is oxymoronic. A specious argument! It’s like saying that robbing a bank is okay because it’s no worse than robbing a jewelry store.  Moreover, only in the sense of ‘only two’ does not mean ‘one’; it means ‘no more than.’  There is no meaning of only that fits with one of the only.

Well, that’s a kick in the gut of the facts — three kicks, in fact.  Kick the first is the claim that one of the only started showing up a few years ago.  Google Books reports it in two books around 1770, in The Dramatic Censor and The Sale of Authors, and reports hundreds of uses throughout the nineteenth century.  It’s more than a few years old, that’s for sure.

Kick the second is the idea that any reasonable person defends one of the only by noting that only two is oxymoronic.  I sure don’t, and I don’t understand who would.  There is nothing oxymoronic, nothing contradictory about the construction.  Only two is completely clear, comprehensible, standard, and logical — hundreds of pre-1800 usages of only two in Google Books attest to this.

Kick the third is Lederer’s definition of onlyOnly two does not mean “no more than two” in standard usage.  If it meant “no more than two”, then (2) would be a totally acceptable sentence.

(2) *The cyclops has only two eyes.

With Lederer’s definition (2) is fine, because a cyclops has only one eye, and one is no more than two.  But a quick poll of the only two people in the apartment at the moment revealed that (2) is utterly unacceptable; clearly Lederer’s definition is insufficient.  The real definition of only in only two is something along the lines of “exactly”, but with the crucial additional implicature that this is a smaller number than expected.  Violating this implicature makes a sentence sound weird, as with (3b):

(3a) I was sad when only two people showed up at my cats’ wedding.
(3b) #I was sad when only one thousand people showed up at my cats’ wedding.

Now, the fact that one gets this implicature, that only two sounds so much better than only one thousand, ought to suggest that there is logic underlying the construction. This, coupled with Lederer’s crummy definition of only, should lead a reader to be skeptical of his claim that no meaning of only can fit in one of the only. I am curious as to what Lederer thinks the definitions of only are.

So what does one of the only mean?  What happens if we follow one critic’s request to “parse it if you will, and see what you get”?  Let’s look at the example in (1).  The only things I liked about living in Ottawa is a noun phrase, identifying the set of things the speaker liked about living in Ottawa, noting that this set is the complete set, and implying that it’s an awfully small set.  That’s what the quantifier only means, that’s what it’s meant for hundreds of years.  One of modifies a noun phrase, selecting one member of that set.  The two combined, as they are in (1), pick out a single member of the set of all things the speaker liked about living in Ottawa. So what exactly were we supposed to see when we parsed this?  That it works?  I’m fine with that.

There’re a lot more arguments that one of the only makes sense, and Jan Freeman has a wonderful column with a few of them.  Notably, Freeman points out that one of the only is attested cross-linguistically, further destroying the notion that one of the only is somehow illogical.  So in the end, I have to ask this of the prescriptivists: Do you really have nothing better to do in your lives than to ignore the well-known meanings of words so that you get to call other people stupid?  Are you really unable to think of a better pastime than claiming that a reasonable, well-worn construction is illogical and incomprehensible?  Are you really so committed to those goals that you’re unwilling to comprehend an easily comprehensible construction?

Or as I screamed into my computer after reading this junk: Why are you spending more effort trying to misunderstand someone than trying to understand them?

Summary: Prescriptivists insistently grouse that people don’t think enough when they write, but prescriptivists seem just as likely not to think when writing.  Case in point: the arguments against one of the only are positively absurd, based off of a wanton misinterpretation of what only means, and completely independent of historical usage in English and other languages.  Of course one of the only is fine, a fact that has been known since 1770.

Sometimes prescriptivists render me dumb.  I mean dumb in both its senses: speechless and stupid.  I’ll just stare at the comment and my brain sputters, trying to object but just bumping up against the enormity of the proscription’s idiocy.  For instance, today I chanced upon the prescription that (1a) is wrong and (1b) is right:

(1a) The letter pleased him to no end.
(1b) The letter pleased him no end.

Really?  I don’t ever remember having heard anyone say a sentence like (1b), but I know I’ve heard a lot of people use to no end as in (1a).  Whatever, I muttered, let it go.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked around for others who held this view.  And, in the book I’m currently skimming through and will be railing against in a forthcoming post (The Dictionary of Disagreeable English by Robert Hartwell Fiske), what did I find but an injunction against to no end! Fiske writes:

“The phrases you complain of [including to no end] are bastardizations born of mishearing and nurtured by imitation.”

What on Earth is Fiske talking about?  All of language is nurtured by imitation.  It’s how we acquire language, how we use it.  And idioms, including (to) no end, exist only due to imitation; they can’t be explained with the compositional syntax and semantics that the rest of language follows.  For instance, there is no grammar rule in English that explains why the bigger, the better means what we all perceive it to mean. It makes no sense to deride imitation in language, since it’s the central force in language’s continued existence.

Furthermore, what language does Fiske think he is examining?  Because in (American) English, it seems that to no end is perfectly acceptable, somewhat more common than the to-less variant, and emerged contemporaneously with the variant a little over a century ago.  With regards to the current usage, “pleased me to no end” has 6600 Google hits, while “pleased me no end” has 700.  I’d hoped to establish the claim of contemporaneous emergence using Google Books, but the problem is that it’s really hard to find good old examples of this idiom, in either of its forms.  When you do, there’s the further matter that the idiom can have different meanings, especially when someone says something like:

(2) […] don’t lave me here near this villain that’s afther cursing me to no end

Does to no end here mean “ceaselessly” or “for no purpose”? Context, in the form of the two pages before and after, do not help.  I still can’t tell you which meaning is intended in (2), and I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a day.  Let me tell you what I do have. I can’t find a single example of no end meaning “ceaselessly” or “incessantly”, or “strongly” in Google Books before 1844. (I searched for “me no end“, “him no end“, and “her no end“.) After 1844, the number of hits becomes too cumbersome to sort through. I haven’t got the time to go to all that bother just to find out if prescriptivists are morons, as we already know the answer to that one from previous investigations.  But I did find a usage of to no end from 1874:

(3) Only when he saw a rich fellow, he would make up to him, and cringe, and fall down and worship him to no end.

Now, if to no end is the bastardization, then no end would have to have been the received usage before to no end showed up; if the two forms appeared at the same time, then there’s no reason why one should be considered the proper version.  I can find no evidence that no end preceded to no end.  So I thrust the burden of proof upon the prescriptivists. Show us that to no end is wrong!  Show us that it is a bastardization, and show us that this is a problem!  (After all, it’d be a 135-year-old bastardization, and who really cares about lineage that far back?)  Until then, the 1.3 million webpages containing “to no end” and I will be here waiting, the prescriptivists’ incessant and ill-informed blathering perplexing us to no end.

And, by the way, let’s do an informal poll.  Do you use either or both of these idioms?  What is standard in your idiolect?  Does one of these idioms set your teeth on edge? Is my to-requirement another piece of evidence establishing that despite my aspirations and affectations I remain inescapably prole?  Thanks for your help!

Summary: Some people actually argue that “to no end” is an improper bastardization of “no end”, and more oddly, that this matters to our lives.  There is no evidence that one is a bastardization of the other, and they’ve both been attested for more than a century. Complaints about such trifling matters serve only to turn people off from the beauty of language and reveal the niggling nature of many prescriptivists.

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

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.

@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 975 other followers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: