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I picked up an old paperback version of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage at a used bookstore some time ago. It was $3, and I was pretty sure someone I held in some esteem had recommended it to me. Now I believe only the first part of that sentence; I don’t suspect anyone would have recommended it. I’d thought the book was going to be somewhere between the good-if-somewhat-too-conservative Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the wonderfully accurate Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). Instead, it’s largely a series of unsupported statements from Partridge that this or that is unacceptable and dismissals of certain usages out of hand.

That’s par for the course with prescriptivists. Sometimes Partridge goes one step further and tries to cite evidence, although this often devolves into a contradiction. Case in point: alright. My take on alright is that, well, it’s perfectly all right. (MWDEU feels the same.) The word has been around for 100 years now, it has a different meaning and intonation pattern than all right for many (most?) people, and it follows by analogy from altogether, although, already, and almost. Partridge does not agree. His entry on alright starts off with

alright is an incorrect spelling of all right and an illogical form thereof.”

Now, Partridge was writing in the 1940s, and at that point the form alright had less of a pedigree, so it’s not fair to judge him through 21st-century eyes. Thus, I’m not going to argue the claim that, at that point, alright was an incorrect variant spelling of all right, although I do believe he is wrong about that. Instead, let’s look at his claim of that alright is “illogical”. Six of the seven paragraphs of Partridge’s entry on alright are from a 1938 letter to The Observer, which Partridge quotes without stating what it is intended to show. The letter is informative in a way that Partridge’s opinions are not, discussing the process of single words being formed from multiple words, and actually bothering to justify (some of) its positions. Let me reproduce just the concluding paragraph of the letter; the rest of the letter gives the evidence for the opinion the writer holds:

“I have personally no doubt that there is a single word alright, with a somewhat fluid meaning, but distinct from that of all right. This word, however, is a colloquialism, very convenient in everyday intercourse but of no importance whatever in literary composition. I find that I use it regularly in ordinary conversation, but never have occasion to write it except in familiar correspondence. When I do write it, I spell it as two words!”

Of course, I’d dispute the claim that alright is of no literary importance, and I don’t understand why the author would write it as two words, given the lengths he goes to in the letter to establish that it is a single word, but those are just quibbles. The key point here is that Partridge asserts that alright is illogical, then quotes, without comment, a six-paragraph letter establishing that, actually, alright is a perfectly logical word. There’s even a point in the letter in which the author says “Obviously, if alright represents a compound word which actually exists, it has a certain justification.” (That justification having been given just before.) Partridge could as well have said “The Sun revolves around the Earth” and then cited Copernicus. Sure, Partridge might have an argument somewhere up his sleeve that alright really is illogical, but he omits that argument and instead delivers its exact antithesis. That, I believe, is an example of an illogical formulation. Alright is not.

It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if prescriptivists believe that illogical is a generic adjective meaning “bad for some unspecifiable reason”, much in the same way that they complain about us kids using cool or nice as a generic adjective for something pleasant. Given the prescriptivist penchant for insisting that words must have very clearly defined meanings and their obsession with precision in language, it just seems weird how cavalierly they toss illogical about.

As promised, here’s a quick summary of the (to) no end idiom.  In the original post, I asked what people thought of sentences like (1a) and (1b):

(1a) The crank insulted me to no end.
(1b) The crank insulted me no end.

Are they acceptable to you?  If so, what do they mean?  I’d figured that the answers would be pretty straightforward.  But, as it turns out, you readers are a far more diverse lot than I’d ever expected.  Thanks to that diversity, it’s now clear that these idioms are themselves far more diverse than I’d expected.  The range of views on the matter blindsided me, especially since I still think I hadn’t heard (1b) before a few weeks ago.

A few commenters were in the same camp with me, ignorant of no end. What surprised me is that they were geographically widespread; three were from the U.S. (Alaska, Pacific Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic), but one was from Canada, and one was from Australia.  A few were my evil twins, unfamiliar with to no end, or at least preferring no end over it; two from the U.S. and one from Canada.  So that’s weird, because I’d sort of suspected that the (1a)/(1b) distinction was one of those Anglo-American differences, but clearly members of both camps share North America.  (No Brits preferred to no end over no end, so there could still be some A-A effect.)

But — and I intend no offense to those of you who were mentioned in the preceding paragraph — the really interesting commenters were the ones who considered both (1a) and (1b) to be perfectly good ways of saying different things.  Apparently there is a sizable contingent of readers who think that (1a) and (1b) should be paraphrased as (2a) and (2b), respectively:

(2a) The crank insulted me without a goal or without achieving anything.
(2b) The crank insulted me endlessly.

I think that’s the meaning distinction people saw; it’s awfully hard for me to tell since I do not have such a distinction.  (I would use for no end to represent the meaning of (2a), which is where I’m getting my paraphrase from.)  At least two commenters felt this way, one from the Mid-Atlantic U.S. and one from the British Midlands.

I don’t know that there’s any great insight about usage to draw from this data, expect perhaps the greatest of all: each of us knows next-to-nothing about general English usage.  I think of myself as being pretty familiar with American English because I’ve lived in three corners of the country, have associated with the underclass, old money, and the nouveau riche, and have almost managed to figure out what might could means.  But I didn’t know anything about the variability in this idiom.  This serves as a reminder to would-be prescriptivists: you’d better do some research before you go around telling people what’s right and wrong in language.  No matter how much experience you have with the language, it’s always possible that your usage is the odd one out. Don’t trust someone’s prescriptions just because they seem like they know English well.  Make sure they’ve done their homework on it.

Or, in this particular case: dismissing either to no end or no end as bad English with just a sentence or two just makes you look foolish.

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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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