June 29, 2004

NEWSFLASH: Safire reads Language Instinct

Of course, I could be wrong about this. All I have to go on is the following paragraph in Safire's latest On Language piece, in a discussion of gone missing:

Is it good grammar? It may well stretch our hard-wired sense of syntax. To critics, a simple is missing would solve the problem. But because gone missing has acquired the status of an idiom, which is ''an unassailable peculiarity,'' it is incorrect to correct it. As the fumblerule goes, ''idioms is idioms.'' Relax and enjoy them.

Our hard-wired sense of syntax? Like, when he says our, does he mean our as in we and us? Meaning that the opinions of people who don't have Language Maven stamped on their business cards actually count? And when he says hard-wired, is he referring to some sort of like, you know, genetic endowment thingy? Not a tablet of official rules given down to Safire on Mount Sinai?  Oh my, how sophisticated!

I don't think Safire thought of that stuff about hard wires himself. I think he's been reading linguistics. Or at least Pinker's pop Chomsky. (What? Chomsky and Pinker are related?)

Even more amazing, Safire seems to completely buy the idea that usage can trump what would otherwise be good grammar. All you have to do is find an excuse to label your preferred usage idiomatic, and it's just fine and dandy with the relaxed Mr. Safire. For idioms may be peculiar, but as everyone knows, they are unassailable.

The term fumblerule appears to be Safire's. He has a book about them which I have not read. It is called Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage, and it seems to be a book primarily devoted to helping you avoid ordinary usage in favor of strange rules. For example, it apparently tells you not to end sentences with prepositions. According to a definition I found which is probably Safire's, a fumblerule is a mistake that calls attention to the rule, and the lighthearted twist to the book appears to be that every rule is stated in such a way as to break itself. I like this idea. Apart from introducing self-referentiality (which, of course, is something I myself try to achieve at least once in every blog post), the fumblerule style has the benefit of making traditional mavenesque prescriptions sound exactly as silly as they are. Here is the prepsoition fumblerule (which I found in this excellent critique):

Fumblerule #49 Never Use Prepositions to End Sentences With

But the rule Safire cites in the paragraph above, idioms is idioms, is very special. If applied widely enough, it is the exception to end all rules. What if ending a sentence with a preposition becomes idiomatic? Relax! Enjoy it!

Safire, if I read him correctly, is no longer one of the critics, those naive language experts who think that since gone missing can be replaced by is missing, it should be. No, Bill Safire is one of us. Welcome, Bill, we've been waiting a long time for you.

Posted by David Beaver at June 29, 2004 03:09 AM

Ceci n'est pas une comment.

Posted by: David at June 29, 2004 03:25 AM

Firstly, congratulations for allowing readers to post comments.

I find it strange that normative concerns occupy very large spaces in your blog. And, of course, as linguists currently do not work with the notion of error, it surprises me that someone wants to discuss what is error and what is dialectal variation. (OK, choosing issues is a matter of personal taste!)

Nevertheless, the problem with what a journalists says about language and grammar is that he is a mere journalist, and is not aware of the implications of the things he says for Linguistics. And that is not a grave problem.

It is by far graver when, for instance, someone, who is an editor of a journal of Linguistics, claims that a paper is written in bad English because the author uses 'complicated' instead of 'complicate'. (*). Or, else, when some linguist advises not to use 'he/him/his' as generic pronominal forms in standard English, because 'that is not gender inclusive'. (**)

Those were just thoughts.

* Both forms exist and are given in dictionaries.
** I try to imagine what Italians would do with the pronoun 'lei', which is lit. 'her' and is used as the respectful form to address either a man or a woman, if such nonsense was transposed to their language.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 29, 2004 10:06 AM

Ooh, comments! Pretty!

"...as linguists currently do not work with the notion of error..."


"It is by far graver when, for instance, someone, who is an editor of a journal of Linguistics, claims that a paper is written in bad English..."

Did we, um, just have a paper rejected?

Anyway... Safire has always had a strange dichotomy; he mixes the Usage Poobah persona with a genuine fondness for colloquial, lively turns of phrase, so that he sometimes seems about to bite his own tongue. And he does occasionally check with real linguists, even if he rarely seems to understand what they're talking about. I think I'd actually miss the old codger if they stopped running his column, as irritated as I am by his misunderstandings and relentless joviality.

[On preview: dammit, no HTML. Well, never look a gift comment box in the mouth; I'll just use quotes instead of italics up there.]

Posted by: language hat at June 29, 2004 12:57 PM

The appearance of comments on this post seems to be a fluke, I don't see them on any other of today's posts... To bad, because it would be great to see comments introduced as a regular feature of Language Log! I recommend upgrading to Movable Type 3 to prevent comments SPAM, or else installing one of the many plug-ins available for MT 2.x.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman at June 29, 2004 06:28 PM

There seem to be questions in reaction to my comments.

Well, I cannot reply to double ?s, because I do not know what is asked.

Anyway, there is an explicit question after it. I do not know who you call 'we', and do not know if you had a paper rejected or not. But I was not talking about you or anyone in particular. I just gave two examples of the kind of things that usually happen, without naming any person or journal.

In relation to newspapers, I recommend 'Le Monde', 'The Age', 'The Times', 'The Globe and Mail', 'L'Express', 'The Guardian', 'Le Figaro', 'Libération', 'Ha Aretz', 'El País' and the 'Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung'. The US mainstream newspapers used to be very good, but, I don't know why, are becoming very old-minded and loosing analysis capacity. Maybe it is just a bad phase.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 29, 2004 06:38 PM

Kerrim Friedman,

I have to disagree. David's decision to allow comments makes the world of difference, at least for me.

I cannot, for instance, reply to Pullum's remarks and tell his readers that Lula da Silva's peasent Portuguese of Northeastern Brazil has been used over and over as argument not to vote for him in past elections.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 29, 2004 09:36 PM

Tony Marmo: You can e-mail Pullum and other Language Loggers. Often they respond, either by e-mail or on LL. I haven't found the lack of comments on LL a great handicap.

Also, the fact that you can find a word in a dictionary doesn't mean that it's something native English speakers actually use or will be familiar with.

Posted by: Keith Ivey at June 29, 2004 10:36 PM

I've enjoyed reading the comments above and the meta-comments.

Tony Marmo's observation that for a bunch of linguists we're very concerned with normativity is apropos. Similarly, we've spent a higher percentage of our time on eggcorns as bloggers than we ordinarily would as researchers. To some extent this is just the ebb and flow of the blog. But it's also a symptom of the LL team as a group searching for topics which are of both scholarly and general interest, which are easily communicated to a general audience, and which we know something about.

I agree with Hat's finely nuanced comments about the tensions inherent in being Safire, tensions I could not live [P with]. I realize that most of what I said wasn't really all that much of a newsflash, but I did like the Safire reference to hardwiring, which I hadn't seen before.

As regards the comments on comments, I'm happy to see so many positive reactions. Keep 'em coming! The LL team has been throwing about the idea of adding comments for ages, and is acutely aware of the comments on our lack of comments that have appeared on other linguablogs.

And thanks also to Kerim: Mark is busy preparing an LL software upgrade, and I'm sure wouldn't mind helpful techno-feedback. If you've seen a fluke, I suppose the body of the whale can't be too far ahead. (But the OED does not connect "fluke" in Kerim's "one-off piece of luck" sense to any of several other "flukes": it is apparently a billiard term of unknown etymology.)

Posted by: David at June 30, 2004 12:42 AM

Dear Keith Ivey,

Yeah, I have already sent Pullum some e-mails on other occasions.

Well, you are very optimistic assuming that English native speakers are the ones who want to correct others' English. It is often the case that non-native speakers, who have heard the sentence 'you speak English very well', want to make the most absurd corrections. Most English native speakers accept the use of new words and of expressions they are not familiar with. They do accept it if you show them the dictionary, and that is something positive.

Traditional grammars and even dictionaries have been used in the past to maintain normative attitudes. Now, it is the converse: you fight normativism by showing the normativist his ignorance, as many of the linguists here have done on more than one post.

Anyway, I talked about a very specific and special case of normative attitude by linguists, who, claiming that someone's English is bad, demonstrate not to know basic facts of English Grammar or Vocabulary. It is just like you wrote a paper giving the following examples:

(1) Many ridings in Alberta returned Liberal MPs.
(2) He is support by the People of his State and the Legislature thereof.

And you send this paper to a country whose language is not English and the editor is not an English native speaker, but is a linguist. Suddenly you get your paper back, with remarks like:

a. 'Ridings' do not mean anything in this Context.
b The use of the verb 'to return' is wrong.
c. Alberta is the name of a woman.
d. 'Thereof' does not exist/ is not used.

Those are obviously very stupid remarks and reflect the ignorance, the arrogance and the autocratic behaviour of the 'remarker'. Ok, when the person, who makes such remarks, is not a linguist, he or she may be somehow 'excused'. But when a linguist incurs in this type of arrogant demonstration of ignorance, he or she ends up in a very embarrassing position.

I shall not claim this sort of thing is frequent, but it is not rare either. One way to fight it is to be humble and think 'here is a word or construction I am not familiar with. So let us be rational and take a look into the dictionary and learn it.' This much more appropriate for a true scholar, specially if such scholar is a linguist, and by far more civilised, polite and open-minded.

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 30, 2004 01:23 AM


Of course, I meant

(2) He is suported...

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 30, 2004 01:24 AM


(2) He is supported...



(Can we re-start this joke with 'they're', 'there', 'their'? J.k. :P)

Posted by: Tony Marmo at June 30, 2004 01:27 AM