March 09, 2005

The grammar of bullshit

On March 2, Timothy Noah in Slate reviewed Harry Frankfurt's 1986 monograph on bullshit. Here's Noah's fourth sentence:

How does bullshit differ from such precursors as humbug, poppycock, tommyrot, hooey, twaddle, balderdash, claptrap, palaver, hogwash, buncombe (or "bunk"), hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, bullpucky, and all the other pejoratives* favored by H.L. Mencken and his many imitators? [emphasis added]

The asterisk on "pejoratives" leads to this footnote:

Correction, March 4, 2005: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described these words as adjectives. In fact, they are nouns.

Kudos to Slate (and Noah) for footnoting the correction rather than just fixing it silently. The mistake is not critical to Frankfurt's ideas or Noah's review of them. (Well, maybe it suggests a certain lack of concern for what words actually mean, which is not entirely unconnected to what Frankfurt thinks bullshit is.) However, it does underline a point that we've made again and again in this blog. Most Americans learn almost nothing about how to describe and analyze the sound, structure and meaning of the English language. This includes most American intellectuals, whose degree of ignorance in this area is historically unprecedented. It extends to many of those who are being trained, at the best universities, in the discipline known as "English", and even more strongly to those trained in other fields.

As I've explained before, I blame the linguists.

[Note, by the way, that Noah's confusion about humbug etc. can probably be explained by the same reasoning that Geoff Pullum used in the case of Jon Stewart's confusion about terror. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 9, 2005 04:19 AM