September 20, 2005

New Yorker search engine stark staring mad

Search The New Yorker for some word that doesn't appear in any recent on-line article, I found recently, and you will get the following staggeringly unidiomatic message:

I'm sorry I couldn't find that for which you were looking.

The sad truth is that this probably is not intended as a joke. It would be a rather feeble joke, but at least as a joke it would be less pathetic than it is as an attempt to write ordinary English. I think the programmer who wrote this message was being serious. He or she may even have been instructed (God help us) to write it that way.

Here are the plain linguistic facts: ??I couldn't find that for which you were looking is at the very best highly questionable (I'm almost inclined to call it syntactically ill-formed), a grotesquely clumsy substitute for the perfectly normal I couldn't find what you were looking for. The latter is normal Standard English, acceptable either spoken or written, in either informal or formal style. (Notice that both I'm and couldn't mark the search engine message as being in a relatively informal style, making it even more insane to do the that for which you were looking thing. It really is certifiably stark staring mad.)

It is important that verb-preposition idioms like look for meaning "seek" are not normally broken up, and that which is extremely rare compared to the much more normal what. It is simply astounding that a native speaker could believe otherwise. What on earth could have led the author of the text messages issued by The New Yorker's search engine to put in such a ridiculously tortured sentence?

The backstory has been told in different ways several times before on Language Log. In 1672 an influential essayist called John Dryden published a critical piece called "Defence of the epilogue" which included a catalog of alleged faults in the writing of important recent authors. In that essay he called it "a common fault" to have a "Preposition in the end of the sentence". Notice, uncontroversially, the usage was common in the 17th century. That is because it was fully grammatical then, as it is now, and it already had been for centuries. Dryden even noted that it occurred in his own writings. He had no basis whatever for his objection to it. (Unless you count "Latin doesn't permit this" as an objection. Some people seemed to feel back then that English needed a sort of makeover to turn it into a suitable rival to Latin for serious writing — a whole language community with an inferiority complex. That surely isn't relevant today.)

About a hundred years after Dryden expressed his opinion, Bishop Robert Lowth, in a grammar that became quite important, described the construction with the preposition at the front of the clause as "more graceful as well as more perspicuous", adding that it "agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style" --- though Lowth still made it extremely clear that it is normal in speech and "the familiar style in writing" (the style in which one writes I'm and couldn't rather than I am and could not). Slowly Lowth's view ossified in the writings of other grammarians. By 1800 several famous school textbooks expressed straightforward disapproval of the stranded preposition, and teachers began to teach generations of schoolchildren that it was wrong. In America (though much less in Great Britain) this belief survived from the 19th century into the 20th.

And since nothing progressive really happened in the teaching of English grammar during the 20th century, we now find ourselves, in the 21st century, confronted with educated Americans who seriously think that a search engine should say it is sorry it could not find that for which you were looking. It's staggering. It really is. And The New Yorker apparently encourages this absurd misconception about grammaticality in English. I simply can't imagine what they're thinking of. Or as they would put it, *I simply cannot imagine of what they are thinking.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 20, 2005 07:03 PM