June 20, 2006

A stricter prescriptivism

Here's a piece of mail we recently received at Language Log Plaza, from a correspondent who shall remain nameless so as not to inflame the ire of his already ireful boss:

I'm a first year reporter at a small town daily newspaper. I recently filed a story regarding a town's burning ordinance. In the story, I wrote that the town's burning ordinance was stricter than the state law. My editor read the story, and he was quick to point out that stricter isn't a word.

It is a word. Yet, my editor does not think so. At some point in his education, I assume, he was told that more strict and most strict are preferred to stricter and strictest.

Any idea from where this rule derives? Did Strunk and White advise more strict? Is this standard usage? Would the strictest of the strict prescriptivists tell me I am wrong and my editor is correct?

After conducting a quick poll of fellow Language Loggers, I can report a clear consensus: not only is the editor mistaken about the unacceptability of stricter, he's also flat-out nuts.

Okay, perhaps he's not nuts, but editorial power has clearly gone to his head, leading him down the road of stylistic tyranny. What possible objection could the editor have to stricter, to the extent that he would deem it "not a word"? It's a simple enough matter to find examples of its use by Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Austen, Hardy, Dickens, and any number of other notable English writers (see the list at the end of the post). And a moment on Google News or Yahoo News will find many thousands of hits for stricter in text recently produced by journalistic institutions near and far.

As readers of the New York Times now know, we here at Language Log enjoy "coming down hard on rules that ignore linguistic facts," as Michael Erard put it. And an arbitrary ruling against the word stricter is just about as ignorant of linguistic facts as it gets. But we also seek to understand the basis for even the most capricious fiat about language. Perceptions about "proper" usage, no matter how misguided, can still tell us a great deal about how we seek to structure our linguistic consciousness.

In the case of stricter, it's helpful to return to Geoff Pullum's Feb. 2004 post about another contentious comparative, wronger. As Geoff writes, we usually have no problem inflecting monosyllabic adjectives with the comparative suffix -er or the superlative suffix -est. Nonetheless, there are certain monosyllabic adjectives that never take a comparative or superlative inflection (like, loathe, worth), and others that rarely do (cross, ill, real, fake, wrong). But we could consider a third class of monosyllables that are deemed improper by some and not by others. It's usually adjectives of two syllables that elicit these grey-area judgments (e.g., often, common, pleasant), but there could very well be some monosyllabic adjectives that also fit the bill.

And it turns out that the dictatorial editor isn't the only person who has a problem with stricter. When a question came up a few years ago on the Usenet newsgroup alt.english.usage over whether to use stricter or more strict in a particular sentence, Carter Jefferson wrote:

I can't think of a rule that would preclude the use of either. I suspect I used "more strict" to give the sentence better rhythm. Also, "strict" is one of those words that for some reason sounds complete in itself (to me). Using the comparative seems to me to weaken it. I have absolutely no rationale for this.
Also, some words simply don't sound right in the comparative. Nobody says "beautifuler" except babies or, possibly, someone else just beginning to learn the language. "Stricter" isn't as bad as that to me, but I just don't like the sound.

At least Mr. Jefferson acknowledges having "absolutely no rationale" for preferring more strict beyond a vague dislike for the sound of stricter. But beautifuler is not a good point of comparison, since three-syllable adjectives hardly ever take -er or -est. (Alice voiced the rare exception: "Curiouser and curiouser!") In another post on alt.english.usage, Alan Jones declared a preference for stricter but said he had noticed a rise in the usage of more strict in British English:

The use of the suffixes -er and -est is certainly standard in BrE for "strict", as for most one- and two- syllable adjectives. The "more strict" form has become commoner [sic] in my lifetime (some 65 years of reading and writing English, almost 40 of them teaching it) but seems to me generally awkward and ugly.

From preliminary database investigation, I can discern no rise in more strict at the expense of stricter in recent decades. Stricter continues to far outpace more strict, though as with other monosyllabic adjectives more strict is often used for emphasis — or when strict appears in conjunction with another adjective, as in "I am more strict and formal than you." (That's a line from Hardy's Jude the Obscure; further literary examples of more strict can be found below.)

Still, stricter seems to elicit a low-level sense of linguistic anxiety for some speakers. Occasionally this is evident from hedging tactics in casual online texts:

Now, he's in CORPORATE, hehe, so he has alot more responsibilities and a much stricter/more strict?(whatever) schedule to keep. (hess is jess)

I started with light exercise and minor diet changes and worked my way into tougher routines and stricter (more strict??) eating habits. (alt.support.diet)

Why should the comparative inflection for strict, as opposed to any other one-syllable adjective, sound "wrong" to certain speakers of English, so much so that an editor would go so far as to redact it? My working theory is that the final consonant cluster of strict creates a problem. The cluster /-kt/ is relatively unusual for short adjectives — except for participial adjectives like packed or locked, which, of course, can't take -er/-est. The only other "bare" (monomorphemic) adjectives ending in /-kt/ that I can think of all have at least two syllables, such as exact, intact, correct, erect, and abject. And those are all in the grey area for inflectability (for instance, exacter sounds okay to me, but not exactest).

So it seems that strict lacks similar sounding forms that could provide an analogical incentive for accepting the comparative/superlative inflections. In fact, past-participial forms like packed and locked might serve as an analogical disincentive, since we know that they're always uninflectable. (Well, almost always — you can find the occasional exception like damnedest/darnedest, though the comparative damneder/darneder is quite rare indeed.)

For this theory to have any plausibility, we should expect similar problems with other monosyllabic adjectives that have final consonant clusters associated with uninflectable past participles. One such adjective that fits the bill is vast, and sure enough vaster can create similar reactions of uncertainty or even prescriptivist backlash:

The majority of users are naive, and therefore do not want a "much vaster functionality"
(grammar check, much more vast? Not sure, it just sounds funny)... (alt.destroy.microsoft)

> and there is a reality of our souls that is far vaster [...]
Grammar Alert: that should be "far more vast." (alt.tv.mst3k)

>> > Are you saying that the common knowledge of Westerners is vaster than
>> > that of the Japanese?
>> I think it's 'more vast than that of...'
> Not sure.  Is "vaster" incorrect?  My spell checker didn't catch it.
It probably looks right to a spell-checker, but vaster seems an odd usage. (soc.culture.japan)

As your resources are certainly vaster (more vast?) than mine... (Take Our Word For It)

So the final consonant cluster /-st/, like /-kt/, might make vast problematic for some speakers who associate it with uninflectable forms like passed. But wait... what about fast? No one ever complains about faster or fastest. In the case of fast, sheer frequency of use outweighs any associations that the final consonant cluster /-st/ might have. We've heard faster and fastest from very early on in our linguistic development, whereas vaster and vastest occur far less frequently in everyday usage.

Another potential case is fond, with its final cluster of /-nd/ perhaps reminiscent of past participles ending in -(n)ned. Fond is not as common as fast, but the comparative and superlative inflections are familiar enough from set expressions like "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," "Fondest memories/wishes/regards," etc. And yet even fonder can occasionally lead to some hedging:

This way people would be fonder (more fond?) of an reunion, if there's going to be one. (alt.tv.friends)

The sporadic uncertainties over stricter, vaster, and fonder, as with the more obvious unacceptability of wronger, may defy any simple rule-based explanation. Historically speaking, comparative and superlative inflections are an odd vestige in English, since other types of adjectival inflection (for gender and number) disappeared from the language long ago. Hence we make our acceptability judgments using probabilistic rules of thumb (one syllable: yes; two syllables: maybe, three or more syllables: no), but in general we learn what adjectives we can inflect on a lexical, or word-by-word, basis. In the face of such inexactitude, it's no wonder that the prescriptively minded among us react by laying down the law, even when that law is stricter (more strict?) than reality would dictate.

As promised, here are ten examples of stricter from notable literary works:

Take no stricter render of me than my all. (William Shakespeare, Cymbeline)

This friend was the gamekeeper, a fellow of a loose kind of disposition, and who was thought not to entertain much stricter notions concerning the difference of meum and tuum than the young gentleman himself. (Henry Fielding, Tom Jones)

We are not wont to show an idle courtesy to that sex, which requireth the stricter discipline. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales)

Mrs. Norris...consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him; and for her reduction of income by the evident necessity of stricter economy. (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park)

Madame Poincon, who was stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

Such an arrangement being in stricter conformity with the absolute wording of old Hiram's will. (Anthony Trollope, The Warden)

"I must be a little stricter than that," he said. (Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge)

Having given this explanation, Mrs Squeers put her head into the closet and instituted a stricter search after the spoon, in which Mr Squeers assisted. (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)

Is an illicit affair like a gambling debt — demands stricter honor than the legitimate debt of matrimony, because it's not legally enforced? (Sinclair Lewis, Main Street)

The stricter her honesty, the greater the fraud she would be asked to suffer at their hands. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

And for balance, ten examples of more strict:

Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more, but rather wishing a more strict restraint upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare. (William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)

And yet I know not, on a more strict examination into the matter, why we should be more surprised to see Greatness of Mind discover itself in one Degree, or Rank of Life, than in another. (Henry Fielding, Amelia)

"They claim," said the clergyman, "to represent the more strict and severe Presbyterians." (Sir Walter Scott, Waverley)

And, after all, the idea may have been no dream, but rather a poet's reminiscence of a period when man's affinity with nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Deer)

If we would make more strict inquiry concerning its origin, we find ourselves rapidly approaching the inner boundaries of thought. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture on the Times)

No widow, since the seclusion of widows was first ordained, has been more strict in maintaining the restraints of widowhood, as enjoined. (Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister)

I am more strict and formal than you, if it comes to that. (Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure)

He, who gambled away tens of thousands at one roll of the dice and laughed at it, became more strict and more petty in his business, occasionally dreaming at night about money! (Herman Hesse, Siddartha)

Mr. Clutter may have been more strict about some things — religion, and so on — but he never tried to make you feel he was right and you were wrong. (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood)

He was just a touch more strict with us than ever. (Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers)

[John Cowan writes:

Do you really have strong intuitions about these adjectives never taking comparative and superlative inflections? I don't have access to the OED, but NID3 shows worth (adj) as entirely obsolete, loath(e) only in frames like "COP loath(e) to INF", and the examples for "like" seem rather archaic to me -- some would be "alike", others "likely" in more modern expressions.

Indeed, it is precisely because these words survive as adjectives only in very circumscribed contexts — "of like mind," "loath(e) to (do something)," "for all he is worth" — that the comparative and superlative inflections no longer work for them. The chapter on inflections in CGEL should provide further enlightenment on this point.

And Mark Etherton writes:

In your recent post on Language Log you say that "Alice voiced the rare exception to the rule that three syllable adjectives hardly ever take -er or -est". The relevant sentence in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland begins:

'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English);
It seems to me that for Carroll - and I suspect for most native speakers - 'curious' is not really an exception to the rule: the only time it takes -er is when there is an at least implicit reference to Alice.

This is quite true. I should have said that the curiouser exception only holds for Alice and those who want to talk like her.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 20, 2006 09:39 PM