March 03, 2007

Why are so many linguistic corrections incorrect?

Commenting on Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's spelling stalker (discussed by Arnold Zwicky here), Toni K. wrote:

I can't imagine (in)correcting (this isn't really a word, but I also like ((())) someone's spelling on a blog.

A closely related neologism appeared on nwu.general back in 1998:

On 24 Apr 1998, Marek Lugowski wrote:
> Webster Collegiate. Try our own client, webster:
I _did_ use webster, but I used it to be sure I wasn't making an ass out of myself by correcting you with an 'incorrection.' (hmm, I just made that up - incorrection. I think I like it... :)

And William Safire closed out 2006 with a column entitled "Incorrections", in which he defines incorrection as "a correction that is itself incorrect".

It's hard not to be affected by incorrections. Thus whenever I use entitled as I did in the previous paragraph, it reminds me of a friend who feels that the only legitimate sense of entitled is "having a rightful claim (to)". When she first incorrected me on this point, I thought that she might be right -- maybe this is one of those malaprop-like substitutions that we all discover from time to time in our own version of English. But a quick check of news archives showed that entitled meaning "titled" is widespread. And the OED gives with citations from Chaucer forward, e.g.

c1381 CHAUCER Parl. Foules 30 This booke..Entitled was right thus..Tullius of the dreame of Scipion.
1888 H. MORLEY Eng. Writers III. 179 A book entitled ‘De Nugis Curialium’.

It's true that in some contexts, the "rightful claim" sense is much commoner these days -- it's more than 10-to-1 in the recent New York Times, for example -- but I don't think that my friend generalized incorrectly from her experience. Instead, I bet that a teacher or parent once incorrected her on the same point. And the entry in MWCDEU says:

Sources as diverse as Emily Post 1927 and Bremner 1980 have expressed disapproval of using entitled to mean "titled." However, this well-established usage has been common for over 500 years and is the older of the two senses.

So I concluded my friend's objection was an incorrection, and I can continue with a clear conscience to use entitled to mean "titled" -- though now I know that some people will disapprove. But how often can an eager-to-please youth resist an incorrection from a confident and respected elder?

One of the fascinating things about linguistic corrections is that so many of them are in fact incorrect. A few historic examples from our earlier posts:

"Cullen Murphy draws the line" (12/27/2003)
"At a loss for lexicons" (2/9/2004)
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: Zero for three" (9/17/2004)
"Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3" (6/8/2006)

It may not surprise you to find that Bob the blogger (as documented in that last post) can't be trusted to red-pencil the writing of his political enemies. But it should surprise you that eminent sages -- the likes of Cullen Murphy and Sidney Goldberg -- should so carelessly embarrass themselves in public by complaining erroneously about things that are easy to check. And it should be even more surprising that the editors of The Atlantic, the Boston Globe and The New York Times were willing to publish such embarrassments without checking. (Oh, wait -- Cullen Murphy was managing editor of The Atlantic at the time his article was published. But still.) Can you imagine some august curmudgeon submitting a screed about all those geographical illiterates who think that Mexico is in North America, or all those historical illiterates who think that Napoleon was actually Corsican? Can you imagine The Atlantic or The New York Times publishing it?

But the real surprise, it seems to me, is not that complaints of this kind are wrong from time to time. It's that they're so often wrong. The people embarrassing themselves are intelligent, well educated, and well read. They're excellent writers, with a fine command of the English language. I'm sure that their basic intuitions about usage are at least as good as mine, and probably better. So how do they manage to be wrong in print such a large proportion of the time?

That's not a rhetorical question. I really don't know the answer, though I've speculated about this before. Here are some additional speculations, which apply even more strongly to most incorrectionists, who are far less well informed than the eminences whose puzzling errors are in the spotlight above.

Perhaps in this area, people respect authority so much that they never question and never forget an incorrection from an authority figure who awed them in their youth. Thus an incorrection, once authoritatively initiated, can never be ended by mere observation of usage, and will never be checked in a reference work. And since the "rules" that incorrections enforce are invented ones, without any basis in the genuine norms of the language, they're likely to be violated frequently. Therefore, for someone who has accepted a large number of such invented prescriptions, a significant fraction of perceived linguistic faults will be false. Un-errors, if you will.

There's a less innocent factor that may also encourage incorrections. Only a minority can be elite, and so a rule that almost everyone almost always follows is worthless as a badge of eminence. The only way to claim high linguistic status is to cite a rule that is frequently violated; and of course, such rules are likely to be the invented ones that give rise to incorrections.

And there's one more factor whose importance is probably increasing. These days, most people -- including many intellectuals -- are untrained and deeply confused about the analysis of language. They believe that terror is "an adjective ... or an adverb"; that -ing ends in a "hard g"; that a "passive" is any sentence whose subject is not an agent. Imagine what happens when you take this level of analytic confusion, and set it to work interpreting and generalizing a prescriptive rule of any kind -- a historical pattern under threat from a vernacular innovation, or a high-status innovation trying to suppress an older vernacular form, or a personal stylistic preference elevated to the status of a principle of grammar. The result is likely to be a chaotic jumble of puzzling assertions about linguistic right and wrong, many of which are incorrections. Which is roughly what we see.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 3, 2007 06:44 AM