Saturday, July 11, 2009

Politics muddles grammar

At Language Log this morning, Mark Liberman comments, “For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor.”

The instance giving rise to the generalization is an episode of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown in which Margaret Carlson belittles Sarah Palin’s syntax in a statement that is flat wrong about Ms. Palin’s grammar. Professor Liberman suggests that interested readers might compare Ms. Carlson’s syntax and Ms. Palin’s. *

Also today, Headsup characterizes an NPR segment on “Orwellian” political speech as “a burst of semantic weirdness.”

Guest Joe Queenan said, “ ‘War on terror’ is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means.”

To which “fev” replies: “With all due respect, but — are you out of your mind? The great advantage of ‘war on terror’ is that it's anything but ‘very, very specific.’ It's everything from a metaphor to an actual shooting war, and it happens everywhere from the Afghan-Pakistan border to whatever those suspicious neighbors of yours are up to behind the curtains there. It means vastly different things to different members of the audience. That's why — at least partly why — it works so well.”

There should be considerable benefit in a close analysis of the things public officials say and the way they say them — particularly the resort to euphemisms and code words. But to accomplish this requires knowing something about the language beyond casual use of technical terms for effect.

* Language Log also explored the shakiness of commentators’ grasp of grammar when Geoffrey Pullum demonstrated that Charles Krauthammer doesn’t appear to know what the passive voice is.

Summer Saturday catchup

A miscellany.

More pointless distinctions

Having cheerfully bashed The Associated Press Stylebook for its persistence in maintaining obsolete or ill-advised style rules — and I’ll gladly do so again — I am equally happy to point out that the stylebook no longer maintains the archaic distinction between pupil and student. It’s a distinction, that pupils, up to the level of secondary education are being instructed and high school and college students learn independently, I held on to at The Sun long after its usefulness had passed.

One can still receive an occasional complaint from some elderly party about a headline referring to children as kids. (Is that “Mairzy Doats” I hear playing in the background?) “Kids are goats, not children,” the complaint invariably runs. I explained this once to my students at Loyola, and they gaped at me as if I had finally gone around the bend. Kids might still look a little colloquial in the context of a deeply serious story, but a term in universal use by parents and teachers cannot be ignored.

A legacy of Wikipedia

In Canada, a new educational term has popped up: Wikipedia kid. According to Word Spy, a Wikipedia kid is “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.” Thanks to Lori Kasenter for the citation.

Ask the Times

Time got Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, to respond to ten questions posed by readers. The tenth question: “Why is the Times so anti-American?”

I assume that if there had been an eleventh question, it would have been this: Has The Times stopped beating its wife?

Restless leg syndrome?

An article in the latest Columbia Journalism Review describes someone as sitting “with legs akimbo.” Akimbo describes a posture with hands on hips and elbows extended. Visualizing “legs akimbo” calls up some kind of yoga posture that is painful to contemplate.

Still could care less

A reader commenting on the “Making distinctions” post takes me to task with a familiar complaint:

You are dead wrong yourself on "could care less" and "couldn't care less." The former is a corruption of the traditional one. When one says "I could care less" he is saying that there are things for which he could care even less than the thing for which he could care less. When he says, "I couldn't care less," he is saying that that thing is the least of his concerns. Many of the things you say are perfectly correct are not in fact correct at all. These disappearing distinctions of language are what make modern speech incomprensible to some people and invite the destruction of the rules of grammar and syntax. I'd say Shame on you, but for the few things you got right. How on earth did you ever teach copyediting at Loyola? Well, then again, I guess it's silly to ask, if one considers the condition of language in print today.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments:

The reason why* the negative particle was lost without changing the meaning of the phrase [emphasis added] has been the subject of much speculation, much of it not very convincing. No one seems to have advanced the simple idea that the rhythm of the phrase may be better for purposes of emphatic sarcasm.

Bryan Garner disagrees, finding could care less “sloppy,” and here I have to part company with him. In the hundreds of times I have heard the expression could care less, I have never once understood it in the literal sense, and I’ve never heard anyone express confusion over the speaker’s intent. The objection to could care less is always that it is not logical. That is because it is an idiom, an expression in which the meaning can’t be understood from the literal sense of the component words.

If the commenter remains puzzled, he or she is welcome to sign up for my class at Loyola, CM 361, Copy Editing, Tuesday and Thursday, 9:25 a.m.


A reader solicits a “reaction to the use of the word ‘wannabe,’ as in ‘wannabe gang member,’ in the Metro section of the Wash Post last week. It struck me as a bit too informal, but I wonder if this was an example of careless editing or a perhaps a more formal and accepted use of the word. OED lists its use, of course, in newspapers, but the word seems to be used in sections of the paper less formal than the Metro section.”

There’s no question that the word, originally a colloquialism, is making headway in print. There is a good reason for that; it expresses useful distinctions of meaning. If The Post had referred to “an aspiring gang member,” the phrase would have conveyed the sense of someone who has an ambition that has not been fulfilled. But wannabe carries not only the sense of aspiration but also that of pretense — someone unsuccessfully imitating a role. The more traditional term is would-be, but I don’t think that it carries quite the same intensity of scorn.

A classic comment

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, in a succinct post on Facebook:

Bill Walsh assures the assignment editor that the 60-inch story he gave us five minutes ago is probably still in the copy editor's hands.

What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d

*Oh, good Lord, Merriam Webster’s says the reason why. Obviously worthless as an authority on usage.