Thursday, March 15, 2012

"I could care fewer" (and other NGD musings)

Apparently I have completely lost my sensitivity to the Timeliness Mandate in which all true journalists believe. Am I rebelling against all those years of deadlines, or am I just slower on the draw these days? Whatever; I may be 10 days late (or 355 days early), but I’m still going to offer a couple of comments on National Grammar Day, since I was otherwise occupied when it rolled around way back on March 4. 

First, of all the celebratory haiku and faux-haiku selected by the NGD judges in this year's contest, the one I found totally irresistible was a mischievous rebuke to humorless prescriptivism submitted by Tom Freeman (no relation!): 
People shouldn't say
"I could care less" when they mean
"I could care fewer"
Words to live by.

Also, because another National Grammar Day will be here in less than a year, I'd like to suggest that the language blogosphere take up a question Arnold Zwicky returned to in a recent post: What to call the mess of issues we lump together as "grammar" -- "the domain that takes in spelling, punctuation, choice of inflectional form, word choice, syntactic usage, and actual grammar?" 

Zwicky wishes we could disentangle these separate issues, but "if you really have to have a term for the great grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers taken together, I suggest garmmra," he says.

Zwicky is a whiz at naming -- see Recency Illusion and Frequency Illusion -- but I'm having trouble getting my mind (and tongue) around garmmra. I appreciate the appeal of anagramming, but the word is so un-English that I can’t remember where the r’s are supposed to go. (In fact, one commenter on his blog suggests that garmmra sounds like the name of a 1950s Japanese movie monster.)

So I've been looked for alternatives -- words that sound something like grammar, but are actually English and (more or less) suitable as labels for the “usage/spelling/punctuation/vocabulary/grammar” category of popular peeving.

How about gammer, for instance? It's "A rustic title for an old woman," says the OED, "the female counterpart of gaffer," probably derived from "godmother." Suitable for a language category replete with old wives' tales, no?

Or gammon, though it may be a bit too pejorative in its obsolete sense: "ridiculous nonsense suited to deceive simple persons only; ‘humbug,’ 'rubbish.'" (Possibly related to gammon "ham," but evidence is lacking.) “A Student’s Guide to English Gammon” has a certain ring to it. 

Grimmer, maybe, or grubber(y)?  Or we could press usance into service (replacing usage, which has other work to do). Or modify Safire’s gal pal, Norma Loquendi, and call her realm normalingo. Or how about lexiquette, to remind everyone that language is all about consensus, not eternal verities. 

Eleven and a half months is barely enough time to get started. After all, if naming the usage-spelling-punctuation mess were simple, copy editors -- who deal with most of its components -- would surely have coined a more impressive title for their trade. Maybe their jobs would be safer today if only they’d thought to call themselves ortholinguists or lexperts.


me said...

lexiquette is a great coinage but it's far too polite and reasonable for the mentality that "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". For that mob, "gammon" is almost perfect, save for being a little unnecessarily complimentary.

Bryan White said...

I must say that I'm baffled by the haiku, unless I'm missing the joke.

I've always understood "fewer" to mean less of something countable, while "less" just means an indeterminate amount less. For example, someone might say "I should have fewer cups of coffee in the morning", but no one who wasn't looking to sound like an idiot would say, "I should have fewer coffee in the morning."

Therefore, I can't see how the haiku would be a stab at prescriptivism since "I could care fewer" wouldn't be correct in even the strictest since...unless you can find me someone who can count care.

But hey, you all are the experts. I'm just here because someone told me there was free doughnuts.

Ø said...

Just to remind us that there is a respectable tradition of using this word in broader senses than a modern linguist would:

Definition of "grammar" from Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, via Wordnik:

n. A systematic account of the usages of a language, as regards especially the parts of speech it distinguishes, the forms and uses of inflected words, and the combinations of words into sentences; hence, also, a similar account of a group of languages, or of all languages or language in general, so far as these admit a common treatment. The formerly current classification of the subjects of grammar as fivefold, namely, orthography, orthoëpy, etymology, syntax, and prosody, is heterogeneous and obsolescent. The first and last do not belong really to grammar, though often for convenience included in the text-books of grammar; orthoëpy is properly phonology or phonetics, an account of the system of sounds used by a language and of their combinations; and etymology is improperly used for an account of the parts of speech and their inflections. See these words.

Bryan White said...

(Not to mention, I always thought it was "I couldn't care less", as in, "I'm at my absolute rock-bottom level of caring about this and it would be impossible to care less than I already do."

However, I could also see "I could less", as in, as little as I care about this now, it's probably still more than the situation deserves. I could care even less about it."

I think there was another post about this, way back.

Ø said...

Bryan, the haiku is a reference to two prescriptivist bugbears: "I could care less" for "I couldn't care less" and "less" for "fewer" with countable nouns. It is nonsensical to mix them up like this, but sometimes a joke is nonsensical on the surface. I thought it was funny.

Jan said...

Hey Bryan: Explaining humor is a thankless task, but let me try to articulate why I find this poem so funny.

We’ve been arguing about whether “I could care less” is an acceptable substitute for “I couldn’t care less” for half a century now. And while the former may be “illogical,” even its detractors must understand by now that in actual usage yes, it does mean the same thing as “I couldn’t care less,” not the opposite.

As for less and fewer, that’s a distinction people love to get riled up about, but it has more subtleties than most of us appreciate; for example, numbers are often treated as amounts (“250 words or less”), so there’s a huge gray area where the choice is essentially up to the writer. (See MWDEU’s 3+ columns of discussion.)

So, the haiku: You read

People shouldn’t say
“I could care less” when they mean …

And here you’re expecting “I couldn’t care less.” But what fun is that? Instead of contrasting could care/couldn’t care, the writer switches to an entirely different (and equally overexposed) peeve -– less vs. fewer -– and gives us an absurd punchline.

No doubt this rhetorical device could be explained more elegantly -– though of course no amount of explanation can make a joke funny if it doesn’t happen to amuse you. De gustibus and all that …

Bryan White said...

Or like the "12 items or less" lane.

I get it now. I was hung up on the idea that "I could care fewer" was supposed to be technically correct somehow. I was thinking, no that can't be right in any way. Now, I see that the absurdity was the point to begin with.

Thanks for explaining it, even if the humor does tend to die on the examination table. At least I feel pretty dumb now :)

Jan said...

Bryan, on the bright side, you've proven that explaining humor is not in fact a "thankless" task! ;)

Ed Cormany said...

the phonetic similarity between usance and nuisance is almost too hard to pass up. it gets my vote.

djw said...

I'm with Ed on "usance," with "gammon" as an okey-dokey second. Not too into the idea of the old-woman "gammer"; maybe it's just too close to home!

Gregory Lee said...

I liked the haiku, but I don't much like the question. For one thing, there doesn't seem to be any problem for which renaming "grammar" could ever be a solution. For another, just because "grammar" is now used for a bunch of disparate things which have only what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance, that doesn't make it unusual -- a lot of words are like that. Wittgenstein's example was "game".

And for yet another, since linguists have pretensions to being scientists, they really shouldn't be talking about stuff like this -- it leaves a bad impression. Scientists are not supposed to argue about what things are called, but rather about what they are.

Ø said...

Gregory, I agree. There are times when scientists have a legitimate beef about lay use of scientific terms, but in my opinion this is not one of them.

John Lawler said...

I rather like Arnold's term. It comes from the same universe of discourse as the peevage it's describing -- what you learned about the world in the third grade. Viz,

There are heroes and there are monsters and there is a monster called Garmmra and there are rules about Garmmra and everybody has to follow the Garmmra rules and if they don't then terrible things will happen to them but nobody really understands the rules, and so many people learn The Wrong Rules and terrible things happen to them.

That about sums it up.

John Cowan said...

I think linguists should leave grammar to the peevers and just talk about (morpho)syntax.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Jan, I'm glad you liked my haiku and I'm impressed with your analysis of it!

(Bryan - you're very far from being alone. After I tweeted it I got plenty of replies from people who didn't get it. Such is humour...)

I have to confess I do mentally twitch at 'could care less' (much rarer here in Britain) and '10 items or less', but if you can't poke fun at yourself then what on earth is the point of it all?

As for the mass of grammar/pseudo-grammar/style/taste/etc issues that keep getting complained about over and over again, how about 'languish'? It's kind of like proper language issues, but not quite. Plus it evokes how you feel after debating it for too long.

Tom (no relation)