Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nunberg on "hopefully"

If you won’t be hearing it on “Fresh Air” today, you’ll want to catch up with Geoff Nunberg’s commentary on hopefully when the audio link goes up – or read it here.

Some highlights:
[Hopefully’s] detractors were operatic in their vilifications. ... The historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it "the most horrible usage of our times" -- a singular distinction in the age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."
The critics also complained that hopefully "doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping."
But neither does "It is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a "natural" substitute. That's what usage fetishism can drive you to -- you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.
The oddest thing about hopefully may be the persistence of its opponents. During Nunberg’s time as chair of the American Heritage Usage Panel, he reports,
panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated" or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." In 1969, only about half the panelists agreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.
But there's a surprisingly hopeful conclusion:
People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity.
I suspect this is true, and what good news it is. Because -- as I realized a few years ago, while researching peeves of the past – if we all accept one another’s peeves as valid, the list of don’ts can only keep growing, and it already taxes the abilities of the dwindling band of copy editors. Maybe we've already begun to do what John McIntyre wisely suggests: Ignore the usage fetishes that don’t really matter.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The enormity! The enormity!

Paul Fussell, who died yesterday at 88, may have written (and done) some great stuff, but he’s on my shelf not because of his war writing or lit crit but because of his language snobbery. In the 1983 book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” he devoted a chapter to disparaging the (supposed) motives of people whose usages he disliked and ruling on (supposedly) eternal language verities:*
There may be some passing intimacy between those who think momentarily means in a moment (airline captain over loudspeaker: "We'll be taking off momentarily, folks") and those who know it means for a moment, but it won’t survive much strain.
So it’s amusing to find the New York Times praising his book "The Great War and Modern Memory" by quoting a source -- a published, edited source -- that includes at least two usage problems.
"It is difficult to underestimate Fussell’s influence," Vincent B. Sherry wrote in "The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War." … "His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him."
First there’s “underestimate” used for "overestimate" – a common enough confusion, but one that Fussell (so far as Google Books can tell) never fell into. Then there’s the use of  "enormity" to mean hugeness instead of awfulness -- no longer a sin in the eyes of most Americans,** but a usage that Fussell mocked in “Class” as ignorant pretension:
Class unfortunates who want to emphasize the largeness of something are frequently betrayed by enormity, as in "The whale was of such an enormity that they could hardly get it in the tank." (Prole version: "The whale was so big they couldn’t hardly get it in the tank.") Elegance is the fatal temptation of the middle class.
I suppose it’s possible that Bruce Weber, who wrote the obit, deliberately chose the Cambridge Companion's encomium so as to administer a posthumous tweak to his subject. If so, I salute him. If not, it’s still a delicious bit of cosmic payback.

* Yes, some of the book is (intentionally) funny; but the language commentary is mostly wild speculation and hostile declamation.  
** In Garner’s Modern American Usage, enormity used (or “misused”) for "immensity" is rated 4 out of 5 on Garner’s language-change index: “Ubiquitous but …”. That is, everyone’s doing it, but a resistant minority still holds its (dwindling) ground.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Descriptivists as hypocrites (again)

In this week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella parachutes into the usage trenches (ostensibly to review Henry Hitchings's latest book, "The Language Wars"), and discovers that Hitchings is only pretending to be a descriptivist: He uses who and whom in the traditional way, the hypocrite! And AHD is cowardly for including Steven Pinker's descriptivist essay in its latest edition (and presumably for naming him chief of its usage panel in the first place). I haven't read the piece yet, but here is Pinker in "The Language Instinct": "The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose."

Yes, it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis; I would have expected the New Yorker to grasp that fact, but apparently I would have been wrong.

Now I'm going to re-read Geoff Nunberg's (nearly 30-year-old) classic take on the subject, to revive my spirits -- though there's always the risk it will just convince me our discourse really is in decline.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A different 'issue' issue

Language Hat's post yesterday about the odd word cotoneaster, which made an appearance in Ian McEwan's recent New Yorker story, reminded me that I too was curious about a word (or two) that McEwan used. As the story begins, the narrator, a student about to graduate from Cambridge in 1972, describes her boyfriend:
He was unkempt, clever in an understated way, and extremely polite. I’d noticed quite a few of his sort around. They all seemed to have descended from a single family and to have come from private schools in the North of England where they were issued with the same clothes.
What stopped me was "issued with the same clothes." For me, or at least for the editor in me,  that with is, if not outright wrong, at least inelegant and unnecessary -- like saying someone was elected as president. But for McEwan, his educated narrator, and his New Yorker editor, "issued with" was apparently just fine.

I soon found out why: This is a British-American difference, with the Brits on the tolerant side of the scale. The usage appeared in the early 20th century, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. "Its common occurrence has led to its acceptance by British commentators (such as Partridge 1942 and Gowers in Fowler 1965). Speakers of American English would say 'provided with' or 'supplied with' instead." (Or maybe just "issued the same clothes," as I would.)

If I ever learned this nit formally, it was probably from Bergen and Cornelia Evans, whose Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) was one of my early references. The Evanses are (uncharacteristically) dogmatic on this point, saying that "the 
use of with following this use of issue (as in The new arrivals were issued with regulation uniforms) is redundant and erroneous."

But British usage watchers had already concluded that resistance was vain. The OED has a 1953 quote from the BBC publication The Listener objecting to "the idiom 'issued with': 'He was issued with' a rifle, and a packet of cigarettes, or what not. I suppose this horror has come to stay.'"

And Ernest Gowers sounded resigned in his 1965 edition of Fowler:
The modern construction, which speaks of issuing [someone] with the article, on the analogy of supply or provide ... has been deservedly criticized for  its absurdity. But it has been much popularized by two wars, is recognized without comment by the OED Supp., and has evidently come to stay, whether we like it or not.
Later usage books treat the choice as a matter of national preference: Roy Copperud (1970) and the Columbia Guide (1993) simply note that the Brits like "issued with" while Americans prefer just "issued" or "supplied with."

By the time Bryan Garner published the first version of his big American usage guide, in 1998, the verb issue was no longer an issue. (The noun issue, as in "we have issues," had begun its still flourishing career as a popular peeve -- but that's a different story.)