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Sometimes people are just wrong

I commend to your attention Arnold Zwicky’s post on Language Log, “Prejudices, egocentrism, impositions and intransigence.” It is as neat and compact a summary of the different categories of peevishness and misguided certainty about language as I have seen.

Many of the complaints that come in from readers of The Sun point out embarrassing lapses in our print and electronic editions, but many also fall into the categories that Professor Zwicky describes. And it is typically the people who are wrong who are most stubborn and intemperate, most resistant to explanation.

Particularly tedious are the people who imagine that English is in decline and that “correct” English needs some kind of official “protection” from the barbarians who are destroying it. This belief, which has cropped up regularly for at least the past five centuries, displays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the language and its operation.

The only way we are going to get to an intelligent discussion of grammar and usage — particularly in the area of concern for this blog, the ways that standard American English can be written most effectively — is to become willing to examine our own preconceptions and prejudices, with an eye to adjusting them to the realities of the language.

If, in the process, we could avoid tirades and denunciations, that, too, would be progress.

Professor Zwicky has closed the comments on his post, but you can feel free to respond here.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:04 PM | | Comments (5)


A perfect example of why we can't go about "correcting" our language in such a way is modern French. Their scholars are so stuffy about insisting that French stay pure... and their youth have slang words for everything - including water!

Prejudices don't seem to do anybody any good anywhere. In grammar and usage discussions, I find it more useful to try to work out specific trouble spots. (Like how should we be hyphenating "...near-real time data processing...") It is kind of fun to listen to arguments about whether using "impact" as a verb means I am either cutting edge or a complete dufus. But it is not worth getting really angry about it. And when I am editing a document and need to provide feedback to an author, what's more helpful is information that focuses on the truly perplexing aspects of the language, not dogmatic opinions.

Thank you for making this blog a place for intelligent and thoughtful discussion.

What Garner said.

The genius of a tongue
That cannot be broken —
The more you bend it
The more Anglish it is.


On the one hand, I love that people feel passionately about language and want to talk about and share that passion. On the other hand, I find it a bit alarming (and certainly off-putting) the lengths to which people will go to declare the intense feelings they have (usually rage or despair) when they feel that the language is being abused somehow. I make my living as an editor and I like to explore language and usage, but I confess I can't muster up the energy to make split infinitives or dangling participles a matter of life and death.

I do find it troubling when people use peevish points of view to rigidly exclude others who have made a mistake as "stupid," "uneducated," or "not worthy of being listened to."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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