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The persistence of superstition

Slow-witted as I am, it has taken a long time for the penny to drop about the reason that superstitions about grammar and usage are so durable. Because they are simple and easy to remember, they serve as “tells” about other people.

When I see a gentleman who is wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, I put a little tick against that person in my head. The same thing happens when I hear someone say “IN-ter-est-ing” or pronounce the t in often. Or when someone walks into a brew pub and orders a Bud Light. We all make multitudes of minor judgments about other people every day, and we keep them to ourselves if we’re smart enough to realize that they are purely personal and arbitrary.

The superstitions about grammar and usage have origins. Dryden campaigned against stranded prepositions because he imagined that to be correct, English had to resemble Latin. Hopefully slumbered peacefully in the bosom of the language for centuries until it caught on as a vogue term about half a century ago and was scorned by the type of people who didn’t like the type of people who talked that way.

The superstition outlives its origins. No one today thinks that English ought to be made to resemble Latin. Apart from the peevers and sticklers, resistance to hopefully has faded, as the objection to contact as a verb faded before it. But the objections survive because they are simple, easy to remember, and convenient for labeling people. They are shibboleths, in the same sense as the word is used in Judges 12: a marker to identify People Who Are Not Like Us.

Most of our private snobberies are relatively harmless. I’m not the fashion police; you can dress as you like. It’s of no real consequence to me that you drink Bud Light, so long as I don’t have to. But it is different with language peeving and snobbery.

In the first place, they don’t teach you in school how to dress or what booze to drink,* but they are supposed to teach you how to write. And if they are wasting their time and yours with a load of codswallop, they are inhibiting your ability to use the language with facility and grace.

And then, the peevers universalize their private preferences. Worse, they make them moral issues. They don’t carry on about the decline of Western civilization if hideously ugly and uncomfortable platform shoes come back into vogue, or people mix Red Bull with rum and Sour Apple Pucker,** but they do sound the barbarians-at-the-gate alarums over points of English usage. And when linguists and lexicographers point out that they exaggerate, or are simply wrong, they cannot abandon or even question their snobberies, which are essential for propping up their sense of self-worth.***

Though they waste time in the schools, and sometimes on copy desks, their protestations are futile—the language goes where it will—and ultimately comical. I recommend to you the purchase of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain. If you can find one. Read his essays from the 1950s and early 1960s huffing and puffing and fulminating against Webster’s Third International, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the National Council of Teachers of English, and all linguists. Today they sound tinny and fusty.

Or have a look at Jan Freeman’s excellent Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, to see how quickly each pronunciamento ages and begins to look misguided, pointless, silly.

There is no getting away from our private judgments and snobberies. They are essential to our navigating the world day to day, because we cannot investigate every person and situation and text exhaustively. But it is salutary to keep them within bounds, and to subject them to a little examination from time to time.


*Though, to be sure, it is learned there.

**I am not making this up.

 ***How do I know so much about the psychology of sticklers? Because I myself am a recovering stickler.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (21)


Stickler: anyone who does not share my pet peeves.

Sadly, I must report some prejudice against hopefully.

I use the damn word too much. I find reporters use hopefully and similar adverbs and constructions too much.

Hopefully can ruin sentence flow. Instead of creating conversational language in a newspaper story, it can come off as stilted if overused.

Hopefully, I do not go overboard in editing to my eccentricities. Then again, why the hell be an editor if you can't be cranky?

In more important matters, I harbor no ill will toward bow ties as long as I can be a haven for woolen plaid long ties from Scotland or Ireland. (Do I need a hyphen or comma somewhere in woolen plaid long ties?)

Thanks for the mention, John!
I'm especially interested in the "ofTen" phenomenon because my daughter, sometime during her college years in Michigan, switched from the silent-T to the spoken-T pronunciation. That (and the fact that I hear it on NPR and the BBC as well) suggests that it's just a fashion, perhaps spread mostly by the young, and not a marker of class or education or region. Our prejudices may persist -- of course they do! -- but those "tells" may not be telling us what we think they do.

The thing about those ties from Scotland and Ireland is that they have two Ls. No, not in plaid or long.

And those little signs we judge people by can be misleading. The bloke with brown shoes and a blue suit might have give his other shoes away to his mate what's got no shoes at all. I draw the company's attention again to the Stanley Holloway monologue Brahn Boots. There's a very affecting version of it (for those interested in prehistoric entertainments) on YouTube.

Alas, I fail two of your shibboleths. The 't' in my often came along during years teaching non-native speakers of English in the Middle East where hyper-articulation seemed a useful strategy. And danged if I can think of how else one would say a word spelled interesting than IN-ter-est-ing (and's sound file can't either).

@ Jim -- the order for adjectives for your neckwear ( would seem to yield "long plaid woolen ties," even though I suspect you intend "long ties" vs. "bow ties," Still "long" seems to want to go first and if it does, no commas or hyphens would be needed.

I could pretend to be brilliant and post something that adds to this ongoing debate, but instead I'm going to ask what's been rolling around in my head since I read this:

How do you pronounce "interesting" without the stress on the first syllable?

I've checked several dictionaries this morning to verify pronunciation, and the stress on the first syllable seems to be the preferred option.

And does my obsessive need to resolve this clearly identify me as a peever?

It's not where the accent goes; it's the hyperpronunciation of giving full value to each written syllable instead of saying something like INT-ris-ting.

"Because I myself am a recovering stickler."
Me, too. At least I'm making progress.
And here in Texas, I say "IN-tris-ting," too, although I've grown up hearing a lot of "IN-ter-est-ing" or "IN-ner-EST-ing,"

The spelling pronunciation of often has been blamed on Norman-French scribal error, but in my experience, going back to the Pleistocene, off-ten was pushed by the sticklers as the posh pronunciation. Most people in my neck of the woods tend to pronounce it off-en, but I have heard it on the BBC and NPR with the "T" variety. This may be a trend, but hopefully, I'm wrong.

The New Yorker helpfully, and coincidentally, makes some of those Macdonald essays available from its archive:

Thank you Picky. You left me in stitches.

Back when I was teaching copy editing (mid-'80s to mid-00s), I told my students to buy Strunk & White, but then we went through it to see how many of those "hallowed" caveats made any sense to them -- many of them didn't.

As for sticklerishness -- when I first started copy editing, in the '70s, the distinction between "which" and "that" was one of the first language things I learned. Imagine my chagrin when I learned decades later that Fowler had simply made up this distinction, merely because he thought it made sense. Well, it does sort of make sense, and I do "correct" those restrictive and nonrestrictive thats and whichs, but every time I conscious of that little voice in my head saying, "You're just making this up. It's really not any righter than it was." I guess overcoming sticklerhood is harder than you think.

There is an infuriating fad among mostly youngish louts to overpronounce the 'd' in 'didn't,' 'couldn't" et al. They come out 'diDent,' 'coulDent,' and I can't tell you how wild this makes me. I blame television and the public schools - but there must be a source somewhere. Load up your shotguns!

You know, when you let them see that they're getting to you ...

Would it be better if they said "dint" or "shoont"?

My latest discovery in the tells department is the word viscount.

Having a bookstore clerk repeatedly mispronounce it grates, to say the least. A hint that the s is silent was dismissed unceremoniously.

Another tell regarding brown shoes is the color of the wearer's belt, which should always match. Please note, however, prescriptivism in fashion is practiced with considerably less rigor than prescriptivism in language.

Barbara Phillips Long,

Apropos your "viscount" citing, I have a kind of related story.

Yesterday, online, I discovered a rather charming little B&W mini-documentary from the CBC's (Canadian Broadcasting Corp's) archives, capturing the then fledgling new-kid-network-news-anchor-on-the-block, 26-year-old Canadian-born-and-bred broadcast wunderkind, TV/ radio news journalist, Peter Jennings.

At this early juncture the boyishly handsome, silver-tongued Jennings was just freshly embarking on his long and illustrious news anchoring career at ABC TV NEWS, initially announcing on ABC Radio, and in short order, appearing as the new face, and voice of ABC TV News, out of their NYC main bureau.

Interestingly, it was in the mid-'60s when Jennings opted to leave the little comfy fish bowl of the rather provincial CBC, to seek his future fame and fortune in the U.S. (not his driving motivations, by a long shot), as the Vietnam 'war' was starting to escalate-------'the war' eventually becoming almost a permanent fixture on the nightly network news broadcasts for years to come. Military parlance and jargon would soon permeate the mainstream media airwaves. (Trust me, I'll eventually get to my point. HA!)

Initially, the producers and staff writers at ABC TV News were a little concerned that the voluble Peter Jennings might come across, on-air, as a tad too Canadian (eh?), w/ his smattering of 'oot's (outs) and 'aboots' (abouts) affectations. The lingering legacy of quirky Britishisms appeared to die hard w/ young Jennings, and the word "lieutenant'" seemed to prove problematic.

Jennings would keep pronouncing it, 'left-tenant', in pre-telecast run-throughs, as a dutiful Canuck would. This only pricked up the ears of his American ABC TV News production colleagues, who would complain, " 'Left-tenant'? But it's pronounced 'lootenant', Peter. Got it?".

So for a time, a giant memo/ poster hung prominently in the ABC TV NEWS NYC news bureau, reading, " It's "lootenant", Mr. Jennings!"

Of course Peter Jennings, various Canadian linguistic affectations and all, went on to become the consummate national network TV news anchor, up there in the pantheon of the exalted TV greats----Brokaw, Cronkite, Brinkley, Chancellor et al.
(Sorry Tom B., I know you are still very much alive.)

Even at the age of twenty-six, Jennings appeared to exhibit an incredible drive, solid work ethic, an insatiable wide-ranging curiosity, and a certain cocky sureness that clearly boded well for his future as the dependable face of ABC TV NEWS for many decades to come.

His death from lung cancer at 67 was very sad, and unfortunate. The impact of his loss at ABC TV NEWS is being felt even to this very day. (Just check out the ratings.)

Sorry Diane Sawyer. But America knew the incomparable Peter Jennings, and as glamorous, sincere, and engaging as you may appear to be on-air, you ain't no Peter Jennings.

At twenty-six, as this early film footage on Jennings clearly revealed, he was hooked on cigarettes. Arguably the daily tensions, and huge demands of being the ABC TV NEWS guy for all those many years seemed to almost encourage smoking and perhaps abuse of the bottle, on occasion. (Signs of the times?)

Some would argue that habitual smoking lead ultimately to Peter Jennings relatively early demise.

He has truly been missed, even though his passing was not that too long ago.

Here's that early CBC Jennings clip if anyone is curious:


Just a few days ago I heard someone on NPR say POTable (instead of the received pronunciation with the long O). I cringed.

Indeed, the word was spelled "lootenant" on his teleprompter.

S. J. Robbins, I commend to you the recently released big fat volume of Mark Twain. He once wrote a forward for a translation of the trials of Joan of Arc, and was shocked to find that the editor he gave it to proposed to edit it, which he was not remotely qualified to do. His changes are shown in the manuscript, and it's fascinating to behold the relative weakness of his ten-dollar words, and his slack ear for rhythm. The reply Twain actually sent was brief and civil, but for his own and posterity's amusement he expatiated fully on the editor's ignorant ham-handedness.
Here's the sample you remind me of: "Note: Whenever I say 'circumstances' you change it to 'environment;' and you persistently change my thats into whiches and my whiches into thats. This is merely silly, you know." (Autobiography, p. 179)

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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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