I wrote a usage tip last week about “cord” and “chord.” One of the commenters, Miaka Kirino, told me of a sign on a bus window that misused “chord” and she was kind enough to snap a picture and post it over on G+. With her permission, here it is: a truly cringe-worthy typo in the wild.
If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?
Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.
This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)
Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.
I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).
Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?
This isn’t my usual kind of post. Let me give you some background and you can decide whether you want to read it or go do some laundry.
I’ve been a member of a private interfaith forum for nearly 15 years. Discussions there lean toward debate of a scholarly and academic nature. It’s common to see posts with footnotes and citations. Late last year, one of the members posited a world where Christianity never caught on the way it did in our reality. While many responses to this concept discussed socioeconomic or cultural changes, my brain went immediately to the immense pool of phrases that would be nonexistent because the King James Version of the Bible would never have been created. I started poking around the internet for source material.
That’s how I found this blog. Whaddaya know; Erin Roof already wrote this post for me. (Well, no, not really, but yes, it’s this post. Just that she wrote it. Already. ::coughs:: )
I hope you’ll click through and read her entry, because I honestly can’t say it much better than she. Differently, sure, but not better. I will, however, give you a sampling of what we’d be missing if there were no KJV in our world.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. (Admit it. You thought this came from Abe Lincoln, didn’t you.)
Out of the mouths of babes.
Cast not your pearls before swine.
Walk on water.
Blessed are the peacemakers. (I ask you, where would “The Life of Brian” be without the KJV? “Blessed are the cheesemakers?”)
Beat swords into plowshares.
Good Samaritan (Think of all the hospitals that would have to be renamed!)
Ms. Roof also points out in her blog entry that no less prestigious a periodical than the National Geographic has printed an article about this subject (December 2011). And here I thought I was really onto something unusual. Not. Heh. That’s okay. It was still a very enlightening rabbit hole to explore.
Besides, there are so many related issues to the non-importance of Christianity. Take the printing press, for example . . . well, that’s really another blog type entirely, isn’t it.
To every thing there is a season. (No, the Byrds didn’t write that lyric.)
This time I have to thank Steve Miller for posting about this headline on his Facebook wall. Because of that, I wound up searching for the exact wording and discovered the precise location of the travesty of usage that is
I don’t know how long the link will remain active, so: CHAVEZ CANCER RETURNS, NAMES SUCCESSOR.
What, now? Who is Chavez Cancer? (Steve has some ideas about that, apparently.)
Honestly, even had it read “Chavez’s Cancer” the result wouldn’t be much better. The cancer is still naming a successor. At least the original version has some black(er) humor. It’s headlines like this that make my editor-senses twitch fitfully, my fingers curl into claws, and my eyes narrow. My gaze becomes fire. Smoky tendrils waft up from my ears. Is it really that difficult to write a headline that doesn’t scream “IDIOT!”? What’s wrong with “Cancer Returns, Chavez Names Successor”? It uses all the same words, and makes the point without causing editorial rage. I think it’s a plot by the website to lure me there.
More apropos: “How have you pled? Or pleaded? Which one is it, anyway?”
The answer is: Both. Yes. Either. Doesn’t really matter.
I told you you probably wouldn’t like the answer to that question in my last blog post. But did you read it? Did you listen? Do I sound like your mother?
This site provides an interesting perspective that, to me, cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s a legalese issue from my point of view. Think about it for a moment. What’s the real difference between “The mother pleaded for mercy on her child” and “The suspect pled not guilty”? The first one takes place outside the courtroom (one assumes, anyway), the second inside it. Dictionaries tell us that “pleaded” is the standard form, but we’re used to hearing “pled” because we’re addicted to courtroom dramas from “Perry Mason” to “Law & Order.”
Another site points out the poetic use of “pled” (citing Spenser, among others) over “pleaded,” and explains that while lawyers also tend to use “pled” over “pleaded,” they use “deeded” instead of the “unfortunate-sounding alternative” one would arrive at if following the same formula. (I’ll wait while you work that out.)
It would seem to me, based on these readings and several dictionaries, that “pleaded” is the standard form for the past tense of “plead.” It would also seem to me that if the writer prefers the sound of “pled” for some reason (be that poetic license or legalese), that is also acceptable in general. As always, check your preferred usage manual if you care about that sort of thing. (And you should care about it. If you don’t, why are you reading this blog in the first place?)
I’ve been getting questions off-blog lately about simple past verb forms, most of which can be addressed via speaking to UK versus US usage. This subject has been addressed often elsewhere, but not here. I will suggest up front that if you want more information, by all means employ your own brand of Google-fu and go get it. It’s all out there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, I’ve distilled one small part of the gist of this subject for today’s post.
In general, a verb form ending in -t is indicative of UK usage. Likewise, one ending in -ed is indicative of US usage. Witness these examples.
I cannot stress enough that I am speaking in generalities. There are undoubtedly exceptions to what I’ve just said. If you feel the need to post them as comments, knock yourself out. I’m not trying for an exhaustive list, I’m just showing folks the way this works. (I’ll beat some of you to the punch. The past tense of “to deal” is “dealt,” no matter which usage you’re employing. There is no such word as “dealed.”)
“But Karen, I’ve used dreamt all my life and there’s no one British in my family!” Y’know, I believe you. I’ll tell you this much: You probably grew up/live in an area of the US with strong linguistic ties to England, which means that usage in your area leans toward the UK versions of things. I grew up in an area with strong Germanic/Dutch ties, so we had sayings like “The bread is all” meaning “There’s no more bread.” Linguistics are fascinating. Do some reading on the subject if you’re so inclined. Google-fu is powerful stuff indeed.
“But Karen, what about lent?” Well, I’ll tell you. Lent as a verb is the past tense of lend. Lend/lent, loan/loaned, lean/leaned. Lend and loan are mostly interchangable; the latter has the connotation of financial dealings, which is why we lend a hand, but loan a fiver. We lend an ear, because if we loaned one it would involve surgery. We can lend a bike, or we can loan one. Last week, I lent someone a book and I loaned my daughter a few dollars. It’s all good.
That tree leaned the other way before the big windstorm. If I lived in the UK, I’d say it leant the other way.
I’ll point you to the Daily Writing Tips blog (see it in our blogroll) for this kind of information. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary is good as well; when applicable, it notes differences in US/UK usage clearly. Remember that the preferred form appears first in the listing; coming second doesn’t mean a form is wrong, it merely means it is not the preferred form. (And that usually means that copy editors like me will change the less-preferred form to the more-preferred one, without a compelling reason not to. And by compelling, I mean stronger than “because I like it better.”)
Watch this space for an upcoming post about those pesky -ou- spellings (also UK usage), and perhaps even one about the correct past tense of “to plead.” You probably won’t like the answer. I don’t care. Ha.
Because it’s Calvin and Hobbes, that’s why.
No, no. Not that one.
Sometimes other folks can say what I’m thinking more eloquently than I can. This is one of those times. I invite you to click on this link to read a NYT piece in which two grammarians debate which rules to adhere to, and which to let slide.
If I have to choose a label, I find that I can’t. I have elements of both prescriptivism and descriptivism in my grammatical worldview. Apparently that’s not entirely bad.
I can live with that.
Lately I’ve been posting pictures of signs that feature typos. Here’s one that suffers from a different kind of problem. It meant to say one thing but ended up saying another.
So if parking is limited to 90 minutes for Whole Foods Market customers only, does that mean people who are shopping in a different store can park in the lot for as long as they want? Can the guy who lives down the block leave his car in the lot all the time? I guess Whole Foods Market customers are the only ones getting the shaft here. Doesn’t seem like the best way to treat the people spending money in your store!
They could have avoided the problem by adding a few more words to the sign. Something like: “. . . parking is limited to 90 minutes and is for Whole Foods Market customers only.” It’s usually worth giving a little extra attention to ensure that your message is being conveyed accurately, especially when it’s displayed in public.
(The above photo was kindly donated to the blog by Josh Weinberg. Thanks, Josh!)
“Okay, okay,” you say. “Pointing out typos and other copy editing failures is fun and all, but does any of this stuff really matter?”
Well, how about this? In Albuquerque, New Mexico, officials recently wrote up a proposal to increase the minimum wage and change how employees receive tips, hoping to get it on the November ballot. More than 12,000 people signed it, and the proposal seemed on its way to a slam-dunk victory, before someone noticed an error in a key section. Here’s the troublesome passage:
The measure would also require that starting in 2013, employers of tipped employees like waitresses and waiters be paid at least 45 percent of the minimum wage in cash wages from their employers.
See the problem? According to the wording above, who will be receiving the wages here? That’s right—the employers. Obviously, it should be the employees who will benefit from the change in minimum wage and tips, not their bosses. But that’s not what the proposal says. Councilor Ken Sanchez, one of the sponsors, said that if the proposal passes as is, lawsuits will probably be filed against the city.
As you might imagine, changing the wording of a government proposal after it’s been voted on involves just a bit of bureaucracy. Albuquerque city councilors are thinking about letting the current proposal appear on the ballot and also putting up another version with corrected wording. (Sure—that won’t be confusing to voters.)
Whatever happens, this is a good lesson in clear writing, good copy editing, and/or careful proofreading—take your pick.
(Here’s the source of this story.)