Archive | Language

“A Place to Gather and Enjoy the Pace of a Foregone Era of Class and Sophistication”

A slogan of a Portland restaurant that I ran across with a Yelp search. (According to Yelp, the food is very good there.) According to, one of the definitions of “foregone” is “that has gone before; previous; past” — yet I think most readers would recognize the usage in the quote as extremely unidiomatic (to me, humorously so, which is why I’m passing it along). [...]

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Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism / Left vs. Right

Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) has an interesting post on usage debates and political debates; you should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

[T]he insistence on regulation by prescriptive “rules”, in whatever relationship to the direction of linguistic history, is another interesting inversion of the standard political metaphors as applied to matters of usage. Consider this passage from Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volumes 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:

[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design….

Yet … [m]any of the institutions of society which are indispensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view….

Man … is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

It would be hard to find a better statement of the descriptivist attitude towards linguistic norms.

But Hayek is using a general discussion of “all institutions of culture” to argue for a libertarian approach to economic and social policy, avoiding central planning and minimizing coercive regulatory intervention. Hayek was “one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite thinkers” and an important influence on Margaret

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Transliteration and Translation of Names

Trying to figure out how to refer to Solzhenitsyn, I did a Google Ngrams search comparing Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Alexander (the translation) was in the lead, though the transliteration Aleksandr has recently been almost nearly as popular. Alexandr is very rare.

For 19th and early 20th century Russians that have easily translated names, Leo Tolstoy wins hands down over Lev, Peter Tchaikovsky handily beats Piotr, and Czar Nicholas beats Czar Nikolai — yet Nikolai Gogol is vastly more common than Nicholas Gogol.

In the 20th century, Leon Trotsky is much more common than Lev Trotsky. Joseph Stalin is also much more common than Josef Stalin, though Josef Stalin forms a substantial minority (about 20%). Yet Josef Stalin is neither translation nor transliteration; the Russian pronunciation would be roughly “Yosif” or perhaps “Iosif,” which are extremely uncommon. But Mikhail Gorbachev is the standard, with Michael being almost never used.

In any case, I just thought I’d note this, in case people have some theories. I suspect that there’s something of a longterm trend towards transliteration rather than translation, but that doesn’t explain everything. There is also likely some effect based on the Latin-alphabet language in which the people first became known (perhaps that’s why Tchaikovsky got his initial “T,” unnecessary English but necessary in French). But I don’t think these explain everything, and I’d love to hear other explanations that people might have. [...]

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Gov. Chris Christie’s Speech and First Person Singular Pronouns

Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) is unimpressed with the claim that Gov. Chris Christie “used the word ‘I’ 30 times, plus a couple of ‘me’s’ and ‘my’s’ tossed in for seasoning” in his speech, and that this somehow says something important about Christie. Liberman had in the past responded similarly to those who made similar charges about President Obama. [...]

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Prof. Geoff Nunberg (Language Log) has an excellent NPR “Fresh Air” item about the unfounded condemnation of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. An excerpt:

That floating hopefully had been around for more than thirty years in respectable venues when a clutch of usage critics including Theodore Bernstein and E. B. White came down on it hard in the 1960’s. Writers who had been using it up to then said their mea culpas and pledged to forswear it. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications. The poet Phyllis McGinley called it an abomination and said its adherents should be lynched, and the historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it “the most horrible usage of our times” ….

You wouldn’t want to take the critics’ hysteria at face value. A usage can be really, really irritating, but that’s as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused “hopefully” or “literally” makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that — what it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It’s all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.

Of course even if you find the tone of these complaints histrionic, you can often sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing “enormity” with “enormousness” or “disinterested” with “uninterested.” It doesn’t herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.

But the fixation with hopefully is different from those others…. [T]here’s no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it’s a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick

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“In the Ukrainian [Parliament] … There Was a Full and Frank Exchange of Views on Language Policy”

Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) has all about this “exchange” — in this instance, a literal fistfight rather than a figurative one — all about whether to “elevate the status of Russian to a second language, equal to Ukrainian, in about half the regions of the country, including Kiev.” You have to see the picture, or at least the video (which I’m deliberately withholding so that more people can visit and maybe see what a great site Language Log is). [...]

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Vulgarity, Film Ratings, and Context

Prof. Julie Sedivy (Language Log) has a very interesting post about a British film ratings controversy involving a Ken Loach movie that uses the word “cunt.” The film rating people are distinguishing “aggressive” uses of the word from “non-aggressive” uses; a British commentator faults this for being a double standard, and a class-based one at that; Prof. Sedivy responds, I think quite soundly. A very interesting discussion. (What the proper rule of film ratings agencies should be, when it comes to either legally binding or non-legally-binding but nonetheless practically coercive ratings aimed at shielding minors from certain images or words, is a different story.) [...]

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Looking at Twitter to Study Regionalisms

An interesting project, covered in this New York Times ArtsBeat item. An excerpt:

To demonstrate the validity of Twitter-based research, Mr. Russ searched through some 400,000 Twitter posts coming from identifiable locations and zeroed in on three different linguistic variables, starting with the regional distribution of “soda” vs. “pop” or “Coke,” something that has been well-studied by scholars and amateurs alike. Next, he tracked the use of “hella,” an intensifier (as in “hella boring”) that is associated with Northern California but whose regional distribution has only been examined anecdotally. Finally, he looked at the well-documented syntactic construction “needs X-ed” (as in “the car needs washed”), which is common in the Midwest and especially around Pittsburgh.

Mr. Russ’s results for carbonated beverages, plotted onto a Google map, track closely with previous research, with “pop” predominant from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, “Coke” predominant in the South and “soda” ruling the Northeast and Southwest while also cropping up elsewhere. But his map for “hella” shows the word leap-frogging up the West Coast to Seattle (and, more puzzlingly, popping up in St. Louis and Kansas City).

Thanks to Donna Colin for the pointer. [...]

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Lawtalk: Volokh Abets Observations on “Aid and Abet”

In addition to the scores of specific words and phrases dissected in Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions, we also discuss more generally what may be the most ridiculed characteristic of legal language — its predilection for redundancy: “aid and abet,” “over and above,” “goods and chattels,” “ordered, adjudged, and decreed,” and so on and so forth. In law school it was explained to me that this was the result of combining words from Old English (like goods) with substantially synonymous words of French origin (like chattels) to assure comprehension in an age in which both languages were used in England, particularly in legal contexts.

But this common explanation doesn’t hold water. Aid and abet, for example, are both from French; over and above are both native English. In Lawtalk we point out a number of considerations that fostered — and in many cases still foster — the use of such phrases, such as the fear that omitting some customary word would open the door to an argument that some shade of meaning is not covered. A factor now mostly forgotten is that for centuries court clerks, and even some lawyers, were paid by the page — an approach unaccountably neglected in the search for alternatives to billing by the hour, about which Beth Thornburg wrote in this space two days ago. And we emphasize an even more overlooked factor: that the use of redundant expressions is not specifically a lawyerly habit, but a common stylistic feature of general English, sometimes adding gravity (e.g. wrack and ruin) and sometimes whimsy (jot and tittle).

An e-mail the other day from Eugene Volokh, however, raises the interesting question of how redundant such phrases really are. He noted that abet historically referred to verbal encouragement [...]

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Of Time and Lawtalk

Thanks so much to Eugene Volokh for the invitation to guest blog about Lawtalk:  Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions this week.  Working on the book was tons of fun (and a dramatic lesson in the amount of historical material now available online), and my co-authors and I are enjoying the opportunity to share what we’ve learned with those who are interested.  Today’s topic is time, both in the sense of the provenance of legal expressions and as a measuring stick for legal fees.

In many cases, we discovered that law-related expressions are much older than people generally believe, and older than the earliest cites in the Oxford English Dictionary.  For example, I initially bought into the myth that Los Angeles police chief William H. Parker coined the phrase thin blue line in the 1950s (thanks, Wikipedia).  Not true:  in its laudatory metaphorical form (referring to the police as a line protecting the citizenry from crime), we traced this play on “thin red line” (referring to red-coated British soldiers in the Crimean War) back to a speech given by the Bishop of Coventry to the annual meeting of supporters of the Birmingham Police Institute in 1900–and as a literal reference to lines of policemen, all the way back to 1855.

A different kind of surprise, though, was how comparatively new the expression billable hour is.  In fact, billable in this sense is even now absent from the OED; it has the word only as a legal term meaning “liable to be served with a bill; indictable,” and its only cite is from 1579. Billable as an accounting term meaning ‘something one can bill for’ seems well established by the turn of the twentieth century, although LexisNexis shows the earliest case law use of this version of billable in a [...]

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Punctuation, Quotation Marks, and Footnotes

A few thoughts — perhaps helpful to law review editors and authors — about what’s customary in American legal publications. [Added: My sense is that this is also customary in most other books and journals, but I can speak with the most confidence about the custom in legal publications.]

1. Place commas and periods inside quotation marks, e.g.,

The Court’s answer to this was “no.”

2. Place all other punctuation marks outside quotation marks, unless they are logically parts of the quotation. I have seen some departures from this where semicolons or question marks are involved, but my sense is that those departures remain rather rare exceptions in modern legal publications.

The Court’s answer to this was “no”; but two years later, the Court changed its mind.
Was the Court’s answer “yes” or “no”?
The Court’s response was, in essence, “Says who?” [The question mark is logically part of the quotation.]

3. Place footnote calls after all punctuation marks (other than em dashes), except if the footnote relates solely to a parenthetical, in which case place the call within the parentheses. I have likewise seen some departures from this, but again my sense is that they remain rare exceptions.

The Court disagreed.1
The Court disagreed in the first case,2 but then changed its mind.
The Court disagreed in the first case;3 but in the later case . . . .
The Court reversed (except as to the jurisdiction issue4), holding . . . .

See, for example, this Harvard Law Review article, including footnote calls 73 (p. 24) and 141 (p. 40).

The reasons for these practices are obviously not solely logic; they are chiefly aesthetics and custom (which are related, because once a custom is established many people will find adherence to the [...]

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If Only There Were No Assertionism

Earlier this month, I blogged about assertionism — my label for usage claims that sound like prescriptivism, but are actually bare assertions: They don’t rely on any claims about what the (supposed) Linguistic Authorities say, on any detailed logical arguments, or on claims about allegedly superior clarity or precision; they just consist of a person’s bare assertions. And when one asks for evidence supporting the claim, all one gets is more bare assertions. Prescriptivists ought to dislike assertionism as much as descriptivists do, partly because assertionism often comes across as unintentional parody of prescriptivism.

Here’s an interesting example, which started on the wilful vs. willful thread. I started my post with, “A student saw ‘wilful’ used in an opinion, and asked whether it was a typo.” A commenter then responded that the sentence

does not conform to proper English usage. The “whether” indicates that what follows is speculative, requiring that the verb be rendered in the subjunctive mood. “Was” is always indicative.

And the commenter then gave several assertedly “proper renderings of the sentence,” the first of which was:

A student saw “wilful” used in an opinion, and asked whether it were a typo.

The trouble is that “whether it were” is nearly never used in modern American English, and while it was once a bit more common, it was never the dominant usage (either in American English or British English). Consider this Google Ngrams graph of the usage of “wondered whether it was” (blue) vs. “wondered whether it were” (red) — I used “wondered” just to better test the commenter’s assertion, which is limited to “speculative” uses:

The one problem with Google Ngrams is that it doesn’t show raw numbers, so when one of the terms is very rare compared to the other, it’s hard to find the ratio. [...]

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Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and Assertionism

Our readers likely know that I have many disagreements with prescriptivists when it comes to English usage. But while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists in general, my main practical disagreements are with people who might best be labeled “assertionists” — people who don’t just say that prescriptions set forth by some supposed authorities define what is “right” in English, but who simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say. Usage X is wrong, they say. Why? Because it violates this rule. What’s your authority for the proposition that this is a rule? Well, it violates the rule.

The recent exchange about starting sentences with “and,” “but,” or “or” offers an excellent example. I pointed out that this is common usage — including among prominent authors, in leading newspapers such as the New York Times, and in leading legal sources such as the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. I also noted that the supposed usage authorities that I checked do not in fact condemn it.

Yet some people still argued that such a usage is wrong, at least in “formal” writing (though you’d think that Supreme Court opinions would be classified as pretty formal). When I inquired why this might be so, I got three basic replies:

1. “I learned basic grammar long ago. A conjunction joins two related thoughts in a sentence.” But this is mere assertion. One can equally say that conjunctions (or at least the kind we’re discussing) “link units of equal status”; indeed, this is precisely what the Oxford English Grammar (1996) says. This could mean two words in a sentence, two clauses in a sentence, two sentences in a paragraph, or two paragraphs in a work; and indeed the Oxford English Grammar gives an example [...]

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