Monday, October 10, 2005

The Descriptivists 'Could Care Less,' but ...

The Post's AME for copy desks, Don Podesta, recently asked my fellow chiefs and me why the Post allows the mistaken expression "step foot" (for "set foot") in the paper. We all looked at him, puzzled -- it's not something any of us had ever noticed.

But, sure enough, searches show that the error is pretty common. It's even cited in the Eggcorn Database.

(A prescriptivist riddle: When is a usage that is perfectly understandable, quite common and literally correct nonetheless an error? Answer: When it is a failed attempt to reach for a different expression.)

22 comments:

Dan said...

A descriptivist query: Do you change instances of "curry favor" into "curry Fauvel," then?

(Why not?)

Bill said...

I have accepted evolution. Extinction is a fuzzier concept in usage than in biology, but most of us know it when we see it. The argument I'm apparently about to lose is with the idea of embracing every mutation as a new species.

Ellie said...

"Off one's own back" (for "off one's own bat") is starting to make an appearance in UK papers, too.

I agree, for practical purposes "curry Fauvel" is extinct in every English-speaing country; curry favour is the universal usage. (Whereas, for instance, I haven't seen "could care less"
in the UK yet.)

Peter Fisk said...

The OED documents "curry favour" as far back as the 16th century:

c1510 Barclay Mirr. Gd. Manners (1570) Fvj, Flatter not as do some, With none curry fauour.

1557 N. T. (Genev.) Matt. viii. 20 note, He thoght by this meanes to courry fauour with the worlde.

Trevor Jackson said...

The one I see most often get blurred is how to describe a change that's about to occur:

Does that change "come down the pipe" or "come down the 'pike"?

I'd always heard the latter, 'pike abbreviated from turnpike, but for "all intensive purposes" its phonemic neighbor keeps cropping (or "popping"?) up.

Stephen Jones said...

'Come down the pike' is what the SOED gives, though I've never heard the phrase before. It evidently has got confused with 'in the pipeline'.

Bill is setting up a strawman here with his 'descriptivists could care less' attitude. First of all the very term 'eggcorn' was invented by the descriptivists he so affects to despise (the origin of the term is given here).

Secondly no descriptivist objects to prescriptivism 'per se'; the objections are to prescriptions based on an inadequate description of the language. If the person who wrote the latest version of the rules of football had followed Bill's advice in 'The Elephants of Style' he would have made tackling illegal (actually he just did, but the culprit is MS Word).

On the other hand no descriptivist would have any objection to the rule that 'that' cannot be used for a non-defining relative clause for the simple reason that nobody ever does.

The descriptivists position is most clearly expressed in an article by Geoffrey Pullum (inventor of the term 'eggcorn') titled "Everything is correct" v "Nothing is relevant".

To go back to 'could care less' there is no objection to suggesting it be replaced with 'couldn't care less' on the grounds that it might annoy a small proportion of educated and semi-educated speakers of American English, and/or confuse a large number of speakers of all the other varieties of English.

Equally one can ohject to 'irregardless' on stylistic grounds (it uses up two unnecessary letters) but not on the grounds that 'there's no such word' (what is it then? a logo, a punctuation mark, a cunning watermark?)

The interesting question here is 'when does an eggcorn (or a malpropism, or whatever) become acceptable? The answer will only be 'never' if you are the kind of person that spends his holidays in England repainting all the pub-signs called "Elephant and Castle".

TimBlog said...

OK. But when is an expression just a cliche?

Bill said...

I think Stephen and the Language Log folks and I are all guilty of taking advantage of easy opportunities for parody on the sides of the issue we tend to lean away from. Pullum articulates a position closer to the center than some of his writing would have had me ascribe to him; I would like to think I stated a similar case, perhaps more understandably to laypeople, in the introduction to "The Elephants of Style."

Careful readers of my work know that I'm hardly a Miss Thistlebottom. In fact, debunking some of the big prescriptivist myths is probably tied with debunking the "logos are sacred" school of capitalization atop my chief bits of shtick. I'm surprised that no copy editors have challenged me even a little on just what an anti-copy-editor copy-editing book "Lapsing Into a Comma" is.

"Could care less" and "irregardless" are interesting because their incorrectness is so baldly obvious: Both pretty much say (or attempt to say -- see below) the opposite of what they mean. "Irregardless" is the worse of the two, to me, because "not regardless" doesn't really even translate to "regarding"; it's just nonsense.

Mark Liberman said...

I'm not sure whether we count as descriptivists, but we Language Loggers have been interested for some time in "failed attempts to reach for a different expression", e.g.
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002331.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002408.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001909.html

Stephen Jones said...

"Could care less" and "irregardless" are interesting because their incorrectness is so baldly obvious: Both pretty much say (or attempt to say -- see below) the opposite of what they mean. "Irregardless" is the worse of the two, to me, because "not regardless" doesn't really even translate to "regarding"; it's just nonsense.

This is just plain illogical Bill. If ti doesn't mean anything it can't mean the opposite of what it is supposed to mean.
It is no doubt a nuisance that opposite pairs such as could/couldn't care less and regardless/irregardless have in fact the same meaning, but language is not logical (indeed the use of a word to mean its exact opposite is actually very common in more languages than English, though this is not the mechanism operating here). What you seem to be forgetting is that in language, as opposed to algebra, negatives reinforce each other. So irregardless is simply strongly negating regard, and those who write 'could care less' reckon that less is little enough without adding the 'not'.

Secondly Bill, your claim that you only correct without cause on a few occasions has as much merit as admitting that you only beat your wife at weekends. It doesn't endear you to the feminists and shows you up as a wimp to the machistas. You should only make a call when the overwhelming body of educated usage is behind you, and although we all may think both phrases are infelicitous, neither is sufficiently heinous to merit prescription.

Bill said...

If "irregardless" and "could care less" aren't ignorant, what flubs are? Oh, right, there are no flubs. I think you're parting company with the Language Loggers on that point, my dear heckler. Sometimes ignorant has to be called ignorant. I'll leave it to your imagination to guess how many levels that applies to here.

Stephen Jones said...

All words are ignorant Bill; they are non-sentient and the slur has no sense to it. What you mean is that the users are ignorant.

The phrases have been in the language for a century or so, and show no sign of going away. You can state that you consider them to be non-standard (which is a question of dialect), or colloquial (which is a question of register) but they cannot be called 'badly done' or a 'slip up' any more.

What you mean Bill is "this word/phrase irritates me, but if I just say it like that it sounds no great shakes, so, instead, I'll talk about it being ignorant and how we must defend the standards of the language."

Lanny said...

So it's okay for Stephen to directly snipe at Bill for being a standards snob, but not okay for Bill to bemoan the ignorance of unknown persons (who, being ignorant, will likely never know they were insulted)?

Bill said...

I'd be a lot happier with the whole "customer is always right" thing if my prices were a little higher.

Stephen Jones said...

Bill isn't accusing the speakers of being ignorant; he is accusing the words. That is what I am objecting to.

If a word or phrase is commonly used by native speakers of the language, you can't say it is incorrect or ungrammatical. You can only say that it is not correct or grammatical in the dialect of English your publication is supposed to be written in. And to say that you need some kind of proof. If 'irregardless' or 'could care less' are common amongst educated speakers of American English in normal usage, then you can't deny them their place in standard English; if they are not, then you are quite at liberty to.

And exaclty what sin is 'the forseeable future' guilty of? Apart from the fact that it has no place in Bill Walsh's idiolect.

Bill said...

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, Stephen, and trust that your bizarrely literal take on usages being ignorant is a parody of prescriptivism.

I thought we had been over this:
"Foreseeable future" is wrong in the same way that "orange oceans" is wrong. The oceans are not orange, and the future is not foreseeable.

Lanny said...

If 'irregardless' or 'could care less' are common amongst educated speakers of American English in normal usage, then you can't deny them their place in standard English; if they are not, then you are quite at liberty to.

Perhaps Bill's indirect objection, then, (and certainly my own) is that the supposedly educated American English speakers who commonly use 'irregardless' and 'could care less' are not nearly well-educated enough.

Stephen Jones said...

Much of the future is forseeable. For example I can forsee I am only likely to see an orang ocean at sunset! And I can forsee that the sun will set.

Even if the future were never foreseeable, you still don't have the right to make any objection as a language professional. The phrase is a common one in all registers and dialects of English. A meteorologist may loathe drizzle, but he doesn't keep it out of the weather forecast.

Bill said...

Now we're getting somewhere. The sun's setting is foreseeable (not "forseeable," by the way), but when you say that the sun will set every day for the foreseeable future, you are not making the tautological assertion that the sun will set as long as the sun will set; you are saying that there is a certain period of time during which EVERYTHING is foreseeable, the sun's setting being one of those things. You are further assuming that somehow everyone knows exactly how long such a period might be; otherwise, what would be the point of specifying such a period? This doesn't fall into the category of grammar or usage correctness; it's just an observation that the cliche is a particularly stupid one.

There; enough semicolons for this month.

Stephen Jones said...

Ah, we have one tning in commmon; an inordinate fondness for semi-colons!

Two things here: the general and the particular.

Firstly, I disagree with you that 'foreseeable future' is a particularly stupid cliche, and I disagree with your reasoning; moreover, the alternatives you give are not true alternatives. 'The near future' is not the same as the foreseeable future. I can see you excoriating this particular phrase for a foreeseeble future that stretches on and on... and on; it would only be the near future in the unforeseeable event you were run over by a bus.

Secondly, there is the general problem that shibboleths accumulate. There is nobody in the ranks of the languagenazis who does periodic clearouts of the attic ("Oh, now this rule about not ending sentences with prepositions has been sitting here gathering dust for the last 250 years or so, and nobody has taken a blind bit of notice so lets throw it out, 'cos we need the space for this new rule about not talking of the 'foreseeable future'). No, the hold-all of forbidden constructions expands endlessly, and would no doubt eventually swallow up the whole language. When the chief copywriter of the 'Washington Post' brands a word as a style-offender it is put on the style-offenders' register and never again will it be allowed near an elementary or junior high school and you can guarantee some nosy neighbour will look it up on the internet and it will never get invitations to the local bake sale either.

(Incidentally if you banned 'the foreseeable future' on the grounds it is too darn difficult to spell, I might be agreeing with you).

Paul said...

Ellie's comments about off one's own back illustrate whu such corrections should be made. The expression off one's own back evokes a multitude of images, as does remembering that ''let that one go through to the keeper'' is a cricketing, not football analogy. Shall I compare the language to a summer's day? I think so.

Mad Mudokon said...

Stephen, irregardless isn't a word.

And if grammar isn't important, why are you so careful to articulate that argument with standard English? Couldn't you just click on the Comment field, bang your head on the keyboard a few times, hit the Send button, and have us deduce your argument because we know what you're saying?