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.)


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.

TJ 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.

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.

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.

Bill said...

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

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.

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.

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.