How to do things with words

Jerry has a post on most-hated verbal infelicities. Solecisms, he elegantly says, but I’m going to be cagy, in order to avoid the obligatory lecture about How Language Works. There are no Mistakes; whatever most people do is Right; language is constantly evolving; lots of putative rules are just made up; language is arbitrary; what you think is a new Mistake actually goes back to Knut. Right. Got all that. Not talking about Mistakes. Talking about things I don’t like.

Because I thought I would mention a few things I don’t like.

  • May instead of might. “If things had been different Hitler may have won the war.” No; he might have, but it is not the case that he may have; we know that he didn’t, so “may” is the wrong word.
  • Impact as a verb.
  • Beg the question used to mean raise the question.
  • Dangling clauses. “Walking up the hill, a dog grabbed my lunch.”

And then there are some oddities of British English.

  • Making up their own way of pronouncing Barack. I don’t get this. Why don’t people just take their lead from how he says it himself? Why do they think they get to have their own way of saying other people’s names? BBC reporters pronounce it in a really bizarre and stupid way – Ba-rakk, with the “Ba” pronounced as if it rhymed with hat. The two syllables rhyme – two short flat as, and with equal emphasis (a spondee). That’s comprehensively wrong. It’s pronounced like Barock, with the first syllable a schwa and the second accented. What’s the problem there? It’s not somehow hard for British people to say, the way a French r is hard for all anglophones to say. So why won’t they say it right? It’s so rude. It’s not as if it’s a word they already have a settled pronunciation for, so why do they insist on doing it wrong?
  • Intrusive R. Laura norder, North career, Indier and China.
  • Over-corrected missing R. They ah in the house. That one is perhaps a bit fussy, but it gets on my nerves. Since intrusive R is so pervasive in contemporary British English, why not just get over it and say they are in the house? People who make a self-conscious effort not to pronounce the intrusive R give an irritating little hitch when they say things like “ah in the house” – there’s a little pause and glottal stop there that just isn’t necessary. Go ahead, say are in; ah rin; it’s allowed even in your terms.
  • Squeezed vowels. There are some accents (and I don’t know which ones – I don’t know enough to locate them – not Liverpool or Northern or West Country or East End or estuary) where the oo sound is so squeezed it sounds like ee. Troops are treeps. It’s irritating.

There, that’s enough being annoying for now.

There are no Mistakes, but on the other hand, there is good writing and bad writing. I’m an editor, and I do a lot of work on small verbal items of this kind. I use the subjunctive; I turn “impact” into “affect” or “harm”; I fix dangling clauses.

I also think that a lot of putative rules are made up though. The rule about prepositions at the end of a sentence, for instance – that’s a nonsense rule. Granted it can sometimes sound clumsy and inelegant to end a long complicated sentence with “of” or “for”…but it can also sound stilted and Martian to do the “of which” thing. I once had a very stilted “for which” thing in an article for TPM, and I wanted to change it into normal English, but I hesitated to do that to the author, who might think the rule is important. So I consulted Julian, and he said “normal every time!” That was what I thought. Sometimes “for which” is ok, but sometimes it just sticks out; this time it stuck out; TPM should be readable.

And that’s how it is in general. You want some flexibility, and a lot of sense of which rules (or “rules”) matter more than others, and a decent ear.

143 Responses to “How to do things with words”