Linguists get peevish too

Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Rosen wrote about a few of his pet grammatical peeves last week, and like many people who have never studied linguistics and don’t know what it’s about, he managed to embarrass himself.

Rocky edit page editor Vincent Carroll asked if I wanted to respond, and I did.

For some reason, sportswriters and broadcasters have lately taken (I know, that’s a split infinitive, but I allow myself some of those) to writing or saying, “four RBI,” leaving out the “s.” They may believe they’re being grammatically correct but they’re wrong on two different levels.

Mike Rosen is quite correct (“The trouble with English,” Feb. 1) that there is nothing grammatically incorrect about a “split infinitive,” despite what Mrs. Wellington used to say in my seventh-grade English class, back in the prehistoric era when teachers still believed that it was a good idea for children to be taught the basics of English grammar.

However, the example he generously allows himself, “have lately taken,” is not an infinitive of any kind, just a verb form containing more than one word, and an adverb in its usual and customary place after the first of them.

An infinitive expresses the part of the meaning of a verb that is independent of person, number, gender and tense, as you likely know if there was a Mrs. Wellington in your past. Like “to take,” or “to be,” as infinitives are written in English. In Latin, they’re single words — esse — whence cometh the peculiar idea that they shouldn’t be split in English.

The rest of Rosen’s column illustrates another peculiar phenomenon — that people who know nothing at all about linguistics assume they do because they speak and write a language, and in absence of actual knowledge they just make stuff up.

“The election of the first woman or black president of the United States would surely be an historic event.” No it wouldn’t! But it would certainly be a historic event. Putting history and politics aside, let’s focus on the grammar.

This happens to be one of my pet grammatical peeves. I suspect it’s because people somehow feel “an historic” sounds more elegant than “a historic” that they break a fundamental rule in this case. If you aspirate the “h” at the beginning of a word — that is, if you can hear the “h” — you precede it with the article “a.” If you don’t hear the “h,” you precede it with “an.” So you eat a hot dog or you’re an heir to an estate. You wouldn’t say, “he hit an home run,” so why would you say “it’s an historic event?” (Don’t ask me about “herb;” that’s pronounced both ways.)

There are principles that govern the alternation of “a” and “an,” but they’re phonetic, not grammatical, and not as Rosen describes them. “A hot dog,” but “an uncooked hot dog” and “a delighted heir.”

First, sports jargon is often granted special exemption from the rules of grammar, as in expressions like “he went yard” or “you the man.” It’s a cultural thing.

Granted by whom, hmmm? I’m surprised he didn’t complain about the “passive tense.”

Secondly, “RBI,” in this case, is a compound noun treated as a unitary term. Hence, even though you’d say four “runs batted in” if you spelled out or spoke all the words, when you use the abbreviation as a term, you say four “RBIs.”

I’d probably say “four RBIs,” as Rosen prefers, but whether and where to put the “s” in an acronym is very idiosyncratic, and often different for abbreviations.

Or how about “height” pronounced, “hieth?” The only correct pronunciation is “hite.” Check the dictionary. “Weight” is spelled much the same way and you wouldn’t pronounce it “wayth.” “Height” ends in a “t,” not an “h,” like the word, “length.” It’s not spelled, “heighth.”

Rosen is correct that pronouncing height as “hithe” instead of “hite” is wrong, but so is explaining why by recourse to “weight,” which would argue just as cogently for “hayt.”

Then there’s the annoying use of the word “problematic.” It’s a great word as shorthand for describing some thorny issue or predicament that’s unsettled, uncertain, debatable, indeterminate, baffling or difficult to get your hands around. I don’t like it when broadcasters, reporters or analysts casually use it to describe something that’s merely troublesome or just a run-of-the-mill problem, as in “the snowstorm has made the rush hour drive problematic.”

Stick to politics, Mike. It’s less problematic, because in politics nobody knows what they’re talking about.

Linda Seebach, a former Rocky editorial writer, is a resident of Northfield, Minn.

Predictably, someone in the comments complained about “nobody . . . they”


Posted by Old_Grouch on February 7, 2008 at 6:20 a.m.

“Ms. Seebach might want to look at the principle of grammer that holds a singular noun — “nobody” — takes a singular pronoun — “he”, or “she”, NOT the plural, “they”. However . . . !

“One might ask if anybody at the RMN, really knows what he, or she, is talking about, in or out of ‘politics’.”

I used to write to OG back when I was moonlighting as the letters blog [Hall Monitor], and replied:


Posted by lindaseebach on February 7, 2008 at 10:11 a.m.

As I noted, people who don’t know anything about linguistics often incorrectly believe they do. The so-called “principle of grammer” (sic) that “nobody” is always a singular noun (or “they” always a plural pronoun — it can be analyzed either way) allows for a variety of exceptions, going back to the King James Bible and earlier. See, for example, numerous posts on the linguistics Weblog “Language Log.” *

How would OG complete the tag question, “I guess nobody liked the dessert, did ____?”

And someone else, perhaps mildly irony impaired, informed me:

“Linda,Nobody granted the sports writers an exemption, because there never was a central authority in England to mandate correct grammar and pronunciation, as there was in France and Spain. This situation has led to centuries of bickering. If sports writer jargon is understood and accepted by sports fans, so be it. Just avoid using sports writer jargon in a scholarly article”

People really get into this language stuff.

* See, for instance, Mark Liberman’s post on syntactic and notional number, citing research indicating that pronouns tend to agree with a speaker’s meaning, while verbs are more likely to reflect the form of a noun such as “nobody.”

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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One Response to Linguists get peevish too

  1. jed says:

    Well, now you’ve got me remembering how much I enjoyed James Kilpatrick’s column in the Rocky. I don’t read any sports columns, and if “he went yard” is an example of what passes for writing there, so much the better. Regrettably, improper usage seems to be a positive feedback mechanism. I recall Kilpatrick’s admonition that to be a good writer, one should engage in reading. But I find that as I encounter more examples of bad writing, some of the offenses are creeping into my own. Fortunately, I catch most of them before they go public (or at least I hope I do — I could very well be slipping more than I realize). In particular, I’ve noticed I type improper apostrophes more now than I used to (which was almost never), and I blame that on simply seeing them far too frequently.

    I think a good deal of the problem, apart from a lack of Mrs. Wellingtons in the educational experience, is the tempo of publication these days. Or, at least in the media where I notice most of this stuff, i.e. on the web. I’ve seen glaring errors in AP stories, on CNN, and in the Rocky, to name a few. It makes me wonder if the desire to get news out quickly has claimed proofreading as a casualty, for certainly some of the errors I’ve encountered shouldn’t have survived even a 2nd reading the the writers themselves.

    Speaking of apostrophes, would you use one in the contraction of the plural of “semi-trailer”, when it isn’t a possessive?