Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, September 23, 2002
Gene Volokh has an interesting post on excesses in prescriptive grammar and his preference for descriptive (how people actually speak) over prescriptive (how some people believe you should speak) grammar. His example is 'ice cream' which, it turns out, was considered a linguistic outrage back when the term was first coined by those who insisted that the adjectival 'iced cream' was more appropriate.

'Ice cream' is actually less of an innovation than Volokh believes, because the phrase uses a popular and prolific English construction rule of joining two nouns together to form one noun. Professor Volokh presumably would approve of this construction since examples include gun metal and machine gun, along with log book, school bus, fat farm, summer camp, phone book, string bikini, taxicab, fleshpot, and blogburst. So the idea that nouns have to be matched with adjectives instead of other nouns is simply wrong.

Side note: it pretty much has to be two nouns, but there is one, to my knowledge only one, standard English expression in which two verbs are joined to form one noun, which can also be a verb. Universal acclaim and an exciting prize will not be awarded to the first person who figures out what it is.

Many prescriptive rules which still hold force in some circles are entirely useless. A classic example is the prohibition against splitting infinitives, which isn't a principle of Emglish grammar at all, but an import from the grammar of Greek and Latin, in which infinitives are indicated by a prefix or suffix instead of a distinct word and so can never be split. It was the absurd notion of some early grammarians that English grammar ought to resemble that of the classical languages, so a rule with no roots in the English language was invented, and unfortunately caught on. The idea that a sentence shouldn't end with a preposition has the same origin.

I encountered recently an interesting example in Rex Stout ('Might As Well Be Dead', 1946) of how rapidly usage can change.

"It's about my son. I want to find my son. About a month ago I put ads in the New York papers, and I contacted the New York police, and - What's the matter?"

The above paragraph contains something that Nero Wolfe, and presumably Rex Stout, considered a grammatical indecency. Not only will very few modern readers share Wolfe's indignity, I suspect that most will not even be able to guess what he objects to.

"Wolfe had made a face. I, at my desk, could have told Herold that unless his problem smelled like real money he might as well quit right there. One man who had made 'contact' a verb in that office had paid an extra thousand bucks for the privilege, though he hadn't known it."

I do often writhe when I see egregious examples of nouns like 'incentive' (the business world seems to be particularly guilty here) used as verbs. Maybe someday 'incentive' as a verb will be as utterly unnoticable as 'contact' or 'market' is today. Will that mean the language has grown richer and more flexible, or sloppier and uglier?