The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.


October 25, 2011

I’m Possessive . . .

. . . but I know when to let go.

My older (not older than me, I mean, but probably older than you) editor colleagues are appalled when I tell them that the neuter third-person possessive “its” is definitely on the way out, and that while I still loyally use “its,” I have resigned myself to its (it’s) disappearance, and even to the logic of its disappearance.

Look, we make possessives by adding “apostrophe s.”  The only reason we break that rule in the case of “it” is to avoid confusing the possessive with the contraction of “it is” (“it’s going to be a long day”).  But why are we suddenly so phobic about confusion?  We constantly distinguish between homonyms on the basis of context alone.  When we “peer” through a mail slot we don’t think of forcing a member of the House of Lords through the aperture.  Or for a better example (because both are verbs), we know that it’s one thing to “tear up” and another to “tear up your Kleenex.”  People who form the possessive “it’s” may be ignorant of the niceties of grammar, but the niceties—especially, God knows, in English!—are often arbitrary, and in this case the ignorance is logical.

I believe that sooner than later, the dictionaries will accept “it’s” first as an acceptable alternative, and then as the correct way to form the neuter third person plural.  And why not?  (Ironically, I’d be willing to betcha “his” started out as “he’s.”) Language changes because usage is the ultimate authority, or as William Safire used to call her, “Norma Loquendi.” (In this case, actually, her cousin, Norma Scribendi.)

There is one problem, and that’s that when people are uncertain about where apostrophe’s belong, they multiply like fleas.  As in the preceding sentence (I actually typed that unintentionally!), they are attracted to any terminal “s” and thus they start infecting plurals, which is beyond the pale.

And . . . here’s what prompted me to write this . . .

Today I actually saw           you’r

August 30, 2011

The Ambiguity of Important Words

Filed under: English is weird,vocabulary — amba12 @ 2:23 pm

. . . in English, that is.  It’s recently grabbed my attention that English perhaps uniquely leaves its most important words—such as love, work, belief—ambiguous and multivalent.  For example, Greek distinguishes between eros, agape, and philia, and maybe even more, but we use “love” for all three.  Over at Ron Fisher’s new blog The End of Work, we’ve had disagreements that have led to stimulating discussions, because we are using the word “work” simultaneously in so many different senses: effort, drudgery, energy expenditure, employment, calling (“your life’s work”), and more.  And now, in the comments at Ambiance, starting here and resuming here, I’m getting embroiled in a similar discussion about the word “belief.”

How to explain this quality of English?  It’s clear why we don’t have as many words for snow as Eskimos—we lack life-or-death need for such distinctions (and therefore, perhaps, aesthetic delight in them)—but the same cannot be said of love, work, or belief, which, in their many permutations, permeate our entire lives.  Is this a failing of English or, on some deep level, a deliberate choice?  If there is danger and confusion in this ambiguity, there’s also tremendous generative power (look how it can make us rack our brains! what’s more creative—and harder work!—than thinking about things there aren’t ready-made words for?), and also a recognition of deep, if conflicted, relationships among the many phenomena we call love . . . or work . . . or belief.

I would appreciate input from people with knowledge of other languages.  Is English really so unique in this?  If so, is it part of what has made English so hardy and adaptable?

(In Spanish, “I love you” in the romantic sense is often stated, not “Te amo” but “Te quiero”—literally, “I want you.” That at least seems honest!)

August 7, 2009

A Hole in English

Filed under: English is weird,grammar,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 10:42 pm

English is so stripped-down, so shorn of grammatical clues, thingamabobs, and “this end up” arrows, that if you didn’t study Latin, German, or Russian, you’d never realize that English too had a dative case (indirect object) and an accusative case (direct object). To illustrate:  in “give [to] the dog his food,” the dog is the indirect object; in “walk the dog,” the dog is the direct object.  In German, the language in which I discovered these things, the dative “to the dog” is “dem Hund,” and the accusative dog to be walked is “den Hund.”  Once you have grasped this distinction in another language, you can feel it in English even though it’s not marked.

We manage to make our meaning clear by word order, juxtaposition, and context, and the words not fixed in their particular role of the moment by case endings seem freer and more mobile, like Americans.  (Chinese, I’m told, has even less grammar and makes no time, case, or number changes in its words at all; they are simply strings of unaltered nouns and uninflected infinitives, modified only by their proximity to each other.  Can anyone confirm or correct this?  Randy?)

But there is at least one grammatical hole in English that gapes like a missing tooth.  You can tell it’s there because people have tried repeatedly to fill it.  None of the tries have attained to official status; they’re all dismissed as uneducated or slangy, regional or generational dialect.  Nonetheless, we keep using them, like temporary patches grown permanent, because we need to fill the hole.

That hole is the second person plural pronoun.

We’re supposed to say “you” when we mean one person and “you” when we mean a bunch of people, and damn it, that just doesn’t work.  So we’ve had:

yous(e) – Brooklyn

y’all –  South (“all y’all” for a really large group)

you guys – urban youth (applied to both genders)

Which of these do you think is the best solution?  (I think it’s “yous” — which simply pluralizes the pronoun by applying a universal rule.  Ironically, this is considered the most “uneducated”-sounding of the three.)  Should one of them be made official?  Do you have yet another, new candidate for English’s second person plural pronoun?  Or must we just keep on scraping by, stumbling into the hole?  It’s frustrating not to have a word there!

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