Grammar nazis get Fryed

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2010 7:00 am

I love Stephen Fry. Love love love. He uses words the way a professional masseuse uses oil. And Matt Rogers, an Australian student, took Stephen’s words and made them even more amazing. Watch this:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers

Stick with it; the ending is really cool.

By the way, I agree with Stephen here. Languages evolve, and at first it may seem ugly, but after a few years you get used to it, and then you look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. I may have to write a big grammar post since I have several thoughts on this topic. Example: the word "whom" needs to be struck from the language. We don’t need it — the word "who" works perfectly well, and it’s obvious from context if it’s being used as a subjective or objective pronoun. Whom serves no actual purpose anymore except to let pedantic grammarians feel superior when it gets misused.

Discuss.

Tip o’ the librarian glasses to reddit.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff

Comments (237)

  1. Xtian

    It’s interesting how “literally” has evolved to become an intensifier. “He was so mad his head literally came off” doesn’t mean he was decapitated, it means he was VERY angry.

  2. Jeremy

    Alliteration is so much fun!

  3. Radwaste

    Grammar is no big deal except for ego. Strunk & White tick some off because they don’t want to follow rules. But these rules mean things. Read the Constitution and then tell me the way words are used do not matter.
    If you don’t agree on the necessary agreement of tense across a sentence, and make it a practice to ignore or deride that, then later it will be very expensive for you to learn the difference between uraninite and uraninite, nitrate and nitrite – or even feet and meters.
    Consider the “establishment” clause in the 1st Amendment. Gee, when you point at an establishment, it’s a noun – but when Congress makes a law, they use the term as a verb. This lets them do more. Is that OK?

  4. Jack Mitcham

    For many things, I agree. I also think split infinitives are useful, and the third person singular “they” instead of a monstrosity like “he/she” or “s/he” is acceptable.

    However, I think we should still bust the heads of people who use “there” instead of “their” because “there” already has a meaning, and it means nothing like “their.”

    Also, “except” vs “accept.”

    There’s a sign on a local Coldstone Creamery that says “We don’t except $50 or $100 dollar bills.”

    I was tempted to go in there and try to pay with a $100, and when they refused it, I’d point to the sign saying that they wouldn’t except it. I’ll be near there today, I should take a picture and post it on the interwebs.

  5. Xtian

    My pet peeve is “I could care less” because it means the opposite of what is said. I used to reply “Really, so you Do care?” but annoyed people.

  6. Antonio

    Phil,

    I confess myself as a pedant. One of my favorite teachers ever called me so, and eventually I came to agree with him.

    I’ve taught most of my life, English as a second language. In truth, the experience has taught me. And while it’s been necessary for me to help my students learn the conventions of English (because I want them to succeed at communicating with a wider social circle), I’ve also come to understand the frailties of these rules and strictures. I’ve learned that good communication, just as Mr. Fry says in much more beautiful language than I could muster, has more to do with parts of the language other than those of the parts of speech.

    Still, conventions matter, some. And they do get in the way, lots.

    And still, again, I would suggest that you reconsider the “Nazi” part of your argument.

  7. Edwardson

    What?! Get rid of “whom”? I just got around last week to actually looking up the rules for using it properly. Not that I quite fully understand. Then again, “For who the bell tolls”? Ewww.

  8. GeeMan

    Excellent. Like he says, there’s a time and a place to be “correct” but a little fun with words is of no harm when among friends. Sort of like splashing a mud puddle when we’re adults just to be a kid again for a moment.

  9. ‘Who’ and ‘whom’ is an excellent example. I use ‘whom’ in the “proper” way, since that’s how I grew up speaking. But it’s clearly disappearing, and I have no problem with people who don’t use it.

  10. Chris Browet

    As a non-native english speaker, and in the specific context of english being the vernicular language of the world, I obviously cannot agree more for english.

    But that reminds me of an interesting debate I had with a friend of mine regarding french (my native language). He is what you would call conservative regarding the proper use of the language and my postition was that a language is nothing more than a way to communicate.

    The more a language, or any derivative form of it, allows to understand (and be understood by) most people, it fits its purpose.
    Whenever it’s a slang understood only by specific groups or too old-fashioned to be understood by nowadays standard, it fails.

  11. Don Herget

    There is some rather natural filtration in the alteration of language. While we find many changes harsh or confusing, ultimately only those changes accepted by the literate will endure. ‘Teh’ and ‘pwned’ will be relative flashes in the pan compared to the newer usages of ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ which have stood the test of time. Oh, yes, and Stephen Fry is wonderful. If you get a chance to see his British TV show QI (for Quite Interesting), do so. The liquid Fry is as engaging as the solid Fry of his books.

  12. @Radwaste: I think Stephen Fry covered this criticism comparing the difference in speech used in everyday conversation and a job interview. A job interview is more formal environment and requires a more precise mode of speech. A writer of a nation’s constitution, believing their work will be examined for generations, should be more particular about their writing.

    My criticism on Fry’s monologue has to do with the it might be suggesting a single behavior for a wide range of audience. Finding the “sensuous and sensual” pleasure in words by unburdening yourself the limits imposed by the grammar is like telling a dancer that they shouldn’t be limiting their movements to the expectations of the downbeat. I, as a poor dancer may look too much like I’m marching if I follow the beat too closely, but I’ll look far worse if I lose it. Someone like Fry with a great command of the English language can play with it as he wishes. He can break rules knowing fully well the “giddy and euphoric bliss” he is producing. On the other hand, I as a average to poor writer am just doing my best to get my point across.

  13. Steve Pinkham

    Jack Micham:
    The point of Fry’s talk is you should consider why you think you should you “bust heads”.
    Did you truly misunderstand them based on the “flaw” in their writing? If so, ask for clarification.
    Otherwise, you’re “busting heads” only for your own pleasure.

    If you see someone running down the street slowly or with bad form, or cycling with a non-optimal cadence would you yell out the window that they should improve? I doubt it, because that’s being an ass. The question is why do so many think it’s ok to be an ass over language usage?

  14. Alan in Upstate NY

    I do miss adverbs, which seem to have become a rarity. There are indeed misuses of language that should be resisted (such as their and there, your and you’re, its and it’s), but excessive pedantry is certainly annoying.

    At any rate, not only was the video great, but now I’ve added Stephen Fry to my “daily” favorites.

    Clear skies, Alan

  15. Robert Henderson

    If y’all are interested in this topic, check out LanguageLog. It is a great blog run by a group of big name linguists. This topic of descriptivism vs prescriptivism comes up a lot.

  16. Hrm, I both agree and disagree. Yes, language evolves, yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to use “improper” language in informal or creative contexts and yes, there are times when it’s necessary to “dress up” your language for the sake of making a good impression. What I disagree on, though, is the dividing like between informal and formal situations. For me, street signs and “10 items or less” signs are examples of what should be considered formal speech. They’re not intended to be colloquial, conversational or creative. It’s not as if they’ve been scribbled down by someone on short notice. In most cases, they were produced by a committee of presumably well-educated people who would be familiar with more formal verbiage. You’d think they’d spend at least as much time considering the wording and punctuation as they had the color and font. Fine, yes, a sign in a grocery store written in black marker on a piece of poster board – I’m fine with that being a bit casual. But signs that have been designed and produced by a corporation or governmental agency – I would expect them to be at least a a tiny bit stuffy in their wording.

  17. Nick

    Literally.

    I do not think it means what you think it means.

    In fact, when people use it as an intensifier, they are almost always using to it mean the exact opposite of what it means.

    But it is becoming so common, that it is used incorrectly more often than it is used correctly.

    Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

  18. Robert Henderson

    Oops! Forgot to slip in the language log link! It’s http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

  19. Graham Douglas

    People say that language evolves, and use that to defend the sort of variation in language that’s happening all the time. That’s all well and good, but evolution requires variation *and selection pressure* – and surely it’s that pressure that the pedants are providing. Allow unfettered variation in usage and soon communication will become nearly impossible, but when there is opposition, then only the truly useful variants will survive and the language will be enriched.

    Much as I admire Stephen Fry, I only partially agree with him on this – we _need_ the pedants. Maybe not the dyed-in-the-wool “all change is bad” type, but testing and contesting new usage isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  20. Jay Bee

    At 2:26: “. . . prepositions THAT end sentences . . . .”

  21. Aaron

    Just -whom- are you calling a “pedantic grammarian?!”

  22. VK

    I’m don’t mind at all when people choose to be creative with language. Actually, I love it. I just don’t want ignorance of grammar rules to be excused as ‘development.’ Languages should evolve with purpose, as in your example of “who” vs. “whom.” Even when simply playing with words, people don’t just blindly tear them apart or mash them together. Lingual gems are rarely born by accident.

    I can’t be the only one here who hates hearing “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less,” or “should of” instead of “should have.” I’ll admit that, depending on my mood, I can be a bit of a grammar nazi when it comes to things like misplaced apostrophes, but I just want people to care! Yeah, a lot of people just enjoy pretending they’re superior to others, but not all of us are like that. Unless I’m feeling really crabby, I don’t even mention the error. I get uncomfortable about correcting people, because it’s hard to do without putting them off. Grammar nazis are not here to condescend to anyone! We serve a purpose!

    I just don’t think that many people who don’t even care to LEARN the ‘proper’ way to use language would ever be those to appreciate its intricacies. I know that people can sometimes just make mistakes, and that’s okay. I’m not an expert here either. I often need to look things up. I’m just asking that people care enough to do the same when they’re unsure, instead of just picking any option and hoping it’s the correct one. I’m fine with people tweaking words and phrases to suit their meaning, but they have to know what they’re doing. If people are just stumbling in the dark, they’re not evolving the language. If anything, they’re a hindrance to its evolution.

    Also, there are some situations where clarity is an issue. Fluent speakers of the language don’t need them, at least not in informal settings, but not those who are still learning the language. Even the smallest differences can change the meaning of a phrase completely. I’m in the process of learning French, and while reading French books or articles, I often need to look up entire phrases. If I’ve come across idioms I haven’t heard before, and the grammar is incorrect, I can’t easily figure out the meaning. Translating individual words doesn’t help me with these phrases, and online translators can’t figure them out either. Again, clarity is only a problem in special situations, but it should be considered.

    (Sorry about posting an essay here. I only meant to write a few lines, but I got carried away. Feel free to correct any mistakes!)

  23. Nick

    @ #9

    Nope.

    The ability to understand the message provides all the selection pressure that the evolution of language will ever need.

    if a certain usage is understood by the recipient to mean (reasonably closely) what the sender intended, that usage will continue to be used. If it is taken to mean something different than intended, it will be used less frequently.

    The kind of selective pressure that prescriptivist pedants proliferate is more akin to selective breeding than to natural selection, and unchecked selective breeding can lead to weird looking and unusual monstrosities like dachshunds, English bulldogs, and *shiver* hairless cats, the verbal equivalent of which is some of the twisted and unnatural sounding sentences that people try to use when they foolishly believe that they should never end a sentence with a preposition.

  24. Siphoneuphoria

    Can someone who would dare fuss over incorrect grocery checkout signs also use language to “excite, please, affirm, and tickle those they talk to?”

    Yes.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGWiTvYZR_w

  25. Will

    If we’re evolving with purpose, in addition to “who” and “whom” I’d like to settle on exactly one spelling of “there”, one spelling of “your”, and one spelling of “its”. Unless you do a double-reverse backflip to come up with an exception, it’s perfectly clear from context which one is meant. In fact I’m starting to think we should just do away with the apostrophe altogether…

  26. Bill from Fallbrook

    An excellent example of language evolution is portrayed in the movie ‘Idiocracy’

  27. Narvi

    I think it’s the assumption that we can always understand misspellings that bothers me the most. I’m autistic, and I have great difficulty trying to understand what people mean when they use language incorrectly.

    When people for example write that they “defiantly” did something, I often have to have it explained to me that they actually meant “definitely”. It’s a common misspelling, and yet I still have trouble with it. Just because the real meaning is obvious to YOU, don’t assume that it’s obvious to ME. And what’s more; just because the meaning is clear to me, don’t assume it’s clear to EVERYONE.

  28. Can we make a verb of Bad Astronomy? That Moon landing hoax was so Bad Astronomied, Phil really busted that one.

  29. ChrisZ

    The problem with whom isn’t that it’s unnecessary, but that it sounds too much like who and so people get confused. No one gets confused with the equally unnecessary differences between “he” and “him” or “she” and “her” (not the possessive “her”). That and the weirdness of questions in general.

    I do love verbing nouns, though I don’t always like every attempt.

  30. Sadie

    I remember a few years ago someone wrote a stern letter about poor grammar on BBC Radio 4 – The station gave the letter to Stephen to read who took great delight in pointing out every grammatical error that the letter contained (and there were a lot!) :)

    I do need to find the “Robopedant”/”Grammatical Terminatior” clip from QI – “Change Syntax – You have 30 Seconds to comply”

  31. Jason

    In general I agree with Fry, but personally I complain about “verbs becoming nouns” because in many cases it’s not done in a context of being playfully creative with language, it’s done in a context of creating verbiage for stuffy corporate-speak. Sometimes the simpler, older words are clearer and more effective, and they *feel* that way. “I gifted them with a generous donation” sounds more self-important than “I gave generously.” “He actioned it” has less power than “He acted on it” or “He did it.” “The boss sanctioned her action” isn’t only stuffy, it’s confusing: did the boss punish her or approve of her? In either case, “punish” or “approve” conveys the idea more clearly and with more impact than “sanction.”

    I think there’s a gray area here. Excessive prescriptivism stifles the joyful development of language, but a little pedantry (its vs it’s, their vs there vs they’re, as some have mentioned) *can* help with clarity, no matter how broadly Fry paints “grammar nazis” with his contemptuous brush. :-)

  32. Nick

    Verbing a noun is nouning a verbed noun!

  33. Sam

    I’m 100% on Fry’s side. One thing that does irk me, however, is the recent trend of using adjectives in the place of the object noun of a sentence: “find your happy,” for example. It doesn’t intrinsically bother me, but what does make me angry is that it seems to solely be an invention of the marketing industry.

  34. Ams

    I used to be someone who excessively corrected language, but I’m on the path to recovery. Mostly, I try to distinguish between when something should and shouldn’t be corrected. If someone makes a mistake because they don’t understand language, then I feel the need to correct it. If someone says “your” instead of “you’re,” it’s not because they are being creative or innovative, it’s because they don’t understand contractions. But if someone says “I googled it,” I’m perfectly willing to accept it, and even use it myself. I love creative uses of language. I’m a poet and a master’s candidate for it. But you have to know what you’re doing.

  35. Sili

    . Strunk & White tick some off because they don’t want to follow rules.

    Trouble is that Frankenstrunk thought they had some sorta power to make those rules. In reality that vile little book consists on little but stuff pulled out of their derrières that is now treated as Holy Writ by a certain kind of believer. Citing S&W as an authority on anything is nothing but literary creationism.

    I do miss adverbs, which seem to have become a rarity.

    Funny that, since the Masters of Grammar, Strunk and White, explicitly condemn the use of adjectives and adverbs as weak and poor writing.

  36. PeteC

    Jason (31) and Sam (33) have it, I think. Fry is right – excessive pedantry is merely annoying. However, remember that with the very rare exception of syllable-based sound-cadence poetry (which, to be honest, Fry’s speech comes close to being) then communication is the key, the purpose, the reason for language. This is why verbing of nouns and so done purely for corporate-speak purposes is wrong – it’s an attempt to provide a distinguishing feature, using words to mark oneself as part of a superior clan just because one uses them.; much like the word “paradigm” was a few years ago. Not one in ten who used it knew what it actually meant, but everything was suddenly a “new paradigm”.

    Not worrying frantically about minor grammatical lapses is one thing; this should not be an excuse to not care at all how one communicates. We’ve all seen those message board posts that try to force you to carefully deconstruct strings of totally unpunctuated text complete with vastly foreshortened ‘words’ like ‘u’ and ‘ur’ and a total lack of whitespace or sentence structure. The burden of effort should not be on the reader to desperately work to understand what word you are using, but on the writer to make their statements clear. Even with poetry, a mess of words and sounds that nobody other than the author can actually read is neither genius nor art, but merely babbling incoherently.

  37. Oli

    Seeing things like “there stuff” (instead of “their stuff”) or “I was their” (instead of “I was there) make me cry.
    About whom: it’s a strange word, but like said before, “for who the bell tolls” is ugly.

  38. Hold back on prescriptive language, sure, but “strike out ‘whom'”? Why should we want to strike out any words at all? Reducing the language reduces the usefulness and expressiveness that Fry leads off with.

    Indeed there is a difference between “less” and “fewer”; between “uninterested” and “disinterested”; and so on. But while I agree that it’s not worth my time to go about enforcing that distinction, it’s also charming when I read the work of a writer who does understand the difference, and who uses it incisively.

    The answer isn’t to enforce norms, but neither is it to eliminate them entirely. It’s just as narrow-minded to strike out “whom” as it is to bother about “less” vs. “fewer”.

    For an example of an artisan writer who knows how to use the language so well, consider David Foster Wallace. You can start with his writings in Harper’s magazine, which has made them freely available on their website. Particularly on-point is “Tense Present”.

  39. AnthonyK

    Strunk & White tick some off because they don’t want to follow rules

    For an entertaining, dispeptic, take on this style bible see:

    http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

    And, for a great blog on language generally try language log:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/

  40. Daniel J. Andrews

    I’m probably a pedant, but usually in context (reports, articles) as Mr. Fry points out, you want to dress up your language in some circumstances. In my free-form writing though I happily noun verbs and verb nouns, e.g. she penguined around the garden (referring to someone who walked with a roly-poly stiff-hipped sore-kneed gait). Still, I do have the desire to put apostrophes on possessive “s” when they’re missing….but really, my writing is such I can’t afford to be too much of a grammar Nazi as it just gives people opportunity to do the same to me.

    Slightly related, can someone tell me what k3rn3d means? My Google-Fu failed, and I can’t find it in any slang or urban dictionaries. Context gives me a clue, but I’d like more than that.

  41. John Paradox

    They’re affecting their effect there….

    J/P=?

  42. Sean

    Xtian@1 says: “It’s interesting how “literally” has evolved to become an intensifier.”

    Now that “literally” is evolving away from its original meaning of “exactly as described” what do we use in place of “literally” when we mean, well, “literally”?

    “Verbatimly” ?

    “Letter by Letter” ?

    “Letra a Letra” ?

    “Binarily” ?

    -S

  43. Chris Winter

    “Example: the word “whom” needs to be struck from the language.”

    I’d allow it as an archaicism. (Is that a word?)

    As in “Whom gods destroy” or “To whom these presents shall come, greetings.”

    &Etc.

  44. Will M.

    With all of the typefaces in the world to choose from, Rogers chose the least original, least interesting and most ubiquitous one to use in the visual part of the piece: Arial. He could have credited the nameless thousands of calligraphers and letter designers since Gutenberg by sampling at least a few of the myriad letter styles which can convey elegance, display emphasis, be drolly clever, tour the exotic, and just plain express fun. Ah well…

  45. Mark

    Sorry, but getting rid of “whom” is just unacceptable. While some may have to think about it, I don’t think about it until I hear “who” in place of “whom” and it sounds retarded. I ignore it most of the time, but saying we should rid ourselves of a functional word is itself prescriptive and the very thing he’s saying not to do.

    I also find it amusing that so many find “literal” annoying when used not to mean “really,” but its more precise meaning is by letters or in writing, and became common in English in discussions of scripture and mythology, before it took its present meaning, which is itself atrophying in favor of the metaphorical use.

  46. TC

    @ #12

    “I can’t be the only one here who hates hearing “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less,” or “should of” instead of “should have.””

    I’m certain you’re not the only one (here or otherwise) who hates “I could care less”, but that doesn’t make the phrase wrong.

    Language Log addressed that little idiom fully a few years ago. Enjoy:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001209.html

  47. Dean

    That’s ironic. I just got finished writing a post to a member on a particular forum that I completely ignore his posts because his punctuation is atrocious. Being a grammar Nazi is one thing, but it’s possible to write such that you can’t really figure out what the person is saying.

    Eg:
    ———–
    First of all, ..

    Hello, “hailstop”.

    Look, most of what I write, is merely in a somewhat more pedantic style.

    To be clear, not from a position more lofty and disseminating downward more, what I know or have to assert, but merely more just toward isolating better, different, what I view leastwise, as main segments making up my thinking.

    Essentially what I submit, more materially and in my view, is not similar to much of anything else which is posted here within this boarder sub-forum, .. and the different breaks and beats that I work to incorporate within it with utilizing the different punctuation that I do, are merely meant to make more “clear”, what it is that I’m trying to say, .. less familiar perhaps, but to someone who might be interested in appreciating more about it.

    In other words, it’s just highly academic. — And in all honesty, input to the best of my ability.

    For example, take what I’ve written, to you here above: even this sentence.

    .. Lots of different thoughts and twist, right. ?

    k. …. Now, challenge yourself with the exercise, of stating what I have here above, differently, to someone else.

    This, if I’ve in fact not made myself clear in full, with the idea that it’s fairly — not ridiculously — important to you, that they in fact understand what you want to say to them.

    — This idea just above, or either perhaps otherwise, more hypothetically, that you have something that you want to input, somewhat foreign, or odd relative to the norm, at another discussion board, perhaps an astro-physics board. And with this, no. 1, additionally, that you’re a student of physics having taken a few lesser courses in physics but learning more – as you go / on line, and no. 2, that that board’s general membership roll is fairly eclectic and diverse, i.e. with a mix of both other students, in fact fairly widely diverse in their knowledge of the subject, this together with also a few professors, at different main levels.

    What’s your general approach. ?

    Key point, .. Does what you have to input end up incorporating much punctuation. ?

  48. lux

    Rules are made to be broken. However, it is essential to learn the rules first, before making an informed decision as to which can safely be broken…

  49. sylva333

    This reminds me of all the times this sort of thing happens on the comments here. People are arguing and then someone says something incorrectly. After that I usually think “oh no, here we go again” and then wait for someone to call them on it. I also find it interesting that it is rarely the person that agrees with them that calls them out on it. It’s like they use it as a way to dismiss what the other person had said.

  50. Tash

    Does anyone have a link to the rest of Fry’s talk? It seems to keep going after the video ends…

  51. Mike Torr

    This is one of the very few topics on which I disagree with Stephen Fry (and Phil Plait, for that matter). I have a simple rule: I’m OK with gradual change, but any change that reduces the power of language should be resisted, especially when it is rapid.

    Yes, language evolves; but what people seem to be missing is that English evolves far too fast nowadays. Due to global usage and widespread access to published media, the pace has accelerated to a point beyond which, if we’re not careful, it will disintegrate and lose a lot of its precision. We need someone to put the brakes on this, or it will get out of control. Unfortunately, the traditional upholders of linguistic conservatism – such as dictionaries – don’t seem to care much: in fact, they encourage the rapid changes.

    Ambiguities such as “this animal predates many others” never happened before the hyphen was dropped (by some). The context can remove the ambiguity, as many rightly point out; however, that does nothing to make it easier to read the text. When the ambiguity can only be resolved with context checks, the brain has to keep pausing in its parsing of the text, so to speak, and this is really distracting!

    I know many will disagree with me on this, and I’m used to it, so fire away. I’ll stand by this opinion though. I foresee a crisis in communication if things continue as they are now; come and argue with me again in twenty-five years and we’ll see what state writing is in by then. I’m willing to bet that there will be a statistically significant increase in strife caused by miscommunication of ideas (though I recognise that this is not exactly easy to quantify!).

    Edit: Just wanted to add, having watched the video again, that the majority of examples Fry gives (e.g. five items or less) fall into my “don’t care much” category too. It’s just that there are plenty that don’t.

    And, for the record, yes I do enjoy language. I have written poetry on many occasions.

  52. Wildride

    To break the rules, first you must learn the rules.

  53. Buzz Parsec

    Yikes. I watched before reading the next paragraph and the 1st thing I thought of was who/whom. I think the rule is “Always use WHOM when you intend to be pretentious. Or when quoting John Donne. (Same difference.) Otherwise use WHO.”

    Interestingly, the next video served up by Vimeo is called “Billions and Billions”, though it is about money, not Carl Sagan. (Worth watching anyway… nice soundtrack, too – Floyd’s “Money”.)

  54. Dean

    The idea of making adjectives into nouns is full of awesome.

  55. Chris Winter

    Sili wrote (#35): “Funny that, since the Masters of Grammar, Strunk and White, explicitly condemn the use of adjectives and adverbs as weak and poor writing.”

    Surely they must not have meant that in a general sense. Without adjectives and adverbs, it would be impossible to convey any but the simplest of messages.

    (In that last paragraph, strike out “general” and “impossible” and “simplest.”)

    Consider: “Go to the store. Buy bread and milk.”

    Unless the recipient of that order already knew which types of bread and milk were desired, mutual displeasure might result.

  56. @Andrew I agree. As in art, you need to be able to draw before you can come off with abstract and make it worthwhile.
    There is a huge difference between the deliberate mis-use of language, like teh, and the ignorant misuse – like except vs accept.

  57. Gary Ansorge

    Years ago I read that the average US high school graduate possessed a spoken vocabulary of 5000 words, a listening vocabulary of 10,000 words, a written vocabulary of 15,000 words and a reading comprehension vocabulary of 20,000 words.

    If one considers all the specialized sub vocabularies in the English language, we have about 16 MILLION words. So much to learn. So little time.

    The average competent poet has a working vocabulary of about 350,000 words.

    I are an average poet,,,dude,,,

    Gary 7

  58. Shoeshine Boy

    “Stick with it; the ending is really cool.”

    I must have missed something.

  59. Chris Winter

    I agree with the singular TreeLobsters, who (being singular) feels that formal uses of language should be grammatically correct. (Sentences having a singular subject and a plural verb, or vice versa, are one of my pet peeves.)

    Yes, I have a tendency to pedantry. Denying this would be illogical, since my personal Web site is full of it. (I meant “full of pedantry.” You grokked that, right?) But this pedantry is applied to published books, which most would agree are examples of formal writing.

    In this context, it’s often hard to tell whether the author or the editor is responsible for a particular grammar goof. I could quote you some fine examples which an editor injected into an otherwise correct document. Dick DeLoach, a NASA scientist, once told how a colleague’s technical paper on manipulation of digital bits in shift registers was revised by an editor so that every occurrence of “bit by bit” changed to “little by little.”

    The author was not pleased.

  60. gss_000

    I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. You might feel language can evolve, but then is it okay to get upset when imprecise words are used for science media and headlines? What one person could call pedantic, another could call it imprecision.

  61. Zucchi

    I try never to unecessarily split an infinitive. And, I never end a sentence with a preposition unless I can’t think of anything else to end it with.

    But it will never, ever be okay to use “literally” as an intensifier. It’s not merely a useful word, but an essential word for the purpose of communicating clearly. We absolutely must have a word meaning the opposite of “figuratively”.

    And “whom” is a great word.

  62. Chris Winter

    So yes, correcting others’ grammar can be easily overdone — especially when done to blog comments, Usenet messages, and other casual writings. But it’s worth emphasizing that grammatical mistakes can easily result in the message conveying an unintended meaning, or no meaning at all. Even a misplaced comma can sometimes alter the meaning in an embarrassing way. Wise writers take some trouble to get it right the first time. Following up with “you know what I meant” doesn’t always cut it.

    For some good words on the subject, I refer you to the book with the four-word title: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Astute readers here will have noted that Stephen Fry mentioned its author.

  63. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    Example: the word “whom” needs to be struck from the language. We don’t need it — the word “who” works perfectly well,…

    Methinks that Phil has been watching Doctor Who too often. ;-)

  64. NAW

    Loved it, and not just because I am often the target of the people he was speaking about.

  65. Chris Winter

    For the record, I don’t mind splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence a preposition with. (Guess I’m betraying my Pennsylvania Dutch roots there…) I’ve been known to boldly split infinitives no man has split before. ;-) And I’ve often used with approval Winston Churchill’s putdown: “That is the sort of language up with which I will not put.” It sounds stilted, and is.

    But the thing that really sets me off is when someone argues that the rules of grammar are superfluous, or a strait-jacket inhibiting creative writing. You want to break the rules? Fine, but learn what they are first. The notion that children don’t need to be taught how to spell and punctuate correctly, or to use words according to their accepted definitions, is totally wrong-headed. Failing to teach these things is a recipe for lifelong confusion on the part of the children and will probably condemn them to second-class performance on the job.

  66. The #1 hit on my blog is a collection of things that bother me, linguistically, but those things are just things where people don’t think about the meaning of what they’re saying, especially when idioms are involved. I am fully in favor of split infinitives and terminal prepositions and the like, and I do actually enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of what puts language together and exploring the meaning and origin of words.

    And it irritates the hell out of me whenever someone takes me to task for the use of a particular word where my intended meaning was obvious but they just want to be a dick.

  67. Richard L

    I would add one more situation to the Mr. Fry’s list of when you should use correct language – don’t use words containing a concept (such as “time” – the observation that we can correlate seasons with the swings of a pendulum) when trying to describe something that isn’t possible (i.e. “before time”). Or, in other words, please speak in a way that makes logical sense.

    There’s no way for me to understand what “before time” means since “before” is a subconcept of “time” and if you’re trying to convey an idea, making it understandable is quite nice – otherwise no one will be able to judge if you have a point or not. It might be good as poetry, but we can all agree that poetry isn’t a way to put forth ideas, right?

    Other than that, I think it is a nice idea to stop working against progress. I guess/predict that English will be changing dramatically the coming decades, since it’s used globally online. So give up pedants, correcting the apostrophe missing in the clerk’s spelling will only make you look like a social idiot. Us non-native English speakers and writers will win in the end. Bwahahahahahaha.

  68. Rory Kent

    I am what you would call a ‘grammar Nazi’, but please don’t judge me before hearing my argument. I’m not stupid, I appreciate that language needs to change and I do my best to welcome that. I can not, however, stand for misuse of language. I frequently receive texts and e-mails which I honestly cannot decipher for their shortenings, abbreviations and mistakes. Laziness should not be the driving factor in our language, our culture’s tongue, to be developing. So I fight. I fight every tiny little detail in the hope that I may change someone’s use of language in the smallest way, almost like placing a high first bid. I do ask that everybody know the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’, but I do hope that we can all use language to better understand each other.

  69. CB

    While we’re at it, let’s allow “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” since everyone uses it that way.

    On a separate topic, there is a joke that goes something like this: An out-of-towner walks up to a Harvard student and asks “Can you tell me where the law library is at?”. The Harvard student says, “Around here, we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.”. So the out-of-towner says, “Okay, can you tell me where the law library is at, you moron?”.

  70. Radwaste

    Doctor Whom?

    LOL, somebody stepped right up against Strunk & White, as I expected. Dudes, sorry I harshed your buzz, I grok your angst. Chill and be froody, bros. Happen on the vine that whatcha do’s up to the seer to see, not the shower to show. K?

    I work with technical documents. You, the reader, are affected by legal documents. Suggest that there not be rules – even arbitrary ones set in a zeal for clarity and brevity, as in Strunk & White, and you sacrifice accuracy for style. That’s pretty much the end of that story.

    Hmm. If we step away from rules, we can be more politically correct! We don’t stigmatize people who just cannot get it through their heads that they must speak well to be hired – to explain what they can do, not just to speak to the public.

    At Savannah River Site, each PC supplied to workers has a NOTICE dialog box appear after login. Being grammatically incorrect, it cannot be legally correct – and in fact, it is neither. It cannot be corrected by local IT professionals, who are aware of the problem, because then our systems would fail the automated security check mandated by the DOE. Yay, your tax $$ at work put an illiterate in charge. What could explain the inability to understand English in a Federal position?

    Then there’s another kind of permissiveness with the language. That poor bastard in jail is a “detainee”, not a “prisoner”. He’s “being restrained”, not “imprisoned” or even “confined”. I bet those “restraints” are much more comfortable than “handcuffs”!

    Yeah, I know that’s definition creep, not rule mutation, OK.

  71. Kea

    I dislike the use of the term “Nazis” in this context. In every other way, however, I say “AMEN” to Stephen Frye and want to tweet a link to his presentation to all those pesky, picky editors I stopped following on Twitter because they wanted to keep language pure in those 140 characters. Language is alive and adaptable.

  72. Steve

    I get frustrated when TBS ads say ‘more movie, less commercials’. I would agree with ‘fewer commercials’ or ‘less commercial time’, but I seem to be in the minority. Guess my honors lit classes were not worth much, eh?

  73. tacitus

    I guess I can be a bit of a pedant at times when it comes to this type of stuff, but I usually just wince and move on. I do get a little depressed when I see broadcasters, who do words for a living, making especially egregious errors. Not two hours ago, an NFL commentator used the word “satistics” (as opposed to statistics), and one of the ESPN anchors would always start talking about “Wimbleton” when June came around. (I believe he finally started getting it right a few years ago.)

    As for nouns becoming verbs — not too big a deal, but there are limits. For example, I find “funeralize” to be unnecessary, and a bit ridiculous, and it just seems a whole lot cheaper and uglier to say “we funeralized her” than saying “we attended her funeral.” It’s not even accurate — you didn’t “funeralize” her — the funeral directors did, it anyone.

    As a rule, I guess I’m not a big fan of verbizationalism.

    I can’t be too high and haughty about grammar and language though — I have written a full-length novel, and yet there is hardly a sentence in there where I can be 100% certain I have all the commas in the right place! If you ask me to write one of the longer ones again five times, I would likely give you five different results.

  74. Jack

    Phil,

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Language is more than a tool. “Serves no purpose, and therefore should be removed” is a dangerous, arbitrary thing to say. I shocked to hear you say this, as it doesn’t seem to mesh very well with many of the political arguments you make here. Why have synonyms? Why spell things in old fashioned ways? Language is an art.

  75. shawmutt

    I agree with the “learn the language” folks. Being clever with a language is a great thing, willful ignorance is quite another.

  76. DCJ

    Says the man who is obsessed with how people pronounce kilometre…

  77. Andy

    Saying “the word “whom” needs to be struck from the language” is a little ironic: your argument supports one arbitrary convention over another, though its justification stems from the arbitrariness of those conventions. I agree, though, people shouldn’t get so emotionally invested in differences between grammars.

  78. MzPhyz

    But isn’t at least some of the fun, or perhaps even much of the fun, of language unconvention having a convention to flout? Pendantry violated and overthrown is a joy in which we can partake only if pedants provide us the feasting table.

    Verbing a noun, nouning an adjective, splitting an infinitive, inserting the amusingly formal “one” or “whom” into informal writing and speech, or a flippant pop-culture BSG “frak” into a multi-million dollar investor presentation–these are the delights of the unexpected that can occur only if we begin with stolid expectation.

    The grammatical and lexical bounds we set ourselves define the place where play begins. They are useful in that role, so let’s not be too hasty to rid ourselves of them entirely.

    As Fry hints, if we dress up for some occasions, then we can know how wonderful it is to rip away the tie, kick off the heels, run barefoot and free through the green grass beyond the walls of conventional language.

    After all, what can those who choose to remain haughtily within the confines of language properly deployed do to those who don’t? Throw the book at us?

  79. Daffy

    “Whom serves no actual purpose anymore except to let pedantic grammarians feel superior when it gets misused.”

    True enough—on the other hand, people who express that viewpoint are often just making excuses for being lazy. And I would suggest that professional writers do have some obligation to preserve the language they write in (it is perfectly acceptable to end a a sentence with a preposition, so don’t go there).

  80. Eric

    Rappers explore the use of words in modern society and they are often considered unintelligent.

    “I’m a thumb tack
    That you slept on son
    Now here I come screaming “attack” like I just stepped on one!” -Eminem

  81. Mark the Sundog

    Somebody mentioned hairless cats as an example of selective breeding, but I have to challenge that point a little.

    The Sphinx, the hairless breed of cat, is in fact just a badly-coated Devon Rex cat (which has soft, curly fur). The hairless and poor-hair genes came into the breed probably from one of its earlier out-crossings (you have to out-cross when your whole breed starts off with a single natural mutant whose father could never be caught). One particular breeder had a problem with poor fur coverage, but instead of finishing the line and not breeding from it, she sold cats with more acceptable coats that carried the recessive gene. Because of the narrow range of genetic diversity in the breed, that damn gene got spread around fairly quickly .

    In the US, some people had the gene so solidly established in their lines by the 1980s* that they gave up trying to breed it out, and decided to make up a new breed on the spot, hence the Sphinx.

    So, rather than being an example of selective breeding, the Sphinx is in fact a result of abandoning selective breeding in the face of difficulty.

    Now, how’s that for pedantic?

    *Look! No apostrophe!

  82. Jason

    BTW Phil, “Pomegranate” has two “a”s and no “i”!

  83. 17. Nick Says: “Literally…when people use it as an intensifier, they are almost always using to it mean the exact opposite of what it means.”

    I’d say it’s in a race with “virtually” for the title of most misused adjective.

    They are very unique.

    – Jack

  84. My daughter always puts Stephen Fry on forms where it asks for religion! I agree- Fry is great. I put that same link on my Facebook page two days ago.

  85. Martin Cohen

    The most important thing in writing
    is the amount of understoodness
    Maybe later you might worry
    if your language ain’t got no goodness

  86. Jon

    I’ve surfed through all the comments several times, and never found any mention of one of the most important languages to us today: Computer language.

    There you do have to say exactly what you mean and punctuate perfectly. Otherwise it just won’t communicate to the computer what you want it to do. “Syntax Error”.

    If there’s a place for precision, absolute and unforgiving precision, in language, it’s in what we tell our computers to do.

    J.

  87. Joel

    I like the comparison to music and dance. Language is definitely a comparable form of art. (At least when spoken as eloquently as Stephen Fry does.) ‘They’ said that Mozart used to many notes, that Schoenberg used the wrong ones and that Miles Davis wasn’t using enough. And ‘they’ were wrong every time. I suspect language will continue to be much the same, with the nay-sayers dissolving in to the backdrop and those sitting on the cutting edge securing their place in history.

    As has already been pointed out though, there is a different between ignorance and skilled manipulation of established tradition.

  88. Cindy

    This is funny, because just a few days ago, I was showing one of my students the blog that Phil wrote about using mass as a verb. Sorry, Phil, but it still rubs me the wrong way. Particularly in corporate speak where they ignore a perfectly good verb and instead take a noun and make it a verb.

    I guess it’s because I grade high school lab reports where I’m trying to get the kids to explain their thoughts in a clear and concise manner that I get on their case.

  89. katwagner

    Hunter S. Thompson and gonzo journalism. I really miss that guy!

  90. Here’s the best way I have of explaining why proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation matter to me: Think of the human mind as a computer, and the text being read as a file being read into a program. Programs expect files to be formatted a certain way, so they know how to interpret them. If the file is incorrectly formatted, the program will either be incapable of reading it, or will at least have to spend some extra time identifying the error and correcting for it.

    The rules of grammar are how humans have mutually decided to format our communication. There are many different possible formats, with all the different languages in the world, but each of them has its own rules. The human mind expects to receive data formatted a specific way. It can tolerate many small variations here and there (for instance, whether an adverb comes before or after a noun), but major errors will cause a “hiccup” in processing. Depending on the specific circumstances, this may simply slow down the reader, as they have to spend extra time interpreting the sentence, it may lead them to interpret the sentence incorrectly, or they may not be able to interpret it at all.

    For example, take the following sentence: “I went over to there house.” The mind naturally expects the clause to end after “there,” and it faces an uncomfortable moment when it discovers that it continues in an impossible direction. So it goes back and spends extra time figuring out that “there” was a misspelling of “their.”

    Grammar is for the sake of the reader. It makes their experience more convenient and less unpleasant. Of course, as people have already mentioned in this thread, there are times when it’s worth pointing out mistakes and when it isn’t. For comments in a blog thread, it’s probably not worth it, particularly if it’s just an honest mistake. However, if the commenter is a habitual offender, and the errors impair communication, then it probably is worth bring up the issue. If it’s an error in a legal document, it’s almost definitely worth bringing it up, as that can matter quite a bit.

    In other words: Don’t be a jerk. Correct grammar if there’s a good reason to. Don’t correct grammar if you’re just doing it to make yourself feel big.

  91. Mark Hansen

    Chris Winter @43
    You certainly can use archaicism. However, you don’t need to put &etc. Etc. as an abbreviation for etcetera contains the “and” at the start (Et). Alternatively you can use &c. which turns up from time to time in older writings as another abbreviation for etcetera.

  92. Jon

    The same thing (readily followable flow) applies to indenting paragraphs too. Unfortunately, website comment fora* use ‘tab’ to ‘switch to the next field’ and automagically ‘delete multiple consecutive spaces’. So you can’t indent even if you want to.

    J.

    * See what I did there? J.

  93. Jon

    PS – This is infuriating. I’m always thinking of a paragraph, and whack ‘TAB’ and start typing, only to find that moved me into some other window or control box. Worse is when that window responds to the typing and does something unexpected, unwanted, and irreversible… J.

  94. jim

    It all depends on your “publication” vehicle. Yes, media that are dependent on rapid give and take, such as texting and Twitter, are warping the traditional concept of grammar and spelling. That doesn’t mean we should follow suit in formal communications. In particular, manuscripts intended for publication in scientific journals should conform to standard grammatical practice. After 15 years editing scientific manuscripts, I have had to correct more ambiguous or totally misleading sentences and paragraphs than I care to remember; however, almost all were caused by the author trying to use words or constructions that he or she did not truly understand, and all were corrected by relatively minor rewording (i.e., correcting ‘specious’ to ‘speciose’). Use of proper grammar and spelling are essential in communicating technical ideas, especially among the international community.

  95. me

    i like the word ‘whom’, not because of any supposed correctness, but in certain cases it just sounds better. it has more weight as a word than ‘who’

    ‘for who the bell tolls’, for instance, just doesn’t cut it.

  96. autumn

    I can’t let this go without crying out for the banishment of the pointless “proactive”.
    It has never been used in a manner in which “active” would not be a perfect substitute, and it is often used in a way that tortures the phrasing of the statement being made.
    English already has a word that means the opposite of “reactive,” and it is “active,” dammit.

  97. Richard Woods

    One of my Sunday School teachers liked to draw some religious lesson from the contrast between “I couldn’t care less and “I could care less.” I can never recall the point he was trying to make because I was so dismayed by his use of that gimmick.

  98. KiltBear

    Publicly correcting someone’s use of language is just plain rude. Miss Manners would say there is no justification for such boorish behavior. In forum comments it is nothing more than an ad hominem attack used to discredit an argument without addressing its substance.

    However, I do find it rather ironic that a science zealot such as Phil would criticize someone’s zeal for properly using language. I didn’t learn to use “whom” correctly (actually, to stop using “who” incorrectly) until my 30s. Now, hearing “who” instead of “whom” makes me wince inside, as if someone used “he” in place of “him”.

    It’s just plain incorrect, and would have expected that Phactual Phil would have been the type of person to appreciate that.

  99. noen

    First the grammar Nazis came for the split infinitives but I said nothing for I was not a split infinitive also.

    Then the grammar Nazis came for the dangling participles. Checking thoroughly my writing had no dangling bits.

    Finally they came for those whom remained whom had abused whom however they pleased. I went quietly ’cause I’m guilty as hell.

  100. KiltBear

    http://www.spellingsociety.org/news/media/spoofs.php

    Linguistic Congruence within the European Union

    1. Due to its widespread use on the so-called ‘Information Superhighway’, and so that growing anti-European sentiments in Britain may be reassured about the importance of Britain’s role in the European Union, the European Parliament has taken the unprecedented step of selecting one language – English – to become the preferred common language of the European Union.

    2. In order to expedite this process and to speed congruence, the European Parliament has commissioned a feasability study of ways in which communications between departments of member governments can be made more effective. Its main recommendations are summarised below.

    3. European officials have often pointed out that English spelling is unnecessarily complicated and illogical – for example, the different sounds of cough, plough and rough, or heard and beard. There is a clear need for a phased programme of changes to eliminate these anomalies. The programme would, of course, require administration by a committee whose members would be supplied by participating nations.

    4. During the first year of implementation, it is envisaged that the soft “c” will be replaced by the more phonetically correct letter “s”. This will sertainly be resieved favourably by sivil servants in many European sities, and will insidentally render the “i” before “e” exsept after “c” rule unnesessary. The logical replasement of the hard “c” by the letter “k” will follow, due to the similarity in pronunsiation. This konkomitant step will, insidentally, not only klear up konfusion in the minds of klerikal workers, but also klarify word prosessing sinse it kompletely removes the need for one of the letters on the keyboard.

    5. The sekond stage will see the digraph “ph” written as “f”. In addition to the fonetik logik of this move, words such as “fotograf” will be twenty per sent shorter.

    6. The third fase will involve the removal of double letters in words. In many instanses, double leters do not afekt the aktual pronunsiation of a word. They are, however, a comon deterent to akurate speling.

    7. The fourth element will be the elimination of silent “e”s from the languag. Thes ar often stal reliks of past spelings. They do litl to enhans writen English and it is antisipated that they kould be droped with eas.

    8. By this point, the Komision antisipats that publik akseptans of the changes will be at a high level. It wil thus be posibl to promot som other, smaler, but stil posibly kontentious, changes. For exampl, the unesesary “o” kan be droped from words kontaining the “ou” digraf. A similar proses kuld then be aplid to other vowel and konsonant kombinashuns.

    9. However, no konseshun wuld yet hav ben mad to Uropean sensibilitis. To tak kar of som of the komon difikultis enkountered by non-nativ spekers, it wuld be sensibl for the “th” digraf to be replased by “z”. Ze funkshun of ze “w” kan zen be taken by ze letter “v”, vich is, of kors, half a “w” in any kas.

    10. Zis proses vil kontinu, in a kumulativ fashun. Eventuli English vil be ze komon languag ov ze Komuniti, vich vil no longer be merly an ekonomik sifer, but a kominashun ov fre pepls. Ve shal kontinu to red and rit as zo nuzing has hapend. Evrivun vil no vot ze uzer sitizens ar saying and komunkashun vil be mutch ezier. Ze Komuniti vil hav achevd its objektivs ov congrewents and ze drems ov ze pepls of Urop vil finali hav kum tru. It is hopd zat zes signifikant konseshuns vil finaly reashor ze “Uroskeptiks”!

  101. JB of Brisbane

    My favourite fumblerule: “It behooves the author not to use archaic expressions.”
    I have often said to people, “That English is a dynamic language is no excuse for you to be slack”.
    I have often wondered if Stephen Fry and Jeremy Clarkson are twins separated at birth… but that would be playing the man, not the ball, to use a Rugby League analogy.

  102. Svlad Cjelli

    No, you don’t agree with Stephen Fry if you want to prescribe which words people are not allowed to use. Silly Phil.

  103. MNP

    It’s useful in that it makes it easier to read something written a long time ago if we can keep the linguistic change to a minimum.

    It may be time to concede that if something begs a question it raises a question related to the topic at hand, but we also need the old meaning so we can understand past writings.

  104. Nigel Depledge

    OK, I can’t access the video from work (firewall nazis), and I have not yet read the comments, so apologies if this has already been raised, but…

    We grammar nazis get given a rough ride, with very little justification.

    Phil, I can accept your point about “whom”, but you ignore the fact that it lends a certain elegance to the language, and I feel we would all be that much poorer without it.

    Similarly, the use of “were” in the subjunctive (for instance, “if I was you” is technically wrong because the expression is a subjunctive – it should be “if I were you”) has fallen out of use, and that’s part of the way languages evolve. Again, though, I feel that something with a certain grace has been replaced by something ungainly.

    Mainly what I object to are two things:
    First, the misuse of a word. For example, the advertising industry is doing its level best to render the word “natural” completely meaningless. Many people use the word “differential” when they mean “difference”. And so on – if I were to take the time, I daresay I could come up with dozens of common examples.

    Second, an utter lack of awareness opf the function of punctuation. While most words have a clear enough meaning on their own, the way we say them lends depth and nuance to that meaning. In some cases, the way we say the same words changes the meaning. A good example of this comes from a very old episode of Sesame Street, in which the phrase “It’s a nice day,” was stated in three or four different ways according to the terrminal punctuation mark (e.g. an exclamation mark makes a more emphatic statement than a full stop, and the use of a question mark renders the meaning the opposite of the plain statement). Punctuation tells us how written words should be said. Thus, punctuation has a significant role in conveying meaning. And most punctuation is really easy to use – I think the only difficult ones are commas and semi-colons, and even commas are only difficult sometimes.

    Ultimately, the existing structure, diversity and sheer range of expression available in English gives us a wonderful language with which to convey a multitude of facts, emotions, desires and intentions, while encompassing a vast range of nuance and subtle disctinctions. Why detract from this in the service of mere utility?

    For example, the verbs “to smite”, “to strike” and “to hit” mean nearly the same thing. Why not get rid of the older forms and simply have the one word? Because the language would be the poorer for it. Without the verb “to smite”, for instance, we would lose both a poetic sense of the epic, and the ability to be smitten by love at first sight.

    Many examples can be found in the works of Shakespeare, but I’ll pick out just one – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. If “compare with” and “compare to” were to end up with the same meaning (as some writers already seem to believe), this sonnet would be rendered far less potent.

    So, I say, by all means add to the language – where would we be without the new term “chav”, for example? – but please don’t subtract from it.

  105. Nigel Depledge

    This commenter raises some interesting points:

    Noen (99) said:

    First the grammar Nazis came for the split infinitives but I said nothing for I was not a split infinitive also.

    Sometimes, meaning can be clearer with a split infinitive than without. Apparently, this “rule” only came out of Latin, a language in which infinitives comprise one word only so cannot be split. Applying Latin grammar to modern English simply does not work, even for the chunks of English that derive directly from Latin (look at how many people get confused over “datum” and its plural “data”).

    Then the grammar Nazis came for the dangling participles. Checking thoroughly my writing had no dangling bits.

    LOL!

    I have to say, I dislike dangling participles, because they just sound horrible. The famous example from Churchill (“. . . up with which I will not put!”) is actually a misuse, because in this case the verb “to put up” contains the word “up” as an auxiliary to the verb (I forget the correct technical term), so it does not serve as a participle. Therefore, it should be “. . . with which I will not put up!”.

    Finally they came for those whom remained whom had abused whom however they pleased. I went quietly ’cause I’m guilty as hell.

    Agreed!

  106. scgvlmike

    I loved Stephen’s entire commentary, but I have to disagree with him about the public signs. He argues that in favor of dressing up language for job interviews, in the same way we wear better clothing than we’d otherwise wear, but simultaneously insists that we shouldn’t expect the greengrocer to know how to properly use (and when not to use) apostrophes. If I were a greengrocer, I might find that thought insulting.

    Too “frequently”, I see “signs” where every “third” word is “in” quotes, something “like” this sentence.

    I was raised such that quotes are used for two purposes. The first is used to lend authenticity, and only works when the author explicitly names the source being quoted. The second is to cast doubt on an item, and works by not naming the source. The result is that in the example of above sentence, I walk away not believing that the expressions are frequent, that the form of communication is via sign, that it’s the third word (or, from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”), etc.

    If that makes me a pedant, so be it. But keep in mind that I’m arguing the same thing Stephen is arguing: language in a formal environment matters. What you do at home is your concern, not mine.

  107. Paul

    If you eliminate “whom” should you also eliminate “him,” “her,” and “them?” That’s certainly how the dialect in the Caribbean has evolved (e.g. “Give it to she.”)

  108. Grimbold

    The one that always annoys me is when people say “on my behalf” when they mean “on my part”, and vice versa.

    That, and those repulsive invented gender-neutral pronouns. Yes, it’s a pity English doesn’t have any proper ones. Yes, you CAN get away with the singular “they”. There is no excuse for “xe” and “xyr” or their rival abominations.

  109. Gav

    “Who, whom?”

  110. Nigel Depledge

    Another though occurs to me regarding the use of “whom” and other words that should technically inflect with grammatical case:

    It gives us a tangible link to the history of the language.

    Thus, why do we have “mice” and not “mouses”? Why does “who” inflect to “whom” in the dative case? These are some of the last grammatical fragments left over from Old English (which was a fully inflected language). Does it not humble one to think that one is following rules of communication that have lasted in the language perhaps 1400 years?

    English has accumulated its richness and diversity over a great period, with much borrowing (and outright stealing) from other languages. And some of its core has survived intact despite the best efforts of the Norman invaders (for at least 100 years after 1066, English was outlawed, and French remained the official language of court for some time after that). In fact, what emerged from that conquest was the language we know as Middle English – the language of Chaucer – in which Old English, augmented by much Old Norse, was mixed with French.

    The history of English is the history of England. Should we joyfully embrace the removal of that link?

  111. Isobel Ayres

    The ‘I could care less’ is definitely an Americanism (I’ve never heard it used here in the UK, it’s always ‘I couldn’t care less’ or, as we seem to swear more, more usually ‘I couldn’t give a [ahem]’). It confused the heck out of me when I lived in the US for a while, I was honestly left wondering whether people using it were saying that yes, they did care actually or whether they meant ‘I couldn’t care less’.

    I don’t correct people’s spoken usages (with the exception of one friend, but she’s Italian and has asked me to correct her when she goes wrong in English) but I have no hestitation in correcting inaccuracies in anything I am given to check at work.

    Is grammar taught in American schools? I think it is being taught again in the UK, but it certainly wasn’t taught at all when I was at primary school; any grammatical correctness I have is what I’ve picked up from other people’s usage. It caused people of my generation problems at University level: as English students we studied Old English (which is so different it has to be learnt like a second language) in order to study Beowulf in the original. We all struggled with it, mostly because very few of us could even identify an adverb. I’d still have to google it, even now.

  112. Nigel Depledge

    Mark Hansen (91) said:

    Alternatively you can use &c. which turns up from time to time in older writings as another abbreviation for etcetera.

    This is because the ampersand is a shorthand form of the word “et”.

  113. réalta fuar

    A post obviously written by someone who got dinged in junior high for mis-using objective and subjective cases and never quite got over it. I expect to see an argument that “very unique” is perfectly good usage next.
    @Edwardson: exactly!
    I just can’t take this post serious.

  114. Nigel Depledge

    Joel (87) said:

    . . . Mozart used to many notes. . .

    Erm ….

    No, I won’t.
    ;-)

  115. Nigel Depledge

    Daffy (79) said:

    And I would suggest that professional writers do have some obligation to preserve the language they write in

    Perhaps. But professional writers with a suitable mastery of the language are some of its most inventive contributors.

    (it is perfectly acceptable

    Albeit clumsy.

    to end a a sentence with a preposition, so don’t go there).

  116. me

    YOU don’t know about me without you have read a
    book by the name of The Adventures of Tom
    Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was
    made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth,
    mainly. There was things which he stretched, but
    mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never
    seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it
    was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt
    Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and
    the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book,
    which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as
    I said before.

    werdz iz fur njoyin, cordin 2 ma kittehkat an dat nyse mista twayn

  117. Isobel Ayres

    The ‘I could care less’ is definitely an Americanism (I’ve never heard it used here in the UK, it’s always ‘I couldn’t care less’ or, as we seem to swear more, more usually ‘I couldn’t give a [ahem]‘). It confused the heck out of me when I lived in the US for a while, I was honestly left wondering whether people using it were saying that yes, they did care actually or whether they meant ‘I couldn’t care less’.

    I don’t correct people’s spoken usages (with the exception of one friend, but she’s Italian and has asked me to correct her when she goes wrong in English) but I have no hestitation in correcting inaccuracies in anything I am given to check at work.

    Is grammar taught in American schools? I think it is being taught again in the UK, but it certainly wasn’t taught at all when I was at primary school; any grammatical correctness I have is what I’ve picked up from other people’s usage. It caused people of my generation problems at University level: as English students we studied Old English (which is so different it has to be learnt like a second language) in order to study Beowulf in the original. We all struggled with it, mostly because very few of us could even identify an adverb. I’d still have to google it, even now.

  118. Peter Eldergill

    I don’t like the changing of spelling of certain words to perhaps make it seem more “efficient”.

    Spelling “thru” instead of “through”, “nite” instead of “night” and so forth.

    As if dropping one letter will make your life easier and what…make you more money?

    The worst part about it is that I see it in newspapers and TV news channels

    Phil might call it Pseudoefficiency :)

    Pete

  119. bob

    ‘the word “whom” needs to be struck from the language’

    Yes I absolutely agree, and while we’re at it let’s get rid of him and her. “Can I speak to Bob?” “Let me get he.” Perfect. It even sounds sort of posh. If you’re a partially literate American.

    Why has no-one posted Mark Twain’s http://www.mantex.co.uk/2009/10/26/spelling-reform/ yet?

    Also, I’m upset that someone of Fry’s erudition can fall for that “language’s evolve” bollocks. Survival of the fittest where the breeding is by television programme. Is that a crap metaphor? Exactly!

  120. Mapnut

    I feel very strongly about this topic, but decided not to comment because no one will ever read this far down the list.

  121. Nigel Depledge

    Bob (119) said:

    . . . that “language’s evolve” bollocks.

    Erm . . .

    No, I won’t.
    ;-)

  122. Nigel Depledge

    Mapnut (120) said:

    I feel very strongly about this topic, but decided not to comment because no one will ever read this far down the list.

    Quite right. I certainly didn’t read your comment.

    Oh, wait . . .

  123. Nigel Depledge

    Steve (72) said:

    I get frustrated when TBS ads say ‘more movie, less commercials’. I would agree with ‘fewer commercials’ or ‘less commercial time’, but I seem to be in the minority. Guess my honors lit classes were not worth much, eh?

    Hear, hear!

  124. Nigel Depledge

    CB (69) said:

    An out-of-towner walks up to a Harvard student and asks “Can you tell me where the law library is at?”.

    Interestingly, this example of a sentence ended with a preposition is also an example of superfluity. The word “at” that has been added to the end of the sentence serves no function. The sentence would mean exactly the same thing if the word “at” were omitted. And it would sound better.

  125. Nigel Depledge

    I just realised that I got a bit twisted up in a previous comment and conflated dangling participles with sentence-ending prepositions.

    I wonder if anyone will pull me up on it.

  126. Nigel Depledge

    Rory Kent (68) said:

    Laziness should not be the driving factor in our language, our culture’s tongue, to be developing. So I fight. I fight every tiny little detail in the hope that I may change someone’s use of language in the smallest way, almost like placing a high first bid. I do ask that everybody know the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’, but I do hope that we can all use language to better understand each other.

    Hear, hear!

  127. Nigel Depledge

    Richard L (67) said:

    Other than that, I think it is a nice idea to stop working against progress. I guess/predict that English will be changing dramatically the coming decades, since it’s used globally online. So give up pedants, correcting the apostrophe missing in the clerk’s spelling will only make you look like a social idiot. Us non-native English speakers and writers will win in the end. Bwahahahahahaha.

    Actually, it is more likely that English will fragment into several mutually-incomprehensible languages.

    Already, there is a dialect used in Singapore known as Singlish, much of which is incomprehensible to a native-English-speaker.

  128. Calli Arcale

    What I got from this piece was not that criticizing language is bad. It’s that people don’t care about the language itself — even the pedants. For a certain subgroup, Fry perceives that they are more concerned with “correctness” than the beauty and pleasure of the language.

    The misuse of the apostrophe is frustrating; it serves no purpose. But what sort of person is one if they spend all their time grammar-flaming and none of it *talking*? When you go to a message board or blog and someone spends half an hour constructing an elaborately researched argument, what does it mean when the first reply is nothing more than a lecture in the proper use of prepositions?

    Correct use of language is important. Grammar is important. Punctuation is important. Spelling is important. Proper construction is important. But as my college writing instructors all agreed, the rules are there so that you know what you’re doing when you decide to break them later on. They are not, themselves, the language. They are merely its structure. Love of structure should not supercede love of the language.

    A week ago, I got to watch David Tennant’s Hamlet again. It was a great pleasure. I love watching good actors performing Shakespeare, because Shakespeare gives them such great lines. One of the highlights was a scene which is often shortened or deleted entirely — a speech given by the leader of the players, at Hamlet’s request. The speech was reportedly not popular, but Hamlet likes it, and the player humors him by delivering it. The gentleman performing the role really got into it and you could see he was practically tasting the words as they left his mouth. I love to see that sort of thing. The love of language! Author Neil Gaiman has done a number of readings, and he also reads in that fashion, enjoying not merely the content of the words nor the structure of the sentences but the *shape* of the words, the *sound* of them, the way they *feel*, even apart from their literal meaning. Morgan Freeman — I could listen to him read the phone book, but it’s far better when he gets to read something good, because he can *deliver* language. And once I got to hear a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (Very rare recording, but it had been reproduced and eventually put onto CD.) Beautiful voice, beautiful words.

    So to me, Fry was less bemoaning grammar Nazis (though he certainly was doing that as well) as he was bemoaning the general cheapening of our language. Must its only champions be pedants who guard the strict rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, to the detriment of any joy in the language itself?

  129. Brent

    The dative “who” can sound really wrong—especially if the “to” is explicit, but the accusative “who” should replace “whom”.

    To whom did you refer who?

  130. George

    I find english language very vague, trying hard to read between the lines and through the words to understant the exact meaning, especialy in science text. My native lanquage is Greek and I’m the last person to talk abouit English grammar and maybe my strugle comes from my limited knowlege of English.

  131. On the scale of grammatical philosophy, Fry’s a half-inch nearer “descriptivist” and further from “prescriptivist” than I am. However, I heartily, happily agree with 92% of his delightfully expressed opinion. I part with him when he argues that careful, proper use of language doesn’t “illustrate clarity of thought and intelligence of mind.” I think it does. In my own writing, I find that choosing just the right words, and organizing them precisely to convey exactly the meaning I intend, often does clarify (even for me) what I’m trying to say. Occasionally I even change my own mind–if a sentence’s grammar doesn’t hang together, sometimes it’s because the thought it’s trying to express is flawed. Conversely, I often find that people who don’t speak or write clearly aren’t thinking very clearly, either.

  132. The time that creeping language evolution hurts comes when people with a standard education can no longer read Shakespeare or the King James Bible. (Bad enough that already they can hardly make out Chaucer and Spenser.) As long as the vast majority are still being taught to read and write (and mostly be able to speak, when appropriate) what has been pretty-much-standard English now for several hundred years — largely since Gutenberg — then what they speak in casual conversation doesn’t concern me, except to the extent that standard connotations and denotations are rendered unusable.

  133. me

    @bob
    “Also, I’m upset that someone of Fry’s erudition can fall for that “language’s evolve” bollocks.
    Survival of the fittest where the breeding is by television programme. Is that a crap metaphor? Exactly!”

    Never mind if they grow gonads, but it must be upsetting for you to discover that Mr Fry has fallen for an argument that wiser experts on language, such as yourself, realise is not only detrimental, but has already destroyed your language skills and ability to construct a good metaphor, therefore ultimately proving your point, or something. Now pass the brandy, there’s a good fellow, you’ve drunk enough already and it’s not even noon yet.

  134. Thomathy

    I agree with Fry. I enjoy language and I delight in describing it.

    It bothers me, however, that Phil Plait says that he agrees with Fry and yet goes on to write, ‘Whom serves no actual purpose anymore except to let pedantic grammarians feel superior when it gets misused.’

    Well, if you did agree with Fry, you wouldn’t have a problem with the use of the word whom and you wouldn’t think it should be stricken from English. I use it and I like to use it and I’m not a pedantic grammarian who feels superior when it’s misused. People can say whatever they want. I’d dearly like to save the English past subjunctive mood, particularly the use of the word were rather than was (ex. ‘If I were the Queen.’ vs. ‘If I was the Queen.’), but it’s disappearing all over the place. I’ll still use it, but I won’t tell other people that they’re wrong or that they weren’t the Queen in the past when they use was. They’re not ‘wrong’ in any objective sense.

    They are, however, from my position as a linguaphile woefully ignorant of how the language they’re using works. How language works, of course, is beautiful and the more one knows the more beautiful language is. I also think knowing more about language helps it to be used more beautifully. There’s something to be said about the intentional use of a new vernacular form that imparts nuance to something that’s being said or is written. Shakespeare is a great example of that. I’m sure that Phil Plait thinks something similar about the universe; thinks that the universe is more beautiful the more one learns about it.

    I encourage everyone to learn about the languages they speak, to become knowledgeable about their grammars and how they work and to become deliberate users of those languages. Put that knowledge to work and use who instead of whom because you know why who works just as well and because you understand that language changes and that it’s okay to use it as it’s being used.

  135. Calli Arcale

    Isobel Ayers:

    Is grammar taught in American schools?

    Absolutely, though take that with a grain of salt — we also are taught science, history, and math, yet score poorly on those when compared to other industrialized nations. This may be due to the quality of the schools, but I think it’s more due to the anti-elitist streak that has led to our culture considering school little more than something to get through with before getting a job and doing something worthwhile. (Inference: education isn’t something worthwhile. It’s a bit tragic, but fortunately not universal.)

    On the other hand, I did observe even during my years in primary and secondary school that the emphasis on grammar was declining, which I’ll get to in a moment.

    It caused people of my generation problems at University level: as English students we studied Old English (which is so different it has to be learnt like a second language) in order to study Beowulf in the original. We all struggled with it, mostly because very few of us could even identify an adverb. I’d still have to google it, even now.

    Old English really isn’t much like modern English, which has so much influence from German and French. The closest modern language is said to be Icelandic (which is very nearly Old Norse, a close cousin to the Anglo-Saxon language). Knowing English grammar isn’t necessarily helpful — but having learned grammar the hard way means learning the right words to talk about an unfamiliar language, so I totally get what you’re saying.

    When I was in college, I had classmates who had received grammar instruction (like me) and classmates who had not. I was taking French for my foreign-language requirement, and it was interesting to see the difference between students who knew how to diagram a sentence in English and those who did not. The former group caught on much more quickly, because they were looking for the grammatical building blocks like nouns and verbs and adverbs and things. The others were trying to get by with memorizing phrases. However, I did not feel my grammar instruction in grade school had been complete; it was French class (in high school) where I learned how to conjugate a verb, and I had not known there were more tenses than just past, present, and future, even in English. It was several years before I realized that “passe imparfait” wasn’t just some strange peculiarity of French — English has it too. I simply was not understanding it. ;-)

  136. John

    We have simplified English for those who wish to speak a limited subset of our beautiful and vast language.

  137. me

    @karl –

    You ever tried to read an old king james bible without all the words updated?
    Here’s a sample, and no, there are no typos:

    Vnlesse thy lawe had bene my delights : I should then haue perished in mine affliction.
    I will neuer forget thy precepts : for with them thou hast quickened me.
    I am thine, saue me : for I haue sought thy precepts.

    Now I don’t know about you, but I think that the king james bible can hardly be considered ‘Standard English’ any more.

  138. Chris Winter

    @Mark Hansen (#91):

    Thanks; that’s much appreciated.

  139. Chris Winter

    CB wrote (#69): “there is a joke that goes something like this: An out-of-towner walks up to a Harvard student and asks ‘Can you tell me where the law library is at?’.”

    Ah, the pitfalls of grammar pedantry! Another hoary old joke goes like this:

    “I et six eggs for breakfast this morning!”

    “You mean ‘ate,’ don’t you?”

    “Well, mebbe it was eight I et…”

  140. Calli Arcale

    me @ 137:
    Much of the challenge of reading 16th and 17th Century text is the typography. “v” versus “u” is a good example, as is the f-shaped s commonly used in the period (and which considerably outlasted the substitutions of v and u). The second problem is the spelling, which was not yet standardized even to the extent which the words were. This is the consequence of a largely illiterate populace and a ruling class which still used French for many matters of state. (The phrase “lingua franca” was literal in those days — French was the lingua franca.) So if we standardize the typography and spelling to modern styles, we get

    “Unless thy law had been my delights: I should then have perished in mine affliction. I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me. I am thine, save me: for I have sought thy precepts.”

    This is still difficult for modern readers, for although the grammar is the same, the second-person singular has almost completely died out. Few modern speakers know how to use “thee/thou/thy/thine” correctly, and even fewer actually use it in normal speech. (It’s a little easier for people who have studied French, as the usage is analogous to “tu”.) Once you get over that, though, it is actually modern English, albeit an archaic form. Deprecated, perhaps, but not actually wrong (once the spelling and typography are dealt with, that is*).

    Complicating it even more, the “King’s English” in the time of King James was a bit of a fiction because King James wasn’t English; he was Scottish, and in those days, it was more than just a bit of an accent — Scots was practically a distinct language, as different from English then as Creole is from French today. English was mostly standardized by this period, but it wasn’t finished yet.

    * In King James’ time, altering the typography and spelling would have been acceptable. Although the increase in literacy was driving standardization, it still had a long ways to go, and spelling and punctuation were in flux. With spelling in particular, phonetics were more important than correctness. English is a bit peculiar in its insistence on such a wide range of phonetics, rendering it possible to spell a word multiple ways and have it work out. In other languages, such as Russian, spelling is no challenge — you just spell it phonetically, and it will automatically be right. So the thing grammar nazis are most likely to pick on (spelling) is actually evidence of one of the English language’s weirdest traits — it uses a phonetic spelling system yet insists on many idiosyncratic and often contradictory phonetic constructions and even words which disregard the phonetic rules entirely. Enough, through, thorough, bough, ought . . . why do we pronounced “ough” so many different ways? No good reason at all. We’re stuck with them, and we must spell them correctly, but it’s one of the sillier traits of our noble (bastard) tongue.

  141. me

    @ calli (fragilisticexpidiplodocus)

    thanks for that.. I only found out today that the weird ‘f’ only replaces ‘s’ if in the middle of a word apparently (so Genisis becomes Genefis), tho this is a wikifax, so it might not contain truthiness.

  142. Chris Winter

    Anthony K wrote (#39): “For an entertaining, dispeptic, take on this style bible see:”

    …a blast at Strunk and White.

    It was entertaining. Also dyspeptic. But, while I agree with many of its criticisms of The Elements of Style, I think it is overcritical in several places, and fall into the error which it condemns in Elements — that of mistaking a subset of cases for the entire set.

    However, its conclusion is correct: Strunk and White does not deserve veneration as the most authoritative guide to English grammar. Presumably the grammar guide with which the critic is involved betters it. That is a confirmation devoutly to be wished.

  143. Chris Winter

    Daniel J. Andrews wrote (#40): “Slightly related, can someone tell me what k3rn3d means? My Google-Fu failed, and I can’t find it in any slang or urban dictionaries. Context gives me a clue, but I’d like more than that.”

    I don’t have even that. From what I understand of “l33ts3ak,” the “3” should be replaced by “e”. But that gives us “kerned”, which has to do with adjusting proportional spaces in a typeset document. The tweets I found all use “k3rn3d” in connection with cancer.

  144. HM

    My pet peewee is the “verbizing” of nouns: incentivize, weaponize etc. I admit there could be a political dimension to my aversion since the Bush administration was excessively fond of such word constructions.

  145. Chris Winter

    Mike Torr wrote (#51): “Ambiguities such as “this animal predates many others” never happened before the hyphen was dropped (by some). The context can remove the ambiguity, as many rightly point out; however, that does nothing to make it easier to read the text. When the ambiguity can only be resolved with context checks, the brain has to keep pausing in its parsing of the text, so to speak, and this is really distracting!”

    I agree that much of contemporary writing loses precision, by permitting ambiguous interpretations and in other ways. But I think you’ve picked a bad example. I checked several on-line dictionaries; none gives “to prey upon” as a definition for “predate.”

  146. gia

    First of all, I’d like to point out I am not a native speaker. As such, I make plenty of mistakes, altough I do try to avoid them as much as I can. That said, I really begin to twitch when native English speakers use “a womEn”, mistake their/they’re/there, misuse possessive apostrophe, etc. etc. It is embarrassing to see how many Americans don’t know even the most basic rules of their own language. As you can imagine, those same illiterate people are the most die-hard Creationists out there, among other things. They’re the ones voting for people like that O’Donell woman. Proper education doesn’t involve just biology, math and physics, it involves a grammar and spelling as well. People who can’t be bothered to learn to write properly also can’t be bothered to read and people who can’t read are slaves to ignorance and superstition.

  147. TR

    I’m of two minds on this: I enjoy English and I hate to see it used carelessly (which is to say lazily), but I know that languages evolve, and I only need to read something written 60~70 years ago to see that what I consider to be my own careful and rigorous use of language would have been considered down-right slovenly just a few generations ago.

    Nevertheless, one thing I can say with certainty is that the argument that “whom” should be removed from English because the meaning is clear from context is a very bad argument indeed.

    If the only standard for the value of a word is its utility in avoiding confusion, then we need to get rid of both the articles “a” and “the” (Russian functions just fine without them), and many verbs (Spanish has shown us that “hacer”, taken in context, can do the job of about a quarter of the English verbs).

  148. Chris Winter

    Martin Cohen wrote (#85):

    The most important thing in writing
    is the amount of understoodness
    Maybe later you might worry
    if your language ain’t got no goodness.

    My language ain’t got no goodness. I feel like I’m not wearing nothing.

  149. me

    @Gia’s “People who can’t be bothered to learn to write properly also can’t be bothered to read”
    ——-
    “Nothing worth serious attention has ever been written in prose or verse” – Socrates.

    though I wouldn’t take that too seriously as it was written down by Plato ;]
    (one of the oldest of the post-modern comedians)

  150. whatever

    ur write no rulz sentense nd spelng nd grammer not gud b creativ nething is gud nuthing iz not whut gud

  151. Daffy

    #144: “My pet peewee is the “verbizing” of nouns: incentivize, weaponize etc. I admit there could be a political dimension to my aversion since the Bush administration was excessively fond of such word constructions.”

    I agree—and, while we’re on pet peeves, even more I dislike the overuse of the suffix “age.” As in “usage,” when they mean “use.”

    “Verbage,” when they mean “dialogue.”

    “Signage,” when they mean “signs.”

    And, while we’re at it: the word media is PLURAL! If you say the media is doing something, then you is wrong.

  152. me

    the media is…
    the media are..

  153. Chris Winter

    Amen! I think there may be time to turn the tide on “media” — unlike with “data”, which I fear is a lost cause as far as singular/plural usage goes.

  154. me

    @daffy

    ‘verbage’ is a good term if you want to be dismissive
    ‘signage’ is an industrially constructed sign presumably, so is a subset of the concept of ‘signs’ in general.

    as for the usage of the word media, I CALL SHENANIGANS. using it in the singular is fine and reflects the way that the media, in that sense, is considered as some bizarre form of entity-type-thing.

    perhaps we are archetyping ;]

    @watevas..
    xacly.

  155. Charlie Young

    …or dice and die…

  156. nothere

    It’s my language and I’ll speak it like I want to. – Walt Kelly

  157. gia

    @me
    If you’re so eager to wallow in ignorance, you can always abandon any and all achievements science has discovered and developed for the past several thousand years and go live in a cave like an animal.

    By the way, your words become especially ironic and hypocritical considering the site you’ve chosen to post them to.
    PS. Excuse me if I don’t take seriously your attempts to disprove me with a quote taken out of context and without any further argument why that is. Unlike you, I actually bothered to point out why I said what I said.

  158. Mooney

    When a nerd gets all nerdy about some aspect of completely nerdy nerdiness like quantum entanglement or FTL travel or AIs or the Babbage Difference Engine, why that’s just good, ol’ fashioned, wholesome nerdiness, and is to be encouraged. Yes, certainly, there are the people who take things too far and get quite angry and aggressive about things like explanations for the Kessel Run or Greedo shooting at Han or whether B5 was superior to DS9, or which Linux distro is “best”, but they’re the fringe outliers, and the rest of us “normal” nerds shouldn’t be lumped in with that sort.

    When a grammar nerd nerds out about some esoteric bit of grammatical trivia, such as the difference between a subjective and objective noun or how to use a participle as a predicate (even if one is just a simple cobbler from Connecticut) or why “couldn’t care less” makes objectively just slightly less sense than using “literally” as a intensifier, well then, that’s ego-driven pedantry and should be stomped out by all and sundry good people. Sure, sure, there are people who take things too far and get very aggressive about why using “except” when one means “accept” is the death of civilization and why only stupid people would misunderstand the difference between “its” and “it’s”, but those people are exactly like all grammar nerds everywhere and should be held up as the platonic example of the dire breed.

  159. gia

    The death of civilization it is not – it is simply a blatant example of willful laziness and ignorance, the same kind of laziness and ignorance that are at the root of many other problems. Such as, for example, there still being people who believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. :) It is so nice to to see so many people visiting a science blog defending mediocrity and unwillingness to learn, starting with the blogger himself.

  160. gia

    I would like to add something to my previous post. As I said, I am not a native English speaker. I learned English in highschool. I often visit different forums and blogs and have noticed many, many, MANY Americans who use their own language in an incredibly illiterate way. Frankly, some of their posts are downright incomprehensible. Now, if a foreigner studied my language in highschool for a few years only and then managed to use it, the language I’ve grown up reading and listening to every single day for years on end, the language I am supposed to have studied in detail in school for over a decade, and managed to use it better than I do, I would be ashamed of myself.

  161. Nigel Depledge

    Calli Arcale (128) said:

    So to me, Fry was less bemoaning grammar Nazis (though he certainly was doing that as well) as he was bemoaning the general cheapening of our language. Must its only champions be pedants who guard the strict rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, to the detriment of any joy in the language itself?

    Go and read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue. I think you might rather enjoy it.

  162. Nigel Depledge

    Brian Fies (131) said:

    I often find that people who don’t speak or write clearly aren’t thinking very clearly, either.

    Hear, hear!

  163. ellie

    @ #7
    … it tollz 4u…

    *weeps*

  164. Nigel Depledge

    Karl Garth (132) said:

    The time that creeping language evolution hurts comes when people with a standard education can no longer read Shakespeare or the King James Bible. (Bad enough that already they can hardly make out Chaucer and Spenser.) As long as the vast majority are still being taught to read and write (and mostly be able to speak, when appropriate) what has been pretty-much-standard English now for several hundred years — largely since Gutenberg — then what they speak in casual conversation doesn’t concern me, except to the extent that standard connotations and denotations are rendered unusable.

    I think I mostly agree with you here, but I disagree about Middle English (the language in which Chaucer wrote). Middle English is sufficiently distinct from modern English that I think it is very hard for the uninitiated to work out. For example, here’s a quote from the Middle English poem Pearl:

    The dubbement dere of doun and dales,
    Of wod and water and wlonk playnes
    Bylde in me blys, abated my bales,
    Forbidden my stresse, destryed my paynes.
    Doun after a strem that drighly hales,
    I bowed in blys, bredful my braynes.
    The firre I folwed those floty vales,
    The more strengthe of joye myn herte straynes.
    As fortune fares, theras ho fraynes,
    Whether solace ho sende other elles sore.
    The wyy to wham her wylle ho waynes
    Hyttes to have ay more and more.

    Some of these words are wholly familiar, while others are entirely alien. However, I defy any speaker of modern English to pronounce this correctly without guidance. The transition from Middle English to modern English is (IIUC) vague, but it correlates with the Great Vowel Shift, during which the vowels (mostly) obtained their modern pronunciations. Thus, this was written before the change in pronunciation of English vowels.

    When pronounced correctly, Middle English is a beautifully lyrical language, but it sounds deeply unfamiliar.

  165. Nigel Depledge

    Thomathy (134) said:

    Well, if you did agree with Fry, you wouldn’t have a problem with the use of the word whom and you wouldn’t think it should be stricken from English. I use it and I like to use it and I’m not a pedantic grammarian who feels superior when it’s misused. People can say whatever they want. I’d dearly like to save the English past subjunctive mood, particularly the use of the word were rather than was (ex. ‘If I were the Queen.’ vs. ‘If I was the Queen.’), but it’s disappearing all over the place. I’ll still use it, but I won’t tell other people that they’re wrong or that they weren’t the Queen in the past when they use was. They’re not ‘wrong’ in any objective sense.

    They are, however, from my position as a linguaphile woefully ignorant of how the language they’re using works. How language works, of course, is beautiful and the more one knows the more beautiful language is. I also think knowing more about language helps it to be used more beautifully. There’s something to be said about the intentional use of a new vernacular form that imparts nuance to something that’s being said or is written. Shakespeare is a great example of that. I’m sure that Phil Plait thinks something similar about the universe; thinks that the universe is more beautiful the more one learns about it.

    I encourage everyone to learn about the languages they speak, to become knowledgeable about their grammars and how they work and to become deliberate users of those languages. Put that knowledge to work and use who instead of whom because you know why who works just as well and because you understand that language changes and that it’s okay to use it as it’s being used.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Except I do sometimes correct people if their usage grates on my nerves too badly. I especially hate to see people abuse poor, little, defenceless apostrophes. I mean, what have those apostrophes ever done to deserve such maltreatment?

  166. Nigel Depledge

    Calli Arcale (135) said:

    Old English really isn’t much like modern English, which has so much influence from German and French.

    I think this could be a little bit misleading.

    Old English is a Germanic language. It was a dialect of Friesian (sp?). It is true that modern English has borrowed much from modern French and modern German, but it also contains chunks of Norse, Norman French, words assembled from Latin or Greek roots (or both, as in “television”), various languages from the Indian subcontinent (veranda, bungalow and pyjamas are all Indian words, and I’m sure there are scores of others), Gaelic (whisky), Swahili (safari), Czech (robot) and . . . well, pretty much every part of the world which the Empire conquered or with which it traded.

  167. Just listened to the clip… I think I’m in love with Stephen Fry’s voice.

  168. Nigel Depledge

    Calli Arcale (140) said:

    . . . it still had a long ways to go, . . .

    This is an interesting turn of phrase, rarely seen in Britain.

    Why do you say “a long ways” and not “a long way” or “some long ways”?

  169. Nigel Depledge

    Chris Winter (145) said:

    I agree that much of contemporary writing loses precision, by permitting ambiguous interpretations and in other ways. But I think you’ve picked a bad example. I checked several on-line dictionaries; none gives “to prey upon” as a definition for “predate.”

    I think that’s more a reflection on the dictionaries than on the word.

    “Predate” and “predation” relating a predator to its prey are very common in the context of zoology, natural history, evolutionary biology and so on. And not merely as technical terms.

  170. Nigel Depledge

    Me (154) said:

    as for the usage of the word media, I CALL SHENANIGANS. using it in the singular is fine and reflects the way that the media, in that sense, is considered as some bizarre form of entity-type-thing.

    Your argument here fails.

    To say, for instance, “the media are failing in their duty to report accurate news,” makes it perfectly clear that all media (newspapers, radio, televsion, the t’internet etc.) are here referred to collectively. A medium would refer to just one of these, be it radio, television, newspaper or whatever. There is no need to use “media” with a singular verb for clarity.

    “The media is”, in my opinion, simply does not work. Reasons have been mentioned by others higher up the thread.

    Furthermore, by assigning “the media” to mean the collective entity of news-disseminating processes, you detract from the availability of the word “medium” to refer to the means through which something occurs.

  171. Nigel Depledge

    Gia (160) said:

    I would like to add something to my previous post. As I said, I am not a native English speaker. I learned English in highschool. I often visit different forums and blogs and have noticed many, many, MANY Americans who use their own language in an incredibly illiterate way. Frankly, some of their posts are downright incomprehensible. Now, if a foreigner studied my language in highschool for a few years only and then managed to use it, the language I’ve grown up reading and listening to every single day for years on end, the language I am supposed to have studied in detail in school for over a decade, and managed to use it better than I do, I would be ashamed of myself.

    Hear, hear!

  172. whatever

    ped·ant–noun
    1. a person who makes an excessive or inappropriate display of learning.
    2. a person who overemphasizes rules or minor details.
    3. a person who adheres rigidly to book knowledge without regard to common sense.

    …some of us are simply following rules that work and make sense. Some of us find that too much work.

    Na·zi –noun
    ( assume here that the reference is not to a member of the National Socialist Party in Germany some 70 years ago and murdered millions.)

    3. Sometimes Offensive . ( often lowercase ) a person who is fanatically dedicated to or seeks to control a specified activity, practice, etc.: a jazz nazi who disdains other forms of music; tobacco nazis trying to ban smoking.

    …so, those who follow rules you don’t feel like following are “making an excessive or inappropriate display of learning”, and are “fanatically dedicated to or seeking to control a specified activity, practice, etc.”

    Kind of harsh. I’m all for a living language, but let it change naturally. Don’t call me a nazi pedant because I choose to use “whom” where appropriate. Dammit, I’ll wear a bow tie if I choose as well.

  173. me

    @ nigel

    ‘the medium is’ would be a specific type
    ‘the media are’ could be all types, but without emphasis on the conglomeration of all types as an entity
    ‘the media is’ would seem to be all types combined as an entity

    I don’t see how (or for that matter why ;] ) it is wrong to use language in this way, but then again I often have conversations with friends where we make up and define words on the fly on the occasions when things get a little esoteric, much like you might create variables while programming.

    @ Gia’s “If you’re so eager to wallow in ignorance, you can always abandon any and all achievements science has discovered and developed for the past several thousand years and go live in a cave like an animal.”

    lol.
    yes I was having a dig at your statement about the relationship between writing and reading, but I was doing that with a reference meant as a joke. I even put a smiley in there and everything.

    A more serious analysis of your earlier point would be to say that you have the cart before the horse with saying that people who can’t be bothered to write properly also can’t be bothered to read. Learning and correctly implementing the rules of english in writing are a more technical set of skills than those required for good comprehension of writing, as english works so much by context rather than grammar. Which is why we can ignore many of the rules and still be understood.
    Also, there are many people who devour books by the yard who have never learnt formal english to the level of correct usage in writing.

    Now excuse me, I have to go and have a wallow in my cave of stupid. I have filled it with the mud of ignorance and got it nice and toasty.

  174. gia

    Indeed you should do just that. The fact is, the more you read in any language, the more you notice the way the language is used – and therefore the more your own writing skills improve. It’s amusing how you can’t seem to grasp the connection between the two. Just knowing the rules is not enough to be able to implement them, one needs examples as well.

  175. me

    so you are agreeing with me that writers don’t become readers, readers sometimes become writers.
    thanks.

    teh faks iz, the more you read, the more the way you notice that most decent authors do not follow the rules that most language teachers seem so eager to press upon you.

  176. me

    while we’re on words, it only occurred to me yesterday, while I was walking to the shop, that the word ‘bling-bling’ is an example of synaesthesic onomatopeia, as it is a word that conveys the sound of a bright light bouncing off a shiny object.. yayy :]

  177. TGAP Dad

    I have to admit to being a bit of a “grammar nazi.” Most of the time, it’s for smacking down someone who desperately deserves it. I do however have a few that grate on me like fingernails on blackboard: lay/lie (the transitive/intransitive pair), “prank” used as a verb, and “loan” used as a verb. You don’t lay down unless your a duck. You don’t prank people, though you may have played a prank on them. You may lend someone money as part of the terms of a loan. Oh and one more thing: “data” is the plural form of datum. So the data ARE clear; the data INDICATE something, etc.

  178. Jeffersonian

    Lately my peeve is when people say “I should of gone last night” instead of “have gone”. You can’t “of” gone or “of” thought.

    I’m sure this tea guy would agree with Fry:
    midnightmadness.org/jeff/ljimages/moran-moron.jpg

  179. me

    you should’ve told Arthur Miller that before he wrote Death of a Salesman

    LINDA: We should’ve bought the land next door.

    WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow anymore, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should’ve had a law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?

    LINDA: Yeah, like being a million miles from the city.

  180. Sean H.

    I’ve never been exceptionally skilled at the use of grammar despite having being paid to write on and off since I was 19 and I have to agree with Mr. Fry that clarity is the most important thing. I’d much rather someone said “imply” instead of “infer” than perpetuate the horrible mangling “I could care less”. It’s not creative and it means the exact opposite. I’ve invented words and mangled sayings to the point where some friends have picked them up so I have no shame when it comes to that.

    That was, all in all, a beautiful video of an eloquent rant.

    EDIT:
    @gia: Language changes and it’s usually violent. We have uniform spelling of words now. Or should I say wordes? We also have words that mean new things like “nice” which now means “pleasant” but used to mean “accurate” which leads to a lot of fun wordplay if you ever get in the mood to do so. A friend of mine actually got smacked due to using an outdated word when he visited France. He asked a girl he was chatting up for a kiss(at least how his class had taught him that word) and it turns out that high-school French’s “kiss”= “fuck” in the modern day.

    @179: You’re in character and that’s a really funny joke, right? Because if so then you pranked me like hell. Because if not then we should all stop saying sinister.

  181. Markle

    #3 Radwaste Since you set up your pedantry, I’m sorry if I misread you, but I’m surprised that nobody took you to task for misunderstanding what establish means. M-W dic: To institute (as a law) permanently by enactment or agreement. The suffix -ment is standard English for forming a noun from a verb. An establishment is an entity given formal recognition. Establishment is also the act of establishing an establishment.

    As far as Strunk & White, go read Geoffrey Pulliam’s opinions at Language Log.

  182. Nigel Depledge

    Me (175) said:

    @ nigel

    ‘the medium is’ would be a specific type
    ‘the media are’ could be all types, but without emphasis on the conglomeration of all types as an entity
    ‘the media is’ would seem to be all types combined as an entity

    I don’t see how (or for that matter why ;] ) it is wrong to use language in this way,

    Written language is for the benefit of the reader, not the writer.

    If you want to be clear and comprehensible, then you should apply most of the rules most of the time.

    If you want to write concise, precise and elegant English, then you should be aware of all of the rules all of the time, especially when you choose to break them.

    In your example here, I do not see any benefit to distinguishing “the media” (the several means of conveying information) and “the media” (that group considered as a single entity), especially when you are applying that distinction purely by modifying the verb and not the noun itself. Mostly, it comes across as illiterate. To make it clear that it is a deliberate choice, you need to stop and explain what you are doing, which means it would be clearer and more concise by far to simply use a different phrase.

  183. Nigel Depledge

    Me (177) said:

    the more you read, the more the way you notice that most decent authors do not follow the rules that most language teachers seem so eager to press upon you.

    Odd. I’ve noticed the opposite. The more I read, the harder I find it to ignore what most people appear to consider to be trivial errors.

    And, no, I’m not referring to deliberate choices on the author’s part, I’m referring to instances where the flow of the text is halted by a blatant mistake.

  184. Nigel Depledge

    TGAP Dad (179) said:

    I do however have a few that grate on me like fingernails on blackboard: lay/lie (the transitive/intransitive pair), “prank” used as a verb, and “loan” used as a verb. You don’t lay down unless your a duck. You don’t prank people, though you may have played a prank on them. You may lend someone money as part of the terms of a loan. Oh and one more thing: “data” is the plural form of datum.

    I’m pretty much with you all the way here, but you’ve gone and triggered one of my pet bugbears:

    You don’t lay down unless you’re a duck. Not “your”.

    There’s another transitive / intransitive pair that sets me off, too: shined / shone. “He shined his shoes until they shone” is correct. However, “a flashlight shined off the walls” is just wrong – it makes me wonder how they use a flashlight to polish the walls, and why they felt the need to do so anyway.

  185. Nigel Depledge

    Sean H (182) said:

    We have uniform spelling of words now.

    I beg to differ:

    Colour / color
    Honour / honor
    Programme / program
    Dialogue / dialog

    I daresay there are scores of other examples.

  186. Nigel Depledge

    Sean H (182) said:

    @179: You’re in character and that’s a really funny joke, right? Because if so then you pranked me like hell. Because if not then we should all stop saying sinister.

    Why? What do you think “sinister” means? (Bearing in mind that the “bend sinister” has been an heraldic term for at least 500 years, albeit not necessarily with its modern spelling.)

    BTW, “you pranked me” makes me think you mis-spelled “prang”, and that you’ve had a car accident.

  187. gia

    @Sean H
    Of course language changes. Where did I say it didn’t change? What does that have to do with anything I said?

  188. me

    someone just pranked my phone

  189. me

    @ Nigel’s “In your example here, I do not see any benefit to distinguishing “the media” (the several means of conveying information) and “the media” (that group considered as a single entity), especially when you are applying that distinction purely by modifying the verb and not the noun itself. Mostly, it comes across as illiterate.”

    Your inability to perceive benefit in the distinction does not mean that there is no benefit in the distinction and stikes me as a failure of imagination on your part. If your main complaint is that the distinction is being made without modifying the noun, then you really have very little argument at all. If you think that my use and attitudes to language come across as illiterate, then perhaps you should go and review what the word illiterate actually means.

    meanwhile, for reference on the word ‘Media’ from The Cambridge English Dictionary –

    “the media
    [S + singular or plural verb] newspapers, magazines, radio and television considered as a group”

    and personally, I will take their opinion above yours on whether using the singular is ‘correct’, while still reserving the right to be as incorrect as I like..

  190. gia

    Some coincidences are just far too amusing to pass up. A few days after I read (and commented on) this blog entry, I happened upon an article regarding accents. You can read it here if you’re interested: http://www.theworkbuzz.com/current-affairs/do-accents-make-workers-seem-less-credible

    However, it was not the article itself that amused me, it was the comments underneath it. Among those comments there were quite a few posts left by the s0-called “grammar nazis” and the ones that were the most prominent were replies to this:

    “erika | Aug 3, 2010

    as a short, blond southern female i have unfortunatly noticed a powerful tendancy for my male employers to talk to me like im either an idiot or a child. then i took a short acting course at my local collage and conciously trained out my accent. it was only weeks later that i was offered a permanent position in a major telecomunications firm. one of the reasons stated for my highering, my ability to speak clearly and with no discernable accent. training out a strong accent can be very benificial irreguardless what region of the country you live in.”

    Now, to those of you defending the position that it’s important simply to understand what the other person is trying to tell you, as opposed to that person writing with proper grammar and spelling: Imagine that this person, Erika, tried to begin some kind of business communication with you by sending you emails with business propositions, for example. Please be completely honest – if her emails that represent not only her, but the company she works for, were filled with a dozen grammar and spelling errors per paragraph, would you take her (and her employers) seriously?

  191. chris.j.

    wow. 192 comments, and no one has brought up a certain blog post from a certain Bad Astronomer:

    “Light Years Ahead
    Bad Astronomy: “We’re light years more advanced than our competition!”

    Good astronomy: There is no good astronomy equivalent here. The phrase is just wrong!”

  192. Gunnar

    Gia (160) said:

    I would like to add something to my previous post. As I said, I am not a native English speaker. I learned English in highschool. I often visit different forums and blogs and have noticed many, many, MANY Americans who use their own language in an incredibly illiterate way. Frankly, some of their posts are downright incomprehensible. Now, if a foreigner studied my language in highschool for a few years only and then managed to use it, the language I’ve grown up reading and listening to every single day for years on end, the language I am supposed to have studied in detail in school for over a decade, and managed to use it better than I do, I would be ashamed of myself

    I heartily second Nigel’s (#173) “hear, hear.”

    Though English is the language that by far is the one in which I am now most fluent, it is the second language I learned. Norwegian was my first language, but since I was only five years old when my parents immigrated to the USA, and my parents encouraged speaking English even at home, I lost most of it as I was growing up (only to have what Norwegian I remembered transformed into fluent Danish when I spent 2 1/2 years in Denmark as a young man). The point I want to make, though, is that my parents were very concerned about their children learning correct English grammar, and it pained them to hear my little American playmates’ incorrect grammar. Though Mom and Dad had a noticeable accent, grammatically they tended to speak English better than some of our native born American neighbors. One of my playmates had particularly atrocious grammar, and my mother would try to gently correct him. He resented this and complained to his father. One day, after one of her attempts to correct him, he angrily shouted “My pappy sez that we don’t need no furriners to learn us how to talk!”

    I noticed also during my 2 1/2 years in Denmark that quite a few native Danes spoke English as well or better than some of my American friends.

    I have some of the same pet peeves as some of the others who have commented on this blog. One of them is that there seems to be a growing trend amongst many of the contributors to some of the other internet blogs I visit (though not quite as much on this blog), namely that they’re often mistaken in their determination of whether to use “they’re”, “their” or “there”, or “your” or “you’re.” True, it is usually not hard to determine from the context which word is meant, but it slows the flow of comprehension often enough to be annoying to me. Maybe this is a bit pedantic, but I love the English language and hate to see it used imprecisely. I agree, though, that there is no way to stop it from evolving and growing over time (nor should we if we could). I also agree that in English, it makes no sense to forbid split infinitives, ending sentences with a preposition or starting one with a conjunction. I see no good reason for such prohibitions.

    Some of you (including Nigel, I believe) pointed out that English is such a huge language and has so many synomyms and different ways of saying the same thing, each with its own nuance or shade of meaning. One of my Danish friends once told me that, though English was his second language, and he was supposedly more fluent in his native Danish, he found that because of English’s versatility and many ways of saying particular things, he could often express his exact meaning more precisely in English than in his native Danish.

  193. Nigel Depledge

    Me (191) said:

    Your inability to perceive benefit in the distinction does not mean that there is no benefit in the distinction and stikes me as a failure of imagination on your part. If your main complaint is that the distinction is being made without modifying the noun, then you really have very little argument at all. If you think that my use and attitudes to language come across as illiterate, then perhaps you should go and review what the word illiterate actually means.

    Ouch!

    OK, so the fact that, when you use a grammatically wrong construction, I do not fully understand your intent is my fault?

    In case that, we offer thee their humblest apology forgetting it wrong.

    meanwhile, for reference on the word ‘Media’ from The Cambridge English Dictionary –

    Who?

  194. Nigel Depledge

    Additional…

    Me (191) said:

    If you think that my use and attitudes to language come across as illiterate, then perhaps you should go and review what the word illiterate actually means

    Longman, 1992:

    Illiterate, 2b: “Violating approved patterns of speaking or writing.”

    My use of illiterate to describe the way in which your use of media as a singular comes across to a reader is correct.

  195. Andy

    Gunnar (194) said:

    “One day, after one of her attempts to correct him, he angrily shouted “My pappy sez that we don’t need no furriners to learn us how to talk!”

    I noticed also during my 2 1/2 years in Denmark that quite a few native Danes spoke English as well or better than some of my American friends.”

    People reading this realize that presciptivism, or “correct grammar”, has been considered an anachronistic remnant of ethnocentrism by people who study language (including English) for decades, right? Sort of like craniometry, polygenism, or characterizing over 300 million people based on the behavior of one due to a shared culture or citizenship. If not, it should be mentioned briefly that many grammatical differences between dialects are arbitrary, in the sense that they don’t impede effective communication. These differences develop from colloquial grammatical “mistakes”, and are adopted into the language as those who consider them “bad grammar” die. As such, languages are constantly evolving over generations, and the distinctions between correct and incorrect are often arbitrary as well.

    In the case of English, many different varieties are spoken because there are many populations which were historically ruled under English colonies. The United States, for example, seceded from England many centuries ago, and since then the North American dialect of English has increasingly differentiated from the English dialect. These differences are astutely noticed by Gunnar in his post. The mistake, however, is assigning the English dialect, or any standard at all, a primacy to any other. This is similar to the historical assumption that Europeans, or Aryans, and their culture are superior to others because of relative material wealth, military prowess, etc. In reality, Americans are able to communicate just fine, as are many other people who speak all sorts of new dialects which differ from those of spoken by people of other ethnicity or social class. So long as communication is achieved, there’s no reason to worry about whose use language is better or worse.

  196. me

    @ Nigel’s “Who?” – the online dictionary from Cambridge University Press. You have heard of Cambridge? They have a little school there.

    @ “My use of illiterate to describe the way in which your use of media as a singular comes across to a reader is correct.”

    umm, no it doesn’t. Greater authorities on english than yourself deem the singular as correct. The example that I gave however was to demonstrate that the use of the singular is not completely equivalent to the plural and can allow extra nuance of meaning.

    However, with that specific definition of illiterate, fair cop on some of my other riteins ;]
    (but with that definition of illiterate, a hell of a lot of Shakespeare was illiterate)

  197. Gunnar

    @Andy #197
    I greatly appreciate your insightful response and agree with much of what you said. Even within the small country of Denmark, there are numerous dialects–some of them so different from each other that they are virtually mutually unintelligible. Because of that, the Danish government found it useful to establish a standard “RigsDansk” (Kingdom’s Danish) that is taught in all the schools so any Dane who goes anywhere else in Denmark can communicate with any other Dane. This is even more true of the country of my Birth, Norway. I think there is value in establishing standard dialects and grammars and learning them, not only to facilitate communication, but to minimize being looked down upon or being discriminated against for not talking right. When one goes to any foreign country, one of the best ways to earn the respect and confidence of the natives is to make the effort to learn not only their culture, but how to “correctly” speak their language. There has to be some kind of “official” standardization for effective communication to occur.

    As I said before, though, I also agree that languages will inevitably evolve, and it is foolish to try to prevent that from happening altogether. In my own case, the language I was first exposed to was the Stavanger Dialect, which differs noticeably from “standard” Norwegian, and, in fact, is a bit closer to Danish than Standard Norwegian is (my aunt and uncle told me they were once mistaken for Danes when they visited Oslo, yet when they went to Christiansand where the dialect is even closer to Danish, they were mistaken for Swedes). Besides that, during the 60 years since my family left Norway, the standard Norwegian has been reformed and is not quite the same as it was when I lived there. Even if I were fluent in what was standard Norwegian at the time of my birth, I would probably have a little difficulty speaking and fully understanding today’s “standard” Norwegian (Nynorsk or New Norwegian).

    BTW, when I said that many Danish natives speak English better than some of my American friends, I was speaking of American English–not UK English. I don’t regard either UK English or American English to be superior to or more correct than the other.

  198. blue

    i can has gud grammers? lol kthxbye

  199. Nigel Depledge

    Gunnar (199) said:

    BTW, when I said that many Danish natives speak English better than some of my American friends, I was speaking of American English–not UK English. I don’t regard either UK English or American English to be superior to or more correct than the other.

    Heh.

    Not only is modern English heavily influenced by both Old Norse and Danish, but a great many of the inhabitants of Britain have Norse or Danish ancestry.

    A great deal of northern Britain was occupied by Norsemen or Danes throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and the 11th-century invasion of England was by Norsemen who had settled in what we came to call Normandy after them.

    Interestingly, in 1066 it was the (mostly) Danish king Harold who was defeated by the Norman duke William.

  200. Gunnar

    #201 Nigel

    “Heh.

    Not only is modern English heavily influenced by both Old Norse and Danish, but a great many of the inhabitants of Britain have Norse or Danish ancestry.

    A great deal of northern Britain was occupied by Norsemen or Danes throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and the 11th-century invasion of England was by Norsemen who had settled in what we came to call Normandy after them.

    Interestingly, in 1066 it was the (mostly) Danish king Harold who was defeated by the Norman duke William.”

    Exactly right!

  201. Shauna

    The times when grammar is important is when the meaning is too easily misunderstood without it, context goes a long way but we can’t rely too heavily on it.

    My big pet peeve is double negatives, I can’t stand them.

  202. Euchre

    What I fear most about this nice little diatribe by Mr. Fry (who is without a doubt brilliant) is that it will be paraded as a justification of the truly banal atrocities of abuse of homophones and a total lack of real spelling ability. Spell check is not your savior. Its failure is not your excuse for ignorance, either.

    Oh no, I’ve used too many large words in a run-on sentence! The Grammatical SS are already on their way!

  203. Mackenzie

    The problem here is that when somebody like Stephen Fry says this sort of stuff people misinterpret it thoroughly as an excuse. I am an utter word-o-phile (there might actually be a word for that?), and I will honestly read sentences over and over and over again in the books I read because I’m so overwhelmed by the orgastic beauty of language. That said, language is also beautiful because of its ability to express meaning. Since Old English, English has dropped so many little flourishes of specificity in language that other languages maintain to this day. Our verbs have lost specificity, we no longer use thee’s and thou’s, and it may seem that these could be tedious, but the enhanced capability for expression is equally exciting as casual grammar-less prose. In this case it’s just that we’re too LAZY. And if we all keep being lazy our language is going to deteriorate into meaningless jumbles of words, and I’ll be thankful to be good and dead by then. Beautiful prose and meaningful prose are not mutually exclusive: it is only our laziness that would have us oust the latter.

  204. John

    We should all just learn Lojban =P It has the formality, or lack thereof, built in its logical perfection, while still leaving plenty of room for artistic use. Also, the commonly made mistakes due to ambiguity (their, there, they’re) would be nonexistent because Lojban has no ambiguity.

  205. Nahoon

    Opinions, people have them, sometimes people have good ones, Stephen Fry has one I like, grammatically this probably pisses someone off, cool. Also part of the bending and twisting of language is to imbue it with meaning to those who understand the code. Just as the most elegant and flowery of descriptions would only be deciphered by those who could understand it, some of the most simplistic and ugly and poorly slung together sentences hold a deeper meaning and prove a point throughout but only to those who would be on the ‘same page’ so to speak. Language itself carries about as much meaning as a car without a driver, it is the intent behind the words that carry the most significance. It is the fragile connection between author and reader, or orator and listener, that captivates and brings life to the lifeless.

  206. Elizabeth

    I might also take the chance to point out that there is a difference between those who use proper grammar and those who inflict it upon others. I have no problem with my friends who know the rules and follow them- I don’t think that makes them pretentious or even pedantic in most cases- but I do mind when people start correcting other people’s use of language with their inane little rules. So arguing that we should be free to use language however we wish goes both ways, in my opinion. (In other words, I don’t think following the rules makes you seem pedantic and condescending unless you’re acting pedantically and condescendingly.)

  207. Manny

    I haven’t watched the video yet, but you ought to also look into The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.
    (http://www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-Mind-Creates-P-S/dp/0061336467/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1289768878&sr=1-1)
    Pinker’s thinking presupposes and explains language as an evolutionary process. Any “correct” usage that purists might insist upon today may have been incorrect just some decades or centuries earlier. It is similar to the sentiment captured in Ambrose Bierce’s definition of Radicalism in his Devil’s Dictionary:
    RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.

  208. Aaron

    I think the best approach is to take the middle path. Follow the rules of grammar most of the time, but occasionally change the rules when new ideas or thought cannot be properly expressed within the confines of current rules. It would be bad to completely disregard the rules because we’d be unable to communicate effectively. And, it’s bad to strictly follow every rule to a “T” because we’d get stuck in old thought patterns and expressing new ideas would be clunky. So the best approach, as in most things, is not to go to one extreme or the other.

  209. calib

    To me words can be interchangeable, just as they can be used in unconstitutional ways, or a word or group of words can mean one thing in a essay but have another meaning in a poem. Why would you dispise someone because they don’t use a language as you do, simple put you would do it to belittle them and make yourself fell better. It’s just another form of bullying, but instead of the jock bullying the nerd it’s the nerd bullying the jock. There is no reason for a language to stay the same, if it didn’t change we would still use “though shalt not” then “you should not.” Languages have changed and will keep changing, and if you cannot change with it then good for you just don’t look down on the people going along with the change.

  210. Mojo Drakes

    Grammer is important. Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, & helping your uncle jack off a horse

  211. jordan

    i find it funny that people are even dressing their language up for the comments. just saying

  212. I’m going to have to agree with the “For Whom the Bell Tolls” comment.

    I don’t think his point was that some words should be stricken. That’s your point and it’s not supported by the video above.

  213. Justine

    I agree with him to a point. There’s not using English correctly and not using it correctly in the correct way. There are some nitpicky grammar Nazis that’ll go after every wrong detail, but at some point you just have to say stop. On the other hand, you have to know what you’re doing, know your intention behind your speech. Going online and leaving out every other letter and ignoring punctuation just makes you impossible to understand.

  214. 123

    i think whom is pretty

  215. Yes, languages evolve. Yes, speakers adapt. But there’s a downside to linguistic evolution: it makes it really hard for us to read old literature.

    Shakespeare is difficult for many people to read. Chaucer (in its original Old English) is nearly impossible. However, modern-day speakers of Icelandic and Tamil can read their classic literature, some of which is more than a thousand years old.

    Grammar Nazis are easy targets, but they do serve a purpose, even if they, themselves, aren’t aware of that purpose.

  216. Erik

    You all fail at semiotics

  217. Pieter

    I prefer good grammar but agree that we could relax a lot of antiquated spelling and usage. It is still needed to accurately convey certain ideas and sometimes poor grammar can confuse the intended meaning of a sentence. I guess you could say I am opposed to really bad grammar but not so fussy as to be pedantic to a painful degree. The language is in constant flux. You cannot avoid change. As long as everyone understands what is being discussed than it is pretty good English even if it isn’t perfect or pleasing to the ear. In any case, when I am dead I don’t give a fudge how you dudes talk to each other…. WHATEVERRRRRRRR…….

  218. baldilocks

    The problem is language, in many cases, is not actually evolving but rather is decomposing. Eventually it will end up as a few jumbled letters that at totally meaningless to all.

    Spelling and grammar are absolutely essential to be able to communicate with any accuracy.

  219. J.Leon Courtney

    Respectfully [Respectively?] to Radwaste [Oct] To add some fuel to the debate…caaun’t resist pointing out that you might possibly, maybe even literally, have used a “vague” pronoun in your 2nd sentence…?…and by-the-way, many Congresswo/men constantly use “less” rather than “fewer.” grrr. Their/There line of work offers many opportunities for this particular pitfall, and fewer, rather than more, hardly ever miss her/his chance. Nonetheless, whatever Fry wants, he should get…he never fails to reach a high bar of excellence or to ferret out our pseudo-pedantry.
    And…Sir Winston Churchill once championed split infinitives. Do the research.

  220. Of course there is right and wrong language. Fry is saying these things because he deals with native speakers. If you think there is no right and no wrong, please explain this sign to me: BAKE CALL PHONE. It is supposed to mean “hand dryer.” It is certainly original, but does it communicate?
    Or another sign: “The jade loves the lemon.” What does this communicate to you?
    A final example. If you saw a sign on a parking garage that said STOP ENTER, if English is your native language, you would probably stop and then enter. But it is supposed to mean, Entry prohibited.
    These are signs written by people who, obviously, do not have a good grasp of English. But would you say, Oh how creative? I delight in language/s (Chinese, English, Tayal, and Tsou) and I say, very definitely, there is right and there is wrong.

  221. Brandon

    I like reading the comments by the “pedants” that have errors in them. No one’s perfect, but I do agree with the previous post. As long as it’s understandable, I don’t have a problem with language that is a little different than what I was taught in grade school.

  222. Rachel

    I always enjoy listening to people speaking in different languages. It sounds so beautiful. Almost as if the words are flowing off of the person’s tongue like water. Then I remember, oh yeah English use to sound wonderful too.

    And yes, I am prepared to learn from any spelling or grammatical corrections that come my way.

  223. Joe

    [Interesting thread! No time yet to read all the posts, so I’ll just reply to the original by the Bad Astronomer.]

    I agree with Fry’s premise, and I think it is an important and exciting one: claiming to stand up for the sanctity of the english language by nitpicking grammar and usage is sadly backward if it ignores the flexibility, mutability, and creative potential of the language.
    As the Bad Astronomer notes, language evolves. Of course it does. Yay!

    The way I read Fry’s argument, though, is that the problem with the language police is not that they harsh our mellow by forcing us to pay attention to words/usage – it’s that strict orthodoxy mutes the exultation potential in our language.
    Therefore, I disagree with the sentiment that “whom” ought to be struck from the lexicon because “who” arguably serves as well; in fact, I think this is in direct contradiction of the spirit of Fry’s thesis – that is, our language is rich, vast, and offers many avenues for expressing a given idea, including the newly invented and (in keeping with this thesis, the way I read it) equally ‘valid’.

    Of course, as language evolves, it does tend to become streamlined – that is, the old components become more simplified and efficient, as new elements are introduced – just as biological organisms do. But is this – purging the language of ‘inefficient’ words, whose meanings are supposedly near enough to other more common (easier?) words – something we should actively orchestrate? I say absolutely not. (And if I understand Fry’s argument in the video clip, I think he agrees. )

  224. Grader

    It’s important for people to be able to communicate effectively (as has been stated above). Speaking well and writing tolerably are linked. Anyone who thinks we can just “let go” of grammar rules *clearly* has not been forced to wade through hundreds of undergraduate papers. From bad punctuation and grammar to leetspeak, the quality of writing is abyssmal and has only gone downhill since I began teaching 9 years ago. When you *literally* cannot extract a single cohesive thought from 12-15 page papers, you know you’ve got a problem.

    We coach our students to “read the paper outloud” to proof it. If they can’t speak proper English, how will they write it?

  225. Tuttle

    Shakespeare is difficult for many people to read. Chaucer (in its original Old English) is nearly impossible. However, modern-day speakers of Icelandic and Tamil can read their classic literature, some of which is more than a thousand years old.

    First of all, The Bard wrote in Early Modern English and Chaucer wrote in High Middle English. Old English was pre-Norman (Beowulf for example) and lacked many of the Romance elements of later English.

    That said, Old Icelandic reads a lot like Middle English does for modern speakers of the respective languages. Intelligible, sure, but odd and archaic in usage and spelling with many words not used any more. Go back in its history just a little further, to Old Norse say, and it becomes as incomprehensible as Old English is to us.

  226. Jodi

    I love the word ‘whom’, it sounds like the coo of a dove :(

  227. Phil

    I feel I must say something about this. (And, yes I know there are those who will dissect this for language errors.). There is nothing wrong with clarity of language. Indeed it often makes things easier. The problem I have with pendents is that it becomes all they care about. Sure it’s okay to be precise in language, but not at the expense of the message. Rather than teaching something or even saying something, too many people spend all their time trying to figure out how to say something in the most precise way. Sometimes the best way to say something is simply just to say it. To open your mouth or put pen to paper, and let words come out. To let people listen to your words and convey meaning from them. If you let preciseness of language overwhelm what you are saying, nobody will be interested.

  228. ELF-IS

    My mother used to say ”Believe you me!” I still don’t understand to this day. Did she want me to believe her or did she want me to believe me?????

  229. I love how he said that languages evolve- and I have a great example of how important language is to a culture. Just a week ago Croatia was officially accepted to be in the EU in 2013, which means that Croatian has become recognized as the language of Croatia by all the European nations. My 75 year old grandma was jumping up and down at these news because in former Yugoslavia Tito wanted to have one language for all the people called serbo-croatian. That would mean that the Croatians basically loose their identity in regards to communication, and for 50 years linguists and teachers were fighting against that to keep Croatian and not combining the two- Now that all the EU documents are going to be translated into Croatian and not Serbo-Croatian it’s provided almost a cultural security for us, and with that security, our language can develop and evolve even further.

  230. gerard

    @ xtian – if someone said that to anyone i know from age 15-90 the person hearing it would cut in to question the use of the word. so i’m not sure it has changed quite that much.

  231. semi-allius

    Me and my friends disagree.

  232. redjujube

    The objective in writing is to communicate clearly, succinctly and quickly. I don’t get confused over signs that say “5 items or less” and using who when whom is correct doesn’t bother me. Using their, there and they’re incorrectly and using an apostrophe before EVERY friggin s is confusing and slows down the reader. Using then when than is intended is confusing too. I find text that contains grammatical error after grammatical error ponderous. I hate reading crap like that because it requires so much work as you continuously reach the end of a sentence and have no clue what the writer is trying to convey. Then it’s back to the beginning of the sentence for a second attempt.

    Writing that is grammatically correct is a breeze to read. The ideas, the humor, the fun flows quickly. You stay interested and you want more. Not so with grammar challenged authors. I can’t wait until I reach the end of their trash and when I do I literally want to smack them. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that they are usually illogical and their opinions usually seem uniformed. Sloppy grammar comes from sloppy minds.

  233. J. Anthony Carter

    Lmfnao!! Grammar Nazis!?! REALLY?? OMG, a troll by any other name…
    I’ll tell you what. When each and every one of these semi-literate and quasi-educated pieces of self-righteous angst have written (at least) 30 national best sellers, THEN and only then will I even deign to pretend to listen to their rant.
    People who can’t understand the context or have so little mental acuity or deftness to try to figure out what someone means when they’re talking doesn’t deserve the interaction of normal human beings and should stay at home screaming at their monitors. Best use for the twit hordes as I can contrive!

  234. Scott

    It seems that correcting people’s grammar is a way of trying to return to one’s younger years.

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