Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Farewell, My Lovely Distinction

Linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is out of fashion these days. Dictionaries, language pundits, and trophy academic linguists all decry the ex cathedra pronouncements about usage from rule-bound curmudgeons of the past who imagined that they could put fetters on language change.

I would like to consider myself among the modern vanguard, letting language take its natural course and evolve as its owners — that is to say, its speakers — allow it to. But at the same time, I spend hours every week at the rock face of language change — that is to say, in classrooms full of young people — and while there, I cannot but lament the passing of some niceties of English.

In my hours away from the classroom, while I ponder weak and weary over many a quaint and curious locution of these same young people, I cannot help marking what I take to be either mistakes or bad choices, in the hope that I might influence the future of our beloved tongue. It's (or should I say: Its) all in vain, I know. But here are some of the things that bug me.

"Based on" and "based off"

If you consult the Google Books Ngram Viewer for "based on" versus "based off," you'll see that the frequency of "based off" is negligible in printed literature. Which suggests that there is still time and an opportunity to correct the tendency of young people to say things like "Dr. House is based off of Sherlock Holmes" or "You will need to lookup a value in a table based off two values."

But if you listen to young people talk, you will know that there is in fact no such hope. I teach some of the best and the brightest — science and engineering whiz kids — and their speech and writing is all based on thinking that "based off" is the new "based on." I do still mark it in their papers. When I talk about it in class, I get a bemused look, which I translate to mean "You'll die someday and then no one will care about this."

The apostrophe in possessives

It was shocking to me, initially, to note that neither incoming college freshmen, nor graduating seniors, pay much attention to inserting apostrophes to distinguish possessive nouns. I regularly get sentences like "The film shows the importance of fitting in through one mans failures to do so." Of course I mark them, as a small exercise in futility.

I think it likely that the apostrophe will eventually disappear from possessives, because in fact it is not needed. A sentence in which the possessive apostrophe is required to disambiguate a plural from a possessive is rare: syntax nearly always does this, and when you have a reliable higher order disambiguator (syntax), you don't really need a lower order one (orthography).

I blame texting for this development more than anything. Many phone keyboards require extra keystrokes to insert an apostrophe, and an efficient communicator will probably consider: why bother. Indeed, I can truly say of myself that

It's versus its

It's hard to let go of this distinction because of its simplicity. In speech it is rare for there to be any confusion between it's (=it is) and its (=belonging to it). It should, therefore, take only a fractional second's thought for the writer to arrive at the correct form, and either insert or omit the apostrophe.

But this is a fractional second that my students often cannot be bothered with. And again, since syntax will nearly always force an interpretation of one or the other, it is a valid question to ask why we persist in keeping two forms to trip up writers.

Affect and effect versus impact

Perky meteorologists regularly warn us about how approaching weather may impact our weekends, and financial analysts may be concerned that lack of sales growth will impact profitability. Said professionals probably realized long ago that rather than come to a firm and confident stance about the fiddly differences between the verbs and nouns effect and affect, it's a lot easier to just toss them both out the window when you need a verb or noun and use impact instead.

The impacts on language are unfortunate. But unavoidable. My students all get fidgety when I point out their errors with effect and affect, and they realize as so many others have: it's just easier to be an impactor.

Dangling modifiers

Sensitive teachers should always be alert to two deadly classroom syndromes that are to be avoided, and immediately headed off if they are detected. I call these the MEGO (my eyes glaze over) and the DITH (deer in the headlights) syndromes.

Outbreaks of MEGO arise immediately in my classroom if I use a grammatical term, such as appositive or participial. DITH happens if I start to scan the room for a student to call on and ask that they (yes: they — see next) give a grammatical analysis of a sentence I have written on the board. The sentence in question is usually one that includes a participial clause whose subject requires the reader to set off on an unfruitful expedition; a sentence like:

The argument that churches deserve tax breaks makes sense at first glance, but is flawed when analyzing it deeper.

The when analyzing it deeper clause needs sensible governance by the subject of the main clause.  Without this, the sentence fails grammatically. It needs to be reworded as:

The argument that churches deserve tax breaks makes sense at first glance, but is flawed when we analyze it deeper.

or:

The argument that churches deserve tax breaks makes sense at first glance, but I find when analyzing it deeper that it is flawed.

But why? Because the grammar of English says so. The wrong sentence forces extra processing on the reader, who must supply the missing subject of analyzing. That's actually not such a hard job — or so my students seem to think, because they foist this job onto their readers all the time. The hard job for them is understanding why the sentence is not correct. So I wonder if this civilized rule can be preserved for long in English.

They with a singular antecedent

I will close with a battle that I did not engage in, and that I can say has already been rightly won by common sense, and that is they used with a singular, somewhat nonspecific antecedent.

I do not object to sentences like Would the person who left their backpack please pick it up? or Any professor who says they never make a grammatical error is deluded. The first sentence has the under-specified antecedent person. The second has the somewhat indefinite antecedent any professor.

I do, however, still object to sentences like An individual who thinks they are infected should see a doctor, because for me this still just doesn't sound right. An individual, in my mind, cannot be a they. But my students disagree with me on this, and when I'm slobbering into my sippy cup in a nursing home some years hence, I don't expect that many speakers and writers will be bothering about whether individuals can be theys, because all of them will be.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 2nd 2015, 1:36 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Heh. Yes, the young need not convince us of the appeal of their verbal habits; they just have to outlive us. :-)

It's probably true that the casual elision of the possessive apostrophe is a habit that comes over from texting. That said, apostrophes in general have always been troublesome; apostrophes to mark plural or the rampant confusion about its/it's suggests that the rules are too hard for many writers to keep straight. (Even those who use possessive apostrophes perfectly might be hard-pressed to explain _why_ we use apostrophes for the possessives of nouns. But not pronouns.)

And ditto dangling modifiers, I think. I find them everywhere, all the time. The reality is that although, as you point out, the writer is making the reader (or listener) do extra work, the reader (or listener) does this so automatically that I've sometimes had difficulty in explaining to a writer Why We Don't Like Those.

None of this is to suggest that you should not be teaching and correcting any of these things. Mastery of such rules does still mark the careful writer.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 1:44 AM
Comment by: James T.
I applaud Mr. Hargraves for coming right out and stating that "linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is out of fashion these days." This trend is evident in many articles about the written word, particularly from the Merriam Webster clan, but is rarely if ever admitted outright.

I steadfastly disagree with the notion that the written language should follow the whims of the spoken word. Contrary to the opinions of today's academic linguists, rules of grammar do no lose their value simply because they may have been fashioned through "the ex cathedra pronouncements about usage from rule-bound curmudgeons of the past who imagined that they could put fetters on language change." These folks, some of whom were not even academically qualified, were trying to maintain the fundamental purpose of language-- clear and unambiguous communication. Contrary to today's apparent belief, enforcing rules of grammar and usage does not necessarily inhibit expansion and innovation in the language. We can add new means of expression while still adhering to established rules.

Two cases cited by Mr. Hargraves are good examples of trading convenience for clarity. Dropping the apostrophe for possessive nouns may have been influenced by text messaging convenience, but this sloppiness was well underway before texting became popular. The clash of "they" with a singular antecedent is mostly due to the demand by the feminist movement that preference not be granted to males, combined with the sheer awkwardness of using dual-gender pronoun combinations like "he or she."

Mr. Hargraves' claim that "when you have a reliable higher order disambiguator (syntax), you don't really need a lower order one (orthography)" is a good example of the questionable logic behind today's approach to language: since one always has syntax, it follows that one never needs orthography. This is ridiculous; had I not used an apostrophe, how would the reader know whether dear Orin's last name was "Hargrave" or "Hargraves?"
Monday March 2nd 2015, 2:11 AM
Comment by: Mark M. (San Francisco, CA)
Great Movie
Monday March 2nd 2015, 7:56 AM
Comment by: Jan P.
. . . when we analyse it more deeply. Adverb required.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Jordan M. (Newburgh, IN)
I imagine that those who disapproved of combining the manifold forms of the second personal pronoun into a single form would have given a similar complaint.

There are still the zealots of "their and your" on the social networks that will ignore your post because a single typo. I believe that text messages and social network posts should require different rules than a formal document.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 9:19 AM
Comment by: LeanneF (Winnipeg Canada)
Wonderful article to support the uphill battle I often face with clients who aren't writers but write. Would love to see something for the "comma-challenged" but this is great. Reminds me that I must make time to read these bits of wisdom when they come through my inbox. Thanks!
Monday March 2nd 2015, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Your only hope is to teach "Written English as a Second Language." That's what it is, in a way, and its rules differ from those of speech or speech-as-transcribed-with-the-thumbs. Not everyone wants to learn WESL, as those other acronyms MEGO and DITH testify. But those who do need to apply themselves. A lawyer I know wrote "he could have went" in an email to me a couple of weeks ago. He clearly needs a remedial WESL course.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Thomas M.
Nice article.
I will add one comment about they used in reference to both singular and plural antecedents. I still adhere to the traditional conventions by rewriting sentences if I find myself using they to refer to a singular person.
But...
I am cheering for they (and their, etc.) to gain full acceptance as both a singular and plural for reasons of social equality. Compare Would the person who left their backpack please pick it up? with Would the person who left his backpack please pick it up? The first exhibits a grammatical error. The second exhibits a profound semantic (or, at least, overly specific diction) error by assuming the only kind of person is male (reversing it to female doesn't help). It is like saying "A Chevy in the parking lot has its lights on" when you mean "A car in the parking lot has its lights on." (Overly specific diction.) But in a deeper sense of cultural evolution we need a pronouns that refer to "human" that are not gender specific in both singular and plural. And "they" is well on the way to serving that function; I hope it succeeds. (Substituting "...his or her..." is ridiculously awkward, especially in text that is flowing and terse (e.g., and action scene in a narrative.)
Monday March 2nd 2015, 11:57 AM
Comment by: Anne B.
Why couldn't you say, "Will the person who left a backpack pick it up?"
Really, it's not that difficult to write grammatically correct sentences that avoid the singular/plural situation and the sexist one.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 1:05 PM
Comment by: Rain
Mr. Hargraves teaches science and engineering "whiz kids," students who are immersed in the language of numbers. Their minds are not focused on words, grammar, spelling, and the like. You won't find the eyes of an English major glazing over when you speak of syntax, but try teaching algebra to me and you will see plenty of DITH and MEGO.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 1:13 PM
Comment by: David F.
While we're at it, let's take a shot also at "based out of..." as in, for example, "the organization was based out of Sacramento." I suffer physically every time I hear some diction-indifferent speaker choose that silly formulation, rather than simply "based in Sacramento."
Monday March 2nd 2015, 2:10 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Certainly the advantage of 'affect' over 'impact' is that it is neutral. Using 'impact' even metaphorically suggests that it is a negative influence that is being described.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Sophy H.
I'm worried that the overcorrection "between you and I" has become so popular that people will assume I am incorrect when I say "between you and me." Should I join the people, or can I hold out a while longer?
Monday March 2nd 2015, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Nancy O.
Regarding possessives and apostrophes: My father once pointed out to me, when reviewing a paper of mine, that "its" is a possessive adjective, whereas "Hamlets" is not. Always stuck.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 4:22 PM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
I think we who hold the line on language are performing a valuable service, even though, in the end, we lose many of the battles. I teach science and and am unable to label most errors with the correct grammatical jargon. I do, however, know what sounds correct, and that fact is spawned by my experience of hearing grammatically correct English in my own family, as I a simple function of growing up. Like it or not, people are judged by the way they use the language, both spoken and written. I will hold out for many of the old rules with my own students as long as I teach. Language crosses all curriculum, and all interactions.
Tuesday March 3rd 2015, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for comments. To address a few points:

James T: Yes, we do always have syntax, but it does not always disambiguate, and when it does not, it’s handy to have orthography (or something else) do the work. I don’t think the logic of my argument is as simple as you have characterized it. Readers could use common sense to learn that my name was Hargraves by seeing it at the top of the column, or in the two places you used it without an apostrophe before you inserted one.

Jan P: Yes, “when we analyze it” requires an adverb for modification, and that adverb is “deeper,” the comparative of the adverb “deep.” It has been used as an adverb since the 12th century. No point in stopping now! I agree that your formulation is more elegant, but “deeper” is not wrong, and when correcting students’ writing it is better to focus on the things that are important.

Anne B: Sometimes it is easy to find an alternative formulation to avoid the problems with agreement, and sometimes it is not. Whenever effort is required, there is a question of whether that effort is worthwhile, and if fewer and fewer people are going to react negatively, the effort does not avail.

Mike P: you said it all in your first and last sentences!
Wednesday March 4th 2015, 10:55 AM
Comment by: iBeth (Orlando, FL)
Love this column! re: "based off"--I address this same usage issue with my students and I usually show them ngram too. And I get the same bemused look that you describe so brilliantly. Same thing for "by accident" vs "on accident."

Some students are simply shocked to learn that their usage varies from the norm, probably because they don't talk to anyone who says it any other way (and when they do, they assume we are the weird ones).
Tuesday March 17th 2015, 7:25 PM
Comment by: Thomas C.
I loved the entire article. I don't consider myself a wordsmith but there are a few things that bother me. Verbage has now become an acceptable pronunciation of verbiage. Do we need to continue to dumb down the English language because people are too lazy to learn to speak "good like:-)". Oh, I think I mean speak well or properly. Another thing I find interesting but doesn't bother me as much. When People say many thanks, they should be saying much thanks. I think many refers to a quantity whereas much refers to an abundance of thanks, not a specified quantity of thanks. I'm pretty sure I am right on this last one but the many thanks will never change in our language. This comment is probably riddled with syntax and grammatical errors but I'm too stupid to notice it.

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