Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Unlearned Pedants Part 1 - Jon Gingerich (final segment)

For the first segment of my criticism of what Jon Gingerich wrote, please click here.

I'm determined to finish off my analysis of Jon Gingerich's appalling web page "20 Common Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes" in this post alone.  It's of course a tall order since Gingerich blundered through almost all 20 of his "common mistakes", many of which aren't even mistakes and going through all of them is bound to take up a lot of my time.  I will try to be brief.

Some of his points are not even mistakes I've heard anyone make.  For instance, I know of nobody who uses "moot" wrongly to mean "superfluous".  I'll just skip that one.

Whether and If 

Gingerich has this to say:

Many writers seem to assume that “whether” is interchangeable with “if." It isn’t. “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives. “If” expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for booze.

Most grammarians are agreed that although "whether" in a without-alternative situation is more formal, "if" can still be used provided there is no ambiguity.  In the example he cited, "I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight", there can be no ambiguity if "if" is used and so it should be permissible.  I have racked my brains but I'm unable to think of a single sentence in which the use of "if" will lead to confusion or ambiguity.  There's one sentence given by the former Senior Editor of the OED Robert Allen to illustrate this point - "Tell me if you can come".  But as he rightly points out, this sentence is hardly ambiguous, for the secondary meaning is so unnatural to any listener. Even if one can think of a sentence in which such the use of "if" will lead to an ambiguity, one cannot just create one's own rule to obviate it.  There are many perfectly grammatical sentences which are ambiguous in meaning but most speakers are sensible enough to avoid them.

Farther and Further

This is what Gingerich says:

The word “farther” implies a measurable distance.  “Further” should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet farther than Bill. e.g., The financial crisis caused further implications.

It's not true that "further" should be reserved for abstract lengths.  If you trace what grammarians say on the subject, you will see that all of them for the past 100 years agree that while "farther" is more commonly used to express physical distance, "further" is used to express both physical distance and abstract relations.  Fowler says precisely that in 1926 and Curme in 1935.  So, historically, Gingerich is wrong.  Let's look at the situation now.  In 1985, four notable grammarians including Sir Randolph Quirk wrote  A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language which is now regarded as the most comprehensive study on the English language.  Students of the English language at university level are familiar with A University Grammar of the English Language which is but a smaller version of this definitive and comprehensive work.

This august authority on English grammar says exactly the same thing on page 459 regarding the use of "further".

Also, in 1996, renowned grammarian and former editor of the OED Robert Burchfield cited with approval this same view of how "further" may be used.

I've mentioned the OED twice.  For those who don't know, the OED is the final authority of the English language.

Gingerich's insistence that "further" is a word that "should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure" flies in the face of every known authority since 1925.

Since and Because

Listen to the words of Gingerich:

“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.

I used to have an ineffectual and ill-qualified teacher I despised who would make up her own rules on English grammar and Gingerich reminds me so much of her.  That's utter balderdash, Gingerich! Just pick up any good dictionary and you will see that one of the meanings of "since" is "because, seeing that".  Look up the history of the word and you will see that that meaning of "since" has been around from the Late Middle English era and that's even before Shakespeare's time.  Gingerich is attempting to strip the word "since" of one of its meanings that it's had since the time of Chaucer!


Gingerich continues shamelessly:

Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager,” or "excited." To be “anxious” implies a looming fear, dread or anxiety. It doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to something.

Another bit of nonsense.  Anxious also means "desirous" and we can trace that meaning of the word to the 18th century.  The poet Robert Blair wrote in 1743:
Oft have I prov’d the labours of thy love,
And the warm efforts of the gentle heart,
Anxious to please.
Lord Nelson was also known to have used the word with the meaning of "desirous" in 1794 but I think I've proved my point that Gingerich is again wrong.


Gingerich writes:

Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter. Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. Stop embarrassing yourself.

"Stop embarrassing yourself", Gingerich tells us.  If we say we feel "nauseous", we are embarrassing ourselves because, according to Gingerich, that means we produce nausea in others.

It's not easy to be brief but I'll try.  It's necessary for me to divide the English language into two:
1.  the kind all of us speak and
2.  the American variety.

Let's look first at English as understood by the whole world except the US.  "Nauseous" has two meanings.  I'll use the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which is the best dictionary I have (and can afford) and although, it's called the Shorter OED, it comes in two volumes and is to be distinguished from the OED which is in 20 volumes plus Supplements and is beyond most of our reach.  The first meaning is "affected with nausea, sick, nauseated".  The second meaning is "Causing nausea; offensive to the taste or smell."  At this point, what I have established is this - As long as you are not an American, you may freely use "nauseous" when you're affected by nausea. That's the first meaning given in the SOED which follows the OED closely which means it's also the first meaning given in the voluminous OED.   Don't listen to Gingerich; you won't embarrass yourself.

Let's see next what the experts of American English have to say about "nauseous".  It is true that in America a long time ago (and I do mean a long time ago), "nauseous" strictly meant "causing nausea".  However American usage changed as early as in the 1970s and by 1989, the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage which is America's equivalent of our OED has this to say:
The older sense of nauseous meaning "nauseating", both literal and figurative, seems to be in decline, being replaced by nauseating.  Nauseated is usually literal but it is less common than nauseous.  Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean "nauseated" is out of touch with the contemporary language.
(Emphasis mine but I have quoted Webster verbatim

There we have it - Jon Gingerich is hanged drawn and quartered by Webster, the final authority on American English.

How can anyone be so wrong and yet presume to write a guide on good English?  I'm sure any young student who has been through basic English grammar must know Gingerich is spouting sheer rubbish from his mouth.

This ends the first part of my series on UNLEARNED PEDANTS.  I will keep a look out for another obnoxious, arrogant but clueless pedant who loves to sit on his throne and pontificate on what correct English should be and I will begin Part 2 of UNLEARNED PEDANTS.

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