Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Don't buy a Webster's Dictionary!

When I was about 7 years old, I went to a book shop to buy a dictionary. There were many dictionaries and I didn't know which one to choose. In the end I picked the one that had the most attractive and colourful jacket design. When I got home with my new purchase, my grandpa who was visiting us at the time told me that I had bought the 'wrong' dictionary. 'Avoid Webster like the plague', I was told.

Ever since then I have been careful not to buy or read books that are in the 'wrong' category. There are good reasons why such books should rightly be classified 'unreadable'. We all have limited time and if you squander your time on books that don't benefit you, you might as well be twiddling your thumbs and doing nothing. But I'm different when I'm online. I have within me a self-enforced imprimatur which is very much relaxed when I'm on the internet and just the other day, I was led by my twitter to this article by Merriam-Webster, the same publisher of the 'wrong' dictionary I unadvisedly purchased as a young child: Don't Blame Millennials for the Introductory 'Which'.

The article gives the following as current examples of how the introductory 'which' may be used:
You can decide to go out without me, which, whatever.

Do you want to speak to Gary? ... No. I I don't know. Probably ^pause I don't know unless he's got a special tunnel in the bathroom that gets him out of there which I don't know I don't know, where you going? —Andy Warhol, A, A Novel, 1968 
... and that, I think was probably when I was getting ready to play it with the Solti on the E trumpet, which, okay... Here we are..."April 3rd." —Adolph Herseth quoted in International Trumpet Guild Journal, 2003

They watched a computer simulation of how the fangs must be shaped, how they would enter the body. The closest analogy was a rattlesnake. Which, bleh. —Nancy Holder, in An Apple for the Creature, 2013

We didn't find any strips of skin. Which, by the way, uggggggghhh. —"Same Time, Same Place" (S7E3), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, air date 8 Oct 2002
Although the Merriam-Webster article suggests that these examples are millennial-speak, a careful reader should be able to see that they are nothing more than truncated speeches or (in Warhol's example) speeches that are garbled because of the speaker's confusion and the writer of the article or novel from which each quotation comes is merely portraying an actual speech with all its abrupt terminations. Some of the above examples, such as the last example from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are actual speeches from a TV show. What Merriam-Webster has done is to take speeches terminated in mid-sentence in real life or uttered when the speaker is in a state of confusion and clothe them in some sort of grammatical legitimacy. This is not what a responsible dictionary should do.

They then construct their own meaningless and ungrammatical sentences - 'Which, yay!', 'Which, history' and 'Which, cool' - and mislead the unsuspecting reader to think that these are grammatically correct and acceptable sentences when what they have come up with is nothing more than meaningless fragments.

To lend credence to their argument that such a construction is legitimate and grammatical, the article seeks to show that there are examples from antiquity to support these truncated sentences.

First, they pick a 15th century example taken from the Coventry Leet Book:

...contrary to such directions that we, by the advice of the Council, took among you before departing thence; which, if it be so, we have great cause for displeasure... —The Coventry Leet Book, or Mayor's Register (translated), ca. 1481
But as you can see, the sentence above uses which quite differently from Merriam-Webster's meaningless fragments and to be fair to the article, it acknowledges the obvious difference.  But it goes on to say:
This connective which is a bridge between the pronoun and a straight-forward conjunction. There is still an antecedent, though which doesn't act as a pronoun alone but is paired with another pronoun pleonastically (in the above quote, it's the "it"). But oftentimes this particular which doesn't look pronominal; it looks like a conjunction. And so by the 18th century, the antecedent was dropped, and which was just used to introduce a clause:
Which, and I am sure I have been his servant four years since October, And he never call'd me worse than sweetheart, drunk or sober. — Jonathan Swift, Mary the Cook-Maid's Letters, 1723
or to connect one clause to another: '
That noble young fellow,' says my General; 'that noble, noble Philip Firman.' Which noble his conduct I own it has been. —William Makepeace Thackeray, The Adventures of Philip, 1862.

I'm surprised Merriam-Webster chooses these two examples (from Swift and Thackeray) which are totally irrelevant and don't support its argument at all. Swift's quotation comes from a character who is illiterate (I will say more about the relevance of illiteracy in such a usage in a moment) while the quotation from Thackeray is legitimate for a different reason. The quotation from Thackeray is from Eliza Baynes' letter in which she is making fun of the General's obsequious use of the word 'noble' three times in his description of Philip Firman. Eliza's assessment of Firman accords with that of the General's but instead of saying 'I own his conduct has been noble', she put it in a jocular manner and which serves to refer the reader anaphorically to the word 'noble' used by the General. Such usage bears no resemblance to the nonsensical and ungrammatical construction 'Which, history'.

When Merriam-Webster says that 'by the 18th century, the antecedent was dropped, and which was just used to introduce a clause', they have not revealed an important fact - such use was only found in the speech of illiterate people in the 18th century. The OED condemns such use of the introductory which as 'in vulgar use, without any antecedent, as a mere connective or introductory participle'. The sentence Merriam-Webster quotes from Swift is written by an illiterate character and Swift, in order to give literary verisimilitude to his novel, used the 'vulgar' construction in the writing of an illiterate character. I would have thought even lexicographers of a dictionary as unreliable as Webster's would have been more careful than to use a sentence from the lips of an illiterate character in an 18th century novel to justify a universally recognised solecism.

Of course, the once disputed use of the introductory which as a sentential relative is now unexceptionable since the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) accepts it and many modern linguists accept such usage without question. Pam Peters, for example, cites the CGEL as the basis for its acceptability.  However, Burchfield declares that such a use is 'perilously close to the type (18-19c.) condemned by the OED'. Butterfield in 2015 endorses Burchfield's position.

But we must bear in mind that the introductory which that Merriam-Webster is not even the sentential relative that was once frowned upon. It's not even anything like the type condemned by the OED as vulgar and illiterate. It's much worse. It's utterly meaningless and has no place in correct usage.  The absence of a copula is jarring and I cannot believe even a drunk and drugged teenager would construct such a hideous and meaningless utterance as Merriam-Webster's gibberish.  I am confident this cannot be found as a complete sentence in any language database. What Merriam-Webster has done is to take a few examples of speeches that are terminated halfway and turn them into the basis for a revolutionary construction that is at best ambiguous and at worst utterly meaningless.

My grandpa was right. When he saw me carrying home a brand-new Webster's dictionary, he knew I had bought the wrong dictionary. The difficult task of lexicography should not be left in the care of a bunch of dilettantes who are unable to conduct a proper analysis of the language data before them and who draw erroneous conclusions from them and support their conclusions with literary precedents that do not address the same issues they are dealing with.

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