Ne'er so well express'd

The Baltimore Sun

When people start arguing (and peeving) about points of English usage, a familiar refrain is that the usage they complain about is not logical. I've tried to explain ("English ain't algebra") that such an approach is not fruitful. But now the effervescent Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster, writing at harm-less drudg-ery puts paid to that line of argument:

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like  well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Got that?

People have also been complaining about the common journalistic term illegal immigrant. The Left doesn't like it because it includes that pesky illegal thing, unlike the sweetly euphemistic undocumented worker. ("Honestly, officer, I left my driver's license at home on top top of the bureau.") The Right dislikes it because it isn't nasty enough, like illegal alien or illegals or some other term that suggests that we are not talking about human beings, People Like Us. One recent lefty objection is that it is the immigration that is illegal, not the person.

But logic will only take you so far in language, as Geoffrey Pullum points out at Lingua Franca:

There are hundreds of phrases of this sort: atomic scientist (not a scientist who’s atomic), baroque flautist (not a flautist who’s baroque), model theorist (not a theorist who’s a model), nuclear physicist (not a physicist who’s nuclear), radio astronomer (radio-astronomy researcher), sex therapist (sex-therapy practitioner), transformational grammarian (transformational-grammar specialist), set theoretic (of or pertaining to set theory), etc.

You can read the post to see the bracketing, but the conclusion is plain:

I regret to report that the linguistic objection to the phrase illegal immigrant is naïve, and flies in the face of well-known facts about syntax and word formation in English, and the Associated Press was basically right in its decision not to deprecate the usage. 

And I agree. (Didja hear that, AP Stylebook? I don't automatically disagree with you. But I still wish you'd follow idiomatic English rather than journalese on the "split verb" superstition.)

And finally, something more succinct, from a Testy Copy Editors advisory on Facebook:

This storm already has a name. No need to use the stupid "Frankenstorm."

Got your batteries, candles, toilet paper, milk, bread, and booze for riding out the storm?


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