Category Archives: language and linguistics

Authority? What authority?

Look, I know what I’m talking about.

Have you ever said that? And has anyone ever said that to you? It’s an appeal to authority, and, according to some people, it’s an instant fail: the argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority) – a famous logical fallacy!

Except when it’s not. Because if appeals to authority were always fallacious, our entire legal and educational systems would be voided. Among many other things. 

I’ll explain.

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andor, tai

In English, we have a bit of a disjunction in our conjunctions. We can navigate them in speech, but in writing we have a problem. Consider this sentence:

Do you want food or drink?

In speaking, there are two ways we can say it, and the meaning is distinct:

Do you want food or drink [even tone until “drink,” then rising]?

Do you want food [rising tone] [slight pause] or drink [falling tone]?

With the first one, it’s understood that you might want both food and drink (or you could say “neither” or “no thanks”). With the second, the implication is that you can have one or the other, but not both (and it’s assumed you’re going to have one of them).

But when you get into writing, you can’t make that distinction. And when it’s formal writing and ambiguity is a bad thing – especially if it’s a context where lawyers might be involved if things get awkward – the “both” option can’t necessarily be taken as implied:

Offer the participants food or drink.

Crumpets are available with butter or honey.

Imagine if I were in some tea room (probably, by the look of the text, one run by a disgruntled former office manager) and I saw that second sentence and I said “I would like a crumpet with butter and honey.” Imagine the server said “Can’t you read? One or the other.” Imagine I were a lawyer. Do you think I’d be able to argue that I should be able to have both?

Admittedly, there are many instances where an “or” is not problematic. But take it from a guy who’s worked on millions of words of information about human health and its care and treatment: sometimes you really need to be clear about this kind of thing. There’s a reason that the usage and/or has burbled up into the written language.

There’s also a reason that many style guides tell you to avoid it and many editors will, on seeing it, sneeze and swat half of it away, leaving either and or or. It’s ugly, it seems inelegant, it’s often unnecessary, and there’s a slash in the middle of it.

So what do we do?

Well, I mean, I know what we generally do. It prevails because people like it and it makes them feel safe, and meanwhile other people do their best to get rid of it wherever they see it in the same way as they get rid of irregardless: with a shiver. It becomes a make-work project for text workers.

But look. I’m an editor but I’m also a linguist. And I’m the kind of editor working on the kind of stuff where having and/or is sometimes very useful. So here’s the thing: what do you do when you see “and/or” on a page and you have to read it out loud?

You say “and or,” don’t you? Or, really, “andor”?

I propose that we just run up the white flag and get rid of the slash (slashes are for fan fiction anyway) and make it andor. Hey presto, it’s one word!

But I know that not everyone will like that. I know that some people will see in andor what Swedish speakers see in ändor (which is Swedish for ‘behinds’ or ‘ends’): a bummer. So if you don’t like ends, let me suggest some Finnish: tai.

Finnish has two words for ‘or’: vai and tai. Guess what the distinction between them is.

Yes, it’s this: where we say “Do you want food or drink” and mean “but not both,” it uses vai: “Haluatko ruokaa vai juomaa?”; where we say it and mean “Do you want food andor drink,” it uses tai: “Haluatko ruokaa tai juomaa?”

Isn’t that handy? Now, I know that it’s uncommon for grammatical particles to be borrowed from other languages, but it’s not altogether unheard of. And while it may seem a weakness that tai sounds like “tie,” I see it as an asset: if it’s a tie between food and drink, you can have both.

So take your pick: do you want andor or tai? Or… do you want andor andor tai? (Or do you want andor tai tai?) You may be inclined to say “neither” or “no, thanks.” But in this case you have to pick at least one, because otherwise you’re stuck with and/or – and even if you never use it, it’s not going away!

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

Words that glitter and splash

I was to have been presenting on this at the ACES conference in Salt Lake City this year, but, for pandemic reasons, that was cancelled. So the nice people of ACES asked me if I would be interesting in contributing an article to their website on the topic, with a limit of 3000 words. I was happy to do so… and managed to keep it just under the limit! I’m presenting it here as well. This is a longer read than my usual, but on the other hand it’s much shorter than my master’s thesis. Continue reading

gadzooks, zounds

Gadzooks! Zounds!

Be careful with those words. They’re ancient holy relics. They’re soaked with a divine spirit. They’re broken bits of oaths, pieces of sacred words of eternal commitment, now used as playthings. I’ll show you… but not quite yet.

We don’t utter oaths as exclamations and imprecations and expressions of emotional intensity much anymore. Most of us are more likely to call on sex and other bodily functions to express dismay at the arc of a crystal glass to a tile floor or a steel hammer to the wrong kind of nail. In general, we feel one of two ways about names for the divine: a few of us consider them so inviolable and sacred that we would never use them to express shock, anger, or other emotions of the edge; the remainder of us seldom consider them of enough account to be satisfactory for the purpose. But there were times when it was otherwise. Continue reading

censor, censer, censure

When is it sensible to censure – or censor – something incendiary? Can we not be candid without someone getting burned? At what point does inflammatory speech and the smoke of burning crosses make a more offensive incense than the scent of burning books? For that matter, what is and is not censorship? Continue reading

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive. Continue reading

The Honourable Member for the 18th Century?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons in England, has lately been the subject of remark for his questionable sense of style. And I don’t mean his unfortunate sartorial choices. I mean his directives on English usage. He has, we learn, given his staff a style guide that is just not what a style guide should be.

Many people chalk up his preferences to traditionalism and preferring the old ways. But Rees-Mogg, often called “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century,” is not actually expressing preferences supported by tradition. Like most modern grammar numpties, he’s fancying himself more traditional than tradition. The point is not to hold back the march to modernity; it is to enforce an entirely recent invention of the past for the sake of maintaining a certain sense of superiority. A sort of Disneyification, if Disney were run by ghastly snobby boys. Continue reading

One fewer thing to fuss about

Let us say, for the nonce, that the author of a book telling people how to improve their English has declared, “More is commonly used in speaking of numbers; I believe greater would do better. No greater than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No more than a hundred, but more strictly proper. More is best reserved for mass quantities.”

Well. We English speakers have a very problematic relationship with our language. If something seems natural, simple, clear, and obvious, and if it’s something we heard people do all the time, we are very eager to believe a rule telling us it’s wrong. We’re prone to rule-seeking behaviour because we’ve learned to be insecure about our grasp of English’s rules – they’re so capricious and inconsistent – and a new rule also gives us an additional sorting and tidying tool… and something to whack people on the head with to show our superiority, too.

So, if the book came out at the right time and found the right audience, we would soon have people insisting that cookbooks that say “More than 200 of the best high-fat recipes” should instead say “Greater than 200 of the best high-fat recipes,” and that when inviting friends over you should say “The greater, the merrier”; news articles would fussily put “Observers estimated there were greater than 5,000 people in attendance” and “He has lived in the city for greater than five years.”

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s so incredibly near-fetched, it’s fetched right off your page… more or less. Continue reading

What do we care about, really?

“Oh, please, stop. I can’t stand to hear that. It’s like chewing on tin foil. You have it all wrong. Really, I must insist. I care about good English.”

Behold one of the great socially countenanced forms of authoritarian aggression: brutishly objecting to someone else’s English usage. The sin may be a pronunciation that’s not “right,” or a transgression of one of the grade-school superstitions (“split infinitives,” ending sentences with prepositions, using the word ain’t), or a “wrong” meaning (decimate gets a lot of this), or – Heaven forfend – a misspelling. We treat a spelling error as sufficient to vitiate any argument, however well reasoned; we may even issue peremptory unsolicited corrections to slight variations from what we consider correct. Some people have gone so far as to vandalize public signage to change punctuation. And the self-justification is always on the order of “I care about good English.”

Spoiler: That is not why we are doing it. Continue reading