Sunday, 20 December 2015

The War Against Error, Take 2

Not too much of note happened in the last week of November 2015. Infoplease defines it with its two termini : the downing of the Russian aircraft in Turkey on the 24th  and the beginning of the Climate Talks on the 30th (both of which may come to generate much of import in the future (the latter for good and the former for ill) – but in between  the world news cupboard was bare. So the Independent published a strange filler:

The 58 most commonly misused words and phrases

(58; not a solecism more, not a solecism FEWER, as Jeffrey Archer might have observed.)

The piece starts out promising to be a review of  Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style:
The book is like a modern version of Strunk and White's classic "The Elements of Style," but one based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century.
Hmm. I'm not convinced by this use of linguistics as if it were some kind of magic added ingredient – Now with added Linguistics, they say, much as the makers of Pedigree Chum used to say Enriched with nourishing marrow-bone jelly in the '60s ad (not sure why that illustration swam up from the mental depths). Writing a style guide using insights provided by a study of modern linguistics (not "based on linguistics" whatever that means) is a good idea. I don‘t think "like ...Strunk and White..., but ... based on linguistics" quite does justice to the idea.

But the last six words of this sentence (a paragraph later) let the cat out of the bag (revealing it to be a pig in a poke...? a mixed metaphor too far, perhaps):
We've highlighted the most common mistakes according to Pinker using examples directly from his book along with some of our own.
As a result, it's impossible to identify the source of some of the slips (many of which I suspect aren't Pinker's, although I detect in some of his preferences that linguistic conservatism common in countries with a history of British colonialism: Canada, USA, Australia, India...).
You might be shocked by how many words you've been very slightly misusing.
it warns in the sub-headline. Well, no and no. I first discussed such nostrums here. More recently I wrote this. But this topic seemed worth yet another visit.

There is, in this list, a clutch of the Usual Suspects disinterested/uninterested, hung/hanged...
which I can never read without hearing, in my mind's ear,  Rex Harrison's
By rights he should be taken out and hung

For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue
in the soundtrack recording of My Fair Lady. Oh how we larfed.
... depreciate/deprecate, flaunt/flout, irregardless, practical/practicable, proscribe/prescribe, protagonist/proponent, unexceptional/unexceptionable, effect/affect (which I looked at a couple of years ago in a post entitled "Enother old favourite"}, lie/lay...   AHA
<eureka certainty="iffy">
Perhaps alphabetization/lack thereof in  the Independent's list is a clue to the provenance of different items: Pinker's are alphabetical and the Indy threw in a few at the end to make it up to a round ... hmm, not so much...58.
But there are odd omissions and strange choices, identifying a problem area but citing an uncommon  symptom credulous, for example, rather than credible whereas the chief solecism I've met is incredulous/incredible (which aren't mentioned). BNC finds 35 cases of credulous and 428 of credible but 171 of incredulous and 1174 of incredible. OK, a total of 1345 instances of incredulous/incredible don't imply that many instances of confusion, but they far outweigh those for credulous/credible (3:1)  that's three times more occasions of sin (as my RE teacher would have said).

The fatal inter/intern confusion
And has anyone ever used urban myth to refer to someone like Al Capone,  confused meretricious with meritorious, or used New Age to mean futuristic? Does anyone confuse averse/adverse, inter/intern...? Maybe they do in Canada.

Also, there are assertions of "mistakes" that aren't mistaken, as for example:
Cliché  is a noun and is not an adjective
OK, some people believe that; British English dictionaries assert it. But Merriam-Websters, for example, accepts it as either a noun or an adjective. I suspect the Indy's simple (and simplistic...
Incidentally, this is how these once-decried (first deprecated, then depreciated, and ultimately accepted as standard) confusions commonly bear fruit. Cases arise where either is acceptable; and the process grinds on. And not just with words; also with grammatical forms. Guy Deutscher, recounts in The Unfolding of Language how the 'going to' future arose from usages that referred to both travel and futurity:  'they are going to see him'. More of this in an update...
 ...) "A not B" does not reflect Pinker's careful academic aloofness. I suspect that the careful avoidance of etyma (who could define "meretricious" without referring to ladies of the night?) derives from Pinker's studious avoidance of the Etymological Fallacy discussed in several Harmless Drudgery posts. This "A not B" approach reflects that of the Reichenau Glossary, discussed hereVESPERTILIONES was right; CALVAS SORICES wrong. But, irregardless, a French bat is a chauve-souris. 

So I must read Pinker's book; surely the Indy's howler-ridden piece can't do justice to it?  Who knows what Santa may bring?


PS And here are a couple of clues:

Profoundly disappointing: baby's male – begone! (7)
Parental – sort of care before parturition. (8)

Update 2015.  – Added afterthought in blue.

Update 2015.  – Added picture; really must get an artist 

Update 2016.  – Added answer to 2nd clue (still working on the first...anyone?) and removed footer.


Update 2016.  – A couple of typo fixes. I STILL can't get that first clue. 

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