Monday, June 26, 2006

'Uninterested' or 'disinterested'?

Question: Does the following sentence represent correct or incorrect use of the word 'disinterested'?

Though he had chased many a flock of gulls during the course of his boyhood, by age 17 Arthur had become entirely disinterested in this activity, and had instead taken up the study of advanced chemistry.

With one notable exception, the sources I've consulted on the 'uninterested'/'disinterested' debate have all agreed that the two words properly have distinct meanings. Of the two words, these critics argue, only uninterested should be used to describe indifference, whereas disinterested should be reserved to mean 'impartial, unbiased.' Some, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Bill Bryson's Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, state matter-of-factly that the two should not be confused; others, meanwhile (e.g., Follett and Burchfield) give some historical background, and then assert their preference for the preservation of the traditional distinction. Merriam-Webster 10, though, demonstrates its characteristic permissiveness, claiming that a "careful writer" may sometimes use disinterested in place of uninterested for emphasis. It then takes the issue a step further by noting that

disinterested has developed [another] sense. . .that contrasts with uninterested

--as if, just because a given usage exists, it should also be recommended (or at least condoned). Certainly, there is some grey area here, and discerning writers should preserve a bit of flexibility, perhaps occasionally substituting distinterested for uninterested based on contextual factors, including the rhythm of the sentence, and even what "sounds right." But the problem with being too flexible is that you can easily get pulled into vogue usages based on nothing more principled than the fashion of the moment or the negligent usage of the slovenly.

Therefore, I say, stick with the traditional distinction unless you have a specific, good reason to break it. And remember: if one day you find yourself in grammatical court, you should want the judge to be disinterested; if he's uninterested, though, he might fall asleep before he reads the sentence.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

All about 'persons' and 'people'

My sense here is that, despite a distinction that has been promoted by many usage mavens in the past, people today prevails as the all-purpose plural of person. In his Modern American Usage, Wilson Follett does make a strong argument for the retention of 'persons' in some situations:

A magazine that calls itself People yet chiefly reports on the few who are known to the many ignores the difference between people and persons. When we say persons we are thinking of ones, individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should have in mind a very large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass. . .Resting its full weight on its misunderstanding, the magazine in question relies on the names of its subjects being well known.
Follett here confidently asserts a useful and material distinction--one that, by the way, I acknowledge and would not like to neglect. But the question of whether this distinction always has to be reflected in contrasting linguistic forms seems a different issue. Despite its logical basis, persons sounds stilted--even "wrong"--to me, and I would not recommend its use in any context. People are still capable of understanding the distinction, I would argue; and, although the loss of one of the contrasting linguistic forms could dilute the dichotomy considerably, a precious lot of people would have to switch back to the dying form persons to render it viable once again.

In the years since Follett wrote his entry, of course, critical opinion has shifted further in the direction of sanctioning people in all cases; while Strunk & White (1959) concur with Follett's advice, Burchfield and many other later critics (as well as the major style manuals--see Chicago and AP) do not. Also, in case you were wondering about the Google count, it currently shows 473 million to 7 billion hits, in favor of people. And, despite my prescriptivist leanings, I hesitate to say that 7 billion people could be wrong on this one.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A change has 'snuck' into the language

The verb sneak, which arose from rather obscure origins, was first recorded in the works of William Shakespeare; and, from the time the Bard wrote of "a poore unminded Out-law, sneaking home" (1596) through the latter part of the nineteenth century, the verb took--uncontestedly--a regular form. Since the late 1800s, however, a new past tense form has arisen to contest the dominance of the original, "proper" form--and today it seems to be all but dominant.

The form in question, snuck, is a home-grown American form that first arose in dialectal speech. As such, it is not surprising that it was first recorded in renderings of the speech of rather lowly figures, such as bums and vagrants. Since its humble beginnings, however, this form has gone through several intermediate levels that reveal an edging toward respectability: in the 1930s, it began to be used jocularly by some standard speakers; in the 1950s it crept increasingly into casual standard speech and writing; and today it is used widely--"even," as Paul Brians notes in Common Errors in English Usage, "in sophisticated [American] writing."

A pair of quick Google searches bore this out (score: sneaked 1,700,000, snuck 3,500,000), revealing that--on the web at least--snuck is not only "respectable" but actually dominant. Nevertheless, the quality of much of the writing on the web is somewhat dubious, and there's nothing I consider less advisable for discerning writers than to parrot the usage of those less talented. I do concede, however, that many writers of quality use snuck at this point.

A good summary of the current situation of snuck in America, it seems to me, would read "standard but not proper"; in Britain, according to Burchfield's The New Fowler's (1996), it is neither. I'd be interested to hear from British respondents about the current situation across the Atlantic, since I gather things might have changed since then. As regards my view: I approve of snuck in American informal speech and writing, but I'm not willing to sanction its use in more formal contexts. If you're wearing blue-jeans and sneakers, snuck is fine; if you're wearing a tuxedo or gown, stick with sneaked.

Friday, June 09, 2006

'Farther' or 'further'?

This is a tough question, but it is not beyond a cogent answer. Both forms derive from the same Old English word, furþor, the comparative form of the Old English word forþ, or 'forth.' Further is the older of the two modern forms; farther appeared in the early fourteenth century as a variant of further, under the influence of a different adjective, far.

At first blush, further seems to have more to recommend it: it is older; more widely heard, by most accounts, in both British and American English; and--arguably--the more natural-sounding form to native ears in both countries. Nevertheless, it seems farther has carved a semantic niche for itself, perhaps especially in American English. American Heritage 4 has this to say:
Farther and further have been used interchangeably by many writers since the Middle English period. According to a rule of relatively recent origin, however, farther should be reserved for physical distance and further for advancement along a nonphysical dimension.

This distinction appears to be a primarily American phenomenon, with considerably more proponents here than across the pond. A 1998 web-based entry from Random House's The Mavens' Word of the Day, for example, claims that further nowadays prevails in all senses in British English. Perhaps H. W. Fowler had a hand in this; he wrote in 1926, "The fact is surely that hardly anyone uses the two words for different occasions; most people prefer one or the other for all purposes, and the preference of the majority is for further." And, while he did note that farther seemed to occur more often in matters of distance than in other contexts, he ultimately went on to predict that further would come to be used in all senses.

The recent American revival of farther, of course, goes against Fowler's conception of the word; and yet, the irony is that the evidence he presented in his entry can be used as historical/ empirical support for this very practice. Because of his mention of farther as rather more common in questions of distance than elsewhere, I recommend the adoption of farther for matters of physical distance as a historically supported (i.e., not entirely 'artificial') usage, while at the same time calling for further where issues of time, quantity, or degree are concerned.

In reality, I suppose, in American English too one can say further in every instance without being considered slovenly or ignorant. If you do decide to observe the distinction, however, you should pay unfailing attention to one caveat: don't use farther for any senses not having to do with literal or metaphorical distance--as in, "Do you have any farther questions?"

What sane person, after all, would ask a question of someone who says things like that?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Correct use of French phrases reportedly de rigueur in some circles

Continuing in the French vein, I would like to note that the French borrowing de rigueur--which, rather surprisingly, I am asked about almost weekly--means "required by the current fashion or custom; compulsory." The use of italics to designate foreign phrases that are not fully naturalized, for example, could be said to be de rigueur in English texts. And it is certainly de rigueur to pronounce the word properly--as rhyming, roughly, with "furry cur"--and not to leave out the first u when spelling it.

But that's not quite all there is to say about de rigueur. Though it is, at times, a satisfying phrase to use, the reader will be wise to remember that large amounts of even a good thing are not always desirable. I would therefore like to caution against peppering one's speech too heavily with it; aside from the fact that some folks won't be familiar with the phrase, others will find it pretentious. I suggest, therefore, limiting your use of the phrase to conversations with approving friends, logophilic bosses, and anyone else you deem likely to be impressed with your verbal virtuosity.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Does 'transpire' make you perspire?

Is it hot? Well, it may be a sultry, or even downright sweltering, afternoon for many of my readers. But even if you're already sweating, there's no good reason to compound this state of affairs by worrying whether you use the verb 'transpire' correctly. So read on, and I will attempt to eliminate any anxiety you might have over the meaning of the word.

'Transpire' first came into English from French in the late sixteenth century with the rather technical meaning 'to pass off in the form of a vapor or liquid' (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology; earliest known occurrence: 1597), and later developed the figurative meaning, 'to come to light, become known,' etc. These two meanings of the word are currently standard, though Dr. Samuel Johnson apparently did not like the second. (After listing the figurative sense in his landmark 1755 dictionary, he added that it was "a sense lately innovated from France, without necessity.")

But in the late eighteenth century, yet another sense developed--'to happen; occur'--this time on shakier ground. Though it is difficult to be sure of the origin of this controversial usage, most critics attribute it to a misinterpretation of such phrases as "He did not know what had transpired while he was away." The use of the verb in this sense has become widespread since: a quick Google search unearthed, among others, the following examples:
It took me a while, in fact, to locate an example of the correct figurative usage, in a British blog post on identity theft: "It transpired that the fraudster had used the birth certificate of a four-year-old child. . .to obtain a national insurance number and driving licence to gain thousands of pounds in loans and credit cards" (from a House of Commons debate). I encourage readers to take this example as a model of the word's proper metaphorical sense.

As you will recall, I mentioned earlier that you shouldn't 'sweat' this word. Yet perhaps a dash of anxiety, if not desirable, would perhaps at least be appropriate. As the late Robert Burchfield points out in The New Fowler's, the modern French verb transpirer has two senses: 'to come to light, leak out,' and, additionally, 'to perspire.' But since this is an English usage column, and not an Académie française blog post, I think we can stay cool on this one.

Monday, June 05, 2006

'Less' vs 'fewer'

Here's an issue on which supermarkets tend to catch a lot of flak--and deservedly so, I might add. The offense? Most often, the signs that mark the express lanes read "Twelve items or less," rather than "Twelve items or fewer" as received usage dictates. At stake here is the distinction between count and mass nouns--or, as Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and many other usage guides put it, between number and quantity.

The traditional rule states that "fewer" be used in comparisons that involve number ("Jerry has seven fewer kumquats than Susan") and "less" for comparisons involving bulk or quantity ("Susan has less butter than Jerry does"). Strictly speaking, saying that Jerry has less kumquats than Susan makes as much grammatical sense as claiming that Jerry has eight (or twelve, or twenty, or five million) "butters": in each case, the basic distinction is breached, though it's a lot more obvious in the latter example.

By the way, a friend of mine--the same one who left Tech over 'alot,' incidentally (see earlier entry)--is especially vehement about this one. She uses the phrase "less sand, fewer grains of sand" as a mnemonic device to keep the difference in mind. For my part, I strongly agree with her that this distinction is important, not the least since such pairs of phrases as "His grievances were less than mine" and "His grievances were fewer than mine" have different meanings based on which word is chosen.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Notes on 'sacrilegious'

Here's a word that touches on issues of etymology, spelling, and pronunciation, all in four efficient syllables. (Actually, to be more precise, the third syllable of the word alone accomplishes all this.) 'Sacrilegious,' an adjective that may have to do with the sacred but not necessarily with religion, is often misspelled 'sacreligious' by folks who forget this. The confusion is fundamentally etymological; sacrilege comes from the Latin roots sacer, 'sacred,' and legere, 'to gather up, take away,' whereas 'religion' comes from the prefix re-,'back,' and a different Latin root, ligare ('to bind together').

Another interesting fact: in standard speech, 'sacrilegious' used to be pronounced 'sacraLEEjus,' and not 'sacraLIJus' as it almost always is today. In his 1999 work The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, Charles Harrington Elster notes, "SAK-ri-LIJ-us...was once a beastly mispronunciation[;] but it has long been used by educated speakers and now unquestionably prevails..." True; but that doesn't mean it meets no criticism. Merriam-Webster, in an interesting editorial move, lists the '-LIJ-' pronunication first, as the most prevalent, but marks this same pronunciation with an obelus (÷), meaning that it "is considered by some to be objectionable."

For what it's worth, I use the 'sacraLIJus' pronunciation in my own speech; but whenever I spell the word, I always mentally rehearse the '-LEEjus' pronunciation in my head--my own method for making sure I render the word correctly. To fail to do so, in my book, would definitely constitute sacrilege.

'Ironic' vs. 'ironical'

The first factor that comes to mind for me here is simply that the latter of these variants--at least in the US--is much more likely to elicit spontaneous merriment. Dictionaries, of course, cannot record this judgment directly (that's my job); and while I've never actually witnessed laughter in connection with the second form, I can certainly imagine it. Webster's New World, 4th ed., does seem to be aware of this state of affairs, giving sole possession of the main entry to 'ironic,' and relegating 'ironical' to the end of the entry. This placement of the latter form, as the preface to WNW 4 explains, implies that it "occurs less often than the main entry or has a special quality, as in being British, dialectal, poetic, or rare."
Merriam-Webster 10, however, does not register this distinction, listing the two as equal variants.

Because the difference in form between 'ironic' and 'ironical' doesn't carry any semantic weight, and neither is widely considered to be an example of substandard/nonstandard/'bad' usage, the choice is theoretically up to a given writer or speaker in determining which form to use. Burchfield suggests that the choice is "governed by the rhythm of the sentence"; it's my conjecture that this is more true in Britain than America, where, it seems to me, 'ironic' clearly prevails in all contexts. I plan to stick with 'ironic,' if for no better reason than not to be laughed off the block. Others can do as they please; but if you come to suffer from the ill effects of using hilarious variant forms, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

'Could care less' vs. 'couldn't care less'

As any good writer will tell you, using language well is an art, not a science. The descriptivist who claims that any phrase anyone ever uses is legitimate is, in at least one strong sense, deluded. Regardless of what these permissive pundits might say, it is clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense that some people express themselves more clearly than others, largely because of the kinds of phrases they habitually use. To deny this fact is to deny the principles of good communication and ignore the power of rhetoric. Ultimately, this approach cheats students by short-circuiting any attempts to improve their writing and communication skills.

A good case in point is the dispute over "could care less" vs. "couldn't care less." As many people have already pointed out--both in usage guides and across the web--if you could care less about something, it follows that you must care at least a little about it. Thus, saying "I could care less" to express indifference about a given subject is patently illogical. I first noted this usage as a 15-year-old, when an acquaintance of mine used it; and--believe it or not--it actually confused me. I wasn't yet articulate or informed enough to express my objection to the usage; but now that I am, I will exhort anyone who cares about how they handle the English language to use "I couldn't care less," and not its ugsome alternative.