Skepticism

In Which a Man Explains Grammar to Me, a Writer

I had an amusing Twitter conversation with someone the other day, and I felt it worth sharing because of the number of issues happening within. First, we have the usual problem of a language prescriptivist, someone who believes that the dictionary lays down a law of what words mean and how they should be used, as opposed to descriptivists who understand that language is a living thing and the dictionary merely describes it as best it can. I run into this type often, and in fact I used to be one back when I was a baby grammar nerd in grade school and believed that comprehensively understanding English syntax made me invincible. “Uh, I think you mean you couldn’t care less, as the ability to care less would indicate you are not yet at your lowest point of caring” is they type of thing I would say in the 6th grade. Yeah, I was a pretty popular kid.

I’m glad to say that I grew out of that as I learned about how language is really used in various contexts, and I figured out that the development of slang is actually really interesting, as opposed to something that just annoys me because “it just isn’t right.”

So that’s one aspect of the conversation to follow. The other is how people, in general, react to being corrected when they believe that they’re the ones who should be doing the correcting. This can be influenced by gender (I am a woman, being corrected by a man: see mansplaning) as well as age (I’ve found that for some people, the older they are, the more scared they tend to be of society changing in any way. This includes language, marriage laws, and Oreo flavors). When a person initiates a discussion with the belief that they are better than the other person, rationality flies out the window as soon as the other person demonstrates a disinterest in recognizing that perceived authority. See below for the entertaining way that ends up, and how not even hard scientific research can save the day.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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23 Comments

  1. May 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm —

    I love it when idiots feel the need to assert their superiority. Being idiots, if anyone calls them out on it they can’t come up with a logical counter-argument.

    BTW, I was probably even more unpopular in school, and I clearly recall saying more than once, “Ain’t no word as ain’t.” I think this was when I was living in Birmingham, Alabama for a few years.

    I was raised an agnostic, so you can imagine that I didn’t fit in, forgetting the part about being Jewish and all. Saying things like that probably didn’t help. But then, as I was told, I wasn’t enough of a “Georgia Peach.” I had a Yankee accent, but I think they were referring to the fact that I was a tomboy. I wasn’t feminine and simpering, I guess. Those were the worst years of my childhood.

  2. May 21, 2015 at 1:59 pm —

    Now I kinda want to make some sriracha overload chex mix for myself. Like, a lot.

  3. May 21, 2015 at 2:10 pm —

    I used to be a pedant but my mom cured me of that by uttering the following sentence.

    “I could care less if it’s unseasonably warm or if the moon is made of blue cheese.”

    Then my head like exploded and I’ve been fine since.

  4. May 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm —

    Really, correcting grammar on Twitter, and they start with ‘like’?

    Two centuries ago, these people all thought we were speaking Latin, and came up with grammar rules based on that.

    (My personal grammatical bugaboo is ‘utilize’: It means exactly the same thing as ‘use’, but people use ‘utilize’ to sound more intelligent.)

    • May 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm —

      Well, I mean, there are such things as connotations. Right?

      Utilize just gives the very soft distinction of taking something previously useless or undervalued, and turning it towards a specific purpose.

      You use your garden for growing vegetables, and you utilize an empty lot for growing vegetables. But you’re right in that most people just pick the bigger word without thinking.

  5. May 21, 2015 at 3:04 pm —

    @Jon Brewer

    It would be a pretty boring world if we only ever had one word for each meaning. There go thesauri! You don’t infer slight differences between use and utilize? Because, I do.

  6. May 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm —

    Really, you turned this very short tweet “fight” into an article about… what exactly? :)

    • May 22, 2015 at 12:41 pm —

      Really, you commented on this post for…why exactly?

      I’m sure Rebecca will remember in the future to seek out your approval for all of her posts, just to make sure it’s something you think is worthy.

  7. May 21, 2015 at 3:23 pm —

    I believe it’s about “how people, in general, react to being corrected when they believe that they’re the ones who should be doing the correcting”.

    • May 21, 2015 at 3:57 pm —

      I believe that was rhetorical, and it added so much to the conversation.

      • May 22, 2015 at 6:59 am —

        I like replying to such questions as if they weren’t rhetorical, that way, even if I’m wrong, I’m right.

  8. May 21, 2015 at 5:12 pm —

    Rebecca, it’s hilarious that Barry has waited like 30 years to begin his jihad against “like”, that useful verbal equivalent of the ~ symbol.

    Newsflash, it’s like, we ALL do it, not just in the US but from Europe to Asia and across all generations, from 3 year olds to folks in their 90s!

  9. May 21, 2015 at 11:13 pm —

    I want sriracha chex mix, but I don’t want to buy three boxes of chex. Isn’t that the real tragedy?

  10. May 22, 2015 at 11:38 am —

    Use of “like” as a discourse marker or particle goes back to old English. I may be wrong but I thought the Welsh use(d) it in a similar way to so called “Valley speak”? Certainly up north in the UK people punctuate their statements with a superfluous “like”. So the phenomenon itself is not American.

    Chex Mix on the other hand sounds like a positively abominable recent American invention ;)

  11. May 22, 2015 at 1:15 pm —

    I support the removal of unnecessary words from sentences.

    “He actually seemed to want to do quite a bit more.” is a crappier, more timid, less direct way of saying “He wanted to do a lot more.”

    However, “like” changes a sentences’s meaning.
    “I added a cup of hot sauce” and “I added, like, a cup of hot sauce” are two different sentences with different intents. The first one goes for subtle exaggeration and the second states it explicitly.

    So, fail, editor-troll-man.

    The real problem with “like” is the same problem we had with “totally” and vocal fry: it’s a thing teenage girls do and, dammit, we have to get them under control!

    • May 22, 2015 at 5:54 pm —

      But don’t “he seemed to want to do more” and “he wanted to do more” have different meanings? I don’t think the two sentences you give in your example have the same meaning. Those two sentences could both be useful depending on the context, so I don’t think the first one is necessarily “a crappier, more timid, less direct way” of saying the same thing as the second one.

      Besides, even if people use “unnecessary words,” if you get the meaning, isn’t that what’s most important?

  12. May 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm —

    I read your tweet like ten times before I even saw the ‘like a’. And I was, like, even looking for it.

  13. May 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm —

    Being a grammar fascist reminds me the supposed “strict constructionist” interpretations of the constitution. Did you ever notice that their opinions always skew conservative, BTW? Hmm, I wonder why?

    At any rate, the US is a universe away from the world of the 18th century. They were at the birth of the Industrial Revolution, but the bulk of the country was only a few steps above the Neolithic.

    Language, like our country, is ever evolving. Do we really want to be like the French, when it comes to English? Isn’t the plasticity of our language one of its biggest strengths (even if it can be maddening for writers)?

  14. May 23, 2015 at 7:50 pm —

    There’s a time and place to be a grammar nazi and twitter isn’t it. However, in my job as a medical editor if I came across the phrase “We added like 50ml of media” I would feel justified in goose-stepping all over it with my red pen.

    • May 23, 2015 at 10:32 pm —

      That sentence would not make sense in the context of a medical document where the information given needs to be very specific. As stated by Rebecca in her Twitter conversation above, the idiom is a “perfectly good way to convey exaggeration and estimation”.

      I have a feeling that you won’t have a problem with this sort of idiom being used in the documents submitted to you for editing…

      • May 24, 2015 at 7:05 pm —

        I generally don’t see idioms of any sort, I was using that as a humorous example. However, I would also add a space between the 50 and ml to conform with the AMA style guide (my bad on that).

        For the record, I’m not a big fan of the overuse of the word “like”, but like people using “really” and “very” as synonyms, I guess it’s something I’m going to have to live with. Also, I hate the way mL loos as a abbreviation for milliliter, so I’m going to resist that for as long as I can.

  15. May 25, 2015 at 10:48 am —

    I use really really often in casual online conversations, but I wouldn’t do that in my formal writing. It’s a form of code switching. I also use exclamation points to show enthusiasm, but excessive use of the exclamation point is best avoided in professional writing!

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