Archive | Language

Have Proved or Have Proven?

Is it “have proven false” or “have proved false”? “Have proven to be right” or “have proved to be right”? Google Ngrams, in keeping with some usage guides, tells us that historically “have proved” has been the dominant form. In recent books, though, the two have been roughly equally common. I think “have proved” is the safer version, but both now seem standard. [...]

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Tortious vs. Tortuous

“Tortious” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the adjective form of the noun “tort,” so “tortious conduct” is conduct that constitutes a tort. “Tortuous” is defined as:

1. Having or marked by repeated turns or bends; winding or twisting: a tortuous road through the mountains.

2. Not straightforward; circuitous; devious: a tortuous plot; tortuous reasoning.

3. Highly involved; complex: tortuous legal procedures.

And usage reflects this; the customary adjective form of “tort” in legal American English is indeed “tortious” — for instance, a Westlaw ALLCASES search for “tortious conduct” & date(1/1/2013) yields 1574 results, and for “tortuous conduct” & date(1/1/2013) yields 48. Google Ngrams reports even more preference for “tortious conduct.” When the split is so lopsided, this suggests that the rarer usage is likely to be perceived as an error, and in any event is likely to be distracting. So “tort” goes with “tortious.” [...]

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Several related Mississippi legal rules prohibit “earwigging.” Without looking it up, can you tell what it means?

Note that no other states even mention “earwig” or its forms in their statutes, even though there’s nothing Mississippi-specific about that behavior. Also, only six cases accessible in Westlaw mention the term (setting aside those mentioning either insects or people with that name), all from Mississippi.

Thanks to Bill Raftery (Gavel to Gavel) for the pointer. [...]

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Customary Prepositions

Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) has a nice post illustrating how the prepositions one uses with particular adjectives — identical to vs. identical with, similar to vs. similar with, equivalent to vs. equivalent with — are a matter of custom, and sometimes changing custom. Prof. Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log) has more, in another recent post, though this one about the prepositions used with verbs:

You arrive at or in a place, not to a place, but you welcome someone to a place. That’s just the way it is. Nobody promised you a rose garden: nobody guaranteed that languages would be easy or fair or logical or commonsensical. They are simply as they are. Deal with it.

And that’s deal with it; *deal to it and *deal on it are ungrammatical. Don’t complain to me: I didn’t invent English; my job is simply to describe it.


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“Jew” — Ethnicity or Religion?

The Religious Kidnapping-for-Hire Ring thread has brought up the old dispute about what the term “Jew” refers to. One commenter wrote,

“Jew” has been a racial (as opposed to a religious) descriptor for, let’s say, at least the last century, and there’s not much to be done about it now. “Jews” as a category includes “secular Jews,” who are a big slice of the pie.

Another wrote,

The problem, though, is that words ought to mean something. If someone said, “I’m a libertarian because I believe in socialism,” or “I’m a communist who thinks free markets are wonderful things,” people would justifiably wonder if that person has any concept of what those words mean.

If someone tells me that he’s a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, that should theoretically tell me something about his world view. In practice, it may mean nothing more than that he was born into that faith and is too lazy to actually think it through. So, when I take the position, as I do, that people shouldn’t call themselves Christians or Jews unless they actually believe the historical tenets of those faiths, that is not a moral judgment about their belief system. Rather, it’s a desire that they speak clearly and unambiguously so I know what they’re saying.

A third wrote,

Being a Jew means following the 613 mitzvah. If Judaism is a race, then liberal Jews are admitting that it’s okay to hang out “socially” with people of only one race. Which goes against everything those liberal Jews say in all other respects.

I’m in the first commenter’s camp (though I’d say “ethnic” rather than “racial,” to follow the more modern terminology, though in the 1800s “racial” used to include what we’d now call “ethnic”). As a matter of how the word [...]

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When a “Ridiculous” Argument Is Correct

This morning’s lesson comes from Judge Kethledge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Bennett v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Co.  Judge Kethledge’s opinion for the court begins:

There are good reasons not to call an opponent’s argument “ridiculous,” which is what State Farm calls Barbara Bennett’s principal argument here. The reasons include civility; the near-certainty that overstatement will only push the reader away (especially when, as here, the hyperbole begins on page one of the brief); and that, even where the record supports an extreme modifier, “the better practice is usually to lay out the facts and let the court reach its own conclusions.” Big Dipper Entm’t, L.L.C. v. City of Warren, 641 F.3d 715, 719 (6th Cir. 2011). But here the biggest reason is more simple: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct.

FWIW, the entire opinion is only three-pages.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth quoting the key portion of the opinion:

The question presented is whether Bennett was an “occupant” of the Fusion—as that term is defined by State Farm’s policy—at the time she was on the vehicle’s hood. If she was, then she is entitled to coverage for the injuries she sustained there; if not, then not. . . .

The argument that State Farm calls “ridiculous,” State Farm Br. at 4, is that Bennett was an occupant of the Fusion per the policy’s terms. Under Ohio law, courts construe insurance agreements “in accordance with the same rules as other written contracts.” Hybud Equip. Corp. v. Sphere Drake Ins. Co., 597 N.E.2d 1096, 1102 (Ohio 1992). Here, as a matter of ordinary English usage, one might be skeptical that Bennett was an “occupant” of the Fusion during the time she was on its hood. Occupants are normally inside vehicles, not on them. But the parties to a contract can define its terms as they


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Catalogue vs. Catalog

My wife, son, and I were discussing “catalogue” vs. “catalog” yesterday, so naturally I turned to Google Ngrams to see actual usage in American English books over time. Here’s what I saw, again focusing only on American English books published from 1952 to 2008 (2008 being the latest year that Google Ngrams offers); I was quite surprised by how catalogue and catalog are roughly evenly coexisting.

The blue line is the ratio of “catalogue” to “catalog” generally, with “catalogue” starting out as the somewhat popular variant, even in American English (and much more popular still if one looks earlier than 1952), and “catalog” becoming the somewhat popular one only in the 1970s. The other lines show various verb forms, and indicate that “catalogue” was even more popular, relatively speaking, as a verb than as a noun (though not in the -ing forms). On the other hand, in British English, all the catalogue forms continue to be much more popular than the catalog forms, though the margin, while still huge, has been substantially declining.

And if you aren’t wasting your time on Google Ngrams, then you’re wasting all your time-wasting. [...]

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Eleemosynary — or, If You Prefer, Eleëmosynary

I ran across this term yet again, in a New Jersey case decided just last week. Just in case some of you find it handy in the future — to understand, not to use — it means “charitable,” as in “a [charitable/eleemosynary] institution” or “an organization’s [charitable/eleemosynary] mission.” It’s more popular in legal circles, being (according to Westlaw) merely 30 times less common than “charitable” in court opinions these days, as opposed to (according to Google Ngrams) 150 times less common than “charitable” in books.

UPDATE: Commenter dw notes that it’s useful to have a pronunciation guide; here’s what offers, with the accent on the bold syllable:



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The Frequent Error Illusion

A commenter on the “non-believer epitaph” thread writes,

“Epitaph” is probably used for “epithet” more often than “epithet” is. I can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of time before epithet becomes an archaic word and epitaph replaces it completely.

This, I think, overestimates the frequency of the error. A quick Google search for “racial epithet,” for instance, yields 154,000 hits; “racial epitaph” yields 14,600, some of which are references to the error. Searches I’ve done with other likely adjectives gave me similar results. Maybe matters are different in speech than even in the informal writing present on the Internet, but I know of no evidence of that.

Part of the reason for such illusions, I suspect, is that erroneous usages are jarring and therefore noticeable; we therefore remember them more than we remember the correct usages. In any event, it seems that in this instance, the “epithet” / “epitaph” distinction is, at least at this point, pretty strongly maintained. [...]

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“The Non-Believer Epitaph”

From an AP story about trouble in Pakistan (thanks to Thomas Asch for the pointer):

Most of the deadly attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have been carried out by a group affiliated with the SSP. Yet the renamed SSP is fighting elections as part of a coalition of six radical religious parties. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the SSP and a candidate, said the coalition has 300 candidates running for election. His party placards often hurl abuses at Shiites, calling them kafirs, or non-believers.

The non-believer epitaph is also widely used in reference to Ahmedis, who consider themselves Muslims but have been explicitly declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution. As well as violent attacks on its members, Ahmedi leaders told the AP they have been singled out with a separate electoral roll that identifies them as Ahmedis. The separate list also gives their addresses, making them easy targets. Security was tightened after a brutal attack in 2010 when militants simultaneously hit two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore killing more than 100 people and wounding scores more.

Sadly, the use of “epitaph” for “epithet” here might be less inaccurate than such a mistake usually is. For a case actually involving derogatory epitaphs, see Purtell v. Mason (7th Cir. 2008) (though these were on fake tombstones, not real ones). [...]

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Historical Linguistics and Alphabets

This very interesting Washington Post story discusses some linguists’ controversial claim that they have identified a 15,000-year-old “proto-Eurasiatic” language superfamily (thanks to Paul Milligan for the pointer); I can’t speak to the merits of the claim, of course, but here’s one passage from the newspaper article that struck me (italics added):

In addition to Indo-European, the language families [within proto-Eurasiatic] included Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchi-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages) and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).

They make up a diverse group. Some don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the untrained ear. Their speakers live thousands of miles apart. In short, they seem unlikely candidates to share cognates.

Well, if they don’t use the Roman alphabet, imagine how different from Indo-European languages — or from each other — they must be!

UPDATE: Prof. Sally Thomason (Language Log) has a substantive response to the “proto-Eurasiatic” theory. [...]

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Confessions of a Copy Editor

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting and thoughtful article by Prof. Anne Curzan about her discovery that one of the supposed rules she had been enforcing for years as a copy editor was in fact not a recognized rule at all:

I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.

For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit — and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.

Here’s the conclusion:

To all the authors whose prose I changed, I apologize for ridding your prose of all those on the other hand’s that were effectively doing their rhetorical job, often much better than in contrast can. And to any readers who have also been enforcing what turns out to be a fairly mythical prescriptive rule, or who have been subject to the enforcement of the rule, I hope this post will give you a new critical perspective on that practice (a practice that the lexicographer Bryan Garner,


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Schwa Discipline

My wife and I organized the Second Annual Pacific Palisades Spelling Bee yesterday, and talking to one of the word pronouncers led me to think up this phrase. In English (and some other languages), unstressed vowels often come out sounding very similar, with a short sound that is known as the schwa. In normal speech, we generally take no pains to distinguish the original vowel, but when we pronounce a word in a context where we want someone to spell it right, we might sometimes try to artificially stress or elongate the sound to make the letter clear. “Schwa discipline” consists of a spelling bee pronouncer’s resisting the temptation to give contestants this sort of subtle hint about the spelling. [...]

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Show Me the Money — Show Me It

One fun thing about being around children is that it teaches you things about your own language that you never realized. Children often say things that are perfectly logically constructed, but that are jarringly unidiomatic, in a way you hadn’t noticed precisely because the usage is so uncommon. (OK, that’s one fun thing for me about being around children — your mileage may vary.)

An example: Generally speaking, pronouns and nouns have similar grammatical roles in a typical sentence, with respect to the verbs in the sentence. “The dog ate the food.” “Have you seen what the dog did? It ate the food.” “It” and “the dog” are grammatically interchangeable in that context. (I’m speaking here of their relationships with verbs; their relationships with adjectives differ, I suspect largely because the specificity of the pronoun’s referent generally makes adjectives unnecessary for pronouns — one generally wouldn’t talk about “the tall she,” though “the tall woman” is just fine.)

Yet, I recently learned from hearing a child speak, in one common verb-linked context using a pronoun is highly unidiomatic, though using a noun is perfectly fine. For verbs such as “give,” “show,” and the like, you can say either (for instance) “give [noun/noun phrase] to me” or “give me [noun/noun phrase]” — “give me the dog” or “give the dog to me.” There may at times be a subtle difference in emphasis between the two, but both are quite normal.

But try substituting a personal pronoun, and one option is highly unidiomatic: “Show it to me” is very common, but “show me it” sounds very odd, at least to my ear (and Google Ngrams bears this out, especially once one looks at the results and see how many of the “show me it” phrases are false positives). “Give me the dog” [...]

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