Haven't Had Enough of the Great Usage Debate?

OK, then, head over heels. Discuss.

Patrick McKenzie (mail):
I have been a big believer in "usage over authorities" since college (roughly contemporaneous with both starting to read this site and the first time I saw the subject brought up here -- I think its pretty fair to credit the arguments here for my change in view, although no particular post jumps to mind). That being said, I sometimes wonder if there aren't edge cases. Supposing, for example, you are addressing an audience where the audience believes, very passionately, that the Authority Is Always Right even when the supposed authority is neither extant nor right. No example in English jumps to my head but I live in a region in Japan which has a "regional" dialectical usage (compare: y'all, although its a verb form) which has been standard Japanese* for literally decades, to the extent that its widely noted as the correct, natural form in Japanese texts in the US. And yet if I were to use that around the office I'd be corrected before I finished the sentence because despite the fact that everyone, and I do mean everyone, speaks that way. And no matter how many dictionaries (and it seems to be all of them) note that "In spoken Japanese X is perfectly acceptable" people who say X every day of their lives go out of their way to note that "By the way, X is improper, you should really say Y".

* Standard Japanese is Tokyo Japanese, according to the central government, but that is a whole different can of worms.
6.22.2006 4:15am
The Voice of Reason (mail):
"Head over heels" means that you have backflipped for joy. So, your head has "gone over" your heels when you complete the full revolution. The phrase is not "head above heels" for a reason.
6.22.2006 4:31am
John Armstrong (mail):
What I'd like to see is an explanation for "ass over teakettle".
6.22.2006 5:01am
jpaulg (mail):

That's been bowdlerised from arse over tit.
6.22.2006 6:54am
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Usage v.'s a fine line, and English has always taken the moderate approach. If we were absolutist in our adherence to authority, we'd be as paranoid as the French about language. If some sense of 'standard' English wasn't applied broadly, we'd resemble late Latin antiquity, when Vulgar Latin sprouted into at least seven different major language groups. It wasn't mere snobbery that the Catholic priesthood kept Latin; there was the practical need for a 'universal' tongue that adhered to standards, and no one Vulgar Romance language fit the bill.

As English proliferates (there will be more English speakers in China than the USA in about 5 to 10 years), we will probably have to be more mindful of standards in the future, or else English will go the way of Latin because the 'dialects' will become unintelligible to one another.
6.22.2006 7:54am
The Divagator,

Although modern communications technology is pushing back strongly against dialects in general. In that sense, if every English speaker in China is listening to audio content produced in the United States, then we might well achieve a universal English dialect with no conscious effort. In that sense, international media conglomerates are our version of the Catholic Church.

Which, incidentally, is what is spooking the French. But screw 'em.
6.22.2006 8:55am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Well, that particular expression has always struck me as nutty, since the head being over the heels is the normal state of affairs. But on the descriptive/prescriptive thing generally: Yes, I get it that language evolves over time, and I get it that earlier generations of language cops were overly pedantic and would scold unneccesarily. But does that mean there's no such thing as correct and incorrect usage? You can't just say, "well, they know what I mean, so whatever." Sasha has stated explicitly that the point of language is to communicate. Right, and norms of correct usage are what faciliate that. Remember, it's not just Smith communicating to Jones, it's also Smith understanding Jones (and everyone else). Smith's lack of facility with the norms not only hinders his ability to communicate effectively with Jones, but also hinders his ability to get what others say. Readers who are non-law profs will get my point here: it's not just that students have trouble with Shakespeare, they complain about Mill, and then they wonder why it bothers me that they don't match singular subjects with singular articles. If we adopt a purely "it's correct if lots of people do it" or "it's correct if someone knows what I meant" standard, we're creating and condoning a situation in which communication is hindered, and people's ability to understand each other, and the past, is impaired.
6.22.2006 9:09am
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Medis, excellent point. Even in antiquity, Latin didn't split until the fall of Rome isolated each Latin-speaking community. Modern communications and commerce prevent isolation of languages.
6.22.2006 9:10am
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Medis, one more interesting thing and then I'll let it rest. French prickliness about language is far older than the relatively recent rise of English. The Académie française was founded 400 years ago for the sole purpose of standardizing the language and conserving it. There's really no analog in the English-speaking world. Of course, there was 'The King's English', but not a body dedicated to conservation like the Académie. In fact, when the English Romantics sought to capture something more 'authentic' than the polished wit of 18th century literature, they raided the Scottish and English oral tradition (ballads), which is shot through with regional usages. English speakers have tended toward acceptance of such flavor, despite the better efforts of Strunk and White.
6.22.2006 9:30am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Medis: I'm not confident in your assumption. Already, the most commonly used "version" of Engilsh (dialect, if you will) is South Asian. It is certainly intelligible by other English-speakers, but it is also widely divergent in terms of certain kinds of vocabulary and in some grammatical forms.

I suspect that we'll continue to see "push-me, pull-you" in English for at least another century. Some forms coalesce--American and British English, for example, are becoming more similar in colloquialisms. But there remain some very distinct differences, like "table a motion" or "enjoin". Perhaps, outside of specialized vocabularies, there will just be a "mutually intelligible, but differing in preference" balance reached.
6.22.2006 10:26am
oledrunk (mail):
Many respondents have failed to note that spoken English has a number of levels or registers, among which are choice written, choice spoken, etc. I use choice spoken to lecture, a somewhat less pedantic form to answer questions, still less formal in conversation with peers and ultimately and sometimes an unprintable form in the locker room. The choice depends on where I am speaking and to whom.
6.22.2006 10:35am
EV - You disappoint me. This is hardly a matter worthy to follow the last debate. "Head over heels" is merely an informal expression. It is an idion which is intended to convey a general meaning, not a specific one. It's perfectly acceptable, as long as you don't expect it to do any heavy lifting.
6.22.2006 10:47am
Joshua (www):
"Head over heels" means that you have backflipped for joy. So, your head has "gone over" your heels when you complete the full revolution. The phrase is not "head above heels" for a reason.

If this is what the phrase is meant to express, shouldn't it actually be "heels over head"? The problem with using "head over heels" to imply a backflip is that you don't have to backflip to be head over heels. My head's over my heels right now as I'm sitting here typing this. Most people sleep with a pillow, which means their heads are over their heels even while they're asleep.

It occurs to me that most usage controversies hinge on common intuition. "Head over heels" is in the same camp as "could care less" - a phrase that has stuck in spite of being counter-intuitive. In the other camp you have phrases whose intended meanings don't jibe with common intuition, and so they are adapted to fit the intuitive meaning ("begging the question" probably being the best-known example).
6.22.2006 11:12am
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Absolutely pulling this out of, uh, thin air: I wonder if this was originally a translation from a language where the preposition "over" has a version that means "moving over".
6.22.2006 12:21pm
Porkchop (mail):
the same camp as "could care less"

I suggest that "could care less" is simply the result of recent (say the last 20-30 years or so?) careless hearing and speech. In my youth, one said, "I could not care less" --> "I couldn't care less." Through sloppiness or bad hearing, the "n't" seems to have been dropped. It seems much more prevalent in the under-40 set than in my age group.
6.22.2006 12:51pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Actually, "I could care less" is a perfect example of what Orwell was talking about in "Politics and the English Language": an instance of a cliched expression the incoherence of which signals that the speaker/writer doesn't have a clear mental picture of what is being stated; i.e., that he or she isn't really thinking about what he or she is saying/writing. It's evidence of a kind of inattentiveness to language, which, Orwell argues, goes hand in hand with poor reasoning habits.
6.22.2006 12:58pm
The Divagator,

That history of French language efforts is fascinating. I had no idea this went back so far--thanks.

John Burgess,

To be clear, I wasn't suggesting that American English would necessarily win out in every sense (although we have a good headstart in a lot of areas due to our relative dominance of international media, and relative economic dominance in general). I also wasn't suggesting a time frame, nor would I necessarily expect a complete convergence (although I suspect that I have sometimes been completely fooled by foreign call centers).

My point was really just that we may not need to make a conscious effort to keep English from fracturing into mutually unintelligible dialects because of these effects. In that sense, your possible balance would be just fine.

And what The Divagator related about Rome seems to back up this general point: as long as sufficient communications and commerce is going on between different English speakers, we probably don't need to worry too much about fracturing.
6.22.2006 1:04pm
Sasha (mail):
"I could care less" may now have an ironic meaning.

"I couldn't care less," the original form, was literally (i.e., figuratively) true: "I care so little about this that it would be impossible for me to care less about it."

On the other hand, in French, there's an expression "C'est pas terrible," meaning "That's not terrible." In fact, what it means is "That is really bad" (i.e., it doesn't sink so low as to be terrible, but it's pretty damn close), on the same theory as "Well, that's not totally ridiculous," or "Well, that's not an impeachable offense."

Now I do not say "I could care less." I actually say "I couldn't care less." But if I did say the former, and suppose I actually thought about it, I would think it could mean, "It would be possible for me to care less, but I'd have to try pretty hard." A straight expression may have thus (unintentionally) evolved into an ironic one.
6.22.2006 1:14pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
I suspect the most economical explanation is that it's a sloppy but widely-adopted colloquialism that people use without thinking, rather than that it's clever postmodern hipster irony. I don't see how that gets its users off the hook. If they're being unintentionally ironic, then it's again as Orwell said: they're not connecting their minds with their speech apparatus.
6.22.2006 1:37pm
Rush (mail):
In German they have the expression, "Das ist mir Wurst" (That is Sausage to me) to indicate you don't care about something. "Head over Heels" was a great Go Gos song back before Belinda Carlisle got fat.
6.22.2006 2:08pm
As an aside, I'm all for using Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" to help analyze the tricks of political speakers and perhaps commercial advertisers. But it would be ridiculous to attempt to apply his rules across the board. Indeed, as many have noted, Orwell repeatedly violates those rules in that same essay, sometimes in the very same sentence (I particularly like his complaint that "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active").
6.22.2006 2:21pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Medis, I agree that many of the style "rules" he gives are not to be universalized, but his main thematic point is solid: sloppy thought and sloppy language use are causally linked in both directions. If we encourage people to be sloppy in their language use, which is an unintended consequence of the "wide usage=correct usage" idea, we're unwittingly dulling people's critical faculties.
6.22.2006 2:37pm
Aeon J. Skoble,

First, that all depends on how you define "sloppy" (and I might suggest that repeated use of such an imprecise word is itself "sloppy"; also, I would suggest "critical faculties" would fall within Orwell's class "pretentious diction").

I'd also suggest that obsessively focusing on trivial concerns (as in whether "could care less" accords with some contested definition of "correct usage") is itself far more likely to dull people's critical faculties than accepting such usages.

Indeed, does anyone really feel that all the energy expended at this blog recently debating the merits of various common phrases could not have been better spent on substantive issues?

In short, being a "sloppy" thinker is bad, but so is being a pedant, and encouraging pedants does not do much for the quality of our "critical faculties" either.
6.22.2006 3:07pm
Volvodriver (mail):
I find "head over heels to be inadequate to provoke the intense debate occasioned by yesterday's Slate posting.

I propose the following to stir up the masses:

Which is appropriate:

The Great Pyramid at Giza has been astounding those who see it for [millenia / milleniums].

I have been seeing the latter usage with increasing frequency, often justified by arguing that this is now an English word, and should have an English plural, or that the use of Latin-style plural is [edantic and showy in the same way that sprinkling your writing with inter alia and other Latin phrases is.

6.22.2006 3:07pm
Joshua (www):
"Head over Heels" was a great Go Gos song back before Belinda Carlisle got fat.

It was also a Tears for Fears song.
6.22.2006 3:47pm
Head over heels was originally heels over head. You can look it up.
6.22.2006 4:10pm
Federal Dog:
Lock and load!

Go figure language.
6.22.2006 4:29pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Once read an explanation of lock and load -- I forget now what the lock was, perhaps the safety, but in that context the sequence made sense. Ah, here it is: lock meant lock the bolt back on an M1.

Altho the following reference suggests it was originally load and lock, and got reversed after a John Wayne movie scriptwriter thought the reversed order more dramatic:
6.22.2006 4:43pm
cmn (mail) (www):
Alright, I'm going to use this as an opportunity to throw in my own recent usage peeve to see if anyone else shares it.

"Your call will be answered in the order it was received."

Is the meaning perfectly clear and unambiguous? Yes. But the omission of the prepositional phrase "in which" (hell, I'd even settle for a dangling "in") nevetheless sets off my syntax sensors in a most annoying way. Is it just me?
6.22.2006 4:47pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
cmn: It's not just you. Although any time I am in a position to hear that, it's usually the least of my problems.
6.22.2006 4:52pm
Here's a usage pet peeve of mine: "every other X," such as in "We have meetings every other month" or "I visit my grandmother every other week."
The phrase is supposed to mean "once every two months/weeks" or "every second month/week" but I can't help thinking it should mean "every month/week, except for this current month/week", which is the literal meaning of the phrase, I believe.
6.22.2006 5:37pm
Things that bug me:
"I could care less."
"Where are you at? I'm not sure where I'm at."
"I walked acrost a street."
"I axed him a question."
"I like to write with my new pin."
"I'm gunnoo do it as soon as I get a chance."
"I climbed a moun'in."
"I'll be there at ten, more than likely."
Things that I try to do correctly, even though nobody else does in common speech:
Not ending a sentence with a preposition.
Not opening a meeting with "I'd like to welcome you all here today." (If you'd like to do it, don't announce your desire, just do it!)

One last thing: I hate when Han Solo says that the Millenium Falcon can do the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Gosh! A parsec is a unit of distance, not time! That's like saying I can drive from Denver to Los Angeles in less than twelve miles! (Thankfully, it is not often that I am confronted with this particular peeve.)
6.22.2006 6:20pm
Is it "12 RBI" or "12 RBIs?"
Is it "The [Miami] Heat is good," or "The [Miami} Heat are good?"

My preferred usages are in bold.

Finally, Rod Allen, the Detroit Tiger's color commentator on FSN frequently says that a player who hits a homerun "lifts and separates," and not in a jokey, Sportscenter achor kind of way. This isn't incorrect, but how can anyone hear it and not be distracted by thinking of bras?
6.22.2006 6:41pm
One more question...

Why the heck in it "an historic event?" Did the "h" used to be silent? Do I not know the rule (starts w/ vowel sound, use "an," starts w/ "h" should use "a")...

An honor, an herb...
A hot chick, a horny guy...
6.22.2006 6:44pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Indeed, the words that came into English via French originally had a silent H as they still do in French (honor, history, etc). Words that derive from Anglo-Saxon (hot, horny) ave a different istory, but I'm not sure ow the H was pronounced long ago...maybe someone else knows.
6.22.2006 7:06pm

Great question. Wish I had a great answer. Instead, I confound the issue further by adding to your list: "A history class."

Te only thing that comes to mind is how the French never pronounce "h" at all. But we are not the French, and we regularly do pronounce "h." So I'd be interested to hear what's up with "an historic event."
6.22.2006 7:10pm
I see the Divigator beat me to "the French connection."
6.22.2006 7:11pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
'An historic event' is merely a hold-over, due to habit or affectation. For whatever reason, it simply had staying power in the language due to frequent usage, whereas the other words slowly attached themselves to the other article.
6.22.2006 7:18pm

I'm not sure about that, but I always like it when someone uses phrases like "attorneys general" or "courts martial" (whether or not required, I think it is cool). So how about "RsBI" (ars-bee-eye)?
6.22.2006 7:22pm
LurkerNoMore (mail):
Not opening a meeting with "I'd like to welcome you all here today." (If you'd like to do it, don't announce your desire, just do it!)

Next time you're in a meeting or Q&A session with a crowd, pay attention to who opens their question or comment with "I just wanted to say..." A few studies have shown it's overwhelmingly women who begin this way, whereas men are much more likely to say whatever it is they're going to say without first diminishing the importance their own words.

Also: since the "R" in RBI stands for Runs, plural, it's arr-bee-eye... both arrs-bee-eye and arr-bee-eyes are... well... wrong. I guess if you really want to add a second plural in there, the only correct way to do it would be to say arrzez-bee-eye... but please don't!
6.22.2006 7:44pm

I am also very much a fan of "attorneys general," "passers by," and the like. I try to remember to speak that way whenever occasion arises. But then, I am a geek.

Can you think of any other examlpes of that construction?
6.22.2006 8:01pm
I don't know, I kind of like arrz-bee-eye. Sounds like I'm a fearsome pirate.
6.22.2006 8:05pm
"Arrzez-bee-eye" sounds like someone trying to speak pirate. Please wait until September 19th to unleash that on your friends and co-workers, okay?
6.22.2006 8:07pm
Great minds, Deez.
(I'd have been really scared if you had also chosen to link to the official TLAPD website.)
6.22.2006 8:12pm
Some examples: Daughters-in-law, comrades-in-arms... or do you want examples without prepositions in the middle?

My thought on RBI/RBIs is that "RBI" is (at least when I think of it) a noun unto itself, and not just an acronym, like LASER/laser. I don't know if you have a lot of acroyms you use in a frequetly at work or some other setting, but if I hear anyone refer to more than one RFP (request for proposal), they say RFPs. I think it would sound like an affectation if you said, "Have you seen that stack of RFP." I know RFP could stand for "requests for proposal," but everyone just thinks of them as "RFP[s]."

Also shouldn't it really be, "Albert Pujols has 56 RIWHB?"

RIWHB = runs in which he batted:)
6.22.2006 8:15pm
I used to be a proposal writer for a PBM (Pharmacy Benefit Manager). And no, it was only one PBM, not several Pees-Bee-Emm. So I know whereof you speak.

And yes, I think the baseball world needs to get with the program and start calling it RIWHB. After all, we know what perfect orators sports announcers are! ;)

(No offense to any sports announcers reading!)
6.22.2006 8:40pm
I am surprised we have gotten this far without mentioing the favorite of newscasters and press stringer everywhere "They were literally decimated" (when reporting that 0.3% of the force was injured slightly).

Literal decimation come after drawing straws (1-10) in the legion, and everyone with a certain number (from throwing lots) is killed as a punishment.
6.22.2006 8:52pm
I swear we could be standing at the cusp of a whole new linguistic trend. In fifty years, maybe people will be arguing that the only proper usage is RsBI, RsFP, and so on.

Anyway, here is a list of examples I found (from the Government Printing Office Style Manual):

adjutants general
ambassadors at large
attorneys at law
attorneys general
bills of fare
charge´s d’affaires
chiefs of staff
commanders in chief
comptrollers general
consuls general
crepes suzette
governors general
heirs at law
inspectors general
notaries public
postmasters general
prisoners of war
reductions in force
secretaries general
sergeants at arms
sergeants major
solicitors general
surgeons general

Personally, I like the ones without the preposition. I hope to work "notaries public" into a conversation soon.
6.22.2006 10:57pm
Volvodriver and non_Lawyer,

You two have drawn attention to what may be another innovation in English usage: "millenium" instead of "millennium." ;-)

I'm curious how the arch-presciptivists deal with a word like "octopus." The word comes from Greek, and its "logically correct" plural would apparently be "octopodes." See here. But, of course, nobody says that.
6.23.2006 12:52am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I'm efforting to grok how this might could impact moi. Picking these nits makes all y'all, IMHO, too too 1337. Dig?
6.23.2006 1:31am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Personally, I like the ones without the preposition. I hope to work "notaries public" into a conversation soon.
The fun part is making the plural forms possessive.
6.23.2006 5:55am