Mike Clark, the N&R columnist on language, writes today about how "language sticklers" like him tend to drive friends and family nuts with their linguistic policing. Mike also drives me a bit nuts, because I believe that such policing has little to do with a love of language and much to do with a desire to control others.
Besides, the notions of "correctness" that get used in these exercises are quite arbitrary, and are often just a matter of imposing past conventions -- real or imagined -- on present speech. I find that policers of language impose their standards inconsistently, or, worse, are guilty of the same crimes that they accuse others of.*
(*No, it is not incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, and if you don't like it, it's just something you have to put up with.)
In fact, Clark's column today is full of the kinds of little errors that he likes to find in others.
For example, he writes,
However, at home it seems to go differently.Passing over the vague reference of "it," which doesn't refer clearly to anything in the preceding context, I'll ask why Clark doesn't know that "however" should be postpositive. According to Strunk's Elements of Style, "In the meaning nevertheless, ["however" is] not to come first in its sentence or clause ... When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent."
Clark also writes,
Evidently, there was an infinitesimal catch in my voice. A teeny tone thing that gave me away.In proper usage, "infinitesimal" means "an infinitely small amount, too small to be measured or reckoned." How could something so small be evident? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Clark's usage, meaning "very small," is only found in "loose or hyperbolic" speech. Tsk.
Furthermore, "tone thing" is redundant. A tone is of necessity a thing; the word "thing" adds no meaning to the phrase. Why not just say "a teeny tone"? Even worse, "A teeny tone thing that gave me away" is not a complete sentence; it's a mere fragment.
Then I explained that when you write a check, you want to hyphenate numbers with "ty" in the first part ...Hmmm. "You want"? I think he means, "you ought." "Want" as a modal verb showing obligation or necessity is not listed at all in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Clark goes on,
We know that our desire for correct punctuation, spelling and usage is based on the fact that language is the building block of thought, of communication."[T]he building block"? Really? How can you build something with just one block? That's a failed metaphor, and it's factually incorrect to boot. We have many non-linguistic thoughts, for example when we compose, play, or listen to music. And we communicate with gesture, posture, and facial expressions as well as with language.
Later in the column he writes,
They're more than willing to say, "What's the rule for commas and quotation marks?"If Clark meant to be precise, he would have written, "What are the rules ..." unless he meant to say that there is a single rule for the use of both commas and quotation marks. Or is he talking about some rule concerning the proper relationship between commas and quotation marks? At any rate, he hasn't made himself very clear.
Still further down, he writes,
Catherine, I am happy to report that "alright" is still considered nonstandard, even though it has become increasingly commonplace since it first appeared (in the 19th century).Clark should have avoided the passive voice in "is still considered" (see Strunk again), but the passive is convenient for him, because it allows him to avoid saying just who, exactly, considers "alright" to be nonstandard. Furthermore, there is no reason put parentheses around "in the 19th century."
And Clark probably doesn't really mean that "alright" has become more commonplace ("devoid of originality or novelty" -- OED); he just means that it has become more common.
Had enough? Me too. I hope you found this post completely irritating. Because there really isn't much wrong with the style, grammar, or punctuation of Clark's column. My point was to show, by example, the pointlessness of being a language policeman.