Saturday, January 15, 2011

You can have your own opinions, but you can't have your own language.

Pendanting redundancy.

You know pedanting is probably redundant. I'm pretty sure that "ant" is Latin for "ing." "ante" is Italian for "ing" (unless it is "ando")

by Keith Humphreys

The term “old adage” is very widely used. To see a few examples just from today’s news alone, look here, here and here. The snag is that an “adage” is by definition old, so the modifier is redundant and confusing: It implies incorrectly that there are new adages to which the “old adage” is being compared.


I realized that comments labelling the pointing out of incorrect usage as pedantic and/or trivial rubbed me the wrong way. This is why:

(1) It is, or should be, a joy to learn. When I learn things I am happy and grateful. I hope my Stanford students and mentees are happy and grateful when they learn things. I dislike the premise that when people learn something, they are being aggressed against by a pedant toward whom they should feel contemptuous.

(2) [skip]

(3) I don’t like galloping individualism in word definition because it seems to me a failure of social responsibility. We learn languages and agree on certain rules and meanings so that we can communicate with each other. To privilege a personal desire to use language incorrectly over the connective possibilities of shared meaning seems selfish to me.

(4) [skip]

My comments

I assume that the college friend is not William Safire but is, in the immortal words of George Orwell [,]* “a totally different person.” [“as I please” Tribune 1947. Yes, Orwell wrote that . It can happen to anyone. Impressive as always, he also published it as an example of redundancy “For the first time I realised what a stupid expression this is. As though there could be such a thing as a partially different person !”

Now this is delicate. I am not convinced that there is an English verb "to Aggress" and I am very sure that there isn't an English verb "to aggress against" (three words being one two many for an infinitive). I don't want to make you feel aggressed against. Least of all by my eagerness to end a sentence with a preposition, but there seems to be a problem if a verb demands a particular preposition. Were you hoping that people would think that you had aggressed for them or aggressed with them or what ?

I believe that the English translation of "to aggress against" is "to attack." Now "attack" is a bit too vigorous and clear and we can't have that. Or perhaps you think that commenters might have felt that to correct English is "to insult." Quite frankly, I think you have aggressed against the English language in this post.

I think I will however, give up on "to privilege." In origin this was an incorrect translation of a perfectly ordinary French verb "privileger or something -- I can't spell English and I surely can't spell French). I believe the correct English translation is "to favor." I think it is a bad sign when an ordinary word in one language becomes a jargon term in another. In this case, there is also a clear rhetorical trick. To say that a privilege is unjustified privilege is almost redundant. We are democrats and opposed to privilege. Accusing someone of privileging suggests that the act of privileging is unjustified, because of the negative connotation of privilege.

I wonder in what fraction of use of the fairly new verb "to privilege" is the act of privileging praised ? I can't recall any. A verb with a neutral denotation which is never used to uhm privilege the act it describes is a rhetorical shortcut which can be damaging to clear thinking. Now I agree that you explain why you privilege " the connective possibilities of shared meaning" over "a personal desire to use language incorrectly over the connective possibilities of shared meaning."

I think the meaning of your sentence would be little changed if you had written [To privilege the connective possibilities of shared meaning over a personal desire to use language incorrectly seems unselfish to me].
Note that I used the ultimate weasel word "little" since the fact that one choice is unselfish does not logically imply that the other is selfish. Can you imagine writing the alternative sentence ? If not, do we have a problem here ?

* oh crap I left out a comma when pedanting.

1 comment:

amercanadian said...

I have a suggestion for Keith: switch to French. Then you have an autorité. If the Académie says it's like so there ain't no arguing with that.

I remember long ago reading a bitter William Safire column about the term "Jerry-rigged". Of course this is a mix of "jury-rigged" and "Jerry-built". But I'd bet most people nowadays don't even know what "Jerry" refers to anymore. And also that jury-rigging has, fortunately, become rare enough that the term is not in the common lexicon anymore.

Besides, "Jerry-rigged" is more euphonically pleasing. Furthermore, one can make the case that rigged could figuratively refer to the rigging of a ship. I know, that's a stretch - the Germans weren't exactly sailing the high seas in frigates and galleons during WWII - but then the English language is pretty elastic.

So, the Keith Humphreys and William Safires of this world need to calm down and learn to love the fact that the English language is a stochastic free-for-all. But then, as I pointed out to Brad DeLong recently (, there is a lot to be said for having a language police.