Grammar and sticklers

This is a recap of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Looking at them together, I notice a recurring theme of objecting to people objecting to things there’s nothing wrong with.

First, in “Hopefully you won’t object to this”, I take issue with the AP Stylebook’s continuing denial that hopefully can mean “Let’s hope” or “I hope” or “It is hoped”. (It says the word means only “in a hopeful manner”.)

I use hopefully both ways, and I like having this option. Declaring that it’s wrong to do so is, frankly, a lost cause: a futile attempt to deny or halt a natural drift in language. . . .

Adverbs have been used to qualify entire clauses and sentences for centuries. Clearly, it’s a useful feature, one I’ve made use of in this very sentence and elsewhere in this post. In the second half of the twentieth century, the occurrence of certain sentence adverbs grew rapidly, according to Robert Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (actually and basically are often criticised too). This might explain the concurrent surge in objections, but it doesn’t justify them. [more]

Business in cyber” is about the history and spread of the productive cyber– prefix, including a report from writer William Gibson on how he coined cyberspace.

The cyber– prefix has become synonymous with computers, particularly the Internet, but its original meaning is somewhat different, and it might easily not have risen to productive prominence at all.

The first cyber word in English was cybernetics, introduced in 1948 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in a book by that title. It comes from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning steersman, guide, governor, and was originally used to describe the comparative study of control and communication systems in machines and living creatures.

Cyber– was soon adopted in other technological fields and came to have futuristic connotations: of exciting advances in how we communicate, and of new ways of being and interacting. [more]

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently shared a video of David Crystal talking about how the internet is changing language. He says the technology has not changed English very much, but there are some noteworthy developments – new styles, in particular.

These observations serve as an introduction to “Slang keeps on swinging”, in which I write that since the arrival of the internet, grammar and spelling

have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible – and the common vocabulary has grown only slightly, relative to its total size. Slang, however, is always an active frontier. . . . Most of it fades quickly, but there is always a chance that it won’t, particularly if it captures something vital about a particular culture, subculture, or time.

Innovation in language, just as anywhere else, is a sign of health. The slang condemned by strict linguistic conservatives, far from indicating a decline, rather suggests an interest in language and a creative enthusiasm that propels it in new directions. [more]

Last up: “A foolish consistency” quotes Emerson out of context to discuss bogus grammar rules (split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences…), usage myths (decimate, aggravate…), and the etymological fallacy

that a word should or must mean what it meant originally or long ago, and maybe in another language altogether. The fallacy does not take account of linguistic change, and rests on the false idea that words cannot or should not change their meanings.

These restrictions have no basis in grammatical correctness, yet they have survived for generations, passed on from teacher to pupil or stickler to stickler-in-waiting. . . . Correctness is primarily a matter of convention, and conventions change. Consistency should be applied only as far as common sense carries it. [more]

Your thoughts are welcome here or at the individual posts. For more, see my full archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

2 Responses to Grammar and sticklers

  1. Greetings from the east coast of Ireland. I am a fellow blogger struggling to master the many rules of grammar and punctuation; I am pleased to have found your blog.

  2. Stan says:

    Hello from the west coast, and welcome. I hope you find the blog helpful. If there’s something in particular you’re interested in, try the tag cloud, search box, or links on the right-hand side. Or feel free to ask – if I haven’t covered what you’re looking for, I’ll find somewhere that has.

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