Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I like Jan Freeman’s column in the Boston Globe a lot. She’s a friend of the eggcorn, she’s always sensible about usage issues, and her writing is just plain fun to read. I was a little worried, therefore, when I saw a posting that had been summarized in this way in the index of her recent columns:
“Oh no,” I thought, “I hope she’s not going to say that thing language columnists always say about forms like ‘Stoppeth.’” But, yup, she did. Here are the relevant paragraphs:
LAST WEEKEND, I was ready to grouse and grumble once more about my fellow journalists’ weakness for misusing ye olde Elizabethan verbs.
First there was Gail Collins in the New York Times: “I like thinking of next year’s senate as a kind of mythic quest movie,” she wrote, “in which a Democratic hero in need of a stimulus package or a Supreme Court confirmation is told: ‘Go forth and seeketh the Women of Maine.’ ”
The next day, the Sunday Globe’s main page one headline – on a story about the Bruins’ resurgence – was “The icemen returneth.”
My problem is not the archaism but the grammar: These constructions are as off-kilter as “They has a problem” or “We loves Christmas.” That verb ending on seeketh and returneth is not a poetic flourish, but a mark of the third person singular: He, she, or it returneth. Thou return’st, if thou must, but for everyone else it’s just return.
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas … h_already/
If the writers Freeman are taking to task are trying to be Elizabethan in particular, then maybe she’s got a point. But I think it’s just as possible that they’re parodying what little they can remember of, say, Chaucer, and in that case the first writer may be on solider ground than Freeman realizes.
The -eth ending in Middle English was, as Freeman says, the marker of 3rd person sing. present indicative verbs in a number of Middle English dialects. And as she notes later in the piece, it was also the marker of the present plural indicative in southern Middle English, so even “The Icemen Returneth” isn’t without precedent (well, if you happen to be a 14th C Englishman from the Isle of Wight…). But most relevant for our purposes here is the fact that – eth was the plural imperative marker in most forms of Middle English, including those that didn’t use -eth as a marker of the plural present indicative.
Chaucer uses the plural imperative ending –eth all the time, even when the character in question is addressing a single person. Near the end of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the Host, Harry Bailey, asks the Knight to come forward to draw lots (“draw cut”) in order to see who will tell the first tale:
“Sire Knyght,” quod he, “my mayster and my lord,
Now draweth cut, for that is myn accord.” (1.837-8)
In addressing the knight, Harry Bailey is using the polite form of the second person pronoun – the plural “ye” – and the -eth of “draweth” is the form of the imperative that goes with that pronoun.
Chaucer even sometimes uses the singular and plural forms of the imperative in the same sentence, just like the writer did in the first of Freeman’s examples. In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, for instance, the Pardoner asks the Wife to go ahead with her tale and let young men like himself have the benefit of her experience of marriage:
“Telle forth youre tale, spareth for no man,
And teche us yonge men of youre practike.” (3.186-7)
The Pardoner is respectfully addressing the Wife as “ye,” but he mixes the two forms of the imperative: “telle” and “teche” are singular, but “spareth” is plural. Other writers of Chaucer’s period also do this occasionally.
I doubt that Gail Collins knew that her use of “go” and “seeketh” in the same sentence had Chaucerian parallels, but there it is.
Freeman does moderate her critique towards the end of the column when she runs across evidence for the use of -(e)th with plural verbs in the present, but it doesn’t look like she ever made the connection with the imperative. Of course, the idea that imperative –eth is a misuse of the singular ending isn’t Freeman’s own invention; I’ve seen other language writers say that, and by now the claim has probably been hallowed by repetition. Freeman can be forgiven, I think, for making the same mistake a number of language experts have made before her. And then too one must consider the likelihood that the writers who employ forms like “stoppeth” don’t know or care that it’s grammatically defensible (well, sorta). But the weird fact of the matter is that the most common Middle English equivalent of the command “stoppeth” is “stynteth” – a verb using the same ending.
(Credit where it’s due: I lifted the example of the Pardoner’s mixed use of the imperative from Olga Fischer’s article on Middle English syntax in (the wonderful) Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 2, p. 249, though I used the orthography of the Riverside Chaucer.)
Last edited by patschwieterman (2009-01-12 11:51:14)
My first exposure to the curious ME verb endings came from the King James Bible. The KJV translators used the -eth endings on third person singular indicative verbs, but, as a point of interest, they did not use the -eth endings for the second person plural imperative (You won’t find, for example, the commands “feareth not,” and “speaketh not.”). So if Gail Collins was trying to imitate KJ speech when she wrote “go forth and seeketh,” she may have been right by Chaucerian standards, but she was wrong by KJ standards.
Last edited by kem (2009-01-12 23:31:25)
I agree with Kem that the problem here may stem from a difference in the usage of different periods, but the evidence suggests that the error is Freeman’s rather than Collins’s. Freeman referred to “ye olde Elizabethan verbs,” but Collins seems to me to be invoking a different context. Her reference to a “mythic quest movie” calls up for me the language of medieval romance rather than that of the King James Bible. (And sure, there’s the problem of Spenser—but he’s read his Chaucer.)
I don’t think it’s an overestimate to say that millions of English speakers have some familiarity with Chaucer’s English from high school and college classes. Those frequently employed imperatives may well linger in people’s minds. And it’s quite telling that the “mistaken” archaic constructions language writers point to are so often imperatives—as Kem himself points out, those constructions are unlikely to be coming from experience with later literature. So in a way I think that Kem is probably right: the people correcting the “mistakes” of others may very well be going back to memories of the KJV or Shakespeare without realizing that these imperatives (and the average person’s use of them) probably have their origins in an earlier period. I’ve maintained over and over here that I think the average speaker knows more about his/her language than the experts realize, and for me this is one more piece of evidence.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2009-01-12 23:59:35)
isn’t “The Iceman Returneth” third-person singular?
“Iceman” isn’t a pronoun, but is there any real grammatical difference between a pronoun and an actual noun?
the first writer may be on solider ground than Freeman realizes.
I love “solider.”
isn’t “The Iceman Returneth” third-person singular?
Yes, but the headline disputed is “The icemen returneth” – third person plural.
I love “solider.”
I do too! And what’s not to love? It’s a standard comparative that’s been in use since at least the middle of the 17th C., and—according to Literature Online, the OED, and Books.google.com—counts among its many lovers Sir Thomas Browne, Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Virgil Thomson, C. S. Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, A. R. Ammons, Northrop Frye, Alasdair Gray, John Updike, Jane Smiley, Tony Harrison, Neal Stephenson, and, uh, Carole Nelson Douglas. H. W. Fowler claimed (rather erroneously) in 1926 that “no-one would think of making a comparison in -er” from words ending in ”-id,” but today the relatively conservative folks at the American Heritage Dictionary list “solider” as the comparative of the adjective without further comment. So, yes, “solider” is adorable and getting solider by the minute.
Okay, I’m gonna go split a couple of infinitives, and then to bed.
(Weird fact: Fowler did bestow his blessing upon “awkwarder” and “buxomer.”)
Last edited by patschwieterman (2009-01-14 11:21:34)
Pat, I love Jan Freeman too. In fairness to her, I imagine that there are 10 or 15 people out there who know their Shakespeare and/or their KJV for every one who has read enough Chaucer in the original to have internalized his morphology. What is more, the “eth” ending, confined to the third person singular, continues in deliberately archaizing prose and poetry for a long time (“There was an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. . . ,” and note the “haths” in the Declaration of Independence.) The other usages simply do not, so far as I can tell.
Of course I’m one of the people I’m referring to. Even though ”-eth” is not a living usage, it sounds “right” to me only as a 3d pers. sing. ending, and jarringly wrong when used otherwise. I’m not a prescriptivist, but this is my native speaker/reader intuition. Besides, the whole device is so sub-humorous that I have never associated it with well-read people. . .
BTW, “solider” sounds fine to me too. . . and thanks for mentioning Northrop Frye. I was just re-reading him on Shakespeare’s romances (“A Natural Perspective”). I knew him a little when I was a freshman at Cornell, but that’s a story for another day.
Pat, I love Jan Freeman too. In fairness to her [...]
Well, in fairness to me I don’t feel I was being unfair to Jan Freeman. In fact, my post was motivated by the feeling that Freeman was being a little unfair to Gail Collins. Collins was pretty specific: she WAS NOT evoking the language of the KJV, but explicitly that of quest romance. And the period of English associated with the quest romance is Middle English—in which case the use of imperative “eth” is perfect. (Though as far as I can tell from a few random pages, Malory’s very late ME doesn’t use the “eth” imperative.) Did Collins know this? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter—saying that Collins was wrong in her use of “eth” in the context she explicitly highlighted is wrong in itself, and there’s simply no way around that fact. “Seeketh” isn’t wrong. I see no ambiguity here; the proportion of people who have internalized ME morphology is irrelevant to my main point.
And as for that proportion, people who specialize in a given obscure thing are always convinced that the outside world underestimates just how important and influential that thing is. It’s possible that as a Middle English specialist I’m making that same move here. But specializing in ME also makes me more aware than most of just how many millions of English speakers have had to confront those funny “eths” in Chaucer in recent decades—and I think they’re likely to make a lasting if subconscious impression exactly because they’re so different from what we expect. And I’ve got some evidence in that regard: Why is it that people are so often pointing to the “misuse” of the eth on imperatives in others’ attempts to write “archaic” English? In other words, why is the construction so common that it can be easily pointed at? As Kem pointed out above, the KJV or Shakespeare are unlikely to be the source. But sticking that eth on the imperative in the right place is extremely common (Google “heareth ye” or “Goeth ye forth” or any other typical version you can think of)—and I think that’s really hard to explain if some dim memory of pre-Renaissance usage isn’t informing it.
Of course, I realize it’s hard—by definition—to know what you don’t know; demanding that either Freeman or Collins accomplish that would be unfair (which is more or less my point…). But I also feel that Collins’s line absolutely did not deserve to be held up as an example of “off-kilter” grammar that sounds like “We loves Christmas.” Collins is a well-known professional editor herself, and that makes her sound clueless. Once you decide to take others to task for picky details—especially when you’ve got a high-profile soapbox—I do feel that you’ve just assumed an added obligation to get the picky details right yourself.
I think part of my point here is that one good reason to be nice about other people’s usage—especially when it’s obviously meant to be playful and non-serious in the first place!—is that none of us can ever know enough to have good grounds for not being nice. (Sorry, but that Christmas comparison wasn’t nice when directed at someone else who makes their living by writing/editing—professional reputations do matter.) I’m not saying that there aren’t or shouldn’t be standards. But the expression of peeves shouldn’t be gratuitous. And I think the playful aspects of language use are among the biggest rewards of reading—it’d be a shame if people avoided them because of a fear that others might start thumbing through Baugh and Cable to see if they got it right.
Kind of ironic that TootsNYC suggested that my use of “solider” was improper while I was making this point. By the time the AHD is listing a comparative as standard, the genie is out of the bottle forever. I suspect that remark was probably ultimately born out of protectiveness toward Freeman—but that doesn’t make “solider” a solecism in 2009.
By now I sound like I’m taking Freeman more strenuously to task than I ever meant to. While no one is ever going to convince me that her remarks were fully justified, I do consider them minor in the grand scheme of things, and she was probably casting about furiously for a column topic in those busy weeks right before Christmas. Forgivable. I’m looking forward to her next column on eggcorns.
thanks for mentioning Northrop Frye.
In regard to Frye, the instance of “solider” I found in his writing was from his fiction! Wow! Northrop Frye wrote fiction?! Discovering that was worth being teased for “solider.”
Since I’m responding to Fishbait/David, I’ll close with poetry. Here’s a stanza from W. B. Yeats’s famous “Among School Children”:
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2009-01-21 06:35:52)