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#1 2008-03-29 16:11:57

nilep
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-03-21
Posts: 291

Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

This morning on the NPR radio program Weekend Edition, Susan Stamberg interviews lexicographer Sol Steinmetz. (No transcript yet, but this link will take you to the audio, as well as a description.)
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/stor … d=89195654

Stamberg asks about words people “misuse,” giving the example of disinterested and uninterested. Steinmetz points out that the meanings of the two words used to be opposite what they are now – that is, uninterested used to mean “impartial,” while disinterested meant “with no interest” (at least according to Steinmetz). He also points out that since dis and un mean essentially the same thing, there is neither logical nor historical reason to call those users who reverse the current standard meaning “wrong.” As Steinmetz says, “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t use one instead of another to imply negativity.”

Stamberg insists, though, “That’s not correct.” When Steinmetz rather diplomatically suggests, “Critics will always criticize,” Stamberg suggests that the “critics” are correct and that the deluded non-standard speakers “will misunderstand what they’ve written.”

Of course we all have our pet-peeves – I myself have been known to suggest, or at least feel, that impact should not be used as a verb despite my professed non-prescriptivist values. I thought Steinmetz was quite diplomatic in not aligning with Stamberg’s need to judge, while still not overtly disagreeing with her.

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#2 2008-06-14 16:44:58

rogerthat
Eggcornista
From: Denver, Colorado, USA
Registered: 2008-05-19
Posts: 64

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

I guess I’m a rehabilitated prescriptivist, but I still have numerous pet-peeves. I can now chuckle at all kinds of linguistic slippage that used to stick in my craw. Speaking of impact, I had trouble keeping a straight face the first time a professional cohort advised me; “You need to dialog with them today.” Later on I thought, “Why not? I monolog with myself all the time!” Also, disinterested and uninterested reminds me that the words flammable and inflammable have identical meanings. The first time I saw the word inflammable, I naively thought it to mean fireproof. What’s up with that? Chad, I think you might be onto something.

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#3 2008-06-16 18:19:23

TootsNYC
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-06-19
Posts: 263

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

I’m totally prescriptivist along idiosyncratic lines: If I like it, it’s in. If I don’t, I think it’s wrong.

(well, not really wrong, but I scorn it)

In reality, I have prescriptivist leanings but bow to the idea that language is a democracy, and words only have true meanings if the two people using them (speaker & hearer/writer & reader) agree on what they mean. And so I mourn the lost of clarity that comes when “disinterested” slips into “uninterested,” and vice versa.

I also have different standards for the hoi polloi, and those who would claim to be experts in the clear usage of language. I would never correct someone who used “uninterested” to mean “having no stake in the outcome,” but I would expect an editor, a professional writer, a wordsmith, to use the word “disinterested.”

(I love “monologing” and have no problem w/ “dialoging.”)

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#4 2008-06-17 09:00:20

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

People on the forum who know me as a fire-breathing descriptivist might be surprised to see what I do to students’ papers. I think a lot of the “rules” are silly, but I also know that a lot of people out in the real world consider violations of them a useful measure of a writer’s intelligence or prudence or propriety—or something. I therefore feel I need to prepare my students for that first reader of a grad school application who might consider a split infinitive a grievous error. So I’m in the weird position of enforcing principles I don’t believe in. I explain this to a certain extent, but I find that too much explanation in this regard starts feeling a bit metaphysical.

But that grad school example wasn’t necessarily hypothetical. The admin. for the grad. dept. of a prestigious English program once told me that they typically got 600 applications for fewer than 20 positions each year. I asked how they started narrowing down the field. She replied that anything with a significant typo or grammatical error went straight into the trash. Well, I thought, this IS an English department. Still, her answer made me really uneasy—I was willing to bet that some of the disqualifying “errors” would be things I personally considered non-erroneous.

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#5 2008-06-17 14:35:41

TootsNYC
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-06-19
Posts: 263

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Yes, but many of those things that you consider non-erroneous are still things that many people say are bad form.

And surely a student’s ability to find the common norms and decide when to conform to them is also an indicator of the level of care and effort they’ll put into their studies?

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#6 2008-06-17 16:12:48

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2131

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

The Hatfield descriptivists and McCoy prescriptivists pursue their feuds from one academic mountaintop to another. This forum, I would think, qualifies as neutral ground. If the prescriptivists had their way, eggcorns and all of their vile spawn would be nosed out and hared from the county, and we would have nothing to talk about. If the descriptivists eliminated the prescriptivists, our beloved eggcorns, which work by violating historical standards, would be whistles to a deaf hound.

I deplore, of course, the customs that lead families to fight. But I need the hooch they are truckin’ down the mountain.

Last edited by kem (2008-06-17 22:57:23)

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#7 2008-06-17 21:49:24

JonW719
Eggcornista
From: Colorado
Registered: 2007-09-05
Posts: 285

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

kem, you are the master of the bon mot!


Feeling quite combobulated.

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#8 2008-06-18 08:38:55

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Neutral ground? With two of our three founders regular posters on Language Log? And Chris Waigl is neutral in regard to prescriptivism?! You gotta be kiddin me….

If the descriptivists eliminated the prescriptivists, our beloved eggcorns, which work by violating historical standards, would be whistles to a deaf hound.

Gimme a break.

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#9 2008-06-18 09:56:03

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

TootsNYC wrote:

And surely a student’s ability to find the common norms and decide when to conform to them is also an indicator of the level of care and effort they’ll put into their studies?

I’m not trying to be merely contrarian in this post and the last one, but I really strongly disagree—at least in regard to students and their writing. (I think it’s possible I’d feel differently if I were editing the raw products of professional writers rather than those of students.)

Sure, there’s a tendency for papers with excellent arguments and exposition to have good presentation. And there’s a tendency for papers with terrible arguments and exposition to have poor presentation. But beyond the identification of that general tendency, all bets are off.

I once had a student whose papers were consistently picture-perfect in regards to grammar and punctuation. But he never did anything but recount what had happened in the plot of the narrative he was writing about—no thesis, just plot summary. He seemed to ignore the techniques we discussed in class and the examples I gave him in office hours. He cared about the correct placement of the comma, but I couldn’t really tell whether he cared about his studies in general. He was pretty unusual, admittedly, but essays with boring arguments and good proofreading aren’t unusual at all.

And very interesting papers with casual proofreading aren’t unusual either. In fact, I often find that some students who’ve gotten really usefully excited about the ideas they’re writing about have so many different things whizzing around in their brains that they have trouble getting everything to fit together on the page—and presentation suffers. And on the other hand, some students who appear to be going through the motions also seem to think, “Well, I should at least get the punctuation right….” They aren’t spending a lot of time really thinking hard about the topic, so they’ve got a little more time to double-check things. (And please don’t misunderstand me—most students probably don’t fit either description.)

I try to be patient with the students who fall into both camps, and occasionally I have real success in 14 weeks in showing someone that a marriage of analysis and presentation is an ideal worth working towards. But my experiences don’t at all indicate to me that a student’s level of concern for the norms is a good indicator of their intellectual curiosity or devotion to learning. They’re apprentices, and part of what they’re learning is as much about priorities and balance as it is about proofreading or interpretation. Most of them are almost certainly still working on getting those things right when they’re applying to grad schools. And “priorities” and “balance” are two concepts I end up thinking about when I think about people turned away from a graduate program because of a typo.

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#10 2008-06-18 12:59:13

Verbivore
Member
From: Australia
Registered: 2008-02-22
Posts: 7
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

TootsNYC wrote:

[...] I also have different standards for the hoi polloi [...]

I am a slightly reformed prescriptivist / late-evolving descriptivist, but I wonder at your use of “the” before “hoi polloi” – which of itself means “the many” / “the masses” / “the people”. I do see / hear “the hoi polloi” now and then, but consider it suboptimal. “Hoi polloi” stands alone for me.


Gordon Balfour Haynes, professional verbivore, Australia

Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

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#11 2008-06-18 18:48:34

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Here’s the entry on “hoi polloi” from Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English, a well-known American usage website:

Hoi polloi is Greek for “the common people,” but it is often misused to mean “the upper class” (does “hoi” make speakers think of “high” or “hoity-toity”?). Some urge that since “hoi” is the article “the hoi polloi” is redundant; but the general rule is that articles such as “the” and “a” in foreign language phrases cease to function as such in place names, brands, and catch phrases except for some of the most familiar ones in French and Spanish, where everyone recognizes “la”—for instance—as meaning “the.” “The El Nino” is redundant, but “the hoi polloi” is standard English.
http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/hoipolloi.html

The MWDEU editors have a somewhat different take, but I think they ultimately agree, more or less, with Brians, admitting “hoi polloi” without the article as a possibility but favoring the version with “the.” They write

Hoi polloi without the is certainly standard, but it sometimes has an unidiomatic ring to it (Bernstein 1977 [his Do’s, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage] describes it as “clumsy”).

For me, naked “hoi polloi” just feels, well, naked.

Last edited by patschwieterman (2008-06-18 18:48:56)

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#12 2008-06-18 19:56:03

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1762
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Probably been discussed here somewhere already, but for many hoi polloi means “the muckety-mucks, the up-and-ups, the elite”. —D’oh, somehow skipped that you’d just quoted Brians’ on that….Yes, I think hoity-toity is somehow involved.

I’ve always wondered what the singular form was — can you speak of a ho pollos ?? (Yes, an indefinite article besides the definite one, but anyway!)

Last edited by DavidTuggy (2008-06-18 20:02:25)


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#13 2008-06-19 03:48:51

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2131

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

In Classical and Hellenistic Greek the singular is ho polus in the masc. nominative. Polus is just an ordinary adjective in Greek-it takes the gender, case and number of the noun it modifies. Polus frequently modifies singular nouns. When it does, we can’t translate it with the English word “many,” of course, since “many” in English can only modify a plural noun. The translation of the singular adjective would have to be something like “great,” “large,” “long,” or “strong,” depending on the context.

Like most Greek adjectives, polus can be used substantively, without the noun it replaces. So yes, it would not be unusual to see ho polus, he polle, to polu (masc, fem, neut singular) in Greek. When the masc. plural, polloi, is used substantively, with the meaning “many (people),” it is often used without the article. Those who lifted it in the nineteenth century to make an English idiom could have said “the polloi” just as correctly as “the hoi polloi.” By bringing over the Greek article along with the substantized adjective they stoked the fires of prescriptivism.

Last edited by kem (2008-06-19 03:49:59)

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#14 2008-06-19 14:40:59

JonW719
Eggcornista
From: Colorado
Registered: 2007-09-05
Posts: 285

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

I kind of like “the polloi.”

kem, I’ve complimented your writing before (you have come up with some beautifully worded truisms that I’ve commented on). And you know Greek, too! I appreciate your contributions to the forum and invariably learn something from them.


Feeling quite combobulated.

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#15 2008-06-19 16:48:15

TootsNYC
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-06-19
Posts: 263

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

I always think “hoi polloi” sounds sort of onomatopoeic.

And I do know what you mean, Pat, about people w/ perfect mechanisms and no depth. I have always considered my undergrad degree to be a teeny bit cheapened bcs I graduated w/ someone like that—and unfortunately he was not capable of even understanding why his 1-page, perfectly punctuated story was not worthy of consideration as an “in-depth feature article.”

So, yes, I can see.

But surely, on an application, which is such a one-shot, they’d avoid the most egregious problems?

I’ll admit—I hire copyeditors, not thinkers, so those standards work well for me.

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#16 2008-06-19 16:58:11

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1762
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

ho polus would mean something like “the numerous one” —”great” or “strong” or “strict” come up as translations when the word refers to emotions or qualities like anger, suffering, wisdom or self-control. When referring to a person it appears to have meant “the prolific/profuse one” (Clement—”Do not be polus in speech, do not gossip”). I was trying to invent a bastardized back-formation to mean “a man of the people, a plebe, one of the polloi”. (fwiw)

Last edited by DavidTuggy (2008-06-19 17:03:00)


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#17 2008-06-19 19:15:33

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2131

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

I see what you are getting at, David. Calling what you are looking for a “bastardized back-formation” is exactly right. Hoi polloi has taken on a life of its own in English, wandering through semantic deserts where no Greek would ever have gone. I think the expression may have wandered too far away from its fons et origo to tap the source a second time. But if you want to try something grammatically sound on your erudite friends, you could refer to “eis ton pollon,” one of the polloi.

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#18 2008-06-19 19:31:52

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1762
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich (the main lexicon I have available at the moment) gives ‘the many’ (people, or whatever) , ‘the majority’, ‘most people, the crowd’, as meanings for substantive (nominal) hoi polloi (as opposed to singulars, ta polla ‘many things’, and so forth. The standard English meanings aren’t terribly far from that.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#19 2008-06-19 20:04:29

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2131

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Thinking about hoi polloi again. It’s English pronunciation is a good indication that it is a late borrowing. The majority of Greek loanwords in English arrived in twelfth through sixteenth centuries. European scholars in that period learned their Greek from Greek teaching masters who came from Greece or the Greek colonies and who pronounced their Greek in a way that is close to modern Greek. This is why, for example, loanwords deriving from Greek words that have an upsilon usually pronounce the letter transcribing the upsilon with a short i sound (The word “physics,” with its short i sound for the “y,” is derived from the Greek word for nature, “phusis.” The native Greek teachers of the medieval/early Renaissance periods would have pronounced that word “fis-is” or “fee-sis.”). Late Renaissance scholars, arguing that classical Greek was pronounced in a different way than sixteenth century Greek, came up with artificial pronunciations systems for classical Greek. The so-called “Erasmian pronunciation” eventually became the standard pronunciation for the classroom Greek of English Enlightenment scholarship. These English classical scholars would have pronounced hoi polloi as “hoy pahloy.” Which is why we pronounce the late loanword the same way. In modern Greek, and presumably in the Greek of the early Renaissance, the phrase is/was pronounced “hee pohlee.” If we had borrowed hoi polloi in the sixteenth century, we would probably not pronounce the loanword the way we do.

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#20 2008-06-19 20:10:11

TootsNYC
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-06-19
Posts: 263

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

kem wrote:

Thinking about hoi polloi again. It’s English pronunciation . . . In modern Greek, and presumably in the Greek of the early Renaissance, the phrase is/was pronounced “hee pohlee.” If we had borrowed hoi polloi in the sixteenth century, we would probably not pronounce the loanword the way we do.

Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term—only read it. The only pronunciation of it I’ve encountered was in my own head.

But you know, “hee pohlee” is sort of onomatopoeic, too.

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#21 2008-06-19 20:16:45

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2131

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

The standard English meanings aren’t terribly far from that.

Perhaps I’m not that familiar with the English phrase “hoi polloi.” To me it has always had a distinctly negative connotation. Something like “the rabble.” The word “polloi” in Classical and Hellenistic Greek did not usually have a negative connotation. In the lingo of Athenian politics, for example, the “polloi” were the democratic majority, who were often opposed by the “oligoi”, the power hungry elite.

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#22 2008-06-19 20:28:21

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1762
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Yes, I recognize that negative tinge. B-A-G lists hoi polloi as occurring “W. a connotation of disapproval most people, the crowd ” in Socrates, Epistles 6, 2 (maybe Socrates’, maybe not?), St. Paul (2 Cor 2.17), Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, Plutarch, and a handful of others.

But the negativeness is (in my English, anyway) more a tinge than a central specification. Perhaps it is still there in the modern meaning “the up-and-ups”, but I sense it may have turned around there: the “hoi polloi” are the special ones (whether that is meant facetiously or not), viewed rather positively. And of course many political theories do see the masses/proletariat/polloi as virtuous and the oligoi as, as you called them, the (negatively viewed) power-hungry ones.

Last edited by DavidTuggy (2008-06-19 20:33:01)


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#23 2008-06-20 02:44:53

Verbivore
Member
From: Australia
Registered: 2008-02-22
Posts: 7
Website

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Interesting discussion of “hoi polloi”. Thanks, folks – food for thought.

Many of the comments made re the (mis-)application of the term also apply to Australian usage. One of my observations is that those in Oz who (mis-)use it to mean “the nobs” / “hoity-toity” almost invariably precede it with “the”, but when I hear or read the term as used by more informed folk (defined by the meaning/s they attach to it) “the” is generally missing.

Perhaps this difference is real – or perhaps I have selective hearing / vision.

Apologies if I’ve upset anyone with my diversion.


Gordon Balfour Haynes, professional verbivore, Australia

Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

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#24 2008-06-20 09:21:04

patschwieterman
Administrator
From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Susan Stamberg's prescriptivist leanings

Verbivore wrote

One of my observations is that those in Oz who (mis-)use it to mean “the nobs” / “hoity-toity” almost invariably precede it with “the”, but when I hear or read the term as used by more informed folk (defined by the meaning/s they attach to it) “the” is generally missing.

I almost never see/hear “hoi polloi” without the article, so I can’t speak to this from experience. But Verbivore’s observation seems reasonable to me—it sounds like a case of duelling misconceptions. Those unfamiliar with Greek and the Greek meaning of “hoi polloi” are likely to be familiar only with the “the hoi polloi” form of the idiom because it’s so much more widespread. And they’re also far more likely to get the meaning of the phrase wrong than those who’ve studied Greek. And those familiar with Greek are probably more likely to believe erroneously that “the hoi polloi” is incorrect in English—which leads them to choose the rarer form of the phrase.

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