The Pedants' Revolt

by Mary Jackson (August 2007)

 

Question: Who led the pedants’ revolt?

Answer: Which Tyler. 

 

How pedantic are you? How pedantic should you be? When it comes to errors, the fewer the better, but when it comes to pedantry, less is more. None of us has the balance exactly right, and we all have our pet hates.

 

The pedant in me is roused to fury by a common mistake that we see regularly in the quality press: the blurring of the distinction between “may” and “might”. Here is an example from a piece in The Telegraph (my emphasis):

The July 7 London bombings may have been prevented had more resources been made available sooner, an official report into the circumstances leading to the attacks has claimed.

Repeat after me: "might have", not "may have".

The bombings were not prevented. The matter is not in doubt. "May have" suggests that the outcome is uncertain, that we don't know where we are. "Might have" is needed where we know what happened; we know where we are but are considering the road not taken.  I may have won the lottery. I don't know yet. I haven't checked my numbers. Had I chosen the right numbers last week, I might have won the lottery. But I didn't. So I didn't. If I had, I might have bought the Telegraph newspaper lock, stock and barrel, and sacked the writer of this piece.

The distinction between "may have" and "might have" is an important one. It is not just a grammatical quibble; the meaning is affected. In the case of my lottery example above, it is the difference between the hope of winning and the knowledge that all hope is lost, for want of a better choice of numbers. The difference could be millions of pounds.

Get a life, you may be thinking. Or indeed might have thought, had you been uncharitable. Oh, but a life where this distinction doesn't matter? That is no life at all. Here is Charles Moore:

A retired Scottish schoolmaster sends me his learned contribution to the debate in this column about the use of ‘may’ and ‘might’. Using the example cited by Philip Pullman of the difference between ‘Napoleon may have had homosexual tendencies’ and ‘Wellington might have avoided the Battle of Waterloo’, he writes that the difference ‘is, in effect what we Classicists call the principal clause (apodosis) of an unfulfilled past conditional sentence, with the omission/ suppression of the If clause (called the protasis)’. I think this should be the last word on the subject.

He has a point. Perhaps it is time to move on and harumph about something else. And I know just the thing. On hearing that Omar Bakri, the radical cleric was trapped in Beirut and banned from a Royal Navy rescue ship a reader commented:

He made his bed. Now he should just lay in it.

I wish I wore a monocle, which at times like these could drop out of my astonished eye into my tea. "Harumph!" doesn't begin to cover it. This calls for a "corrwumph!" or a "pah!" or, if I'm pushing the boat out, a "pshaw!"

"Lie", not "lay", you blithering idiot. "Lay" is transitive or past tense. Not for bonnie Annie Laurie, but for a an edit button, I'd lay me down and die.

How far should we take this kind of thing? Should we throw bricks through the windows of “greengrocer’s” who sell “apple’s and pear’s” or supermarkets where we must queue at the till marked “five items or less”? Or should we stay calm and remember an iron law, Sod's Law of Pedantry*, which states that whenever you criticise someone's spelling or grammar, there will be a mistake in your own. Getting on one's high horse about this kind of thing is not generally advised: there is a long way to fall.

As well as slip-ups, typos and other minor errors to which the pedant often falls prey, there is the trap of hypercorrection: the pedant corrects “a speaker whom, I believe, has made a mistake,” when in fact the pedant has made the mistake and should have said “who”. Or perhaps the MP for Upper Stickler calls on our Prime Minister to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, stating, pedantically but wrongly, that “referenda are essential in matters affecting our sovereignty.” (“Referendums” is correct, partly because “referendum” is an anglicised Latin gerund and has no plural, but mainly because it is now an English word.)

We can take our Latin endings too far. Readers may have heard the story of the Cambridge mathematician, who wrote to another suggesting they should meet to discuss "some conundra about pendula", and received the reply: "Surely we have better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than sitting on our ba doing sa." And as for the word “graffito”, according to Simon O’Hagan of The Independent, the writing is on the wall:

When is something right even when it is wrong? Or, to put it another way, when is something not wrong even when it is, er, wrong? My questions are prompted by emails I received recently from two readers - Robert Page of Bridgwater and Helen Annis of north London - after I treated the word "graffiti" as a singular.

"Surely you know that, like data, media and criteria, graffiti are plural!" Mr Page wrote. "You surely know that `graffiti' is the plural of "graffito", wrote Dr Annis. Now I can tell you that you don't get to be the Readers' Editor of The Independent on Sunday without possessing a healthy (or even unhealthy) streak of pedantry. But in this instance I fear I part company with strict grammarians. Graffito is, of course, technically correct, but when did you ever hear anyone use the word? I would argue that as a foreign word that has been incorporated into English, graffiti - like spaghetti - has ceased to count as a plural. The spaghetti were delicious? I don't think so.

"Spaghetto" would certainly sound rather singular. However, they do say – well, at least Robert M. Genta, writing in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences, says – that “a spaghetto a day keeps allergies away.” I wonder if he is the only Gentum to have said this.

In agruing* that “the foreign word has been incorporated into English”, Simon O’Hagan makes a good point about why pedantry can be excessive and even wrong: it fails to take account of how words - our perception of their meaning and even their constituent parts (roots, prefixes and suffixes) - change over time.  I remember an old English teacher who fell into this trap. (For the benefit of the pedants, the teacher was old; she didn’t teach us Anglo-Saxon.) She insisted that we spell “bus” with an initial apostrophe. Stating the obvious, she said “bus” was short for “omnibus”. It was, certainly, but it isn’t anymore; it’s a word in its own right. It wasn’t really – at least not only - short for omibus back when A. D. Godley (1856 – 1925) gave it new Latin life in his macaronic on the motor bus:

"What is it that roareth thus? / Can it be a Motor Bus?/ Yes, the smell and hideous hum/ Indicat Motorem Bum! /// Thus I sang; and still anigh / Came in hordes Motores Bi, / Et complebat omne forum / Copia Motorum Borum."

No doubt his macaronic was inspired by all those spaghetti.

Pedantry can be misplaced and muddled. In a recent piece in The Spectator, Graham Lord harrumphed about how we, like, don’t talk proper anymore innit: 

Nobody under the age of 40, for instance, even in middle-class families, would dream nowadays of saying ‘my friend and I went down to the pub’: now it’s ‘me and my friend’ or ‘her and myself gone dahn a boozer’.


Nobody under the age of 40 ever uses the words ‘said’ or ‘says’ any more: it’s always ‘go’, ‘is’ or ‘went’: ‘So ’im and me goes dahn a boozer an’ ’e’s like, “Hey, man, check the babe in the corner!” an’ I go, “**** me! I’m in love,” an’ ’e went, “Hands off, man, I saw her first” so I’m like, “Too bad, man, she’s mine.”’


Carelessness about our beautiful language is sprouting everywhere, even among the allegedly intelligent. Sheer ignorance, for instance, has changed the word ‘disinterested’, which means neutral or unbiased but is now widely used to mean ‘uninterested’. ‘Decimated’ means ‘reduced by one tenth’ but is now used constantly to mean ‘obliterated’. Originally ‘prestigious’ meant dodgy or deceitful but most people nowadays seem to think that it means ‘full of prestige’.


Such irritations, however, are insignificant by comparison with some truly dreadful modern horrors: the nouns (like gift) that are now being used as verbs; the ‘must-have’ gadgets; the BBC Wimbledon commentator who remarked that the challenge faced by one player ‘was a tough ask’ but another was ‘do-able’.

 

I wonder if Mr Lord would describe “her”, in the – highly improbable - utterance “her and myself gone dahn a boozer,” as a bit of a “hussy”. If so, does he object to the fact that the meaning of this word has changed from “mistress of the house” to “floozy” or “tart”? Without even realising it, Mr Lord has almost certainly used the word “realise” to mean "perceive suddenly", its usual meaning today. But his great great grandfather might have – indeed may have – objected to this newfangled usage, for at one time “realise” meant only “make real” or “bring about”.

 

Graham Lord and others do not object to language change per se, otherwise they would suggest that we all speak like Alfred the Great. Language change that is safely in the past bothers nobody. I have yet to find even a really pedantic German – and they are a pedantic bunch – who rails against the High German Sound Shift, or a pedantic Englishman who claims that the Great Vowel Shift was the worst thing that ever happened to us. No, what irks him, and me, and everyone who cares about language, is language change that is taking place in our own lifetime. I have come to terms with “disinterested”, after all we have other words, such as “impartial” to use for its old meaning. But I bristle at the confusion of “may” and “might, and about "impact" and "debate" used as transitive verbs, in the full knowledge this is not rational. Language change is inevitable, has always happened, has always irritated and will always irritate. It is neither decay nor progress, but process.

 

As well as failing to distinguish between change and decay, Lord does not distinguish colloquial registers from formal ones. For example, he objects to the word “do-able”. I would never use this word in a formal context, and would say it rather than write it, but it is a perfectly serviceable word. And there’s another. The word is, in New-Labour-Speak, “fit for purpose”. Context is all, and, in the end, usage is all.

 

Graham Lord makes some valid points in his article, which is worth reading in full. He is particularly perceptive on the “plague of perplexing prepositions”. Had he taken account of the matters I have raised, the piece might – yes, might not may - have been better.

 

Update 1: I take it all back. I have just received an angry email from a Mr Chaucer of London, complaining that the Great Vowel Shift was "wlatsome and abhominable". Well he would say that, wouldn't he?

 

Update 2*: In "argruing" [sic] about mistakes, I made one. Sod's Law of Pedantry in action, as several pedants noted in the comments. [Sic] transit....

 

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