Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kipatrick is at it again

James Kilpatrick has again donned his judge's robe to pronounce on those uses of English he deems perfidious. In my morning Dispatch, he condemned to death the phrase "as of yet," as when used in locutions like "The sun has not risen as of yet." He notes that "as of" is unnecessary and he is quite right about that. The sentence, "The sun has not risen yet" gets across the same point in fewer words. Normally, I like to drub Kilpatrick around the ears for his pretentious offerings but he gets a gold star on this one. The problem is that often when there are two locutions saying the same thing where one does so with more words some secondary meaning is attached. Note that "He killed the mayor" and "He caused the mayor to come to be dead" differ in that the latter suggests the subject might have set the murder in motion without doing the dirty deed himself, whereas the former, while consistent with that, would normally be used when the subject directly killed the mayor. The same defense cannot be made for "as of" as far as I can see.

He also considers the odd couple, "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less." He's happy about having both in the language, claiming that the former expression "acknowledges some degree of concern" even if not much. Normally, when we have two propositions, "P" and "not P," they contradict each other. Construed literally, "I could care less about John" entails that the speaker is capable of caring less than he or she does about John but, for one reason or another, doesn't happen to. This oddity seems to be restricted to "care."

Take another verb of "caring" like "love."
I could love Sally less.
I couldn't love Sally less.
The first of these sentences wouldn't normally be used as a put down but the latter works just as well as a put down as "I couldn't care less." What is true of "love" is true of "like" as well. Kilpatrick has missed the boat here. In my opinion, "I could care less" is the result of some blunder involving just the verb "care" that happened to catch on. I'm not going to condemn it to verbal hell but to suggest that it is some sort of garden variety English as Kilpatrick's "analysis" suggests, strikes me as very unKilpatrickan. He missed a great opportunity here.

What chaps my butt, however, is his return to the condemnation of the use of "they" as a generic singular pronoun, as in the case of a sentence like "When a person orders Chardonnay with roast beef, they should be thrown out of the joint." I have blogged on this before but a defense of "they" is worth repeating. The fact is that grammatically, a singular pronoun must be used -- either "he" or "she" -- in such a case but it won't do to put in "he" and it won't do to put in "she." We mean to be making a unisex claim here, that is to say, a claim applying to both males and females. We are stuck either with "he or she" or "she or he" or the stylistic barbarity "he/she" or "she/he." I think the person who first made the linguistic blunder of using "they" in general claims of this sort, should be give the Nobel Grammar Prize, not to be condemned to occupy whatever level of hell Kilpatrick means to condemn grammar felons to.

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Blogger Sean said...

I have to disagree with you on "as of yet." I find that those extra words add a sense of inevitability or some amount of subtle urgency, sometimes even mild and underlying annoyance, and I prefer to keep them. "The sun has not risen as of yet," or "Jesus has not arrived as of yet," or "As of yet I have no liver" all imply something different to me than "The sun has not risen yet," "Jesus has not arrived yet," and "Yet I have no liver." While a person may say "brevity is the soul of wit", They may be denying us some of that wit with this brevity.

PS Curious to see if people can turn this into a political issue :) I think I heard Donald Rumsfeld use “they” as a generic singular pronoun in an attempt to distract from general dissent. That sly devil...

4:08 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Don't have time to read the post right now, but I like the way the blog looks right now, except you might want to change the color of the links.

5:45 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Knowing that their writing may be read by a person who still gets their undies in a bunch of the singular usage of they, I teach my students to use it in conversation but to try to avoid it in writing. As of yet I have received no complaints!

(LG, great new theme for the blog! What happened to the interim post, though?)

11:51 PM

Blogger Eric Dutton said...

I've wondered about the "care less" thing before. There ought to be an OED of phrases with dates and quotes of first know usages. Is there one already?

Here's one I've often thought odd: how many courses of action do the following sentences seem to offer?
"You have no choice."
"You only have one choice."
"You have a choice."
"You have two choices."

I join you in your support of "they." I'm convinced that the grammar books will one day accept this usage as well.

3:04 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I don't know what happened to my blog and I don't know how I fixed it. I have been going through past blogs to bring back material shunted off to a web site (a measure I tried to shorten what appeared here) so I can get rid of the web site and to add Technorati tags to them when one of the old blogs became the "default" blog. No matter which blog I clicked on in the blog menu, I got this default one. I fixed it by creating a second blog and giving it a different template (which I quickly developed an intense dislike for) and magically this new template got applied to the old blog and the Groundhog Day blog ceased to be the default blog. Ihave since been trying to make the template tolerable. I know just enough CSS to get myself into a world of hurt.

8:00 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I'm certainly not qualified to enter into a debate on linguistics but...

Using 'they' in the way you are discussing seems perfectly appropriate to me.
As long as 'they' has already been defined in a particular sentence.

When 'they' is used as a generalization like, "Those damn Democrats, they are all out to ruin this country. They are all a bunch of librals."
'They' becomes 'them' which becomes the opposite of 'us' which means 'everyone else not in our group'.

BTW, I also recently had to change my template to fix my blog. Nothing I did, as I do nothing with my blog.

1:27 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what irks me is when people start a statement with "to tell you the truth" or "truthfully speaking" or something along those lines. You mean to say that normally you don't tell me the truth or what?

3:21 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

pf, you are right to wonder about this. These prefaces, along with "to be frank" or "to be honest," are quite odd. They all implicate that the speaker normally doesn't tell the truth, or is not frank, or is not honest. I doubt that the speakers would mean to be doing that (unless they aren't good at monitoring how they say what they say) and suspect that they reflect some uncertainty at how what they are about to say is going to be taken.

3:59 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Hmm, I can see looking at it that way but I guess I usually interpret such expressions (especially in the forms "to be completely frank" and "to be brutally honest") as indicating that some usual level of obfuscation maintained for politeness or out of consideration for others' feelings is about to set aside. I can't argue against the assertion then that the usual situation is (by strict definition) somewhat untruthful or dishonest, but complete honesty in all things doesn't win (or keep) you a lot of friends, eh?

5:17 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

All of the grammatical examples you gave are ones that I have often pondered myself, especially the "he/she" verses "they" debate. Being a foreign language major in college (French and Spanish), I'm familiar with languages that actually do have that neutral singular pronoun that the English language lacks, so I find it kind of frustrating to not have this useful piece of grammar in my native tongue. So for the sake of correctness (especially in writing) I usually use "he or she" instead of "they" in such situations, although I've been known to use "they" for oral communications.

6:53 PM

Blogger Chops said...

Sean compared these two sentances:

"As of yet I have no liver."
"Yet I have no liver."

Unlike the other examples provided, these don't seem to me to be at all alike. In the second sentance, I would interpret "yet" to mean "however", not "so far". Could this be a use for "as (of) yet"? Of course, "I have no liver yet" could also be used. This seems to me to imply an intention to get some liver, where "As (of) yet I have no liver" might imply only the possibility of having liver in the future.

10:08 PM

Blogger Lenoxus said...

If someone says "Let me tell you, I could love my wife a LOT less than I do", does that sound romantic? To me, the fact that he's contemplating loving her less as a genuine possibility inherently implies that his love, though great, isn't ironclad.

Likewise with "could" vs "couldn't" care less. If I not only care a lot about somethng but can't even imagine my attitude ever changing, it seems quite correct to say I couldn't care less. After all, what do people mean when they say "I could drink another glass of water"? Do they mean "I am thirsty", or merely "I am physically capable of drinking water, though it is possible I don't want any"?

I think that's how "could care less" came into being; the layers of negatives in "couldn't care less" is too confusing to work out in everyday speech.

2:13 PM


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