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In the Beginning, God said: “Let there be grammar!"

June 26, 2019

Following up my ravings last month about Benjamin Dreyer’s book subtitled "An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style", I have two words I wanted to discuss further: "Fulsome" and "Niceties." I gave Dreyer a hard time on the word "fulsome":

He’s not great on explaining his reasons for dislikes or for that matter his likes. His entry on the word "fulsome" misses the mark, I think, because he doesn’t seem to draw sharply the useful distinction between that word and the word "full." People use both to mean the same thing—all the time lately, I’m appalled to hear people on TV saying things like "He gave a fulsome report," to mean "He gave a thorough, complete, wonderfully inclusive report," but I was educated to take "fulsome" as a pejorative, meaning "disgusting, excessive, over the top."  Dreyer does advise to use it in that manner but doesn’t really explain the point of confusion with the word "full."

But I keep hearing it misused, especially on TV, by people who should (but don’t) realize that it means something like "ridiculously excessive" rather than the word of praise they think it means. I’ve probably heard it ten times since that article was published, and I haven’t heard it used correctly once.

I get annoyed by this misuse because in olden times (i.e., 1985 or so), "fulsome" used to be a useful word, but now it’s gotten so degraded by people misusing that I don’t want to touch it with a stick anymore. If I were to use "fulsome" to mean "nauseating," someone might think that the thing I was saying turned my stomach was actually a thing worthy of praise. It’s a subtle word, much more precise than "nauseating," "disgusting," "excessive," "over the top," because it’s not completely negative. It implies "full," which is normally a positive word, but the implication is a rare negative sense of "full," like the kind of full you are when you’ve eaten your sixth slice of pepperoni pizza and you say "I’m full." You don’t mean "full" in the same sense as when you’ve had only two slices of pizza, right? You’re full in the sense of "Oh, God, what a pig I am, I need to lie down for a while, does anyone have a Tums?" It’s not a good feeling, but now we can’t really use ‘fulsome’ that way because someone might think you’re happy when you’re on the verge of barfing your guts up. So I’ll probably use another word instead, and have that one stricken from my vocabulary for a while, the linguistic equivalent of Gresham’s Law. You know, the one about bad money driving good money out of circulation.

"Nicety" is going that way, too. Yesterday, I heard another talking head use it to mean "a nice thing someone says about someone else that is mildly insincere." The context was the upcoming Democratic debates, and the speaker was trying to say how bland this debate will be, where all the candidates have only pleasant things to say about each other. No Dem candidate will attack another one, so it will be difficult to tell where they really disagree on substantial issues—everyone is making nice, and that’s the sense that the word "niceties" was used: the quotation was something like, "They’ll all just be saying niceties about each other."

The problem is that the word "niceties" doesn’t mean anything like that. As with "fulsome" and "full" the words "nicety" and "niceness" bear a deceptively superficial similarity to each other. Fowler’s Modern English Usage puts it best:

Its primary sense is ‘subtlety, intricate quality,’ (a point of great nicety), a meaning not shared by niceness.

"Nicety" doesn’t apply, in other words, to Hillary Clinton pretending to like Bernie Sander’s healthcare policy in order to discourage Bernie Bros. from rushing the debate stage to tear her limb from limb. Rather, it might apply to Hillary making a distinction between, say, "healthcare for all" and "healthcare for all Americans." If she’s using the second phrase to leave doubts as to whether her own health-care plan would extend full benefits to foreigners residing in the U.S. temporarily, well, that might be a ‘nicety’ even if it wouldn’t be very nice.

"Nice" is a nice word—it used to be used in an entirely different sense than the one we commonly use it in now. In the Renaissance, when a writer used "nice," he often meant it in a pejorative sense, to mean "foolish, stupid, childish, dopey." Throughout the 20th century, however, "nice" has morphed into meaning "pleasant, good-natured, agreeable," which Fowler’s again declares is the "primary and unavoidable sense now." There was a long transitional period between the late Renaissance and the modern era when it was hard to tell which connotation a writer meant: "The precise development of the very divergent senses which this word has acquired in English," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "is not altogether clear. In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken."

Which is to say, that meanings and usages change over time, and controversies are eventually settled by popular choice, though that choice may require centuries rather than years or decades to take hold. I follow Mr. Dreyer on twitter, and I find to my sorrow that people often consult him as to which usage to adopt. Dreyer is able to instruct people to use one word rather than another, of course, but so is everyone else on this planet. This doesn’t stop him from opining, of course, but as I noted last month, his eagerness to opine implies no authority to do so.

Dreyer would rather spout a personal opinion than cite any basis or other authority. (His own authority is dubious, aside from holding the position of Random House’s copyediting Kahuna: he has very little professional or academic training in copy-editing, and seems to have worked for decades in other fields like the restaurant business before taking a congenial position as a free-lance copyeditor, a position open to any faintly literate person who enjoys the challenge of finding typos and consulting arcane grammar books. Eventually, because he was good at copy-editing, he worked his way up to being copy chief at a major publisher, no little achievement, but he seems not to have had, nor to want, any systematic training, which is why he cites his own sense of propriety so often—"I like this usage," "I don’t care for that usage" sort of thing.  (I agree with Dreyer, though it might seem otherwise, on the vast majority of his gut positions—the elimination of meaningless filler words such as "really," "actually," "rather," and "of course," and weak intensifying adverbs such as "quite," "very," and "somewhat," for example. I simply prefer to cite precedent or authoritative reasons for my opinions rather than my own capacious gut.)  I think Dreyer exemplifies the mistrust that Bill often expresses on this site (and with which I often disagree) for expertise: Dreyer is an expert in "utterly correct style" mainly because he says he is one.  I prefer, as Bill often insists, on being shown HOW an expert’s conclusion is reached, rather than just being informed that it has been reached, and on occasion, dissenting from the expert’s position if I don’t find it persuasive.

Dreyer likes spouting opinions: today’s controversy concerns the preferred spelling of "advisor" and "adviser." Dreyer holds the opinion that one or the other is to be preferred—I forget which he favors, and can only say for myself that both are in widespread use nowadays. We’ll need to wait to see which one triumphs, and when, though I don’t expect to live that long.

Opining on such matters is nice, in the archaic sense of "nice." OK, I just looked up Dreyer’s advice on "advisor/adviser" (a word that crops up frequently in academe, btw, because it’s an official title in some universities, and I’ve seen it spelled both ways within a single document).  Here it is: .  So Dreyer prefers "adviser," but asks for professional lexicographers’ advice, always a sign that someone’s authority is weak. I find Dreyer’s advantage over established authorities is simply his willingness to admit openly that he’s winging it, that his opinions are based on no real authority, and are just an outgrowth of his years editing books and making judgments on the fly, to which I say, with a shrug, "Lots of people with copyediting experience and strong opinions disagree with you." I’ve been citing Fowler (properly The New Fowler’s English Modern Usage, 3rd edition, edited by R.W. Burchfield and published by Oxford UP in 1996), mostly because I’ve been packing up (and throwing out) books all week long, as I slowly move my residence from New York State to Florida, reading many of the books I’m supposedly plucking form my shelves and depositing in boxes. I much prefer it to Dreyer’s book.

I prefer Fowler’s, because it cites authorities and sources for its judgments, rather than simply issuing edicts as Dreyer does repeatedly. The word "sailor," which has some parallels with "advisor," a sailor being one who sails, as an advisor is one who advises, is spelled that way, not out of common sense (which would dictate "sailer") but out of convention. Burchfield, however, does allow that there are some senses that "sailer" is to be preferred: in speaking of a ship, for example, "She is a slow sailer" makes more sense than "sailor," which could be confused with a woman rather than a ship.

If a fastball were to get away from a catcher, an announcer might say that that fastball was a sailer, i.e. one that sailed off from its intended target. The colloquial use of the word in that sense returns us to baseball, which is where I was slowly sailing. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen TV commentators evolve from being mostly well-spoken men trained in journalism to not-very-articulate men trained in playing baseball, and I think this has been common not only in baseball, but in all sports, and in much of journalism. Knowing how to express oneself, in other words, is now considered a marginally useful skill in announcing a baseball game. The formula at work in the Mets’ games I watch on TV when I’m in New York is pretty evenly split up: Gary Cohen, a graduate of Columbia College and a man who chooses his words with care, is the lead announcer who shares his duties with Ron Darling, a Yale graduate and reasonably well-spoken, or Keith Hernandez, a Civil War buff and graduate of the Dizzy Dean "Slud" School of Broadcasting. Keith has a way of getting tangled up in his words on-air, of using words whose meaning he’s only guessing at.

In last night’s game, Keith asked, "Why would you throw a changeup to a pitcher?" and immediately followed up that question by adding "That’s a valid question." He didn’t mean "valid," exactly. I guess he could have meant "valid" if his interlocutor, Mr. Cohen, had questioned its validity, but no, Keith was trying to clarify the sincerity of his question. I might have chosen the adjective "sincere" rather than "valid." His point was just that he was genuinely asking the question of why pitchers are ever thrown changeups, though like Pontius Pilate or Rudy Giuliani, he did not stay for an answer. Maybe "legitimate" or "serious" are better adjectives, distinguishing the question from a purely rhetorical one, although I’m sure no listener was very severely puzzled by the point he was trying to make. My point here (and I could have chosen several dozen other examples of his using approximate language) is that Keith Hernandez is not trained in choosing his words precisely, and so he often uses language, let us say, imaginatively on the air. (There are all sorts of answers to his question, aren’t there? You might throw a changeup to a pitcher because you see him starting his swing super early, trying to catch up to all the fastballs you’re blowing by him, or you might want to throw a ball in the dirt—say, with an 0-2 count and no runners on base-- so a change in speed might be your best waste pitch, or any number of answers to Keith’s question, which never got discussed. Obviously, the pitcher who threw the changeup to the opposing pitcher had something in mind when he made that choice, so perhaps an interesting discussion could have been had, if he’d wanted a discussion.) The Mets’ broadcasting team is far from the worst in baseball, but I do need to question the degree to which ex-ballplayers tend to dominate the conversation.

I understand their role as "color" men. It’s great, perhaps essential, to feature ex-ballplayers in the booth to get the players’ perspective, but if they play too large a role in the broadcast, blathering hither and yon, chattering away ceaselessly, it grates on the ear. When I write this way, as I’ve done in the past, the comments section features a refrain defending the ex-players: "It’s hard to speak off-the-cuff for hours on end, night after night, without making verbal mistakes, or repeating the same stories over and over, or getting tangled up in syntax, or letting your sentences trail off without reaching a perceptible point, or…" and I get that too: performing is a tough gig, and improv is even tougher, but that’s why professional performers get the big bucks.

The two skill-sets, playing MLB and broadcasting, have virtually no overlap. Expecting an ex-player to display great gifts as an improvisational raconteur is like expecting a five-star pastry chef to lecture on theoretical physics in his spare time. If you find one who is gifted in both fields, sign him up, of course, but that’s very rare. Better to take the rare ballplayer who has some verbal potential, and train him rigorously for a year or two or three.

The odds are very much against a Keith Hernandez taking kindly to the suggestion that he take elocution lessons, and a course or two in composing sentences, plus some instruction in journalism, and so on, as a condition to getting a broadcasting contract but aren’t there plenty of ex-players who’d want the gig?  How many well-paying jobs are there in the world where you DON’T need extensive training, whether it’s academic or just working your way up through the ranks? You can bet both buttocks that every team’s main broadcaster didn’t enter the business on the major-league level. But it’s very rare—I can’t think of one example, off the top of my shiny skull--for an ex-player color man to get any sort of training before taking the major-league entry level position he now holds.

Why the need to have the ex-players be star ex-players? I realize that Keith Hernandez, or Jim Kaat, or Sandy Koufax, or Pee Wee Reese or other stars who went directly into the broadcasting booth are pre-sold commodities, stars who require no introduction to their audience, but I would think that being a star does very little good in terms of their ability to speak in public, or to think. Quite the opposite, I would assume: seems to me that a scrub would be at least as good at putting into words some of the fine points of the game because throughout their playing careers they HAD to think of solutions to the problems that they faced, while star players, gifted with great physical abilities, were able to slide on strategies. I’m pretty sure that what Keith and his ilk are peddling is their celebrity, not their qualifications, baseball or otherwise.

Sorry—didn’t mean to slag on Keith for so long. What I think would be a practical measure would be to have him read through Strunk & White or, better yet, Dreyer, or (now I’m being serious) best of all, a thick book like Fowler’s, just carry it around with him, tuck it under his pillow at night when he’s too sleepy to read, and to pay attention to its advice in using the English language.

I admit that I’m going on about this just because I’m moving house (it’s a year-long project, and I’m not halfway through the year) and I came across my old copy of Fowler’s (3rd ed.) which I’ve been reading myself as I fall asleep at night. It is a TERRIFIC read, especially in contrast to Dreyer’s droning advice on his personal preferences, and I learn things every time I crack its thick spine. It has two major drawbacks: it’s been surpassed by the 4th edition (editor Burchfield died around 2003) so some of its precepts may be out of date, and it’s written for a British audience (Oxford UP, doncha know?) so it addresses American usage (very thoroughly) but in a context of world-wide speakers of English. You may not care to know how words are used in Britain, so parts of this book might not appeal to you, but to me it’s all a part of etymology and how our usage in the U.S. diverged from (and sometimes preserved) British usage.  

An example of this is the use of "loan" as a verb. To me, this is a barbarism, because we have a perfectly good form of the word that functions as a verb, namely "lend."  "Lend" is a verb, "loan" is a noun, and never the twain shall meet, right? Except in the U.S. (Burchfield writes "Fowler’s verdict is the right one," namely that "loan as a verb… is predominately American.") We are the usage-slobs of the English-speaking world—that’s my own value judgment, not that of Burchfield, who simply tells where various usages appear, where they will and won’t be standard, when they started appearing in different contexts, etc. Far from the scold that Dreyer seems to relish in being, Burchfield explains patiently, with examples, how words are used in the late 20th century, as only befits a book entitled Modern English Usage.

I hear people on TV using "loan" as a verb all the time, so it grates on me less and less, but it’s still a marker: when I hear someone who distinguishes between  "loan" and "lend" I make a simple mental note ("He knows his stuff" or "I can trust him in other language-related areas," or other shorthand for "He’s ok") but I don’t judge him personally in other ways. Lots of people are less-than-professional users of the language—that’s where the word "demotic" comes from, "demos," the people—but markers like this, telling the difference between "fewer" and "less" and a thousand other distinctions for those who care about such things, are all presented clearly and authoritatively in alphabetical order in Fowler’s.

The alphabetical order marks Fowler’s as a reference guide, rather than as a kind of narrative order such as Dreyer uses, making Dreyer more readable, I suppose, and the source of much of his appeal. He tells a story, though it’s a fragmented story, much of which I couldn’t really care less about (how he came to copy-editing, "interesting" details about Random House’s peculiar operation, Dreyer’s tastes in film and art, etc.) Fowler’s is impersonal, but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I could spend hours thumbing through Fowler’s, while Dreyer’s English makes me want to stab my eyes out after five minutes.

 Here’s a recent broadcast of Dreyer being interviewed by a Brit, who seems to approve of him more than I do. Almost everybody does, which I suppose is why I’m devoting a second article to him—I just don’t get all the love.  You may prefer Dreyer’s way of advising people on usage to Fowler’s—certainly that seems to be the general response. Maybe he smells like lilacs, or has kittens on both shoulders, and I’m just blind to the kittens and stuffed-up where the lilacs are concerned.

And one afterthought: I don’t really miss Howard Cosell, who had all sorts of training in language and law, though I do miss Keith Jackson and other professional broadcasters, men with pleasant baritone voices who were capable of narrating a baseball game clearly and neutrally. There are a few ex-players who are good (mostly on Yankees’ broadcasts, such as Ken Singleton, who seems okay on the few occasions I’ve tuned in, and especially David Cone, who’s unusually intelligent and articulate—to say nothing of friendly to sabermetric analysis). With blowhards like Cosell, and with Schtickmeisters like McCarver, a little bit of their blowing and their schticklach goes a very long way. I suppose that what I’m yearning for is "formality" or "impersonal commentary," both in broadcasters and in writers of usage texts. I do it a lot myself, I know, so I’m no one to talk, but what I want is the substance itself, and not all sorts of diversionary personal stories rattling on and on without giving the primary substantial product I’m there for in the first place: useful, informed, lucid commentary on the baseball game in progress or the language I am using.

I get this (or got this—gotta watch my tenses here) from my students increasingly in recent years. I ask them to write a formal essay, and invariably what I get is a personal essay. When I explain what the difference is,  I would still get 90% personal essays. When I ask for an analysis of a specific text, for example, what I’ll get back will as likely as not begin "When I started reading this article, I got confused, so I got myself a can of Pepsi and I went out for a walk…." What my students, and Keith Hernandez, and Benjamin Dreyer (and I, I suppose) have in common is a great difficulty letting go of themselves as their primary subject and a great tendency to turn every piece of writing into a personal memoir, which robs us of the benefit of their thinking on subjects other than themselves. Is that the price we pay for living in 2019? Have we outlived formal, objective analyses? I hope not.


COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
I've got a crazy little idea about continuing these non-baseball articles: for a little while, I'm not going to submit them as new articles, but instead publish them in the "Comments" section of this article. Between Bill's baseball polls and his political polls, competing articles will appear on the front page for a very short while anyway, and this way, I won't have to worry that I'm annoying anyone by writing off-topic.

You might have to scroll to see if I've thought of some new observation, but you'd have to do that anyway to find anything besides Bill's latest sixteen polls.
7:46 AM Jul 4th
Steven Goldleaf
Just saw a beautiful illustration of confusing "then" and ""than": someone wrote
"I'd rather be pissed off, then pissed on." No, if you're already pissed off, that's probably the last thing you want.

Also, a funny thing happened in the pool, this one about over-using pronouns. I was talking about Roger Kahn with a guy who told me his brother (who was in the pool with us) had his mother as his high-school English teacher. I asked the brother how it was having his own mother as his high-school English teacher, and he looked at me cockeyed. "My mother?" he said. "She was illiterate, barely spoke English." Turns out he had KAHN's mother as his teacher.
5:00 AM Jul 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
The Kamala Konfusion deepens.

A quote in NEW YORK mag explains the ambiguity:

After the debate, Harris explained that she misinterpreted the question to be whether she would give up her own personal insurance for a government plan. Lester Holt asked, “Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer. Who here would abolish their health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” The wording of the question was subject to misinterpretation, and turned on the ambiguity of “their.”

Holt's question contained several ambiguities: "their employer" implies that the millions watching at home have the same singular employer, which would be a REALLY big factory. He meant "employers." The problem with "abolish their health insurance" is only partly fixed by changing "their" to "his or her"--Holt also needed a reflexive "his or her own" to mean the 10 Democratic candidates, which he probably (sorry, Kamala) didn't mean. You don't really "abolish" your own health insurance, not even if you're a US Senator. What you abolish is "everyone's" or "people's" health insurance.

The ambiguity can be directly traced, however, to idiots' terror of pronouns--the "if I use 'they' for every third-person pronoun, then I can't be wrong" principle. Except, idiot, you can.
6:23 AM Jul 1st
If the 't' of 'often' is pronounced, the pun that W. S. Gilbert beats to death in The Pirates of Penzance is lost. This is far too high a price to pay.
5:41 PM Jun 30th
I just saw somebody on TV sharing a "personal antidote."
Which reminded me of someone else's discussion a few days ago about "the semantics of traveling" overseas.
4:40 PM Jun 30th
The way I think about "transpire" is to remember that experiment we all did in school with the celery stalk and the tomato juice. When the red color climbed up the celery stalk, that was transpiration. Something that gradually became visible, or apparent — the verb "to surface" is what I think of as the closest synonym. I also like the concept of "revelation," is also good, as Steven offered.

... It's not a "blessing in disguise" if the blessing is clearly obvious.
... It's not a "win-win situation" without some kind of negotiation. If Grandma gives $100 to her grandson and also to her granddaughter, that is not "win-win."
... Parameters are not boundaries. If you are asking yourself, "Should I use the word parameters?" then you should first ask yourself, "Do I get excited about doing math?" Both questions have the same answer.
... The phrase "I literally died" can only be used properly by someone who has undergone cardiac or respiratory resuscitation, and not by anybody else.
... The English language does not accent the final syllable of homage, just as it does not accent the final syllable of attention or million, and it does pronounce the last two letters of restaurant. Pretentious is not the same thing as sophisticated. OMM•idge. I can't think of any English syllable pronounced MAHZH that is not followed by ONG.

I am going to dedicate this spelling and usage tip Benjamin Dreyer....
The proper spelling of gray or gray is to be determined as followed:
In reference to hair color, the proper spelling is GRAY.
For all other uses, the proper spelling is GREY.
Because, well, isn't it obvious? What are we? Barbarians?

1:29 PM Jun 30th
Steven Goldleaf
"Too many writers use it as an uppity synonym for "happen." Turning a unique, useful word..." You're saying that the element of secrecy in "transpire" distinguishes it from "occur" or "happen," right? "Transpire" has a connotation of revelation? Interesting.
5:55 AM Jun 30th
"Transpire" is a word we need to reclaim. Too many writers use it as an uppity synonym for "happen." Turning a unique, useful word into a substitute for a common one just so you can sound like Howard Cosell talking to himself is a bad idea.

If one were to write something like "It transpired that the President initiated some activity of questionable legality ..." someone reading that history would say "Wow! How'd he get away with that?"
"Because hardly anybody knew about it at the time."
"Why didn't this author say so?"
"He did say so!"

8:16 PM Jun 29th
Steven Goldleaf
You misspelled "gray"! You must not do this!

I try to squeeze in the concept of "shades of meaning" to my students. One professional complaint of mine, btw, is when I get introduced to people as "an English professor," something I try to dissuade the introducer from doing, the most typical response is something like, "Oh, I'd better watch my grammar," to which my riposte is typically "Not unless you want to pay me my freelance editing rate, which is x" (I make up some number, like $140/hour, that sounds realistic but crazy-high at the same time.) It's funny how often I get this. The whole idea of knowing something about usage is not to correct people, but to make private assessments about people's education levels, command of vocabulary, pretentiousness levels, reasoning skills, etc. I'm always amazed how easy it is to assess these things on only a few minutes of casual conversation, but I wouldn't share any of this stuff under torture. The Idiot-in-Chief has no idea what he's revealing about his own educational limits when he claims "I have the best words." Yeah, all 500 of them.
7:53 AM Jun 29th
I like to think of bemused as the union of befuddled and confused — the more extreme version of confusion (which of course is not "bemusion," but "bemusement.") But there's also that pesky M in the middle of "bemuse."... Ah, yes: flummoxed. (The word "be•FLUM" is just waiting to be coined!) Has anyone ever heard the active verb "bemuse" in conversation, as in "I wonder if Marianne Williamson was trying to bemuse us all nearly every time she spoke"?

Does it annoy anyone else to hear so many people pronounce the word "often" with an audible "T"? I just checked online, to make sure it hadn't changed, and (using € to stand in for a schwa) the preferred pronunciation is still OFF•€n. OFF•t€n is listed as an alternate pronunciation, but I'm also pretty sure that anything "preferred" would still be preferable. And a lot of people don't even use the schwa, but say OFF•tin, giving that syllable a secondary accent. I think the T in often now bothers me more than the X in et cetera, because "eck cetera" is more an uncorrected childhood habit, while "OFF•tin" seems like a deliberate choice.

In looking that up, I saw Merriam-Webster's "word of the day" was higgledy-piggledy, meaning "in a confused or disordered manner." So "higgledy-piggledy" shares with "bemused" the synonym "confused," but is not itself a synonym of "bemused." I wonder how often English teachers discuss "shades of meaning" as a concept. I'm not saying mine did, back in the day. But there are a lot more ways for imprecise meaning to get a person in trouble than when I was in school. And for the same reason, it has become quite a bit more important to appreciate that that many questions have answers that fall between polar extremes. A person who understands shades of meaning has already learned about shades of grey.

(Please insert your own Grateful Dead reference.)
5:23 AM Jun 29th
Peeve, singular. Stupid fat forefinger.
10:43 PM Jun 28th
Along similar lines to "nicety" and "fulsome," my personal pet peeves is the consistent misuse of "bemused," which absolutely is not a synonym for "amused."
10:42 PM Jun 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, another political note: last night, Kamala Harris seems to have made some trouble for herself when she was asked about abandoning private health insurance that was DIRECTLY traceable to a grammatical issue I brought up in my previous savaging of Dreyer: the singular "they."

Harris says she interpreted "Who would give up their private health insurance for a governmental source of health insurance?" (or some such wording) as meaning "give up her own (i.e. KH's) health insurance." Perfect instance of confusing ambiguity caused by a sloppy, lazy pronoun that would have been much clearer with "his" or "her" rather than "they" in the question.
9:54 AM Jun 28th
Steven Goldleaf
And practically, this is what that means: I'll note mentally who uses "full" and "fulsome" correctly, and "lend" and "loan" and a thousand other diction choices, and I'll rely on the person (about whom I know nothing else) to have received a decent education, and to have a decent ability to retain various niceties in that education, in the absence of other competing information. In the political debates, where we're finding out about candidates in depth for the first time, for example, that's part of my equation: does he/she pick the right words, does she/he use the words for maximum understanding, is he/she articulate? Is she/he sensitive to language? etc not because these issues are paramount (or as SoS Pompeo might say, "tantamount") but because it gives you genuine insight into the workings of their minds. If they can't or won't master mid-level intricacies of the language, I must assume the worst about their other abilities, because these are out in the open for all to hear, and impossible to hide. Speaking off the cuff, someone reveals much about how their mind operates (or in some cases, doesn't operate.)
8:22 AM Jun 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, you want SOME standards, do you? So do I. I don't want those standards to be established very quickly by the lowest common denominator of society to reflect whatever kind of usage is employed by the lazy, uneducated, careless, thoughtless, childish on the outermost fringes of that society. If something makes sense, if a change fills a need, for example, I'm okay with it, but when it's contrary to sense and centuries of common understanding, I'll use it as a marker of poor English and resist it.​
7:12 AM Jun 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Argle bargle fulsome bop nicety nice full bargle.
7:06 AM Jun 28th
The madness, dear Steven, is sticking to archaic definitions when most of the world has moved on and agrees to something else.
10:47 PM Jun 27th
Steven Goldleaf
That way lies madness, hotstatrat. Words have distinct meanings, and when we all agree on what they mean, we can communicate without unnecessary ambiguity. Your way, to employ my favorite reductio, the great "ad absurdum," every word will mean every other word. Or, as an example, "argle bargle fulsome bop nicety nice full bargle" will mean "That makes it hard to understand each other" in my own private meaning of those words. To be only slightly less silly, why would you want ambiguity where clarity is possible and once was universal? Is ambiguity somehow a GOOD thing? (It is, btw, but only in poetry.)
12:50 PM Jun 27th
The old derogatory meaning of “fulsome“ is long gone in my world. I have lost my memory of its use that way. I sense a distinction between “full“ and “fulsome“, however. “Full“ means no more capacity, while “fulsome“ means almost at that point. I like using “fulsome“ that way because it rhymes with “buxom“ - so I imagine a fulsome report, for example, as plump - full of goodies.

I think we should accept the new definition of “nicety“, but still hold onto its old meaning - which is still alive and useful. Many words have adopted additional meanings. Why block this one?
12:09 PM Jun 27th
I still get annoyed at the misuse of "fantastic" and "incredible" but not nearly as much as aged. Miffed, I suppose, rather than outraged. Language evolves and I suspect that all evolution begins at the cellular level. The common people (and I'm certainly a commoner) ultimately make the effective rules, the widely accepted understandings.

I felt a slight need to look up the dictionary meaning of almost every word in the preceding sentence, but I resisted. I realize that my comprehension of almost all words did not come directly from dictionaries but from experience and context. I have no doubt that I'm guilty of moving violations in the world of language authorities, but I don't believe it's preventing me from being understood.

The river goes where the river flows. If you want to sail on it to the ocean, my advice is to accept the path of least resistance.

10:53 AM Jun 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, definitely issues of usage rather than grammar--I just loved the titular (and sub-titular) quotation about grammar, which I swiped from an anonymous source on the internet. I'd love to give credit to the author, if anyone recognizes it. And yes, "supersedes" is better there, too. Thanks for both. I may go back and change it after a few days for everyone to get your point.
4:03 AM Jun 27th
I agree with much of what you've written here, but your points are of diction or usage rather than grammar, and I think you meant "superseded" rather than "surpassed." :)
2:36 AM Jun 27th
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