Tuesday, December 27, 2011

LaRocque needs to be less rigid in usage

I have long admired Paula LaRocque as a writing and language coach* and some of the excellent columns she has penned for SPJ's Quill magazine. But in the past couple of years, it seems to me her columns have taken on more of a rigid approach than a modern observer and user of language should be.

Several times, especially with some of her "brevity" examples, I've wanted to write a post saying wait a minute, things are more complicated than that (and some of my students and others who know me might find that interesting because I'm known for squeezing a sentence till it screams). But her latest column in the Quill dealing with a "potpourri of poor writing" sent me to the keyboard for pronouncements about "correct" usage when what is correct is changing ever more rapidly.

There are some excellent points in the article - you should read it - about misusing things such as "feel badly," "adieu" vs. "ado," "low (lo) and behold," etc. But she runs off the rails in her discussion of more important/importantly and gauntlet vs. gantlet.

More/most important(ly)
LaRocque writes emphatically: "Adjective/adverb errors are also perennials in the garden of bad grammar. “Most importantly” and “feel badly” have been in my end-of-year folder for years, and 2011 was no exception. “Most importantly” is an elliptical expression meaning “what is most important,” so careful writers and speakers lop off that “ly” and keep the adjective: most important."

Well, not exactly. A quick Google search will show you this is hardly settled territory. And, as a matter of fact, there are good arguments for the "ly" form.Mark Liberman at Language Log, for instance, has a good dissection of the topic. Among other things, he points out that Merriam-Webster's guide to English usage traces the angst about this back only rather recently, to the Times' Theodore Bernstein, who advocated for "more important" but then seemed to backtrack.

If you are in the camp of those who hate M-W as too liberal, however (and I tend to not make it my primary source for that reason), then Liberman supplies this usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary, the most middle-of-the-road of the big three: "But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other."

Even the most conservative of the big three, Webster's New World 4th (the one used with the AP stylebook), uses "importantly" and not "important" in its example (page 717 of my well-worn edition, though it may vary in some newer printings).

Brian Garner, one of the most cited observers of modern English usage, argues that to insist on "more important"  is "picayunish pedantry." He lays out three reasons:
  • If you can use "importantly" to begin a sentence, why not "more importantly"?
  • While the argument (as LaRocque makes it) is that "more important" is elliptic writing for "what is more important," the same form isn't used for "more notably," "more interestingly" or other analogous phrases.
  • If the phrase is moved to the interior of a sentence, the "ly" form is generally acceptable.
Gantlet vs. Gauntlet
LaRocque writes with unbridled conviction: "Mistakes with the word gauntlet, a glove, are common. The word is confused with gantlet, a double line or row that a subject travels between, often as a punishment or
hazing: “He says an extended run through the gauntlet may not be a bad thing for the Massachusetts senator.” This writer means gantlet."

And I'm ready to line up behind her, hoist the flag, throw down the gauntlet, run past the gantlet and charge into linguistic battle.


Two of the three major dictionaries - M-W and AHD - now list "gauntlet" as the preferred form. The M-W entry goes to far as to now label gantlet "a variant of gauntlet." Again, I take M-W with a grain of salt, but when AHD throws its gauntlet into the fray behind, well, gauntlet, I pay lots more attention. In fact, of at least a dozen modern dictionaries and online sites I have looked at, only WNW and the AP maintain the clear distinction.

I'm thinking it's time to move on. I maintain the distinction in my writing, but I no longer insist on it as a teacher (though I urge students to consider it). Again, a Google search will show that this is an area of changing usage. I like this from the Grammarist blog: "Writers have been mistakenly using gauntlet in place of gantlet for so long that most dictionaries have simply given up on trying to preserve the latter word. But careful English users still distinguish between the two." (See this fun example of when the word was used "correctly" and the reaction it brought.)

Pronouncements rarely work anymore
What I hope you take from this:
  • Language changes more rapidly than ever. You're probably writing and saying things now that a decade or two ago were frowned on or just plain prohibited (not that it stopped anyone).
  • Usage is not grammar, and most of these kinds of things are arguments about usage, which changes even more rapidly in the digital age. (Another reason I tend to object to "grammar" exams proposed to screen students for entry into college journalism programs - much of what my colleagues refer to as grammar is actually usage and style.)
  • Let's drop the "man the barriers against the language Huns" arguments (such as the inanity going over at an editor's forum on LinkedIn about "over" versus "more than" (it's not an issue anymore - use whichever one suits your purposes or whichever one your boss, client or style guide dictates; Garner, fr his part, calls the distinction "a baseless crotchet")). Journalists have never been guardians of the language and, if looked at in the "man the barriers" light, have done as much "damage" to it as anyone else.
  • Pronouncements like LaRocque's do damage in that they delay needed, prolonged and intelligent discussions about where language has been, where it is going and how to assess when it's time to change. Every semester, for instance, I find myself telling students that "rule" they learned a couple of semesters ago, well, it no longer applies as it once did or it is in flux. It drives them nuts, brought up as they have been in a world of right-and-wrong standardized test answers. But if we don't help them learn how to deal with ambiguity, we are not teaching them how the current world works.
LaRocque treads close to the edge on two other examples. She mandates "sank" instead of "sunk" in a sentence such as "There was silence as the foreign minister's words sunk in." I'm with her for now - but only for so long. Just as with pled for pleaded, snuck for sneaked and dove for dived, I think this one is on an unstoppable change trajectory.

She also decries the use of "one of the only" instead of "one of the few." I'm with her again, but this is a case of idiomatic usage overtaking strict meaning, much like "could care less," which some observers see taking on idiomatic acceptability.

This spring, a linguistics doctoral student is teaching a course at the University of South Carolina on how new media is more rapidly changing language than ever before. It's already filled - that ought to tell you something. I wish every journalism student had to take it.

So in the new year, let's try for fewer pronouncements and more reasoned discussions about language issues and a realization that very little of this "beautiful, bastard language" of ours, as John Bremner used to call it, is set in stone.

(*Her husband, Paul, also has written one of the best books on copy editing I've ever used and read, avoiding entanglements with most such usage things and emphasizing the big questions that editors must deal with before all others.)

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