The Language Police: That’d Be Me

Last night on Twitter I objected to a NASA announcer saying “…any data that is…” rather than “…any data that are.”  Why did I object? Well, to be honest, because I was really upset about Antares blowing up, and I was looking for someone I could be mad at. Yeah, I know, not very rational; but sometimes I’m just not.

A friend then replied with the following: ‘But, to summarize, do you also insist on “The agenda are…”? If so, good for you, but the language, per the OED, has moved on.’

The OED certainly is a good source, and I agree with them about agenda.  But I still prefer “data” as a plural and “datum” as the singular.  But, more important, I am heartily sick of, “the language has moved on.” According to whom?  Who gets to decide?

The answer is: I do, because I’m arguing about it, and stating my preference.  If you argue about it, and state your preference, then you get to decide too.  “The language has moved on” is meaningless rubbish.  If it has moved on to the point where no one is arguing about it, then it need never come up.  If there are people arguing about it, then it may be in the process of moving on, but it hasn’t gotten there yet.  How do I know? Because people are still arguing.

The arguing, you see, is the whole point.

There was a time when “awful” meant “filled one with a sense of awe.” It doesn’t mean that any more.  How do we know that? Because no one is using it that way, and no one is arguing for it.  In this case, the language has moved on; the proof is that in this case we never hear anyone insisting “the language has moved on.”

Now, perhaps, what you’re saying is, “usage is determined by majority rule, and the majority now does it this way.” If that’s what you’re saying, well, let’s say I disagree.  But if so, say so.

In the particular case in question, “data” vs “datum” as the singular, I don’t know that I can find a strong reason for my preference other than being used to it; so if you can find a good reason for your preference, you’re liable to win that argument, and then I’ll stop making irritated tweets correcting anonymous commentators.  But make it!  Tell me why that usage is better.  I’m here.  I’m listening.  What, it isn’t better?  It has no advantages, and you only claim the language has moved on because lots and lots of people say it? That doesn’t convince me this change makes the language more flexible, more powerful, more elegant, more nuanced, better able to express fine distinctions.

Examples: I dislike the current use of “hopefully”  because I think the distinction between “I hope,” “you should hope,” and “all right-thinking people ought to hope,” is useful and I don’t like to see it concealed.  I dislike the word “proactive” because it sounds as if it is conveying information when in fact it says nothing*.  Those two battles are mostly over, but I haven’t given up yet.  If you want to argue with me, you are free to do so.  If your argument is, “the language has moved on” do not expect to convince me.

Obviously, you have as much right to your preference as I have for mine.  Moreover, you have as much right to make a case for or against a given change as I do.  But if I insist a usage is wrong, and you don’t agree, then, make the case.  “The language has moved on” is never a valid argument, because it contains its own contradiction: as I said above, if it had moved on, we wouldn’t be talking about it.  Hell, I’ll even tell you how to make the case.  Instead of a strident, smug, empty, “the language has moved on,” try saying this: “Most people have accepted that “data” is a singular noun.  The language seems to be changing.  Can you make a case for keeping it the old way?”  There, see, now you’ve put the burden of proof on me.  That’s fair.

Who gets to decide what is correct usage? Anyone and everyone who bothers to have an opinion about it.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to shrug and say to yourself, “Let the silly dinosaur keep raging; in twenty years everyone who insists that ‘data’ is a plural will be dead, and the language will have moved on.”  If you say that, you’ll almost certainly be right.  But if that’s your attitude, why are you telling me?  Do you expect to convince me that, just because a lot of people use “infer” and “imply” interchangeably, I should adapt myself to it?  If you want to convince me, convince me.  If you want to roll your eyes and let me fight my doomed battle, do that.  But “the language has moved on” is useless as an argument, and empty as an observation.  Argue, or shut up.


*For those of who believe “proactive” does convey something, I challenge you to find a real-world situation in which it suggests an action that isn’t better said by simply dropping it and moving on to the next sentence or clause.


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135 thoughts on “The Language Police: That’d Be Me”

  1. On a serious note, I’ve been involved with data for most of my life, and it’s _always_ been treated as a singular or collective noun. Words and concepts such as database, data processing, etc. cement the word “data” into people’s minds. A Star Trek character with a plural name probably didn’t help — it would be like naming your son Team.

    Datum, on the other hand, I mostly use in its geographical sense, but may identify a “particular datum” in very rare circumstances, usually when I’m trying to sound clever (I’m aware of Scalzi’s Law on Cleverness).

  2. “Proactive” is quite effective at marking when a particular message is couched in Orwellian doublespeak. I’m not sure I’d be nearly as quick to notice when someone is trying to sell me black for white without it.

  3. Long time reader, rare commenter. But your post touched a chord, and I wanted to chip in my fraction of a dollar.

    “Language” is one of those words where the edges get blurry the closer you look. A native speaker of English in India or Britain or the US or anywhere else is going to sound different, use different words. We call these “dialects” and pat ourselves on the back for bringing order to chaos. But of course, not every dialect speaker sounds the same either.

    You can keep on slicing and dicing until you get to the level of the individual. The way a single person speaks is called an “idiolect.” (Where idio- means “self, not the other thing.) And even deeper than that is the register, the way a person uses language in a particular situation. (Formal, informal, etc.)

    Is anyone’s idiolect, or a register of their idiolect, innately wrong? No way. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing in isolation, it’s just a thing. But just because it’s not good or bad, not right or wrong, doesn’t mean it’s USEFUL.

    The utility of a language is in its ability to communicate, and for that, the various idiolects of various people must line up. For that matter, their registers must also line up, or else you get someone using an informal word in a formal context.

    And if the utility of a language lies in communication, then it is the burden of the communicator to use it in a way that achieves the goal of communication. This is especially true of the written word, in which there can be no negotiation of meaning like there is in interpersonal communication.

    So use whatever words achieve your goals in communication, based on the audience to whom they are directed. As your purpose and your audience change, those words can too, and the wonderful thing is that if they get your message across, then they are right.

    Now, a digression on data:

    When people use the word “data” with singular morphology, they’re not actually making it singular. They are converting it from a count noun to a mass noun. A “count” noun is something like “cup” or “chair,” which can be made plural. You can say “one cup is” and “two chairs are.”

    But then there are mass nouns like “water” or “furniture.” Water is a substance, one that (at least in language terms) does not have individual component parts. (Atomic theory rarely influences grammar.) Water is a substance, not an individual thing, and when you put two quantities of it together, it’s still just water.

    “Furniture” is the same way, even though it’s much easier to imagine a single “atomic” piece of furniture. But we still say “Furniture is….” and have to add another word in front of it to actually count it. (“Three pieces of furniture….”)

    So what about “data”? To the extent that we think of data as a substance of indeterminate size, a thing of which separate quantities can be merged to form a whole that is just more of that substance, it makes sense for data to be a mass noun. What we see here is a difference in our understanding of what data is, versus what more than one datum are.

  4. I had an argument with a date about the plural of hippopotamus. (We were at a zoo. It came up.) When I saw Webster’s gave both forms – mine and the wrong one – I wasn’t happy.

    Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.

    [While I think “proactive” is useless as a narrative description – and thus much fiction – I have seen real-world use in discussing real-world activity planning, such as when discussing the importance of identifying objectives and seizing the initiative rather than merely reacting to threats after they’ve appeared. The idea in this sense is that there are times that planning-driven activity has advantages over waiting until surprised by threats to attempt adapting to changing circumstances.]

    “Who gets to decide what is correct usage? Anyone and everyone who bothers to have an opinion about it.”

    I had fun discussing with Deb Chester what was right and wrong in Strunk & White. I think it’s important to be aware what choices one makes in writing, rather than stumbling into a “position” merely from inattention to the factors that weigh for or against traditional usages or modern understandings. I hate “their” for a gender-neutral pronoun but I love the idea of fixing the problem. And I love urging people to read Douglas Hofstadter’s “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” when they argue in favor of unchanging forms of language merely because they are antiquated:

    That doesn’t mean every old form should be swept aside, but I think it means we should think about which old forms are worth keeping (like having a distinction between a datum and a large collection of data) and which ones really don’t add anything but complexity or irritation.

  5. I am irritated when Data processors misuse “data”, or when media people misuse “media”. Or when a person shows off his education with a license plate cover saying “My University Alumni”. But mostly I let it go. I wish we didn’t lose the battle for “begging the question”. I also get irritated when people incorrectly say “octopi”.

    It is fun though for a programmer to refer to schemata though.

  6. My personal peeve is the creation of new verb forms from the noun forms of existing verbs. I’ve heard any number of times that people in a procession should “process” to such and such a place, when of course, procession is the noun form of “proceed.”

    Making it worse for me is that I’ve been a copyeditor, and flexibility is important in doing that job. If the author wants to say “process” or “surveil,” (or misuse “hopefully”), I have to let them as long as they’re doing so consistently.

  7. When it’s a question of spelling or something simple, I like to look up both ways in Google and see how often each is used. If it’s less than 90% one way, I figure the issue is still in play and I do it however I like best.

    I mostly don’t care about grammar or spelling issues as long as the meaning comes clear. If people want to noun verbs or verb nouns, it’s all just water over the bridge as long as it’s easy to understand them. When it isn’t, then say so.

    I read that longshoremen and various other manual workers who did dangerous stuff, used to use a whole lot of profanity when they talked — until they were actually doing something dangerous. Then they stopped. The language difference made it clear — now we concentrate on doing the job without getting killed.

    The military was like that too. People used lots of profanity except when something serious was happening. Somebody who failed to use profanity at all, regulaly jolted everybody’s nerves for no good reason.

    It might be that use of words like “proactive” and “implement” is like that in a different context. It’s a signal that people need to do their special thinking and stop just being like regular human beings. Someone who attends those meetings and doesn’t talk like that marks himself as an outsider who can’t be trusted.

    Anyway, communication is hard enough already without trying to get other groups of people to change their style with each other, to fit rules that haven’t in the past applied to them. And yet grumping about it is fun, provided people don’t take it too seriously.

  8. Falco: Good point. I hadn’t thought of that.

    Shawn: “The utility of a language is in its ability to communicate” Yes, certainly. But it is also an important tool in thought, and it has been argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that when word meanings become more vague and diffuse, it becomes more difficult to think about those concepts in a precise way.

    Interesting take on “data.” I think you might have the last word on that one.

    CD Lewis: “[While I think “proactive” is useless as a narrative description – and thus much fiction – I have seen real-world use in discussing real-world activity planning, such as when discussing the importance of identifying objectives and seizing the initiative rather than merely reacting to threats after they’ve appeared.” Sure. But the next step in that conversation always involves some sort of action item or items, which would still be necessary if no one had said, “let’s be proactive about it,” and to which nothing has been added by that statement.

    Oh, and as for “Websters,” I say, fie, fie. I curse it and all its inferences.

    Howard: I’m trying to formulate a pun conflating “schemata” with “stigmata” but it just won’t come together. Figure you’ve dodged a bullet there.

    Denis: I’m hoping this won’t turn into just a discussion in which we all air our particular grievances. But, that said, yeah, me too. “surveil.” Ugh.

  9. Steve: I fully agree that language is an important tool in thought, but I would also say that we create the tools that we need to express the thoughts we find important.

    We once had a word for you-singular, which was “thou.” The plural version of this was “you.” Through the typical way that language changes, the plural began to be used as the formal. (Just like “vous” in French.) Gradually, “thou” fell out of use except in archaic contexts, and “you” took its place.

    Now, does that mean our language is no longer capable of expressing the notion of direct address to more than one person? Not at all. There are dozens of ways to express it, such as “y’all” or “you guys.” In more formal contexts, “All of you” can serve the same function. Even though the lexical distinction is gone, people go one having the same thoughts. They will always manage to find a way to express things that are important to them.

    Of course, that leaves the possibility that lexical differences, such as between “imply” and “infer,” are fading because no one cares to express that difference anymore….

  10. I don’t need one datum, it doesn’t tell me anything. I need all the data, or perhaps a subset of the data for a particular purpose, but one datum isn’t anything but a piece of a puzzle.

    Which is to say, I never cared how those two words were used, because I don’t want the one datum.

  11. I came here to write what CD Lewis already said better, so I’ll respond to your response: no. In many real-world activity planning situations, do nothing is a possible choice, and “let’s be proactive about it” is a useful way of communicating that doing nothing is not an acceptable choice.

    “General, we have detected incoming missiles. The study group recommends waiting to see if they are warheads or duds.”

    “Please advise the study group that I would like a proactive response to this event.”

    You can substitute another word, including “active”, if you prefer — but you can’t simply eliminate the word or the sentence without losing meaning.

  12. I am an aerospace engineer. In my experience, we talk about a singular point in a “set” of data as a datum sometimes, much like a “cup” of water or a “bag” of money (collective nouns, I believe?) but “data point” is much more prevalent.

    The usual use for datum would be a set point, line, or surface used as a reference for dimensioning and tolerancing, as in, “The torque about the datum line must be less than blahblah kilonewton-meters.”

    I was going to end proactively with a half-baked imply/infer reversal, but everything I think of is coming out awfully trite.

  13. Mechaninja: So, your answer is roughly the equivalent of, “Bring me a mongoose, and, while you’re at it, bring me another one”?

    lairdb: Perfect example. What happens once they’ve agreed to “be proactive” about it? Presumably, something like, “intercept the missiles.” If “Please advise the study group that I would like a proactive response to this event.” were left out, what would change? I mean, other than that the interceptors would be launched sooner?

  14. “If your argument is, ‘the language has moved on’ do not expect to convince me.”

    But this is essentially what has happened. English absorbs words in a way most other languages don’t – maybe in a manner no other major language does – and when we adopt a word, we anglicize it. English isn’t a declined language, and with virtually no exceptions outside of a science lab we make a plural with s/es, and the few exceptions we do have tend to be among the very oldest words in the language. So when people use a word that is clearly not plural due to a lack of a terminal “s”, it’s taken to be singular.

    When I get angry at public speakers it’s generally not over words, but when their speech attacks a whole tradition. It’s not correct to refer to Gov. Bush or Gov. Clinton as President Bush/Clinton, just as, in a few years, it’ll be wrong to publicly refer to Barack Obama as anything other than Sen. Obama.

    You know what else is annoying? Redundancy. People who use their PIN numbers at the ATM machines so they can donate to the MDA Association make me twitch. Also “from whence”.

    “Do you expect to convince me that, just because a lot of people use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, I should adapt myself to it?”

    I’ve heard this complaint a lot, but fortunately I’ve never actually seen or heard anyone misuse the words. If you remember, Nero Wolfe once burned a dictionary for conflating these.

    @CD Lewis: “I had an argument with a date about the plural of hippopotamus.”

    Perhaps you’re familiar with the story about the zookeeper who had just set up a new small mammal display? He wrote to a colleague to get the animals: “Please send me two mongooses.” That sounded wrong, so he edited it. “Please send me two mongeese.” That looked wrong so he edited it again. “No zoo should be without a mongoose. Please send me two of them.”

  15. “Perfect example. What happens once they’ve agreed to “be proactive” about it? Presumably, something like, “intercept the missiles.” If “Please advise the study group that I would like a proactive response to this event.” were left out, what would change?”

    Err… the study group would think that they are done with the missile response task and would go study mongeese instead? The agreement to “be proactive” doesn’t come until it’s communicated to them that they need a non-passive response.

    What words would you use to communicate to the study group that they are required to come up with a non-passive response?

  16. lairdb: How about “we need an active response.” More likely, it would be, “Are you guys nuts? We need to do something where we won’t die if we guess wrong.” If you’re suggesting that a study group might propose waiting until being blown up before doing anything, this is sounding less and less like a real-world example. Care to take another swing at it?

  17. Shawn: You have provided a good example of a case where a change in language did nothing to diminish our ability to formulate our thoughts. Do you believe that this example proves no changes are capable of so diminishing our ability? The conclusion seems dubious.

    Speaking of conclusions, to say that if we lose the distinction between “infer” and “imply”* it means no one needs it, is not unlike saying that if I’m somehow able to make it to work when my car is in the shop, I didn’t need the car, so it was all right to pour sugar in the gas tank.

    *And yes, L. Raymond, I have encountered, in the wild, people who do not distinguish between infer and imply.

  18. So, Steven, is “reactive” ok? Is “proactive” ok when associated with or in context of using “reactive”?

    This reminds me of people who use “below” as an adjective and there happens to be one dictionary that says it’s acceptable. “The below list” or “The below email”. Makes my skin crawl. But if the people I get email from are any indication, it is here to stay.

    I don’t blog about it, but I still fight the good fight with people I see doing it :-)

  19. I wrote the dread word ‘proactive’ recently, and I will stand my ground on it, in a comment at Whatever where I said that there were a fair few people ready to adopt Bashfull Bashfullson’s proactive approach to self defence. The events in question are in an early scene in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam”, and I have no desire to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read it…

  20. Ironically (or maybe it’s just an amusing coincidence!), I mostly use the term “proactive” when discussing writing, of all things. “Your protagonist isn’t being very proactive here” is a fast way to convey “Your protagonist is spending too much time reacting and not enough time acting before other people act”, and usually when I’m giving feedback, I really don’t want to give an explicit line of action; I want to suggest that action be taken first, whatever that selected action might be.

  21. Under those circumstances, I use “passive.” Or I might say the character is spending too much time reacting and not enough acting.

  22. You tell us we should speak up on language usage. I’m all for that. For instance, I would be much happier with “… then it may be moving on, but it hasn’t gotten there yet.” over “… then it may be in the process of moving on, but it hasn’t gotten there yet.” I feel that “in the process of ” is in the same class as “proactive”. I would be interested reading your defense of your usage of “in the process of “.

  23. ‘“The utility of a language is in its ability to communicate” Yes, certainly. But it is also an important tool in thought, and it has been argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that when word meanings become more vague and diffuse, it becomes more difficult to think about those concepts in a precise way.’

    Yes, and for bureaucrats, this is a feature not a bug.

    When anything you do might later be grounds for prosecution or at least intense blame, it becomes important to say things vaguely enough to avoid accountability.

    Consider an example. When the US military invaded Iraq in 2003, officially they did not believe that Saddam had destroyed his chemical weapons. So it was 105 degrees F and they were traveling in full chemical suits. You drink a quart of water and right away you have a quart of sweat around your ankles, you can open a stopcock so it drains out but it isn’t good at evaporating and cooling you. Something had to be done. But the USA had — not that long ago — finally agreed not to use chemical weapons and destroyed much of the stockpile. If the Iraqis used them on us, we weren’t ready to use them back. A committee looked at the options, and the USA announced that if the Iraqis used poison gas on us, we would nuke them. Then the generals felt it was OK to tell the soldiers to take off the chemical suits.

    Imagine if it had gone wrong. If the Iraqis still had chemical weapons, and in their despair they used them. The US then nuked Baghdad and killed 7 million civilians. Somebody would be in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.

    So they look at the committee reports. The reports include:

    “So we will threaten that if they make any nerve gas attacks on us, we will nuke Baghdad. That ought to stop them.”

    “But then what happens if they do it anyway? What do we do then?”

    “We can hope that won’t happen. But if it does, I guess we’d better nuke Baghdad so the world will know we don’t make empty threats.”

    The guy who said that is going to be a lot more famous than Lieutenant Calley. More like Eichmann.

    But if he says something vague about the nuclear option and a pro-active response and such, maybe most of the blame will land elsewhere.

  24. skzb

    No. One can certainly launch a pre-emptive strike, just as one can make a pre-emptive bid, for much the same reasons, but in the scene in ‘Raising Steam’ the word pre-emptive would not be an accurate description of Bashfull Bashfullson’s behaviour.

    Also, in English English pre-emptive is hyphenated; we’re funny like that…

  25. @skzb That’s a valid criticism; my example only demonstrates that lacking a word for a concept is not a sufficient condition for being unable to talk (or think) about it. My point was that we, in our use of language, have a mechanism for being able to talk about things that we do not have specific words for.

    In fact, that’s one way that our vocabulary grows. If you pick up a beginner textbook for nearly any discipline, the first thing you’ll see is a series of chapters in which new concepts are explained, and typically attached to a word or phrase. In this way, the learner gains this new tool, this word, that allows him or her to refer to a larger and complicated concept easily, and make it interact with other such concepts.

    Often, these words are only useful within the context of a given discipline, or involve layering an existing words with new layers of meaning. It’s precisely what I did earlier, in mentioning the word “idiolect,” or giving “register” a new meaning that most people outside of linguistics would not be familiar with.

    But I think I’m getting too far afield from your point, which is not about specialized vocabulary, but about words that should be considered part of our “core” vocabulary. The idea, if I understand it, is that a useful distinction, once a part of the language, should not be allowed to fall out of the language. I had countered with the notion that if it is no longer useful, it is not important, and with your (excellent) car metaphor, you asserted that we should not wantonly destroy those things simply because they are not needed in the present situation–we may need them in others, and not have them.

    One wonderful thing about a written language, however, is that nothing is ever destroyed. It’s a giant closet of stuff, where we put all of our old VCR tape rewinders and flash cubes and rotary phones and film canisters and our Blockbuster Video membership card. Sometimes things get thrown in there and forgotten. Other times, we dig through and repurpose them. We even have a spare parts drawer of old Latin and Greek words that we can rummage through to cobble together new words.

    Words are simply the tools that we use to express thoughts, and if we can’t find the ones we need, we’ll make them. The moment you encourage someone to think about the difference between saying something without directly stating it, and understanding something that is not directly stated, you have created the need for tools to express those concepts.

    In other words, worrying about the words misses the point. Encourage the thoughts, and the words will follow. Insisting on the words without having the thought behind results in another arbitrary distinction in our language which communicates nothing.

  26. Similar to Shawn Cooke, I view “data” as a collective noun, like “flock” (and not like “garbage truck”, as the middle-school joke went). One says “The flock of geese is…” not “The flock of geese are…”.

  27. Morton Goldberg: It underscores the element of motion in language development, causing the reader to realize that this really is a process, and processes are complex and contradictory.

    Stevie: I can’t say about the example because I haven’t read it; I just know that when I was doing martial arts training, we used “preemptive” to describe an attack that came just before another attack was made (or else we used the even more precise Japanese word that I no longer remember), with the intention of interrupting it, and I assumed you were talking about something like that. If not, then I’m not sure what it means.

    Shawn Cooke: Some excellent points–excellent enough that I have to shift my ground a little. The usage of “hopefully” that muddles the distinction between “I hope” and “you should hope” &c encourages an imprecision that I find troubling. I guess I cannot help but wonder if those who use this phrase are not sometimes failing to consider this distinction, whereas maintaining “hopefully” as referring to a state of mind, would encourage more precise thought.

    To head off a possible objection to the above: clearly, we have the *right* to such usage; but we also have the right to deplore it, yes? This does not mean I am going to tear apart someone’s comment and go,”Here’s what you should have said,”–that would simply be rude. But I do feel free in discussion of language to bring up such things, and to suggest that we consider the consequences.

  28. I have always hated “proactive” since the early 90s when gibbering tech consultancies introduced it and gibbering CEOs adopted it, thus forcing the usage on their companies and then to the whole world. Use of unnecessary neologisms is a way for such firms to brand their programs, which otherwise run the serious risk of being seen through as completely worthless. Prior to that “proactive” was an obscure technical term in psychology.

    For the most part, you can either drop it, as skzb says, or you can use the word “active” instead, which works about 95% of the time. On the rare occasion where you really want to force the explicit opposite of “reactive” you can just use a different phrasing. If that situation was common then the use of the neologism would not be so horrid, but it’s really very rare indeed.

  29. @skzb –

    “This does not mean I am going to tear apart someone’s comment and go,”Here’s what you should have said,”–that would simply be rude.”

    I am still having trouble reconciling this with the fact that the original post revolves around tearing apart a comment made by a friend, calling what they said “meaningless rubbish”, and exhorting us to argue with you about language usage (but only in ways that do not annoy you).

  30. Jen: The original post tore apart an argument: “the language has moved on.” That is what I’m objecting to. I did not attack his grammar or usage. Anyone on this blog is free to attack my arguments in strong terms–God knows enough people have done so!

    I believe that making an argument about fashion is inviting criticism of that argument. Wearing clothes is not inviting criticism of one’s clothing choices, even if the person is making an argument about fashion.

  31. skzb: But you ended the post with, “Argue, or shut up.” You told us in the strongest possible terms to make arguments about use of language — but you find it rude to make such arguments using examples on this very page? If you and I were having a discussion about fashion, I might very well use black cowboy boots as an example when trying to make a point, because they’d be right in front of me. I maintain that this is perfectly natural behavior and not rude at all. Further, if you start the fashion discussion by declaring that the dress worn by the person across the room is worthless rubbish, you oughtn’t be so shocked when someone notices what you’re wearing.

    (Yeah, I like the fashion metaphor for this because it made it easier for me to deny the distinction between the phrases used to argue and specific word use. Either one is attacking someone’s language, which, sure, do it, but sauce for the goose and all.)

  32. “Do you mind?” Response: “Not at all” or “no.”

    Today, many would say “yes” or “certainly” to mean what “no” used to mean.

  33. ‘But you ended the post with, “Argue, or shut up.”’

    Yes I did. To just say, “the language has moved on,” is dismissive. I don’t care to have my opinions dismissed off-hand; it’s offensive. Do you?

    “If you and I were having a discussion about fashion, I might very well use black cowboy boots as an example when trying to make a point, because they’d be right in front of me. I maintain that this is perfectly natural behavior and not rude at all. Further, if you start the fashion discussion by declaring that the dress worn by the person across the room is worthless rubbish, you oughtn’t be so shocked when someone notices what you’re wearing.”

    I maintain it would be. Let’s continue the fashion dispute, and make it more congruent.

    I said on twitter, “Man, I just really miss four-in-hand ties. The skinny little thing that TV commentator is wearing is just ugly.” Then someone on twitter replied, “Fashion has moved on.” In my blog post objecting to being dismissed with, “Fashion has moved on,” it would be rude, in my judgment, for someone to say, “And your cowboy boots are just stupid.” This has nothing whatever to dow ith the question, which is: Is the bare statement, “Fashion has moved” to be considered a valid argument. And I think it would also be rude, because attacking one’s clothing is personal, attacking one’s argument need not be.

    Now, if you are making the argument, “You were excessively rude and strident in your objection to your friend’s comment, and you could have made the same point in a more friendly and reasonable way,” then I’d have to admit you were right. I felt dismissed and disrespected, and I permitted it to affect my tone. But I still would consider it way out of line to attack how I’m dressed; I didn’t attack how HE was dressed.

  34. You attacked, and I don’t see the difference between attacking their accessories or their slacks. So yeah, I am making the argument that I think you were rude and strident. But you and I already both knew I thought that; I’m commenting because I’m annoyed that after being rude, you were passive-aggressive about someone else doing something that you found rude, and more so because I thought that person was rather polite about it.

  35. It’s on TV all the time and I have heard people use it in real life every once in a while. I imagine it sounds more “positive” or dare I say it, proactive. Perhaps it is simply the “eat your cake and have it too” of our day or maybe darker forces of ill-logic are at work.

  36. Who gets to decide? Well, for published writing, the entity paying for it or hosting it gets to decide. That’s what house style manuals are for.

  37. skzb: I wish that every discussion about language could be conducted with the grace and respect I’ve seen, for the most part, in these comments. It’s hard, because language is just so gosh darned personal.

    To do something as readily, and with so little self-consciousness as we do with speech requires that the skill be innate and automatic to a very high degree. Most of the grammar that we employ is used because it just feels _right_ to use in some indefinable way. When it is done differently, it feels _wrong_ in the same way. But, and here is the kicker, the “wrong” thing felt “right” to the person who said it. It’s not wrong to deplore it, so long as you understand where those feelings come from.

    “Hopefully” has become a sentence-level adverb instead of a verb-level adverb. You can tell because it is most often found at the beginning of the sentence or at the very end, preceded by a comma. (“The plane will leave on time, hopefully.”) It has come to fill a place in the English language that was recently vacated by God–that is, converting a statement about the future into one of hope or expectation about the future.

    We used to say thing like “God grant that….” or “God willing” to say the same thing. As our society has become more secular, such language faded, and because we wanted to fill the gap, we took a related word and tweaked the meaning a bit. In fact, we did it so well that the earlier, original sense is now a secondary one.

    If your objection is to the ambiguity, that “hopefully” now could mean me, you, or anyone else hoping, let me just say that a little ambiguity in language is not a bad thing. When we say “river” we could mean either a tributary, or one that flows directly into the sea. The same word serves for both, and that seems natural. The distinction, though potentially important in some circumstances, is not necessary for everyday speech.

    But in French, the words “rivière” and “fleuve” are not two different types of the same thing. The first refers only to tributaries, and the second only to those rivers that empty into a sea. That is to say, a tributary is a type of river, but a “rivière” is not a type of “fleuve.”

    To one who grew up with that distinction, there is nothing so natural in the world for it to exist, and no doubt if the next generation became to speak as if “rivière” was a subset of “fleuve,” it would be seen as a degradation of the language, a loss of preciseness which makes the language worse off than it was. And here we poor English speakers have been doing it that way all along.

    Personally–and yes, this is the way it feels “right” to me–I like the ability to express an indefined sense of hope, without need to specify the agent of that hope, when I speak of favorable future events. But when I want to, I can certainly express that something is only what “I hope” or “you hope.” So to me, the difference in meaning has added greater richness to the language. Your mileage may vary.

  38. @skzb: “I have encountered, in the wild, people who do not distinguish between infer and imply”. That’s just crazy talk.

    I’ll tell you one battle I’ve mostly given up on, though: “doing good” vs. “doing well”. If I say “how’re you doing?” and you say “I’m doing good” I really won’t mind. And I may well reply that way myself.

    It probably doesn’t help that I’m egotistical enough that I believe that, in general, “I’m doing good” is a true statement even in the strict sense. :)

    Re: Data: I agree that the difference does seem to be between a single and a mass noun, not so much a singular vs. plural noun.

    If it helps you cope at all, think of it this way: Most data these days come from computers. Any given datum is most likely easily broken down into component bytes, each of which can be broken down further into bits, each of which is at best an abstraction summarizing the electrical potential of billions (or more) of atoms, each of which is further subdividable to quite a large degree. My point being that any given datum is nevertheless large and contains multitudes. HTH. :)

  39. It is my belief that “proactive” is hated for the same reason as “synergy” and “incentivize.” They are part of corporate jargon, associated with a group of people and a manner of thinking that many people dislike. As a culture, we tend to dislike words associated with group we also dislike.

    Within a corporate setting, these words do have meaning. “Proactive” was coined in 1933 and originated in the field of psychology, where it was created specifically to serve as an antonym to reactive–that is, acting before stimulus instead of afterwards. Business writing has adopted it–one might say, co-opted it–to mean essentially the same thing. Starting a recall for a defective product voluntarily, before forced to by the FDA or some similar organization, would be an example of a proactive step.

    Jargon has the effect of indicating membership in an “in-group.” If a person can use a word that belongs to a given group, and use it correctly, then it establishes them as part of that group. Inside jokes are another example of this phenomenon. The problem is, it’s easy to use in-group words incorrectly, especially if you’re not actually part of the in-group. And from the outside, it’s easy to confuse “I don’t know what this word means” with “this word has no meaning.”

  40. I agree with your point about disliking lingo of a group one dislikes. And I can see where it might be useful within the field of psychology. Excepting that (I’m always willing to make exceptions for useful jargon within a given field), no one has yet used “proactive” in a sentence in a real-world example in a circumstance where it conveyed useful information.

  41. If we remove the use of “proactive” as jargon, then I fully agree with you. There is no “real-world” example, meaning outside of scholarly or business writing in which it is used to convey the specific meaning of “opposite-of-reactive,” in which “proactive” conveys useful information.

    Interestingly enough, profanity works much the same way. By definition, profanity conveys no information, but rather an “affect”–the emotional content behind the statement. For a layman to take a “proactive” stance on something, he probably just means that it’s a stance that he thinks is a Good Thing. We are learning his opinion about his stance, not something about the stance itself.

  42. Steven, do you feel that “active” is an appropriate and sufficient antonym to “reactive”.

    I think one could argue that an active stance could be reactive, and so the need for a word that denotes specifically the opposite of reactive.

    That said, I can’t think of a real-world example for you. Googling the word finds far more businesses named using it than anything else. In fact, aside from just definitions, that’s the *only* usage I find of it as far as I’ve cared to scroll. Which certainly heightens the feeling that it’s just a jargon word used for signaling and has no inherent meaning.

  43. I am actually looking for an example from the business world where it is a useful term. On the other hand, if I consider “proactive” a cuss word, lots of things fall into place.

  44. Larry: Active is sometimes a good antonym for reactive, but not always. As said above, sometimes preemptive works, and we could probably come up with others.

  45. To be perfectly clear, let’s define “useful” first. For a word to have a “useful” contribution to a sentence, let’s say we want it to convey information that doesn’t not already exist elsewhere in the sentence.

    Since it is an adjective, that content is likely to be modifying the meaning of a noun in some way. When you modify a noun, you are typically doing something like restricting it, classifying it, quantifying it, broadening it. You will also find pairs of antonyms applied to the same noun, which are specifically used for contrastive purposes; e.g., “Turn on the hot tap, not the cold tap.”

    So let’s make an example to fit those criteria. In the field of search engine optimization, it is important to know how people are using search engines to find your site, specifically which terms they’re using. One technique is to look at what terms people used to find your site, and then placing those terms into your site to increase their search engine visibility.

    Imagine that my business is to make your website more visible. Then I might say, “We can increase search engine hits using proactive seeding of relevant search terms.” In this context, I’m informing you that I will put the right terms on your site before you happen to get a hit with them, thereby getting you more results faster.

    Could I still say “We can increase search engine hits using seeding of relevant search terms?” Sure, but that could mean after you’ve already gotten a hit using that term. Could I say “We can increase search engine hits by seeding relevant search terms before your audience even tries them?” Absolutely, and it might even be clearer. But the question was not whether proactive is the best word to express this concept, but whether it conveys information that the sentence would not contain without it. In this example, I believe it does.

  46. I can’t comment on your example because I didn’t follow it. “Proactive seeding of relevant search terms” and “I will put the right terms on your site before you happen to get a hit with them” aren’t phrases I can parse. I’ll have to take your word for it that they’re meaningful.

  47. Fair enough. That lends credence to the idea that it is essentially jargon in all its functional uses, and simply word-padding otherwise. I wonder how true that is of other “trendy” terms which originated as the technical term of a specialized discipline?

  48. I spent the afternoon helping my neighbor clean her garage, and we got to talking about argument vs. disagreement, and how context determines whether a response shows disrespect or misunderstanding, and I was going to bring up some of it here, but I get back to see this has moved onto business-speak, so…

    Is it just me, or are these two really ridiculous sentences?

    “Are requirements and desirements from all stakeholders captured in the Product Backlog? Remember: the backlog is emergent.” and “Is the backlog an information radiator, immediately visible to all stakeholders?”

    For truly inspired jargon, you need business literature.

  49. “To be perfectly clear, let’s define “useful” first. For a word to have a “useful” contribution to a sentence, let’s say we want it to convey information that doesn’t not already exist elsewhere in the sentence.”

    To be picky, sometimes a word can be useful by adding redundancy. Sometimes people do better when they don’t have to get the full meaning of every word, but can miss a word and still get by. A little repetition can sometimes be your friend.

    But that doesn’t affect your point, that words which do add extra meaning can be useful because of it.

  50. If anyone is interested, I can translate.

    “Product backlog” is a software development term within the “Scrum” model. It means the programs that you plan to write but haven’t written yet.

    “Desirements” is a coinage, a portmanteau of “desire” and “requirement.” It means something that the person you’re writing software for wants, but isn’t part of what makes the program functional.

    A stakeholder is someone who has a stake in what you’re doing, typically the people who are going to be using the program you write.

    For something to be “emergent” means that it is not set in stone, but rather emerges as a result of other factors. For example, if you line up a class of kids in order of height, that order is “emergent” from their height. If you just looked at a list of names, without knowing their heights, you would not know why it was in that order.

    For something to be an information “radiator,” it must be not only visible, but should push out information to people. A website may contain information, but it is not a radiator unless that website also sends you emails when something you want to know about gets added.

    So, let’s put all of this together, and try to translate into plain English.

    “Are your clients needs and wants reflected in the things you plan to do? Remember, the things you plan to do should be determined by those needs and wants.”

    “Do your clients get notifications about what things you’re planning to do?”

    The reason that these very simple thoughts are being expressed in that way is to make it so that software development consultants get paid. If you realized that what they’re actually saying is just common sense, they would get paid enormous consulting fees for it.

  51. Shaun – It’s possible to understand what is being said, and yet still make a joke about misunderstanding it.

  52. Speaking as a scientist on the “data” issue (which gives me at least some expertise here), we who work with data on a daily basis actually don’t fully follow either logic.

    I have rarely heard scientists use “data” as singular. (When try do, it is linguistically single but factually plural: e.g. “Look at this data!” pointing at a graph with lots of data on it.) BUT I have definitely never heard a scientist use “datum.” Instead, the singular might be “a data point” or “a piece of data.”

  53. Yes, thank you, Ms. Cooke. This can actually tie in to the original point: just because language has moved on doesn’t make it right.

    I saw Hewlett Packard advertise for a scrum master. I wasn’t aware they had a corporate rugby team so I looked into it and found something that was even more stupid than the concept of the Sigma Six Black Belt (another jargon generator). The fact that some of these terms and ideas are no longer just used in business – I’ve seen public agencies refer to stakeholders and never figured out if they meant the administrators, the employees or the government, since they certainly did not mean the citizens who used the services – doesn’t means it’s a good word being used well, just that someone was too lazy to spell out the subject of his sentence, and had someone told me to hold back the sarcastic comments that came to mind because times change and that’s how people talk now, things would not have gone well.

    Some further examples of business speak from my last job (not related to Scrum, but I can’t help myself) :

    “The purpose of the intent of this memo is to inform employees that all available vacation time in July is not available.”

    “Your support in this necessary change is both essential and expected that we may not have any putrid interruptions of the success of our Standard Operational Procedures.”

    When this manager spoke off-the-cuff, my friend and I could not even look at each other for fear we’d lose control.

  54. skzb: Let’s say you’re responsible for the maintenance of a software system. You are instructed to maintain a proactive stance about this. You would do this by spending some portion of your valuable time and cognitive budget examining the system, its usage and its behavior and trying to anticipate and forestall problems that may arise with it. This is as opposed to the normal behavior observed in such situations, which is to react to problems as they arise.

  55. Also, I was gonna say what Shawn said about business jargon as negative cultural capital signifiers, but he said it better anyway, so cheers.

  56. Chaos: No, if I were instructed to maintain a proactive stance, I’d ask what that meant I was supposed to do. I do not believe that “examining the system, its usage and its behavior and trying to anticipate and forestall problems that may arise with it” is the obvious or necessary way to fulfill that instruction.

  57. skzb: I sit corrected. Rather, it’s what people who aren’t determined to not know what “proactive” means or disallow it from meaning anything would do.

  58. SRSLY. Can you imagine a software guy (say, yourself), being told, “Maintain a proactive stance,” and responding, “all right, I’ll go do that,” with no followup, or a “could you clarify?” or a “Could you be more specific?” or anything? If you say yes, that that would be sufficient instruction, then I’ll take your word for it.

  59. It’s not completely inconceivable, but the more sensible and likely scenario is that said software guy would come back with his idea of what maintaining proactivity would look like in the situation — probably with a specific eye to establishing how many of his hours he’s being authorized to put into vigilance on this system — to see if it matches his supervisor’s expectations.

    He wouldn’t need to just ask for clarification or specificity in a vacuum, though. Because he knows what “proactive” means in general and the kind of activity that satisfies a request for it.

  60. If I have been instructed to maintain a proactive stance, I would strike a pose, and ask for correction on the angle of my arms and legs to ensure that it is properly proactive.

  61. Oh c’mon, Steve. It means the opposite of reactive. It means to go looking for trouble instead of waiting for it to come to you. That isn’t hard or obscure or even nuanced.

    Okay, so you’re a Red and you hate terms that have become shibboleths of the managerial class as a matter of identity. No problem. That doesn’t make them inherently useless or meaningless.

  62. (Note, this isn’t to say that the predominant manner in which it’s used isn’t useless and meaningless, since to the extent that it is business jargon, it shares with all business jargon enthusiastic adoption via cargo-cult mentality and rampant overdeployment not essentially different from a peacock’s display of its tailfeathers.)

  63. Chaos: I meant “I’ll take your word for it” in the straight-forward, literal, non-snide way; ie, I asked for an example, and you gave me one. Sorry if it came off snide.

  64. Well… the main problem then is: what is a datum? In German it means the date, which is silly, because that isn’t singular at all, as it gives a lot of data ( at the least).
    So what is a datum? Even the most simple database entry would be something like a = 12. Is that data or datum? It’s two components connected. It has even more information. The use of a latin letter and arabic numbers. So by any sensible and logical approach: A datum is nonexistant, as there always are numerous data even in the most simple set of data. So if we don’t have any singular in existance, why bother with the plural at all?
    *g* Cheers, Tom

  65. Tom: Suppose, for example, we were to study how far apart the eyes are in the average mother of the average person who comments on this post. First, we would need to measure that distance for the mother of everyone who commented. That collection would take the plural form, whereas each individual’s number would take the singular.

    In other words, your mom’s face is a datum.

  66. “Datum” in computer science is easy, it’s just one of whatever it is you’re storing considered as a lexical unit. There’s a simple, clear and standard meaning. So a single entity in a conventional database, or a blob, or an element of a linked list, or a hash value, or pretty much anything in memory that has unitary coherence when considered individually.

    The simplest database entry is not “a=12”, that’s an assignment statement in a computer program. The simplest database entry is just 12 (or 0, if you prefer, for a single bit).

    It seems to me the meaning is equally clear in ordinary non-technical usage, and I can’t see how it can be claimed that the singular form is meaningless because it doesn’t denote. But perhaps that was a joke and I am too obtuse this morning to understand it :)

  67. As (sorry, I forget who) has pointed out, the use of “hopefully” that you deplore is as a sentence adverb, applying to the entire sentence rather than any single verb or clause. In most cases the sentence structure will make the intended use clear.

    Do you also object to
    “Honestly, that bastard embezzles more in a day than I earn in a year!”

  68. More challenge examples:

    Seriously, I laughed so hard I fell out of my chair.

    As a rule, she treats laws and regulations as mere guidelines.

    I don’t think he knows what a decimal point is! To be precise, yesterday he described a variation of 0.28 degrees Kelvin as “about 3°K”.

  69. The problem, really, is that there’s far too much online datum these days.

    Not enough in person measuring.

  70. Mark: I beg to submit that your examples are unconvincing. “Seriously,” means “I’m being serious about this.” “Honestly” means, “I’m being honest about this.” “Hopefully” means “I hope,” or, “you should hope,” or “we all ought to hope,” or, “most people hope,” &c &c. The ambiguity in “hopefully” is not present in the other examples.

  71. >“Seriously,” means “I’m being serious about this.” “Honestly” means, “I’m being honest about this.” “Hopefully” means “I hope,” or, “you should hope,” or “we all ought to hope,” or, “most people hope,” &c &c. The ambiguity in “hopefully” is not present in the other examples.

    I have to admit that I never thought seriously about this before.

    If “seriously” means “I’m being serious about this” and “honestly” means “I’m being honest about this”, why wouldn’t “hopefully” mean “I’m being hopeful about this”?

    I could imagine “seriously” might mean “I’m serious” or “You should be serious” or “We all ought to be serious”. But “honestly” surely means “I’m being honest” and not “You should be honest” or “We all should be honest”.

    I don’t think it’s built into the structure of the language. Is it that “hopefully” has a literary convention that it should be ambiguous in a bad way? We can’t interpret it like “seriously” or “honestly” because we have to honor the bad tradition?

    What if the people in this conversation start to interpret “hopefully” to mean “I, the speaker or writer, hope”. And if in some specific example that seems incongruous, then we call the speaker or writer on it. “Do you actually hope for that?” Then if they want to they can say they didn’t mean they hoped for it, they wanted to say that nobody in particular should hope for it, and see where it goes from there….

    “Hopefully, the war between Assad and ISIS will have no winner but continue until both sides have fought to the last man.”

    “Do you personally hope for a double genocide?”

    Maybe our meaning would take over, given time.

    Would that be better than just deploring that people use the word?

  72. Thanks, J Thomas, that’s nicely articulated. Steve, I agree with J.T.’s analysis & example. What pulls “hopefully” out of the pack of adverbs and adverbial phrases used sententially and brands it taboo for such use? All I see here is a long-standing peeve among stylistic prescriptivists, with no more logical support than “Never end a sentence with a preposition” [because Latin didn’t, and “præpositio” means “placement before”] or “Never split an infinitive” [because Latin infinitives are single words and aren’t split… because you abso-goddam-lutely can’t split a single word, so there!].

  73. Mark: In the use of “honestly” and “seriously” there is no ambiguity, in “hopefully” there is; I don’t see why this is confusing. If you’re going to argue that “hopefully” simply means, “I hope” then why not say, “I hope” which is shorter and more precise? Or will you argue that there is a difference between “I hope” and “I am in a hopeful mood about..”? If so, please describe, because I’m not seeing it.

    You say “language prescriptivist” as if that’s a bad thing. I’d say it depends on the prescription, wouldn’t you? You give two examples of bad prescriptions; but that hardly proves there aren’t useful ones. Personally I very much want to know which shade of meaning a person intends when using “Hopefully.” And I find it useful to have a word, that means “I mean this not in a figurative sense,” and so I deplore the increasing use of “literally” as a general intensifier. Do you disagree? Why? Why must I decide a change is good simply because some random percentage of people have taken to using it? And what is that random percentage, anyway?

    The OED and American Heritage tend toward the perscriptivist, and I find them generally more useful than Websters. As someone on Facebook remarked, someday we’re going to need a term that means, “systematically kill one person in ten” and you’ll be glad us perscriptivists are around.

  74. I can see some sense to that. “I hope” is shorter than “I’m serious” or “I’m being literal”.

    So it provides a good alternative.

    But then, what do we do about the people who use “hopefully”? We can suffer in silence while they upset us, or we can tell them they’re doing it wrong. I prefer to interpret their word as “I hope” and call them on it if it doesn’t make sense that way. With luck we can change the way the construction gets interpreted generally.

    (In the above example, “generally” means the way most people do it most of the time. I generally use it that way. I hardly ever use it to mean I or somebody else is acting like a general. Also I hardly ever use “awkwardly” to talk about something traveling in the direction of an awk.)

  75. ‘But then, what do we do about the people who use “hopefully”?’ Seriously? What do we DO about them? Nothing. We certainly don’t “correct” them; that would be intolerably rude. We simply continue using words the way we think is correct, and, from time to time, without pointing fingers, and as appropriate, argue for our position.

  76. OK, to each his own.

    I myself am being more proactive. I declare that “hopefully” left dangling, means “I hope”. If people use it in a way that isn’t compatible with that, then I will likely ask them what they mean instead.

    For me, this problem is solved.

  77. Steve, I deliberately made up examples where the clausal reading was absurd. Try then “Seriously, he said that space aliens had taken over the White House.” Does that bother you? For me, the favored reading is with a sentence adverb: ~= “{I’m telling you seriously / No joke}, he said…” – because the more natural placement for a clausal adverb would be “He said seriously that…”

    And the same goes for “hopefully”.

  78. Except that a lot of time, “Seriously” means “Can you believe he said that?” or “I can’t believe he said that!” or “You have got to be kidding me!”

    Seriously, he said that cows eat meat?

    (digression on gender – I very intentionally made the idiot in question a male).

    And then there’s the “I am being emphatic” meaning – “I seriously want some french fries!”.

    And let’s not even get into SRSLY.

  79. I’m not going to argue. I’m going to reactively provide a datum of empirical evidence that common usage of “data” as a collective noun is “normal.” ~ Feel free to discuss the meaning of “normal.”

    I work for a statistical agency. Rarely does anyone ever talk about data in the singular. As others have pointed out, we might mention a “data point,” or that “a piece of the data” is odd/skewed/wrong. I have heard people use the word “datum” when speaking of such a singular point. But normally we’re talking about data sets. In which case we would say, “The data ARE …,” but if we’re talking about one data set we would use the singular form of the be verb. The word “set” has been dropped from the usage in many cases of my one empirical datum point.

  80. Jeff, we’re talking about the same use of “seriously”, just describing it differently: a sentence adverb =
    • (your descriptions) “Can you believe he said that?” or “I can’t believe he said that!”
    • (mine) I’m telling you seriously / No joke

    And while the emphatic meaning (e.g., “I seriously want some French fries”) has a different meaning from the, call it the basic sense – “in a serious manner” – syntactically it’s the same structure. It modifies the verb (“want”), or perhaps the verb phrase (“want some FFs”), about the same meaning as “really” or a prosaic “very much”.

    Steve, Jeff provides a clear example of what I was saying about placement. “I seriously want some French fries” puts the adverb right before the verb (phrase) that it modifies. That’s what I called “clausal” use, in a misguided attempt at conciseness. Whereas for the sentence adverb, “I’m not joking” or “Can you believe he said that?”, it comes at the front. I’m not saying that that’s invariable, but a sentential adverb is more likely to be at the beginning of the whole sentence it applies to, while a clausal adverb (the kind we learned about in school) is more likely to be next to the verb or clause it applies to.

    As in sentential
    “Hopefully, this election won’t take the US back to the fifties”
    vs. clausal
    “I pressed the button for the straight Democratic ticket, and hopefully pressed FINISH.”

  81. Steve: In my experience, “prescriptivism” in language typically means saying things you don’t like are ungrammatical, not English (or whatever language), and the like. For instance, Wilson Follett started the anti-hopefully crusade with, “Such a ‘hopefully’ is un-English and eccentric; ‘it is to be hoped’ is the natural way to express what is meant.” This is obviously wrong; if it it had been true, he’d have had little to object to.

    Prescriptivism also often includes deprecating usages as illiterate, ignorant, and the like.

    On the other hand, I welcome vigorous but polite advice on style and register that doesn’t pretend to be objective facts about grammar.

    As it happens, I object to sentence-modifying “hopefully” for about the same reason you do. I can’t tell whether it means “I hope” or “it is to be hoped”, and I feel that the possible “it is to be hoped” is an attempt to enlist me into hoping the same thing, which I resent. Likewise I dislike “literally” as “in the strongest admissible sense” (OED), or as a mere intensifier or filler, because I want people to be able to understand it when it means “this statement is not a figure of speech.” But I don’t say that “literally” doesn’t have the meanings I dislike, or pretend to misunderstand, as some do.

    There’s a discussion right now at Language Log about prescriptivism in regard to “It is I”, “whom”, and related topics. It’s based on (I don’t say “based off of” or “based around”) a New Yorker review of Steven Pinker’s book on style.

    I do hope your Facebook prescriptivist really said, “you’ll be glad *us* perscriptivists are around.”

  82. Let us briefly review:

    On data taking the plural verb: Shawn Cooke [29 October 2014 at 2:36 pm] (I need to speak to Felix about post numbering!) made what think is a valid point, and I will no longer argue against “the data is” (though I probably still won’t use it myself, and will always smile when someone says “are”)

    On proactive, chaosprime [31 October 2014 at 12:16 pm] gave a convincing example, and I’ll stop fighting that one (though I think I’d rather die than use the word myself).

    On hopefully, I remain unconvinced for the reasons that Jerry Friedman [5 November 2014 at 9:52 am] gives.

    On “prescriptivist” I have issues with what Jerry said, because I don’t do those things, yet I consider myself prescriptivist. By that, I mean, simply, that I do not automatically accept any proposed or in-process change as making the language better, and I am comfortable arguing for or against certain usages. Correcting someone’s grammar, or usage is rude except in certain, uh, prescribed situations; but that does not obligate me to accept any and all changes. If you have a better term than “prescriptivist” to describe someone who despises “literally” used as a general intensifier, and who believes as Jerry and I do about “hopefully,” and is willing to argue those points, then I’ll happily hear what it is.

    Historical note: The ambiguous use of “hopefully” comes from the German “hoffentlich.” I once asked my father (German professor) what “hoffentlich” meant, and he immediately replied, “I hope.”

  83. Does it irritate you that decimate is used to mean removing something other than one in ten?

  84. So how much does language construction influence the dialogue that you write? Do you write dialogue naturally, or do you have to spend time thinking about how much each character is going to use proper English versus idioms, colloquialisms, or generally improper English?

    Obviously, Lord Morrolan speaks in one fashion compared to Vlad, but I have noticed that depending on who Vlad is speaking to, his speech changes. Much in the same way that I speak to my boss differently than I would speak to a good ol’ boy about fishing.

    Maybe a better question would be: when you start writing dialogue for a new character, do you consciously decide before hand how well they speak, or do you just write it and then revise as necessary if it becomes apparent later on that they need different speech patterns?

    ps: Parffi of course would be the exception – that must have been fun to write. <3

  85. Seth: Good question. I have sometimes given it conscious thought, but more often it just seems to emerge naturally–when I have a new character, that’s one of the things that clues me in to who he is.

  86. FWIW, the corresponding word in Esperanto is “esperinde”. That’s an adverb, derived from the adjective “esperinda”, which means “worth hoping for”. Another word used in an exactly parallel way is “bedaŭrinde” : “worth regretting” : idiomatic English, “regrettably”.

    Regrettably, “hopeably” sounds ugly and is hard to say clearly.

  87. Not to derail the conversation anymore, but it’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time. One of the things that keeps me reading and re-reading your books and eagerly awaiting the next, is the dialogue. Very few writers can consistently deliver book after book at that level of discourse and keep it fresh and entertaining on several levels.

    By the way, I used Vlad’s comment about opening a store selling baskets of none of your business at wholesale prices the other day and caused the person I was talking to to laugh so hard he had tears in his eyes. I did attribute it to you also.

    Thank you, you may carry on your regularly scheduled discussion now…

  88. thnidu – I’m not sure we are using the same meaning. When I said ‘I can’t believe he said that’, I meant it as directly the opposite of seriously. That is, that there’s no possible way you could have been serious when you recited what was spoken. Again, “You have got to be kidding me!”. (you see what I said there?)

    Also, I could have expressed the exact same concept as “I want some serious French Fries!” – in which case I’m using an adjective, because it’s modifying a noun and not a verb. I could either be talking about a large quantity of fries, or in a more normative sense, about French Fries made by someone who was very serious about them and had thus produced fries of a superior quality.

    So, again, we see that serious has much connotation such reuse wow.

  89. Irony – saying the opposite of what you mean – is a matter of semantics, not syntax.

    “Seriously, he said that cows eat meat?”
    the word “seriously” does not modify “said”: that would probably be “He seriously said that cows eat meat?” It modifies THE WHOLE SENTENCE THAT FOLLOWS, AS A SPEECH ACT. If you prefer, it modifies the unspoken “(I’m saying to you)…”. It modifies “I’m asking you, ‘He said that cows eat meat?'”
    turning it into
    “I’m seriously[NOT! (because irony)] asking you, ‘He said that cows eat meat?'”

  90. Looking at examples, I get the strong impression that each time we know what it means.

    When it looks vague or indeterminate, mostly the speaker *wants* his meaming to be vague or indeterminate.

    I think it is not in general a bad thing that the language does what people want it to. Maybe it would be better if people didn’t want to say things unclearly. But they do want that sometimes.

  91. Steve: I think calling yourself a prescriptivist for lack of a better word may not be consistent with the principles you’re trying to describe with “prescriptivist”, since your use deviates from the established use that people are likely to understand.

    American Heritage defines “prescriptivist” as “The support or promotion of prescriptive grammar.” It defines “prescriptive” in linguistics as “Based on or establishing norms or rules indicating how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is used.” I take this to mean that prescriptivists believe that some commonly used expressions, maybe including “I ain’t got none” and “like I said”, are *ungrammatical*. If you believe that, “prescriptivist” is certainly the right word, but if you believe those expressions are grammatical but informal or deprecated because of class bias or whatever else, then I’d say the term will mislead some people.

    Regrettably (that is, I regret), I don’t have a better word. Maybe Bernstein’s “careful writer” is close.

    J Thomas: I don’t know what your “it” in the first sentence refers to, but I’ve often thought people were trying to be clear but failing because they were using vague and indeterminate language.

  92. I meant to include the OED’s definition of prescriptivism in linguistics: “The practice or advocacy of prescriptive grammar; the belief that the grammar of a language should lay down rules to which usage must conform.”

  93. Jerry: I’d pretty much sign up to the OED definition, with the caveat that there are always occasions to break the rules, and with the understanding that these rules are bound to evolve. As I’ve demonstrated, I will argue for those changes I like and against those I don’t.

  94. @Rod Rubert: It doesn’t bother me when people use “decimate” to mean “starkly destroy”, but it makes me SO HAPPY when they use it to mean “destroy one-tenth of”. (Remembering now when Doctor Who was good…)

  95. In any discussion of prescriptivism, words like “should” get thrown around a lot, not to mention “improve” or “better” or “safeguard.” The innate implication here is that of a value judgment, that there is a state of the language that is objectively better and others that are objectively worse. Prescriptivists often speak of what amounts to a moral imperative to guard the language against changes for the “worse.”

    Interestingly, they rarely suggest improvements that did not exist at some point in the past. And there seems to be a statute of limitations on how far back you can go. Few people would advocate a return to the use of “thee” and “thou” as a pronoun, or Chaucerian spellings, or the case endings of Old English. The holy state of the language according to a prescriptivist is typically 25-50 years before the present.

    It is worth noting that such a time period coincides neatly with the type of writing and the mode of speech that the prescriptivist learned growing up. Our habits of usage are set during the early years of our lives, developed further throughout our schooling, and remain with little alteration into our adulthood.

    The greater the level of education a person has, the more likely they will be a prescriptivist, because they have a greater stake in what they learned.

    Now, I know I sound like I’m coming down pretty hard on prescriptivism, and I’m heavily generalizing. There is certainly a spectrum in our grammatical rules, between those that improve communication and information content, and those that are more stylistic and habit-based. I just think it’s important, whenever I hear something or read something and say, “That’s wrong,” to ask myself–how much of my opinion is based on what I’m used to, and how much based on a demonstrable change to the ability of the language to communicate a particular concept?

  96. Looking at examples, I get the strong impression that each time we know what it means.

    >J Thomas: I don’t know what your “it” in the first sentence refers to, but I’ve often thought people were trying to be clear but failing because they were using vague and indeterminate language.

    You could easily be right. In my case, I thought it should have been obvious that “it” referred to language. People gave examples that were supposed to be unclear, and each time I thought I knew what they meant, that it was clear, and in the cases that people said it was unclear that it could be read multiple ways, those multiple ways looked to me like the intended meaning. Hopefully, when people use the term “hopefully” they do not intend to say who is or should be hoping.

    But it’s quite possible that sometimes when people use these constructions they are not being as clear as they want. Maybe sometimes they simply are not thinking clearly themselves. Maybe if they stopped using those terms it would help them think clearer?

    Sapir/Whorf, anyone?

  97. Let me change the subject slightly and ask why the plural “data” entered the language at all. We use borrowed plurals only for words borrowed from Greek and Latin. We don’t use the German plural of words borrowed from German (“Weltanschaunge”, perhaps) or any other language. It is pretentious to do it for borrowings from Latin and Greek.. “Octopi”? No, it is “octopodoi”, but you never hear anyone say that. So ignorami say “octopoi”. Yes, I know “ignoramus” is a verb form and the real plural can only be ignoramuses. And the plural of “hippomatus” is “hippomatuses”. And if we use the classical plural, why not inflect it for the proper case?

    Although I had not thought about, it seems clear now that “data” has become a mass noun, related to but not the plural of “datum”. You cannot say “three data” which would be perfectly normal if it were the plural. “Three datums” sounds odd, but has to be correct. “Three data points” has the same meaning but only emphasizes the point. As a result, “data are” is simply grammatically wrong. Mass nouns use singular verbs. Would you say, “The milk are on the table”? (Another bete noire of mine is putting undeserved punctuation inside quotation marks.)

    Hopefully (but not very), you criticized the common use of “hopefully”. While I will not say the language has moved on, I will say you are fighting a losing battle.

  98. Shawn: ‘Prescriptivists often speak of what amounts to a moral imperative to guard the language against changes for the “worse.”’

    Riiiight. And those opposed to prescriptivists, of course, never speak as if prescriptivists are morally offensive. Pfui.

    Has there ever been an interesting argument, about anything, that did not have somewhere under it, “the world will be better if we do things THIS way.” I call that a moral imperative. Don’t you?

    And regarding how things must be before I “approve” them, I direct you to this post:

  99. Steve: Touché. Like most people, I would say that the things I argue against most vehemently are also those things that strike me as “wrong,” in whatever permutation of moral or ethical offense. So yes, perhaps that is a reason to make an argument, but (like you) I try not to make that the substance of my argument. Then the discussion becomes, “I feel this way, and you should too because look how right I am!” That’s how you get a segment on a 24-hour news network, and no one wants that.

    For the sake of argument, why do you think prescriptivists restrict themselves to adherence to a prior state of the language? In other words, why are new changes, that could make the language “better” in the same ways that they advocate, always marginalized? (For example, gender neutral pronouns?)

  100. Shawn: I’m not sure what gender neutral pronoun change you’re speaking of. Do you mean “they” as a singular pronoun? That has a long, long tradition, so it isn’t new. I don’t use it, because the number disagreement makes me cringe whenever I read it; but I don’t argue against it, either. Some changes I resent as deliberately manipulative: “I am going to encourage this usage because it will incline you to accept my ideology, or because it proves you support my ideology.” No one enjoys the feeling of being manipulated.

    I do not concede that prescriptivists “restrict themselves to adherence to a prior state of the language.” Suspicious of change does not equal opposition to all change, either in theory or in practice. New idoms and usages have worked their way into my vocabulary, both spoken and written. In addition to the examples given in the link in my previous comment, I’m pretty sure a textual analysis of my writing between 1981 and today would show any number of new usages, most or all of them unconscious (because when it is conscious, it feels artificial and forced, which is not how I like the language in my books to feel).

    Also, while the conversation has quite reasonably taken its own direction, this may be a good point to remind everyone that the OP was making a simple argument: The bald statement, “the language has moved on” unsupported by anything else, is unconvincing (and, I should say, to me personally offensive, as it feels dismissive).

  101. Steve: There have been proposals made to create out of whole cloth a series of pronouns in English without gender specification. Some of the best known are the so-called “Spivak” pronouns, which Wikipedia describes more ably than I can:

    Deliberately manipulative changes bother me too. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I come down so hard on prescriptivism. One common result of a highly prescriptivist language culture is the establishment of a government body to oversee the use of language. Language academies such as these do a lot to increase the “purity” of a language, but can also use their position of authority to restrict the language based on political agenda. (French in Quebec is a nearby, relevant example of how government-directed language authority can affect culture over time.)

    You make an excellent point, and I fully concede that prescriptivism does not oppose all change. I will say that it is predisposed to accept growth, either in new expressions or new lexical items. A person may hate the word “selfie,” but accept its use as being the best way to describe a cultural phenomenon which has recently gained relevance. The language has grown, therefore it is a “good” thing.

    Instead, prescriptivism tends to oppose the removal of forms from the grammar (e.g., “whom” coalescing with “who”) or the loss of one sense from a word in favor of another. Such changes are perceived as negative, whereas growth is seen as positive.

    One final point on the original thesis. I agree that “the language has moved on” is totally unconvincing in isolation, like many bald statements. It is a hypothesis, a summary, and should never be expected to support itself. But it can summarize a point of view, the stance that no change in language is objectively good or bad.

    To that end, “The language has moved on” is quite dismissive. It is stating that you have no business disliking language change. Perhaps that’s even true in a strictly academic sense, but language is far too personal for most people to be that dispassionate about it.

  102. Shawn: I have no disagreement with any of this. Indeed, the language culture could (conceivably) become so prescriptivist that I’d have to oppose it. I don’t see that happening any time soon, however.

    Once, years and years ago, I made a snarky remark to my father about the Académie Française and he (he’d minored in French) deluged me with comments about what a mess the language had been before it, and how great an improvement it had made, and sited statistics and examples until I was overwhelmed. If he were still alive, I’d love to hear him discuss it again, and to ask him to go slowly enough for me to understand. As it is, I must plead ignorance.

  103. Your father was right–French was a lot like English, with dozens of different spellings for the same sounds, and the same spellings used for dozens of different sounds. There was a great historical “reason” for why French was like that, just like there is for English. Some spellings did not change when pronunciation did; others were spelled that way because it made etymological sense. Some were just old misspellings that became standard.

    The Academy did a great job of regularizing the current state of the language, while not wholly discarding the past. Of course, those changes were definitely opposed at the time by native French speakers, who were invested in the prior way of doing things. Now that a generation or two has learned them from childhood, the older spellings and grammar seem quaint and old fashioned.

    We English speakers (and I am NO exception) often look at changes like that to other languages and applaud their good sense, while resisting any similar changes to our own. No one has ever talked about English spelling reform better than Mark Twain, so I will quote him here:

    “For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.”

    A generation raised on that last sentence would find it normal, and our own usage insane. The advantages to foreign language learners would be immense. But if someone actually tried to force those changes on me, I’d hightail it to the pitchfork store and be first in line for angry mob tryouts.

  104. Steve: Okay.

    J Thomas: I thought you might mean that each use of “proactive” (say) was clear. Your actual, more general meaning didn’t occur to me.

    (If I had anything to say about Sapir-Whorf, it would go here.)

    Big Mike: I’ve read that the Greek-style plural of “octopus” would be “octopodes”.

    We’ve borrowed a few plurals from modern languages, such as “ninja”, “beaux” and “concerti”, although they usually coexist with English-style plurals. (And we’ve borrowed plurals that we use as mass nouns, such as “spaghetti”, and some that we’ve back-formed singulars from, such as “tamale”.)

    Shawn Cooke: Reliable-looking sources attribute that parody of spelling reform to one M. J. Shields.

  105. Normally when I come across the word ‘data’ it can be taken as a group noun, but ‘any data’ is certainly not a collection so I’d say using the singular in this case is technically wrong, no matter what your thoughts about whether you can or cannot use data as a singular item.

    Of course, everyone knew what the guy actually meant, so on a communications standpoint it didn’t really matter… except that, for official government-department announcements, you would think they would be a little more rigorous.

  106. “Any data” is correct and shows only it is a mass noun, not a collective. Just like “any milk” and “any butter”. What is not, now anyway, is a plural. And so “data are” is simply ungrammatical. Go ahead and use it; it is not a capital crime, but don’t criticize me for using the singular verb correctly.

    The fact that I don’t know the Greek plural of “octopus” shows why I prefer “octopuses”.

    I work in an area of mathematics that recently (that is 60 years ago, recent in a discipline going back 2500 years and more) began using the term “topos”. The pretentious ignoramuses among us wanted to make the plural “topi”. When it was pointed out that it was a Greek word and the Greek plural is “topoi” they began using that. I have never used any plural but “toposes” and even cowrote a book in which that plural appears in the title. I have even someone using “topois” as the plural (but what was his singular?)

    If a plural form such as “ninja” is borrowed as a singular, fine, but that doesn’t make it a borrowed plural. The plural is “ninjas”.

  107. Big Mike: I’m impressed by your math book. I teach math at a community college, but your subject is vastly beyond me.

    Any reason to prefer “octopuses” is valid as far as I’m concerned.

    The plural “ninja” exists, as in this example from the OED: “2000 Denver Post 15 Oct. t 10/1 Spies prowled Japan from the seventh century, but the secretive ninja left few written records.”


    However, it’s rare, even rarer than I thought, as a look at COCA reveals.

    Probably a better example of a borrowed plural than the ones I gave is “lied” and “lieder”. (We mostly left the capitalization behind.)

  108. In the original Japanese, “ninja” is neither singular nor plural, or it is both, and any other number you please. Japanese doesn’t mark number on nouns.

  109. Agatha Christie used “hippopotomi” as the plural in her letters about her travels.

    If it’s good enough for Dame Christie, it’s good enough for me…

  110. Via a roundabout path starting in computational linguistics and veering off to an amusing linguist’s twitter account (@TSchnoebelen[*]), I came across Not a Word (@nixicon), which I thought you’d find interesting. It has a lot of comments about words people think shouldn’t be used (my fave so far: “ALUMNIS” IS NOT A WORD. IT’S EITHER “ALUM” OR “ALUMNI”). It’s low on explanations, but it’s enlightening and entertaining to see what other people object to.

    On a barely related note, neither Shakespeare nor Melville had a vocabulary as large as several rappers.

    “Literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary: across his entire corpus, he uses 28,829 words, suggesting he knew over 100,000 words and arguably had the largest vocabulary, ever. I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop….”

    I’ve decided computational linguists have good senses of humor, or maybe I’m justing finding the amusing ones.

    [*] Sample quote: “You must have a Hungarian sense of humor. You know, nihilism entrenched in a strong rejection of authority.”

  111. Steve: Something I keep forgetting to say when I revisit this post and threads:
    In my opinion, it’s not the case that “The language has moved on” about “data”. It *is moving/changing*, and most users treat the word as a non-count noun, but I would not call it obsolete as a plural. Obsolescent, yes, but still in use.

    Shawn, I agree completely with your ¶
    « “The language has moved on” is quite dismissive. It is stating that you have no business disliking language change. Perhaps that’s even true in a strictly academic sense, but language is far too personal for most people to be that dispassionate about it. »

    L. Raymond, did you read the article? I’m no statistician, but I find this guy’s procedure highly suspect. I quote:

    « Literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary: across his entire corpus, he uses 28,829 words, suggesting he knew over 100,000 words and arguably had the largest vocabulary, ever.

    « I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop. I used each artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. That way, prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake.

    « 35,000 words covers 3-5 studio albums and EPs. I included mixtapes if the artist was just short of the 35,000 words. Quite a few rappers don’t have enough official material to be included (e.g., Biggie, Kendrick Lamar). As a benchmark, I included data points for Shakespeare and Herman Melville, using the same approach (35,000 words across several plays for Shakespeare, first 35,000 of Moby Dick). »

    From his graph:
    « shakespeare [1] would be here (5,170)
    « moby dick[ 2] would be here (6,022)
    « (1)(2) I used the first 5,000 words for 7 of Shakespeare’s works: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It, Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida. For Melville, I used the first 35,000 words of Moby Dick. »

  112. ‘ “You must have a Hungarian sense of humor. You know, nihilism entrenched in a strong rejection of authority.”’ *splork*

  113. Somehow I thought you’d be amused by that observation.

    @thnidu “L. Raymond, did you read the article?”

    Yes, which is why I understand he’s having fun with people who think literary and personal worth can be measured by vocabulary size, and that rappers are, by definition, stupid. He made a pretty good point about cultural arrogance while amusing himself.

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