Monday, June 28, 2010

When-Copy-Editing-Prescriptivism_GO-E-s_H-0_rr-i_b_ly-W-R-O_nG

It's almost too easy to beat up on Slate.com these days. The whole site has devolved into a  garbage can of reactionary, simple minded, and flat wrong typists who are making dear Truman turn in his fabulous grave. One of the latest wastes of pixels is this review of the movie Grown Ups which hinges almost its entire critique on a hyphen (no shit, that's about the entire review):


Grown Ups. Just to be clear: That's Grown, space, Ups. What this might mean is a problem of Noam Chomsky-esque proportions. What's fairly certain is that at no stage of the movie's well-funded production did anybody think to check the spelling of the title.


The dictionary that Copy-Editing the Culture happens to be wedded to (not always happily) is Webster's New World College Dictionary: Fourth Edition. It's called "college" because it is intended for, as it were, grown-ups—or, as Webster's also allows, grownups. Never has Copy-Editing the Culture met a prescriptive dictionary that supports Sony's version of the word.


That's because the noun grown ups makes no sense. To grow up—or to push down, to walk toward, to jump up—is a straightforward verb intensified with a preposition. Grown-up is a single noun compounded from those pieces. But what's a grown up? Grammatically, this uncompounded object makes sense only if one is describing an "up" that has grown. And what's an "up"? Does it eat? Need it be socialized?

Way to name drop Chomsky, btw. As one of the rare people who've actually read the The Minimalist Program* I'm pretty sure Chomsky would not be impressed with this reference. The author, Nathan Heller, seems to think that the placement of hyphens are the height of grammatical analysis. As a former college writing instructor, I can tell you that citing a dictionary definition is the clear sign of an author who has ZERO idea what the hell she/he is talking about. Good authors structure their own arguments, they don't cite dictionaries as their authorities. Following up the dictionary reference with the incoherent claim that the preposition up some-how** intensifies the verb grown exposes Nathan's complete lack of credibility on all matters of linguistics. Even the most simple-minded*** grade school teacher would be wary of claiming the preposition up magically intensifies the verb grown in the title Gown Ups. It is an incoherent claim on all levels. It makes no sense.

* Believe me folks, I ain't proud of this. I just happened to be trained at a functionalist grad school which believed in know thy enemy pedagogy, and hence a summer reading group was born.

**Nate, whattaya think about my use of "some-how"? Hmmm? Weird hyphen, huh? Is it "uncompounded"?

***Oh shit, Nate, did you see that? I used another hyphen! Hyphens and Chomsky and Intensifiers, Oh My!

2 comments:

Ryan said...

I swear, that article covers what 90% of English speakers think linguistics is about. Even the college-educated ones (oh shit did I compound that one right maybe Nate could tell me).

Random sidenote: The summer reading group is fun stuff. I'm involved in one for undergrads right now, and to start it up we're doing Pinker's The Language Instinct (it doesn't seem to be so much a book with lots of empirical support for any overarching argument as it a "wow look at how stupid people are we're all such failures there's no way we could just learn languages without help from an overspecialized portion of our brain" book). Anyways, I think The Linguistics Wars is next, and after that Metaphors We Live By, but after that I'm not sure what we'll be doing, and I'd like to continue this into the school year. Any suggestions?

Chris said...

Ryan, thanks for the comment ... and summer reading groups were some of the best experiences of my grad student life, so no need to qualify your comment. Frankly, most grad programs in linguistics could replace half their required courses with reading groups and their students would be far the better off.

As for suggestions, Lakoff's Metaphors is a good one, no doubt, as is his Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, which should satisfy your need for empirical support somewhat (though Lakoff is highly biased in what he chooses to cite, but then again, who isn't?).

Pinker's "Instinct" was meant as a popular book, so he kept the empirical side to a minimum*. As much as I have been disappointed by Pinker's foray into pop-academia, I must admit that his early work on the acquisition of argument structure is a must read for any serious linguist in the 21st Century.

The first chapter of Learnability and Cognition is a brilliant explication of sound linguistic reasoning and a must read. His grand treatise, really, is Language Learnability, also a must read.

Then again, while I love Pinker's early work, I just never quite bought it. A bit too lexicalist. Instead, I'm more of a constructionist, so I'd recommend Constructions at Work.

Those are all a bit dated, but worth the effort. Truth is, I haven't read a serious linguistics book in a long time**. I read articles constantly and the free availability of academic work has kept me intellectually alive since I left academia a couple years ago.

*This reminds me of something Stephen Hawking wrote about in his "Brief History of Time" book where he said his publisher told him that every mathematical equation he included in the book would cut the readership by half. So he only included Einstein's famous equation, and nothing else. His publisher was happier than he was, haha.

**I still read some pop-linguistics now and again like Adam's Tongue and Txting: The Gr8 Deb8. But those are so light-weight as to not really count as real linguistics.

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