For the Love of Prepositions Part 14 — Round and Around

Round and Around

In my previous post in this series I remarked on the fact that the Ministry of Truth that appears in George Orwell’s 1984 is frequently misquoted as ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Such almost universal misquotations are much commoner than one might imagine. Michael Hoey in his eye-opening study of Lexical Priming notes that the Jules Verne novel, the title of whose first official English translation was Around the World in 80 Days, is almost universally misquoted by journalists as ‘round the world’ especially in articles on yacht races, luxury cruises and the like.

Hoey notes that the original translation of Verne’s title (Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours) is infelicitous. ‘Round’ is the more commonly used preposition where literal circular motion is involved, while ‘around’ is used when we mean ‘all over’ or ‘throughout’. Writers would thus seem to prefer to follow prevalence of use rather than accurate citation. Some more recent translations reflect this.

‘Round’ and ‘around’ also provide a good illustration of different phases in the historical process of language change that linguists call grammaticalization.

A corruption of the Latin adjective ‘rotundus’ meaning ‘like a wheel’ (rota), ‘round’ still preserves its original lexical sense and can be used as an adjective to mean ‘circular’ or ‘spherical,’ as in the phrase ‘The earth is round.’

‘Around,’ on the other hand, has been fully grammaticalized and lost this more specific meaning. In fact, ‘around’ can be used to refer not only to approximate values but also to anything vaguely located in time or space. “They live around here” means “They live somewhere in this neighborhood”. ‘I’ve been around a long time’ is a euphemism for ‘I’m old’.

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For the Love of Prepositions Part 13 — For it is sweet…

A recent translation forum debate regarding the correct preposition to use in the names of government departments reached a consensus that, while ‘of’ is the most appropriate preposition for the more prestigious ministries, lesser government agencies with longer more descriptive names tend to be less resistant to the use of ‘for’. ‘Ministry of’ is thus the proper nomenclature for Health, Education or Defense, but ‘Department for the Environment, Housing and Planning sounds OK too.

While few countries around the world have graced their major offices of state with the title of ‘Ministry for’, the phraseology is certainly very common in translation and this suggests that some underlying change is in fact afoot. In the case of government agencies that opt to call themselves departments rather than ministries, the changeover from ‘of’ to ‘for’ is already quite advanced.

In 1992, in the UK, for example, the one-time Ministry and then Department of Education (in existence since the Second World War) was transformed into the Department for Education and, despite various infelicitous name changes since then, the ‘for’ has remained firmly in place.

A similar pattern emerges with other UK government departments. The Department of Transport swapped its ‘of’ for ‘for’ in 1997, and various other newfangled divisions of Her Majesty’s Government have been baptized likewise in recent years.

The purpose of this shift to ‘for’ is clear. ‘For’ connotes a caring agency rather than a grim bureaucracy and suggests the friendly encouragement of self-help rather than the doling out of benefits. For the same reason, the pompous- and—since George Orwell published 1984—somewhat sinister-sounding ‘ministry’ is being pushed out in favor of ‘department’ or ‘office’, both of which are words and concepts that voters will be familiar with from their own workplaces.

Even Orwell of course named his dystopian ministries the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love. ‘For,’ in this context, would in fact sound even creepier. Perhaps we have good reason to be wary of ‘for’.

A quick Google search for “Ministry for Truth” shows that the name of the authoritarian institution in 1984 is in fact frequently misquoted this way. More interestingly still, this usually occurs in contexts that are themselves clearly using the term for propagandist purposes.

A Sky News podcast likens Antifa to Orwell’s Ministry for Truth (sic). The Daily Telegraph warns us that Orwell warned us of a coming ‘Ministry for Truth’. And, in a peculiar twist, the Guardian newspaper misquotes the Sun quoting Orwell’s dystopian novel correctly when accusing David Cameron’s government of operating a ‘Ministry of Truth’.

A left-wing blogger freely moves back and forth from ‘Ministry of Truth’ to ‘Ministry for Truth’ in a single post attacking Teresa May, and Time Out, in a review of a lefty gig, remarks that the University of London’s Senate House provided the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Both extremes of the political spectrum would thus seem to agree that “Ministry for…” sounds far creepier than “Ministry of…” and yet this is precisely the terminology that is becoming fashionable and finding increasing favor in government circles these days.

A recently published science fiction novel about environmental catastrophe entitled The Ministry for the Future has won plaudits from Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The imaginary international organization that gives the book its title is described as being ‘“charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves” and is clearly intended to inspire our praise.

Herein, however, lies the problem with ‘for’. An organization that speaks or acts for groups of individuals who would otherwise be deprived of a voice can be seen as liberating in so far as it advocates for the rights of those who go unrepresented in modern democracies, but it could also be viewed as sinister in so far as it presumptuously arrogates to itself the right to speak for groups (such as animals or the unborn) who are a priori incapable of speech or opinion and, by extension, for other supposedly ‘silent majorities’ who do in fact have their own voice.

As the ideological diversity of the misquotations from Orwell cited above suggests, no one single party or political persuasion has a monopoly on this tendency. Activists on the left claim to speak for the workers or the planet, while those on the right stand up for the nation and the war dead.

‘For it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’, a long-dead poet once pronounced on behalf of heroes who had long since lost their right to voice their own point of view.

‘For’ is a preposition that has a long history of sweetening such subterfuge.

For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob- continued…

[Another post in my ongoing series on prepositions and affixes]

For the Love of Prepositions Part 10b

Ob- continued…

‘Against’, ‘at’, ‘before’, ‘towards’, ‘upon’, ‘with regard to’, ‘in the way’: the Latin prefix ob- and its Greek counterpart epi- are by no means short of meanings.

But, while Greek ‘epi-‘ has become the preserve of esoteric erudite terms such as ‘epistemology’ and ‘epidermis’, ‘epideictic’ and ‘epinephrine’, Latin ob- remains earthily ensconced in common parlance and has, over time, accrued a semantic crust that specializes in signifying obstruction.

And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this somewhat obstreperous reputation, ob-, through objectivity and observation, has somehow insinuated itself into the very nerves and sinews of our modern empiricist, scientific view of the world. Ob- has gotten under our skin indeed.

Object has a strange history; that of observe is stranger still.

Meaning literally something thrown before us like an apple of discord, the litigious Romans used the term obiecta primarily to refer to the charges brought against the defendant in a court of law.

By extension, Medieval scholars came to use the word to refer to things obvious to sense-perception and hence also that to which cognition reaches out. The grammatical sense derived from this appeared much later and is not found in English until well into the 18th century boom in linguistic prescriptivism.  

The Romans called the case of this part of speech ‘accusative’ by way of mistranslation of Greek aitiatike, which would more accurately be rendered ‘causative’.

The Greeks of course got it right. It is the object that causes action in the subject, not vice versa.

The object from this more ancient perspective is thus not something summoned into being or subject to our will but something beckoning to be reached out to: an essential part of the essentially graspable comprehensible, intelligible world.

And yet there remains something mysterious about objects that entices and yet remains fundamentally unidentifiable: celestial bodies, UFOs and foreign objects embedded in human tissue, in the stomach or the eye.  Objets trouvés in unclassifiable museum displays.

The object is the cause of our curious inquiry. The object of epistemology.

While ‘object’ has shifted meaning over time, the verb ‘observe’ sprang into the language of the Ancient Romans already decked out in its full array of modern meanings and collocations. It means as it has always meant ‘keep watch’, ‘wait’, ‘guard’, ‘notice’, ‘care for’, ‘heed’, ‘respect’, ‘abide by’, and ‘obey’.

The underlying root of ‘servus’ slave is now somewhat obscured but still makes its presence felt, standing at once over and under us, like a patient guard(ian), hiding in plain sight.

Watchers serve their charges by blocking the way. We observe patients in hospital to keep them safe from harm and we observe convicts in panoptical penitentiaries to keep us safe from them.

We observe laws and we observe the movements of stars and planets in the heavens. We observe customs and holy days. Our social life is grounded in observance and our science in observation.

In laboratories and observatories we keep careful watch over a world full of daemons and baleful celestial beings that have no reason to wish us well. With our reason we attempt to keep these always ultimately unidentifiable objects firmly within our purview. Held tight or kept at a safe distance, we ensure that they are always kept closely in check.

Plurality in Question

The Linguistic Concept of Number and its Diversity

Number in linguistics clearly goes far beyond the simple arithmetical concept. Grammatical number overlaps with other arguably more primordial categories, such as countability and definiteness, and may carry significant cultural connotations also.

Many languages make no distinction between singular and plural or at least possess no marker of this distinction. Most internationally prestigious modern languages, however, distinguish singular (one) from plural (more than one) for either nouns or verbs or both and sometimes for adjectives also.

Theories of Countability in English

Grammar books normally assert that nouns in English can be countable or uncountable (other terms, such as ‘mass’ and ‘count’ nouns are also sometimes used) and it is often argued that this is similar to the way that nouns are classed as masculine or feminine or according to some other classification in other languages.

It is, however, a significant oversimplification to equate countability with grammatical gender. Mass and count words in English do not fit cleanly into categories or classes but range about along a relatively flexible continuum. Conservative estimates put the number of clear clusters along this spectrum at five, while eight is often cited as the agreed number among scholars of such matters.

These distinctions can be subtle, such as that between wine (uncountable) in general and wines (countable) meaning different kinds of wine, or somewhat more substantial, as in that between countable lambs (meaning the young animals skipping in the field) and uncountable lamb (the meat on a dinner plate). In some cases countable and non-countable versions of the same word may have distinct if not entirely unrelated meanings (e.g. uncountable ‘room,’ meaning space, and countable ‘rooms’ meaning the rooms of a house).

Countable nouns can be used in the plural, with numbers or with the indefinite article, while resiliently uncountable nouns cannot. Uncountable nouns form collocations with the quantifiers ‘much’ and ‘(a) little,’ while countable ones take ‘many’ and ‘(a) few’.

Furthermore, it is important to note that individual items of lexis may move back and forth along this spectrum over time.

Countability and Language Change in Present-Day English

One common shift over time is from the nearly always uncountable category to one of the categories that allow for countable uses (with or without some degree of difference in meaning).

The causes of this shift may be obscure but there can be no doubt that the phenomenon occurs among users of English as a second language. For example, the plural form of ‘research’ ‘researches’ is becoming common in international academic journals.

Some words, however, such as ‘information’, ‘equipment’, ‘music’ and ‘bread’ have proved more resistant to pluralization/countabilization even though they are used as such by many non-native speakers. Unlike ‘researches’, one is unlikely to find ‘informations’ in a major international publication. Interestingly, in the case of ‘researches,’ this plural form was in fact acceptable and not uncommon in the not too recent past.

It remains to be seen at which point instances of the use of such language become sufficiently commonplace to be deemed normative. For now, however, they clearly constitute non-standard forms of the language and should be corrected in more formal discourse.

More problematic, is the case where a traditionally uncountable word is made countable (usually by way of permitting pluralization) for ideological reasons or to express a new perspective on a subject.

As with other linguistic developments that fall into the somewhat pejorative category of ‘political correctness,’ the motivation for such wording ranges from a genuine need for greater precision, a marker of ideological purity, to, in the worst instances, mere imitation in an attempt to appear scholarly and/or progressive.

‘Feminisms’ plural, for example, meets a genuine need to indicate that the feminist movement embraces a wide diversity of theories and approaches but may also be employed by writers keen to demonstrate to their readers that they are sufficiently open-minded to be aware of this diversity. ‘Technologies’ used willy-nilly with no clear difference in meaning from ‘technology’ is, however, in my opinion, purely decorative and thus inelegant.   

I would suggest, however, that, in most cases where there is some degree of flexibility with regard to countability, the word has been uncountable in the past and this usage is thus simply being revived.

This is the case with ‘research’, as seen above, and also of ‘history’, which is often pluralized nowadays in an academic context to underline the fact that there can be no single objective interpretation or account of historical events: women’s history differs from men’s history and even within these there are various different ‘histories’. This usage still seems borderline unorthodox today but it was not so long ago that ‘history’ and ‘story’ were synonyms and could both be used countably or uncountably. Indeed, the title of the first book of history in history—Herodotus’s Histories—contains the word history in the plural in its traditional English translation.   

Non-standard usages relating to Concordance

Moving on from issues relating to countability, another area where confusion between singular and plural may arise and in which non-native speaker language use may have some influence concerns agreement in number between subject and predicate. Errors in this regard may be compounded by the question of countability.            

This issue is often presented in grammar books in terms of cases where a plurality of subjects each possesses a certain object.

[1a] The two men put their hats on their heads.

[1b] *The two men put their hat on their head.

In some languages 1a would sound strange because each man only has one hat, but in English 1b strikes the reader as very unnatural, even though the normal English rendering leaves room for some doubt as to whether each man wore one hat or more.

As is often the cases with grammar books and grammar exercises, however, such examples are both infrequent and atypical. More common is confusion between phrases such as

[2a] People’s everyday lives

[2b] ?People’s everyday life

in which the ‘wrongness’ of the second is far less obvious.

In my experience, it is far more frequent to encounter cases of concordance error where countability issues also play a role. 

The following sentence, for example, is entirely correct and sounds quite natural in English.

[3a] Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatment for patients.

Many non-native speakers, however, will write this sentence as follows:

[3b] ?Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatments for patients.

The logic is that many patients receive many different kinds of treatment and, indeed, the same patient may receive multiple treatments. Singular therefore would be wrong.

However, to a native speaker, while not wrong, the over-precision of this sentence sounds a little strained, as if the writer were laboring the obvious. As a general rule, English prefers vagueness, where meaning can reasonably be inferred from context.

If we replace the word ‘treatment’ with a word that falls into the resiliently uncountable category, such as ‘care’, the plural sounds very strange indeed and would be considered by most native speakers to be non-standard or wrong.

 [4] *Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing cares for patients

Note the following, however:

[5a] Patients undergoing multiple treatments must be especially careful with their medication.

[5b] Patients undergoing treatment …

Here we need to add the word ‘multiple’ because otherwise the plural would sound strange. The singular, on the other hand, implies a certain specific kind of treatment.

As noted at the beginning of this section, movement from countable to uncountable status may combine with an urge to provide the kind of unnecessary precision discussed here.

In phrases, quite common these days such as

[6a] ?The course provides various insights into the psychologies of young children.

it is by no means clear whether the author intends to emphasize the plural nature of child psychology or perspectives on it, or whether they are opting for over-precision, on the grounds that any one child can evidently be affected by more than one psychological condition.

In cases, where these strategies overlap in such a way that the making of a valid point becomes indistinguishable from error, I think it is justified to categorize such usage as non-standard. Especially since such sentences can almost always easily be reworded to avoid the ambiguity.

[6b] The course provides various insights into the psychological states and conditions of young children.

Brevity and familiarity of discourse may however play a role in such linguistic decisions on the part of writers and speakers. If so, ‘psychologies’ could be regarded as acceptable shorthand for ‘psychological states and conditions’.

A related, although somewhat marginal and self-contained issue concerns the agreement of seemingly singular quantifiers such as ‘a number of’ and ‘the majority’.

I think that most native speakers of English would baulk at the sentence

[7a] *?A number of issues was raised in the meeting

and prefer [7b] A number of issues were raised in the meeting.

Opinion regarding the following pair, however, may be more divided.

[8a] ?The majority of British families now possesses a washing-machine

[8b] The majority of British families now possess a washing-machine

To native speakers of a neo-Latin language, however, [7b] and [8b] sound outright wrong and such individuals will actively resist [7a] and [8a], because so much importance is attached to this particular ‘grammar rule’ in their schools.

Such concordance issues are not accorded so much emphasis in schools in English-speaking countries and it is not therefore uncommon for even educated writers to produce non-standard sentences such as:

[9a] *The quality of information technology courses have been on the decline in recent years

rather than

[9b] The quality of information technology courses has been on the decline in recent years.

Some US tests of English as a foreign language still include Use of English questions of this type.

This suggests that international cultural differences also play a role in determining the extent to which forms of use of the singular/plural distinction are acceptable or not. Different cultures entail different patterns of prescriptivism and such different cultures may co-exist within a single language community. 

Number and Definiteness

Singular and plural can also be used to indicate subtle differences in the degrees of definiteness and in such cases the use of the definite article also plays a role.

[10a] Farmers need more support from the Federal Government

[10b] The farmer needs more support from the Federal Government.

The former sounds more natural nowadays, but the latter is commonly found in the political discourse of a few hundred years ago and is still not deemed non-standard today.

The definite article plus singular form persists in scientific treatises such as

[11a] “The Anatomy of the Horse”, i.e. the horse as an ideal type.

A book entitled [11b] “The Anatomy of Horses” suggests a more accessible guide for horse-owners.   

Definiteness and number overlap in creating the desired effect.

Language is necessarily flexible and tolerates a certain quite large degree of ambiguity. Most patients will not complain or sue their doctors if their (indefinite/general) ‘cancer treatment’ in fact involves several different (definite/specific) kinds of treatment.

Anglo-American philosophers who are interested in the subject of generics attempt to distinguish subtle distinctions between different ways of saying very similar things. Their focus is somewhat different from mine in that they are interested both in the way concepts are supposedly organized in the human mind and in the nature of reality (if at all accessible), while I am interested here purely in linguistic patterns of use.

From the latter point of view, all of the following are possible ways of expressing the idea that members of the species of bear referred to in common parlance as ‘grizzly bears’ are biologically programmed to hibernate:

[12a] Grizzly bears sleep in the winter

[12b] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

[12c] The grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

or [12d] The grizzly bears sleep in the winter

While an urge to avoid ambiguity, produces a clear preference for the first of these nowadays, a specific context may, however, lead our preference to shift to one of the others, as follows:

[12e] [contrasting groups] The polar bears hunt all year round, while the grizzly bears sleep in the winter.

[12f] [logical induction from general to specific] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter, so this one won’t bother us at this time of year.

[12g] [a natural history documentary] The grizzly bear sleeps through the winter, while much of the forest fauna continues to go about its everyday business.

In political discourse, nowadays, the generic with the definite article (such as ‘the farmer’, ‘the soldier’, ‘the voter’) seems to be being avoided in favor of the bare plural form ‘farmers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘voters’. This may reflect a concerted effort to avoid (or to be seen to avoid) stereotyping or homogenizing members of a diverse group. It may constitute an attempt to disambiguate the phrase. Or indeed may seek to accomplish both simultaneously. This same desire may underlie some of the less acceptable-seeming politically correct usages such as ‘child psychologies’.

Number in Legal English

While everyday English tends to prefer ambiguity and vagueness if a choice exists, legal language needs to be clear and its distinctions crisp. In legal usage, therefore, it may be necessary to provide explicit explanation to the effect that ‘the singular includes the plural’ or vice versa.

The [13a] ‘right to bear arms’ includes the right to carry just one weapon. A law stating that it is [13b] ‘illegal to discharge a fire arm in a public place’ does not imply that it would be permissible to use a whole arsenal.

Descriptivism, Tolerance and Prescriptivism in a Polarized Age

It is important in matters of language, as in all things, to strive to uphold a crisp distinction between subjective and objective criteria.

Linguistics has long been beset by a prescriptivist element that confuses the objective and subjective ‘rules’ and even some supposedly scientific descriptivist linguistic studies may justly be accused of this. Linguistic arguments that seem silly today were once considered highly objective. In the case of number, we need go back no further than Logan’s 1941 article on countability in US spoken discourse to find prejudice against language change donning the guise of objectivity. His “instances in which the plural adds nothing to the clarity of the statement, though the authors probably thought they were making a valuable distinction” include some turns of phrase that seem quite normal today. On the other hand, this same author also provides numerous examples of needless use of the plural that I feel would be unlikely to occur today. Few modern writers, for example, I think would follow Dickens in describing an after-dinner speaker as ‘toasting the healths’ of the guests.

It is, therefore, important that we remain alert to the possibility that over-tolerant anti-prescriptivism may itself become intolerant and prescriptivist. This will surely be the case if we accept the standards of our own age as the norm and, for instance, tolerate non-standard forms in which political correctness is at play, while baulking at non-native speaker errors such as ‘musics’ and ‘equipments’. More controversially, any full description of a language should surely include a description of any and all instances of perceived prescriptivism on the part of its many different users.

A Typology of Non-Standard Uses of the English Plural

By way of a tentative attempt to provide a typology and tolerance guide with regard to this particular feature of the English language, I suggest the following types of non-standard usage of plural/countable forms, presented here in order of increasing acceptability:

[A] Simple grammatical error [*The men is old]

[B] Use of plural form for resiliently uncountable nouns [*?The house has many furnitures]

[C] Over-precision in use of a plural form [?The doctor provided treatments for many patients]

[D] Plural applied for merely decorative purposes [?The school uses a variety of educational technologies]

[E] Plural applied to make an ideological point [?Feminisms in History]

[F] Plural applied for reason of greater accuracy (academic/legal English) [The 18th century saw the publication of numerous histories of England]

For anyone interesting in exploring this topic further, I include a short bibliography.

Bibliography

Aarts, B., Denison, D., Keizer, E., and Popova, G. (Eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: a reader. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Corbett, G.G. (2004) Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Downing, A. and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar: a university course. Routledge. New York and London.

Gillon, B. S. (1992) “Towards a Common Semantics for English Count and Mass Nouns” in

Linguistics and Philosophy 15(6), pp. 597-639

Hamm, F. and Hinrichs, E. (Eds.) (1998) Plurality and Quantification. Springer. Dordrecht.

Huddleston, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Jespersen, O. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Einar Munksgaard and George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Copenhagen and London.

Landman, F. (2011) “Count nouns – mass nouns, neat nouns – mess nouns” in The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. Volume 6 – Formal Semantics and Pragmatics. Discourse, Context and Models. Retrieved from  https://doi.org/10.4148/biyclc.v6i0.1579   

Logan, C. T. (1941). “The Plural of Uncountables”in American Speech, 16(3), 170. doi:10.2307/486884 

Massam, D. (2012) Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar in Use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate learners of English. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (1979) Mass Terms: some philosophical problems. Springer. Dordrecht.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (2010) Kinds, things, and stuff: mass terms and generics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.  

Sharvy, R. (1978) “Maybe English Has no Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics” in Studies in Language, 2(3), pp.345–365. doi:10.1075/sl.2.3.04sha 

Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. Master’s Dissertation. University of Tampere, Finland.

Storch, A. and Dimmendaal, G. J. (Eds.) (2014) Number – Constructions and Semantics: case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia

If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?   https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/28/joe-biden-presidency-first-100-days

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 12 …in the time of coronavirus

In this time of global pestilence and need for isolation, many people have understandably been posting on social media about immunity. The preposition they use after this word or after the corresponding adjective ‘immune’ varies. Sometimes it is ‘to’, sometimes ‘from’.

I am not a prescriptive grammarian and the purpose of these blogposts is never to police the way people employ language but to reflect on the social meaning of shifting language norms… In this case, however, the precise use of terms may determine the way people perceive a lethal disease and behave in response to it. There may therefore be some justification for greater caution in this specific instance.

‘Immune to’ and ‘immune from’ are both correct but they have different meanings.

The first is a medical term. It means that your body has developed antibodies that may protect you from contracting a disease. Usually, you have developed these antibodies as a result of already having been exposed to infection. Of course, like many technical terms, it can also be used figuratively.

[1] I am immune to criticism

means ‘you can criticize me, but it doesn’t upset me’.

‘Immune from’ by contrast is a legal term. It means that a judge has decreed that you are exempt from something, usually some kind of burden or penalty. If a witness is ‘immune from prosecution,’ it means that they cannot be charged with a crime, even if they have in fact committed one. This may be the case in plea deals, for example. Again, the term can be used figuratively.

[2] I am immune from criticism

means ‘people aren’t allowed to criticize me’.

There is clearly a big difference between statement [1] and statement [2]. The latter suggests arrogance or unfair privilege; the former indicates forbearance.

The legal use of the term is much more ancient. It goes back to Latin and Roman Law. Immunology, is, unfortunately, a field of knowledge that is much younger than the legal profession. It is therefore understandable that laypeople tend to use ‘from’ in all contexts and think legalistically about issues that have nothing to do with the law. This is especially likely to occur if these issues involve relatively novel complex concepts, such as immune responses and antigens. However, in a medical context, use of ‘from’ may be misleading… fatally misleading in fact…

No-one is immune from a virus, even if they are immune to it. To suggest the former is possible at best invites complacency, at worst justifies eugenics. To expect the former invites mistrust with regard to vaccination. Both are dangerous attitudes in a time of crisis.

Of course, few who use ‘immune from’ inappropriately in this way have any conscious malign intent. However, over time, persistent repetition of such imprecise use of language nudges people unconsciously as a herd in the direction of complacency, callousness, mistrust, and lack of care.

People who do not care about language probably do not care about people either. This is a malady as insidious as any disease.

There is, however, another preposition that is used with ‘immune’, albeit far less frequently. This alternative is ‘against’.

Use of ‘against’ in this context could be conceived as wrong, if we define ‘wrong’ linguistically-speaking to mean ‘insufficiently frequent to be considered standard usage’. If, however, we define linguistically wrong as meaning ‘lacking due precision,’ there are perhaps good logical arguments in favor of a shift to ‘against’ in medical contexts. It is, therefore, no surprise that use of the phrase ‘immunity against’ is more common among scientists, especially those whose native language is not English, for whom the turn of phrase does not sound ‘strange’.  ‘Against’ is also more common with the abstract noun than with the adjective. This again suggests that it is preferred in more technical contexts.

‘Against’ has the advantage of echoing the Latin prefix used in scientific neologisms such as antibody and antigen. It also suggests the metaphor of an ongoing battle that may be won or lost, which is more appropriate than that of inviolable protection from… It would not be the first time that non-native speakers taught us how best to use the English language.

Appendix

A Brief Statistical Survey

I checked the frequency of occurrence of all three prepositions with the words ‘immune’ and ‘immunity’ in texts accessible through Google. To simplify the search, I restricted it to ‘chickenpox,’ in order to rule out non-medical uses and avoid ongoing controversies surrounding Covid-19.

The results were as follows.

  immune immunity
to 13700 (73%) 15300 (66%)
from 4510 (24%) 3290 (14%)
against 648 (3%) 4720 (20%)

 

Afterthought

Someone asked me about ‘for’. To my mind, this sounds very strange with the adjective but not with the abstract noun. I, therefore, checked the figures for this preposition. ‘Immune for’ registers a frequency of 10 (0.0%); ‘immunity for’ registers 1,900 (7.5%) in the context searched for above. This confirms my instinct and justifies not (yet) considering these as forms in standard use.

I will in future post long overdue discussions of ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘of’ as part of this ongoing series on prepositions and my love of them.

For the Love of Prepositions Part11

For the Love of Prepositions Part 11—Till Death us do Part

Till, until, unto and unless

If ever a reminder were needed that, where language is concerned, rules can, will and should be broken, the well-known phrase from the Anglican wedding vows with which I title this post is surely one of them. The phrase deviates from standard present-day English in various respects. It does not obey strict Subject-Verb-Object word order. It unnecessarily uses auxiliary do. The verb does not agree with the subject with respect to number. A colloquial abbreviated form of until is used.

But hang on! There is nothing ‘wrong’ with till. Till or til is actually older than until, going back to Anglo Saxon and beyond. Scandinavian languages still use this ancient preposition more broadly in the spatial and temporal senses of Modern English to. Until does not appear until the turn of the 12th century.

The un- prefix also means till; it has nothing to do with the homonymous negative prefix. By reduplicating the temporal distance like this, the word gains a somewhat wistful, lugubrious, if not grim flavor. If you really want to drag things out, you can also add up, to produce long drawn out yawning phrases such as up until the very last minute.

We find the same un- prefix in more antique-sounding but actually more recent (14th century) unto. This word has been kept alive largely by the King James Bible, where it is used to lend duly reverent weight to joyless prognostications: “Unto dust shalt thou return,” “sickness unto death” and so forth. Different from until, unto can also be used spatially and as a fancy synonym for to: “And God spake unto Abraham” and the like.

Likewise, perusal of an etymological dictionary informs us, somewhat to our surprise, that the un in unless likewise has nothing to do with the negative prefix and is of relatively recent provenance, beefing up less or lest with a prefix that was originally on-, meaning on the condition less and borrowing some of the pseudo-atavistic weight of unto and until.

Defendants famously have the right to be considered innocent unless and until proven guilty. The until is necessary here. Otherwise, proof of guilt could be deemed to attach automatically in some circumstances and due process would thereby be dispensable.

Lest, by the way, is a contraction of the less that and means that not. It too has a somewhat intimidating judgmental or else feel to it. Lest we forget…

To return to till, readers may also be as intrigued as I was to discover that it is cognate with the verb till (prepare land for planting) by way of a Proto-German root which also gave rise to Modern German Ziel (purpose, end, goal). It is entirely unrelated, however, to the noun till (cashbox), which belongs to the toll, tally, teller word cluster.

 

Managing Capacity: Modal verbs in the real world

There are three modal (or semi-modal) verbs of capacity, ability or capability in standard present-day English. These are can, be able to, and manage to.

All have past and negative forms. The irregular past tense of can in this sense is could.

The usages and subtly different meanings pertaining to these forms overlap and can be quite confusing. Manage to is a relative newcomer and helps to clear up the confusion.

Problem No. 1

Like most modal verbs, can is ‘defective’. It lacks verb forms other than the Present Simple and Past Simple. To make up for this, be able to is used to fill the missing forms.

So,

[1] I can swim means I have the (permanent) ability to swim.

But, if we want to use the verb in the infinitive, we have to revert to be able to, thus:

[2] Every child should be able to swim.

Likewise, the –ing form.

[3] Being able to swim is a prerequisite for joining the marines.

Other forms of the verb need to be used less regularly in this context. But likewise require use of be able to.

[4] Present Perfect: I have been able to swim since I was a baby.

The language (by which I mean people using language over time) has found an elegant solution to this problem.

But then comes Problem 2:

The distinction between can and be able to is also used (in some contexts) to distinguish between a permanent and temporary capacity respectively.

This is subtle to the point of obscurity.

Back in the day, I used to pose conundrums like this:

[5] Algernon survived the shipwreck because he could swim.

Bertrand survived the shipwreck because he was able to swim.

Who can swim?

The answer is Algernon, but the question understandably gives rise to some confusion.

To make the answer uncontestable, we would have to ask:

If only one of them can swim, which one is it?

Can and be able to are too closely intertwined grammatically to make this distinction clearly and cannot do so at all in the case of forms of the verb in which can is defective.

Solution

This is where the relative neologism, manage to, used modally, comes in.

Manage to clearly takes over the temporary fumbling function of be able to and leaves the distinction uncontestable.

[6] He survived the shipwreck because he was able to swim.

[7] He survived the shipwreck because he managed to swim [‘even though, he couldn’t swim’ is implied]

This is a clear example from present-day English of what some contemporary linguists call ‘grammaticalization’.

This is an ugly and somewhat misleading term.

The idea is that all grammatical morphemes and lexemes originate in pure lexical terms, whose usage has become diluted over time. This may lead to distortions in the phonetic or written form of the word. For example, ‘gonna’ tends to mark the grammatical future use of the phrase ‘going to’ while its more literal lexical meaning, as in ‘I am going to London,’ still exists.

In this case, a completely different phonetic form has been spun off by the ‘grammaticalization’ process.

In other cases there is a change in syntactical structure.

Keep as a modal verb indicating repeated (usually undesired) action only in so far as it is followed by the –ing form of another verb.

[8] She keeps hiccoughing.

[9] He keeps tropical fish.

In these two sentences the verb ‘keep’ clearly has a very different meaning.

The same occurs with ‘manage’ in its modal capacity.

[10] He managed to stay afloat after the shipwreck, despite not being able to swim.

[11] He managed the shipping company for many years.

Why and when the word ‘manage’ (or ‘keep’ for that matter) came to take on this additional grammaticalized function is a much more interesting question.

The word ‘manage’ originally appears in neo-Latin languages in the Middle Ages to refer to horsemanship (the training and riding of a horse). By the late 16th century, its use in English had extended to any activity requiring manual dexterity and to the ‘management’ of a business in the modern sense. The extended modal use appears only in the mid 18th century and I suspect that its commonplace use in this sense is even more recent.

The ‘descent’ of this word from highly-specialized aristocratic equestrian skills to something as mundane as just ‘managing to get out of bed in the morning’ provides a lesson not only in language change but also in significant democratization that society has undergone in the past five hundred years or so.

It also contains a broader message about the ups and downs of linguistic change and an implicit warning.

As I suggested above, ‘grammaticalization’ is not a good word. It suggests that there is a natural downward flow from the particular to the general and that such ‘grammaticalized’ words always lose lexical force. Neither of these claims is true, as most ‘grammaticalization’ theorists freely admit.

I would suggest, on the contrary, that this seemingly universal language process, provides evidence of a constant process of ‘lexicalization’. As grammatical elements become increasingly eroded and the rules invented to govern them growingly abstruse, people naturally reach out for more clearly visualizable words to take their place.

I would also argue the lexical content of so-called ‘grammar words’ and even morphemes is almost never truly lost and always available for resuscitation. People may say ‘gonna’ when they mean it in the modal sense and ‘going to’ when they mean it in the literal sense. But they still know in their heart of hearts that the two are in fact the same. This is conscious or semi-conscious. But the effect may be unconscious too.

The modal verb ‘will’ for example has become heavily ‘grammaticalized’ in modern English. To the extent that in some old-fashioned grammar books it is presented simply as a marker of an English Future Tense similar to that of neo-Latin languages. More enlightened modern grammarians have entirely dismissed this notion. English has no future tense so to speak, only various forms used to express a multitude of shifting attitudes regarding the future. ‘Will’ is one of them, but its specific use depends directly in many cases on the original lexical meaning of the word (‘want’), arguably increasingly so.

To return to management. ‘Manage’ has been ‘dumbed down’ to some extent, but it has also been ‘dolled up’ in the form of the abstract noun ‘management’ to refer to a whole arcane industry of theorizing as to the skills required to best administer companies in a capitalist environment, most of which are far less specifiable than the eminently practical and verifiable skills required to rear and ride a horse.

While most of us struggle to manage to get out of bed in the morning and make ends meet, it is worrying that a term of obvious aristocratic pedigree is now being used (often mendaciously) to fabricate and consolidate a new soi disant upper stratum in an increasingly unequal society.

A Number of Issues regarding Number

First Impressions

Number is, on the face of it, the easiest of grammatical notions to master. Nouns or noun phrases can be singular or plural. Most nouns form the plural by adding –s. Verbs agree with the noun in number but only in the third person singular of the present simple, which ends in –s; the other parts of the verb have no ending.

However, even within this seeming simplicity, lurk seeds of confusion. It is odd (very odd in fact) that the plural of the noun and the singular of the first person present tense of the verb have the same suffix.

[1] Many girls like to play football.

[2] That boy likes to play football.

In fact, it is so odd that no-one knows the exact etymologic of the 3rd person singular form.

Countability and Uncountability

Even odder is the fact that not all English nouns have plural forms and sometimes the same word has different meanings, depending on whether it has a plural form or not.

This issue comes about because sometimes we want to talk about a multitude of things as if they were a lump rather than a group of discrete individuals or objects. We tend to feel the same about abstract terms, so these behave in the same way.

Consider the following phrases:

[3] Vegetarians don’t eat meat.

[4] Beethoven continued to write music when he was deaf.

‘Meat’ and ‘music’ here are uncountable. They will rarely, if ever, appear in the plural.

Sometimes a single word has a countable and an uncountable form with different meanings. For example, ‘time’ and ‘room’.

[4] I have no time to do homework (uncountable)

[5] I have taken the test many times. (countable)

[6] The house has eight rooms (countable)

[7] There is no room for parking (uncountable i.e. space)

In fact there are five categories of countability in present-day English:

I Always uncountable (e.g. music, bread)

II Usually uncountable (e.g. water)

III Countable or uncountable but with different meanings (e.g. time, lamb)

IV Usually countable (e.g. leg)

V Always countable (e.g. words used to transform uncountables into countables, such as ‘piece’, ‘slice’, ‘item’)

Common Mistakes involving Number

  1. Adjectives in the plural.

Adjectives almost NEVER occur in the plural in English. Or, to be more precise, adjectives NEVER agree with the noun they qualify in number. This rule also extends to the vast majority of other qualifiers (of which adjectives are a subset). So, there is no plural form of the articles (‘the’, and ‘a’), no plural forms of numbers, no plural ending on nouns used as qualifiers (even when these are logically plural), and no plural endings on words or phrases that express plurality (such as ‘some’, ‘few’, ‘several’, ‘a number of’ etc.). Neither does the word ‘other,’ if used as a qualifier, take a plural ending; although, if used as a noun substitute, it does. The singular form of other (qualifier) or others (noun) is another. The demonstrative pronouns, which have clear plural forms (‘this’,’these’,’that’,’those’), are the only significant exceptions to this rule.

Examples:

[8] Difficult issues. [No-one, native speaker or not, would put an –s on the adjective in speaking. So why do people do it in writing?]

The same applies when the adjective is the coda of the phrase.

[9] Some issues are difficult to resolve.

[10] Animal Farm is the title of a famous book about a farm that has many animals. But here the word animal is functioning as a qualifier (i.e. like an adjective). So there is no plural ending. The same goes for more common phrases such as ‘project management’ = ‘the management of projects’.

  1. Failure to identify the main subject of a sentence or the main noun in a noun phrase.

This error may occur for a number of reasons:

  1. a) simple oversight
  2. b) because the subject of the sentence is a long way away from the verb.
  3. c) failure to identify the main noun of a nominal phrase that is the subject of a sentence.

The following example covers all three of these:

[11] Members of staff responsible for office security are required to wear identity badges at all times.

Here the subject of the verb ‘are’ is the nominal phrase ‘members of staff’ and, within this nominal phrase, the main noun is ‘members’, which is plural. So the verb ‘are’ has a plural form also.

  1. d) failure to notice that the main noun is an irregular plural (e.g. people, children, sheep, fish, bacteria, criteria, analyses)
  2. Issues regarding the distinction between countable and uncountable.
  3. a) In some cases, words that appear plural are in fact singular and vice versa. For example, ‘news’ is singular. ‘Police’, however, is plural (except in this sentence, in which it is singular, because I am referring to the word ‘police’ not the people plural who work as ‘police officers’. Names of cities or countries when they refer to sports teams (in the UK) are also plural.

[12] Liverpool is a beautiful city.

[13] Liverpool have been playing well this season.

  1. b) Single objects made of pairs or parts.

‘Scissors’ and ‘stairs’ are plural and uncountable but we can make them countable by saying ‘a pair of scissors’, ‘a flight of stairs’.

  1. c) The abstract nature of countability

Perhaps the most common source of error in this regard derives from the fact that countability (and hence grammatical number) is abstract in English (like gender in Latin languages) and does not necessarily bear any relation to actual plurality or singularity. In addition to this we may, as human beings, have a tendency to see large groups of objects or generalizations that take a plural form as a singular mass. Grammatically, however, these must be plural.

A common error for example concerns the word ‘people’, meaning ‘people in general’, ‘all the people in the world’. There is a natural tendency to see this as something singular, but ‘people’ is grammatically plural and, therefore, the verb that follows it must be too.

This confusion can also work the other way round. Singular words (such as ‘crowd’ and ‘flock’) refer to a plurality of people or things, but are nevertheless grammatically singular.

  1. Anomalies

There are, of course, numerous anomalies. Here are two of my favorite ones.

  1. a) Everyone and no-one

These two words (weirdly) are both singular and plural. Although, when used as the subject of a verb, the verb must take a singular form, when referred back to later in the sentence (by a possessive or a tag question) they suddenly become plural. So,

[14] Everyone loves their children.

[15] No-one likes a bully, do they?

  1. b) ‘the number of’ and ‘a number of’

These are in fact two very different expressions and refer to two very different concepts.

“The number of” refers to the exact number of something and is thus conceived to be singular.

[16] The number of students consulting online resources has increased dramatically in recent years. [The number is the subject not the students]

“A number of,” by contrast, is a compound qualifier (i.e. a kind of adjective) meaning more or less the same as ‘some’. The subject therefore will be the noun that follows it and will be plural.

[17] A number of students have complained [Here the subject is the students].

Final Remarks

This is just a brief overview of some of the issues regarding grammatical number that I have observed as an English language teacher and editor. As errors of this nature seem to be on the rise recently, I feel that number is an often overlooked or underestimated corner of grammar that may require more attention on the part of learners and teachers.

I hope in the near future to post an article that addresses the question of why this kind of error seems to be on the increase in contemporary global English. I am also interested in the way different languages and cultures deal with the concept of grammatical number and in the manner in which this interacts with acquisition of the concept in a more mathematical and philosophical sense.

For remarks on the concept of number in legal English, see my previous post on Antonin Scalia. https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/grammar-lessons-from-antonin-scalia/

Modal Verbs in the News

Grammar seldom makes the news. In fact nothing seems to make the news much these days except for Brexit and Trump.

I made a conscious decision early last year NOT to write about the US president on this blog, even though politics is one of its main thematic axes. Since Trump seems to thrive, like some extremophile strain of virulent bacterium, even on negative publicity, I feel it is the best policy not to give him any publicity at all.

I make an exception, however, where language is concerned; and, since I have written extensively on modal verbs in past posts, I feel obliged to comment when one of them makes the headlines, as has occurred recently, even though it came out of the mouth of Mr. T.

At the Helsinki summit press conference, when asked a question regarding Russian tampering in the 2016 US elections, Mr. T uttered the following words: “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]”

After much outcry over this statement, not least among members of his own party, the very next day the US president retracted his words, claiming that he had ‘misspoken’ ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’ and thereby, in an unimpressive display of clumsy prestidigitation, completely inverted the apparent original meaning of the phrase.

Leaving aside questions regarding the genuineness of this self-correction or the nature of Mr. T’s true feelings towards Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, I think it is worthwhile taking the president at his word on this occasion and examining the ‘mistake’ in purely linguistic terms.

To be fair, Trump himself, in the course of his retraction, explained the error in precisely this way. “It’s a sort of double negative,” he added (off-script) after reading out the corrected version of the original statement.

This provides a glimpse of insight into what really goes on in Mr. T’s mind, whether his intentions were duplicitous or not.

Trump is old enough to have been schooled quite sternly in a kind of prescriptive grammar, which, like much of what Mr. T believes in, is rightly considered politically incorrect and scientifically wrong these days. One such ‘rule’ that would have been beaten into him (perhaps literally) as a young student at a posh military school in the 1950s concerns avoidance of a so-called ‘double negative’.

The reason for this, of course, is that phrases of the kind “I ain’t done nothing” tend to be stereotypical markers of low social status and, in the US, non-white ethnicity.

The truth is that, from a descriptivist point of view, standard middle-class white English, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a language in which multiple negative markers are interpreted ‘logically’ rather than emphatically. Thus, “I haven’t done nothing’ is interpreted to mean “I have done something.” The two negatives cancel each other out just as they do in mathematics. I should add that, in this example, the double negative adds a sort of whining apologetic tone to a neutral double-positive statement and sounds sort of ‘off’.

But this logical interpretation of double negatives is by no means a linguistic universal nor even true for the wide range of brands of English now spoken around the world. Many languages, including my own second language, Portuguese, use multiple negative markers primarily to emphasize the negativity. Logic doesn’t come into it. No means no. And three no’s mean “No! No! No!”

Even within the English family of dialects, this emphatic use of multiple negatives is accepted in certain contexts and is common in cultures whose language use is colored by an ancestral substrate.

Going back to Trump’s sentence, however, we should note that it is not in fact a double negative in the sense outlined above. The two negative markers clearly occur in separate clauses, one embedded in the other in the manner of indirect speech.

In such cases, the logical interpretation of negatives applies in all cultures and all languages. There is a world of difference between “I never done nothing,” which is clearly emphatic and “I never said I never done nothing”, in which the two negative clauses cancel one another out.

So, there is nothing grammatically wrong with what Mr T. originally said and no reason for a mea culpa or correction on these grounds.

This is what linguists and language teachers call hyper-correction. The speaker or writer makes a mistake because they are inappropriately or over-exactly applying a ‘rule’ learnt by rote.

However, as is so often the case when we start to analyze discourse linguistically, there is something else going on here. And this concerns not the old-fangled notion of double negatives but a very modern shift in the use of the modal verb ‘would’.

There are no prescriptive sociolinguistically-determined rules regarding the use of ‘would’.

Supposedly descriptive grammar text books aimed at non-native speakers have traditionally typified ‘would’ as a ‘translation’ of the Latinate conditional. It usually presented in the context of sentences containing ‘if-clauses,’ in cases where the outcome is unlikely or counterfactual, although the modal verb is obviously not confined to this structure and context.

In fact, as Michael Lewis has pointed out, this traditional exemplification and implicit characterization of the use of ‘would’ is misleading to say the least. Numerous language students of mine have noted that ‘would’ does not occur most frequently in English in relation to an conditional, nor is ‘would’ the most frequent modal verb used in conditional sentences.

Matters are further confounded by the fact that there is a strong tendency, even in erudite discourse, and especially in the United States, to use ‘would’ in both halves of a sentence involving an ‘if-clause’.

Interestingly, this grammatical deviation from the ‘norm’ tends to go unnoticed and is certainly not subject to the kind of prescriptivist opprobrium associated with double negatives. The veteran CNN journalist, Wolf Blitzer, does it all the time.

There are in fact some good reasons for this structural development. The double use of ‘would’ sets up a nice parallelism that adds clarity, especially in situations where clarity is especially important, such as those involving reporting or reading the news.

There is, however, another more negative tendency to use ‘would’ very generally and vaguely, merely to distance or exempt the writer or speaker from responsibility for the statement uttered. It is habitually used by journalists and politicians and is even spreading at an alarming rate to academic discourse as well. In Latin languages, the equivalent use of a conditional has become standard in all fields of discourse to the extent that it is practically obligatory in any public statement of an opinion and even in statements of facts.

I get why people do this. It sounds modest and polite and acknowledges differences of opinion and the need for scientific doubt. However, it also threatens to cast a veil of suspicion over any statement uttered (however self-evident or well-documented) and, at the same time, provides a convenient safety-valve of potential retraction for those who wish to benefit from the dissemination of patent untruths.

It lays the linguistic groundwork for a world in which all knowledge is suspect, all facts questionable, and in which all promises, commitments and principles can easily be turned on a dime.

That may be the kind of world in which the likes of Mr. T prefer to operate, but it is definitely not the kind of gloomy unpredictable dark age most people in this world would ever wish to live in.