We Are Bugged

In my final post on my exploratory study of responses to  sentences from The New York Times, I’ll pick on a few of the actual sentences you judged. First up: “Which begs the perennial question of Silicon Valley: Is this more evidence, convincing evidence, that the tech industry is again on the verge of another bubble popping?” I actually thought three usages might bother people here—“begs the question” used in this sentence to mean “raises the question”; “this” without a clear referent; and the redundancy of “again” and “another.” Instead, there was one comment on the fact that the sentence was a fragment (a detail that hadn’t occurred to me as either poor grammar or poor journalism); the rest of the opprobrium attaching to the sentence (which won a record 14 votes for some degree of contemptible wordsmithing) seemed to hang on “begs the question.” Even though, as one commenter points out—and a recent article on Language Log investigated—this use of the phrase has become commonplace, no one failed at least to imagine a potential problem with the sentence.

What’s interesting to me about this result is that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with the phrase, even from a so-called prescriptivist point of view. It’s the newfangled use that bugs folks. By the same token, the last two sentences, which used “relatability” and “obsess on”—again, contemporary jargon common among undergraduates—received very mixed reviews. These expressions don’t bother the (admittedly self-selecting) group of respondents as much as “begs the question,” but they’re certainly not popular. True, more condemnation attended the controversial use of “whom” in the Opinionator column of May 2—but then, three people saw no problem with that sentence, whereas no one checked the “no problem” box for “relatability” (which, I have to note, my Word program changes to “reliability” every time I type it!).

By contrast, my fourth-grade teacher would have roundly condemned both the sentences “If anybody was going to be shy … it was him” and “He began his remarks by saying Mr. Obama sets these policies, not him” as using an improper pronoun case, a clear-cut error. Yet these sentences received far more positive reviews.

Finally, I was surprised that there wasn’t more testimony about the two sentences that arguably employed dangling participles. In the sentence “Poring over the argument transcript and the briefs, what came through was … ” is that initial participial phrase really dangling, or is it OK when the subject is an indefinite pronoun like “what”? And if you’re “issuing anodyne statements flanked by lawyers and image consultants,” is it really fair to start picturing anodyne statements being marched down the corridor with an attorney on one side and a PR person on the other? The numbers reveal something about the disagreement over these syntaxes—we condemn and excuse them in almost equal measure—but if anyone can come up with a reason as to why the responses to these examples differed one from the other, you’re more game than I.

Generally, though, we who paid attention to this straw poll seem to react most strongly to the usages that get under our skin, not necessarily to those that can be shown to violate a rule of grammar, however you define that term. I suspect that we approach our students’ and colleagues’ writing with much the same degree of taste and personal investment. Whether we think we’re preserving correct language use or not, we are actively and idiosyncratically participating in the ways in which language changes by our choice of which to condemn or approve and to what degree. My little survey was an idle game. But it’s no wonder that our students, bouncing from one of us to the next, sometimes feel the game is rigged against them.



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