April 12, 2014

The notion that understanding the rule can save you from breaking it.

Language Log embarrasses The Wall Street Journal (European edition) by pointing at this headline which has 2 bad spelling errors:
"Prosector to Oscar Pistorius: 'You're Version's a Lie'"! 
(By the way, I think Language Log has a punctuation mistake there.)

Now, I think "Prosector" for "Prosecutor" is actually the worse mistake, because it got me thinking about what it would mean to be in favor of (i.e., pro) "sector." I thought of words like "bisect" and "dissect," which are based on a root that means to cut, and that sent me spinning into a contemplation of Pistorius's birth defect (fibular hemimelia) and the double amputation performed by the surgeons who could be said to be pro-sector.

But Language Log thinks the worse mistake is "You're" for "Your," even though that mistake — along with "it's" for "its" — is just about the most common typo there is. Language Log makes an amazing assertion:
No one would make this mistake again if only they could remember (and understand) just one thing: There are no apostrophes in the spellings of any of the genitive forms of the definite personal pronouns. Look at them: my your his her its our their. Apostrophe-free, all of them.
This displays an incredible ignorance of the experience of typing. I have fully and unshakably understood the rule about apostrophes for many decades. I have no trouble remembering it if I consciously think about it. If you gave me a test on the subject, I would get 100% of the questions right. The problem is the automatism of typing. It's uncanny how homophones pop into typing. I'm continually typing "to" for "too" and "their" for "there," and "you're" for "your" is another homophone. There is nothing about knowing what's right that saves you from making these mistakes.

I'm interested in the much larger proposition that understanding a rule can save you from breaking it. I'm sure Oscar Pistorius understood the rule: Do not murder. 

IN THE COMMENTS: Brian points out that "prosector" is a word:
"Prosector" is, of course, an actual word, and does indeed mean "person who cuts up human bodies."
Brian falls prey to the overuse of the phrase "of course." As if we all know the word "prosector"! You can tell from the text of my post that I didn't know it. The OED defines the word this way:
A person who dissects cadavers, esp. in preparation for anatomical teaching; an assistant to an anatomist, pathologist, or zoologist who is responsible for performing dissections.
ALSO: The OED's historical examples of the possessive pronoun "its" include some with apostrophes:
1603 J. Florio in tr. Montaigne Ess. Ep. Ded. sig. A3v, My weaknesse you might bidde doe it's best.
1655 T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit. i. 26 The Load-stone..forgetteth it's Property to draw Iron any longer.
1728 T. Sheridan tr. Persius Satyrs Prol. 5 Who taught the Parrot it's usual Complement?
And Shakespeare had it both ways:
1599 Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet ii. v. 12 The sweetest honey Is loathsome in its owne deliciousnesse.
a1616 Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 2 (1623) iii. ii. 396 The Cradle-babe, Dying with mothers dugge betweene it's lips.

41 comments:

rhhardin said...

The mnenonic doesn't work. I've seen people write her's.

Or, as one co-worker once put in a memo, pneumonic.

rhhardin said...

Belmont Club distinguished its and it's but does them precisely backwards.

Meade said...

I'll phreely admit I'm a little bit homophonephobic.

Brian said...

"Prosector" is, of course, an actual word, and does indeed mean "person who cuts up human bodies."

Victor Ulmer said...

"There is nothing about knowing what's right that saves you from making these mistakes." But why don't apparently reputable users of the English language "know" that the word "of" connotes possession, so that to refer to "a friend of Ann's", is redundant? Ann's what? In that context, that (redundant) apostrophe seems to be almost everywhere.

West Texas Intermediate Crude said...

Every physician in your blogience reacted as Brian did- the prosector in first year anatomy class is the one who does the demonstration dissection for the day's anatomy lab. Of course.

Ann Althouse said...

The "of course" is a tic of insularity.

LuAnn Zieman said...

I would have placed the exclamation mark immediately following the prosecutor's quote followed by the single and double quotation marks. That is, if that was the original quote. If Language Log was making a statement, perhaps the exclamation mark is in the correct spot.

rhhardin said...

My favorite mistake, found everywhere, is quoting what's indirect statment.

He said "no."

Paco Wové said...

Whenever I see "of course", I assume that somebody is about to make an unfounded assertion at me, or maybe just lie outright.

It's an attempt to get the reader to buy into the author's worldview, and get the reader to accept an assertion without the author providing any evidence. It's a bit of a con, really.

Patrick O said...

What is the punctuation mistake?

Only thing I can see is the exclamation point.

Punctuation goes outside of the quotation marks in British English.

Of course.

The exclamation point is in reference to the Language Log's sentence, not limited to the quotation.

Which really is a more precise way of doing than the American version.

Or maybe you're pointing something else out.

Patrick O said...

I'll bet if someone begins a correcting sentence with "Actually, of course..." you feel like hitting them.

Tubby Z said...

Shouldn't the exclamation point be after the 'e' in lie?

kfb said...

'You're Version's a Lie' expanded would be...
'You are Version is a Lie'.
I always thought that when used in this context "Version's" was correct because it expanded into
Version is". Or have I been living a lie, all these years? :-)

The Godfather said...

Typos happen. That's why we proofread.

Michael K said...

"Prosector" is a typo, leaving out the U, while the other is a grammatical error.

whswhs said...

The objection to "a friend of Ann's" appears to be basically redundancy: the "of" implies possession, so the possessive "Ann's" is merely restating it. But there's nothing inherently wrong with redundancy! Even in English, the formally correct present tense is "I go," but "he goes," where the verb ending is a redundant marker of third person singular, already established by the pronoun; the less redundant "he go" is regarded as dialect. And some other languages are far more redundant—I'm thinking of the multiple negatives I was taught in my high school French, for example. Which redundancies are right and which are wrong is not a matter of logic but of custom and usage.

For comparison, too, I don't think most people would accept "a friend of me" or "a friend of you": the correct forms are "a friend of mine" and "a friend of yours," using not merely the possessive but the substantive possessive (rather than the adjectival possessive "a friend of my"). So perhaps the greater redundancy is being used, as it often is, for emphasis—as opposed to the less emphatic "my friend, " "your friend," or "Ann's friend."

Michael McNeil said...

The other factor (in this era of post-iPhone 4S smartphones) is that many people don't type anymore, but rather dictate their text. But, this kind of your / you're misusage is just the sort of mistake that dictation transcription software is still prone to. If you don't carefully proofread and correct afterwords, these errors will go through — and sometimes they'll survive an initial scan, because they do sound the same when you merely think about how the sentence sounds.

Anglelyne said...

This displays an incredible ignorance of the experience of typing.

No kidding. I always have to proofread for "its, it's", "there, their, they're", "you're, your", and it's not because I suffer any confusion about there oops their usage.

(But don't get me started on the now seemingly universal whippersnapper misspelling - not typo - of "lose" as "loose". There oops they're not even homonyms.)

traditionalguy said...

I'd cut Will Shakespeare some slack on his typing skills. The First Folio took him a real longtime to type; and he probably ran out of correction tape.

That semicolon is at no extra cost.

Paco Wové said...

"you feel like hitting them"

That's usually true anyway.

Of course, sometimes I lapse into the same lazy writing habits as well.

Ann Althouse said...

""Prosector" is a typo, leaving out the U, while the other is a grammatical error."

It can be, but it's also an extremely common typo, which I catch myself making all the time. It's an especially embarrassing typo, because it can be interpreted as ignorance, but it's usually the old homophone automatism.

rhhardin said...

Inconvience is so common that it has an amusing Urban Dictionary definition.

David said...

Your Wright.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

Of course you're right. Understanding a distinction won't 100% eliminate the wrong choice. Should one consider the wrong choice a sign of immorality? I think not. If one hardly cares and yet rarely makes the wrong discrimination, that would be impressive, evincing a discriminating nature. But treating grammatical discrimination similarly as discrimination between improperly conflated things in the moral sphere is itself an improper conflation. Still, a strong belief in the importance of discrimination in both the moral and grammatical spheres is better than not believing in the importance of discrimination in either sphere.

In many ways I am fairly sloppy about things, but I believe strongly in being able to say things both efficiently and precisely. It's interesting to look at the math case. Too much concern about explicitly restricting everything so that everything is defined exactly where it is supposed to be defined can bloat discussion, while the alternative, if sloppiness is carried sufficiently, can be mistaking false assertions for true ones. If logic and the various conventions involving parsing, etc., were done properly, there would be little if any occasion for abuses of language in math, but they aren't. In a situation like that, doing things in a long way merely because the foundations aren't perfect amounts to pedantry, and reinforces in the mind the wrong way of doing things. But it is very good, I think, as evincing a respect for truth, to try to improve the foundations in an elegant and efficient way so such abuses of language are unnecessary.

Much of grammar has a tone resenting of nonsense. But to think efficiently, one should allow oneself to assert nonsense. By having a real subjunctive, one can do this. But the subjunctive tends to die because people increasingly use language for communication as well as thought, and people lie in communication more than they lie in thought, and liars tend to be strong in their assertions, whereas the subjunctive case is for weak assertions (that may be nonsensical).

As for parsing, what I have noticed when thinking carefully about it is that when there seems a hopeless choice between being pedantic and slightly false, being far out enough to expand the objects parsed to include highly nonsensical stuff often is best approach (something antithetical to the pedantic spirit especially common among those who take parsing seriously).

rhhardin said...

Things get ugly when the wife is in the subjunctive and the husband is in the indicative.

Mrs Whatsit said...

"There is nothing about knowing what's right that saves you from making these mistakes."

Of course there is. It's called proofreading.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem is that what you write, and how you say things, indicates to some, maybe many, many things about your character. For example, I have a friend who tried to expand his vocabulary by reading a dictionary, esp. since he had plenty of free time. But, what struck some of us was that he often used these new words he had learned out of context, indicating that he was not well read. The context would be in the general area, but rarely quite right. It was a bit jarring.

As an attorney, I have to strive to get things mostly right, because our competence is often determined by those we have not met by our writing, and obvious grammatical mistakes seem to some to indicate a sloppiness that you might not want in your legal work. Of course, it is hard in blogging and email, and even harder in texting. I esp. hate spell checkers that change stuff that I have written to something further away from what I had intended, and even sometimes get wrong what I had right. One example of this is using italics on an iPhone or iPad on this blog. The Apple software insists on capitalizing single I's, but only if preceded by a "<", but not if preceded by a "</". So, Blogger, in its infinite wisdom, declares my HTML italics to not be matched.

Ann Althouse said...

"Of course there is. It's called proofreading."

Nope. Proofreading will only give you a chance to correct the mistakes.

But that underlines the point I'm making to Language Log. I think the mistake is made initially because it's a homophone.

Why wasn't it caught on proofreading? I'm guessing because there isn't enough careful proofreading, NOT as LL thinks, because the rule isn't known.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not that good of a proofreader, even though I know the rules and my spelling is excellent.

The mental problem proofreading isn't about the rules. For me, the problem is that I see what I believe is supposed to be there. The mind makes its own corrections. That too is uncanny.

I've had someone else point out an error and said: "I could have looked at that 10 times and not seen it."

The mind works that way you know. Especially for optimists.

Anthony said...

Maybe it *was* the prosector testifying. Wouldn't the guy who actually conducted the autopsy have to show up sooner or later?

It's amusing that the descriptivists at Language Log are up in arms about this. So many people spell the possessive of "you" as "you're" that it's an example of language change, not a mistake.

Also, how the hell is someone supposed to remember There are no apostrophes in the spellings of any of the genitive forms of the definite personal pronouns. Can you define "genetive"? If your foreign language was French or Spanish, you didn't have to deal with noun declensions, and you probably think "genitive" has something to do with DNA. (English teachers usually call it the "possessive", not the "genitive".) And most people don't remember what exactly is a "definite personal pronoun", even if they do use them correctly.

From Inwood said...

Did you hear about the Magician who said “abradacrabra” & nothing happened? He was a poor speller.

When one is discussing something more weighty than a “let’s meet for lunch” e-mail, I find calling an isolated misspelling or grammar lapse to the writer’s attention is generally used by another commenter as one upmanship or a gotcha to avoid such commenter’s having to address the substance of the misspell-er’s argument. If a commenter attempts to use a single insignificant, non-Freudian misspelling against me, or an expert quoted by me, it’s delicious if he/she has had a misspelling or a grammar/syntax mistake in his/her correspondence.

And, no matter that your nasty reader won the Spelling Bee in Grade 12, or is assiduous in adherence to the rules of grammar/syntax; misspellings or grammar/syntax errors happen to the best of us. For instance, know-it alls who (& much of this can be found in Fowler's)

(a) don’t know the difference between similar sounding words all of which pass the spell check (the diocesan CENSOR received a CENSURE for sniffing the church CENSER),
(b) don’t do spell checks for e-mails & just incorrectly “know” that the suffix should be “cede” not “ceed” or “sede”,
(c) don’t realize that there are tons of words not sounding like “ay” where “i” comes before “e” even after a “c” (how inefficient),
(d) put their faith in words which survive a spell-check (pubic/public; it’s/its; that/than; liter/litter),
(e) are in a hurry & hit the wrong correction suggested by spell check so that the typo “unfformed” is changed to “uniformed” rather than “uninformed”,
(f) fail to acknowledge that neologisms should follow accepted spelling rules (a person would be “sidebarring” not “sidebaring”),
(g) are guilty of “foreign danger”, i.e., unfamiliarity with whether a foreign phrase ending in “s” is single or plural (his bona fides was disputed),
(h) mix up stems, prefixes, & suffixes (e.g., it’s dislocate & dyslogistic) or
(g) use “the grocer's apostrophe or quotation marks” (“Shoe’s For Sale”).

And If nothing else, some writers today fail to fall into the “they” trap (that is, an attempt to avoid (1) being un-PC using just the masculine pronoun or (2) sounding legalistic by using he/she (“a person who engages in such conduct should consider the ramifications of their actions”).

In short, one’s (apostrophe) thoughts must be dexterous (“e”) since English spelling is so disastrous (no “e”)!

From Inwood said...

BTW, somehow when referring to Scarlett Johansson, I can never remember how to spell her name. I know it two "tt"s for Freudian reasons, however. :-)

Mrs Whatsit said...

Well, obviously, that was my point. Proofreading will catch the typo before it appears in print, stops being a typo that anybody might make, and becomes an embarrassing grammar error that nobody should make.

As for the problem of writers who have trouble seeing their own errors -- which happens to me, too, and everyone -- this is what editors are for -- somebody else who reads the writer's work to see and fix what the writer missed. I write for publication every day of my life. Not a word that I write goes into print before several other people have read it. If I can, I read everything again myself one last time AFTER the others have gone through it, to spot what they may have missed or to fix errors they built into my original work.

I realize that newspapers publish on short deadlines. Nevertheless, this headline could not have appeared unless 1) the Wall Street Journal European Edition does not have copy editors for headlines or 2) their copy editors don't know the difference between your and you're. One of these things must be true -- it is not possible that any professional editor with a feel for the English language looked at that headline and missed that error. In either case, the WSJ deserves to be thoroughly embarrassed.

jimbino said...

The descriptivists at Language Log learned their English by googling and n-graming. Nothing they post should be taken seriously by actual students of a language.

A language teacher myself, I would be embarrassed, if not prosecuted, for teaching English as she be spoken by Amerikans. Absolutely, egad.

Murph said...

Re: proofreading. I do a lot of proofreading in my job, and take great pride in doing it well. However, since I found this item some long years ago I've kept it handy & re-read it from time to time to remind myself that no matter how well you proofread that piece, it's likely that you will miss at least one typo. Here:

The Perfect Book
By William Keddie

The Foulis’s editions of classic works were much praised by scholars and collectors in the nineteenth century. The celebrated Glasgow publishers once attempted to issue a book which should be a perfect specimen of typographical accuracy. Every precaution was taken to secure the desired result. Six experienced proof-readers were employed, who devoted hours to the reading of each page; and after it was thought to be perfect, it was posted up in the hall of the university, with a notification that a reward of fifty pounds would be paid to any person who could discover an error. Each page was suffered to remain two weeks in the place where it had been posted, before the work was printed, and the printers thought that they had attained the object for which they had been striving. When the work was issued, it was discovered that several errors had been committed, one of which was in the first line of the first page.
(As found in A Passion for Books, by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan.)

Ann Althouse said...

My maternal grandfather was a newspaper editor and he liked to open up a book, any book, and point to a typo. It was like a superpower. My mother was quite amused by it.

From Inwood said...

Excerpt from an e-mail to a fiend who often chides me for citing:
"rightwingnutjobs, FAUX News & Hate Radio":

Nevertheless, I subscribe to the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect (wet streets cause rain) when it comes to the NYT & the rest of the LSM.

The other day The Gray Lady had a story about the most-beautiful block in NYC (you went to a lecture in one of the buildings recently). The article described four buildings & the NYT had to make the following correction actually corrections)

Correction: March 30, 2014
The Streetscapes column last Sunday, about 91st Street from Fifth to Madison Avenue, omitted part of the name of the design firm responsible for No. 7 East 91st Street. It was Warren, Wetmore & Morgan, not Warren & Wetmore. The names of the architects for Nos. 7 and 9 East 91st Street were also transposed. No. 7, the Burden house, was designed by Warren, Wetmore & Morgan, not Carrère & Hastings. No 9, the Hammond house, was designed by Carrère & Hastings, not Warren, Wetmore & Morgan.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln.

Four iconic buildings & the NYT got three of them wrong! Oh, well, you’ll say, it’s batting above the Mendoza Line. (BTW, Derek Jeter is now above the Mendoza Line for this season having gone 2 for 5 today.)
And you’ll dismiss my NYT mistake as unimportant & me as unserious.

Bob R said...

I have several typos that I have trouble catching when proofreading; dropping the plural "s" from the ends of nouns is the most common. I'm completely unaware of doing it, so I wonder if my finger goes for the s but never makes contact. I've tried to catch myself doing it, but of course, if I think about it I just type the damned s. Knowing the rules isn't the problem. As Althouse says, if someone gave me a test, I'd get 100%.

Bob R said...

I'm a terrible proofreader of my own work. I tend to read what is supposed to be there rather than what is really on the page. I do much better with other people's work, but my father once had me read one of his documents aloud to him and said I edited it as I read. Terry Pratchett says that "seeing what is really there" is a magical power. I guess I don't have it.

Carol said...

I try not to be a jerky about typos, but it really does bother me when someone types out a long careful argument but leaves out a key word like NOT and I am supposed to just know that he meant precisely the opposite of what he wrote.

Also, accidentally using the wrong numbers when explaining age-based rules, like age 62 when one means 70. You know, I am trying to learn here, and can't jump to the conclusion "oh he meant 70 but wrote 62 by mistake hahaha" when my own knowledge is shaky.

Proofread. The world is not waiting on the edge of its seat to read your bon mots so take your time.