Comic Strip of the Day: Unleashing The Bêtes Noires

xkcd fires back on behalf everyone comfortable enough with the language to use it intelligently, by which I mean to communicate an idea beyond “I’ve memorized these rules.”

One of my most-cited sites is known informally as “Everyone Loves Their Jane Austen,” though it’s listed on search engines as “Singular “their” in Jane Austen and elsewhere: Anti-pedantry page,” and the operative word is “pedantry.”

There’s a lot to enjoy on that page, but the critical sentence is this:

Singular “their” etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is “good English” and “bad English”, based on a kind of pseudo-“logic” deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English.

There is an old joke that says an economist is like someone who knows 1,000 ways to make love but hasn’t got a girlfriend, and my experience is that the same applies to pedantic grammarians.

It is my considered opinion that most people who obsess over “the rules” could not write their names in the dirt with a stick.


And my colleague DD Degg has linked a very funny interview on the topic with Pearls cartoonist Stephan Pastis to which I refer you.

Both Pastis and xkcd’s Randall Munroe speak for me, but that won’t shorten this rant.

Language changes, and hooray for that, because it allows for color, humor and irony to slip into otherwise tedious conversations.

One of the chains I worked for had a quarterly publication of praise, criticism and tips for its newsrooms that was compiled and written by an editor who was a former nun, a logical but unfortunate connection that I mention because, in one issue, she criticized a headline that used the phrase “deja vu all over again” as being redundant.

And, having made the point, I now apologize to all the non-stereotypical nuns who are perfectly familiar with Yogi Berra and have a sense of humor and perspective. My aunts would have laughed at the reference, but, then again, my aunts could have been extras in “Angels in the Outfield” and I mean the real one and not the cheesy Disney remake.


That could get us off on a whole other rant, but I will forbear and simply say that,

(A) TV listings should specify “the real one” and “the cheesy remake” when they’re showing “Angels in the Outfield” or “The Heartbreak Kid” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” or (name your own), and also that

(B) if you agree, I’d suggest you start following the current story arc in “Sherman’s Lagoon,” because there’s another travesty and I use the word “travesty” in both its colloquial and its historic senses.

Which gets us back on topic because I know the historic origins of “begs the question” and I don’t give a damn, nor am I impressed with your having taken a freshman logic course nor with your citing logical terminology to derail a conversation that is otherwise over your head.

However, if we’re going to cite etymology, then, despite the mewling of copy editors, there is nothing wrong with using “pled” as the past tense of “plead,” because it is in the Oxford as an American usage and I don’t care what you and your lunch table full of mean kids have decided.

Besides, if you really cared, you wouldn’t have decided that “literally” now also means “figuratively,” because, while it is often used as an emphatic rather than … um … literally, we’ve got enough of a war on truth that such things should be confined to informal speech.

I mean, I don’t expect these hidebound enforcers of the rules to start letting “I could care less” and “irregardless” into the stories they edit.

Meanwhile, while straining at those gnats, they routinely let the camels of “may have” and “might have” pass through unexamined.

These two separate constructions are similar to “If I was …” which is speculation against a contradictory past, and “If I were …” which is speculation against a contradictory present.

“If I was born in France, I’d speak the language fluently,” but I wasn’t.
“If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum,” but I’m not.

“May have” and “might have” are similarly distinct:

“A seatbelt may have saved his life” means he’s alive, he was wearing a seatbelt, but we’re not sure that’s what made the difference.

“A seatbelt might have saved his life” means he’s dead and hadn’t buckled up, though we’re not sure it would have changed the outcome.

Those are not small distinctions.

A “pet peeve” is something that gets under your skin but really doesn’t matter. “Pled” vs. “Pleaded” is a pet peeve because it’s just a matter of foolish pedantry and we weren’t expecting wisdom.

A “bête noire” should be taken more seriously. Misuse of “may have” and “might have” fundamentally distorts the meaning of the sentence and, if we don’t expect wisdom, perspective or a sense of humor, we are at least entitled to competence, goddammit.

And, yes, I know “goddammit” is not a word.


They’re baaaaack

Noted rightwing race-baiter Geert Wilders is sponsoring a “Draw Muhammad” contest, to promote free speech and only by happenstance and certainly not intentionally to stir up new hatred in his native Netherlands and wherever else people feel Muslims should not be allowed to live.

The above image is from the original 2005 contest, which was sponsored by a conservative Danish paper that also doesn’t like immigrants very much.

The result was a series of riots and 200 deaths, which the editors at Jyllen-Postens had not anticipated, though they had intended to offend violent militants.

This time around, there can be no such pretense of wide-eyed innocence.

Cartoon Movement has spoken against the contest, as has Tom Spurgeon, as do I.

If Wilders wants to provide an example of courageous free speech, let him get out from behind his desk, go to one of those places the refugees come from, and make his gesture in person.

I’m sure he’d get all the media coverage he seeks.


Mad Jack said it best a century ago.

4 thoughts on “Comic Strip of the Day: Unleashing The Bêtes Noires

  1. I”m interested in any comments on my personal “favorite” pet peeve: “one of the only,” which I seem to see everywhere these days. (Well, *that* certainly narrowed things down, didn’t it?)

  2. It would depend on what comes next. “One of the only type of car built like this” is acceptable, because there could be many cars of that type. But “one of the few” would be necessary if the “only” is not a category, and that could include a fair amount of latitude. For instance, I’d prefer “one of the few actors who never studied the art” rather than “one of the only …”

    But then I go the opposite direction and bristle over the purists who insist that “unique” is an absolute, since, as an absolute, it is nonsense.

    On a casual level, each snowflake is (theoretically) unique, but when they are three feet high in my driveway, they’re all the same, while, under an electron microscope, everything in the universe is “unique.”

    It’s a ridiculous word unless you let it out at the seams.

  3. Call me an old-fashioned (“ORDERING! AN OLD-FASHIONED!”) purist, but I do find it troubling that we just let language fall apart and excuse it off as “Well, you know…” No, I don’t know. Those 18th century nitpicks did that to make communication clearer, but now we’re all determined, it seems, to mangle language into something that doesnt make sense to anyone but the one espousing it.

    Look at what’s currently in the mania about pronouns. I got no issue with someone who wants to use something other than “he” or “she” to describe him/herself. But it seems that folks just make up something that suits their individual fancies, and the result is a panoply of pronouns that are almost impossible to keep up with… and God help you if you use the wrong non-gender-specific one. I’ve been slammed because I didnt do due diligence on that before speaking to someone, and my response was the breathtakingly simple, “No one told me, so how was I supposed to know?” “Well,” came the outraged reply, “you were just supposed to!”

    Okay, got it.

    I think that’s why I prefer French over English.

  4. “Those 18th century nitpicks did that to make communication clearer…”

    Yeah, but now we got “alternative facts,” fake news, and whatever else – communication might be less clear today than at any time since the Tower of Babel.

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