E-mail Discussions on

"Peeves" Topics

 

by

Charles A. Doswell III


Created: 25 Jan 2002

From time to time, folks have sent me e-mails, as requested on my Peeves page. This page is designed to air those discussions without cluttering up the main page. Each correspondent has agreed with my request to make these "public" and I hope you'll find them as interesting and useful as I have.


Note added on 27 October 1999 - Paul Sirvatka asked me:

How do you say thermometer or barometer? Like a barograph or a thermocline? If not, why not?

To which I replied: Words like thermometer and barometer are not associated with the system of units coupled with prefixes. My gripe has been with the latter, since it is associated with science, which should strive for consistency insofar as it is possible within our language. If "baro-" is pronounced differently in barograph vs. barometer, that has origins that predate the beginning of a system of units based on using prefixes to denote powers of ten.

Regarding the pronunciation of English words ... it's well-known that English is replete with inconsistencies of various sorts and I'm not about to try to take that on, except perhaps as a humorous essay sometime. I'm sure you've seen some examples of humor that focus on English spelling and pronunciation. Comparing "cough" and "through" and "threw" ... etc.


Note added: 02 August 1999. Joseph Bartlo sent the following e-mail (lightly edited):

Perhaps you recall a NG discussion a few years ago regarding the redundancy of solar insolation. This is item 11 of part A. If so, perhaps you recall my mention that though this is commonly considered a contraction of INcoming SOLar radiATION, it is really a form of the term *insolate* (thus insolation) :

insolate - To expose to sunlight, as for bleaching

insolation - 1. a. Exposure to sunlight. b. Therapeutic exposure to sunlight. 2. Sunstroke. 3. a. The solar radiation incident to Earth or another planet. b. The rate of delivery of such radiation per unit surface area.

These are from the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. We know how standard dictionaries often contain dubious definitions of scientific terms. E.g., 3b does not refer to insolation so much as it defines the flux. Yet, I think mentioning the term insolate as the origin for insolation would clarify this issue much more.

Joesph, you may be right, but I don't think most people abusing the term have looked up the definition in the AH dictionary. I think they're using it in the redundant way I've described. I also note that definition 3a really confirms my suggestion that "solar insolation" is redundant. Interesting observation, though. For what it's worth, the current Glossary of Meteorology (the 1959 edition that has yet to be superceded), says (on p. 306):

insolation - (Contracted from incoming solar radiation.) ... .


On 27 September 1998, Brian Curran sent me the following:

Interesting article in the September 14, 1998 edition of National Review. Included is a review of two books, The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, by Sir Kingsley Amis (St. Martin's) and Kingsley Amis: A Biography, by Eric Jacobs (St. Martin's). The reviewer, John Derbyshire, makes this point:

Everyone has his favorite points for attention in a book like this. One of mine is the use of "data" with a plural verb form, a schoolmarmism found even in otherwise reliable publications like, well, National Review. "Data" may indeed derive from a Latin plural; but if it's Latin you're using, be so good as to print the word in italics. Out of italics, "data" is an English noun of the aggregative type -- like "rice" or "sand" -- and takes the singular ("the rice is cooked").

A similar argument can be constructed with "media". IMHO, this noun falls into this aggregative noun classification, and therefore can be used both singular and plural forms. I don't think other Latin nouns, like maximum and auditorium, are aggregative, thus the plural forms would be "maxima" and "auditoria".

So, unless you wish to be branded a schoolmarm, I'd suggest revisiting the datum vs. data argument. 8^).

I think my "schoolmarm" status was assured the very instant I put this page out on the Web! Hence, I don't fear this particular label, Brian. In fact, folks like this National Review reviewer who engage in this sort of pejorative labeling are, IMHO, weakening their argument by making what amounts to an ad hominem attack [4] rather than dealing with the issue.

Moreover, as you might expect, I don't buy this argument. The singular forms of "data" and "media" (and all my other examples) exist and are well-recognized in English, whereas the words "rice", "sheep", "sand", or "moose" are clearly aggregative nouns for which no distinctive singular and plural forms exist. Nice try, though.

I've already noted elsewhere on this page that I am not likely to be swayed by arguments based on usage ... that also makes me vulnerable to being branded with a number of other pejorative labels. BFD.


Note added: 24 April 1998: Jesse Ferrell sent me the following e-mail:

I hate to burst your bubble (yea! I didn't say "bust!"), however with #12, according to Merriam-Webster Online it is indeed a word. At http://www.m-w.com/dictionary.htm, they say:

Main Entry: ir·re·gard·less

Pronunciation: "ir-i-'gärd-l&s

Function: adverb

Etymology: probably blend of irrespective and regardless

Date: circa 1912

nonstand : REGARDLESS

usage: Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it is that "there is no such word." There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.

Sorry, Jesse ... I consider my bubble to be still intact! In fact, this is another of my pet peeves! I hate it when spineless or pedantic lexicographers formally recognize bad usage. It removes the strongest possible argument (for some "believers") against bad usage: the fact that the bad usage is not recognized by the "authorities" of language. We used to say ... "Ain't ain't in the dictionary!" ... and then it was! This provides those who indulge in bad usage with a perfect excuse to keep using it; after all, it is in the dictionary! By this argument, if enough people use bad language, then literally by definition it becomes good language. Ugh. I just don't accept this line of reasoning.[3] Besides, what I said (above) was " this one is not even an acceptable word" (emphasis added) ... not that it isn't (ain't?) a word. But thanks for the excuse to add this item.

__________________________

Further discussion added on 26 June 1998:

In the same e-mail regarding split infinitives (here), Kai Esbensen included the following (and I responded):

P.S. "Ain't" has always been in the dictionary. The story of the fall from grace of "ain't" is this: "Ain't" used to be the perfectly innocent and valid contraction of "am not". As in, "I ain't no liar none, Bobby Sue!" But people began using it outside its intended scope, using it to mean "isn't" and "aren't" -- a verbal crime for which many were severely reprimanded. Unfortunately, the way people were corrected for this misuse was apparently quite vague -- probably something along the lines of, "Don't say that!" followed by a swift smack to the head. Over time, the reason for all those smacks to the head was forgotten, and all that remained in the collective consciousness was that "ain't" was somehow not a "real word". To this day, of course, the English language is conspicuously lacking the would-have-been-useful "am not" contraction.

This is also a new one for me, and another story for which I'd like to have some documentation. The lack of an "am not" contraction is an obvious void, and I've wondered about it from time to time. English is rife with such oddities ... the peculiarities of English spelling seem to get the most press coverage, but there are many other "fossils" from earlier eras. Our language (and others!) is like the City of New York ... as it evolves, you have to keep the old infrastructure in place and working, so the new structures are not always logically constructed. They had to fit in old niches that wouldn't even be there if you started all over again with a clean slate.

__________________________

Again for the record, he's never responded to my reply.


On 16 May 2001, Dave Schultz passed on the following:

http://www.grammarlady.com/faq.html

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/cmosfaq.html

You'll see some of your pet peeves dealt with on these pages. Of course, some agree with your points, others disagree. But, what else is new?


On 10 October 2001, Daphne Zaras and I had the following exchange:

>Wow... I hit two pp's... cool... :-)  but would that be pps, better 
>written PPs? Because it's just plural of an acronym. :-)

Interesting question. I've seen this done ... i.e., adding the apostrophe to indicate plurals of acronyms ... but I don't know for a fact if this is the right thing to do or not. Hmmmm..... I'm not sure where to go to find out if there is a "ruling" on the question somewhere ...


On 16 December 2001, David White and I began a series of e-mails, with his comment:

I was searching for pages about bad English usage and came across your page that discusses the pronunciation of 'kilometer'. I say KIL-ometer and I agree that that is the logical pronunciation, but there is a technical argument in favour of kil-OM-eter. Apart from politics, a former prime minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, is known for his extraordinary knowledge of the English language and history. He argues that 'kilometer' is of Greek origin (or, at least, 'kilo-' and 'meter' are Greek) and that in Greek the stress would be on the antepenultimate syllable, which makes the correct pronunciation kil-OM-et-er. I can't find his own words on the subject on the internet except for a brief mention here:

http://www.whitlam.org/gough/speeches/19920627_oedlaunch/

to which I replied.

This is a strange, very alien concept to English, it seems to me. The "antepenultimate" syllable conveniently works for km as "kil-OM-et-er", but wouldn't apply to "kil-OG-ram. However, it demands we should pronounce mm as "mill-IM-et-er, and cm as "cent-IM-et-er", which I doubt he is advocating.

This is an interesting argument, but I'm still in favor of consistency and see no reason to alter that, irrespective of such subtleties.

David replied on 19 December (my responses interspersed in a different font):

I can't speak for Mr Whitlam, but I suspect that he does not recommend "mill-IM-et-er" and "cent-IM-et-er". His argument for "kil-OM-et-er" is on the basis that the entire word is of Greek origin.

I find that very hard to believe! Did the Greeks invent the kilometer? The origins of "kilo" and "meter" (or "metre" if you prefer) might well be Greek, but "kilometer" is NOT a Greek word! And even if it's true in some abstract sense, for the use of such terms in science, my plea is certainly not based on esoteric etymological rules.

The prefixes "centi-" and "milli-" are Latin, so the Greek rule of pronunciation wouldn't apply. The link to the speech that I gave is down at present (it was working when I sent the e-mail), but from memory he used "bar-OM-et-er" and "ther-MOM-et-er" as similarities.

I prefer not to argue by analogy, if it can be avoided. When it comes to pronunciation in English, in general, I have no hope for consistency. But these are terms with a scientific slant, and I really am not interested in the etymology. I'd like their pronunciation to be consistent. Will I win over the multitudes with my Web page? Probably not.

I'm sure he chose these because "baro-" and "thermo-" are both Greek also. In the case of "kil-OG-ram" ("gram", or "gramme", is Greek), perhaps the antepenultimate syllable rule doesn't apply to three-syllable words.

I think it is interesting that of the words "kilometer", "centimeter" and "millimeter", "kilometer" is the only one that many people naturally pronounce "kil-OM-et-er", and this also happens to be the only one whose origin supports that pronunciation.

I don't think the notion of "natural" applies to pronunciation. We pronounce words how we are taught and how we hear them pronounced. Pronunciation is essentially arbitrary, and what is "natural" to us is not something inherent, but a matter of socially-imposed habit. Mispronunciations abound as a consequence. I'm not trying to change people ... that's essentially impossible ... but I can GRIPE about these things at will. Remember, my Website is only *partially* serious about all this.

Coincidence, or did the Greek words evolve with the antepenultimate syllable rule well established, so that they would naturally be pronounced that way?

On 20 December, David responded:

> I find that very hard to believe!   Did the Greeks invent the kilometer?
> The origins of "kilo" and "meter" (or "metre" if you prefer) might well be
> Greek, but "kilometer" is NOT a Greek word!   And even if it's true in some
> abstract sense, for the use of such terms in science, my plea is certainly
> not based on esoteric etymological rules.

Yes, this is the same argument my colleague at work used today. He has studied linguistics quite a bit and pointed out that in classical Greek, the word 'metron', from which we derive 'meter', means 'measure'. It was not a unit of measurement as we use it. Therefore, even though 'kilo-' and 'meter' are classical Greek, they would not have had the word 'kilometer', even if they needed a word that has the meaning that the word has to us. In spite of this, I'm pretty sure that the above is Gough Whitlam's argument. The comments he's made on the subject have always been specific to 'kilometer' and its Greek origin and I would be very surprised if he also recommends 'mill-IM-et-er' etc.

> I prefer not to argue by analogy, if it can be avoided.  When it comes to
> pronunciation in English, in general, I have no hope for consistency.  But
> these are terms with a scientific slant, and I really am not interested in
> the etymology.  I'd like their pronunciation to be consistent.  Will I win
> over the multitudes with my Web page?  Probably not.

I prefer to be consistent where I can, unless another convention has been well established. I guess if you are a student of history, then the etymology will be all important, but if you are logical and practical, then it won't. I'm usually conservative in English, but I prefer KIL-o-met-er because I think it logical to separate the multiplier and the unit, not join them in the syllable -OM-.

>I don't think the notion of "natural" applies to pronunciation.  We
>pronounce words how we are taught and how we hear them pronounced.
>Pronunciation is essentially arbitrary, and what is "natural" to us is not
>something inherent, but a matter of socially-imposed habit.

I don't entirely agree with this. Certainly, we say words the way we are taught, but I believe that the pronunciation that develops tends to be what seems easiest or the most 'right'. Words had to start somewhere, and at that point, and when people come across a word they've never seen and have to guess how to pronounce it, is when what I've called the 'natural' pronunciation will occur.

My linguistic colleague is also very doubtful of this suggestion. He doesn't agree that people's tendency to say 'kil-OM-et-er' is because of the Greek pronunciation rule, but I still think there's something in it. Even though 'kilometer' is not a Greek word, it is still made of parts that, I suppose, were suitable for their pronunciation rule. Maybe it's just the 'o-' in 'kilo-' that makes it seem more reasonable to say 'kil-OM-et-er' than'cent-IM-et-er'.

and my response was:

Although my knowledge of languages other than English is no more than superficial, I think trying to pronounce non-English words tells me that what *I* think of as "natural" is largely a matter of being a native English speaker. I can't claim to know anything about the origins of human speech, but the diversity of existing spoken human languages (compare Spanish, Chinese, Finnish, Russian, and German, for instance, to say nothing of some of the more obscure ones, such as the numerous and very diverse native American languages) indicates to me that we can twist the human vocal cords, lips, palates, etc. into some pretty bizarre (to ME!) contortions in trying to develop sounds that have assigned meanings. Which of them is "natural"?

On 21 December, David concluded the discourse with:

Perhaps my suggestion should be confined to those I hear most often - native English-speakers around me and in the media. I think I hear more people say 'kil-OM-et-er' than 'KIL-o-met-er', despite dictionaries' recommendation for the latter. Never have I heard a person say 'cent-IM-et-er'. I find it hard to believe that this is entirely because of what people hear or what they are taught. I think there is something about 'kilometer', which 'centimeter' lacks, that attracts many people to use the former pronunuciation. I think they just like to say 'kil-OM-et-er'. I can't point to exactly what the difference is, which is why I suggested (or just guessed, really) that the Greek rule for a word made of two Greek parts has a lot to do with it. Of course, this theory falls to pieces if the tendency to use the former pronunciation is confined to English speakers. I have no idea whether this is true or not.


On 22 January 2002, Jim Means sent me:

You may remember that I wrote to once before about your definition of
tornado; now I'm surprised to be writing again about the plurality of the
word "number." I've lost my copy of Strunk and White, but I think most
modern dictionaries and books on usage consider "number" as plural when
preceded by "a," and as singular when preceded by "the." So the usage that
peeves you should be regarded as correct. "Number" is a word that can be
singular or plural, depending on context. Of course, that may not stop you
from being peeved about it!

to which I replied:

I've NEVER heard the word "number" to be considered a plural form! There's a perfectly obvious plural form for humber ... "numbers" ... so, regardless of whatever obscure source you can scare up for this, I'll continue to be peeved, as you've correctly anticipated.

"A number" is considered a plural?? The use of the indefinite article "a" is also clearly and unambiguously associated with *singular* nouns (as is the definite article "the"), so for this to be viewed as transforming its associated noun into a plural would be astonishing to me! What relevance the article would have in establishing whether or not the noun is plural is something totally beyond my knowledge of English grammar. It seems to me that whether or not the noun is plural determines the appropriate article, not the other way around: "He ropes a cow." vs. "He ropes cows." (no article necessary) "He ropes this cow." vs "He ropes these cows." Definite vs. indefinite articles is another matter altogether!

His response on 23 January was:

Ha! I knew you wouldn't go along with it. Anyway, the sources that I have at
hand are The American Heritage Dictionary (the online edition):
 
http://www.bartleby.com/61/13/N0191300.html
 
"As a collective noun number may take either a singular or a plural verb. It
takes a singular verb when it is preceded by the definite article the: The
number of skilled workers is small. It takes a plural verb when preceded by
the indefinite article a: A number of the workers are unskilled." 
 
Words into Type (Third Ed., Prentice-Hall 1974) footnote on p.350:
 
"'Number' preceded by 'the' is singular, preceded by 'a', plural."
 
Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
 
http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary
 
"...an indefinite usually large total <a number of members were absent> <the
number of elderly is rising>"
 
As I said, these are just the ones at hand, I think you'd be hard-pressed to
find any dictionaries or books on usage that would disagree. As for the
logic of it, well that's another matter. No one said that English was
logical.

which generated my reply:

Agreed ... but this smells like a classic example of the "usage" argument, where jelly-spined dictionary compilers accede to the great unwashed masses. As you anticipated, I'm not buying into this nonsense. Maybe English isn't logical, but this is just absurd.