Thursday, February 03, 2005

Them's fighting words

Peter Fisk, a copy editor at the Tampa Tribune, took issue with criticism of Bryan Garner in Language Log (in the comments of my post here). Now Language Log strikes back.

Peter had come to Garner's defense:
Moreover, if "with reference to" isn't a phrasal preposition, what is it? Apparently, the only people privy to the "correct" terminology are those who plunk down $160 for the 1,800-page Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I can't vouch for Garner's "inflected form" tallying skills, but his work is well researched, highly respected and most appreciated by those of us who actually work with the actual language for a living. He strikes a reasonable balance between the prescriptive and descriptive. And he writes in a civil tone.
But Language Log's Geoffrey Pullum says that isn't enough. He explains phrasal prepositions -- and why the phrases at issue do not fall into this category.
My point is that things have been discovered about English grammar in the last hundred years. I'm not pressing for new names for time-worn concepts. I'm objecting to the fact that people treat English grammar as if it were a frozen collection of eternal truths like Pythagorean geometry. The analogy is inapt: Pythagoras's theorem about right-angled triangles is true, and his proof of it is sound. It's very different with grammar. Mistakes were made in the analysis of English syntax in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bryan Garner's presentation (and yes, I agree absolutely that on usage matters he strikes a very reasonable balance between prescriptive and descriptive approaches) sadly reflects none of the progress that has been made to correcting those mistakes.
I can't add a lot to this discussion; I don't have the technical training in grammar. But I will say this: As testy as copy editors are, I think linguists may give us a run for our money. And that's certainly not a dig.

Argue on!

(Want to buy the works being discussed here? The Cambridge Grammar, on which Pullum has a byline, is here. The Chicago Manual of Style is here.)


At 10:02 PM, February 03, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

"Oh no, that's next door. It's being-hit-on-the-head lessons in here."

At 10:53 PM, February 03, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Ah, here the Complaints Department is always open.


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