Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A subtle mistake

Geoff Nunberg had a post recently at Language Log that pointed out an error that flies under the radar.
They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.
Notice the error? The boxes lay on the floor, still packed, not unpacked. A glaring error, right?

Jesse Sheidlower wrote in to say there are several references to unpacked used in this way in the OED's files.

So how many times do you have to see something in print before it becomes a legitimate use? For copy editors -- we're a conservative lot -- that bar is set quite high. (It's our job to act as arbiters in such manner, not to merely reflect what usages are out there.)

But for even the descriptivists, this is a problematic usage. Nunberg said in a separate post:
Well, "legitimate" comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one. After all, it's hard to see how un- could be plausibly reanalyzed as a mere intensifier; more likely this is an idiosyncratic sort of haplology, where the form unpacked stands in for ununpacked. The decisive question ... would be whether the writers of these passages would defend the usage if the apparently anomalous use of unpacked were pointed out to them.
Sheidlower was one step ahead of the game and had already tried to contact the sources. He found one, who admitted it was a mistake (and also blamed his editor). He also asked several other language types, one a fact checker at the New Yorker, another an editor at Slate. All had a problem with the usage, though most didn't notice the error at first.

UPDATE: Languagehat has a blog entry on the word, too. He is firmly in the other camp, saying:
People who think language should be a certain way even though it's not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it's wrong, I won't do it again..." You can't depend on users' judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I've seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is '(still) packed.' The fact that it contradicts the older meaning is irrelevant; context will disambiguate, just as it does with other self-contradictory words like sanction.


At 3:23 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

As usual, I agree with Mr. Nunberg.

At 3:28 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:37 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

I don't understand why the anti-prescriptivist extremists bother to address specific usages. Why don't they just publish a static Web site containing a single sentence ("Anything ever said or written constitutes correct usage -- otherwise, why would anyone have said it or written it?") and go home?

At 3:46 PM, May 18, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I think it's more that they don't buy into the "correct" or "incorrect" usage at all. Usage is usage. Once people say it, it is.

It's remarkable that they accept standardized spelling.

At 8:07 AM, May 19, 2005, Blogger tom said...

I've been an editor since 1985 and had never heard of this "unpacked" issue.

Which, to me, means there is no issue.

Problem being, every pet peeve that doesn't bother me seems like a bunch of fuss over nothing. My peeves, however, are another matter.

At 2:53 PM, May 19, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Then again, it's an easy error to read over.

At 9:51 AM, May 23, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Nunberg responds to Languagehat in a follow-up post.


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