12 Grammar Myths

Jonathan Owen over at the Arrant Pedantry blog has a list of twelve mistakes that people tend to make when opining about “grammar.” It’s a comprehensive and sensible encapsulation. (I’ve been trying to compile a similar list for the past few years, but keep getting distracted.)

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pork, pork barrel

If you watch the Sunday morning political talk shows or 24-hour cable TV news, you will inevitably hear talk of pork, government funds dispensed by politicians to win favor from their constituents. But why pork? Where does the term come from?

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Video: The Making of a Book, 1925

Running eighteen minutes, this film is a bit long, but it’s a must see for anyone interested in the history of publishing. The 1925 silent film documents the entire process of creating a book, from creating the type to loading the volumes on a truck for distribution. It features Oxford’s Clarendon press and at some points you see the Oxford English Dictionary being printed and bound.

Tip o’ the Hat to Lexicon Valley

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polite

It is quite common for a word with a specific and literal meaning to develop figurative or metaphorical meanings that are related to the literal one. And sometimes we can see this same change across multiple languages. Such is the case with polite. The Latin verb polire means to smooth, to polish, and its past participle, politus, and adverbial form, polite, came in that language to mean cultured or refined, a metaphorical polish.

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Hwæt you say?

The opening line of Beowulf has always posed a bit of problem for translators:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

The problem is exactly what the word hwæt is doing. Hwæt is the etymological ancestor of the modern what, but the Old English word’s semantic and grammatical functions are not the same as the modern word’s. Most translators have treated it as an exclamation, along the lines “listen!” or “lo!” rendering the line as something along the lines of:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the folk-kings of the Spear-Danes in days past, how the noble ones performed acts of courage.

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occupy

Occupy is a verb with many shades of meaning, but these senses fall into two broad categories. The word comes from the Anglo-Norman and Old French verb occupier or occuper, meaning to keep busy or to hold, and these two meanings remain the two broad categories in use today. 

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notorious

Usage manuals like to point out that notorious refers to someone or something of unfavorable reputation and that the word should not be used to mean merely famous or notable. While this is true to an extent, like many questions of usage the answer is more complicated, and in fact few writers actually use the word mistakenly.

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nice

Many words have changed their meaning over the centuries, but none so significantly, widely, and often as nice. Today, the word most often means pleasant, good-natured, attractive, and has a positive connotation. (At least in most contexts; describing a potential romantic interest as “nice” can be damning with faint praise.) But it was not always so. Over the centuries, the meanings of nice have ranged widely, and include: silly, wanton and lascivious, ostentatious and showy, scrupulous, fastidious, cultured and polite, virtuous and respectable, cowardly, lazy, tender and delicate, strange and rare, shy, undecided, subtle, precise, thin, unimportant, sensitive, and require tact. 

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mug, mugger

Mug is a word that has undergone a number of semantic shifts, or changes in meaning, over the centuries. So much so that today one wonders what connection, if any, there is between the drinking vessel and getting robbed.

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moonstruck

Love makes you do the wacky.

—Joss Whedon and David Tyron King, “Some Assembly Required,” Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 22 September 1997

We all know that people in love sometimes act insane, and that is the concept behind the modern use of the word moonstruck. Someone who is moonstruck is out of their mind with love. But this was not always the case; the word originally simply referred to insanity. The idea that the phases of the moon could trigger mental illness is an old one—English use of the word lunatic dates to the late thirteenth century—and that’s where the concept of being moonstruck comes from.

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