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mike's web log/quotes

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One cannot but be impressed by the amazing hospitality of the English language.
-- Robert Burchfield   language


What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.
-- H.W. Fowler   language


A language is never in a state of fixation, but is always changing; we are not looking at a lantern-slide but at a moving picture.
-- Andrew Lloyd James, linguist   language


To know another language is to have a second soul.
-- Charlemagne   language


German has done for consonants what Hawaiian has done for vowels.
-- Leo Kottke   language | funny


Luckily language is never in the exclusive control of scholars; it does not belong to them alone, as they are often inclined to believe; it belongs to all who have it as a mother-tongue. It is governed not by elected representatives but by a direct democracy, by the people as a whole assembled in town-meeting.
-- Brander Matthews   language


In the language as it exists clearness is not so easily won. Even under the most favorable conditions, it is exceedingly difficult to attain.
-- Adams Sherman Hill   language


Here's a piece of advice: if someone proposes a grammatical principle that is violated by the titles of two or more classic novels or stories, you should think twice before paying them money for further advice on grammar and usage.
-- Mark Liberman   language | advice


The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.
-- James D. Nicoll (#)   language


Steak and puns: a rare medium done well.
-- Richard Lederer   language | writing | funny


A writer who fixes too much attention on the correctness of his punctuation, or a reader who does the same, is missing the point: the job of text is to communicate, not satisfy pedantic rule makers.
-- Michael Quinion   language | writing


Good usage is written on the sand.
-- Richard Lederer   language


Sort of weird that when you get to be fifty years old and you are involved with a woman with whom you have no matrimonial tie, the moniker for the relationship becomes that which you used in high school.
-- Bob Reselman   general | language


The language isn't falling apart. We don't know whether we'll be able to pay for our lunch in 10 years, but we'll certainly be able to order it.
-- Geoff Nunberg   language


The rules [of language] are precise and strict and are understood and followed by every speaker of idiomatic English, even though they're not usually taught in school. Fluent speakers don't know they know them and couldn't explain them, say to someone learning the language, but they know immediately when they've been broken. Native speakers pick up the rules for using such idioms by example and experience and only suffer confusion when these real-life rules conflict with the ones that grammarians of an earlier period would have had us believe were correct.
-- Michael Quinion   language


Modern English is the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand.
-- Mark Abley, journalist   language


The aspects of usage (and mathematics) that really matter are not learned easily and are not learned early.
-- Geoff Nunberg   language | writing


Being in the dictionary is not a badge of honor. People aren't limited to words I've managed to capture and pin down. A dog doesn't have to be registered with the American Kennel Association to be a dog. It still fetches your slippers; it just isn't pedigreed.
-- Erin McKean, American lexicographer   language


McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.
-- Erin McKean (also cited as Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation)   language | editing | writing | laws


The time-tested way to overcome language problems - the approach I used to learn French in the first place - is of course to find a volatile girlfriend who is fluent in the language. There is nothing like hysterical weeping over the phone at 3 a.m. to really flex your listening comprehension.
-- Maciej Ceglowski   language | funny | advice


Standard English is, of course, the version of the language that has resulted from years of hand-wringing about the speed with which it has changed.
-- Kitty Burns Florey   language | funny


Language isn't a china doll we take out of the cupboard to dust off once in a while. Language is for using. And in being used, it changes. Once language stops changing, it dies.
-- bradshaw of the future   language


Language is an invaluable support in our efforts to identify people to look down on.
-- John McIntyre   language


The grammar of the language can't be deduced from an appeal to "logic", but must be discovered by examining practice.
-- Arnold Zwicky   language


I know plenty of copy editors that are fully aware of their role as editors of one text at a time and who don't claim to be guardians of language. They are not peevologists. They don't feel attacked by mistakes and they don't hope to change all language into one register. They respect decorum and they trust that most users do so as well as they do.

The peevologists are looking to change something that will not change. They seek a power that is not theirs and they express frustration based on a sense of entitlement that is not only arrogant but irrational. They hope to change the rotation of the earth and live with constant frustration, throwing stones at every sunrise and sunset.

-- Michael Covarrubias (wishydig)   language | editing


Perfect grammar—whether written or spoken—never solves a problem (except the problem of imperfect grammar). It doesn't make a person more creative or a better thinker. It can't turn a bad idea into a good one, or an unclear thought into a clear one. It doesn't guarantee that we will be understood.
-- Stuart Froman   language


Encounters with readers are bracing. They remind us that nobody cares how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They don't see that, and they don't want to. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three.
-- John McIntyre   language | editing


In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.
-- Paul Dirac   writing | science | language


The predisposition for languages is as mysterious as the inclination of certain people for mathmatics or music and has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge. It is something separate, a gift that some possess and others don't.
-- Mario Vargas Llosa   language


We translators are merely useless. Be we don't harm anyone with our work. In every other profession great damage can be done to the species. Think about lawyers and doctors, for example, not to mention architects and politicians.
-- Mario Varga Llosa   language


There is an inherent and pervasive bias in pure-text communication which makes statements intended to be good-humoured sound sophomoric, makes statements which were intended to be friendly sound smarmy, makes statements which were intended to be enthusiastic sound brash, makes statements intended to be helpful sound condescending, makes statements which were intended to be precise and accurate sound brusque and pedantic, makes statements which were intended to be positive sound neutral, and makes statements which were intended to be neutral seem downright hostile. [...] Writing is hard.
-- Eric Lippert   writing | language


Correcting one's drinking buddies on grammar is a good way to end up drinking alone.
-- "Lancaster"   language | editing


It appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.
-- Tom McArthur   language


Anyone nit-picking enough to write a letter of correction to an editor doubtless deserves the error that provoked it.
-- Alvin Toffler   writing | editing | language


People who would never dream of allowing themselves to be ordered around in other walks of life are prepared to bow meekly when a language expert speaks.
-- David Crystal   language


In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched.
-- Chicago Manual of Style Q&A   language


It's doubtful that people on the whole are more ignorant or stupid than they used to be. Ignorance and stupidity were in ample supply among the populace when I was a young man, as far as direct observation goes, and the literature going back to Plato and further provides supplemental evidence beyond dispute.
-- John McIntyre   general | language


Officially Correct English, like the Tooth Fairy and Civic Virtue, is a product of grade school mythology and rarely leads to satisfying answers or useful decisions. The truth about language is always far more interesting -- and far more complex -- than what Miss Fidditch told you.
-- John Lawler   language


You cannot converse if you cannot listen, and you cannot sustain a conversation if participants cannot be somewhat fair and respectful to one another. These same traits, of course, are morality's minimal requirements.
-- Edmund Blair Bolles   language


I look at it this way: I am a native speaker of English. I grew up in Northern New England. I went to Harvard. I know a bunch of languages. I have a Ph.D. Therefore my usage is standard. Your mileage may vary.
-- Bill Poser, writing about what constitutes "standard English."   language


Knowledge of etymology is completely unnecessary for using a language. What's necessary is not what words used to mean, but what words mean now. [...] Sometimes it is claimed that an earlier meaning of a word is its literal or real meaning, but really all that can be said is that an earlier meaning is an earlier meaning.
-- "goofy"   language


Purists will fret, but they enjoy that. It gives their lives meaning.
-- John McIntyre   language | general | writing | editing


If the goal of prescriptivists [is] just to guard against things some readers find annoying then their primary obligation would be to shut up. No error of grammar can be as annoying as someone who lectures people about their grammar.
-- "TruePath"   language


Laymen are generally lousy linguists: they do not know what questions to ask, they do not know how to look for answers to them and they are too ready to accept generalizations to which they could easily find counter examples.
-- James D. McCawley   language


Language is like geology. Novelties periodically erupt, some of which remain a feature of the landscape, but most of which subside. More commonly, language is a collection of tectonic plates that separate or grind together very slowly over a long period as some features of the landscape erode and others metamorphose.
-- John McIntyre   language


The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.
-- Dave Kellett   language | funny


Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don't follow orders.
-- Peter Sokolowski   language


The era of blogging, and now Twitter, has turned linguistics into a real-time sport.
-- Rex Hammock   language | technology


It’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year.
-- Jan Freeman   language


The usual way in which we plan today for tomorrow is in yesterday's vocabulary.
-- Edsger W. Dykstra (PDF)   language | general


Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s grammar.
-- John McIntyre   language


[T]he 99% of America's supposed educational elite who got credentialed without ever taking a course in a linguistics department are at least as likely to have their heads full of clueless prescriptivist poppycock as other strata of society, if not more so. Even if access to some sort of elite academic environment were a necessary precondition to being exposed to the descriptivist way of thinking about things, it is most assuredly not a sufficient condition.
-- J. W. Brewer   language


Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.
("Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound.")

-- Anon.   language | general | funny


We will all die before the issue of where to use "who" and "whom" is settled in our culture.
-- Geoff Pullum   language


For some people, language seems to be about odd rules you learn so you can be angry at those who don’t follow them. Similar to religion.
-- James Harbeck   language

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