Friday, November 25, 2005

I'm a grouchy old man
And as such, Ned Crabb's column in today's WSJ, as well as suiting his last name amazingly well, fits my sensibilities perfectly:

I can stay my pen no longer. Solecisms that are becoming common in written and spoken English must be dealt with firmly. Two are dreadfully ignorant and unacceptable, while another usage is forgivable though nonetheless wrong. Today, with this column, I'm going to halt the use of the worst two and force a general acknowledgment of the third. Tomorrow, I'm going out to Jones Beach on Long Island and command the waves to cease rolling in to shore.

Well. That's the way it is. You do your best. Perhaps a smattering of librarians will agree. Or just maybe a bunch of guys and gals in a holiday-bedecked tavern somewhere out in the heartland, boozing merrily and reading The Wall Street Journal, as I'm sure they are wont to do in such places, will wonder, by God, isn't good grammar a pillar of our beautiful English language? And are we going sit idly by and watch it knocked down by clumsy use?

"No!" they'll shout. And the cry will be raised and the word will spread from that tavern.

And I'll be crowned king of Uzbekistan right after Christmas.
While his particular examples seem rather tame to me the sentiment does not. I'll add one of my own:
Everyone is not in the room.
Think about that sentence. What do you think it means?

Many people use it to say that there are people missing who are supposed to be in the room. What it actually says is different. Literally, that sentence means that there is no one in the room. [UPDATE (11/28/2005 - 11:35): As I mentioned in this comment, I was mistaken in my initial definition of this sentence. It does not mean that there is no one in the room, it means that no members of a specific group are in a room. "Everyone" refers to some subset of humanity, and by saying "Everyone is not in the room," you assert that no one of that subset is present. "Not everyone is in the room," instead allows for the possibility that some portion of the specified subset is present although at least one member of said subset is absent. Feel free to dispute this, but I'm pretty sure I'm right this time.]

The hypothetical person in question intended to say "Not everyone is in the room." People who say the former, incorrect phrase butcher the English language.

Yeah, it's minor, but, well, I'm a crotchety old man. Yes, I know I'm only 22—imagine what I'll be like at 60.

UPDATE [11/25/2005 - 0:50]: I just thought of another one what needs mentioning:
I could care less.
The very nature of that statement, in the context it usually takes, contradicts itself. People use it to mean that they do not care about something. However, saying "I could care less" means that there is a possibility of caring less (duh), and therefore that you care on some level. One should instead say, "I couldn't care less."

If I think of any more, I'll add them. Feel free to place your own in the comments below.


Dave Justus said...

I don't think you are correct with your Everyone is not in the room example.

Everyone is a set of people literally of course it would be all people, but I think that the common usage of everyone being short for everyone who is expected or supposed to be there is acceptable.

When dealing with one set and comparing to to another set (in this case the set of coordinates that constitute a room) it is perfectly true (and accurate) to say that set A is not contained within set B if any part of it is not contained within set B.

The converse that just because A is not contained within B does not automatically mean that none of A is within B.

So, 'everyone is not in the room' is accurate, and to imply that 'everyone is not in the room' means that 'no one is in the room' is inaccurate.

RFTR said...

It's a nice thought, but you're wrong.

To assume that "everyone" is an acceptable abreviation for "everyone that is expected" is to betray the entire purpose of the word "everyone." "Everyone" means everyone.

You're just making an excuse for the lazy misuse of language, which is precisely what I'm attacking with this post.

It would be a little harder to say "everyone who is expected is not here," but just as easy to say "not everyone is here."

It's simply wrong to say "everyone is not here," and I'm sticking to it.

Dave Justus said...

But by your definition, not everyone is here would be tautology. No one has ever been somewhere where everyone else is, unless you are counting the whole planet as being the 'here' in which case it is also true.

Further, not everyone, as you use it would naturally be the same thing as no one, and the exclusion of the set everyone doesn't leave anyone at all. So if you say not everyone is here, it is obviously a false statement, as someone must be 'here' in order to be saying it.

So 'Everyone is not here' is the best way to accurately express the idea that some people are here and some people are not.

I do though strongly disagree with your insistance that 'everyone' must always mean every person in existence. We commonly say, for example 'Is everyone here' without expecting the question to be understood as is every person in existence here rather than is every person expected here.

RFTR said...

I still disagree. While I'll concede that "everyone" does not always mean everyone everywhere, there's still a logical fallacy in your argument.

Assume that "everyone" means "everyone who is expected here." In that case, if you say "everyone is not here," you mean everyone who is expected is not here. That means that there is no one expected there, pure and simple. The subset "everyone who is expected" is absent, which means that no one who is expected is present.

If, instead, you say "not everyone is here," you mean not everyone who is expected is here—allowing for the possibility that some expected people are present and some are not.

JermCool said...

There's something missing from your update. The phrase "I could care less," is actually acurate - just incomplete. The full phrase is: "I could care less, but it wouldn't be easy." So you are correct. There is a level of caring, but it's so miniscule that the effort to care less would be more effort than it's worth and would therefore cause more caring than the topic is worth. Quite the conundrum.

Now I have to re-read what I just typed to make sure it made sense. It doesn't.