The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

Defending Grammar

Posted in Rant by Noah Harlan on July 18, 2010

On Friday, David Post had a good little piece on the Volokh Conspiracy entitled “Losing the Serial Comma Battle” which I liked a great deal. In it he cites several examples from Thursday’s NY Times of the disappearance of the serial comma. One classic illustration of the value of the serial comma invoked by Post is from the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The first edition of the published poem wrote it as follows:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep”

Subsequent editions corrected the grammar to read:

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”

These have quite different meanings. In the first, you can read it to intend ‘dark and deep’ as a modifier of the term ‘lovely’ (ie: the loveliness is ‘dark and deep’ though the woods may not be). The corrected version clarifies that all three terms are modifying the ‘woods’ (ie: the woods are lovely, the woods are dark, and the woods are deep).

This is an extension of the increasing sloppiness of our use of language. I once was working in an office with someone who said to me: “Noah, if there are two words that mean the same thing, you always pick the more complicated one.” I was a little surprised by this and told my friend: “No, I pick the one that is more accurate.” The complexity of language allows greater precision and greater subtlety of meaning. Of course, I am also that jackass who likes to helpfully point out to friends when they are doing one of my three biggest pet peeves.

Pet Peeve #1: Quantum

Wrong usage: “The iPhone represented a quantum leap forward in cell phone technology.”

This sentence is correct, but probably not in the way most people would use it. Quantum does not mean large. Or at least, historically, it should not mean large. It means “a defined amount” and that amount could be very small (as in quantum physics) or very large. In fact, in scientific usage it generally means the minimum specified amount. The sentence above technically means that the iPhone is simply a leap forward, but provides no context as to whether or not it is a significant one. While you may see modern dictionaries that allow it to be used as a synonym for large, that is generally because of the increasing acceptance of the colloquial understanding as an official meaning.

Pet Peeve #2: Momentarily

Wrong usage: “I will be there momentarily.”

Again, this sentence is correct, but probably not in the way most people would use it. Momentarily does not mean “in a moment”. Momentarily means “for a moment”. The classic example of correct usage is to say that “the cardinal perched momentarily on the branch before flying off”. In the above example of wrong usage, the change in meaning relates to the grouping of ideas. The incorrect usage is pairing the words “will be” and modifying those (as in, in how long will you be there). The correct usage modifies the word pairing of “be there” (as in, for how long will you be there). If you want to use a variant to mean “in a moment” then you actually should try the seldom-used “momently,” as in: “We are two blocks away. We will be there momently.”

Pet Peeve #3: Begs The Question

Wrong usage: “Tommy just ran into the screen door which begs the question how did he not see it?”

This one is an easy one to get wrong and a somewhat hard one to explain. First, we have to understand that in this turn of phrase the word “beg” does not mean “to ask”. It actually means to avoid or dodge. The phrase ‘begs the question’ really means to avoid a question. It relates specifically to a logical fallacy. A correct usage might be the following exchange:

Tom: “I can tell he is really annoyed because he is really angry.”

Dick: “You have begged the question.”

In this example Tom made two statements that are not expository of each other, instead they are a circular argument: he’s annoyed because he’s angry. In fact Tom hasn’t told Deck what he’s annoyed about and thus Tom has avoided the question. Another way of stating this is to say that the conclusion is assumed in the premise.


I suspect this of interest to me because I am surrounded by writers. I’m married to one. I am the son of one. My uncle is one. My cousin is one. Lots, and lots, and lots, of my friends are ones. Somewhere in my foundation grammar was made important and because of that I have a tendency to pick the more complicated words.


4 Responses

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  1. DGentry said, on July 18, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Yet isn’t this the evolution of language in action? Words change in meaning over time. Apparently the word “nice” originally meant ignorant and gradually evolved through “foolish” to its current meaning. I’m sure the literati of that age were greatly annoyed by this process, yet nonetheless it happened.

  2. Noah said, on July 18, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    I almost agree with you but at the end, I can’t quite. Yes, it certainly is the evolution of language but I think it is appropriate to defend existing language when the evolution yields a diminution of meaning. I often have little problem with the mainstreaming of slang but I think it is important to highlight an issue like the serial comma since that represents a decreasing clarity to our grammar. If we never use the serial comma then we open the language to more confusion of meaning whereas if we teach our children that it should be used and explain how and wherefore then we will help our children communicate their ideas better. Your point holds more true for something like ‘quantum’ or ‘momentarily’ and less to serial commas and begging the question.

  3. […] In this example, the absence of the Oxford comma leads to an ambiguity which its presence would avoid. Where items in a list are equal, they sould be treated equally, and thus separated by a comma. The comma may reflect the cadences of the spoken word; it may be necessary in computer programming; it is often simply more natural to use it. For all these reasons – as the title to the post implies – I prefer to use it. It will rarely be ambiguous, and it will usually be more accurate. […]

  4. Gabe said, on July 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I don’t agree that “momentarily” means strictly “for a moment”. I looked into this problem last year on my own blog ( ), and the Oxford English Dictionary cites the “in a moment” meaning going back 140 years, before “momentarily” was a popularly used in any of its meanings.

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