You can choose compassion

On Wednesday (2011.06.08), I attended a presentation by novelist/Globe and Mail style advisor/grammarian Russell Smith. He presented “Grammar Wars” at the MagNet Canada industry conference.

Of course he looked great in his grey suit (angled breast pocket), white shirt, and floral (not paisley) tie. He wore brown wingtips without socks.

Russell Smith poses at podium

I was concerned enough to wear my nicest shirt, a reasonable linen pantalon, and highly shined shoes. No match for what he had on, but I tried. Also, if I understand this correctly, Smith can count only to 19, or more accurately to 17 and twin 18s.

I took my usual well-paraphrased notes. You need only a taste of what he said to understand the whole lecture.

You’re very much not linguists, he told the room, who very much dislike copy-editors like you. Scientists don’t judge this mollusc or that mollusc as “wrong”; linguists take themselves to be scientists and apply the same thinking, he said. “Linguists do not believe in correct and incorrect.” They believe there are many dialects of English, a fact Smith acknowledges. There is a dialect called Standard English, they say, and it is the dialect used by his newspaper.

Smith spent the next half-hour in a genteel rail against the faux-objectivity of linguists. Throughout, his suggestion was that there is a viable role for grammarians or anyone who dares to correct grammar and usage. While he did cover Strunk & White and Fowler, the opposition he set up was one between informed pragmatists in the audience and linguists in some isolated academic perch.

To do this, Smith read extensively (and time-paddingly) from Language Log; attempted to run a Stephen Fry YouTube video that, of course, did not work on Firefox his terracotta Wintel laptop; and rehashed, sometimes verbatim, his own column of two weeks prior on Stephen Fry.

With a few days to think about it, I cannot decide if he should have recognized me in the front row, but in any event he should have reasonably foreseen the presence of actual linguists in his audience. I have a degree in the field and, like my esteemed colleague Michael Erard, did not cripple myself with a Ph.D. Like my colleague, I try to apply knowledge, training, and experience to real-world problems. I don’t impose descriptivist ideology on my work or others’. I get the impression Smith thinks Linguists are like Objectivists, misapplying or overapplying a simplistic code that thrills teenage boys but can’t be applied to the real world.

Smith’s own examples (and later the audience’s) could have benefitted from the lessons of linguistics. He quoted linguists in a maxim he agrees with: Usage determines grammar. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The real maxim is usage eventually determines grammar. Over time grammar can change with usage. Part of him is fully onboard with this philosophy: He really doesn’t see any useful distinction between its and it’s, for example. But the father of a two-year-old surely has to know he can’t be a little bit pregnant.


After his presentation was over, giving his jittery nerves a chance to settle, we began audience Q&A. Whaddya know: A session on grammar became yet another voicing of pet peeves. Everybody has their own list, and airing this soiled laundry has all the entertainment value of somebody else’s vacation photos.

But even with their own scattered examples, we soon found ourselves on the same boat, captained by Smith and aimed right at an iceberg. I watched from a liferaft as HMS Grammar Wars ran aground on singular they (“Everyone should wash their hands before eating”).

Even after stating that linguists are unanimous that singular (actually numberless) they has been used for centuries and is completely accepted, Smith and editors in the room grasped for one fig leaf after another to cover up this dangle. They used his or her, rewrote the sentence (even in a direct quote?) so it was plural not singular, or just used he. Oh, no, no, no, Smith said in response to that and a question on it. There are people who really do take offence to that. (And they should: He refers to males, not to people or humanity in general.) Smith uses a generic she (I’ve seen him do it) that’s so hypercorrect it loops back around to straight-up incorrect.

Someone in the audience defended generic he because their readers are firemen or engineers and are mostly male. The discussion kept on going from there. These people will do anything to avoid using the obvious. What skin is it off their ass?

If these prima donnas could get over themselves for half a minute, they’d accept that descriptive linguistics provides a wealth of information they can use to make intelligent decisions. Singular or numberless they is an open-and-shut case and there is no rational argument against it. Precisely all the facts are marshalled in favour of singular or numberless they. And Smith lambasted linguists for their intransigence.


There was another question about when it becomes OK to use Internet-derived abbreviations like WTF and LOL in print. The real answer is “as soon as everyone knows them,” which in those two cases was very long ago. (LOL dates back to 1990, WTF to 1985.) In some cases, you can use new terms immediately, as when they describe a new thing there is no other word for – e.g., podcast, coined by the redoubtable Ben Hammersley (q.v.; q.q.v.).

Smith gave the example of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). Except he claimed – insisted – it’s actually tl;dnr, because tl;dr means too long, did read. It doesn’t. Well, you can see instances of that, like on MetaFilter, he said. “You can find an instance of anything,” I shot back.

Russell Smith excessively cribbed from the Wikipedia article on l33t, tried to take credit for recognition of woot, and can’t save a Unicode file. He really should not be lecturing a 20-year online and ten-year MetaFilter veteran (I’m user 250) on what Internet abbreviations mean and how they’re used on MetaFilter.

Let’s apply some computational linguistics. MeFi admin Cortex and I found tl;dr (case and separators irrelevant) used 2,929 times, plus 11 more times in tags. tl;dnr was used 19 times, plus in one extra instance meaning “do not resuscitate.” Every other use of either abbreviation meant “did not read.” Usage is a popularity contest. Being 150 times as popular makes tl;dr right and tl;dnr wrong. “Its” as simple as that.

Past and future work

Since Smith bases so many of his language columns on blog posts, God help us if he finds out about the tempest in a teapot over quotation marks. He’ll find something in there to pronounce upon and claim to have championed all along.

I had planned to walk up to him afterward, hand him my card (yes, but blue card or red card?), and tell him he should read my book on Canadian spelling. (“After all, you’re in it.”) This plan quickly became a non-starter.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.06.10 14:23. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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