In which Marco Rubio dispels with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing

People have made fun of Marco Rubio’s robotic repetition of the talking point “Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing”  in the debate the other night.

But I don’t believe people have made enough fun of the fact that his robotic repetition was ungrammatical.  He’s gone to all this trouble of memorizing some sound byte that his advisers think is clever and persuasive, but the sound byte is non-standard English.  Here is what a writer in Slate has to say:

As [Dave] Weigel notes, dispel with isn’t really a thing. You can dispel something, sure. (Rubio did little to dispel concerns that he’s not fit for the White House, for example.) But if you want to use with after a verb, then dispense is more appropriate.

A quick Google search illustrates the uniqueness of Rubio’s word choice. A search for “dispel with” that’s restricted to results prior to Saturday night’s debate shows mostly mentions about video games. It seems Dispel is a spell in Final Fantasy. And you can apparently use Dispel with all kinds of things, including the Holy Torch. That’s probably not what Rubio had in mind.

Language Log points out just how weird this construction is:

My first reaction was that this was a malapropism, “dispel with” substituted for “dispense with”.

But this tends to counter the “scripted” meme, since presumably the Rubio campaign can afford to hire writers with a good grasp of English subcategorization conventions. So I wondered whether it might just be a usage that I’ve missed, rather than a case of bad scriptwriting or imperfect script-remembering.

However, “[dispel]with” in the relevant sense doesn’t occur in the 520 million words of the BYU Corpus of Contemporary American English,  although forms ofdispel occur 1,585 times. There are five examples of passive-voice dispelledwhere a following with-clause has an instrumental interpretation, e.g. “If they had had any doubt that the concept would work, it was dispelled with the very first test photo.”

I suppose the Republican candidates for president provide us with much more serious things to worry about.  But this is just irritating.

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In which Cam Newton demures from the truth

The Boston Globe sports page this morning contained this sentence:

He can’t demure from the truth: that race is a factor in how he is perceived because the expectations for comportment at the position he plays have been shaped largely by quarterbacks who didn’t look, play, or act like him.

By this evening the sentence had been corrected to say “demur from the truth”.  Well, “demur from” is certainly better than “demure from”, although “demur from the truth” sure sounds awkward to me. “Demur” basically means “object” — how do you object from something?

The confusion between “demur” and “demure” is deep enough to require explication from grammar sites. Sports writers probably don’t need to know the difference between the two words, but newspaper copy editors really ought to.

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

Part of my day job involves answering questions from potential customers about my company’s products and solutions.  Here’s one that comes up all the time:

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

This new meaning of the word cloud is ubiquitous now, and I think it’s great.  I don’t need to know where exactly WordPress saves my blog content — it’s just somewhere out there.  “Cloud” captures this perfectly.

Inventing a singular version of the word premises is also ubiquitous in tech-speak, but that usage is like fingernails scraping down the chalkboard of my mind — at least partially because premise is a totally different word.  Here’s a web page from IBM that leads with a customer who is supposed to be saying: “I want self-service access to on-premise services and data from the cloud.”  But the page also manages to use “on-premises” a paragraph later; apparently IBM hasn’t gone totally over to the dark side.

And here’s an entertaining rant about this usage in technical documents and press releases. Its title is “So apparently we lost the grammar war”:

Seriously I don’t know why this is. The two terms do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. Are we all just that lazy that we can’t stumble through the three entire syllables of premises? And if we’re too careless to notice that, what chance do we have of actually paying attention to the technical documents to install these products? (Again, I don’t fault individual usage of IT pros, but vendors’ press releases? Seriously??)

Or maybe this is the evolution of language. It’s shortened, perverted, and flexed to evolve with the times. Fine, let’s call it linguistic evolution.

bt i srsly dont lik it. do u?

The thing is, that extra syllable does make “on-premises” harder to say, especially when it leads into a word like “services” that repeats the sibilant. I predict complete victory for “on-premise”, although saying that gives me a pit in my stomach.

A short post in regards to language peevery

It’s National Grammar Day!  In honor of the day, Poynter listed some of their pet peeves..Here’s one of mine.

In my very important day job I read the weekly status reports of a number of highly experienced professional writers.  This week one writer used the phrase “in regards to”. Two reports later, another writer offered up “with regards to”.

Where did I go wrong?

Some people don’t like split infinitives (I don’t know why).  Some people are annoyed by due to.  “With regards to” and “in regards to” are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. This guy tells me I’m wrong to be annoyed.  Google Ngram Viewer tells me their use has exploded since 1960 or so.  I don’t care.  They sound awful.  And people who use them should get off my lawn.

In a league where success whithers away like a desiccated flower…

This over-the-top image is from a column in this morning’s Boston Globe talking about the Patriots.  Notice the atrocity perpetrated on the poor word wither.  It’s an odd mistake, because even my WordPress spellchecker alerts me that whithers is not a word.  And it’s not like this is some late-night game writeup that no one has a chance to edit. Has the Globe laid off all its editors?

Meanwhile, people complain about the low editorial standards in ebooks written by independent authors.  And people are correct.  I’ve been reaching such a book, and it’s hard to believe that the author–or anyone–read the words he typed before the book was published. Surely someone would have noticed that he regularly mistook then for than, that he was unclear about the difference between its and it’s, that the tree he was writing about was a cypress and not a Cyprus.  And on and on.

It doesn’t escape my notice, though, that this book is way more successful than any of mine, with dozens of five-star reviews.  It’s true that some reviewers point out the spelling mistakes, but just as many people seem exercised by the author’s errors in military technology.  (An M-16 apparently fires the 5.56 NATO round, not the 7.62 NATO round.  Who knew?)

Standards are slipping everywhere, and no one seems to care.  Also, you kids get off my lawn!

“Service is suspended due to a medical emergency”

Did you notice the grammatical atrocity in the title of this post?

Neither did our local transit authority, the MBTA, when it sent out a tweet like that after a person was struck and killed by a train.  Some people were worried about the victim, I suppose, but others were outraged about that “due to” in the tweet.

Huh?  I know the issue here, but I’d never heard the one about fiduciary responsibility.

I decided to find out what my cold-eyed editors at work have to say about “due to,” so I checked out our Writer’s Guide.  Here’s what they say:

“Due to” should only be used as an adjective, not a preposition.

Well, that certainly clears everything up.  Here’s how I understand this persnickety rule: Use “due to” when you can substitute “caused by” or “attributable to,” and not when you can substitute “because of.”  Which means, in effect, that it should only be used after a copulative verb like “is.”

At work we are responsible for an online help system containing well over two million words.  Apparently having nothing better to do, I did an online search to find out how many uses of “due to” we’ve got.  The result: 140.  Then I did a random check to see whether our highly experienced writers were following the editors’ persnickety rule.  The answer?  We’re a lot closer to the MBTA than to Mr. Stephen Wojnar.  Almost every “due to” in our Help system is a “because of,” not an “attributable to.”  What’s up with that?

My interpretation is that, even though our cold-eyed editors may know the rule, the “incorrect’ usage is so common that even they don’t spot it.

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage includes “due to” among his “skunked terms” — words so fraught with controversy that you’re better off just not using them, at least until the traditionalists die off.  Hopefully used to be the standard bearer for skunked terms, although by now the odor around that word has mostly disappeared.  I bet that, in a hundred years, “due to” will also smell just fine, and the MBTA will have won.

I am loathe to criticize anyone but . . .

I have a somewhat respectable day job in which I’m supposed to oversee a couple dozen highly experienced writers.  In the past week, two different writers have sent me emails containing a sentence like the following:

I am loathe to make any changes to the content at this late date.

I generally don’t like pointing out mistakes in emails.  We’re always writing fast; we don’t don’t have time to go back and edit what we’ve written.  But for some reason I decided to point out to one of the writers that the word she should have used was loath.  She responded:

I’m so sorry!  I thought both words were one in the same.

One in the same!  I started to get a pit in my stomach.  Was the language changing without my even noticing?  Or should I start getting more persnickety about emails?