Nonsense ‘Carries Through’ the Anglophonic World

Languageby Jon N. Hall10/17/15
Many native speakers of the English language, even the highly educated, regularly misuse the word “or” and don’t even realize it. Quite a claim; we Anglophones can’t even use a common two-letter conjunction correctly. The main reason for this sad state of affairs is that for decades the guardians of the English language have been remiss.

The rules of English language usage shouldn’t just codify the “logic” of casual conversation. But that seems to be the case in a rule propounded by Bryan A. Garner, usage expert par excellence. In the 2003 edition of his celebrated Garner’s Modern American Usage, all one finds in the entry for “or” is this: “See and/or.” Garner’s entry for “and/or” is perfectly sound. Where we find the unfortunate rule for “or” is, oddly, in the entry for “nor.” The rule remained unchanged in the 2009 edition (page 571):

B. For or. When the negative of a clause or phrase has appeared at the outset of an enumeration, and a disjunctive conjunction is needed, or is generally better than nor. The initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements.

Generally better? If “a disjunctive conjunction is needed,” then of course “or” would be the right word. That’s because “or” is disjunctive while “nor” isn’t. And those two “function words” have markedly different functions. One might think that a prescriptivist like Garner would say that one of them is correct and the other one isn’t.

Garner’s rule is nonsense. English conjunctions do more than merely connect; they set conditions for what’s being connected. “Or” stipulates (at least) one, and “nor” stipulates none. Nonetheless, language experts contend that these two rather different words are interchangeable under negation. What I’ll focus on is the second sentence of the quote, as the notion that an “initial negative carries through” is the cause of the error.

If an “initial negative” carries through, then wouldn’t an initial positive (i.e. affirmation) also carry through? Of course, affirmation is the default; it doesn’t require an “initial positive.” But no usage expert would say that when affirmation is applied to an enumeration that the elements can be connected by “nor.” Imagine an airline stewardess asking you, Coffee, tea, nor milk? Or imagine the cashier at your grocery asking, Paper nor plastic? That’s crazy talk! Just because negation and affirmation carry through doesn’t mean that we can use any old conjunction.

Garner’s rule appeared in nearly identical language at least as early as 2000; specifically on page 230 of his The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. So the rule has been proliferating, along with the business about the “initial negative” carrying through.

On July 5 of 2009, linguist Arnold Zwicky quoted Garner’s rule in its entirety in his blog post “Emphatic nor.” Zwicky takes Sarah Palin to task for this: “I’ve never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title to do this.” (The statement comes at minute 8:15 in this C-Span video of Governor Palin’s resignation announcement.)

One of the persistent problems of so many language experts is their choice of examples to illustrate with. Quite often they choose examples that are simply inapposite to whatever they’re trying to prove, and that seems to be the case here. By setting off “nor anyone else” with commas, isn’t Palin creating a parenthetical phrase? If so, Palin’s statement does not contain an enumeration and therefore cannot be used to illustrate Garner’s rule.

Zwicky contends that Palin’s use of “nor” isn’t “non-standard,” but that he would “probably” have used “or” nonetheless. Actually, this isn’t a matter of choice. That’s because the clause that follows Palin’s “that” must be positive regardless of whether we have an enumeration or a parenthetical phrase. Indeed, if we substituted “or,” and struck out the commas to give us a true enumeration, Palin’s statement would have a “quasi-Morganian” structure:  I’ve never believed that I or anyone else needs a title to do this.

Would that it were so simple that all one had to do is substitute the right word and all would be well. But what’s really needed in many examples is a rewrite. Here’s how to rewrite Ms. Palin and avoid our difficulties: I’ve never believed that anyone needs a title to do this.

Mr. Zwicky then expounds on Garner’s carrying through shtick: “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements (so that the negation need not be repeated; though Garner doesn’t say this, the suggestion is that later negation is redundant).” But “neither-nor” is repeated negation, and it is well accepted. Zwicky also writes: “Sometimes in cases of variation within the standard, MWDEU ends up telling the readers that they can use whichever variant sounds best to them in the circumstances.”

The Merriam–Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage that Zwicky cites is putting out some bad advice, at least on this issue. Going by whichever “sounds best” is precisely the problem, as our “ears” have been corrupted by a century of bad grammar advice. We simply do not hear the illogic.

On page 2 of “When to Use ‘Nor’” at Quick and Dirty Tips (Grammar Girl), Bonnie Mills also quotes from Garner’s rule:

… you should use “or” to continue the negative thought because according to Bryan Garner “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements” (5). For example, when you use the word “not,” the structure “not A or B” is correct. You’d have to say, “He is not interested in math or science”; “He is not interested in math nor science” won’t work.

I’d say that what Ms. Mills isn’t very interested in is logic. To illustrate her grasp of how an “initial negative carries through,” let’s rewrite Mills’ sentence by actually carrying her subject and its predicate through to the alternative: He is NOT interested in math OR he is NOT interested in science. That rewrite is a fair equivalent of Mills’ “correct” sentence, and it’s doubtful that it expresses her intent. What Mills probably intends is: He is interested in neither math nor science; that neither A nor B be the case. But by employing “not-or,” we don’t know if he IS interested in math or science or neither.

Over at Grammarly Answers, “expert” Shawn Mooney plays his part in the proliferation of Garner’s rule by quoting the Grammar Girl quote above, after which is this gem: “For the benefit of my fellow experts …” And so error begets error, and in short order Anglophones no longer know the difference between “or” and “nor.” And “and”?  Forget “and”; much too complicated. (I write this, heh-heh, “for the benefit of my fellow experts.”)

In a 2010 memorandum out of the Colorado General Assembly we read on page 2, item 4, that “the new constitutional provision does not apply to, affect, or prohibit …” If there were no negative and it read “[does] apply to, affect, or prohibit,” normal folks would ask, Well, which is it, is it apply to, affect, or prohibit? And get this: Garner’s rule was quoted in its entirety in the Technical Comments on page 4 (item 6) of the memorandum.

The language of item 4 in the memorandum was repeated in the text of the ballot initiative, specifically subsection 2, which could have been salvaged merely by changing “or” to “nor.” Perhaps Coloradans defeated the ballot initiative because of its dearth of clarity.

The Colorado initiative is not unique. Indefiniteness and even ambiguity is marbled into the flesh of American law. That means that the meaning of our law is left to the tender mercies of those who interpret it … judges.

One fine judge, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has appeared on stage several times with … Bryan A. Garner, who in addition to being a usage expert is a lawyer. Here’s a YouTube video of Garner calling Scalia the “greatest living legal writer.” At LawProse, Garner advises lawyers on language. Despite his position on the issue at hand, I applaud Mr. Garner’s efforts to bring clarity to legal writing.

On Sep. 27, 2012, the New York Times ran “Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?” It’s a debate between Garner and descriptivist Robert Lane Greene on the continuing “Language Wars,” and I recommend their lively and erudite exchange. Unfortunately, Mr. Garner takes his own advice with this: “The positions attributed to prescriptivists, even in your own work, almost never align with positions taken by Fowler, Partridge, Nicholson, Bernstein, Gowers, Follett or me.”

Anglophones aren’t going to get much help from language experts on this issue, as neither descriptivists nor prescriptivists seem to have the juice to recognize that the “or” in the quote above is not “generally better.”

(Read my replacement for Garner’s rule.)


Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (1169 views)

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22 Responses to Nonsense ‘Carries Through’ the Anglophonic World

  1. Rosalys says:

    “Either/or, neither/nor” was hammered into my brain during my formative years. It seems there is just not enough hammerin’ goin’ on now-a-days.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Modern schools increasingly seem to dislike rote memorization, which is how one learns things like proper spelling and proper grammar. As for dictionaries, it’s reasonable to give the common usage, but also to list it as “incorrect” or “non-standard” in some way (and to give the proper usage).

    Listening to a lengthy video to get a point can be tedious, so it would be best to write the precise phrasing Sarah Palin used so that we could see for ourselves.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Listening to a lengthy video to get a point can be tedious, so it would be best to write the precise phrasing Sarah Palin used so that we could see for ourselves.

      Agreed. I think when writing articles about grammar, examples should be foremost. And a great rote model for this is James J. Kilpatrick and his various articles. I found some at Townhall.

      The English language isn’t a formula, per se. It isn’t a programming language. It’s a means of conveying meaning. Here’s a good article that includes his general philosophy: Porridge, Hot, Cold, and Just Right.

      His writing is informative because he shows a clear before and after, a bad example followed by his own better one. In this case, he starts out by noting that some new appointee didn’t “replace” the previous person but instead succeeded him. Either word would, of course, get across the general meaning. But just as a sledgehammer and a scalpel could both be used to open up a frog, the scalpel is a finer-grained tool.

      Perfect is not necessary. But refinement is good. And unlike a programming language, an inexact word doesn’t necessarily crash the meaning of a sentence. There is an art to this.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The relatively few strict rules in English make it fairly easy to learn at a basic level. But that is also why it is so difficult to master the language, particularly when writing.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Rules are, generally speaking, for the early part of the game. A musician learns the rules of music. A piano player will learn the rules (the techniques) for playing. A guitar player will do the same.

          And then it’s off to the races. Once in a while we need to come back to those foundational rules to get our bearings. But with the rules learned, it’s then time to play the piano.

          You might first start off playing simple pieces…such as “chopsticks” or perhaps a tune that requires only one hand. And then you progress to more difficult pieces.

          But playing the piano is much more than just hitting the right notes, for I assure you that if you put the notes in front of me, I can play Beethoven. But it would sound methodical, like a formula…which it would be for I don’t know how to play the piano but I know how to match notes with keys and could, like a good parrot, play the notes of Beethoven.

          So I don’t think much is gained from looking at language like a formula or a rules-based system. Yes, there are rules. And we must learn them. Yes, there is lots and lots of rote learning (such as how to spell words and what they mean). But the meaning of words, of course, its itself a moving target and we don’t start off with more than a glimpse of the full meaning of any one word.

          So we write. We play. And those who can play with two hands and play fluidly and expressively are the Dickenses of the world or the Hawthornes or the Twains. Some become so adept that they can playfully break a few of the rules and it sounds good.

          And there are rules and a kind of syntax to an article, if you will. And when Rush did one of his Caller Seminars the other day, I had it in mind to write something in this regard. And I probably will. Stay tuned.

          • Rosalys says:

            “But the meaning of words, of course, its itself a moving target…”

            I really wish more attention was paid to word meanings. Rush is often heard to say, “Words means things,” and generally that has been the case; but increasingly I find the disingenuous among us (liberals and progressives) would rather change definitions than improve their arguments.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        An interesting article; among other things, I hadn’t realized that Kilpatrick was still actively writing that long. I doubt he was still included in Conservative Chronicle. As for “notoriety”, I would consider it as in-between “fame” (which tends to have a positive implication) and “infamy” (which is clearly very negative”. To be notorious is somewhat ambiguous to me; it might best be translated as “famous and controversial” in my own usage.

        One thing I’ve noticed is how negative words can go from having specific meanings to becoming generalized. Consider “mean” — which used to refer to someone who was very miserly (and still seems to in Britain). Hence “Mean Mr. Mustard”, whose main concern is “trying to save paper” (i.e., paper currency). But here it’s just a generic term for someone who isn’t nice to others.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          You old Beatle fan you.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, in addition to all the psychedelia and such, they also did “Taxman”. “My advice to those who die, declare the pennies on your eyes, ’cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman, and you’re working for no one but me.”

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              That was George Harrison after a bad experience with British Inland Revenue. He was somewhat annoyed.

              I still like the way “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam” goes through several transitions and some different keys. Then it goes into “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”. Interesting grouping of songs.

              In fact, I like the whole “Abbey Road” album, especially another Harrison piece, “Here Comes the Sun”.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                And as a true crime aficionado, naturally I appreciate “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. I was moderately familiar with the Beatles, but a key moment may have been when my English teacher (senior in high school) played “A Day in the Life” for us to write an analysis (we had a choice of that or “Old Friends/Bookends”, and I chose to do the Beatles).

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                “A Day in the Life” is a great song. I think “Sergeant Pepper’s” is their best album. The White Album and “Revolver” being very close.

  3. SkepticalCynic SkepticalCynic says:

    As much as is wrong with the way people speak in these times you are picking on “or and nor?” Go fishing!

    • Rosalys says:

      Oh, come now! Where else but ST can we have fun discussing, at an advanced age, that which bored us to tears when we were ten? This site is responsible for educating me as to the proper use of commas. None of this is going to stop ISIS in its tracks. But so what?

      “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!”

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        This site is responsible for educating me as to the proper use of commas.

        The blessedly important comma. Clearly they can be overused. But I find them underused. And, offhand, I think the lack of their proper use (and I’m not talking about commas in a series) relates to something I said in the seminar about listening to one’s own words as if one was another reader reading them for the first time. If we can do so objectively, we will find the little pauses in sentences that beg for the inclusion of a comma. This not only helps to break things into logical segments, which promotes comprehension, but captures the cadence of natural conversation…a cadence we should try to imitate in our writing (outside of technical journals, I suppose, but even then).

        Commas are mostly an “ear” thing. There are no hard-and-fast rules for them. But if you can find yourself thinking in fine-grained detail about where a comma goes — and make this noticing automatic and practiced — then you can’t help but develop a careful ear for the rest of your writing.

        When does one use a comma, an em-dash, parentheses, an ellipses, or instead start a new sentence? Ultimately there are no rules other than what sounds good to your ear. That is why it is so important (if writing well is the point) to read good writing. Although I’ve found I can exist on Facebook without getting too much gunk on me, I don’t think developing an ear is possible without immersion in Hawthorne or some other great writer.

        Boring you to tears since 2013.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        There’s a famous example of the need for the serial comma: Someone who once dedicated something to “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”. That’s almost as interesting a family tree as the one Esther Friesner suggested in one of her novels.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yep. One should always use the comma after the item before the “and”…and for the very reason you state. It helps to avoid confusion. And if one doesn’t see that, one has not yet developed the kind of “ear” one needs. Not every time does the series suffer without that final comma. But it does so often enough that the default should go to using it. Here’s just one example from the web where meaning suffers:

          The street was filled with angry protestors, shouting spectators and police.

          Without that last comma, we may presume the police were also shouting. Or were they? It’s not a big deal, but what’s the harm in being clear and (most importantly) not making the reader jump through unncessary hoops of ambiguity? If you’re going to write something, have the good manners to be clear.

          And sometimes the last two items go together such as: I went to the store and bought milk, bread, and macaroni and cheese. Without the comma we might go to the store and buy milk, bread, sugar and cabbage. Do you really want those last two items to be read as one?

          And sometimes that comma is necessary to avoid absurdity such as this example scrounged from the web showing a headline on a magazine cover:

          “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”

          Perhaps Rachael found inspiration in “cooking, her family, and her dog.” But these days, who knows?

  4. Rosalys says:

    How about good and well.

    An older friend, a retired school teacher, once asked me, “How are you?”

    I replied, “I am well, thank you.”

    At this, he stood back and gazed upon me with amazement, astonishment, and admiration. “You used well, and not good!” Never has such a minor thing done so much for my reputation – I remain demigod-like in his eyes to this very day. The thing is, I was totally unaware of my momentary perfection at the time, and can not guarantee that I had always used well and good properly; but, I have been very conscious of my usage ever since. The other day I found myself telling someone I was “good” before I realized what was coming out of my mouth, and I cringed inwardly. I wanted to apologize immediately and profusely – but thankfully I did not. I should be so conscious of some of the grammatically correct stuff to come out of my mouth, and yet should never be said!

    And Jesus said unto him, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” Mark 10:18

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I don’t remember if it was an old-school elementary school teacher who ruler-flicked this wisdom into us, but someone used to harangue us with “‘Hay’ is for horses” when we used “hay” to try to get someone’s attention. I suppose “Howdy” is out too unless one is in the country.

      Similar to that is the expression, which I quite agree with, “Goats have kids, people have children.” I don’t often adhere (rather than stick) to that one though.

      I enjoy switching between the vulgar and my Sunday best, if only to make a point. But these days, given the sedation of proper language use, if people don’t see that you have a point, do you really have a point?

      And that’s a good point (not a well point) about the use of “well” vs. “good.” I try to Poligrip to that usage as well. And, no, despite the popular “I’m okay, you’re okay” expression of “It’s all good,” this is not so. We must make distinctions. But perhaps it’s just a matter of tense for it could be that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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