Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'm reasonably certain that's where we're at

By nitpicking, I'm opening the door for "pot calling the kettle black" and SWPL quips. Further, I'm of the opinion that commentators who add substantively meaningless phrases designed to show humility when making assertions are unnecessarily making their readers read more than they need to. We know you're not the ultimate arbiter of all things to all people. It's your take based on the reason you've employed, the data you've marshaled, and the passion you've embedded in your delivery. The "in my opinion, ..." is stating what is already assumed unless you've indicated otherwise.

That said, I listened to two podcasts today, one via EconTalk with Bryan Caplan and the other via AltRight Radio with Trace Mayer. Caplan said (starts at 54:25) the following in a discussion about F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit:
It's not that businesses need certainty about the rules, but a reasonable amount
of certainty.
A "reasonable amount of certainty"? The standard definition of certain being "free from doubt or reservation; confident; sure", the question of certainty is a dichotomous one. Something is either certain or it is uncertain; it cannot be somewhat certain.

In a span of less than 40 minutes, Mayer demonstrates poor English language usage not just once, or only twice, but thrice, in each case saying "...that's where we are at" instead of "that's where we are".

While we're on the topic, a couple other frequent errors I regularly come across:

- "Nevermind" instead of "never mind". The former is close to an antonym of the latter. Used correctly, it is approaching obsolescence. Parenthetically, I was made aware of this several months ago by an astute reader who called me out on my frequent use of "nevermind" when I meant "never mind".

- "Peruse" as an indication of brevity when it should be expressing the giving of great attention to detail. When I peruse an article, I'm not just skimming it but instead am reading through it thoroughly.

And yes, despite being guilty of it, I'm aware that freely switching between first-, second-, and third-person is considered bad, er, poor form.

* In the Steveosphere, that is. In the texting and Facebook worlds, these complaints would be dwarfed by far more elementary mistakes such as the use of "your" as the contraction of "you are" and "there" as the contraction of "they are".

8 comments:

Jokah Macpherson said...

I'm usually pretty forgiving of grammar/word usage mistakes in speeches or interviews. It is uncommon enough to find someone who can simply maintain a coherent theme supported in an organized manner that generates audience interest while avoiding vocal fillers and physical signs of nervousness.

Writing is another matter though since you have time to edit you're mistakes.

silly girl said...

My grammar pet peeve is the misuse of subject and object pronouns, but misused particles not so much. The use of prepositions as particles is just part of English being a germanic language. Many have tried to force Latin grammar onto English, but it is not always a good fit. You have to put the fire out in English, while you can extinguish it in Latin. The prefix 'out' is separable in English, while 'ex' in Latin it isn't. This feature gets unnecessarily generalized: That is where we are at.

B Lode said...

A "reasonable amount of certainty"? The standard definition of certain being "free from doubt or reservation; confident; sure", the question of certainty is a dichotomous one. Something is either certain or it is uncertain; it cannot be somewhat certain.

No, wait a second, I think there is a continuum between certainty and uncertainty. If the latter is measured fractionally (I'm sure we've all heard "___% uncertain") then the former can too, right? Otherwise your quoted passage would have had to say "a reasonably low amount of uncertainty", which seems cumbersome.

Black Death said...

From Dictionary.com:

Usage Note : Peruse has long meant "to read thoroughly" and is often used loosely when one could use the word read instead, as in The librarians checked to see which titles had been perused in the last month and which been left untouched. Seventy percent of the Usage Panel rejected this example in our 1999 survey. Sometimes people use it to mean "to glance over, skim," as in I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly, but this usage is widely considered an error. In a 1988 survey, 66 percent of the Panel found it unacceptable, and in 1999, 58 percent still rejected it.

Audacious Epigone said...

Jokah,

So am I, although articulate, crisp speakers always impress me.

Silly girl,

This comment thread now doubles as a notes section for yours truly :)

B Lode,

Isn't it similarly incorrect to use uncertain in such a way?

Black Death,

Thanks.

dearieme said...

"you have time to edit you're mistakes."

Nice one!

B Lode said...

Isn't it similarly incorrect to use uncertain in such a way? - AE

Well, I guess it may be, if these sources are all incorrect.

Does this usage seem wrong?

I couldn't say, myself.

B Lode said...

I've been thinking about this and I'm not sure what phrase you could replace "amount of certainty" with, or "fractional uncertainty" for that matter. I'm not wholly happy with either phrase though.