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Words on the street (Part 1)

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 4, 2012, page 10)

This is a dizzying time to be a language professional. In our digital, high-speed, multimedia society, new usages come and go—or, more often, come and stay—so frequently that keeping up is like playing Wii, dependent on a flurry of decision making and lightning-quick reaction times.

Some new words and expressions, especially those that relate to new technologies and concepts, take hold naturally. Words such as text, tweet, friend, unfriend, globalization and so forth fill the need for new vocabulary, and while there might be short-lived scuffles about spelling (witness E-mail, e-mail, email), for the most part we accept these additions to the language without debate.

It’s tougher when we encounter new usages involving established words. One judgment call that every language pro has to make at some point concerns when to avoid these upstarts because they’re ungrammatical or unidiomatic, and when to accept them as standard, or nearly so.

What follows is a sampling of usages currently popping up in newspapers, magazines, websites, TV interviews, blogs and books. In all cases I’ve been asked by colleagues, students and CMLPs* “Is this correct?” The short answer (if you’re too busy translating briefing notes, editing correspondence or reading Swedish thrillers to wade through the discussions that follow) is “Not yet, but stay tuned.”

A couple without of

Example: Nathan’s girlfriend offered him a couple ideas for improving his signature dance move.

Full disclosure: I loathe this expression. Fortunately, it assaults our eyes (and ears) less often in Canada than in the United States, but if you dip into the works of US authors with any regularity, you’re bound to encounter it. Here it is in Packing for Mars, a foray into the quirkier aspects of space travel by Mary Roach: “A couple years back, a friend at NASA had been working on something over in Building 9 at the Johnson Space Center.”

The problem here is a grammatical one. Couple is a noun. It is not an adjective, so it cannot modify the noun years. Adding of, however, turns couple into a prepositional phrase that is able to modify years.

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition, 2009), calls this of-less construction a “low casualism” and places it, along his five-stage Language-Change Index, at Stage 3: commonplace but still avoided in careful usage. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition, 2004) is even more dismissive: “The use of couple without a following of, as in they’d had a couple beers, is highly informal and should be avoided in writing.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, 2003) takes a different tack. It not only lists couple as an adjective, dating the usage back to 1924, it provides an impassioned (for a dictionary) dissertation on the matter:

The adjective use of a couple, without of, has been called non-standard, but it is not. In both British and American English it is standard before a word (as more or less) indicating degree <a couple more examples of Middle English writing—Charles Barber>. Its use before an ordinary plural noun is an Americanism, common in speech and in writing that’s not meant to be formal or elevated <the first couple chapters are pretty good—E. B. White (letter)> <still operated a couple wagons for hire—Garrison Keillor>.

Garner, too, notes that a couple minus of is more commonplace in print when it’s followed by a numerical reference—for example, “a couple hundred,” “a couple dozen.”

Omitting the of in expressions that convey number and degree is just as idiomatic in Canadian English as in British and American parlance, though it’s still informal. On the other hand, omitting the of in front of what Merriam-Webster’s calls “an ordinary plural noun” is to most Canadians (okay, to this Canadian) as irritatingly folksy as calling someone’s homemade pie “real good.”

Now, let’s pick the hayseeds out of our teeth and go forward.

Going forward

Example: Thanks to the recent electoral reforms, we expect more equitable representation and higher voter turnout going forward.

More disclosure: I also loathe this expression. It is (if you will forgive a dip into the low vernacular) a butt-ugly juggernaut that no one who follows current affairs, whether in print publications or through Internet, TV or radio, can duck.

Grammarphobia, the blog of both Patricia T. O’Conner (author of the bestselling Woe Is I) and journalist Stewart Kellerman, says this about going forward:

It allows the speaker or writer to get across a very banal idea (“sometime in the future”) without committing himself to such an empty phrase. Instead, he can substitute one that’s even emptier but sounds trendy and authoritative. Most likely, speakers of bureaucratese prefer “going forward” until they reach “the end of the day.”1

In a more concise but still stinging slap, the Guardian condemns the phrase in its online style guide2 as “unappealing jargon when employed as an alternative to ‘in the future.’”

The Guardian entry gets high marks for adding the “when employed” caveat. Nearly always, when going forward is used as a synonym for “in the future” (as in the example that kicks off this section), the phrase is ungrammatical. It’s the lack of grammatical correctness, not the wording itself, that I object to.

Going is the present participle (–ing form) of the verb go. Sometimes a present participle joins with the verb be to create the progressive tense (are going, was going, will be going). Sometimes a present participle appears without be, in which case the participle, or the phrase it forms, functions as either (1) a noun (going to the movies is fun) or (2) an adjective (people going to the movies often line up).

When the phrase going forward serves as a legitimate noun or adjective in a sentence, then it’s correct:

Still new to driving the forklift, Teresa finds going forward easier than going backward. (noun, object of verb finds)

The proposal going forward is not the one that the residents approved, but rather a pale imitation of their grandiose plan. (adjective, describes noun proposal)

But when going forward is tacked on to a sentence like the electoral reform example, it simply dangles. Dangling modifiers, trendy or not, are still errors…butt-ugly errors.

As far as without a verb

Example: He has abs of steel and a heart-stopping smile, but as far as real acting ability, he has a long way to go.

“As far as X goes” and “as far as X is concerned” are long-standing expressions. In both versions, as is a subordinating conjunction, a word that begins a dependent clause. Once we remind ourselves that a clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb, the error in the example becomes clear. Whether motivated by conciseness (the optimist’s view) or laziness (the pessimist’s), English users are increasingly dropping the verb of the clause (goes, is concerned).

Grammarphobia’s Patricia O’Conner, who also does radio broadcasts about language, received this letter to her blog in 2009:

Q: I’m one of your BIG FANS and also President of Nitpickers Anonymous. So I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard you say on WNYC “as far as” without a following verb. And not once, but TWICE! As in, “As far as your question, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” I was calmly driving along, listening to you on the radio, when all of a sudden I nearly drove into a tree! Tell me it isn’t so.3

To which O’Conner humbly replied: “Mea culpa!”

O’Conner would get little sympathy from Bryan Garner, who rates as far as without a verb as Stage 2 (widely shunned) in his five-stage index: “When the complement is omitted, idiom is severely violated.” Garner also notes that the expression, in either form, is wordy and can easily be replaced with as for.

Will the ungrammatical as far as one day worm its way into standard English? Maybe, if the more permissive tone of the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd edition, 2007) is any indication. The Guide states that the expression’s use as a preposition (followed by a noun without a verb) rather than as a conjunction (followed by a noun plus a verb) “is becoming established in spoken English….At present this usage is limited to speech and informal writing, and most commentators disapprove of it in writing.”

But in the future? If you squint hard, you can almost see a ghostly but at the end of the Guide’s entry, predicting the eventual acceptance of this expression. Word is, it’s another new usage to keep an eye on, along with others that we’ll look at in the next issue.