Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rules Are Broken to be Made

Two tiresome errors keeps popping up in the media, which demand our immediate attention. Everyone seems to be using them these days, even otherwise intelligent people.

"any number of"

-- which people keep using when referring to a group, portion or enumeration of a set of things. People seem to think that saying "any number of" signifies a large number. I.e., "I've tried any number of times to get you to stop speaking ungrammatically." But the phrase "any number of" doesn't make any sense. Pick any number. Someone using "any number" as a limit comparison, is not telling you anything at all. Any number can be 1, or 2, or 5, or ten trillion. It also seems to be used to indicate emphasis; in preference to "I've asked you not to do that a number of times," or "often," they'll say "I've asked you not to do that any number of times, to no avail."

I think it's related to the use of the equally meaningless phrase "any time soon" which could refer to 1 second, 10 minutes, ten weeks, or ten centuries.

These phrases mean absolutely nothing.

"As best as"

--which is simply ungrammatical. The use of the phrase constructions as well as, or the best that, or the best of, or the best in, are all permissible, because they indicate a degree (as in one thing works as well as another), or they indicate the best as a singular opposed to another thing or set of things. But you can't use best with as, because the best is a superlative, singular condition (or unique number), and can't be used to indicate a ratio or degree. "The best that I can do" doesn't mean less than the best, or almost the best, or as good as the best; it can only mean one condition, the best. You can't say a best, or one best, because it's a redundancy. If you want to see why this is true, ask yourself what it would be like to say "I am as sweetest as I can be." You can say "I'm sweet," or "I'm sweeter than you," or even "I am as sweet as I can be," but you can't say "I'm as sweetest as you" because sweetest is a superlative, than which no greater degree of sweetness can be expressed. When making superlatives, remember that you can't combine a ratio with a superlative--it's not grammatical. People seem to think that by replacing well with best, they can make a statement more emphatic, but it doesn't work. "As well as I can do" can't be made more emphatic by saying "as best as I can do." You can even do the best that you can do, you just can't be as best. You can be as good as the best, too. You just can't be as best as the best. Good/better/best. As good as, or better than, the best. Sweet/sweeter/sweetest. As sweet as, or sweeter than, the sweetest.


J said...

Two tiresome errors keeps popping up in the media, which demand our immediate attention.

Reachin' for me official green visor, iddn't that "Two tiresome errors keep popping up in the media which demand our immediate attention" ..? No comma with that type of clause (but have to check zee Chicago).

That said, I agree with you for most part, but some grammar nazis online at times go overboard when confronted with mere glitches. We know Sir F. writes eloquent complex prose but don't dismiss merely for a few minor mechanical errors.

Curtis Faville said...

Creative evolution of grammar is a force none of us can stop. But we can at least weigh in on whether or not we like some new bland coinage.

The problem with these tinny examples is, they don't solve any inherent difficulties in the language. Ignorance and laziness are poor excuses for breaking rules, especially when the result makes no sense.

With respect to punctuation, all the grammars I've read basically tell us we can use any system we like, as long as it's consistent. I don't buy that, but the placing of commas has a rhetorical function. They may be used to orchestrate a sentence, even when they're traditionally (technically) unnecessary. I do this all the time, but with strict intention.

And I do make a lot of mistakes, in the heat of the moment, or in the middle of an argument.

J said...

Actually Sir F. the comparative structure, at least in pinche Ingles aka modern Anglo-saxon seems a bit weird, not to say ugly and colloquial. Be the best you can be! Most writers generalize most of the time (with even "most of the time" a generalization), but the comparatives and superlatives generally don't help matters. A comparative's a type of...emotional plea, usually (or...lie. She says she did the best she can, but ....we know better).

Humans don't want specifics--or data based writing--or argumentation, whether formal logic, or even "plausibility." Reason's bad for business---Bertrand Russell for one was hated by both right and left machiavellians (and ...literary folks, including Pound AFAIK).

michael reidy said...

The use of 'hopefully' that makes nonsense of -"Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour" - galls me. (Stevenson)

The rash of 'egregious' that has broken out. What do you stand above the flock for, what quality? 'Egregious' for what; are you egregiously stupid or an egregious tyrant? Egregious needs qualification.