I’d Like To Have An Argument, Please

I’m used to seeing this mangled phrasing from my students, but I would have hoped not to see it in a serious newspaper (I say “serious” to rule out, e.g., the Opelika-Auburn News, from which no fantastic garbling of English could any longer surprise me), and particularly not in the London Times: “Few would argue that the Dublin-born playwright, who spent much of his life in England, was the master of the clever quip.”

I’m not sure when people started using the phrase “few would argue that p” as though it meant “few would deny that p” or “few would argue against the proposition that p,” but in fact those who do have been saying the opposite of what they mean – since what “few would argue that pactually means is “few would maintain that p” or “few would argue on behalf of the proposition that p.”

4 Responses to I’d Like To Have An Argument, Please

  1. Anon2 October 16, 2007 at 4:01 pm #

    C’mon Roderick— it’s linguistic relativism, the words can mean whatever people want them to mean. And Wittgenstein himself mentioned how words are fuzzy, so put those two together and voila– few would argue that the London Times is a serious and grammatically sound newspaper.

  2. Otto Kerner October 16, 2007 at 10:10 pm #

    Yeah, after reading the first paragraph of this post, I had no idea that “Few would argue that the Dublin-born playwright … was the master of the clever quip” was supposed to mean that he actually was the master of clever quips. I was, at first, a bit doubtful that they really didn’t mean that — but, since it is Oscar Wilde, after all, under discussion, I guess it’s hardly conceivable that the point they’re making is that he was bad at quips.

  3. William H. Stoddard October 17, 2007 at 9:07 am #

    Ah, yet another linguistic solecism to add to my list. My own favorite detestations include the use of “beg the question” to mean “raise the question” rather than “assume what one claims to prove” and the phrase “you’ve got another thing coming” in place of “another think coming.” Often the trouble with a lot of these is partly that there’s a perfectly good phrase already available that conveys the intended meaning: in this case, “few would dispute.”

    Then there are the many people who say “he graduated high school,” a doubly worn down phrase: directly from “he graduated from high school,” but that in turn was worn down from “he was graduated from high school.”

  4. Administrator October 17, 2007 at 11:27 am #

    While we’re on linguistic pet peeves, one of mine is “may have” vs. “might have.” “Hitler might have won World War II” means that it was possible then for him to win; “Hitler may have won World War II” means, more alarmingly, that it’s possible now that he really did win. But people often use the latter construction as though it meant the former.

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