Persons of suntan

Link: Language Log: Not objectionable.

Geoff Pullum of Language Log takes issue with someone who has cited him as saying the phrase "person of color" is objectionable. He did not say that, writes Prof Pullum, he said that the phrase is correct grammatically. However, he hates it and would not use it, any more than he would use the phrase "persons of suntan" for people who had been on the beach all day.

"That’s what the worst of the grammar grumblers and usage whiners consistently fail to see: that their personal dislike of (say) split infinitives does not determine automatically that split infinitives are incorrect in Standard English. Your dislike of split infinitives might instead simply mean that you hate them: they might be (and in fact are) fully grammatical at all stages of the history of English, and often recommended as the best choice on style grounds, and sometimes obligatory if you don’t want to completely rephrase, and you still might hate them. In that case, don’t use them. End of point."

5 thoughts on “Persons of suntan

  1. I think I’m going to have to start reading Language Log. What a sensible point – and about about split infinitives, which I love to use.

  2. God, I hate “persons of color” too. Nothing could make me actually say it. Well, nothing short of physical threats to my loved ones, at least. But I’d get my revenge later.

  3. I like the passage you quoted from Geoff Pullum. Usage guides and stylebooks have long been a staple of the newspaper business (they will not be for much longer, because the newspaper business will not exist for much longer.)
    These guides are generally written by people who may have been good editors but are simply incompetent as scholars. They can recognize bad usage, but they run aground when they have to say why they object to such usage. Yet their word is accepted because newspaper writers and editors, whose literacy is going down the chute just as fast as that of the general population, don’t know any better.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  4. I agree, Peter — “style manual-itis” can be a bit irritating for the reasons you say, yet publications would be a lot worse off without a style.

  5. Publications need a style, but I wasn’t referring to in-house style manuals. (I see now that I was insufficiently clear. Even editors need editing.) I was referring to published reference books on style.
    Back in the days when my newspaper used to hire people rather than lay them off, it would traditionally give each new hire, at least on the copy desk, two such reference books in addition to the in-house style guide. One of these books annoyed me with its author’s tendency to substitute insults for scholarship when he could not explain an awful expression’s awfulness. The other author’s ignorance led him into an embarrassing error.
    He was trying to explain why “as if” is preferable to “as though.” There is one reason, and one reason only, for such a preference: “as though” sounds odd. But the author — a professor of journalism, no less — ridiculed “as though” by offering an elaborate explanation of its absurdity based on the differences in meaning between “if” and “though.”
    Had he bothered to consult a dictionary with even moderately thorough etymologies, he’d have learned that “though” and “if” were synonyms at an earlier stage in the evolution of English, and that “as though” as a synonym for “as if” was probably a survival of that earlier meaning.
    This does not mean that he should accept “as though,” but it does mean he should not have strayed beyond his area of competence. Good copy editors are supremely practical stylists. They stray into theory and scholarship at their peril.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

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