Process-ease and other Linguistic Pet Peeves

I’m not a prescriptivist when it comes to language. That is, when a foreign-speaking missionary comes home from a mission correcting everyone’s grammar, people are correct (imo) to be turned off by it (this usually assumes, as prescriptivists have throughout time, that English should work like Latin, Greek, or some other language). This “correct” English itself would have been considered a bastardization not too terribly long ago. Split infinitives don’t bother me (though I try to really not use them), and I’m even okay with everyone bringing their books. You’ll hear me gleeflully postpositioning prepositions, at least when appropriate to the audience I’m speaking to, and I’ve certainly transitioned to verbing nouns.

But there are some things that I’d like to correct, for reasons other than to preserve grammar.*

Public enemy #1: “Processeez”: You’ll often hear professors, pundits, and politicians of varying stripes use the “eez” suffix to make a plural out of the word “process”. This has always struck me as silly. Why should this word have a special distinction when we don’t say “buseez” to indicate multiple pullmans?

I think it’s for the simple fact that it is an attempt to demonstrate an elite linguistic register. If you know how to make “thesis” plural, for example (thesises is also fine), and say “theses”, it ostensibly indicates a familiarity with Latinate endings and it sounds much more educated to say something in Latin, sine qua non? But the “correct” way to indicate more than one process was with a simple schwa plus “s”, just like any other noun ending in a sibilant. On the analogy, therefore, of “thesis-theses::process-x”, process-ease was born. The same goes for “bias” etc. So if you really want to sound intelligent, say processuz.

#2: Begging the question: One of the most common historically “incorrect” phrases that I come across on the blogs is when someone uses the phrase “to beg a question” etc. to mean “to raise a question”, or “to elicit a new avenue of inquiry”. Here’s what the OED says about the phrase:

6. To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.

1581 W. CLARKE in Confer. IV. (1584) Ffiij, I say this is still to begge the question. 1687 SETTLE Refl. Dryden 13 Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning. 1680 BURNET Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question. 1788 REID Aristotle’s Log. v. §3. 118 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises. 1852 ROGERS Ecl. Faith 251 Many say it is begging the point in dispute. 1870 BOWEN Logic ix. 294 The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question.

It strikes me, then, that these, “original” uses of the phrase are more like the opposite of what they’re currently used to mean.

These two examples (and I could produce more) bother me for the same reasons that people correcting others’ grammar bothers me: it’s arrogant (ironic, I know, in a post telling people to speak differently). It’s an attempt to sound educated when the usage is based on “uneducated” foundations. Call me a hypocrite, but maybe that’s what pet peeves are, by nature.

What bothers you about current usage?


*I have the sense that I’m not the first to discuss this sort of thing in the ‘nacle, but I’m not sure where I’ve heard it discussed. Please link if you know of other discussions.

20 Replies to “Process-ease and other Linguistic Pet Peeves”

  1. Darn you non-prescriptivists for destroying English! Darn you to heck 🙂

    I think Clark had a post way back about “begging the question” but I don’t seem to find it.

  2. Nitzav, I appreciate a well-turned (and grammatically correct) phrase as much as the next (educated) guy, and I think it’s vital for everyone to be able to speak in different registers, even in ivory-tower-ese. I know you’re joking, but which (and whose) English is being destroyed? (Perhaps we should all blame the 11th-century Normans?)

    Here’s my favorite illustration of the problem:

    Grandson: “My friend is such a dork.”

    Grandfather (offended): “If you knew what dork meant, you wouldn’t say that.”

    Grandson: “If you knew what dork meant, you wouldn’t be offended.”

  3. Sorry, you can’t have my eezes. I acquired them in my tender youth sans conscious pretense. You can go sing that Christmas song about hippopotamusses all you want; you’ll get my processeezes when you pry them from my cold, dead mouth.

    Question broachers who go begging bug me. (Alliteration at no extra charge.) I will continue to boldly go smack through the middle of my infinitives, and postpositioning prepositions is a sin up with which I put reasonably well, but “Where are you at?” kills me. So, I guess the moral is, if you want my eezes, ask me where they’re at.

  4. Edje, interesting. I wonder if I’m unique in that I said “processes” just fine and never thought ought until I heard my professors in college say it. Makes me wonder whether the processeeze-ese is becoming standard because it is now heard everywhere, not just in academics.

    Next up: Business Lingo and how to keep the contents of your stomach in Its presence. (When I worked in business a colleague and I were going to come up with “Business Lingo Bingo”–but alas someone else had the idea first…).

  5. OK, this isn’t linguistic, exactly, but I saw this in someone’s signature line and want to share it with the world:

    A kitten dies every time you use an apostrophe to pluralize.

  6. “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less”

    But in general I agree with the above comments regarding the futility, even rudeness, of insisting on certain rules. Heaven knows my writing, most especially my blog writing, isn’t perfect. This is due to both actual ignorance and just carelessness. We should cut each other some slack.

  7. A little while ago there was a heated debate about Classicists, exegetes, and the those more effectively trained to examine texts. Perhaps this post is indicative of something–I’m not sure. Jupiterschild notes: “If you know how to make “thesis” plural, for example (thesises is also fine), and say “theses”, it ostensibly indicates a familiarity with Latinate endings and it sounds much more educated to say something in Latin.”

    The -es ending on theses has nothing to do with Latin or Latinate endings. The -es ending on theses is the proper masc./fem. plural ending for third declension nominative nouns for Greek words such as thesis. The same goes for hypotheses, hypnoses, diagnoses, prognoses (and all of the -gnosis/es), analyses, dialyses, etc. etc. And though Jupiterschild may find “thesises” to be acceptable I would probably be correct in thinking that he/she cringes to hear “analysises” and “prognosises.” In terms of modern pronunciation of the Greek -es ending, I can’t see how saying -eez is pretentious or an attempt to demonstrate “an elite linguistic register”–it is simply a standard modern convention for approaching how the Greek -es may have been pronounced. So, if we are going to parse words and pronunciations, let’s be sure we are parsing apples with appels and oranges with oranges.

  8. Well, according to Miriam Webster, ‘processeez’ is an acceptable pronunciation… While I am not really a linguist, I agree with jc that I cannot figure out why.

    While “thesis” is a Greek word, and oudenos is correct that theses is the proper plural form in both Greek and English (I don’t find ‘thesises’ in any dictionary), process is a fourth declension Latin word, and there is no reason why I can think that I would take an “eeze” ending, unless perhaps this comes from some other period in its etymological journey through Middle or Late Latin, French, or Old English.

    oudenos: “(a) I can’t see how saying -eez is pretentious or an attempt to demonstrate “an elite linguistic register”– (b) it is simply a standard modern convention for approaching how the Greek -es may have been pronounced.”

    I cannot see how (a) follows (b) in your argument. How does invoking Greek grammar not demonstrate an elite linguistic register?

    I am not sure that this post says anything at all about the exegete/classicist discussion from earlier since jc is primarily trained in ancient semitics and Greek and Latin are far outside of his primary area. Besides, I don’t think he commented on that thread anyway.

  9. Oudenos,

    Thesis is a Latin word, as are axis, basis, etc., no matter where their origins lie. Just as they are English words now. As TT says, I’ve not studied Latin formally, but a quick glance at Latin declension charts shows third-declension Latin nouns, to which thesis et al. belong if I’m not mistaken, pluralized in the nominative with -es (macron over the e). So how are these endings, from the perspective of current vernacular, not related to Latin? Sure, they may be Greek originals, but I’ll bet the people who ensured that thesis continued to the present day are related to the people that used to make students write their thesises in Latin.

    I didn’t want to get into this, which is why I said Latinate, not speaking in a “linguistic family tree” sense, but in the “educated languages of the western world” sense. I intended an analogy with “Islamicate”, that is, to talk about cultures in the “Islamic” world that may or may not have been adherents of Islam. I wanted to draw the connection between “thesi/es” and the airs one puts on when quoting Latin (how often is Greek quoted in daily or academic usage?).

    If your classics genius would like to explain to my unwashed mind why “thesis -is”, “axis”, etc. ends up in my Latin dictionary as a third-declension noun with a nominative plural in -es, and why the way we use them today is not based on Latin, I’d be much obliged. At that point, I’ll bow at the Classicist’s feet, seven and seven times, and I’ll admit that I have no business doing exegesis whatsoever. While you’re at it, you can also clarify why you seem to think that “processies” is correct, because even if it is “simply a standard modern convention for approaching how the Greek -es may have been pronounced,” process is not a third-declension noun, and thus doesn’t merit the same endings. As I said, it’s likely based on analogy with the third-declension nouns that have made it into English.

    Finally, whether or not analysises is acceptable doesn’t necessarily bear on whether thesises is acceptable. Languages are full of words that are treated differently for different reasons, and the language/pronunciation is in a constant state of flux because of various principles coming into play, like analogy, which is what we’re dealing with here. Prognosises doesn’t sound that bad to me, and I’ve heard “axises” more often than “axes”, especially in the media. Analysises, I’m guessing, would be unacceptable sonoris causa 🙂 .

    If this little exchange indicates anything, it’s probably the classicist’s vaunted superiority based on ability to describe a word’s origins and declensions, to the exclusion and detriment of the actual argument being made.

    TT, I think MerriamWebster considers it acceptable pronunciation for the same reason that I’m not a prescriptivist. It has made it into modern vernacular, is acceptable (that is, most people don’t cringe when they hear it), and therefore is correct. It remains one of my pet peeves. And thanks for the defense.

  10. The most nit-picky grammar nazis will be the first to point out that the “rule” in English “rules” is that it changes with use and popularity. So there may be a “better” but what’s “right” eventually gets worked out in popular usage. It’s a pop culture language of sorts.

    Spanish and French on the other hand have governing boards which watch over them and keep them “pure.” So if you want die on a hill of language peeves, move to Montreal.

  11. People who pronounce “mischievous” (MIS-chi-vus) “mischevious” (mis-CHEE-vee-us). Very educated people sometimes.

  12. Yikes. Apparently my previous comment drew down some serious fire. First off, I am not a classicist, I was merely noting a connection to the previous ballyhooing a little while back. Second, ya’ll are a sensitive and puzzling bunch–you get peevish when people pronounce words with a high-sounding register but you are put off when people can’t follow your nuanced usage and language of your various academic pursuits (in such venues as Sunday School), but then again you get worked up when someone makes out a not-quite-common knowledge but not-quite-esoteric observation that the -es of theses is from Greek and not Latin (though Latin certainly uses the word on loan).

    And my point still stands about the Classicist/exegete issue. The argument from that previous post was that Classicists shouldn’t tread on the island of exegesis unless paying deference to the traditional development of exegesis. Well, fair enough. Those who aren’t trained in the tools of classical philology ought to walk with care when making philological arguments–especially when lampooning others.

  13. My sincere apologies, oudenos, for my over-the-top and probably insulting tone. I’ll try to work on that. After a good night’s sleep, I feel less defensive and so will try to be more civil:

    I didn’t get worked up because of your comment that the -es is a third-declension Greek form. I know this, and was purposefully avoiding an etymological discussion, wanting instead to connect the use of the form to the use of Latin phrases in English. I didn’t need the plural endings of thesis etc. to be Latin, because I was putting them in the same group of usage in English. And I tried to gloss over the issue by using “Latinate”, though apparently this was unsatisfactory.

    So I didn’t get worked up because of the technical observation you were trying to make. I got worked up because you seemed to say “look, everyone, exegetes can’t do philology!”.

    That said, I would honestly like you to show me where my philology is errant. I never made the claim that thesis etc. came originally from Latin (though I see how you could have jumped to that conclusion; I should have been more precise)–I was talking about how these words are used in English, and since they are pluralized in Latin (nominative) the same way they are in Greek (again, from the perspective of our alphabet), can you (or someone) show me how we know these came into English through Greek and not Latin?

    You are correct to say that I’m not trained in (all) the tools of classical philology, because I’m not trained in Latin, though I am in Greek. But the fact remains that someone making this claim needs to show where I am wrong, and not simply to dismiss my argument based on incomplete training. This would be even more the case were I making an actual classical philological argument, but I’m not. This discussion would pertain to the classical/exegetical debate were I, for example, trying to discuss Plato’s Ion and its register as compared with Virgil, or even were I discussing the way Latin imported Greek nouns and their declensions. But since I wasn’t doing anything of the sort it seemed to me that you were searching for an occasion to smack the exegetes (even though I’m not one). Even if I were totally off, and there were no attestation of thesis etc. in Latin, my argument would remain unchanged.

    (I’m not sure what you are referring to when you say that we “are put off when people can’t follow [our] nuanced usage and language of [our] various academic pursuits (in such venues as Sunday School)”. And I’d still like to know what you think about processies.)

    Finally, to clarify, I didn’t mean for this post to be about how stupid or even arrogant others are, though I see how it could be taken this way. I meant to vent about a pet peeve of mine, a trifling annoyance, and to put my finger on why it gets under my skin. I tried to say that my pet peeve shouldn’t bother me because I’m not a prescriptivist, and as such I’m a bit of a hypocrite to be annoyed by it. Sorry to anyone who felt lampooned.

  14. I agree that Clark had an entry on “begs the question” because I remember ranting in the comments. I would guess that the phrase is used incorrectly over 95% or the time. It crops up even in magazine and newspaper articles which one would think have been edited by someone. My primary complaint is that the incorrect usage (unfortunately) does not make the speaker look like an idiot. Instead it has become so popular as to make those that use the term correctly look like idiots in the eyes of the unwashed masses.

    Spell checkers should be programmed to automagically find any use of the phrase and then subject the author to a multiple choice test in which they must determine which of several sentences does in fact beg the question. If unable to answer correctly the author should be permanently banned by the spellchecker from ever entering the phrase (or any variation of it) again.

    Also infuriating is the fact that a perfectly acceptable alternative exists in the form of “raises the question.”

  15. arJ, “Also infuriating is the fact that a perfectly acceptable alternative exists in the form of “raises the question.”” is a very good point, one that makes me aware that this is what really bothers me–viz., the reasons behind the selection of this over a perfectly straightforward alternative.

    I think it’s obviously more complex a phenomenon than I have presented it, especially when one asks this question of selection between alternatives. I think what motivates people fundamentally to select “begs the question” and “processies” etc. is the desire to participate in more elite registers–on encountering the (errant) phrase, it sounds more articulate, but at the same time seems straightforward (“begging” a question is likely taken to mean pleading for someone to raise a question) so one adopts it. This, coupled with the large number of occasions in which one is able to use the word or phrase in question ensure its calcification in accepted speech and immortalization in Webster’s.

  16. BTW – someone mentioned an old post of mine. I think this may have been the one in question. I didn’t really say much profound in it though. Just confessing to saying irregardless to annoy people who are picky about language. And confessing that I also say “begs the question” instead of “raises the question.”

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