Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Friday, May 29, 2009

How very "prescriptive" of you!

This morning, I was looking over a chapter of my Invaders trilogy that I'd been working on. I have a friend who also writes science fiction, though of a somewhat different kind than mine.  She is really very nice, and we critique each others' work each week, and in the process, have become friends.  She majored in literature at a local college, not the same one I went to.  I majored in anthropology.  We both had "nothing" jobs for a while, then were able, by various means, to be able to devote ourselves, however fitfully, to writing.  But that is not what I'm writing about here.


When I glanced over the copy of the chapter, which I'm going to be putting away so I can work a second draft of it, and eventually put it into shape to start peddling it to whatever agents might be willing to look at it, I noticed the following comment:


"Technically, this means that she nauseates others(which may be true). 'Queasy' might be a better word."


Here is the offending sentence:


"Illg lay huddled in a miserable, nauseous heap on the deck of the ship that was returning her to England, along with Duchess Matilda, with whom she had spent most of the last year."


A website called Grammar Girl backs my nice English-major friend on this.  I can sort of see why.  It was more or less the way I learned to write and speak.  Besides all the English teachers I had, at least until college, I had a heavily "prescriptivist" mother -- also an English major, but of a considerably older and stiffer generation and background. Be that as it may, both my friend and Grammar Girl seem to think that  "technically" , describing  Illg(the heroine of this trilogy) as "nauseous" means that she nauseates other people.  Except that she doesn't "nauseate" anybody!  Not even the villains in this novel(the villain is the older brother of one part of her love triangle, and he is a sort of antihero).  Quite the contrary! So why don't I use "queasy", the "technically correct" "nauseated"?  Because, gentle reader, neither of these two words quite packs the punch of "nauseous".  People who get seasick(which is what I spend a lot of time describing in this chapter, and the effects of her eventual ability to cure her fellow passengers(and sufferers of this form of motion sickness), are nauseated, but they often describe themselves as nauseous.  Okay, okay, you say.  This isn't "grammatically correct", but then, a lot of writing isn't. Here's another example, also from Grammar Girl says the same sort of thing about "all right" v."alright".  But do you know what's really weird about this?   I can't tell  you how many times I've seen "alright" in books of various kinds, so writers use it.  Furthermore, this self-same Grammar Girl claims that it has "shadow acceptance" in the UK, but is not acceptable in the US!  And this is simply not true!  While I am of a generation to whom "alright" often looks a bit "funny", I had most of the "grammar prescriptivism" these two examples show knocked out of me in,of all places, anthropology classes.  So, while I have my "prescriptivist" tendencies, these usages simply don't raise my "writer hackles".


I should note here, that I have never gotten seasick, although I have had my share of "nauseous/nauseating" episodes, from other causes. The closest I ever came to being in this condition was on a trip from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, just after Christmas, on a Victoria Clipper boat ride.  It was quite windy, and the seas were correspondingly heavy in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  And the people who  got this Victoria Clipper from Seattle to Victoria carefully announced, before we even started moving, that Dramamine was available for those who needed it.  I didn't, though trying to negotiate my way to the restroom under such conditions was an adventure in itself.  I don't know if any other passengers needed Dramamine. I didn't ask.   In any case, the problem I see,again referring to these two examples, is that usage in English has changed drastically since the days when the Vikings(or as the English then called them, the Danes, since what is now Denmark is where most of them came from)started invading England. Many of these Danes settled, often in places like York, which grew large and fat on the trade which many of these "Danish" settlers engaged  in.Old English was, among other things, a highly inflected language, much like German today.  What happened?  Well, the Danes didn't go away; many of them settled down in a peaceable manner, and the English often had to communicate with them.  The two languages were both in the "Germanic" family, so there were probably any number of words that were common to both.  But because these Scandinavians were such an important presence in parts of northern and eastern England, their "grammatical" influence eventually began to be felt, initially, perhaps, in the form of a kind of "pidgin" language.  Some Old English words dropped out and Scandinavian ones(all I can think of at the moment is "sky", but there were others) got substituted  and spread.  But the most important change was, that sentence structure began to simplify in English.  Case endings and conjugations began to be dropped, and words began to contract.  This process has actually been going on in some respects, from that time to this, which is well over 1000 years.  It was going on about 150 years after the first "Danish" invasions, though by that time,for somewhat different reasons. And in some respects, it's still going on, because in that time, English has absorbed a lot of vocabulary and usage from other places and people. And this is what these "prescriptivists" like Grammar Girl(and to a lesser extent, my writer friend -- but she can't help it, I suppose; she was an English major) fail to grasp. But then, people like Grammar Girl, who purport to show writers how to write "properly", are dyed-in-the-wool "prescriptivists" themselves; they wouldn't understand the linguistic "descriptivist" approach(Ron Kephart, this is for you!)at all!


So, I shall keep "nauseous" in the sentence I copied here.  It describes Illg's miserable condition perfectly, much better than "queasy", which sounds weak, or "nauseated", which sounds too darn clinical when writing about a young girl traveling on a vessel that probably looked a lot like a "Viking ship" and was probably constructed much the same way.  Although my friend is a writer, "prescriptivists" like Grammar Girl aren't, even if they have websites that tell others how to write.  This doesn't mean a writer should make egregious grammatical or spelling mistakes, unless he or she is describing an "uneducated" character who tends to speak in "dialect"(and it's better to hint at that than actually write it).  What it does mean, though, is that, unlike Grammar Girl, a writer needs to develop an "ear" for what is strong and good and gives the reader a good picture of what is going on.  "Nauseous" is a powerful word. The others aren't. And I'm a writer. And that's the end of it, Grammar Girl or no Grammar Girl

Anne G


Anita Davison said...

This is the second time in two days I have come across the word, 'prescriptive', which I have never seen before - you live and learn. And yes, 'alright' appears in lots of English novels and yet when I write it, my work gets 'edited' and 'all right' inserted instead.

Anne Gilbert said...


"Prescriptivism" is a term used by professional linguists to describe the official "rules of grammar" in any language. These may differ from the actual spoken usages linguists are interested in. But these usages also spill over into the written part of a language(assuming that the language is written as well as spoken,in the first place. The approach lingueists use is "descriptive", that is,they describe the actual way the language is used. The problem with "prescriptivists" like Grammar Girl is, that, as the "alright" example suggests, they care more about the "rules"of grammatical usage, rather than the way a language may be spoken orwritten, in any given slice of time. And the problem with that is, that language usage is always changing. If it didn't, English speakers would still be using the language of Beowulf,which is more or less incomprehensible to modern English speakers(unless they've learned some other "Germanic" language, and even then,it's pretty difficult).
Anne G

Charlie Farrow said...

Have you heard of the wonderful word Vomiturient (adj) Characterized by a desire to vomit.

Obsolete but wonderful!

Your friend is of course only right in the figurative sense, your usage is the more standard therefore understandable.

OED nauseous, adj.

1. a. Of a person, the stomach, etc.: inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish. Obs. rare.

b. orig. U.S. Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach; (fig.) disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.

1885 Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica) 14 Apr.. 2/5, I..was bumped up and down and oscillated and see-sawed from side to side until I became nauseous.

1927 Chicago Tribune 9 May 10/3 This lasts ten or fifteen minutes, then I have a terrible headache and I feel nauseous.

1949 Sat. Rev. 7 May 41 After taking dramamine, not only did the woman's hives clear up, but she discovered that her usual trolley ride back home no longer made her nauseous.

1955 R. LINDNER Fifty-minute Hour i. 41 Always when he thought of his mother Charles would feel a little sick; not actually sick - perhaps nauseous was the better word.

1977 Washington Post 15 May C4/1, I would go into the bathroom late at night and put hot and cold compresses over my eyes. I'd feel queasy and nauseous.

2. lit.

a. Of a thing: causing nausea. In later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell.

b. spec. Of a flavour or smell: nasty, repellent.

3. fig. Loathsome, disgusting, repulsive, offensive..

Anne Gilbert said...


"Vomiturient"? I've never heard of this, but what a wonderful-sounding word! It sounds like the sort of word some writer in the 18th century would use. I kind of like "vomitorious", but I think I made that word up.
Anne G

Charlie said...

It's excellent isn't it?

1666 H. STUBBE Mirac. Conformist 43 He was sick at Stomach, and seemed to be in a very vomiturient condition.

What about bespew? It lurks in the OED under be- prefix. It doesn't have its own entry but it splendidly means to spew on!


Anne Gilbert said...


I've heard of "bespew". Didn't know it meant "to spew on", but you're right, it's a wonderful word!