I couldn’t help smiling at the wrath I aroused in some readers by making the parenthetical comment that the spelling “extravert” is to be preferred to “extrovert.” The things people get angry about! Some people even called me a prescriptivist, by which they clearly did not mean to compliment me.

As nice as it might be to believe that there are two types of people in the world, prescriptivists and descriptivists, in point of fact everyone interested in language describes at some times and prescribes at others. Consider Geoffrey Pullum, perhaps my favorite grammarian, who over at the wonderful Language Log blog writes regularly about “prescriptivist poppycock”. Nobody would seem to fit the descriptivist category better than Pullum, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get agitated by solecisms — though he manages to keep his tongue in his cheek when so agitated.

In a recent post at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog, he corrects those who, in reference to James Bond’s preferences in martinis, employ the phrase “shaken but not stirred.” No, no, no: “So, to order a martini ‘shaken, but not stirred’ would suggest that (1) if a martini were shaken one might expect it also to be stirred, and (2) in this case a request was being made for said stirring not to be done. That would be ridiculous.” He continues:

If a martini has been shaken, stirring it afterward is pointless because it would cause no detectable change. And if a previously stirred martini is subsequently poured into a shaker and shaken, no one can tell that it had once been stirred. So neither way could the stirring possibly matter to Bond. He wants a shaken martini, that’s all.

(Actually, when exhausted he doesn’t care so much: After a night of losing millions to the evil Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig responds to the “shaken or stirred?” question by saying, “Do I look like I give a damn?” In Skyfall however, although the famous phrase is never uttered, the bartender who shakes Bond’s martini gets the nod of approval: “Perfect,” says Bond. He doesn’t ask whether any stirring had been done earlier.)

The special element of conventionally implied meaning in the word but, taken together with the physics of stirring and shaking as just summarized, makes it clear that shaken but not stirred is a thoughtless misquotation. It isn’t the right phrase for anyone’s martini. Bond’s point is that he wants it not merely stirred but instead vigorously shaken; and that is quite different.

A small point; but then as Otto Jespersen (the greatest of all 20th-century grammarians) remarked in his retirement address in 1925: “To anyone who finds that linguistic study is a worthless finicking with trifles, I would reply that life consists of little things; the important matter is to see them largely.”

So let this be a lesson to you all: only get prescriptive when it really, really matters — for instance, when you’re talking about martinis. Or spelling “extravert.”