Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Blinded by the Rules

Posted by Neal on July 27, 2004

Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has put his finger on something that has bothered me when I’ve researched various linguistic phenomena that catch my ear. He writes:

Much of my recent research has to do with syntactic variation in English…sometimes on details of constructions that are for the most part uncontroversial, sometimes on phenomena that are very widespread but are condemned by some usage manuals, sometimes on relatively infrequent and largely disregarded phenomena. I seem to have specialized in variation that isn’t tied in any obvious way to the standard extralinguistic factors (geographical region, class, age, sex, race/ethnicity), although a few of the variables are associated with informal style or with speech as opposed to writing.

Now, I’m used to having people, especially non-linguists, respond to some of my data through the lens of rules they’ve been taught. Being Blinded By the Rules, I call it. It seems that once you’ve had a generalization about grammar, however spurious, made explicit for you, you can no longer judge language like a normal person; a little learning is a dangerous thing. You may deny that you use some variant — possessive antecedents for pronouns, split infinitives, stranded prepositions, certain types of “dangling modifiers” — when in fact you use it with some frequency. You may make tortured attempts to avoid this variant. You will certainly discredit reports that other people use a variant that you don’t — say, Isis (“The problem is is that I don’t speak that way”), GenXso (“I’m so not going to talk about this”), or themself (“Everybody should get themself a research project”). You’ll be inclined to treat these usages as errors, not as real linguistic variants, that is, parts of somebody’s grammar (maybe your own).

Here’s an example of a “relatively infrequent and largely disregarded” phenomenon that I’ve talked about earlier, and have encountered rule-induced blindness in discussing: the coordination of what and who in a question. As I mentioned in the earlier post, when what and who is the subject of a question, the verb sounds much better to my ear as a singular than a plural: I’d say what and who was found rather than what and who were found. On the other hand, there is the well-known rule that coordinated noun phrases count as plural (barring certain exceptions that I won’t get into here).

Faced with these two facts, I trust the instincts that I’ve gained from a lifetime of speaking English, and conclude that the rule for coordinated noun phrases doesn’t work for wh noun phrases the same as it does for ordinary noun phrases. Or rather, that for at least some of the population of English speakers it didn’t. But when I was describing the phenomenon to someone Blinded By The Rules, he unquestioningly, automatically, ceded authority to the rule on coordinated noun phrases. To be fair, it might have been that this rule really did apply to any and all coordinated noun phrases in BBTR’s grammar, but he didn’t put it that way. Instead, he said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, John and Marsha is married is just plain wrong!”

Well, of course it is! I never said anything about coordinations like John and Marsha! I was talking about coordinations of wh words like what and who. But in BBTR’s mind, if the rule spoke of coordinated noun phrases, then by golly it meant all of them! Nevermind that the authors of the English grammar books probably never even thought about what happened in such a relatively infrequent situation; the rule’s been written, and there’ll be no changing it now.

Here’s another example, also involving wh questions. This sentence appeared on page F1 of the Columbus Dispatch of July 12:

Digital video recorders and video-on-demand systems give a new generation of viewers greater control over what, when and how they watch television.

As it happens, I was talking about this example with the same person as I mentioned earlier. BBTR’s reaction: “How they watch television… when they watch television… what they watch television… that’s wrong, man!” He had zeroed right in on what had caught my attention: the lack of parallelism in the coordination of what, when, and how. The latter two could combine with they watch television just fine, but the what definitely could not. This kind of coordination is definitely not licensed in his or my grammar.

But BBTR went further: “That sentence makes no sense! It’d have to be what they watch on TV, and when and how they watch it.”

“But wait!” I said. “You just made sense of it right then! So why can’t we say that some people’s grammar lets them do this kind of a coordination, with the kind of interpretation that you just gave it?”

About this time, I realized that we’d driven several miles past our turn, and had to stop the conversation while I found a place to turn around and backtrack. To tell you the truth, I don’t dismiss the possibility that the what, when and how sentence really is an error, produced in the course of rewriting the sentence a few times and not carefully checking the final version. But still… do an Internet search for strings like “what and when” or “what and how” (or if you prefer, read Appendix A in my dissertation) and you’ll find enough questions like the one quoted above that dismissing them all as errors becomes a real test of how stubborn you’re willing to be.

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5 Responses to “Blinded by the Rules”

  1. Anonymous said

    Hi Neil,

    I’ve been enjoying your posts here and over there. I like your discussion about a more flexible (tolerant?) grammar but it also troubles me. What about a more tolerant approach to spelling too? If I want to spell grammar grammer who is the worse off except for a bunch of annoyed 3rd grade gramer teechers? Really though, I think it is high time to make the speling of English words more fonetic or phonetic if that makes you feel better. I think I’m more conservative when it comes to the proper grammatical structure of sentences? There’s got to be a set of rules to follow, right? I’m worried about the “if it sounds good do it” approach. This is a 2000’s take off the 60’s “if it feels good do it.” I don’t mind you changing the rule for the better but there’s got to be a rule, right? We’re not all hi on dope r wee, groovy as that may b?

  2. Anonymous said

    Hey Neal, Grig here.

    As a writer, I am often faced with issues of grammar and punctuation so much that when I come across an odd sentence, I grab my “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style” book, and use what I see there. But sometimes, I need to convey actual speech between two characters, and I don’t want them to sound like college professors if they are 12 year old kids.


    Julie parted her hair to one side, blew a stray bang from her forehead with a puff of air, and said, “I think our teachers suck.”

    Punk nodded. He wondered if they really did “suck,” like a leech, or more like a vacuum cleaner. Either way, his attention span was draining faster than an airplane toilet. “That teacher needs a stern talking to!” He said a bit too loudly.

    The teacher stopped in mid-sentence and asked if Punk had something to share with the class.

    “Yes,” said Punk, aware that all eyes were on him, “as I have just spent the last 3 days studying my SATs, let me just say that you are to teaching what water is to fire.”

    This is apparently correct punctuation, but why does “suck” have to have the comma inside, since the word is being quoted, not the comma pause? Dunno, just does.

    Aside from that, Punk in this example ended a sentence with a preposition, and he also said he was studying his SATs (which you can’t, the SAT is a test, not a study guide), not his SAT prep workbook. An editor might correct that for me, but then it changes the character a little.

    There has been this joke among writers that if Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” would have had an editor, everyone in the South would seem more educated, and if e.e. cummings had an editor, someone would have never guessed he had a broken typewriter (jk).

    Tom Sawyer Text:
    “Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be look- ing out for him by this time? But old fools is the big- gest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ‘pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says…”Tom Sayer “fixed:”
    “I should have Tom hung; haven’t I learned anything? Hasn’t he played enough similar tricks like that for me to be more aware this time? But old fools are the biggest fools, apparently. As the saying goes, “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks.” But by goodness’ sake, he changes your tactics every two days, and how am I supposed to know what he is going to do next? He seems to know just how long he can torment me before I become upset, and knows that if he fools me one more time or makes me laugh, it will turn out okay, and I can’t punish him. I am not doing what I should with Tom, as God would tell you. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” as it says in the Bible …”Not really an improvement; she almost becomes as generic as the narrative.

  3. Tony said

    Neither of your examples sit very well with me. “John and I were going..” implies some coordinated action which transforms the two objects into plural set needing ‘were’ instead of ‘was’. You can substitute “They were…” for “John and Mary were…” but you can’t do that with ‘What and Who’. If John and Mary were (heh) doing different things, it’d read “John was jumping and Mary was crawling.”. I think you can legitimately view ‘What and who was found’ as a contraction of ‘What was found and Who was found’, as ‘what’ and ‘who’ can’t generally be viewed as a plural set of things.

    Similarly, the television example troubles me… I don’t think it necessarily illustrates a lack of parallelism between how, when, and what:

    When I say “How I watch TV…”, or “When I watch TV…”, I’m using a cultural shorthand for the longer “When I watch programs on the device known as a television…” to watch television is a specific kind of action involving observing unidentified programming on a machine. When you switch to a “What I watch…” contsruction you’ve stepped out of the cultural shorthand in which ‘watch TV’ implies the activity of using a television and into a more specific discussion of the particular program on the television, not the television itself.

    “When I watch…” or “How I watch…” is a description or discussion of the act of watching, not the content being watched. “What I watch…” is exactly the opposite.

  4. Anonymous said

    Response to first Anonymous post above:

    There are two separate issues here that need to be distinguished.

    Yes, standards are important. If you want to be understood by your audience, you need to speak (or write) in a way that they will understand. Now, we can argue about how rigid these rules of grammar need to be or ought to be, and obviously this is affected by the nature of the audience being addressed, but I think most everyone would agree that at least some amount of adherence to standard rules is beneficial in most contexts.

    But, I think Neal’s interest is quite different. He (like most linguists, I imagine) is trying to learn more about language itself. How does the human mind actually go about constructing phrases? How does the human mind interpret the language that it hears? How do children develop their own understanding of language? This is the type of question most linguists are trying to answer.

    And if that’s what your trying to find out, you can’t just ignore it when the way real people talk doesn’t mesh with the rules. When the nice neat rules don’t accurately reflect the way the language is actually used, that’s evidence that the real underlying rules are not so nice and neat.

    Likewise, if you’re trying to understand how people comprehend spoken language, you can’t say a phrase “makes no sense” just because it fails some sort of test of logical or internal consistancy. The real question is whether people who heard the phrase understood what was meant, in which case it definitely does “make sense” in an important way.

  5. As a non-native speaker of English I know rules are necessary. But necessary does not mean unchangeable, at least in a linguistic context.
    As for making English spelling more phonetic, I find it pointless. Millions of people have learnt to write correct English as it is, and millions will continue to do so.

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