Blinded by the Rules
Posted by Neal on July 27, 2004
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.