Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Prescriptive grammar’ Category

You Are What You Speak

Posted by Neal on March 8, 2011

You may recognize the name Robert Lane Greene if you read some of the blogs on the blogroll here. For almost a year, he has been writing the language blog Johnson (as in Samuel Johnson) for The Economist. Now he’s published a book, You Are What You Speak, a copy of which has come to me for review.

The press release that accompanied the book gives this summary: “The claims people make about language — and the superiority of one way of speaking and writing over another — are often really about nationalist and identity politics.” This theme unifies what on the surface would seem to be a loosely connected set of linguistic topics, covering on one end of the spectrum complaints about the decline of English grammar, and on the other, how language has affected geopolitical issues.

Before I get into the main part of the review, I just have to tell about something that spoke to me (if you will) in the preface. There, Greene writes about his father, who grew up in Macon, Georgia:

His grammar was nonstandard, his pronunciation southern, his vocabulary earthy and frequently not the type you want your three-year-old learning. He was also the best talker I knew. Dad could tell the same joke again and again and make it funny every time. And the stories he told of growing up, getting in trouble, and fighting his way through life got more outlandish every time I heard them. Yet I couldn’t wait to hear them again. He could spellbind any audience. (xx)

Change the hometown to Albany, Georgia, and this passage could be about my dad.

Now, back to the review. Much of the material Greene covers is stuff that has already been covered in other linguistics books for popular audiences. For example, Greene’s discussion of dialects and dialect continua reminded me of John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel. Chapter 2, which gives a history of English prescriptivist grammarians covers much the same facts as David Crystal does in five or six chapters in The Fight for English. His story of Nicaraguan Sign Language is the same story as can be found in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Derek Bickerton’s Bastard Tongues. His sketch of the development of historical linguistics, with William Jones and Ferdinand de Saussure, is familiar from … what?

It was about here that I realized the problem was not with Greene, but with me. Jones and Saussure are in any book about historical linguistics, but the nonlinguist audience Greene is aiming for will not have read those books, and probably not the others I mentioned. Furthermore, all this material is necessary background before Greene can really make his points. For someone who hasn’t discovered linguistics yet, Greene’s introduction will be fascinating and entertaining; for those who have, it will be like watching a rerun of a show that you liked enough to watch again. And when you get to the stuff that’s not old hat, the book really takes off.

You Are What You Speak begins with a short chapter that gives an overview of the linguistic and political issues that will fill the rest of the book. Greene opens up with the Bible story about shibboleth, illustrating the sometimes life-and-death importance of language as a marker of identity people impute to language. That may be familiar territory for many readers, but then Greene makes an unexpected connection with a modern sociopolitical example:

Militant Protestants and Catholics distinguished one another in Northern Ireland in part by the modern-day equivalent of “shibboleth”: Protestants pronounce the eight letter of the alphabet “aitch,” while Catholics say “haitch.”

This is the kind of detail that makes what I think of as Greene’s “Tales of Language, Religion, and Politics” a worthwhile read.

After the “Brief History of Sticklers” in chapter two, Greene gives an overview of linguistics in chapter 3 (including the part about historical linguistics noted earlier). Here we also meet Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum of Language Log, and LL readers will recognize be quite familiar with Liberman’s challenges to modern linguistic mythology such as the idea that women speak more words per day than men, and Pullum’s rants about prescriptive grammar dogmatists (in particular Strunk and White). Also in the chapter, highlights three subfields of linguistics (syntax, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics) to show how linguists look at the same issues that are important to prescriptivists, but with the aid of actual data. It’s also in this chapter that Greene starts to delve into modern social and political consequences of language, talking about varieties of Greek, French in Haiti, and Arabic across the Islamic world, and the big-time consequences of being taught that the language you speak naturally is degraded, and the standard language that you can’t read or understand is the only true version.

Chapter 4 is the chapter about dialects and dialect continua. By now Greene is hitting his stride, and he opens the chapter with a great comparison. In an Internet video, a black journalist switches from standard English to angry African American English after an unpleasant surprise (a bug flying in his mouth); when Greene’s Danish wife stubs her toe, she curses in Danish. Both are instances of the same phenomenon: lapsing into your native language in an emotional moment. But AAVE is commonly considered bad English, while Danish is a respected standard language! In fact, these are the parts of the book I liked the most: when we get a glimpse of Greene’s personal experiences with language. A similar anecdote was in the previous chapter, when Greene recounted his experience speaking broken standard Arabic with two Egyptians in a South African bar.

It’s also in chapter 4 that Greene makes another unusual connection. You’ve undoubtedly read complaints that sloppy language is an indicator of sloppy thought. If you’ve read many popular linguistics books, you’ve also read refutations of Whorfianism. But this was the first time I saw the prescriptivist argument about loss of precision in language called out as nothing more than one more example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and debunked as such.

Chapter 5, “Welcome to X. Now speak Xish,” is, in my opinion, the best and most informative in the book. Near the beginning, he writes:

Modern-day maps like to show where speakers of this or that language live, perhaps with French-speakers colored red or German-speakers blue. But a map of medieval Europe with a dot for each speaker would show a mess, with a great deal of overlap. There would be no “red,” just reddish hues from brownish read to orange-red to hot pink, representing the different Romance dialects spoken in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. Our Germanic “blue” might be greenish in the area that became the Netherlands and purplish in the area that became Bavaria. … There were no “languages” as we think of them today, codified in dictionaries and grammar books. Everything was dialect.

How did we get from muddy continua to crisp borders? How did the hazy and shiftin gmess of dots get sorted into rigid containers, all the red dots in this one, all the blue dots in that one? What happened to change our thinking from “Everything is a dialect” to “There is one proper French (or English or German)”?

After reading that, I couldn’t wait to find out. His answer: the rise of nation-states. I’d read the term in high-school world history, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. This chapter, showing the development of nation-states through the lens of linguistics, did. I recommend it as history reading even for those who are more interested in the history than the languages. Greene starts with Spain, France, and England, to Italy and Germany, to others that followed and the outbreak of World War I. Again, I remembered the word “nationalism” coming up in my high-school history books in the chapter on WWI, but Greene’s language-focused overview gave me a better understanding than I ever got in school. After Europe, Greene gives capsule histories of Israel, South Africa, India/Pakistan, and the most recently created Balkan nation-states. Whether talking about events from the history books or stories I remember hearing about in the news not so many years ago, they all make more sense after reading about them here.

Chapter 6 turns to language and laws. Topics include the French Academy, spelling reform in German, truly radical spelling reform in Turkish, and why Japanese probably won’t and Chinese almost certainly won’t move to Romanization, which Greene sums up succinctly:

Writing Mandarin in pinyin would expose to all non-Mandarin speakers the fact that they are looking at a foreign language. This is a headache that China’s authorities, already fearful of non-Han separatist movements in Tibet and the Muslim, Uighur-speaking region of Xinjiang, can do without.

Chapter 7 has the title “The Microsoft and Apple of Languages,” a title I suspect will look ridiculously dated in a few decades. It refers to English and French, and the chapter is about English-only and French-only language movements. Personally I didn’t find this chapter as interesting as the others, but a book on language and politics wouldn’t be complete without it.

The last chapter revisits the idea of discrete languages all in their separate boxes (nations), and suggests shifting, fuzzy clouds as a better way to think about languages. Great, but how do we deal with such chaos in a practical way, especially since history has shown that people want and expect that

Only one variety of one language called German should be the language of exactly one country called Germany, which should include all and only German-speakers; and so on for Italians, French, and so forth.

Greene admits that it’s simply unrealistic to expect that there could be a way for every language to survive, and given the bloody propensity for same-language speakers to want to create nation-states for themselves, it might not even be a good thing. Even so, Greene ends with a call for multilingualism and for an attitude that your various dialects or languages serve different purposes.

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Reviews | 13 Comments »

Squint!

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2011

In one of Grammar Girl’s podcasts, I came across a term that was unfamiliar to me: the squinting modifier, a modifier placed so that it’s unclear whether it’s modifying something just before it or something just after it. Her example:

Children who laugh rarely are shy.

Are we talking about laughing rarely, or rarely being shy? A genuine ambiguity, although the name didn’t make sense to me, and Grammar Girl didn’t explain its origin. To me, this is just a variety of attachment ambiguity. In the attachment ambiguities I’ve talked about before, it was a question of whether a modifier phrase attached “low” or “high”, but both possibilities had it looking backward for what it modified. (Refer to the tree diagrams in the other posts under this category to see how “low” and “high” make sense.) For example, in I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day, we could be talking about a thousand calls (low) or a thousand resolutions (high), but either way, the modified phrase is before the modifier a thousand times a day. In a squinting ambiguity, it’s a question of whether the phrase attaches forwards or backwards. So to my mind, a more transparant name would be forward/backward attachment ambiguity. But what does that have to do with squinting?

It turns out squint has a meaning I never knew. When I think of squinting, I think of this:



I checked to see what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage had to say on the subject. It was skeptical that such a thing was found very much in the wild:

The squinting modifier resides chiefly in college-level handbooks. … [In our opinion], the squinting modifier is more of a theoretical possibility — with, it must be admitted, a catchy title — than a real problem. It would seem most likely to occur when a split infinitive is being carefully avoided by putting the would-be splitting adverb ahead of the infinitive….

Their reasoning was that a native English speaker would not write, for example, rarely are shy; they’d write are rarely shy, unless they’re trying to follow some half-baked rule about not letting adverbs split up whatever they think they’re not supposed to split. Well, I’ve seen squinting modifiers. They’re real. They’re out there, and in sentences that weren’t written with an eye toward avoiding splitting infinitives or other things. A couple that I’ve had sitting in the draft posts:

Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.
Place the appliance on a hard, flat level surface only to avoid interruption of airflow underneath it.

In the first sentence, does the now modify quitting smoking, or greatly reduces serious risks to your health? For real-world reasons, we know it modifies quitting smoking: Otherwise it would be implying that previously, quitting smoking didn’t greatly reduce serious threats to your health. In the second example, does the only modify hard, flat level surface, or to avoid interruption of airflow underneath it? Well, if it modified to avoid interruption…, it would be saying in essence, “There’s only one reason you should be placing this appliance on a hard, flat level surface, and that’s to avoid interruption of the airflow underneath it. Otherwise, place it on a surface that isn’t hard, flat, and level.”

Hmm. Well, I guess MWDEU‘s point still stands after all. Even though both meanings were phrased in a natural way, the ambiguity was still only a theoretical possibility in each, this time because of real-world knowledge.

But that still doesn’t answer my question: Why are these things called squinting modifiers?

Through Google Books, I tracked the term back to George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776. Here’s what Campbell said:


Apparently, Campbell thought he was explaining the term by telling what I already knew: The modifier could attach forwards or backwards. But he did give a clue: squinting construction is a calque (i.e. a term borrowed from another language, but translated first) of the French term construction louche. In my French-to-English dictionary, louche is translated as “cross-eyed,” as well as “ambiguous, suspicious.” It’s related to the verb loucher, which means to slant, or wander, like an eye that can’t focus correctly. Now that made some sense: A modifier that seemed to be looking in two directions. My question now: Why was louche translated into English as squinting?

The answer turns out to be simple: Because squint can mean to be cross-eyed, and also to be wall-eyed. The earliest definition in the OED is “To have the axes of the eyes not coincident, so that one or both habitually look obliquely; to be affected with strabismus,” followed by “To look with the eyes differently directed; to glance obliquely or in other than the direct line of vision; also, to glance hastily or casually, to peep,” and a couple of definitions later, “To move or branch off in an oblique direction.” My definition isn’t in there at all, but I know I’m not the only one with that meaning for squint: I got my narrowed-eyes illustrations by doing a search for squint in Google Images.



So squinting modifier (or squinting construction) is an apt name after all, if you have the right definition for squint. I never did until today. Did you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Focus-sensitive operators, Prescriptive grammar | 14 Comments »

No Split, Sherlock!

Posted by Neal on February 28, 2011

I was reading the business section of the Columbus Dispatch today, and was three paragraphs into an article about changes to Google’s search engine when I ran into this sentence:

What Google called “a major improvement” was designed to highlight sites with high-quality content and noticeably will affect about 12 percent of all U.S. searches.

All right, that’s it! I thought. Enough was enough. For months I’ve been noticing a strong preference in the Dispatch not to let adverbs come between auxiliary verbs and main verbs. Noticeably will affect? It’s not ungrammatical, but it’s definitely awkward. I would say will noticeably affect, wouldn’t you? Even so, in articles by the Dispatch‘s own reporters, the possibility existed that the reporters really did find this the most natural syntax. But this article was by one Mike Swift, of the San Jose (California) Mercury News, so I decided to find the original article and see how it was worded. Sure enough, the original sentence was worded will noticeably affect.

Some copy editor, or copy editors, at the Dispatch must have been infected with a constraint against splitting auxiliary verbs and main verbs. In its entry for “adverbs”, MWDEU says that this “erroneous idea” is common among journalists. Arnold Zwicky wrote about this rule in this Language Log post, diagnosing it as an effect of the senseless rule against split infinitives “contaminating” constructions that don’t involve infinitives at all. In the post, he discusses several examples of this kind of contamination; see Act 3 for this kind.

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Dangling Predicative

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2011

I don’t comment too much about dangling participles or misplaced modifiers, but today I just can’t resist. For a traditional take on them, read these episodes of Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast. But if you don’t want to read through all that, here’s an excerpt that illustrates with a good example:

A dangling modifier describes something that isn’t even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here’s an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence.

The way that the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language look at these constructions is a bit different. First of all, they call them predicative adjuncts — predicative because they have understood subjects (and an understood be linking them to the relevant phrases like hiking the trail), and adjuncts because they modify the sentence instead of having some grammatical function like subject or direct object. These linguists don’t call them participles specifically, because predicative adjuncts can include prepositional phrases, noun phrases, and other kinds of adjective phrase. They don’t call them modifiers because predicates don’t modify their subjects; they predicate things of them. Second, as Geoff Pullum writes in this Language Log post,

The line we take on examples of this kind … is not that they violate the syntactic correctness conditions for English — they are simply too common for that to be the case. Roughly, what we think is that the syntax of English leaves things open for you to design your paragraphs in such a way that preposed non-finite adjunct clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects. And as always when you are left some freedom to do things whichever way you judge to be appropriate, you can screw it up. You can write something stunningly inept that baffles the heck out of an intelligent reader for several seconds.

I paraphrase this point of view briefly in this review of Fogarty’s first book. Predicative adjuncts are looking for a subject; the easiest ones to use are the overt NPs in the rest of the sentence, especially the subject. And at least for me, the subject of the sentence can grab on surprisingly tightly to the predicative adjunct, no matter how pragmatically ridiculous the resulting meaning is.

So the background on today’s bungled predicative adjunct is that last November a seriously messed up guy committed a gruesome, cold-blooded triple murder in Knox County, and compounded it with the kidnapping and rape of the teenage girl he allowed to survive. He has just been sentenced to life in prison, and now the newspaper is publishing the details of the investigation that led to the man’s arrest. One of the stranger details is that the murderer had millions of leaves in his house, many of them stuffed into plastic grocery bags that he had used to completely cover the walls of one room. What were they for? Here’s what The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch says:

Already a convicted arsonist, maybe the leaves had another purpose [i.e., a possible accelerant; NW] (link)

I’m familiar with the idea of leaf monsters, thanks to a Calvin and Hobbes strip, but the only danger they posed was that they might consume kids who jumped into them. That they might burn down your house is a new one to me.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Prescriptive grammar, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

Coordination and Quotation Fronting in the 1800s

Posted by Neal on January 21, 2011

Last week, Grammar Girl ran a guest script I wrote on one of the topics I’ve written about here on occasion: when coordination and quotation fronting clash. This is what happens in sentences like “No,” he said, and turned away. As you know if you’ve read some of my other posts on the topic, this kind of sentence is syntactically interesting because it’s an example of a construction in standard English that does not use parallel structure. To the left of the conjunction, we have an entire clause: “No,” he said. To the right, we have only a verb phrase: turned away. Semantically, though, the conjunction is joining two verb phrases: said “No” and turned away. It’s just that the syntax of English allows this kind of rearrangement in this kind of sentence, so that things look non-parallel on the surface.

However, there is the idea in some quarters that this kind of sentence ought to be revised so that it does have a parallel structure on the surface. You do it by repeating the subject (or more likely, a pronoun referring back to the subject): “No,” he said, and he turned away. Now, the conjunction has a full clause on either side. Though I’ve seen indirect evidence of this kind of prescription, the only place where I’ve seen it explicitly articulated is in Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma. So when I tweeted about this Grammar Girl episode, I called out Bill Walsh, saying, “‘Fraid @TheSlot ‘s not gonna like this one.”

He didn’t.

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Posted in Coordination and quotation fronting, Prescriptive grammar | 36 Comments »

Is If I Would Have Ever Standard Grammar?

Posted by Neal on October 4, 2010

In 1986, I couldn’t escape the song “If She Would Have Been Faithful” by Chicago. I hated it for three reasons. First, it was such a whiny, wimpy-sounding song. Of course, a lot of Chicago’s songs are like that, but second, I didn’t like the theme of this song: “I’m glad my old SO was unfaithful to me, because otherwise, I’d still be with her, and wouldn’t have met you.” I’ll admit, with so many hundreds of songs about love out there, unless you’re going to go farther afield and write about peanut butter, Adidas, or rocks to wind a piece of string around, it’s going to be difficult to find new things to say. Even so, the main thing I take away from this song is that the lyricists were trying too hard. And the third thing, the thing that topped it all off, was the nonstandard grammar in If she would have been faithful.

“If She Would Have Been Faithful” came out just a couple of years after I’d learned about English moods and tenses, and I still thought “Why do they do that?” every time I heard someone say “If I/you/we/etc. would have” when they meant “If I/you/we/etc. had”. The standard way of phrasing the thought in this song title is to use the past perfect tense for be: “If she had been faithful.” That line doesn’t scan the same as If she would have been faithful, but I’m sure that the songwriters could have made it work with skillful use of contractions, adverbs, and song-phrasing; maybe If she’d only been faithful. (For other examples of counterfactuals, there’s If it hadn’t been for these kids or If only we had swum.)

However, over the years I’ve wondered exactly why If I would have should be nonstandard. Sure, If I had is a shorter alternative that still sounds natural, but why should that alone be enough to deny If I would have? Furthermore, you can even make a couple of positive arguments in its favor.

Here’s one. We agree (don’t we?) that you express past-time counterfactuals with a past-perfect tense (i.e. the form with had plus past participle, e.g. had been). Furthermore, the past perfect tense of the modal verb would is would have. Therefore, if you can make a conditional referring to the present time such as If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, then you should also be able to make one referring to the past time, by putting the woulds into the past perfect: If you would have listened to me, we‘d have gotten along better.

The second argument is based on analogy: You can use could have in if-clauses; for example, If I could have helped them, I would have. So why can’t you do the same thing with would have?

These arguments are valid, and at various times during the history of English, ordinary past perfects and would have past perfects have both been in past-time counterfactual conditionals — in both the if-clause and the main clause! Right now, it happens that the ordinary past perfect has the if-clause in the standard language, and that’s why would have is unappreciated there. But in 100 years, the tables could have turned once again. Instead of If you had listened to me, we would have gotten along better, it might be If you would have listened to me, we had gotten along better. For more on the historical development of the past perfect tense in conditionals, as well as more information on the arguments in favor of “would have,” and an overview of what grammar books and linguists have had to say on this topic, I recommend this 2003 paper by Noriko Ishihara.

Despite the validity of the above arguments, though, they still may not be enough to bestow legitimacy on most uses of would have in an if-clause. Consider the difference between If you would listen to me, we’d get along better, and If you listened to me, we’d get along better. For some speakers, these sentences mean the same thing, but for others, the version with would listen carries an idea of willingness—a vestige of the oldest meaning of will/would: to want or be willing to. If the meaning difference is too subtle with the verb listen, try it with the verb die. If you died tomorrow, who would take care of your family? is a grim but grammatically ordinary question. In contrast, If you would die tomorrow, who would take care of your family? sounds like something said by a non-native speaker.

Following this reasoning, the clause if you would have listened to me shouldn’t mean completely the same thing as if you had listened to me, but something more like if you had been willing to listen to me. For that reason, many of the people who argue against if you would have (Glen, I’m looking at you) do it on the grounds that it should be reserved to mean if you had been willing to, and using it to mean just if you had erases a meaningful distinction.

To which the opposition might reply, “How meaningful a distinction?” Regarding our example, if someone is willing to listen, presumably they do listen, so really, how much practical difference is there between if you had been willing to listen and if you had actually gone ahead and listened? In her paper, Ishihara doubts such a meaning actually exists, writing, “Some grammarians seem to believe in the rare ‘legitimate’ usage of ‘would have’ in subordinate clauses.”

Finally, even if this “if you had been willing” meaning exists, it will most likely not occur to your audience. Even if you write “if you would have listened to me” and really do mean “if you had been willing to listen to me,” your audience will almost certainly interpret it with the same meaning as they would “if you had listened to me”. In that situation, you’d communicate your meaning better by just writing, “if you had been willing to listen to me”.

Posted in Conditionals, Diachronic, Music, Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 25 Comments »

Taking Candy From a Baby

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2010

From the website 'Eric Conveys an Emotion'

Yesterday I heard someone say, “It’ll be like taking candy from a baby,” meaning that some job would be easy. Once again, I had to bite my tongue over what I find an improper usage of this idiom. I know, I know, we linguists pride ourselves on describing language, not passing judgment on points of syntax or word usage. But as I’ve said before, just because you can describe or analyze some phenomenon doesn’t mean you have to like it, and I don’t like how this idiom has wandered so far from its original meaning.

Originally, this expression didn’t mean that something was easy; it meant it was impossible, or at least extraordinarily difficult. Not, as you might think, because of the difficulty of removing a sticky piece of candy from a toddler’s fist, using your finger to dig around inside their cheeks for it after they’ve shoved it into their mouth, or trying to ignore the subsequent tantrum if you succeed. The reason taking candy from a baby signified doing the near impossible has to do with the fact that in its original form, the expression was taking C.A.N.D. from Bay B.

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Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 15 Comments »

Why the Heck Am I Observing National Grammar Day, Anyway?

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2010

I’m interrupting my series of three grammar-skewing posts before the end of the week to talk about National Grammar Day itself. Longtime readers, especially those who read some of the blogs on the blogroll here, may be wondering why this blog is listed on the NGD website, why I’ve put the NGD badge on the sidebar over there on the right, why I’m dedicating a few of my posts to NGD, why I’ve written a column for Visual Thesaurus especially for NGD, and why in the world I’m in a video for a corny song about NGD? Why, when some of the linguists and writers on language I most admire have said (and are saying) things like this about NGD:

… National Grammar Day was cooked up by Martha Brockenbrough as a stunt. She wanted to publicize her book. This year, Mignon Fogarty (you know, Grammar Girl) has taken over, and she has two books to flog. (John E. McIntyre, You Don’t Say, 2010)

And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. … [T]o the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language. (Gabe Doyle, Motivated Grammar, 2009)

“If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper,” urges SPOGG at nationalgrammarday.com. “If your local newscaster says ‘Between you and I,’ set him straight with a friendly e-mail.” Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary. They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed. (Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune, 2008 [no longer online, but included in his book])

[NGD is] just about as annoying as it could be. In her column, Brockenbrough even takes Elvis Presley to task for singing “all shook up” instead of “all shaken up”. I’m not making this up.

Meanwhile, I’m ignoring the nastiness of National Grammar Day, in favor of doing research on varieties of English and how their grammars work. (Arnold Zwicky, Language Log, 2008)

National Grammar Day is a day to set aside everyday English and follow special rules that have nothing to do with how people actually talk or write. On all other days, we split our infinitives and start sentences with and and but. But on National Grammar day, we avoid but altogether and utter no verbs at all. On all other days we use like for as. On National Grammar Day, we like nobody else’s grammar all day long. On all other days, we use hopefully as a sentence adverbial. On National Grammar Day, we are no longer sanguine about anyone’s ability to speak or write correctly, and we only expect the worst. Or we expect only the worst.(Dennis Baron, The Web of Language, 2010)

The most I myself had to say about NGD last year was a wary

National Grammar Day, eh? I don’t know …. [E]very day is Grammar Day here at Literal-Minded. So I’ll just carry on with the kind of stuff I always talk about…

Some of these people also criticize the ugliness of the acronym SPOGG (Society for the Promotion Of Good Grammar). Actually, that’s one thing I kind of liked about NGD. Even though I objected to the implicit equating of good grammar with Standard English, I thought the acronym was funny in the same way as Marge Simpson’s SNUH (Springfieldians for Nonviolence, Understanding, and Helping).

So anyway, what happened? One thing is that this year NGD has a new personality driving it: Mignon Fogarty. Like Bierma, Zwicky, and others, I found the tone of NGD’s originator, Martha Brockenbrough, distastefully smug and patronizing (see the quote from Bierma above). I find Fogarty’s manner much more friendly and approachable. Her presentation of the topics is levelheaded and she even goes into linguistics territory at times (see my review of her podcast for details). In her new book, she emphasizes that often, what many people think of as a grammar rule is really just a matter of style. I don’t agree with what she says all the time (see my review of her first book, and my post on funnest), but I like what she does for the most part.

Second, and related to the first, is that the NGD site this year really does seem to be making an effort to do fun stuff, with a poetry contest, funny typos, the goofy song. Like Gabe Doyle did in his post, she has put up a list of grammar myths. I’ll admit I cringe a little at seeing their list of songs with nonstandard grammar in the lyrics labeled as a “hall of shame”, but on the other hand, people who notice this kind of thing could be future linguists. Back in high school, I refused to like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” because it contained the line “Dig, if you will, a picture / Of you and I engaged in a kiss”. That brings me to my third point…

When I started to get interested in language, I read the material that was most readily available to me, and that was my school textbooks, the couple of usage guides that were in the house, and the occasional William Safire column that our newspaper picked up. As a result, my interest developed into the kind of strident prescriptivism that would cause me to switch the radio station when I heard “bad” grammar in a song. It was only later, when I started getting my hands on linguistics material, that I started to realize it was much more interesting to explore the parts of the grammar that might not be in the textbooks and find out what was going on, than to condemn any piece of unusual grammar I heard.

It has finally occurred to me that many eager NGD observers may be like I was before I discovered linguistics, not realizing that criticizing people’s grammar is not the only way (in fact, not even a good way) a love for language can express itself. I’ll write about grammar in the way that pleases me, and maybe a few of the NGD-directed visitors will find something they like. And that brings me to my fourth point…

National Grammar Day may have been founded by someone with fundamentally different views on grammar from mine, but this thing is bigger than just her now. National Grammar Day should be for anyone who loves grammar, and linguists love grammar! As Randy Alexander writes in his post for NGD, “The very word ‘grammar’ fills me with excitement.” (Read his excellent post to find out why.) It would be a shame to let NGD be celebrated only by the people who (though they may not know it) don’t have the highest appreciation for grammar.

I’m glad to see that there are other keepers of NGD that are thinking along these lines. For example, you may have thought John McIntyre disapproved of NGD, based on my earlier quotation from him, but he doesn’t. And look at some of his recommendations:

… National Grammar Day can also be more than a stunt. One way to make it substantial — no, not by acting as an officious prig and peever — is to practice the craft to produce more effective writing.

… Get yourself some good advice. If you were taught bogus “rules” in school, or if no one ever taught you any rules at all, you need additional education. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage and/or Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Get hold of Joseph Williams’s Style. Start reading what the linguists say at Language Log. Read through the posts on this site’s blogroll. Hell, read my back posts. Are you going to be a serious writer or are you content to be some schmuck who can’t put a noun against a verb without embarrassing himself?

This is coming from a copy editor, mind you. Mark Allen is another copy editor who, like me, lives in Central Ohio, and has been emitting tweet after tweet about NGD (some of them links to my NGD posts — thanks, Mark!). One of them was a plug for a talk yesterday at OSU by one of my old syntax professors. There are also linguists tweeting about NGD: Carnegie Mellon’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences tweeted “March 4 is National #Grammar Day! Read how linguist Paul Hopper will celebrate”, linking to a page talking about Hopper’s research. And then there’s Randy Alexander, mentioned above.

So if you’re a grammar fan, happy National Grammar Day!

Posted in Prescriptive grammar | 10 Comments »

Linguistics Is for the Birds!

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2010

“I’m so excited that you found lard!” my wife said. “I’ve been looking all over the place for it! How did you find it?”

“Well, first of all,” I said, “our lives must be pretty pathetic if this is what counts as excitement. But anyway, it occurred to me to look in the Mexican food aisle.” Which was true. I’d suddenly remembered a tortilla recipe that came with a tortilla maker my wife and sons gave me for my birthday a few years ago, and the recipe called for lard. And there it was, in the Mexican aisle, labeled in both English and Spanish (manteca). But before I remembered the tortilla recipe, I tried to find lard in the baking supplies aisle.

“Luckily, there was a guy stocking groceries in that aisle,” I said. “But I hesitated to ask him about lard…”

“Why?” asked Doug.

“Well, he was kinda fat,” I told him. “But it was OK. I just said, ‘Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but is this the aisle for lard? And I really am talking about lard, I’m not trying to insult you or anything.'”

“Oh, Neal, you didn’t,” my wife said, in a tone of dismay.

“No, I just said, ‘Is this the right aisle for lard?’ and he pointed me to the shortening, and I said it had to be lard, and he didn’t know where it would be after all.”

“I know some people who would have done it like you said,” my wife said. “They’ll say, ‘No offense, but…’ and then you knock yourself out trying to figure out what they were saying that they thought you might take offense at.”

Wow. I’m glad I don’t know those people. Anyway, the reason my wife wanted lard so badly is that she and Doug are still into watching and feeding birds, enough that it has occurred to her that it would be more economical to make their own suet blocks than to buy the pre-made ones, and the recipe she found calls for lard.

Refilling the bird feeders has also become one of Doug’s regular chores, although it’s an easy one to forget when there’s snow on the ground and it gets dark early. After a couple of days of asking Doug to refill the feeders and finding out at bedtime that it hadn’t been done, my wife spoke to Doug before school one morning:

“OK, Doug,” she began. “When you get home this afternoon…”

“Yes?” said Doug.

“…while it’s still light outside,” my wife continued.

“Yes?” said Doug.

“Go out and fill the bird feeders.”

I was listening while I packed Doug’s and Adam’s lunches. “You know, Doug,” I said, “This just goes to show how one little word can change a sentence into a fragment.” I was remembering our previous discussions on this topic, and knew a teachable moment when I heard one.

“‘You get home this afternoon’ — you, subject; get home this afternoon, predicate,” I explained. “‘When you get home this afternoon’ — you know there’s more. ‘It’s still light outside’ — sentence. ‘While it’s still light outside’ — you know the main sentence is still on the way. ‘Go out and fill the bird feeders’ — now there’s your sentence!”

My wife laughed, and Doug just kind of shook his head as he cleared his breakfast dishes. That was probably the last either of them thought about it for the rest of the day. But I kept thinking about it, and at supper that night, I had to make a retraction.

“You know how I said the when and the while told you that there was more to come?” I asked Doug. “Well, maybe not. Your mom could have just said, ‘This afternoon, you’ll get home from school’: a complete sentence. But you’d still have said, ‘Yes?’ And if she’d said, ‘It’ll still be light out,’ that’s a full sentence, but you’d have still been waiting for her to get to the point.”

I didn’t get into stuff about the Maxim of Relevance, or a rising intonation at the end of a sentence instead of a falling one. I didn’t even explain the main lesson I took away: a reminder that what qualifies as “a complete thought” syntactically, maybe even semantically, is not always the same as a complete thought in terms of a real conversation.

“You’re learning how I operate!” my wife said.

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Quantity and Relevance, The wife | 8 Comments »

Dancing with Myself

Posted by Neal on September 30, 2009

In the evenings, my wife and I will sit watching TV, which is when I see episodes of various shows I’ve mentioned here. Often I’ll be working on the computer, and when I’m really trying to focus on something, I won’t want to watch something that will distract me. Those are the nights when my wife turns on the stuff I don’t care about, like Burn Notice or Glee. Or Dancing with the Stars. I should be more interested in that show, since ballroom dancing was a good portion of my social life in college—and is even how my wife and I met. But the competitive dancing on that show is not much like the social dancing I learned in college.

Ah, yes, ballroom dancing in college. And that one time when correcting someone’s grammar caused me a lot of embarrassment. Not just retrospective embarrassment, as I look back on it; embarrassment right then. I remember it like it was about 20 years ago, because it was about 20 years ago… [cue wavy screen]

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Syntax | 6 Comments »