It’s a dark night; you’re in an unfamiliar city, slightly lost, but pretty sure you’ll know where you are if you just get to the next corner. The streets are quiet. A stranger steps out of the gloom in front of you, and announces that certain words don’t mean what you think they mean. They’re words that you use but have never really felt comfortable with, words that you use mostly because you’ve heard them in set phrases, words like plethora.

Plethora, you wonder, could it be I’m using it wrong? That niggling uncertainty kicks in, the same niggling uncertainty that’s pushed you to educate yourself all these years. It creeps further, darkening your mind. Have I been using words wrong? Your breath quickens — how many others have thought heard me say them before this stranger came up and told me I was wrong? Have I used one of them lately?  Have I been judged? Your pulse races. Did I just say one? — is, is that why this stranger materialized to announce it was wrong?

The stranger says more words are being used wrong, by others, by you. These words are more common, common enough to be known but not common enough to be well-known: myriad, enormity. Oh God, you think, I’ve used those words in business writing! The uncertainty changes into certainty, certainty that you are wrong, and worse, that people know it. Important people know it. That’s why you haven’t been promoted, it’s why your friends were laughing that one time and didn’t say why. The stranger has you now. The stranger knows the dark spots on your soul. The stranger is almost touching you now, so close, so close. Your eyes meet. The stranger’s eyes widen; this is it, the final revelation.  Do you dare listen?  You can’t listen, you must listen:

“And you’re using allow wrong, too!”

At which point the spell is broken — because c’mon, you’re not using allow wrong. You’d definitely have noticed that. You push the stranger out of the way, and realize your hotel’s just on the next block.

In the unfamiliar city of the Internet, I encountered such a stranger: Niamh Kinsella, writer of the listicle “14 words you’ve been using incorrectly this whole time“. Kinsella argues that your usage doesn’t fit with the true definition of these words, by which she usually means an early, obsolete, or technical meaning of the word.

Her first objection is to plethora, which she defines as “negative word meaning a glut of fluid”. And so it was in the 1500s, when it entered the language as a medical term. This medical meaning persists in the present day, but additional figurative meanings branched off of it long ago — so long ago, in fact, that one of the meanings branched off, flourished for 200 years, and still had enough time to fade into obsolescence by now. The extant figurative meaning, the one that most everyone means when they use plethora, is antedated to 1835 by the Oxford English Dictionary, at which point it was usually a bad thing (“suffering under a plethora of capital”, the OED quotes). But by 1882 we see the modern neutral usage: “a perfect plethora of white and twine-colored thick muslin”.

The second objection is to myriad, and here Kinsella deviates by ignoring the early usage. She hectors: “It’s an adjective meaning countless and infinite. As it’s an adjective, it’s actually incorrect to say myriad of.” But in fact myriad entered English as a noun, either as a transliteration of the Greek term for “ten thousand”, or as an extension of that very large number to mean “an unspecified very large number” (both forms are antedated by the OED to the same 1555 work). The adjectival form doesn’t actually appear until two centuries later, the 1700s. Both nominal and adjectival forms have been in use from their inception to the present day; claiming that one or the other is the only acceptable form is just silly.*

There’s no point in continuing this after the third objection, which is to using allow in cases that do not involve the explicit granting of permission. To give you an idea of what folly this is, think of replacements for allows in a supposedly objectionable sentence like “A functional smoke alarm allows me to sleep peacefully.” The first ones that come to my mind are lets, permits, gives me the ability, and enables. That’s the sign of a solid semantic shift; four of my top five phrasings of the sentence are all verbs of permission with the permission shifted to enablement. Kinsella herself has no beef with it when she isn’t aiming to object, judging by her lack of objection to an article headlined “Are we allowed optimism now?”.

This enablement usage isn’t new, either; the OED cites “His condition would not allow of his talking longer” from 1732. (Permit without permission is antedated even further back, to 1553.) This oughtn’t even to be up for debate; even if it were completely illogical — which, as an example of consistent semantic drift, it’s not — the fact that it is so standard in English means that it is, well, standard. It is part of English, and no amount of insisting that it oughtn’t to makes a difference. It’s similar to the occasional objection I see to Aren’t I?: even if I agreed it didn’t make sense, virtually every (non-Scottish/Irish) English speaker uses it in place of amn’t I?, so it’s right. End of discussion.

Why do we fall for this over and over again? Why do we let people tell us what language is and isn’t based on assertions that never have any references (Kinsella cites no dictionaries) and rarely hold up to cursory investigation? I don’t know, but my guess is that it appeals to that universal mixture of insecurity and vanity that churns inside each of us.

We are convinced that we must be doing everything wrong, or — and perhaps worse — that we’re doing most things right but there’s some unexpected subset of things that we have no idea we’re doing wrong. So if someone tells us we’re wrong, especially if they candy coat it by saying that it’s not our fault, that everyone’s wrong on this, well, we just assume that our insecurities were right — i.e, that we were wrong. But then, aware of this new secret knowledge, these 14 weird tricks of language use, our vanity kicks in. Now we get to be the ones to tell others they’re wrong. Knowing these shibboleths gives you the secret knowledge of the English Illuminati. Between our predisposition to believe we’re wrong, our desire to show others up by revealing they’re wrong, and our newfound membership in this elite brotherhood, what incentive do we have to find out that these rules are hogwash? All that comes out of skepticism is, well, this: me, sitting on my laptop, writing and rewriting while the sun creeps across a glorious sky on a beautiful day that I could have been spending on the patio of my favorite coffee shop, approaching my fellow patrons, dazzling them with my new conversation starter: “I bet you use plethora wrong. Allow me to explain.”

*: In fact, Kinsella undermines her own definition of “countless and infinite” in her supposedly correct example by using “countless and infinite” to describe the finite set of stars in the universe, so maybe she’s just in love with the sound of her own hectoring.

You might have noticed that I’m on a bit of hiatus this month. I’m working on my dissertation and preparing applications for post-grad-school jobs, but luckily something I’d done a little while ago has come through the pipeline for me to share.

Back in June, I presented a portion of my dissertation research at the NAACL-HLT conference, but all I had at the time was a computationally-dense paper to show you.  Well, the conference has uploaded videos of all the presentations, so if you’re interested in what I actually do academically, you can find out.  In short, this portion of my research is about the improvements in word segmentation that happen when you combine multiple types of information instead of using a single type.  It’s a computational model of how infants could use additional information to learn words better, as well as learning the likely stress patterns for words in the language they’re learning.

The video [20 min, plus questions that are unfortunately hard to hear]

I tried to make the talk approachable to the non-specialist, so take a gander if you want to see some of my dissertation research (which, of course, is pretty far afield from the discussions on this blog).  There will be math, too, in case you are a specialist, and if you want the whole story, you can see the paper that accompanies the talk.

In other news, I’ll be giving a talk on some of my new research showing how Twitter can be used to map the range of dialectal syntactic variants (e.g., double modals like might could and the needs done construction) at the LSA annual meeting in Minneapolis on January 3.  Check out the abstract here, and maybe I’ll see you there!

“Poisonous—often confused with venomous—means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. Venomous means capable of injecting venom. A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.”

This is number six in Laura Hale Brockway’s list of “8 words that may not mean what you think they mean” on PR Daily. And it’s true that poisonous may not mean what you think it means, but this also implies that it may mean exactly what you think it means, and as it turns out, it does.

Though this was the first time I heard this complaint, it turns out to be mildly common. Paul Brians mentions it in his common errors — in fact, Brockway seems to have lifted half of her complaint from his. You can find a number of other online objectors, of course, but it’s uncommon in printed usage guides; of the seven within my reach at the moment, only Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right complains about poisonous.

Conveniently, my edition of Write it Right is Jan Freeman’s excellent centennial edition, which means that each of Bierce’s complaints is accompanied by her research into it. About this issue, she writes:

“As usual, Bierce would like to fence the overlapping words into separate pens. But while venomous does describe rattlesnakes and other animals that poison victims with a bite or sting, poisonous has always been a broader term. Samuel Johnson knew both words, but in his Dictionary (1755) he referred to ‘a poisonous serpent,’ ‘a poisonous insect,’ and ‘a poisonous reptile.'”

It’s not just Johnson, either. The Oxford English Dictionary cites The Indian Queen, a play by Robert Howard and John Dryden (he of “no final prepositions” fame), with “poisonous Vipers” in 1665. Google Books can supply you a vast array of hits for “poisonous snakes” from the 1800s, if you need convincing of the lineage. Here’s my favorite, as it’s very clearly talking about snakes with venomous bites; it’s written by someone studying the venom of the snakes, so this isn’t some casual imprecise usage but the considered usage of a professional; and it’s from 1839, so there’s no arguing that this is some sloppy modern usage.

In short, the two words do not have distinct meanings; rather, one has a subset of the other’s. This is common in English; I’ve previously written about jealousy/envy, verbal/oral, and compose/comprise, all of which display this to some degree.

In the case of venomous and poisonous, this oughtn’t to be surprising, as their stems have this same relationship. A venom is one kind of poison, and similarly, being venomous is one way that an animal can be poisonous. The biggest clue that we aren’t all wrong for using poisonous in place of venomous is that it’s very rare to see the opposite extension. When people talk about “venomous plants”, for instance, they’re usually talking about plants that literally do sting, like stinging nettles or the gympie gympie. If people are just stupid or underinformed, they ought to make their errors symmetrically; here, the supposed error really only goes one way. (I’d expect asymmetric errors if one were much rarer than the other, but venomous isn’t particularly rare.)

So poisonous and venomous overlap in general usage, and I’m having trouble seeing why anyone would expect or even want them to be separated. The only situation where it would potentially be worth having distinct definitions is if you’re regularly dealing with things that contain poisons delivered by different methods. But if that’s the goal, poisonous and venomous don’t supply enough categories. Having poisonous describing anything but venomous is just strange, given that it doesn’t make presumably critical distinctions between the poisoning methods of, say, tree frogs (touch) and pufferfish (ingestion).

Summary: Poisonous and venomous aren’t totally distinct. It’s fine to call a snake poisonous, even if it’s its venom that’s dangerous. But it’s rare (and generally incorrect) to call something with a non-venom poison venomous. This is how it has been for hundreds of years in English. Objections to the subset relationship between poisonous and venomous are pretty rare, and outside of specialized contexts, pretty unfounded.

I’d presumed it’s trivial to show that good grammar can improve your chances of success — not that good grammar is an indication of ability, but merely that having good grammar skills lends an appearance of credibility and competence that may or may not be backed up with actual skills for the task at hand. I strongly suspect, for instance, that a resume written in accordance with the basic rules of English grammar will be more likely to bring its writer an interview, all else being equal. Rather like legacy status in an application to an Ivy League school — except with an at-least-tenuous link to ability — I’ve imagined it serves as a little bonus.*

But having recently seen a few ham-handed attempts at this yield results approximately as convincing as a child’s insistence that their imaginary friend was the one who knocked over the vase, I’m beginning to re-think my presumption.

For instance, I’ve recently found this terrible post and infographic from Grammarly that purports to show that — well, it’s a little hard to say, because they’ve managed to write 500-some words without ever having a clear thesis. The infographic reports the grammatical error rates for three pairs of competing companies, and juxtaposes this with corporate data on the three pairs, presumably to look for correlations between the two.

I believe their claim is that fewer grammar mistakes are made by more successful companies. That’s a pretty weak claim, seeing as it doesn’t even require causation. We’d see this pattern if greater success led to improved grammar, perhaps by having money to hire editors; we’d see it if better grammar increased the company’s performance; we’d see it if the two were caused by an unobserved third variable. That said, the study won’t even find evidence for this tepid claim, and perhaps that is why they carefully fail to make the claim explicit.

The post tells the reader that “major errors undermine the brand’s credibility” and that investors “may judge” them for it, but even these weak statements are watered down by the concluding paragraphs. This restraint from overstating their case is hardly laudable; it’s clear that the reader is intended to look at these numbers and colors, this subtle wrinkled-paper background on the infographic, and draw the conclusion that Grammarly has stopped short of: you need a (i.e., their) grammar checker or you will lose market share!**

[The infographic's conclusion]

The only testable claim in the infographic’s conclusion (“they must demonstrate accurate writing!”) isn’t borne out by the 1500 pixels preceding it.

It might not seem worth bothering with a breakdown of the bad science going on in this infographic. Alas, the results were uncritically echoed in a Forbes blog post, and the conclusions were only strengthened in the re-telling. So let’s look at exactly why this analysis fails to establish anything more than that people will see proof of their position in any inconclusive data.

Let’s start by looking at the data underpinning the experiment. The company took 400 (!) words from the most recent LinkedIn postings (!) of three (!) pairs (!) of competing multinational corporations. We’re not even looking at the equivalent of a single college admission essay from each company, in an age where companies are producing more publicly consumable text than ever before.

Not to mention, I looked at the LinkedIn posts from Coke, one of the companies tested. Nine of their last ten posts were, in their entirety: “The Coca-Cola Company is hiring: [position] in [location]“. The tenth was “Coke Studio makes stars out of singers in India [link]“. How do you assess grammaticality from such data?

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Well, let’s suppose the data is appropriate and see what results we get from it. Remember: the hypothesis is that lower error rates are correlated with higher corporate success (e.g., market share, revenue). Do we see that in the head-to-head comparisons?

  • The first comparison is between Coke and Pepsi. Pepsi has more errors than Coke, and, fitting the hypothesis, Coke has a higher market share! But Pepsi has higher revenues, as the infographic notes (and then dismisses because it doesn’t fit the narrative). So we start with inconclusive data.
  • The second comparison is between Google and Facebook. Google makes fewer errors and has higher corporate success. Let’s take this one at face value: evidence in favor.
  • The third comparison is between Ford and GM. Ford makes fewer errors but is worse on every financial metric than GM. “However, these numbers are close”, the infographic contends. Evidence against.

So we have three comparisons. In one, which company is more successful is ambiguous. The two “decisive” comparisons are split. The data is literally equal in favor and in opposition to the conclusion. It is insulting that anyone could present such an argument and ask someone to believe it. If a student handed this in as an assignment, I would fail them without hesitation.***

What’s richest about this to me is that the central conceit of this study is that potential consumers will judge poor grammar skills as indicative of poor capability as a company. I’ve never found convincing evidence that bad grammar is actually indicative of poor ability outside of writing; the construction crew that put together my house probably don’t know when whom can be used, but my house is a lot more stable than it would be if Lynne Truss and I were the ones cobbling it together. But for all those people out there saying that good grammar is indicative of good logic, this clearly runs counter to that claim. Grammarly’s showing itself incapable of making an reasoned argument or marshalling evidence to support a claim, yet their grammar is fine. How are poor logic skills not a more damning inability than poor grammar skills, especially when “poor grammar” often means mistakenly writing between you and I?

The Kyle Wienses out there will cluck their tongues and think “I would never hire someone with bad grammar”, without even thinking that they’ve unquestioningly swallowed far worse logic. Sure enough, the Forbes post generated exactly the comments you’d expect:

“I figuratively cringe whenever grammar worthy of decayed shower scum invades my reading; it makes you wonder just how careful the company is of other corporate aspects (oh, gee, I don’t know, say, quality as well)”

With comments like that, maybe these people are getting the company that best reflects them: superficial and supercilious, concerned more with window-dressing to appear intelligent than with actually behaving intelligently.


*: I, of course, don’t mean that being obsessive about different than or something is relevant, but rather higher-level things like subject-verb agreement or checking sentence structures.

**: Though Grammarly makes an automated grammar checker, it wasn’t used to assemble this data. Nor was it run on this data, so we don’t know if it would even provide a solution to help out these grammatically deficient brands.

***: I don’t mean to imply that this would be convincing if only the data were better and all three comparisons went the right way. There’s no statistical analysis, not even a whiff of it, and there’s no way you could convince me of any conclusion from this experiment as currently devised. But at least if the comparisons went the right way, I could understand jumping the gun and saying you’ve found evidence. As it is, it’s imagining a gun just to try to jump it.

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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