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Here’s a question that I didn’t know the answer to for quite a while. Definitely not until after I graduated from college. (This is the sort of revelation that sets off a chorus of tut-tutting from the grammar police about the miserable state of our modern schooling.) When do I use flout and when do I use flaunt? Well, that I could answer. But I couldn’t answer the question of when I ought to use flout over flaunt.

The answer’s simple. To flout something is to express contempt for it, spit in the face of it, mock it and such; to flaunt something is to show it off, to display it ostentatiously or obtrusively (the OED’s words). So you flaunt something you like and flout something you don’t:

(1) The starlet flaunted her wealth by purchasing two diamond diadems for her puppy
(2) The starlet flouted the law by driving to the diadem store while intoxicated

What’s interesting is that this confusion suddenly sprang into existence after years of no one confusing them. Google Books returns 53 instances of someone saying “flaunt the law” between 1900 and 1940 (compared to 290 uses of “flout the law” in that time period), but not a single result for “flaunt the law” before 1900 (and 52 instances of “flout the law” before then). By a chi-square test, this has a 99% probability of indicating an increased confusion of flaunt for flout. The OED’s first attestation of flaunt to mean flout is in 1923, so apparently once the error appeared, it took off like gangbusters. That’s weird, because the similarity between flaunt and flout is phonetic. They sound the same and the former is much commoner than the latter, so people use the former when they mean the latter. Usually this sort of confusion carries a long pedigree and/or starts out slowly and only gradually becomes more common. In this case, though, it appears that no one really got confused until around 1920, and then suddenly everyone got confused. I don’t know why that would happen myself, but it’s really neat. Everyone confuses these two words now, and only 100 years ago no one seems to have. Must have been that post-WWI laissez-faire education our grandparents got.

Summary: You flaunt something you’re proud of and flout something you despise.

Prescriptivists are sometimes like kids. The thing about kids is that they’ll sometimes come up with a really clever argument for why something is the way it is, but they won’t think about its consequences. A kid might, for instance, claim that milk must be good for you because very fit people advertise for it. But then they won’t think of all the other things that are advertised by very fit people but that are unquestionably bad for you (e.g., fast food, pop, beer). Prescriptivists will often do the same thing: they’ll come up with a seemingly reasonable argument to back up the position they hold, but for the argument to be valid, you’d have to ignore some obvious counter-examples.

On that point, let’s look at the issue of gerundive subjects (which sounds much more exotic than it is). Remember that a gerund is a present participle of a verb (the -ing form) that is being treated like a noun:

(1) Swimming is one of my favorite activities
(2) I enjoy eating cakes

The issue of gerundive subjects comes up in a sentence like (3), where the question becomes whether me or my is the better choice:

(3) My roommates are rather concerned about me/my dancing

The representative I’ve chosen for the prescriptivist opinion on this is Patricia O’Conner, from her book Woe is I. (Other prescriptivists, such as James Kilpatrick, agree with her opinion, but she’s the one who’s at least given some justification for her stance.) O’Conner describes gerundive subjects as the “Gordian knot of possessive puzzles”, by which I figured she meant that the solution is to cut the sentences in half with a sword. But no! That’s not at all what she was getting at. O’Conner has a nice neat and tidy solution to this issue — not unlike Alexander the Great’s solution to the original Gordian knot. And, like Alexander’s solution, O’Conner’s solution ignores the essential subtleties of the problem.

O’Conner’s solution is to say that my (the genitive form) is always right, and me (the accusative form) is always wrong. She claims that while a gerund has certain trappings of a verb, it is actually a noun. This is based on the distributional properties: a gerund in a position like this can be easily replaced by things that are unambiguously nouns:

(4) My roommates are rather concerned about *me/my dance.

If the gerund is a noun, then it must take a genitive possessor, because that’s how nouns work. You can’t say me dance, so you can’t say me dancing. As I mentioned earlier, O’Conner’s not the only one to hold this opinion. James Kilpatrick, in his laundry list of complaints, agrees that gerunds are “nouns in drag” and thus require a genitive subject.

Boy, this would be a great, simple solution to a knotty problem, if only it ended up working. But of course it doesn’t, or else I wouldn’t be taking such a smug, self-satisfied tone in this post. So let’s look at the evidence that gerunds aren’t just plain nouns:

(5) My roommates are rather concerned about me dancing spastically.

Huh? What the devil is spastically doing there? That’s an adverb, it’s modifying dancing, and everyone knows that adverbs can’t modify nouns! You can’t replace dancing with dance in this sentence. (You might note that this sentence could be re-written with my spastic dancing, where dancing does behave like a noun, but all we’re trying to show here is that the gerund sometimes conducts itself in a manner unbecoming a noun.)

(6a) I enjoy eating/consumption.
(6b) I enjoy eating/*consumption cakes.

(6b) is another example where a noun can’t replace a gerund, even though it could in (6a). The problem here is that the verbiness of the gerund means it can take arguments (i.e., the direct object cakes), which a noun definitely can’t. Okay, so maybe it’s not that we users of English have been duped into thinking gerunds are verbs – maybe they really are verbs (or at least they have some characteristics of a verb). That’s one of the central points in Rob Malouf‘s thesis/book (which I think I mentioned earlier): gerunds aren’t verbs or nouns, they’re both. Malouf describes gerunds as mixed-category items, items that simultaneously display verbal and nominal properties, as in (7):

(7) His repeatedly visiting Mike angered me

The gerund here is modified by an adverb (one point in the verb column) and has a direct object (another point for verbdom), but is the subject of the sentence (one point in the noun column). So it’s painting with an overly broad brush to claim that the gerund is just a noun and that one must therefore use the genitive form (my dancing). And in fact there’s a number of situations where you oughtn’t to use the genitive form, such as:

(8) #My roommates are rather concerned about my dancing at their party tomorrow

Something about this sentence just seems wrong. Using my dancing seems to imply that the act of dancing has already occurred, since you’re referring to it as a noun, but the act has not yet happened, so that’s bad. Using me dancing instead makes it okay if this act of dancing has not yet occurred.

Okay, let’s review. Gerunds aren’t just nouns, they’re a mix of verbal and nominal properties; you can’t always replace a gerund with a non-gerundive noun; and sometimes you can’t use a genitive subject for a gerund. It looks like the prescriptivist position that only possessive subjects are allowed is a vast oversimplification of the state of the world.

Now we’re back at square one, with seemingly no insight about which form is correct, accusative [as in (5)] or genitive [as in (7)]. Except we have gotten one insight out of this – and it’s a big one. The answer is that both should be considered correct in most cases. To me, and I think to most people I’ve run this by, the difference in the two forms is that the genitive form (9a) seems to address the singing as a thing, while the accusative form (9b) addresses it as an event and focuses more on the person doing the singing. In most situations, this is a minor difference, so it’s okay to use either form. In some situations, like those in (8) or (9b), one form is a bit better than the other (at least to me), but these are surprisingly few and far between.

(9a) I object to his singing; he’s horribly off-key!
(9b) I object to him singing; this is my concert!

So my solution is as follows: use the genitive version (his singing) when you want to focus on what’s being done, and the accusative version (him singing) when you want to focus on the person doing it. If the focus doesn’t matter to you, then just pick whichever sounds better to you. If anyone objects, teach ‘em a little bit about mixed categories for me.

[Full disclosure: in O'Conner's defense, her prescription (always use the genitive) is followed by a sidebar in which she says "another complication is the kind of sentence that can go either way" (i.e., where the accusative form is also okay).  However, she doesn't specify how to tell these sentences apart from the earlier sentences, which people think can go either way, but can't (in O'Conner's opinion).  So that's not a terribly useful hedge.]

I’m not the sort of person who expects people to always listen to what I have to say. But here I go admonishing that Omit Needless Words is not a rule of grammar, and I’m immediately reminded of why I had to do so. Let’s look at an example of misusing Omit Needless Words in support of a proposed grammar rule; in fact let’s go a step further and look at an example of misinterpreting ONW in support of said rule: James Kilpatrick’s newest column. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about the double genitive, the common construction used in sentences like

(1) He is a friend of Celine Dion’s.
(2) I’m familiar with that enticing look of his.

Now, as Language Log has pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with those sentences — the double genitive was a favorite of Shakespeare’s, among others. But here’s what’s weird about Kilpatrick’s argument: he claims that the double genitive is wasteful. For Kilpatrick, the friend of… part of the phrase establishes possession, and thus the ‘s possessive is redundant. As Kilpatrick puts it, “Words are precious! Waste them not!”, which is an instantiation of the Omit Needless Words idea. (It looks to me that Kilpatrick has made a mantra of Omitting Needless Words; he wastes none on segues between the various peeves he catalogs in his column.)

Now, it’s bad enough that Kilpatrick has gone astray by claiming that Omit Needless Words justifies his grammar rule, but to add salt to the wound, he’s gone further astray by confusing what qualifies as a word. Properly, ‘s is a clitic (a syntactically independent but phonologically dependent lexical item — something you can’t say unless it’s attached to another word), not a true word. Strunk never said anything about Omitting Needless Clitics. If you’re going to buttress your opinion by exhorting people not to waste something, make sure you’re exhorting them not to waste the right thing. And seriously, who on earth sits about fretting over wasting clitics? It’s not as though the clitic mines are running short, or we’ve passed “peak clitic”.

Anyway, as I mentioned before, the Omit Needless Words/Word-Like Elements argument won’t pass muster here, because the double genitive really is a grammatical construction in English. Just try to rephrase sentence (2) so as to not use the double genitive, without changing the meaning of the sentence. What can you say? Certainly not that enticing look of him, nor that enticing look of he. You could try his enticing look, but it loses the specificity of the look that that enticing look affords. So not only is the double genitive not bad, it’s also good. Further supporting this, consider sentence (3a) and some possible restatements (each accompanied by delightful symbols):

(3a) This complaint of Kilpatrick’s is unfounded
(3b) *?This complaint of Kilpatrick is unfounded
(3c) #Kilpatrick’s complaint is unfounded
(3d) ?This one of Kilpatrick’s complaints is unfounded

(3a) sounds right to me, but (3b) sounds nearly ungrammatical. (3c) is perfectly grammatical, but isn’t the right thing to say if Kilpatrick has more than one complaint and we need to distinguish that this particular is unfounded. (I’m positive he’s had some well-founded arguments in his life.) And (3d) sounds a bit off to me, though not too bad. But, if we were going to rule out (3a) by Omitting Needless Words, then we’d really have to rule out (3d) a little harder because it’s got one more word (and one more suffix) than (3a) had. So here it looks like the double genitive is the best option.

Summary: Please, don’t get overzealous in applying Omit Needless Words. Strunk made no suggestion to Omit Needless Clitics. If you’re going to complain about niggling points of grammar, please use the right terminology.  Also, the double genitive is not ungrammatical.

Prescriptivists love William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style. This is a bit odd, because Strunk and most prescriptivists differ in their stated goals. The introduction to Strunk’s original 1918 version of the book clearly lays out what his book is about. It is about “the principal requirements of plain English style”, “the field of English style”, “the rules of rhetoric”, “plain English adequate for everyday uses”, “the secrets of style”, “principles of composition”. No mention of grammar whatsoever. The closest he comes is to mention that his book discusses the “rules of usage”, but you’ll notice that issues of style/composition/rhetoric are far more important in his introduction.

And in fact, his book is laid out to reflect this. Section II is titled “Elementary Rules of Usage”, and that’s the part with issues of grammar. Section III is titled “Elementary Principles of Composition”, and that’s the part with advice about how to write better. That means that stuff in Section III is NOT GRAMMAR. It is advice. This is why Strunk called them “Principles”, not “Rules”.

That means, dear prescriptivists, that the following are not matters of grammar to St. Strunk:

As such, prescriptivists, I would thank you kindly not to cite these as inherent rules of English Grammar, but rather as one writer’s opinion of what makes good writing. Of course, even if Strunk had claimed that these were rules of grammar, that wouldn’t make it so. But at least it’d be less galling when you parrot them as inalienable truths about the language.

Readers: do not be taken in by the claim that these principles of style justify any so-called rules of grammar! Stay on your guard!

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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.

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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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