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As part of the research for the despite/in spite of post, I decided to check in a proper, paper usage dictionary to make sure that the internet’s laissez-faire attitude toward these constructions was the norm, rather than merely a symptom of the unregulated style of the cyberworld.  To my great surprise, none of the three guides I looked at made even the slightest mention of despite or in spite of.

Two of the books (The AP Stylebook & Woe is I) were fairly short, so I could sort of understand that they might not bother with this non-issue.  But the other (The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style) had a full 491 pages, each page measuring approximately the length of my ulna by the height of my face, chin to hairline.  (I apologize, but I couldn’t find a ruler around the apartment, so I had to make do with what I had on me.)  Given the book’s relatively thin margins and two-column layout, that’s a lot of space to discuss the pressing issues of English usage.  Having been afflicted with uncertainty over the meaning of despite and in spite of for a few months before I finally remembered to look it up, I was surprised that something of such importance to me did not pass muster to inhabit one of the nearly 500 pages.  What, I asked the empty living room, could be of more interest than the despite/in spite of question?  Receiving no answer, I flipped through the book’s advice, looking for something that could have been cut to make room for despite/in spite of.

Lo and behold, page 257 greeted me with a slightly-more-than-a-page-long discourse on “no way” and why there was basically no way to use it correctly.  Here is how the section starts, and I think it says a lot:

“Years ago I asked a former flame if she cared to renew our relationship. ‘No way!’ she exclaimed. I responded, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ She amended her answer: ‘No will.’ At least I had the satisfaction of winning her concession on a point of English usage.”

Men, take note: that’s a little thing prescriptivists call “charm”. However, just because people say “where there’s a will, there’s a way” does not make it so.  I assure you that no amount of will will cause me to usurp Michael Johnson as the fastest runner ever, nor will will net me a Fields Medal.  Now, I will concede the point that “no way” is likely in this case to be hyperbolic.  There are a few ways that the former flame might be enticed to renew the relationship: for instance, if all men but the author were turned to stone, or if the author decided to forsake his priggish opposition to well-established usages.  But as each of these is extremely unlikely to happen, the flame’s proclamation is, for all intents and purposes, correct.

After that introduction, the advice begins in earnest.  I will only look at one of the author’s complaints, but I assure you it’s representative of the rest of them:

“The following sentence opens a news brief: ‘There’s no way Reagan will accept an invitation [...] to visit the region in an attempt to end violence.’  To keep the first three words but make the sentence minimally grammatical, extra words are needed to connect the phrase ‘no way’ to the verb ‘accept’ [...]“

Of course, this is totally wrong.  I agree that the sentence he quotes, as it stands, is not minimally grammatical — it is fully grammatical.  The clause Reagan will … end violence is a complementizer phrase that modifies way, forming the noun phrase no way (that) Reagan will … end violence. The underlying syntax us a bit clearer if you include “that”:

(1a) There are many ways that you can help FACES!
(1b) I see no way that they can miss God’s wrath. (from a 1681 speech quoted in a 1714 book)

It’s similar to the relative clause in a man (that) I know or the point that needs established. And we know that that is omissible in similar noun phrases:

(2a) The claim I’m making is not that reference to future time cannot be made in English; of course it can. (from Geoff Pullum on Language Log)
(2b) The method Reagan used was not deductive [...]

Unsurprisingly, given these similar omissions, we find no way without that attested long ago; in 1889 if not earlier:

(3) I hope there is no way he can get Sabriny’s little pension.

So, as we see, the newscaster’s sentence was fine as it stood.  But let’s suppose that we put aside common sense and history and pretend that the sentence is incorrect.  How does the author propose to fix it?

“The best solution might be to toss out the first three words and insert not: ‘Reagan will not accept an invitation [...]‘”

Quick test to see who’s still awake: what’s the major difference between the revised sentence and the original no way version?  The revision states that Reagan will not accept the invitation as it stands, but says nothing about whether he is open to changing his opinion.  The original states that he cannot be persuaded to accept it either.  The original contains semantic information that the revision does not. This is not a good revision for the sentence, thanks for playing, try again tomorrow.

In light of this bad advice, and after perusing the neighboring pages, I began to understand how this book had ended up at the used-book store where I found it.  A suggestion on the preceding page was that “multi-million dollar aid package” would be better said as “multi-million dollar package of aid”.  Everyone who agrees, please raise your hand.  All those with your hands raised, please never become a newspaper editor.

Summary: This book was not worth the $5 I paid for it.  And no way is a reasonable construction.

Something that keeps on coming up in my internal monologues is the issue of when to use despite and when to use in spite of.  I didn’t know of any difference between the two, but there’ve been a lot of words that I didn’t know meant different things until I’d already spent years confusing them.  (Thinking that jocular meant “having the traits of a jock” is foremost in my mind, but there’s also the flaunt/flout confusion that I was a victim of until midway through college.)

So what if I was making a fool of myself by confounding despite and in spite of as well? Nah, I figured, I’ve been using them interchangeably for 20-odd years.  They couldn’t be different; I’d’ve noticed. But then I read an article containing this sentence:

“Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the screenings, an ad hoc coalition of more than a dozen disabilities groups held a conference call on the weekend to lay the groundwork for at least one protest in every state starting this week.”

Well, poop. Operating under the assumption that writer was not injecting her own internal word-choice debate into the beginning of the sentence, I concluded that there must be a difference between despite and in spite of. 20-odd years of confidence in my spite-usage down the drain.

I dutifully crawled the Internet, searching for the difference between them, desperately hoping to save myself a lampooning the next time I said one but meant the other. But as it turns out, no one else seems to believe they were different.  I even checked the OED, where I was greeted with the following definition of despite: “In spite of.”  Nothing more.  All right, case closed; they’re the same.

My mind was set at ease for a solid couple of seconds.  I hadn’t been making a fool of myself on this topic, hooray.  But then I realized that what we have here is a full-fledged grammatical mystery. What could the writer have been thinking when she set up the opposition of despite and in spite of? Since they’re the same, might she have been thinking of some other phrase instead of in spite of?  What could this mysterious phrase be?

If this were a proper detective story, I’d introduce a number of potential target phrases, and one by one whittle them down, excluding possibilities with a heartfelt rhetorical flourish before finally pointing my magnifying-glass-wielding hand, extending an accusatory finger, and naming the offender. But, c’mon, I write too long-windedly as it is. So let’s jump to the accusation: it was the writer (or the editor), with the backspace key, in the aforementioned sentence.

My guess is that in despite of was the target phrase, but then someone looked at that and said “Oops, that’s mixing my constructions,” and removed the de-In despite of means “in defiance of, in order to spite”, which to me seems about what would be intended.  I was completely unaware of the existence of this phrase, so if I’d been editing the story, I’d certainly have clipped off the de-, although I probably would have changed it to in order to spite or out of spite for.  But that’s just picking nits.  So thank you, stupid news article about a stupid movie; you actually taught me something about the English language.

Summary: despite and in spite of are interchangeable, but their combination in despite of means something else entirely.

“Using data as a singular is wrong,” writes Barbara Walraff in Word Court.  I agreed with this in my middle-school days, when I strove to show that I was destined for great things and illustrated it by being painfully, officiously, incessantly prim.  I went to science fairs, and on the little note cards that carried my polished speech about bacteria, or supernovae, or whatever it was I was claiming to have made an important discovery about, I usually wrote “The data show that …” just before revealing the results that I expected would blow the judges away. Surprisingly, though, they weren’t shocked by results such as “oil-eating bacteria do indeed eat oil” nor amazed by my revelations that “salt-water shrimp die in fresh water”.  But maybe they were just too distracted by the phrase “the data show” to actually listen to what it was that the data were showing.

I stopped generally treating data as a plural a few years ago, because no matter how many times I used it, it always sounded like I was putting on airs.  I know, I know — data entered the language as the plural of the Latin borrowing datum, and therefore data forever should be a plural in English.    But it’s really not so simple as that.  I’m not about to argue that data are is wrong.  But I am going to argue that there are some reasonable reasons to accept data is.

Exhibit A: the acceptability of — in fact, the preference for — data is in certain circumstances.  There are two major senses for the word data.  The original sense is a collection of numbers, facts, results, etc. from experiments and observations, as in (1).  The other sense is a collection of information stored on a computer, usually in binary form, as in (2).

(1) Lack of data is killing (macro)economics
(2) Method to increase the amount of customer data on a hard disk drive

The second sense of data is a mass noun; it sounds quite odd to say “I have a data/datum on this hard drive”.  It’s like mail, milk, money, and some non-m words as well.  Mass nouns receive singular agreement:

(3a) Your mail is/*are sitting on the table.
(3b) The data on these hard drives is/*are corrupt.

So for this computerized sense, data is is not only acceptable, but strongly preferred. (There are a few instances of plural agreement with computer data, but these are quite rare.)  Now here’s the problem: nowadays it’s awful hard to separate the two senses of data.   I, for instance, build computer models of human language usage.  So my data is a collection of facts in the world that is represented as a collection of binary digits on a computer disk; I could be using either sense of data to describe it.  So what’s the problem with choosing to treat it as a mass noun, if that’s one possible form for it?

Exhibit B: other Latinate words have shed their plural history for the singular.  Most prominent amongst these is agenda.  Yes, agenda, meaning the set of points to be discussed in a meeting, the set of things to do in the future, or the book in which a calendar is kept.  Agenda is treated as a singular noun, with agendas as its plural.  Agendum, the “proper” singular form, has pretty well disappeared from English.  Surprisingly, this transition has NOT led to linguistic anarchy, nor any other notable harm to the language or its speakers.  It seems to be safe to allow data to follow the same path.

Exhibit C: there is not always agreement between semantics and syntax.

(4a) Where are my pants?
(4b) My scissors have rusted.
(4c) I own many pairs of plaid shorts.

What do these sentences have in common?  Each refers to a semantically singular object with plural syntactic agreement.  Note that each of these objects is composed of two parts, but each undeniably functions as a whole.  A pair of pants is not like a pair of shoes in that regard, because you could have a single shoe, but not a single pant — that’s a pant leg.  (I’m ignoring Express’s Editor Pant here.)  So if we English speakers are willing to tolerate a single object taking plural agreement, why can’t we tolerate the “plural” data taking singular agreement?

Exhibit D: Lastly, when I’m speaking of data as a linguist, I’m not just talking about a set of facts, but rather a collection of facts, observations, arguments, and analyses.  It is rare, in this day and age, that the points of data in an experiment, taken alone, can justify a claim.  (I’m pretty sure this is the case in most fields.)  The fact that people take longer to read certain words in a certain task does not, in and of itself, establish that these words are harder than others.  Rather, this fact, combined with a set of assumptions and analyses that we all agree to accept, establishes the claim.  We’re viewing the datums as a sort of team, all working together.  In that sense, the data is an inter-related mass, rather than a series of separable points of data.  Thus, they ought to be reasonably thought of as a mass or collective (like family or team) noun, either of which would take singular agreement in Standard American English.

That’s four reasons why I think data is should be all right.  Insisting that people should say data are, in spite of the fact that an American English speaker can’t use data are without sounding pretentious or outmoded, is stupid.  You’re welcome to keep using it, but stop making other people use it too.  I don’t see any harm coming to the language based on how you use data.  I don’t see any improvement to the language either.  Go with what feels right.  I’m guessing that’s data is.

Summary: A lot of people insist that data is is unacceptable.  But there’re at least four reasons why data is should be fine.  So if you think, like I do, that data is works better than data are, well, go ahead and use it!  The same holds if you think data are is better.  But it’s stupid to argue that only one or the other is correct.

***

The Stupid Grammar Rules series as it stands:

Ah, “I judge you when you use poor grammar.“, grandest of all Facebook groups!  How many of my friends you’ve lured in with your siren song of mockery!  What an important niche you’ve filled, at last allowing college students to feel superior to others, salvaging their fragile self-esteem!

All right, enough of my sanctimony.  I, like everyone else, judge people when they use non-standard grammar.  I like to think that my judgements consist solely of determining the group with which the person identifies themself.  For instance, I recognize that the Boost Mobile tagline “Where you at?” is intended to relate to urban culture, whereas my use of the obscure word “sanctimony” at the start of this paragraph is intended to identify myself with the well-educated and -cultured, so that people will accept the anti-authoritarian things I write about grammar.  (This use of obscure words is a common tactic of grammatical snobs, along with liberal use of Latin phrases.)  Alas, even us linguists sometimes find it difficult to not to end up biased against opinions of writers whose writing is peppered with grammatical improprieties — as witnessed by my previous rant against the Third World Challenge.  But even then, at least linguists try to only judge people because of honestly poor grammar, not ipse dixit poor grammar (you see what I mean about Latin phrases?).

So yes, I’m against “I judge you when you use poor grammar.”, largely because half of the so-called errors aren’t errors at all.  Of course, that’s also the group’s redeeming quality for my purposes; it is a treasure trove of ill-justified grammatical opinions screaming out to be corrected.  Witness, for instance, this pleasant exchange from a few mornings ago:

Terry: What is exactly the problem with “Where are you at?” I mean, the sentence can make sense without the “at” but is it really wrong to include the “at”?
Kate: I can’t believe you actually need to ask that?

Yes, for shame, Terry!  Do you not understand that at in Where are you at? is a self-evident abomination?  Cast him into the pits, etc., etc.!  Except, wait, why is this usage incorrect again?  I looked around the Internet, and while I found a lot of people saying it was wrong, I found next to no one justifying it. A brief sampling of the arguments I did find:

  • Why can’t you just say “Where are you?” Having “at” at the end does nothing for the sentence, and the sentence cannot be retooled to make sense while including “at.” (link)
  • Burchfield refers to “Where are you at?” as a tautologous regional usage. Clearly, we’re better off without the “at.” (link)
  • A preposition is a fine word to end a sentence with but the “at” in “Where are you at?” (or “At where are you?”) is just incorrect. (link)

(Burchfield, by the way, is the editor of the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which happens to presently be sitting on the corner of my bed.  I looked it up, and he doesn’t justify his proclamation any more than anyone else does.  Now that’s ipsedixitism!)

I’ve managed to pull two arguments out of this insistent ether: where are you at? is bad because it ends with a preposition, and where are you at? is bad because the at is unnecessary.  Well, the first is a strawman, as repeatedly discussed on Language Log.  The notion that sentences ending with a preposition are substandard was a phantasm dreamt up by John Dryden in 1672 to show that he was a better poet than noted Elizabethan bad-ass Ben Jonson.  It’s never been true of English that sentence-final prepositions are wrong.  So that’s no reason to disallow where are you at?

The other argument is that at is unnecessary, and following the doctrine of Omit Needless Words, anything that is unnecessary should be removed.  As I’ve mentioned before: Omit Needless Words is a stylistic preference!  There is nothing in the grammar of English that says unnecessary words must, or even should, be omitted.  To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a sentence I just used:

(1a) The other argument is that at is unnecessary [...]
(1b) The other argument is at is unnecessary [...]

that in (1a) is, strictly speaking, unnecessary.  So why put it in there?  BECAUSE OMITTING THAT MAKES THE SENTENCE HARD TO UNDERSTAND!

Does omitting at from where are you at? make the question harder to understand?  You might balk at this, but, yes. Yes it can. Consider this anecdotal evidence, from one of the sites complaining about at-inclusion:

Example when I ask a person over the phone (who I know is driving) “Where are you?” They respond “In my car” The answer I am trying to get is maybe a nearby freeway exit. This person then says “Oh you want to know where I’m at?” Then proceeds to tell me what I wanted to know. SO FRUSTRATING!

Hello!?  This is the point where one ought to stop and think, “Hmm.  Perhaps I’m wrong and the at is actually an important signal in our discourse!  Perhaps I therefore ought to stop complaining about it.”  But I suppose it’s more fun to hard-headedly careen onward, assuming that strict necessity is the only possible reason to permit a preposition to foul up your exquisitely crafted questions, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a linguistic dunce.  And you’re welcome to think that, but don’t come complaining to me that people misunderstand your ruthlessly efficient conversational style.

Maybe someone out there has a reason to prefer where are you? to where are you at? But “clearly we’re better off without the ‘at’”?  Not in the least.

Summary: “Where are you at?” is a perfectly fine question. The at isn’t an unnecessary redundancy; it’s sometimes a helpful marker.  There’s no reason to outlaw it or even avoid it.

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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.

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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