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I am not the sort of person who receives an inordinate number of invitations, likely due in no small part to my propensity to swing conversational topics away from things like popular movies or good books and over to the specifics of the language by which one talks about such things. As such, it is not in the cards for me to be picky about the tenor of an invitation. I never understood the people who refuse to go to a party because they were invited at the last minute. My response is always, “I’ll be ready in three minutes, thanks thanks thanks.” This may be because I was — and this may surprise some of you — not one of the popular kids in high school.

Okay, actually, I’m lying. In truth, I am picky about the invitations I accept, just because many of the things that my friends enjoy doing hold no inducement for me. Bars, dancing, sunny day beach trips, all not my cup of tea. Unless there’s cheap food or a thrift store involved, I’m out. But when I reject an invitation, I always have a valid reason: it sounds boring. Some other people do not; instead they complain about the fact that they have not been given an invitation, but rather an invite. This is because those people assume invite is either just a recent truncation of the full and more proper invitation, or the recent co-opting of the verb invite into a noun. In either case, it’s unacceptable. As Eric Partridge writes in Usage and Abusage:

invite for (an) invitation is incorrect and ill-bred and far too common”

A sharp dismissal. Except, wait, what the hell does it mean for a word to be “ill-bred”? The only meaning I can come up with is that the word was formed through improper means. But that’s patently false, as nominal invite comes from verbal invite by the same means as some uncontroversial nouns like command and request, both of which started life as verbs according to the MWDEU. In fact, this method (zero-affixation) of forming nouns from verbs used to be quite commonplace.  Arnold Zwicky has found that nominal request took the place of nominal ask, which first showed up a millennium ago.  Adam Albright found the following words in the OED as nouns:

adorn, disturb, arrive, destroy, relate, pray, recede, announce, ask, think, amaze, depart, reduce, produce, maintain, retain, detain, deploy, retire, acquit, greet, defend, divulge, startle, entertain, vanish

The attestations of these are all in the past; it’s likely few people would consider all (or even many) of these valid nouns nowadays. But I think it gives some evidence that invite isn’t ill-bred; it’s attested back to the 1600s in the OED, and it was formed by what used to be a pretty productive rule. So it’s not incorrect, it’s not ill-bred, and since neither of the first two hold, there’s no reason to complain about its commonness.  Sorry Eric Partridge, but zero-for-three.

Now, there does seem to be some truth to the claim that invite is less formal than invitation; the MWDEU’s historical examples of nominal invite are often from the mouths of lower-class characters or light writing. But being informal is not the same as being bad grammar, no matter how badly the prescriptivists want that to be the case.

Summary: Nominal invite, as in I got an invite, isn’t a recent piece of bad grammar. It’s been attested since the 17th century and it came from a previously common grammatical rule. At worst, it’s informal. I’d use invitation if you don’t feel like a fight, but when you’re in a bad mood, use nominal invite and tear into anyone who dares object.

You might have noticed that I have a dim view of Sarah Palin.  To judge from her public persona, she is judgmental and flighty.  She either is or acts profoundly ignorant of things she ought to know, and she’s proud of that.  It seems to me that she comes to decisions without due consideration of alternatives.  In short, she calls to mind George W. Bush, who’s not someone I appreciate having returned to the front of my mind.

And, like Bush, Palin is no great public speaker. Throughout the last election, I kept thinking that she often sounds as though she’s got three sentences she’s considering saying, and failing to find any of them quite right, she just braids them together; a few words from the first sentence, a clause from the second, a few more words from the first, and end it with the third.  This happens beyond the sentence level as well; she creates a maelstrom of half-developed points, any one of which she might return to at any given time. It makes it incredibly difficult to follow what she’s trying to say, or to understand her reasons for arguing what she’s arguing.

In short, Sarah Palin’s speech basically mocks itself.  A case in point is her resignation press conference. Her explanation for her resignation was more damning than anything anyone said about it; it made little sense, substituted analogies for arguments, wandered down dead ends, and left you feeling as though she delivered a nearly-finished first draft.  Heck, no one figured out why she was resigning for a few days, because her “ethics investigations cost Alaska too much money” argument was so unclear.  But letting Palin’s words speak for themselves was just too subtle for Vanity Fair, who took it upon themselves to post how they would have edited her resignation speech.

I’ve never cared for Vanity Fair; they have some good writers and occasionally have a good story, but the whole magazine thinks itself too clever by half.  It’s just another fashion-and-celebrities rag dolled up with a bit of political analysis and artistic portraits by fashion photographers, but it thinks it’s so much more. They get into the humor biz every once in a while, but it’s always this ham-handed “isn’t this person so STUPID?” joke. Editing Sarah Palin’s speech is a prime example; there’s the potential for some fun in remedying the awkward, disorganized, and rambling speech, but the problem is that they overdo the joke. Where the situation calls for a finishing nail, they choose a railroad spike. Here’s one page with their comments:

Clearly, they want us to say: “Look at all that red pen!  Sarah Palin is a grade-A dunce!  She could never get published in Vanity Fair!”  But if you look beyond the mere proportion of black-to-red text, you start to wonder why so many changes need to be made.  Look at that first paragraph; I can agree with the removal of the resumptive we and the replacement of the awkward progressing with working for. But why remove the next sentence? It’s a joke, a bit smarmy perhaps, but if the author wants to say it, who is the editor to cut it?  Many of the edits strike me as arbitrary matters of personal taste; I’d remove a very hard that the editor left in, I’d leave alone a few sentences he changed.  I don’t really understand why the last sentence got cut, or why the bit about energy independence needed cut out of the sentence before that.  And then there’s one terrible edit, one that really calls into question the editor’s judgement. That’s the replacement of

“We’re fishermen. We know only dead fish go with the flow.”

by

“We’re fishermen, so we know only dead fish go with the flow.”

Palin clearly intended this line to be a turning point in the speech. She covered her administration’s accomplishments, preceded this line with a couple paragraphs on the current troubles and ethics investigations, and after this line she switches over to her future plans. She structured the speech to focus on this line, and delivered it as two staccato sentences in the midst of longer ones. It’s powerful, even though it’s nonsense.  One might even argue that the line’s strength comes from the fact that for one shining moment, Palin is using a rhetorical flourish competently.  (Seriously, though, what the hell is this analogy supposed to mean? If only a dead fish would serve the full term it was elected to, then oughn’t Lincoln to have remained president until 1869?)

The revision, though, makes the two sentences into one compound sentence, and jams it onto the end of the preceding paragraph, where it gets lost in a sea of other compound sentences. It has no oomph, and it’s no longer able to serve as the strong division between sections. Sure, it’s a real stick in the eye to say to Sarah Palin, “We even changed your big line,” but it’s completely unjustified and just makes the editor look petty.

In cases like these, where you want to establish that someone can’t write, the right course of action is to edit conservatively: correct the spelling and factual errors, remove some of the sentence-initial conjunctions, address her often-odd word choice, and fix the redundancies. That would still have led to a substantially reddened paper, and we could have all had a fair chuckle. Another reasonable option would be to have some more competent writer completely re-write the speech, to show what Palin left on the table by being a poor writer. Even going through and really editing it, not just correcting minor points, but moving around sentences and components of the speech to improve its flow, would have been better.  But as it stands, it just feels like an editor with a vendetta went through with a fine-toothed comb, just to show off how many different things he could conceivably object to.  I’m not saying that Palin’s speech doesn’t make her look foolish. It’s just that the edited version doesn’t make Vanity Fair look much better.

The first is from AA Gill, who, having dealt with letter writers who have nothing better to do than to darken his door by complaining about supposed improprieties in his grammar, shoots back:

“I love the rabid grammarians. You are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of grocery labels. For them, the written and the spoken language are a constant torment of misplaced commas, swallowed vowels, and “uns” usurping “ins”. Oh, the bliss of them. They are utterly redundant. The grammarians’ ire and fury count for naught. They make not the slightest scintilla of difference to the flow of the great torrent of language; they can’t change a single syllable in anyone’s mouth, or reunite the simplest infinitive. I love them, because they so utterly miss the point, comma, semicolon, exclamation mark.”

And, in a quite similar vein, Mike Pope forwarded me this gem from TruePath in a comment at The Volokh Conspiracy:

“[...] if the goal of prescriptivists was just to guard against things some readers find annoying then their primary obligation would be to shut up. No error of grammar can be as annoying as someone who lectures people about their grammar (this is different than genuinely trying to inform someone that most people find something to be poor grammar)”

I’m guessing that by now most of you have heard about the Endress et al study that monkeys are able to learn certain mechanisms that underlie human language. I want to talk about that research, but I also want to talk about the way it’s being covered on BBC News. Last week, I saw a story whose headline read France ‘banned Yemen crash plane’; I misread the headline as France ‘banned Yemen plane crash, because I saw the quotes and figured that no one would ever say or write “banned Yemen crash plane” outside of a British headline. As often noted by Geoff Pullum, the British news uses this distinctive noun-compounding scheme in their headlines. Yemen crash plane is a stack of three nouns, referring to a Yemeni plane that crashed. It’s a somewhat reasonable means of compressing a lot of information into a headline, but it’s not how people talk, so I was surprised that anyone would be quoted saying that. And, sure enough, they weren’t. The quote was actually

“A few years ago, we banned this plane from national territory because we believed it presented a certain number of irregularities in its technical equipment,” Mr Bussereau told parliament.

Eh, it’s not a direct quote, but it’s the same basic idea. I don’t feel comfortable with this myself; I was taught in my high school journalism classes to believe in a Sanctity of the Quotational on par with that of the Confessional. I checked with a journalist friend at CNN and she agreed that what goes inside of quotation marks ought to be a direct quote, even in a headline.  All in all, it’s not a big deal; the meaning of the headline quote and the actual quote are essentially the same, so no harm, no foul, I guess.

But yesterday I read the BBC’s take on Endress et al, the research that showed that cotton-top tamarins can learn to recognize a simple affixation rule.  First off, let me note that this is a pretty cool result, and the paper is pretty easy to read if you want the details straight from the horse’s mouth. The researchers played recordings of nonsense words to a group of tamarins, where each word consisted of a variable stem and a constant affix. The tamarins were familiarized with a series of stems+suffix (e.g., bi-shoy, lo-shoy) or a series of prefix+stems (e.g., shoy-bi, shoy-lo). This familiarization was done without any incentive to learn; they weren’t given food or shocked or tested in any way.  The words were just played over a loudspeaker in their enclosure. After the tamarins were familiarized with the words, they were taken to a new enclosure, where examples of suffixed and prefixed words were played to them (the affix remained the same as in the training period, but the stems were new).  The tamarins stared surprisedly when shoy was used as a prefix when they were trained with it as a suffix. Similarly, if they were familiarized with shoy as a prefix, they reacted to its use as a suffix. In summary, their “results suggest that, in the absence of training, cotton-top tamarins learn a rule that is formally similar to affixation patterns [...] in natural language.” This is a nice result in my book because it shows that

“[...] the language faculty uses similar positional mechanisms to compute affixation patterns, and though these mechanisms are uniquely used in humans to create and understand words, the mechanisms themselves are not specific to humans or language.”

Which is to say that some of the core pattern recognition systems that underlie our ability to learn language are not unique to humans. (I think this result makes it a bit easier to understand how language could emerge through evolution.) There’s a bit more that can be said about that point, but that’s the basic finding of the research. The researchers do a great job of establishing that this as far as the data should take us:

“[...] nonhuman animals may have the capacity to learn surface transformations involved in affixation, but they cannot link them to other aspects of linguistic structure. [...] Unlike other primates, however, infants can use such evolutionarily ancient abilities for purposes that are specifically linguistic and (presumably) unique to humans.”

Which is to say that all the news stories talking about how monkeys can recognize bad grammar have it all wrong. Monkeys can recognize the difference between established and new morphological patterns, but there is no evidence that monkeys can expand this to a grammatical system. It’s right there in the paper.

The BBC, though, uses the headline Monkeys recognise ‘bad grammar’ . Why on earth are there quotation marks around bad grammar? Unlike the plane crash example, there is no quote in the story about grammar at all. The pre-print of the paper I posted to above also doesn’t mention grammar anywhere. (It does use the phrases “grammatical competence” and “grammatical computations”, but establishes immediately within these sentences that only the abilities of humans are being referred to.) Judging by how scrupulously the authors avoided referring to grammar, and how they restricted their conclusions, I would be surprised to find that they suggested in interviews that monkeys know anything of “bad grammar”. So why is bad grammar in quotation marks? Who is it supposed to be quoting? What use are the quotation marks if nothing in the story tells us who the quoted matter is attributed to? It’s misleading and inaccurate, and contradicts the findings of the research. And, of course, it’s the misleading headline that’s stuck in everyone’s minds. Alas.

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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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