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I have it on bad authority that English has died. You may have heard the linguistic Chicken Littles milling about Internet, each trying to come up with a more hyperbolic statement about the death of the language — or perhaps even society as a whole — because twerk is now a real word”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Ben Zimmer has a nice run-down of this “perfect lexicographical storm”, and if you’ve been lucky enough to have missed out on it, let me offer a few sample Tweets:

The last one’s best because it really couldn’t be more wrong. No one has the power to make something “officially” a word,* and it wasn’t the Oxford English Dictionary but the Oxford Dictionaries Online that added these entries. (The differences between the OED and ODO are detailed here.) I mean, seriously, if you’re going to lecture someone, can’t you at least put in the little effort it takes to be right?

For some reason, many media outlets can’t, at least not when they’ve got new dictionary entries on the brain. The wrong dictionary is cited, the new entries are never read,** and the purpose of a dictionary is always misunderstood — which is to record common words, not exclude them.

In light of all the misinformation out there, let’s calm down and look at what’s actually happened, why it’s happened, and what it means.

What has happened? The Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), in one of their quarterly updates, added a set of new definitions to their online dictionary, including ones for emoji, cake pop, and, yes, twerk. The ODO “offers guidance on how the English language is used today, based on the Oxford English Corpus. Words can be removed when they are no longer used”, as noted on their page explaining that the ODO and OED are not the same thing.

Nothing has “become a word”, nothing has been “officially” recognized, nor “added to the language”. One dictionary — one that focuses on contemporary usage — has added these words so that people who are unaware of them or unaware of how they’re used (me, in cases like balayage) can find out from a more reliable source than Urban Dictionary. The words already existed and were in common enough use that a group of lexicographers decided that their definitions should be noted and made available.

Why did this happen? Angus Stevenson explains in the ODO announcement:

“New words, senses, and phrases are added to Oxford Dictionaries Online when we have gathered enough independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English. [...] Each month, we add about 150 million words to our corpus database of English usage examples collected from sources around the world. We use this database to track and verify new and emerging words and senses on a daily basis.”

These words were added for one reason: they are currently sufficiently common that the lexicographers at ODO feel it will be useful for people to be able to find out what these words mean and how they are used. This does not imply that the lexicographers like or dislike these words, nor that they want to see them used more or less. In the same way that a meteorologist is compelled to state the expected weather regardless of whether they’d prefer something else, so too are the lexicographers bound to the language we give them, like it or lump it.***

['conk' in my desk dictionary]

A century ago, conk could have been a contentious addition, yet within a decade of its appearance, Rudyard Kipling was using it.

What does it mean? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that these words are in “the dictionary”, because there is no “the” dictionary; there are a wide range of dictionaries, with different purposes and different criteria for adding entries. There is no central authority on English, so nothing’s ever “officially” a word or not. It also doesn’t mean that you have to like these words, nor that you have to use them or understand them. It doesn’t mean that all future dictionaries will now be forced to include these words in perpetuity, regardless of the lifespan of the words.

English is the same today as was two days ago; it’s just a little better documented. The ODO’s update means that if you choose to use these words, other people will be able to find out what they mean, and if other people choose to use them, you will be able to find out what they mean. For the words that show staying power, more and more dictionaries will contain them, and those words that don’t will disappear. (The OED does not remove words once they’re in, but many dictionaries do, including the ODO at the center of the current dust-up.)

Lastly, if you’re worried that defining selfie and supercut and their ilk makes our generation look silly, or self-involved, or obsessed with stupid Internet trifles, well, maybe we are. Change begins at home; stop clicking on cat videos and waging arguments through memes. Stop making Miley Cyrus the top news story in place of Syria and the NSA and things that matter. Talk about ideas instead of contrived distractions. Dictionaries are reflections of our time; one can’t blame the mirror for an ugly face.

[A disclaimer: I am a linguist, not a lexicographer. If you are a lexicographer, we'd all love to hear any additional insights you have, and of course, please correct me if I've mischaracterized anything. If you are not a lexicographer but are interested in hearing more about lexicography, you can't go wrong with Ben Zimmer's or Kory Stamper's writings.]


*: This whole idea of “X is (not) a word” doesn’t even make sense anyway — see discussions by Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey. A word is a word if it is used with a consistent meaning by some group of language users. For linguists, we have different possible definitions of a word (orthographic words, phonological words, etc.), so the matter’s actually pretty complicated — are idioms words, for instance?

**: In 2011, the actual OED did add a new entry for heart, v., based on its slang usage for “love”. The OED’s announcement noted the new form derived in part from the famous “I♥NY” logo, but nowhere in the entry does ♥ or <3 appear. That didn't stop Time, the Daily Mail, and many others from claiming that the OED had added its first graphical/symbolic entry and clucking their tongues as expected.

***: My impression is that lexicographers like more than they lump, as you can tell from the excitement of their update announcement.

If you believe the grammar doomsayers, the English subjunctive is dying out. But if this is the end of the grammatical world, I feel fine — and I say that even though I often mark the subjunctive myself.

The most talked about use of the subjunctive is in counterfactuals:

(1) Even if I were available, I’d still skip his party.

For many people, marking the subjunctive here is not required; either they never mark it, using the past indicative form was instead, or they (like me) sometimes mark it with were, and sometimes leave it unmarked with was. For this latter group, the choice often depends on the formality of the setting. I’m calling this “not marking” the subjunctive, rather than “not using” it, because it seems less like people making a choice between two moods for the verb and more like a choice between two orthographic/phonemic forms for it.

It’s similar to the alternation for many people (incl. me) of marking or not marking who(m) in the accusative case, discussed by Arnold Zwicky here and here, and Stan Carey here. That said, I believe that (at least some) people who never use were in (1) do not have a grammatical rule saying that counterfactuals trigger the past subjunctive, and I’m not worried about that either.

[Gee! I Wish I Were a Man!]

For being such a foolish war, World War I did generate some artistic propaganda.

This blitheness about the subjunctive does not go unmourned. I recently found myself being Twitter-followed by someone whose account just corrects people who fail to use the subjunctive in sentences like (1).* And Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, annually rants about people failing to mark the subjunctive. Consider one of Corbett’s calls to man the ramparts, which he begins by quoting, in its entirety, a 90-year-old letter complaining that the subjunctive must be saved from impending destruction.** Corbett continues:

“[...] despite my repeated efforts to rally support for [the subjunctive] the crisis has only grown. For those few still unaware of the stakes, here is a reminder from The Times’s stylebook”

What are the stakes? What would we lose without the subjunctive? Corbett cites sentences such as these:

The mayor wishes the commissioner were retiring this year.
If the commissioner were rich, she could retire.
If the bill were going to pass, Secretary Kuzu would know by now.

If these were the stakes, I’d ditch the subjunctive. Corbett points out that in each of these we’re referring to a counterfactual condition, which should trigger the subjunctive. But note that using the indicative/unmarked was doesn’t make that any less clear. There is nothing to be gained from using the subjunctive in these cases but a sense of superiority and formality. (Not that I’m against either of those.)

But here’s the weird thing: all this defense of the subjunctive, all these worries — they’re all only about the past subjunctive. And the past subjunctive is weird, because it’s only marked on be, and it’s just a matter of using were for singular as well as plural. For everyone worrying that this is some crucial distinction, please note these sentences where it is insouciantly the same as teh indicative form:

(2a) The mayor wishes the commissioners retired last year.
(2b) If the commissioner wanted to, she could retire.
(2c) If the bills were going to pass, Sec. Kuzu would know by now.

If anything, the loss of past subjunctive were strikes me as regularization of English, the loss of the last remaining vestige of what was once a regular and widespread marking system. Losing the past subjunctive makes English more sensible. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

And anyway, the subjunctive probably isn’t going to disappear, not even the past subjunctive. The past subjunctive is, to my knowledge, necessarily marked in Subject-Auxiliary Inversion constructions:

(3) Were/*Was I a betting man, I’d say the subjunctive survives.

A quick look at Google Books N-grams makes it look like were subjunctive marking has been relatively constant over the last 40 years in written American English, so maybe this is all just a tempest in a teacup.

Plus all of this worry about the subjunctive ignores that the present subjunctive is going strong.*** I’ve written about sentences where the present subjunctive changes the meaning (though I wrote with a dimmer view of the subjunctive’s long-term prospects), and Mike Pope supplied an excellent example:

(4a) I insist that he be there.
(4b) I insist that he is there.

In cases where marking the subjunctive is important, it’s sticking around. In cases where it isn’t important, and the subjunctive follows a strange paradigm, identical to the indicative for all but one verb, it may be disappearing. This is no crisis.

Summary: People who write “if I was” instead of “if I were” aren’t necessarily pallbearers of the English subjunctive. It may be regularization of the last remaining irregular part of the past subjunctive, with the present subjunctive remaining unscathed. And if the past subjunctive disappears, there will be, as far as I can tell, no loss to English. Go ahead and use it if you want (I often do), but to worry that other people aren’t is wrinkling your brow for nothing.


*: I do respect the tweeter’s restraint in seemingly only correcting people who’re already talking about grammar.

**: That this destruction has been impending for 90 years has somehow not convinced the ranters that their panic may be misplaced. Also, Corbett keeps titling his posts “Subjunctivitis”, which I think sounds great, but not in the same way he probably does. -itis usually means an unwelcome inflammation of the root word, and I can’t help but see all this as an unhelpful inflammation of passions over the subjunctive.

***: In fact, and I think this is pretty cool, (Master!) Jonathon Owen directed me to a classmate’s corpus work suggesting that for at least some verbs, marked subjunctive usage is increasing.

It’s National Grammar Day 2013, which has really snuck up on me. If you’ve been here in previous years, you know that I like to do three things on March 4th: have a rambling speculative discussion about the nature of grammar and/or linguistics, link to some people’s posts I’ve liked, and link to some of my posts. Unfortunately, I’ve been so busy with dissertation work lately that I’m a bit worn out on discussion and haven’t been adequately keeping up with everyone’s blogs. So I hope you’ll forgive my breach of etiquette in making this year’s NGD post all Motivated Grammar posts.

Well, not entirely. Everyone in our little community gets in on National Grammar Day, so let me mention a few good posts I’ve seen so far. Kory Stamper discusses her mixed feelings on the day, as well as on correcting people’s language in general. Dennis Baron looks at the abandoned, paranoid, wartime predecessor of NGD, “Better American Speech Week”. And from last year, but only better from the aging process, Jonathon Owen and goofy had posts asking what counts as evidence for grammatical correctness or incorrectness, and why we’re so often content to repeat grammar myths.

Below you’ll find this year’s collection of debunked myths. As usual, the statements below are the reality, not the myth, and you can click through for the original post and the rest of the story.

The reason is because and the reason is that are both acceptable. The reason is because is a standard English phrase, one coming from the pen of good writers (Bacon, Frost, Wodehouse) for 400 years. There’s nothing ungrammatical about it, and its supposedly condemnable redundancy is at worst mild.

Gender-neutral language isn’t new. Some people get up in arms about gender-neutral language (e.g., firefighter for fireman), claiming that everyone was fine with gendered language up until the touchy-feely ’60s or ’70s. But that’s not the case, and this post discusses gender-neutral language well before our time, over 200 years ago.

Off of is perhaps informal, but not wrong. There is nothing linguistically or grammatically incorrect about off of. It’s nonstandard in some dialects and informal in most, so you should probably avoid it if you’re concerned about your writing seeming formal. But when formality isn’t a concern, use it as you see fit.

Can I do something? oughtn’t to be an objectionable question. Permission-seeking can has been in use for over a century (including by Lord Tennyson), and common use for half a century. It is time for us all to accept it.

Since for because is fine. In fact, almost no usage guides complain about this, though it’s a persistent myth among self-appointed language guardians. A surprising number of style guides (such as that of the APA) are against it, but historically and contemporaneously, English has been and remains fine with it.

Formal language isn’t the ideal; informal language isn’t defective. Informal language has its own set of rules, separate from formal language. It’s the “normal” form of the language, the one we’re all familiar with and use most. At different times, formal or informal language is more appropriate, so we shouldn’t think of formal language as the best form.

Someone can know more than me. Than is fine as a conjunction or a preposition, which means that than me/him/her/us is acceptable, as it has been for hundreds of years. The belief it isn’t is just the result of trying to import Latin rules to a distinctly non-Latinate language.

Comma splices aren’t inherently wrong. Comma splices, where two (usually short) sentences are joined by nothing more than a comma, became less prominent as English’s punctuation rules codified. But historically speaking, they’ve been fine, and to the present day they’re most accurately viewed as informal, but hardly incorrect. That said, one has to be careful with them so that they don’t just sound like run-ons.

It doesn’t make sense to say that a standard usage is erroneous. There are rules in language, but if the language itself breaks them, then it’s a shortcoming of the rule, not of the language.

Disinterested and uninterested are separating, not blurring. Though many people believe that these two words ought to mean different things, they haven’t historically. In fact, the overlap in meaning between the two isn’t indicative of a distinction being lost, but rather a distinction appearing.

Psst. Hey, down here. You want more debunked myths? We’ve got four more years of ‘em for ya. Check out 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. 40 more myths for your pleasure. Check out singular “they”, “anyway(s)”, “hopefully”, and more.

I’ve been looking through some unfinished drafts of posts from last year, trying to toss some of them together into something meaningful, and I found one that was talking about the stupid Gizmodo “Hashtags are ruining English” piece from last January. (Given hashtag‘s selection as ADS Word of the Year, I think that claim has been safely rebutted.) Apparently, in a fit of light madness, I read through the piece’s comments. I didn’t find any of them particularly noteworthy, save one. A commenter named Ephemeral wrote:

“The point is that texting and hashtags are at the root of the increasing illiteracy. Why worry about what an adjective is? If it doesn’t fit in my 140 character limit, it could be an adverb, for all I care. And, if it can’t be reduced to a less-than-five-character ‘word’ with letters and digits, then I am not interested anyway. [...] #ltr8″

The rant doesn’t really make any sense (character limits are making kids confuse adverbs and adjectives?), but the point is clear: Ephemeral is mad because kids today just use whatever the hell they feel like to express themselves.

To drive home the point, Ephemeral adds a hashtag to the end of the comment: #ltr8. That’s one of those “less-than-five-character ‘words'”, you’ll note. Except that no one uses this tag. (Literally no one.) I can only guess that the intended hashtag was a leet-speak version of later, which would be #l8r. #ltr8 would be, I don’t know, “later-ate”?

If it were the case that one could say later by typing in ltr8 and pronouncing it “later”, then maybe that would be indicative of increasing illiteracy (or mild dyslexia). But this isn’t the case, as the Google results show, and what little sense there was in Ephemeral’s point falls apart. It’s not because Ephemeral’s making an error while complaining about an error, which wouldn’t negate a valid argument. It’s because Ephemeral is declaring something simplistic despite not being able to understand it.

This is rampant in armchair linguistic analysis, and really irritating. Non-standard dialects are the prime example of this; if you ask people unfamiliar with it to speak African-American Vernacular English (i.e., ugh, “Ebonics”), all they’re going to do is stop conjugating verbs in the present tense. “I be real happy,” they might say. No wonder these same people would view it as a deficient form of English; according to their knowledge of it, it’s just Standard American English with a few rules taken out.

But the truth is that there are extensive differences between AAVE and SAE, including an ability in AAVE to distinguish between past tenses that SAE doesn’t morphologically distinguish. In terms of speaking about the past, it would have to be SAE that’s the deficient dialect. But because the people griping about AAVE haven’t tried to learn it, they don’t see any additional structure, and assume it must be deficient.

So too with textspeak. If you don’t understand the patterns, and you really think that #ltr8 is something that people would say to each other despite its flouting of reason, then of course you’ll see think it deficient. In your mind, anyone can say anything in textspeak, even if it’s nonsense. Since there are apparently no rules whatsoever in textspeak, it’s no surprise if you perceive it as a bogeyman out to destroy your rule-based language. But if you find out that #ltr8 isn’t acceptable in texts, maybe you start to realize that textspeak has rules, albeit different (and less strictly enforced) ones from formal English.

What I think I’m getting at here is that before you say “X is decreasing literacy”, make sure that you are sufficently literate in X to know what you’re talking about.

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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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