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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.

Last post, I argued that “I’m good” is a perfectly acceptable response to “How are you?”, because the linking verb am takes an adjective, and good is an adjective. “I’m well” is a fine response as well, although I personally prefer “I’m good” as it seems to refer more to my state of mind than my state of health.

In this post, I’d like to take a little extension into the related response, “I’m feeling good”. I’m also going to talk about its darker cousin, “I’m feeling bad” and explain the difference between bad and badly in this context. Originally, I’d hoped to talk about “I’m doing good” as well, but I’m going to shunt that off to yet another post.

Let’s start with “I’m feeling good”. In short, it’s fine, and here’s why. Feel is like be in that it can be a linking verb, taking a predicate adjective that modifies the subject. When one says “I’m feeling good”, good modifies I, not feeling. Some might argue that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (“content” vs. “moral”), but I just don’t see it, and anyway, I’m going to show that that ambiguity isn’t a big problem.

Going deeper on the adjective point, it might seem a bit weird to say that good describes how you are, not how you feel. Let’s compare the use of a somewhat clearer adjective/adverb pair: crazy/crazily. (1a) means that I’m a bit weird, whereas (1b) is itself a bit weird:

(1a) I’m feeling crazy. [adjective, modifies me]
(1b) ?I’m feeling crazily. [adverb, modifies feel]

What makes “I’m feeling X” a more grammatically interesting structure than last post’s “I’m X” is that, unlike with be, you can modify the verb feel with an adverb. (1b) isn’t ungrammatical; it’s just uncommon. Suppose, for instance, you’ve lost your autographed Harvey Haddix baseball in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You dive in and start feeling around for it, but blinded by fear of losing the ball, you’re feeling crazily amongst the balls.

When you adverbially modify feel, it’s a different sense of the verb from the one that takes a predicate adjective. In “I’m feeling crazy”, the verb refers to one’s sense of interoception, one’s perception of oneself. In “I’m feeling crazily”, the verb refers to one’s sense of exteroception, one’s perception of the outside world.* (The exteroception verb sense can also take a predicate adjective, as in “gelatin feels squishy”.)

So if you’re concerned that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (i.e., are you moral or at ease?), you ought to fear ambiguity in “I’m feeling well” (i.e., are you talking about your intero- or exteroception?) just the same. Ambiguity is pretty unavoidable sometimes. As a result, there’s no grammatical reason not to say “I’m feeling good”, although it might not be standard depending on your age and dialect. And “I’m feeling well” is fine, too.

Moving on to “I’m feeling bad(ly)”, the standard contemporary form is I feel bad. However, I feel badly, though non-standard, is pretty common and pretty robust. In fact, at various times it has been argued to be the standard form; Charles Dod wrote a nice article in 1875 arguing that I feel badly was being used as the standard form, in order to avoid the supposedly ambiguous I feel bad. He continued by arguing that here badly was functioning as an adjective even though it looked like an adverb. His discussion raises some important points, many going beyond the mere adjective/adverb distinction:

The expression [feel badly] is needed; hence it is correct. We must allow the speaker to explain what he means, and not let the grammarians force upon him a meaning which he rejects. Let us then review our grammatical principles; if we cannot adjust the phrase to our principles, we must adjust the principles to our phrase. It is a fact, that respectable and well-educated people do say, “I feel badly.” Now let us explain the fact. We may have to widen our generalization to let this fact in; but being a fact, we cannot leave it out of view in any theory we may form. We may be sure that we have overlooked something in our analysis of the phrase, “I feel badly.”

Dod argues that feel badly is necessary because feel bad can’t mean what we want it to mean. I disagree with him there, at least in current American English, but the truth is that many people — even the educated — do use feel badly where feel bad would seem to be prescribed. This is a fact that cries out for an explanation, and merely claiming that its users don’t know their English isn’t a very good one.

Let me offer a proposal. As with “I’m feeling crazily”, feel is very strongly biased against adverbial modification in this usage, where one is reporting one’s own feelings. For instance, if I hear someone say “I feel badly”, it’s so unlikely to me that they’re complaining about the incompetence of their exteroception that I find it difficult to get that interpretation of the sentence. Pretty much the only interpretation that comes to mind is “I feel bad”, unless the context suggests that the incompetent exteroception meaning is likely. So even if you hear “I feel badly”, it’s hard to misinterpret it.

As a result, I feel badly exists in a sort of weird situation, where there is very little to suggest that it is erroneous, and a decent amount to suggest it is correct. The meaning is biased against misintrepretation, the verb can take either an adjective or adverb in different situations, bad is ambiguous (or so Dod says), and there’s a general bias to err on the side of adverbs over adjectives. Add those up, and it’s easy to expect I feel badly to be an especially persistent non-standard usage. That said, if you want to follow Educated American English, I feel bad is the better form.

Fitzedward Hall is an amazing fellow. “Was”, that is; he’s dead now, of course, as amazing fellows too often are. I recently became acquainted with an old book of his, Recent Exemplifications of False Philology, thanks to Google Books. The book is this blog, only more complete, better written, and a century older. It gives examples of mistaken grammatical beliefs held by various grammaticasters, famous and not, and why they are mistaken. And his writing style! Check this out:

“The criticaster, having looked for a given expression, or sense of an expression, in his dictionary, but without finding it there, or even without this preliminary toil, conceives it to be novel, unauthorized, contrary to analogy, vulgar, superfluous, or what not. Flushed with his precious discovery, he explodes it before the public. Universal shallowness wonders and applauds; and Aristarchus the Little, fired to dare fresh achievements, is certain of new weeds to wreathe with his deciduous bays. [...]

Defect of substantial reasons must be compensated somehow; and no compensation for it is more obvious, or is oftener called into play, than an air of impatient contempt towards those who disrelish ipsedixitism.”

I don’t know who Aristarchus the Little is, but I think the righteous condemnation comes through pretty clearly through the years. I don’t really have anything else specific to say about the book, since most of the myths it debunks are long settled by now, but its style and writing certainly make it worth a skim-through, if nothing more than to remind you how far we haven’t come since Hall’s day.

There is nothing wrong in English with splitting an infinitive. There never was anything wrong with it, either. You probably all knew that already. Unfortunately, the loudest grammar snobs are the ones who’ve put the least research into their opinions, and so, for every ten people quietly aware that infinitives can and sometimes should be split, there’s one vocal grammaticaster shouting over them that split infinitives are an abomination in the eyes of Pope. That means that there’re still a substantial number of people out there either objecting to or grinding their teeth over Star Trek’s to boldly go.

These people are mistaken. But the fact that they are mistaken will not stop them from complaining and possibly thinking less of you. And you may very well be in a position where the opinion of the misinformed matters to you; you might be an author, editor, or even a job applicant whose cover letter will be read by a lunkhead whose personal grammatical prejudices may blind him to your outstanding qualities. This leads a large number of people aware that there is no linguistic reason to avoid split infinitives (or singular they, or sentential hopefully, etc.) to still avoid using them for fear that someone of some importance will judge them harshly. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, best summarized by Ann Daingerfield & Arnold Zwicky’s line: “Crazies win“.

Now, in many cases, it’s not so bad. It’s unfortunate that reasonable people have to bow to the whims of the mad, but that’s life, innit? After all, would you really notice if someone changed (1a) to (1b)?

(1a) I’m going to angrily split infinitives.
(1b) I’m going to split infinitives angrily.

And sometimes it even sounds better to not split an infinitive:

(2a) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to gracefully dance.
(2b) Alfonso Ribeiro taught me to dance gracefully.

But these bad-to-split situations are not as pervasive as some people seem to think. That’s because prescriptivists have a bad habit of not actually looking at the language that they’re claiming domain over.  For example, the normally reasonable folks at AskOxford write that “Split infinitives are frequently poor style, but they are not strictly bad grammar,” and illustrate this claim with exactly zero examples. In so doing, they completely ignore the fact that sometimes the split infinitive is the only right way of doing it. For example, consider

(3a) She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3b) She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3c) She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.
(3d) She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3e) She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.
(3f) She decided to get rid of gradually the teddy bears she had collected.

This is an example from R. L. Trask. (3b) and (3c) unsplit the infinitive, but make it unclear where gradually is attached; is she gradually getting rid of the bears, gradually deciding to get rid of them, or getting rid of bears collected gradually? And (3d), (3e), and (3f) are just plain awkward, so if someone thinks a split infinitive is poor style, surely they’d think these ones still worse. A reasonable person might avoid split infinitives in other situations, so as not to incur the wrath of idiots, but in cases like this, no one would intentionally ruin their sentence in order to placate the misinformed.

Or so I’d figured. But then Amy McDaniel posted a worksheet from a class taught by David Foster Wallace, who very well may have been a talented writer, but also held some severely backward prescriptivist views, as discussed/destroyed at Language Hat. The worksheet is a list of sentences, each of which Wallace claims contains an error. One of the sentences is:

8. She didn’t seem to ever stop talking.

Now, in light of all this discussion about split infinitives, it’s clear that Wallace’s objection will be to the phrase to ever stop. But how do you fix it? The answer, given by McDaniel in the comments on the post, may surprise you:

the easy, unawkward fix, according to Wallace, is “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking.”

I don’t often use interrobangs, but: WHAT?! I could see “She didn’t ever seem to stop talking.” I could see “She didn’t seem to stop talking, ever.” Heck, I think I might even prefer one of those to the original.  If you’re willing to change the words, you could also use: “She never seemed to stop talking.”; “It seemed she never stopped talking.”; “She seemingly never stopped talking.”  Any of those would be reasonable, unawkward replacements.

But “She didn’t seem ever to stop talking”? Does anyone find to be that a good sentence, or even an “unawkward” one? It sounds awful to me, but then, being from Pittsburgh, I’m not entirely standard in my usage of negative polarity items like ever or anymore. If you like this sentence, please say so.

This is the weird thing with this worksheet: Wallace was a well-renowned writer, as well as a native speaker of English.  How can someone so close to the language be so blind to what does and doesn’t sound like English?  Because his re-phrased sentence most certainly does not.

Please, dear reader, I beg of you. Don’t let fear of what other people will say about your writing cause you to write something obviously awkward. And if you should disregard my plea, at least don’t pull a David Foster Wallace and convince people who respect you to fly in the face of all that sounds right in English.

[Hat tip to bradshaw of the future for pushing me to finish this post.]

Wallace’s other sentence revisions have already been intelligently discussed (attacked) in many other blogs, among them Arnold Zwicky’s discussion of each other and one another, Chris Potts’s succinct dismissal at Language Log, the truly stunning point-by-point gutting of the test delivered at Mackerel Economics, and another equally stunning point-by-point evisceration from Starlingford Chronicles. I highly recommend you check these out.

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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