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I’ve mentioned my fondness for compiling historical grammatical errors as a reminder that we are not, point of fact, destroying what used to be a perfect language. Previously, I’d found unnecessary quotation marks in a 1960 World Series celebration, it’s for its in a 1984 John Mellencamp video, and an apostrophe incorrectly marking a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon. But these were all punctuation-based errors. Today’s is a proper grammatical error, and one that people full-throatedly bemoan nowadays.
I found this error by admitting to myself that I am secretly an old man, and coming to terms with it by spending much of the summer sitting in parks, reading books on naval history and international relations. One of them, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who discovered Antarctica and created the country’s first accurate naval charts for the Pacific islands. It’s a good book, but then it turned great by having two interesting old quotes four pages apart.
In the first, the Expedition is approaching Fiji and takes on another pilot due to the many coral reefs in the area:
“Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. ‘You will find when we get to the Islands,’ Wilkes assured Granby, ‘that I know as much about them as you do.’ Granby smiled. ‘You may know all about them on paper,’ he replied, ‘but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.’”
Myself here is clearly non-standard, as no first-person pronoun has appeared anywhere in the sentence. The standard rule for reflexives, known as Principle A in Government and Binding theory, and discussed in pretty much every introductory syntax class, is that a reflexive must be bound in its governing category. Or, to say it in a more theory-agnostic and somewhat looser way, the coreferent of the reflexive (I/me for myself) has to appear within the smallest clause that contains the reflexive, and structurally “above” the reflexive. The syntactic specifics they depend on which syntactic theory you’re adhering to, but luckily they don’t really matter here; there’s no possible coreferent anywhere within the sentence, so any standard definition of Principle A will label the sentence ungrammatical.
Turning from this syntactic jungle to the Fijian jungle, a few pages later the Expedition lands on an island and hikes to its peak:
“Almost two years at sea had left them ill-prepared for such a demanding hike. ‘I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,’ Wilkes wrote, ‘in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.’”
Again, it’s obvious that this is a non-standard usage, since no first-person plural noun phrase appears in the sentence to justify the reflexive.
Now, I’ve been marking these as non-standard rather than incorrect, and there’s a reason for this that is more than a desire to be non-judgmental. These supposedly erroneous uses of reflexives are widespread — so much so that I’d argue they’re at least borderline acceptable in many people’s forms of Informal Spoken English. That means that they ought to be explainable, that there ought to be some option in the rules of English that allow you to consider these uses acceptable without having to change much else in the language. I’m going to speculate for the rest of this post, so feel free to bail out here.
Here’s my idea, which I don’t think is novel.* Reflexives are allowed only when, in some sense, there’s a sufficiently salient coreferent for the reflexive. Salience is standardly assessed syntactically, meaning that a coreferent appears structurally above the reflexive, and close enough to remain salient when the reflexive appears. But there is pragmatic salience as well, for people and things who haven’t been explicitly mentioned but remain prominent in the discourse all the same. And what is more pragmatically salient than the speaker? In both of these cases, it seems that the speaker is thinking of themselves as sufficiently salient to trigger the reflexive.
My intuition is that there are more instances of inappropriate reflexives for first person (myself, ourselves) than second person (yourself), and more of either than for third person (himself, herself, itself, themselves). I did a quick corpus search on COCA for sentence-initial As for *self, and the intuition wasn’t fully borne out; as for myself was the most common, but combined as for him/herself showed up almost as often (64 to 60), and as for yourself only registered one instance. So maybe I’m totally off-base on the specifics.** But something is going on that allows so many people to view reflexives as standard in positions that we don’t expect to see them, and like this or not, that needs explained.
*: If you know of any references to discussions about this issue, please share. I’m not primarily a syntactician, and didn’t see anything in a cursory search of the literature, but I really doubt this discussion hasn’t been had before.
**: I think the as for *self construction may be a special case. Most of the third-person uses look to be about how some third party views themself, and while one can state one’s own introspections and speculate about a third party’s, it’s a little bit weird to tell someone their own introspections. That could artificially deflate the second-person counts.
I think the best explanation of this construction may be as an indicator that we are switching mental spaces, if you’re familiar with that theory. Saying as for Xself establishes a new mental space focused on X and their inner workings or opinions, rather than the more generic mental space of the rest of the conversation. Sorry, I’m really going down a rabbit hole here.
You know I hate it when people mock English-as-a-second-language speakers for their grammatical missteps. If your sense of humor is so unrefined as to find ESL speakers’ errors jestworthy, I think you’re a boor. Internet society doesn’t think the same, but then again, Internet society also thinks it’s acceptable to shout “FIRST!” in a comment thread and that being racist when you know better is somehow subversive.
So I hope you won’t think me hypocritical for mocking someone whose knowledge of English is clearly lacking. There’s a key difference, though, in that English is this person’s native language. On an old post talking about one of the only, I recently got this comment:
“‘One of the only’ is poor grammar because ‘one of’ implies plural and ‘the only’ implies one. ‘One of the one’ doesn’t do much for logic.”
If you have gone a sizable portion of your life speaking and hearing English (which I assume one has to have to be bloviating on what’s poor grammar) and you think that only implies one, then you do not know English. And yet, this is a common misconception:
“How can something be ‘one of the only’ when ‘only’ means ‘one?’”
“‘One of the only’ – could this be correct usage? ‘Only’ means ‘alone, solely.’”
“Only refers to one or sole and has no meaning.”
Guys, I don’t know where you think you’ve gotten the authority to lecture people on English, but if you can’t understand the meaning of only, you do not have that authority.* Sure, in some situations, only refers to a single item, as in:
(1a) This is my only stick of gum. Do not eat it.
But only really means “this and no more”, where “this” can be singular or plural or mass. I could just as readily say:
(1b) These are my only sticks of gum. Do not eat them.
You absolutely cannot be fluent in English and not have been exposed to perfectly acceptable usages of plural only. Google Books N-grams shows that over the past 200 years of published works, one in every 100,000 pairs of words is only two. Including only 3/4/5 gets us up to 1 in 50,000. Given that a person hears around that many words each day, and that there are many other uses of plural only, it’s a conservative estimate to say that a fluent English speaker is exposed to plural only at least once a day.
Non-singular only isn’t questionable, it isn’t obscure, it isn’t rare, it isn’t debatable. Only does not mean or imply or refer to “one” in general. If you think it does, you are not sufficiently informed to correct anyone’s usage.
*: Which is weird, because even some authors who are well-regarded by the literary set (though not by linguists) claim this. Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis’s book “Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay” contains an absurd assertion that one of the only both is oxymoronic and new. Neither is true, not even a little, and yet Lederer is the author of a newspaper column as well as tens of books on English.
Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)
I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.
In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:
(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.
(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.
(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.
(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?
Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.
But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.
The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.
Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**
Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.
*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.
**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.
I first encountered the Grammar Sins Tumblr when they started following me on Twitter. From the name, you probably know what to expect: a catalogue of venial sins being treated as though they were mortal. Someone misspelled something; this means English is dying. Someone used a comma splice; that distant humming you hear is Charles Dickens spinning in his grave.
Whereas normally looking at this would set me down a road you’ve no doubt grown as sick of as I have, talking about the silliness of the obsession with minor errors and the look-at-me nature of correcting these everyday missteps, today I’m going to calm down and focus before I rant.
So let’s talk specifically about the presence of non-native English speakers and their mistakes in these peeveblogs. It was this recent post that galled me, describing the misspelling of veggie as vegi as “unforgivable”.
Now, that’s cheap hyperbole any way you slice it — frankly, I’m not sure of many offenses that are more forgivable than a comprehensible misspelling on a corner-store sign. But the thing that really ground on me was that the next post revealed that the sign was up in a bodega, which, assuming the author is as careful with words as she expects others to be, suggests that the signmaker’s native language is not English.
Is this what we have become as a society? Are there no more pressing concerns in this world than whether non-native speakers make minor spelling mistakes? This isn’t some one-off whine, either; it’s something of a trend both at Grammar Sins (see here, here, here) and for peevebloggers in general (here, here). Unforgivable is making fun of mistakes in a second language, not making the mistakes.
Isn’t this the sort of thing that Americans have traditionally accused our mortal enemies — the French — of doing? In my youth, it was a standard belief that the French were real jerks, because if you went there and spoke in broken French, instead of switching to English, they’d supposedly just complain that you weren’t speaking French right and turn up their noses. This was viewed as incredibly rude; unfairly, of course, because it’s even ruder to assume that people in another country ought to speak your language.
Nevertheless, we Americans got quite self-righteous about the supposed language snobbishness that this represented. Now, it seems our self-righteousness has been supplanted by the very judgmentalism that we once condemned. And it’s surprisingly cross-class. It’s difficult not to sense a connection between the impulses that drive these blogs begrudging the second-language greengrocers their apostrophes and those that drive English Only legislation.
I’m just touchy about this kind of thing because I know how strong a barrier language can be. Learning a second language is really damn hard, and it’s a bit rich to mock people for their imperfect acquisition, especially in a society that’s so monolithically monolingual as ours. I’m even touchier about this because I have school friends who are far smarter than me, but lack my casual intimacy with English and thus seem dumber, and are frankly screwed if they want to get a good job here. And I’m touchiest about this because I have a lot of first- or second-generation immigrant friends whose older family members are borderline shut-ins because their limited English skills make it nearly impossible to participate in American society.* So I get pretty hot when people’s analysis of this problem amounts to “Ha ha! They spelled something wrong! *facepalm/derpface*”
Just in case it’s not obvious, I don’t mean that spelling and grammatical errors should be given carte blanche. Stores should try to get proofreaders for any signs that are going to be up awhile, and I would be happy to correct any store’s signage for a small fee (hint). But being a prig about it and making fun of people behind their backs is childish. This is a social sin far outstripping that of even egregious language errors — especially when the error is in a second language.
*: Combining those last two into a single anecdote, my friend’s mom was an electrical engineer in China, and is a waitress in a Chinese restaurant here.