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“Poisonous—often confused with venomous—means a plant, animal, or substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. Venomous means capable of injecting venom. A rattlesnake is not itself poisonous, because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous, but not venomous.”

This is number six in Laura Hale Brockway’s list of “8 words that may not mean what you think they mean” on PR Daily. And it’s true that poisonous may not mean what you think it means, but this also implies that it may mean exactly what you think it means, and as it turns out, it does.

Though this was the first time I heard this complaint, it turns out to be mildly common. Paul Brians mentions it in his common errors — in fact, Brockway seems to have lifted half of her complaint from his. You can find a number of other online objectors, of course, but it’s uncommon in printed usage guides; of the seven within my reach at the moment, only Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right complains about poisonous.

Conveniently, my edition of Write it Right is Jan Freeman’s excellent centennial edition, which means that each of Bierce’s complaints is accompanied by her research into it. About this issue, she writes:

“As usual, Bierce would like to fence the overlapping words into separate pens. But while venomous does describe rattlesnakes and other animals that poison victims with a bite or sting, poisonous has always been a broader term. Samuel Johnson knew both words, but in his Dictionary (1755) he referred to ‘a poisonous serpent,’ ‘a poisonous insect,’ and ‘a poisonous reptile.'”

It’s not just Johnson, either. The Oxford English Dictionary cites The Indian Queen, a play by Robert Howard and John Dryden (he of “no final prepositions” fame), with “poisonous Vipers” in 1665. Google Books can supply you a vast array of hits for “poisonous snakes” from the 1800s, if you need convincing of the lineage. Here’s my favorite, as it’s very clearly talking about snakes with venomous bites; it’s written by someone studying the venom of the snakes, so this isn’t some casual imprecise usage but the considered usage of a professional; and it’s from 1839, so there’s no arguing that this is some sloppy modern usage.

In short, the two words do not have distinct meanings; rather, one has a subset of the other’s. This is common in English; I’ve previously written about jealousy/envy, verbal/oral, and compose/comprise, all of which display this to some degree.

In the case of venomous and poisonous, this oughtn’t to be surprising, as their stems have this same relationship. A venom is one kind of poison, and similarly, being venomous is one way that an animal can be poisonous. The biggest clue that we aren’t all wrong for using poisonous in place of venomous is that it’s very rare to see the opposite extension. When people talk about “venomous plants”, for instance, they’re usually talking about plants that literally do sting, like stinging nettles or the gympie gympie. If people are just stupid or underinformed, they ought to make their errors symmetrically; here, the supposed error really only goes one way. (I’d expect asymmetric errors if one were much rarer than the other, but venomous isn’t particularly rare.)

So poisonous and venomous overlap in general usage, and I’m having trouble seeing why anyone would expect or even want them to be separated. The only situation where it would potentially be worth having distinct definitions is if you’re regularly dealing with things that contain poisons delivered by different methods. But if that’s the goal, poisonous and venomous don’t supply enough categories. Having poisonous describing anything but venomous is just strange, given that it doesn’t make presumably critical distinctions between the poisoning methods of, say, tree frogs (touch) and pufferfish (ingestion).

Summary: Poisonous and venomous aren’t totally distinct. It’s fine to call a snake poisonous, even if it’s its venom that’s dangerous. But it’s rare (and generally incorrect) to call something with a non-venom poison venomous. This is how it has been for hundreds of years in English. Objections to the subset relationship between poisonous and venomous are pretty rare, and outside of specialized contexts, pretty unfounded.

I’d presumed it’s trivial to show that good grammar can improve your chances of success — not that good grammar is an indication of ability, but merely that having good grammar skills lends an appearance of credibility and competence that may or may not be backed up with actual skills for the task at hand. I strongly suspect, for instance, that a resume written in accordance with the basic rules of English grammar will be more likely to bring its writer an interview, all else being equal. Rather like legacy status in an application to an Ivy League school — except with an at-least-tenuous link to ability — I’ve imagined it serves as a little bonus.*

But having recently seen a few ham-handed attempts at this yield results approximately as convincing as a child’s insistence that their imaginary friend was the one who knocked over the vase, I’m beginning to re-think my presumption.

For instance, I’ve recently found this terrible post and infographic from Grammarly that purports to show that — well, it’s a little hard to say, because they’ve managed to write 500-some words without ever having a clear thesis. The infographic reports the grammatical error rates for three pairs of competing companies, and juxtaposes this with corporate data on the three pairs, presumably to look for correlations between the two.

I believe their claim is that fewer grammar mistakes are made by more successful companies. That’s a pretty weak claim, seeing as it doesn’t even require causation. We’d see this pattern if greater success led to improved grammar, perhaps by having money to hire editors; we’d see it if better grammar increased the company’s performance; we’d see it if the two were caused by an unobserved third variable. That said, the study won’t even find evidence for this tepid claim, and perhaps that is why they carefully fail to make the claim explicit.

The post tells the reader that “major errors undermine the brand’s credibility” and that investors “may judge” them for it, but even these weak statements are watered down by the concluding paragraphs. This restraint from overstating their case is hardly laudable; it’s clear that the reader is intended to look at these numbers and colors, this subtle wrinkled-paper background on the infographic, and draw the conclusion that Grammarly has stopped short of: you need a (i.e., their) grammar checker or you will lose market share!**

[The infographic's conclusion]

The only testable claim in the infographic’s conclusion (“they must demonstrate accurate writing!”) isn’t borne out by the 1500 pixels preceding it.

It might not seem worth bothering with a breakdown of the bad science going on in this infographic. Alas, the results were uncritically echoed in a Forbes blog post, and the conclusions were only strengthened in the re-telling. So let’s look at exactly why this analysis fails to establish anything more than that people will see proof of their position in any inconclusive data.

Let’s start by looking at the data underpinning the experiment. The company took 400 (!) words from the most recent LinkedIn postings (!) of three (!) pairs (!) of competing multinational corporations. We’re not even looking at the equivalent of a single college admission essay from each company, in an age where companies are producing more publicly consumable text than ever before.

Not to mention, I looked at the LinkedIn posts from Coke, one of the companies tested. Nine of their last ten posts were, in their entirety: “The Coca-Cola Company is hiring: [position] in [location]“. The tenth was “Coke Studio makes stars out of singers in India [link]“. How do you assess grammaticality from such data?

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Well, let’s suppose the data is appropriate and see what results we get from it. Remember: the hypothesis is that lower error rates are correlated with higher corporate success (e.g., market share, revenue). Do we see that in the head-to-head comparisons?

  • The first comparison is between Coke and Pepsi. Pepsi has more errors than Coke, and, fitting the hypothesis, Coke has a higher market share! But Pepsi has higher revenues, as the infographic notes (and then dismisses because it doesn’t fit the narrative). So we start with inconclusive data.
  • The second comparison is between Google and Facebook. Google makes fewer errors and has higher corporate success. Let’s take this one at face value: evidence in favor.
  • The third comparison is between Ford and GM. Ford makes fewer errors but is worse on every financial metric than GM. “However, these numbers are close”, the infographic contends. Evidence against.

So we have three comparisons. In one, which company is more successful is ambiguous. The two “decisive” comparisons are split. The data is literally equal in favor and in opposition to the conclusion. It is insulting that anyone could present such an argument and ask someone to believe it. If a student handed this in as an assignment, I would fail them without hesitation.***

What’s richest about this to me is that the central conceit of this study is that potential consumers will judge poor grammar skills as indicative of poor capability as a company. I’ve never found convincing evidence that bad grammar is actually indicative of poor ability outside of writing; the construction crew that put together my house probably don’t know when whom can be used, but my house is a lot more stable than it would be if Lynne Truss and I were the ones cobbling it together. But for all those people out there saying that good grammar is indicative of good logic, this clearly runs counter to that claim. Grammarly’s showing itself incapable of making an reasoned argument or marshalling evidence to support a claim, yet their grammar is fine. How are poor logic skills not a more damning inability than poor grammar skills, especially when “poor grammar” often means mistakenly writing between you and I?

The Kyle Wienses out there will cluck their tongues and think “I would never hire someone with bad grammar”, without even thinking that they’ve unquestioningly swallowed far worse logic. Sure enough, the Forbes post generated exactly the comments you’d expect:

“I figuratively cringe whenever grammar worthy of decayed shower scum invades my reading; it makes you wonder just how careful the company is of other corporate aspects (oh, gee, I don’t know, say, quality as well)”

With comments like that, maybe these people are getting the company that best reflects them: superficial and supercilious, concerned more with window-dressing to appear intelligent than with actually behaving intelligently.


*: I, of course, don’t mean that being obsessive about different than or something is relevant, but rather higher-level things like subject-verb agreement or checking sentence structures.

**: Though Grammarly makes an automated grammar checker, it wasn’t used to assemble this data. Nor was it run on this data, so we don’t know if it would even provide a solution to help out these grammatically deficient brands.

***: I don’t mean to imply that this would be convincing if only the data were better and all three comparisons went the right way. There’s no statistical analysis, not even a whiff of it, and there’s no way you could convince me of any conclusion from this experiment as currently devised. But at least if the comparisons went the right way, I could understand jumping the gun and saying you’ve found evidence. As it is, it’s imagining a gun just to try to jump it.

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.

People pop in fairly regularly to complain about “one of the only”, which I’m just really not that interested in. Usually the complaints are in response to my argument a few years ago that it was perfectly grammatical and interpretable (specifically rebutting Richard Lederer’s silly claim that only is equivalent to one and therefore is inappropriate for referring to multiple items). I haven’t gotten as many only=one complaints lately, but I’ve now received a new objection, presented as part of a comment by Derek Schmidt:

When [only] precedes a noun used in plural, it implies that there are no other similar items that belong to the list. “The only kinds of writing utensils on my desk are pencils and pens and highlighters.” [...] But I have many of those pens, so if someone asked if they could borrow a pen, and I said, “No, that’s one of the only writing utensils on my desk!” that would be a little disingenuous and if someone was standing at my desk and saw the number of writing utensils, they would be baffled and think me a fool. Rightly so. Because they would understand it (logically, even) as meaning “that’s one of the few”, which is very false. So… “one of the only” means about as much as “one of them”.

To buttress his point, he referred me to a grammar column in the Oklahoman, which I never grow tired of noting was once called the “Worst Newspaper in America” by the Columbia Journalism Review. That was 14 years ago now, and I sometimes wonder if it is fair to keep bringing this up. Then I read Gene Owens’s grammar column in it and I wish the CJR had been harsher.*

About one example of “one of the only”, Owens writes:

“Now I can understand if he were the only English speaker or if he were only one of a few English speakers,” Jerry said, “but I don’t know how he could be one of the only English speakers.” That’s easy, Jerry. If he was any English speaker at all, he was one of the only English speakers in the area. In fact, he was one of the only English speakers in the world. [...] The TV commentator probably meant “one of the few English speakers in the area.” But even if the colonel was “one of the many English speakers in the area,” he still was one of the only ones.

It continues on in this vein for a while, and but his point seems to be approximately the same as Schmidt’s, boiling down to the following statements:

  • It is grammatical to say “one of the only”.
  • It is used regularly in place of “one of the few”.
  • Examining it literally, one could say “one of the only” to describe something that there are many of.
  • This would be a strange situation to use it in.
  • Therefore “one of the only” oughtn’t be used in the case where it wouldn’t be strange.

Up till the last sentence, I agree. In fact, I don’t think any of those points are controversial.** But the last sentence is a big leap, and one that we demonstrably don’t make in language. Would it be silly of me to say:

(1) I have three hairs on my head.

Thankfully I’m still young and hirsute enough to have many more than three hairs on my head, and I think we’d all agree it would be a silly statement. But, parsing it literally, it is true: I do have three hairs on my head, though in addition I have another hundred thousand. In case this is such a weird setting that you don’t agree it’s literally true, here’s another example:

(2) Some of the tomatoes I purchased are red.

If I show you the bin of cherry tomatoes I just bought, and they’re all red, am I lying? No, not literally. But I am being pragmatically inappropriate — you expect “some” to mean “some but not all”, just as you expect “three” to generally mean “three and no more”. These are examples of what’s known as a scalar implicature: we expect people to use the most restrictive form available (given their knowledge of the world), even though less restrictive forms may be consistent too.***

To return to Schmidt’s example, it may be truthful but absurd to protest that one of 30 pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”. But just because the truth value is the same when I protest that one of two pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”, this doesn’t mean that the pragmatic appropriateness doesn’t change either. Upon hearing “one of the only”, the listener knows, having never really heard this used to mean “one of many”, that pragmatically it will mean “one of the (relatively) few”.

There is, perhaps, nothing in the semantics to block its other meanings, but no one ever uses it as such, just as no one ever says they have three hairs when they have thousands. This is a strong constraint on the construction, one that people on both sides of the argument can agree on. I guess the difference is whether you view this usage restriction as evidence of people’s implicit linguistic knowledge (as I do) or as evidence of people failing to understand their native language (as Schmidt & Owens do).

Finally, and now I’m really splitting hairs, I’m not convinced that “one of the only” can always be replaced by “one of the few”, as the literalists suggest. If we’re being very literal, at what point do we have to switch off of few? I wouldn’t have a problem with saying “one of the only places where you can buy Cherikee Red“, even if there are hundreds of such stores, because relative to the number of stores that don’t sell it, they’re few. But saying “one of the few” when there’s hundreds? It doesn’t bother me, but I’d think it’d be worse to a literalist than using “one of the only”, whose only problem is that it is too true.

Summary: If a sentence could theoretically be used to describe a situation but is never used to describe such a situation, that doesn’t mean that the sentence is inappropriate or ungrammatical. It means that people have strong pragmatic constraints blocking the usage, exactly the sort of thing that we need to be aware of in a complete understanding of a language.


*: I am being unfair. Owens’s column is at least imaginative, and has an entire town mythos built up over the course of his very short columns. But I never understand what grammatical point he’s trying to make in them, and as far as I can tell, I’d disagree with it if I did. As for the “worst newspaper” claim, this was largely a result of the ownership of the paper by the Gaylord family, who thankfully sold it in 2011, though the CJR notes it’s still not great.

**: Well, it might be pragmatically appropriate to use “one of the few” in cases where the number of objects is large in absolute number but small relative to the total, such as speaking about a subset of rocks on the beach or something.  I’m not finding a clear example of this, but I don’t want to rule it out.

***: Scalar implicatures were first brought to my attention when one of my fellow grad students (now a post-doc at Yale), Kate Davidson, was investigating them in American Sign Language. Here’s an (I hope fairly accessible and interesting) example of her research in ASL scalar implicature.

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About The Blog

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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