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Let me talk about something that I feel like I’ve been circling around for some time, but never quite directly addressed. It’s a common thing in grammar grousers: playing up other people’s questionable usages as symptomatic of a larger disease while playing down one’s own as a clever subversion of stodgy English. Whereas the complainant’s usages are all justified by improving the language or enlivening the prose or just plain sounding right, the scorned writer’s usages are utterly unjustified — not because the complainant has considered possible justifications and found none of them sufficient, but rather because it is simply self-evident that an error is an error.*

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizbeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey. I find both of those to be worse than the targets of her ire — especially rapey, the jokey tone of which I find borderline offensive. Crucially, though, even as I reject her words, I can see why she likes them; it’s just that for me, their benefits don’t outweigh their downsides. Williams, on the other hand, seems to ignore any potential upsides to the usages she dislikes. When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

Similarly, I got into a short Twitter war with a follower who tweeted that she wanted to send copies of education majors’ grammatical errors to future employers. I pointed out that the follower (whose Twitter name is “Grammar Nazi”, about which the less said the better) had questionable usages in her bio:

“A soon to graduate English major whose biggest turn on is good grammar.”

In my grammar, there’re three missing hyphens, but she responded to me noting this with “I’m sure you’re aware compounding is a grey area. Rules may be generally agreed upon, but no official guidelines exist.” Such “generally agreed-upon” rules were probably settled enough for the tweeter to treat as errors had others broken them, but because she’s doing it, it’s okay. Her choice to go against the standards is justified, because she sees the justification. The education majors’, with their justifications left implicit, probably wouldn’t be.**

This forgiveness extends, of course, to include other people whose viewpoint the writer is sympathetic to. Kyle Wiens, who wrote that Harvard Business Review piece on his intolerance for grammar errors in his hiring practices, had a couple of questionable usages in the piece — nothing too bad, but things that would violate a true Zero Tolerance stance. Another blogger quoted some of the piece and added:

“Ignoring the one or two grammatical glitches within the quoted text (they may be the result of a message that was delivered orally, rather than in written form), the message [...] should be taken to heart. If you write poorly, you tell your reader: I haven’t changed. My education hasn’t made me better, it hasn’t touched my core. [...] I’m certainly not looking to have excellence be part of my personal brand – it’s too hard and too time consuming.”

The blogger seeks out an explanation for Wiens’s errors that diminishes the errors, but then chooses an explanation for everyone else’s that diminishes the writers.

We all do this to some extent. The most prominent example for me is when I come home from work and find a pile of dishes in the sink from my roommates. “C’mon guys, you can’t be bothered to do the dishes?” I wonder to myself and to anyone I talk to over the next few days. Yet I’ve just realized that I forgot to finish the dishes this morning before going to campus. Somehow I can’t muster the same indignation at myself as I have toward my roommates, because I had an excuse. (And I’ll tell you it as soon as I figure it out.)

Sure, it’s fair to give known-good writers more leeway than known-bad ones. But every error has a cause, and every usage a rationale. Don’t decide ahead of time that someone can’t be wrong or can’t be right.

*: This isn’t unique to grammar by any means; half of politics is explaining away your side’s missteps while playing up the other side’s.

*: By the way, you may wonder if I’m not doing exactly what I oppose here by complaining about a minor error that some people do not see as an error. On that, two points. One, hyphenating phrases that are used as adjectives (especially more-than-two-word phrases) is about as standard a rule of punctuation as one can find. Similarly with hyphenating a phrasal verb in its nominal form. Two, not that she needs to justify herself to me, but she doesn’t explain any reason why she’s breaking the rule, so as far as I can tell, she’s breaking the rule just to break it — hardly appropriate behavior for an otherwise hard-liner.

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.

First off, if you haven’t already heard, the AP Stylebook finally dropped its objection to sentential hopefully (i.e., the “it is hoped” meaning), thanks in no small part to John McIntyre’s agitation. Another shibboleth bites the dust, hooray.

If you’re harboring any doubt about the wisdom of this move, cast it to sea. Living with sentential hopefully isn’t giving into modern ignorance; it’s giving in to traditional usage. Emily Brewster points out this 1999 article from Fred Shapiro in American Speech. Smack on its first page, we’re given a quote from Cotton Mather in 1702:

“Chronical Diseases, which evidently threaten his Life, might hopefully be relieved by his removal.”

In previous work, Shapiro traced it back to 1851, and here’s an example I found in Google Books from 1813. So it’s not some new and insidious usage, though this is often claimed.

And it’s not like sentential adverbs are inherently bad, either; witness well-regarded members of our lexicon such as frankly, happily, thankfully, or luckily, each of which can be used at the start of a sentence with nary an eyelash batting. The truth is that accepting sentential hopefully is not giving in to a tide of misusage but rectifying an objection that should never have been raised.

Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t see it that way. In a piece at Salon, she views the AP’s leniency on hopefully as capitulation. She thinks the AP’s giving in to the uneducated masses instead of remaining the guiding and educating light it ought to be. It’s another sign that no one knows about language anymore, and no one cares about it, not even its presumed defenders. She closes with this regret:

“Language keeps evolving, and that’s fine and natural. Yet as it does, I’ll still gaze hopefully toward a world in which we battle over our words and our rules because we know them so well, and love them so much.”

Hey, you and me both. But here’s the thing: it’s not just everyone else who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Williams needs some work to get into her own dream world as well. While she lectures us who see nothing wrong with sentential hopefully about how we ought to have a better language arts education, she explains her disgust with it by exasperatedly pointing out:

“‘Hopefully’ is an adverb. An adverb, I tells ya [...]“

Ok, cool, but I’m with the red-headed guy here:

She’s really stressing the hopefully-is-an-adverb point, which is fine, but no one’s saying it’s not. The sentential usage is an adverbial usage. If you think that people think that hopefully can be used in a non-adverbial context, then you’re not in a position to be disparaging anyone’s knowledge of English.

So it’s strange that Williams is complaining about people who don’t know enough about English causing the acceptance of sentential hopefully, since the people opposing sentential hopefully apparently don’t know English either. A person who really knew about the history of usage in English would know that sentential hopefully is a member of a large and grammatical class of sentential adverbs, that it’s been around for centuries, that, in short, there’s nothing wrong with it. It engenders some distaste from the uninformed and it’s perhaps a bit informal, but there’s no reason why it should be so despised. Many of the people who condemn the rabble for not knowing the rules or history of English don’t know them themselves.

Let me cast the mote out of my own eye first: I don’t either. I was gobsmacked by the Brewster/Shapiro/Mather finding; in an earlier post talking about sentential hopefully, I only had it going back to 1932. There is a lot that any one person won’t know about a language. But one key difference between people who claim to care about how language works and those who actually do is that the latter category will investigate a usage before accusing it of being bad grammar.

So yes, it’s a shame that so many people don’t care about language. But the problem isn’t that alone; it’s also that too many who do care about language care about it wrong. They’re not interested in the actual data; they’re interested in what they decided the language ought to be. They argue their points in a world apart from actual usage, based on the logic that they presume underlies language. When they do cite usage, it’s with a heavy confirmation bias. And their complaints are run through with this strange — and to me, infuriating — willingness to grant themselves pardons from their otherwise zero-tolerance policy. Williams groans at people who use nauseous for “nauseated” (standard since the 19th century, BTW) or who write gonna, but then gladly admits that she uses stabby and rapey*.

This isn’t caring about language; it’s caring about feeling superior.

*: Which, by the way, seriously?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” [...] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad [...]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[...] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ [...]“

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.

*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

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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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