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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 meaning to set up some sort of occasional round-up of interesting pieces on the rest of the Internet, and with the new year, there’s no better time to start.  I’ll be posting these (hopefully consistently) every other Friday, starting today. This edition is going to go a bit outside the past 14 days; I hope this doesn’t sour you to it.

A couple links with commentary:

* Jonathon Owen’s post on relative pronouns and the silly proscriptions they engender is really darn good, and having been posted on Christmas Eve, it would have made a great present, if only I’d seen it then.  This part I’m quoting isn’t even my favorite part, that’s how good it is:

If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes.

* This isn’t exactly language-related, but here’s a post from Christopher Simmons on the University of California’s scrapped new logo & brand identity. The core point of the article is the debate about to what extent knowledge of the underlying purpose or process is necessary in order to fairly critique the outcome. In the case of the logo, was it fair to hate it without knowing exactly how it was used, how the designers presented it, and what the University asked the designers for?

I see a parallel here with language; we often wonder when it’s fair to critique someone’s usage, and to what extent one must know their background or dialect. I disagree with many of Simmons’s points; logo design is more about the impression it makes than the intent behind it, so it seems to me that a reaction like “I don’t like it” must be taken into account — just as I must occasionally swallow my pride and write “needs to be done” instead of “needs done” in formal writing, even though I can fully justify the usage. But I like his thoughts on valid and invalid, helpful and unhelpful, and justified and unjustified complaints. (Full disclosure: I thought that the new logo & identity were a poor choice, especially compared to the semi-traditional identity that they were intended to replace.)

* Also a bit afield from the usual here, but John McIntyre wrote yesterday that (journalistic) editors are supposed to provide skepticism at least as much as they provide story improvements. I was a little embarrassed, having finished the piece, that I’d never thought of such seemingly obvious points — the true sign of a good and well-needed discussion. We too readily bemoan the loss of editing in contemporary publishing when we see errors that don’t matter (like a headline I’ve seen for three straight days on a website, confusing “effect” for “affect”), but we miss out on the really crucial losses — the fact-checking and oversight of the information we receive.

A couple without:

* Johnson (Lane Greene) on singular they (and a follow-up on singular/plural you.

* Geoff Nunberg on big data misinterpreted as a plural.

* Be a online DARE beta tester! (via Mr. Verb)

* Ben Zimmer recounts the ADS word-of-the-year voting.

A picture to close it out:

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother's Christmas gathering.

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother’s Christmas gathering.

It’s National Grammar Day, so as usual, I’m taking the opportunity to look back on some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here over the last year. But before I get to that, let’s talk briefly about language change.

Language changes. There’s no question about that — just look at anything Chaucer wrote and it’s clear we’re no longer speaking his language. These aren’t limited to changes at the periphery, but at the very core of the language. Case markings that were once crucial have been lost, leaving us with subject/object distinctions only for pronouns (and even then, not all of them). Negation, tense marking, verbal moods, all these have changed, and they continue to do so now.

Some people take the stance that language change is in and of itself bad, that it represents a decline in the language. That’s just silly; surely Modern English is no worse than Old English in any general sense.

Others take a very similar, though much more reasonable, stance: that language change is bad because consistency is good. We want people to be able to understand us in the future. (I’m thinking here of the introductory Shakespeare editions I read in high school, where outdated words and phrases were translated in footnotes.)

So yes, consistency is good — but isn’t language change good, too? We weed out words that we no longer need (like trierarch, the commander of a trireme). We introduce new words that are necessary in the modern world (like byte or algorithm). We adapt words to new uses (like driving a car from driving animals). This doesn’t mean that Modern English is inherently better than Old English, but I think it’s hard to argue Modern English isn’t the better choice for the modern world.

Many writers on language assume that the users of a language are brutes who are always trying to screw up the language, but the truth is we’re not. Language users are trying to make the best language they can, according to their needs and usage. When language change happens, there’s a reason behind it, even if it’s only something seemingly silly like enlivening the language with new slang. So the big question is: is the motivation for consistency more or less valid than the motivation for the change?

I think we should err on the side of the change. Long-term consistency is nice, but it’s not of primary importance. Outside of fiction and historical accounts, we generally don’t need to be able to extract the subtle nuances from old writing. Hard though it may be to admit it, there is very little that the future is going to need to learn from us directly; we’re not losing too much if they find it a little harder to understand us.

Language change, though, can move us to a superior language. We see shortcomings in our native languages every time we think “I wish there was a way to say…” A language is probably improved by making it easier to say the things that people have to or want to say. And if a language change takes off, presumably it takes off because people find it to be beneficial. When a language change appears, there’s presumably a reason for it; when it’s widely adopted, there’s presumably a compelling reason for it.

The benefits of consistency are fairly clear, but the exact benefit or motivation for a change is more obscure. That’s why I tend to give language change the benefit of the doubt.

Enough of my philosophizing. Here’s the yearly clearinghouse of 10 busted grammar myths. (The statements below are the reality, not the myth.)

Each other and one another are basically the same. You can forget any rule about using each other with two people and one another with more than two. English has never consistently imposed this restriction.

There is nothing wrong with I’m good. Since I was knee-high to a bug’s eye, I’ve had people tell me that one must never say “I’m good” when asked how one is doing. Well, here’s an argument why that’s nothing but hokum.

The S-Series: Anyway(s), Backward(s), Toward(s), Beside(s). A four-part series on words that appear both with and without a final s. Which ones are standard, and where?

Amount of is just fine with count nouns. Amount of with a count noun (e.g., amount of people) is at worst a bit informal. The combination is useful for suggesting that the pluralized count noun is best thought of as a mass or aggregation.

Verbal can mean oral. In common usage, people tend to use verbal to describe spoken language, which sticklers insist is more properly described as oral. But outside of certain limited contexts where light ambiguity is intolerable, verbal is just fine.

Twitter’s hashtags aren’t destroying English. I’ve never been entirely clear why, but many people insist that whatever the newest form of communication is, it’s going to destroy the language. Whether it’s the telegraph, the telegram, text messages, or Twitter, the next big thing is claimed to be the nail in English’s coffin. And yet, English survives.

Changing language is nothing at all like changing math. Sometimes people complain that allowing language to change due to common usage would be like letting triangles have more than 180 degrees if enough people thought they did. This is bosh, and here’s why.

And a few myths debunked by others:

Whom is moribund and that’s okay. (from Mike Pope) On rare occasions, I run across someone trying very hard to keep whom in the language, usually by berating people who haven’t used it. But the truth is that it’s going to leave the language, and there’s no reason to worry. Mike Pope explains why.

Uh, um, and other disfluencies aren’t all bad. (from Michael Erard, at Slate) One of the most interesting psycholinguistic papers I read early in grad school was one on the idea that disfluencies were informative to the listener, by warning them of a complicated or unexpected continuation. Michael Erard discusses some recent research in this vein that suggests we ought not to purge the ums from our speech.

Descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t directly opposed. (from Arrant Pedantry) At times, people suggest that educated linguists are hypocritical for holding a descriptivist stance on language while simultaneously knowing that some ways of saying things are better (e.g., clearer, more attractive) than others. Jonathon Owen shines some light on this by representing the two forces as orthogonal continua — much more light than I’ve shone on it with this summary.

Some redundant stuff isn’t really redundant. (from Arnold Zwicky, at Language Log) I’m cheating, because this is actually a post from more than five years ago, but I found it within the last year. (This is an eleventh myth anyway, so I’m bending rules left and right.) Looking at pilotless drones, Arnold Zwicky explains how an appositive reading of adjectives explains away some seeming redundancies. If pilotless drones comes from the non-restrictive relative clause “drones, which are pilotless”, then there’s no redundancy. A bit technical, but well worth it.

Want to see somewhere between 10 and 30 more debunked myths? Check out some or all of the last three years of NGD posts: 2011, 2010, and 2009.

Today I’m unveiling a little side project I’ve been doing off and on for the past few months, one that I previewed a bit in last week’s All of what sudden? post. It’s called SeeTweet, and it generates maps with the locations of the most recent tweets containing a search term. So if, for instance, you want to assess the geographical extent of a dialectal variant, you can. Let’s say you’ve been hearing about the needs done construction, as in

(1) Maybe the majority’s attitude needs adjusted

and now you want to know where people say something so silly. Well, SeeTweet can tell you:

Needs fixed map

Mapping "needs fixed" with SeeTweet

As you can see, it’s pretty well localized to a stretch from Iowa to central Pennsylvania, a region similar to the (North?) Midland dialect region.* Of course, this particular case doesn’t need SeeTweet. Murray, Frazer, and Simon wrote a series of papers detailing the geographic range of this and related usages (e.g., wants done) in the late 90s, and the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project has also mapped known usages of needs done. But whereas this previous work has required a lot of time and effort, SeeTweet provides a quick and easy approximation, a starting point for more advanced investigations.

It’s no replacement for the YGDP or the Dictionary of American Regional English, of course; it’s much noisier data than either of these projects. It can offer a different kind of view, though, one that can be assembled to track more ephemeral usages (e.g., event-related usages like “Carmaggedon” or “Jerry Meals“) in real-time, as well as assembling a lot of data on persistent usages (e.g., pop and soda).

So I’m hoping that you’ll be able to go out and use SeeTweet to look into the geographical distribution of something interesting, whether for academic purposes or just to waste time at the end of the week. I’ve put together some sample investigations in a SeeTweet gallery, and I’d love to see what sort of great uses you’ll put it to. If you find something neat, leave a comment here or in the gallery, or send an email to seetweetmaps@gmail.com.

[A couple of friends offered great advice/testing on earlier versions of SeeTweet and must be acknowledged for it. Thanks to Dan (who came up with the name SeeTweet), Rodolfo, Maria, Casey, Ari, Rebecca, Noah, Anoush, and Chris.]


*: There are a couple of dots out West, but I’m betting that those are from immigrants like me who were raised in the Midland region and ended up out West.

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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, 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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