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You may have noticed that I’ve been being quite bad about updating the blog the last couple months. I’m sorry for my negligence, and I’m hoping summer will leave me with a bit more time to keep up the blog. But the reason I’ve been remiss is that it’s time to really batten down the dissertation hatches, and boy, that doesn’t leave the time or energy for much else.

Tomorrow morning, the battening of said hatches pays off a little bit, because I’ll be presenting a portion of my dissertation research at the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (NAACL)’s conference. I don’t imagine too many of you are attending the conference, but if you are, I’ll be presenting in Session C tomorrow (i.e., Monday) morning at 11:55, so swing on by.

If you’re not down here in balmy Atlanta, you can always read the paper in the comfort of wherever you are. It looks at how an infant learning a language can combine syllable identities and stress patterns to segment words within the language they’re learning. I’ll warn you, it’s a lot less accessible than the stuff I write here, but it’s the actual computational psycholinguistic research that I earn my keep with, so I hope you’ll give it a look if you’re interested in such things.

If someone were to lend me a time machine and ask me to go back and figure out exactly what first set me down my road to dedicated descriptivism, I would first ask them if perhaps there wasn’t a better use for this marvelous contraption. But if they persisted, the coordinates I’d start with would be my elementary school days. I suspect it was some time around then that I first asked for permission to do something and was met with one of the archetypal prescriptions.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”, I surely must have asked, and just as surely a teacher must have answered, “I don’t know, can you?”

The irritation that I felt at this correction was so severe that even though I can’t remember when this happened, nor who did it to me, I still can call to mind the way it made me seethe. It was clear to me that the pedant was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to explain it. So, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to settle a two-decade-old grudge, let’s look at whether it makes sense to correct this. I say that the answer is no — or at the very least, that one oughtn’t to correct it so snootily.

Let’s examine the “error” that the authority figure is correcting.  Can, we are told, addresses the ability to do something, whereas may addresses permission.  Mom said I can count to ten means that dear ol’ Mum believes in my ability to count to ten, although she may not want me to do so; Mom said I may count to ten means that Mum is allowing me to do so, although she need not believe that I am able to.*

At any given time, there are a lot of things that one is capable of doing (can do) and a lot of things that one is permitted to do (may do), and a few things that fall into both categories.  The prescriptivist idea is that there is a fairly clear distinction between the two categories, though, and so it is important to distinguish them.

Except, well, it’s not so important after all; can and may were tightly intertwined in early English, and were never fully separated.  The OED lists an obsolete usage [II.4a] of may as meaning “be able; can”.  This is first attested in Old English, and continues through to at least 1645.  Furthermore, may meaning “expressing objective possibility” [II.5] is attested from Old English to the present day (although it is noted as being rare now).  Examples of these are given in (1) and (2).  So we see that may does not always address the issue of permission, that may has encroached upon can‘s territory at times in the past and continues to do so to this day.

(1) No man may separate me from thee. [1582]
(2) Youth clubs may be found in all districts of the city. [1940]

As for can, there’s no historical evidence I found of it referring to permission in the distant past.  Back then, may was apparently the dominant one, stealing usages from can.  The OED gives a first citation for can meaning “to be allowed to” in 1879, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and does call the usage colloquial, at least on the British side of the pond.  But still, we’ve got it attested 130 years ago by a former Poet Laureate of the UK.  That’s a pretty good lineage for the permission usage.

Furthermore, I think (at least in contemporary American English) that the may I usage is old-fashioned to the point of sounding stilted or even affected outside of highly formal contexts. Just to back up my intuition, here’s the Google Books N-grams chart comparing May I go and Can I go:


You can see there’s a changeover in the mid-1960s, when the usage levels of May I finish plunging and Can I starts rocketing away. As you well know, this sort of fairly sudden change in relative frequency tends to generate a backlash against the newly-prominent form as a sign of linguistic apocalypse, so there’s no real surprise that people would loudly oppose permissive Can I. As always, the loud opposition to it is one of the surest signs that it’s passed a point of no return. By my youth, Can I was ensconced as the question of choice, and nowadays, I doubt many of our kids are getting being corrected on it — though it remains prominent enough in our zeitgeist to function as a set-up for a range of uninspired jokes.

So historically, what can we say of can and may and permission and ability? We’ve seen something of a historical switch. In the distant past, may could indicate either permission or ability, while can was restricted to ability. Over time, may‘s domain has receded, and can‘s has expanded. In modern usage, can has taken on permission senses as well as its existing ability senses. May, on the other hand, has become largely restricted to the permission sense, although there are some “possibility”-type usages that still touch on ability, especially when speaking of the future:

(3) We may see you at Breckenridge then.

The can expansion is a bit recent in historical terms, but that still means it’s been acceptable for over a hundred years — judging by the Tennyson citation — and commonplace for the last fifty or so. The recency explains the lingering resentment at permissive can, but it doesn’t justify it. Permissive can is here to stay, and there’s no reason to oppose it.**

*: Not to telegraph my argument, but even here I find Mom said I can count to sound more like a statement of permission than ability.

**: I have some thoughts on whether it’s really even possible to draw a clear line between permission and ability — in essence addressing the question of whether the smearing together of can and may is an accident or inevitability. I’ll try to put them together at some point & link to them, but given my history of failing to follow through with follow-up posts, I’m not going to leave it as only a possibility, not a promise.

We’re all Rolling Stones fans here, right? I mean, we’re all here on a grammar blog, so I don’t think I’m jumping to too wild a conclusion to assume that we’re almost all oldsters, whether in actual age or personality. So let’s talk about the classic “Get Off of My Cloud”:

As it turns out, the Stones weren’t terribly fond of this song; they felt it was a rushed follow-up to the runaway success of “Satisfaction”. But some grammar peevers dislike it for an unrelated reason:

“‘Off of’ is no way to talk. It IS really, really bad English.”

Hatred of off of is widespread. It pops up commonly in peeve lists. Some professional grammar commentators share this complaint: the quote above is from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia*, and Grammar Girl tersely dismisses it with “You jump off the pier, not off OF the pier”.

So what’s supposedly wrong with off of? The main problem seems to be that the of is unnecessary, but another common one is that since it’s on and not on of, it must be off and not off of. I also see complaints that it’s dialectal or informal or American, that one can’t put two prepositions next to each other, or that it ought to be from. And worse, given all of these problems, the phrase is supposedly spreading.

Let’s take these in reverse order. First, I’m unconvinced that it’s spreading, unless you’re talking about a very recent (last 20 years) spread. Here’re the Google Books counts, and you’ll note that modern off of usage is still below its peak in 1910. The Corpus of Historical American English has a slightly different picture, with more-or-less stable usage from 1900 to the 1980s, and then a jolt up in the 90s and 2000s. Maybe it’s spreading, maybe not. But let’s talk about why it’s not bad either way.

I’ll start with the easiest objections. No, it shouldn’t just be from. Consider:

(1a) The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed off of Route 395.
(1b) *The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed from Route 395.

And yes, you can put two prepositions next to each other, as in this unobjectionable example:

(2) I pulled a coat out of the closet.

Going on to a somewhat more complex objection, antonymic phrases do not have to share structures or prepositions. The fact that you get on and not on of a train doesn’t mean that you have to get off and not off of it. Consider:

(3a) I put the sandwiches into the picnic basket, but someone has pulled them out of it.
(3b) One velociraptor was in front of Muldoon, the other next to him.

And now on to the involved discussions. One question is whether off is always sufficient, and off of thus always unnecessarily wordy. And the answer, I think, depends on that of a second question: whether off of is dialectal.

In my idiolect, off of is perfectly standard. I was probably in my twenties before I heard someone object to it. That’s not to say I can’t use off without of. To the contrary, I prefer (4) without of, though both forms are acceptable to me:

(4) The leaves fell off the tree.

That said, of is not always superfluous to me. A few examples where I find removing of to make the sentence noticeably worse:

(5a) It’s a way of profiting off of something you expect to drop in value.
(5b) My new invention will knock the socks off of the scientific community.
(5c) I broke your statue by knocking the top off of it.

You may not agree, even if you come from an off of idiolect, that these forms are better, but that’s not important. The key point is only that sometimes, to some people, off of is distinctly more mellifluous than off. Dismissing off of out of hand as superfluous is valid only in dialects that already don’t allow it.

Let me elaborate this “necessity depends on dialect” point by proposing an insane argument. I’ve mentioned before that, being from Pittsburgh, I am perfectly content to say The car needs washed instead of The car needs to be washed. Within my dialect, to be is often superfluous, and there are some sentences that I find greatly improved by omitting it. Thus, I could see arguing that to be is, at least sometimes, unnecessary. But if I argued this to someone speaking a “standard” dialect of English, I would sound crazy. Saying that of in off of is across-the-board unnecessary sounds equally crazy to me.**

So is off of dialectal and/or informal? The answer would seem to be yes to both. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional” in current use. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says it’s “primarily a form used in speech”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it’s avoided at “Planned and Oratorical levels and in Semiformal and Formal writing.”

Those sources are generally pretty trustworthy with their opinions, and given the amount of people who find off of unacceptable, I’m inclined to believe that it really is dialectal. When that’s coupled with its primarily spoken usage patterns, it’s no surprise that it would feel informal, especially to people from other dialects. And using the Corpus of Contemporary American English as a measuring stick of informality, off of occurs in speech twice as often as in written fiction, about four times as often as in newspapers/magazines, and almost ten times as often as in academic writing. The more formal the style, the less likely you’ll see off of.

All that said, its informality doesn’t mean it’s an illiteracy. Off of used to be standard in English; the MWDEU starts off with a Shakespearean usage [1592] and continues with Pepys [1668] and Bunyan [1678]. In the last century, they show it used by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Harry Truman, among others. So if it is making a comeback, it’s no harbinger of linguistic doom, just a return to form.

Summary: There is nothing linguistically or grammatically wrong with 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.

*: This is a surprising stance, because it comes from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia, who’s normally a lot less judgmental about such things. In fact, three years later, she softened her stance, although she remains against off of. I included her original opinion because her reconsideration shows that even hard-line opinions can (and should) be altered in the face of evidence, so long as the commentator is reasonable.

**: In fact, I and others within my dialect seem to have strong intuitions about times when the to be can and can’t be felicitiously dropped, in the same way as I see off of. It’s not a matter of necessity but of felicity.

I’ve been noticing a lot of aspersions being cast against against the comma splice recently. A quick sampling:

The dreaded comma splice rears its ugly head again.”

Splices are the worst, namely because there are probably over a hundred other ways to combine the clauses correctly”*

My senior English teacher marked down any paper with even a single comma splice by two letter grades [… It] gave me a terror-loathing of comma splices that has never left me.”

A comma splice, also known more judgmentally as a comma fault, error, or blunder, occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with only a comma. One might write, for instance:

(1) I'm going to the store, I'll be back soon.

Sure, there are lots of other ways to join the clauses above (I suspect less than 100), such as a semi-colon, a dash, or a comma with a conjunction. The trouble is that each of the options carries with it a certain feel: the semicolon feels a bit formal, the dash a bit distant, the conjunction a bit unnecessary. The comma splice is light and airy, a gentle joining that fits the breezy style I wanted in that sentence.

But alas, that breeziness is abhorred by many English users, whether due to fear of punishment or their personal preferences. I can see where they're coming from, and surely you can too. Comma splices are often misused; the simplicity of their splice rarely sounds good with bulky clauses or ones that don't have an obvious connection. Continually using comma splices can make your writing sound like a bouquet of run-ons, and there's always the danger of confusion in using comma splices with clauses that look like lists.

But there's nothing inherently wrong, dreadful, or ungrammatical about a comma splice. In fact, if there's anything bad to be said about the comma splice, it's that it's old-fashioned.

Comma splices were unexceptional in the 18th century; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage offers examples from Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Benjamin Franklin. You might object that punctuation was in flux in those days. It’s a fair point, although I could rejoin that punctuation remains in flux through the present day. But also, we find that even as the punctuation system of English came together in the 19th century, comma splices remained common in letters. In fact, the earliest complaint against the comma splice found by the MWDEU staff only dates back to 1917.

That’s the historical side. So what about the informality? That 19th century shift mentioned above is an early indication of the emerging informality of the splice; its continued appearances in letters but drop-off in published works suggests a growing opinion that it was informal. Stan Carey’s post on comma splices serves in part as a repository for modern splices, and most of his examples feel informal as well.**

I really like this splice, as it softens the command.

So what caused the change in perception? The MWDEU offers a potential explanation that I find reasonable: the very idea of the comma splice is based on the brief pauses in speech that have no equivalent in formal writing. Older English punctuation systems were more a system of marking how long of pauses would be used if the passage were spoken than the mostly-semantic/syntactic punctuation system we now have. Informal writing also tends to be punctuated more like speech; many of the punctuation choices I make in writing this blog, for instance, are motivated by how I’d say what I’ve written. Formal writing in the modern English punctuation system asks for more explanatory punctuation, and so the comma splice fell by its wayside. Sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, though I don’t know of a good way to test it.

And that brings up the crux of why comma splices are demonized. They are informal, which means that virtually all style guides will be against them. (An aside: why are there no style guides for informal writing? I’d say it’s because it’s easy and obvious to write informally, but looking at how people write emails and comments and blogs, it certainly seems a lot of people could use guidance in translating from the voice in their heads to words on a screen.)

Of course, it’s fair for style guides to oppose informal things, as far as it goes. The problem is that style guides tend to do a poor job of saying “you only need to worry about this in formal writing”, and their readers do an even worse job at stopping themselves from applying any piddling rule from their preferred stylebook to the whole of English.

Speaking of which: E. B. White, he of Strunk & White and The Elements of Style, illustrates the need to deviate from style guides in informal situations. The fifth Elementary Rule of Usage in their book is Do not join independent clauses with a comma. In a 1963 letter, White wrote:

“Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.”

Now there’s a man who knows not to be pushed around by style guides.

Summary: Comma splices were perfectly normal in 18th century punctuation. Starting the 19th century, as English punctuation codified, they were left somewhat on the outside, possibly due to their close connection to speech. They remain standard for informal writing, especially when short, closely connected clauses are being spliced. There is nothing inherently wrong with a comma splice, although when overused or used by a tin-eared writer, they can sound like run-ons.

*: I’m especially fond of this one, since it sounds like the problem with comma splices is just that there are other options, not that there are better options. I love the ambiguity in the scope of other, and whether it covers “correctly”.

**: Stan also has some good advice on how and when he’d use or avoid comma splices, though our opinions differ a bit.

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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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