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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.

goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. [...] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

I haven’t posted anything in a while because it was the end of the quarter and, even without any classwork to speak of, I had to get a few components of my research together before spring break. And now I’m on break, so I’m having trouble putting together the energy to concoct a proper post. However, there are four other posts that I found semi-recently that I was so very fond of that I had to share them with you all.

The first is Mark Liberman’s Language Log post “Teaching Zombie Rules“, which offers a potential answer to the problem I find myself in quite a lot: how should one deal with grammar rules that aren’t really rules?  Sure, it’s an easy question once you’re a professor or even a grad student.  I use the grammar that I believe to be best justified, and if anyone tells me I’m wrong, I present the facts that back up my usage.  If a pedant insists I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, because they don’t hold any power over me.  But what if you’re a student preparing for a grammar test that includes zombie rules (the SAT, for instance)?  Even worse, what if you’re a tutor preparing someone else for a grammar test?  How do you teach a rule you know to be wrong?  Liberman’s answer is great, in part because it recasts the problem in terms of audience design.

The second is this year’s Grammar Day post from John at Bradshaw of the Future.  John points out that all these grammar points that we all care so much about are just insignificant pieces of the whole.  The core of English (or any other language’s) grammar is essentially the same across all its users.  A few people saying “between you and I” isn’t going to change the fact that English is an Subject-Verb-Object language or that it has singular and plural morphology, but not dual morphology (as in American Sign Language).  This is why you shouldn’t get up in arms about the horrendous English these kids today speak — virtually everything they say is grammatically correct anyway.  (John has a history of good Grammar Day posts; last year’s was a gem as well.)

The last is a two-pack: Arnold Zwicky’s Grammar Day post from last year on Language Log, and this year’s version on his own blog.  There’re a lot of good points in these posts, but I’m just going to mention the minor one that prescriptivists have this infuriating tendency to constantly couch their opinions in light absurdity so that when someone complains that their beliefs are ill-founded, they can point to the absurd part and saying “Can’t you tell I’m joking?!?!?”  It’s like when you’re talking to someone about their spouse and they growl, “Sometimes I just want to wring his/her neck,” and then after they stare into the middle distance for a second, they sort of chuckle.  Sure, they’re probably chuckling about the absurdity of the statement, but then again, you have to wonder if they were if they were really chuckling at the mental image.  So too with prescriptivists; I think they think they’re joking, but having dealt with them and occasionally incurred their wrath, I’m not so sure they are.

I hope you enjoy those links as much as I did.

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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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