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The list the title alludes to could go on. For instance, just last week I had a dream that started out oh-so-promising, a trip to Conneaut Lake, that snow-covered iced-over wonderland. But as it turned out, it was just the setting for a debate as to whether I should use credit cards cleverly and extensively so as to increase my credit score or continue to thumb my nose at credit cards for most purchases because I don’t believe in the system. This sort of came out of nowhere, but I bet I’ll be thinking a lot about it the next few nights. This saddens me, because it is not interesting.

But the good news is that there are better things to concern myself with while I try to convince my brain that it’s time to rest. I’ve read two excellent posts in the last week that will also keep me up thinking, and that’s great because they’re far more interesting than the tortuous calculations of credit scores that would otherwise fill my brain. I’d originally planned to discuss both of them in this post, but I found I had more thoughts about them than I had anticipated, so I’ve split this post in twain.
The first post, which addresses the essential point to this blog, is from Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry. It succinctly summarizes the great battle between prescriptivists (boo!) and descriptivists (yay?). More importantly, he asks the essential questions that both sides attempt to ignore because they don’t submit to obvious answers. For instance, it’s obvious that language users benefit from the observance of some conventions in the language — even the most dyed-in-the-wool descriptivist will admit to this. If we permitted free word order in English, the language just wouldn’t work; we wouldn’t know who to mourn if someone said “Barry Terry killed”, for instance. But how many conventions does a language need? How do we identify beneficial conventions? And, to the point of this blog, when descriptivists say a language is one way and prescriptivists argue it should be another, how can we adjudicate between them? I think these questions are the ones that anyone who claims to be concerned about language needs to keep in mind, and it’s nice to have them clearly stated.

The key question that arises for me is: when is it useful to intercede on language’s behalf? I really don’t know myself — there are some situations where it is probably good (I’m thinking, for instance, of apostrophication) and there are some situations where it is probably bad (for instance, pretty much anything James Cochrane wrote about in his book). But what are the general underlying principles that differentiate useful and useless rules? My first guess was that a useful intercession is one that preserves an important distinction in the language. For instance, grocer’s and grocers’ pick out two different concepts; the former is singular and the latter is plural. However, the distinction between singular and plural is hardly inviolate in English — deer, fish, you, etc. are the same in singular and plural. Is it really a problem, then, if we lose a distinction between singular and plural in possessives? (*See below for my opinion.) My naive proposal has just pushed the question further down; instead of asking what is a good rule to impose, the question becomes what distinctions are important to retain, and the answer to that is still more muddled.

My thoughts on the matter are that this is not a question with a unique best answer. However, it’s one that every author (myself included) needs to try to answer before making their commentaries about what is and isn’t good English, and need to revise while making the commentaries. I’d love to hear your answers, especially since I imagine a lot of you readers have less stringent beliefs about what makes a rule useful than I do.

* My answer is that despite the presence of zero-morpheme plurals in English (e.g., one deer, two deer), users of the language exhibit a desire to maintain a clear singular/plural distinction. Educated adults (e.g., me) often say things like I saw two deers in the road or I’m pretty sure this squirrel is of a different specie than that one. The nouns that don’t have a clear singular/plural distinction are rare, often old or borrowed, and are highly susceptible to regularization. Even the pronoun you has a cornucopia of colloquial plural forms, such as y’all, yinz/yunz, you’uns, you all, and yous/youze. So I would be unwilling to say that English speakers are willing to tolerate a lack of singular/plural distinction. Despite this, speakers of other languages get along fine without a singular/plural distinction (Chinese, for instance), so it isn’t the case that losing a singular/plural distinction in English is insurmountable.

I’m sorry for the punny title — despite the fact that I have not written on spaces in words/phrases, and despite the fact that today’s entry is on the distinction between a while and awhile, there was no need to call it that. If it makes you feel any better, I’m paying the price for this title now, as my brain is stuck on an infinite loop of the Staind song with this title.

But having that song is my head is just as well, because Staind got it wrong. According to Amazon, the song’s title on the CD is “It’s Been Awhile”, when it ought to be “It’s Been a While”. The basic idea with a while/awhile is that it’s two words when it’s a noun phrase, and one word when it’s an adverb. One way to check this is to see if you can replace a while/awhile by for a while. If you can, it’s one word; if you can’t, it’s two words. So, for instance:

(1a) After the needlessly long hike, I slept awhile and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.
(1b) After the needlessly long hike, I slept for a while and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.

(2a) It’s been a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.
(2b) *It’s been for a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.

In sentence (1a), awhile refers to the period of sleeping. It’s an adverbial phrase, modifying slept. In sentence (2a), you’re using a while refers to the length of time between when I thought Staind was a good band and now (when, of course, I think Staind is a great band). It’s a noun phrase, and could grammatically be replaced with a more explicit length of time, such as ten minutes, 600 seconds, or one-sixth of an hour, but not by the phrase for ten minutes.

Awhile isn’t a really big player in Standard American English anymore, if it ever was. Google Books turns up ~2000 hits for awhile in books since 2000, compared to ~48000 for a while. In my experience, people generally use for a while instead of awhile. This is a happy circumstance, because it means that when you’re uncertain about which form to use, you’ll be pretty likely to succeed if you choose a while with the space. I would even go so far as to say that you will always succeed if you include the space; the Oxford English Dictionary considers a while to be an acceptable spelling for both the adverb [1c(a)] and noun [1c(b)] uses. In fact, the adverbial sense was originally two words; its first two attestations in the OED (from 1000 and 1250 AD) were as two words, and only later does the single-word spelling appear. And, though the OED considers it an improper usage, awhile as a noun phrase has been attested in serious writings over 100 years ago (1872, 1882). So you’re not in bad company if you add or subtract a space improperly.

[I forgot to mention this at first, but this post was actually the result of a request by erinstraza. I intend to respond to more of the backlog of requests in the near future.]

Summary: Here’s the deal with awhile/a while. One word means adverb, two words means noun phrase. (As a possible mnemonic, adverb is a single word and noun phrase is two words.) If you can replace it with for a while, it’s one word. You can’t really be considered wrong (by British standards, at least) if you always use it as two words, and you probably oughtn’t to be considered wrong if you always write it as one — but I would advise against that.


The Inner Spaces series so far:
I: A lot about alot (10/24/07)
II: All right (10/26/07)
III: Can not be split? (10/27/07)
IV: It’s Been a While (01/14/08)

First off, apologies are in order for my extended absence. Last quarter was unduly hectic, and I just didn’t have time to do grammar. But now I am back (at least until this quarter gets unduly busy) with a vengeance. The first target? Some book on place-names and resident-names that I keep on seeing on the shelf at the local (really semi-local) used book store. Being, as I am, bonkers for cartography, I of course picked up this book and began to flip through it, because it’s always interesting to see what crazy and idiosyncratic names are given to residents of an area. My first question was simple: what’s the proper name for myself, as a resident of San Diego? Happily, it was San Diegan, which is what I had been calling myself. So great — haven’t been making a fool of myself. The next question: which is considered more standard for a dyed-in-the-wool steelmaker, a user of needs done, a hill-climbin’ pierogi-lovin’, Ahrn-swillin’ Pittsburgh-bred person like myself — Pittsburgher or Pittsburghian? (I use them both, depending on the circumstance and how strongly I want to avoid thinking about a delicious hamburger.)

The book’s answer was that Pittsburgher was standard, at which point I ought to have stopped reading. But no, I read on, only to learn that the authors of this book believe that Pittsburger is also acceptable.

It is not.

You know that friend with a common name that’s spelled in an uncommon way? You know how they get really agitated when people misspell their name, and you can’t figure out why they’re complaining? For instance, I knew a girl in elementary school who went by Katie, but then one day decided that she’d prefer to go by Katy (which, being at a Catholic school, was pretty dang rebellious). This was all well and good, except that she used to get cheesed at people who would spell her name with an ie. Likewise, I had two friends, one a Jen and one a Jenn, who were occasionally stewing about the inclusion or omission of an n in their names.

My point is that that’s not at all akin to our problem as Pittsburghers. First off, my forefathers fought and died for that h (or at least, they fought for the h and died). The totalitarian (and UNELECTED) U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided in 1893 that “standardization” required the obliteration of our precious h, so for an infamous eighteen years, we were officially Pittsburg to our inside-the-beltway overlords at the USBGN. This went over like a lead balloon. Pittsburgh was the name used on our original city charter, based on the Scots English form -burgh (cf. Edinburgh), so this was a real slap in the face to our Scots-Irish heritage (a heritage which also netted us the oddities of Pittsburgh English). The successor to the USBGN eventually overturned the 1893 law and we returned to being Pittsburgh, but no one can erase this injustice from the history books. Worse, it has left Pittsburg on old maps and correspondence, which in turn has led to the semi-popular misconception that our town lacks an h, like those various Pittsburgs in California, Kansas, etc. (none of which have anywhere near the population/clout of us, so it isn’t that people are getting us confused with them).

All this means that it is the duty of any writer worth his or her salt to correct this misconception when given the chance (I was really hoping that J.K. Rowling would use her position in the literary world to to clarify this by including a chapter in which Ron and Hermione are transported to Pittsburgh), rather than claiming that something so very wrong is “acceptable”.

I apologize for all this ranting, but my fellow patrons in the book store were not terribly interested, despite my passionate entreaties to them to march on the publisher’s headquarters with torches and pitchforks. Seriously, who could turn down torches and pitchforks? Only the sort of fools who’d omit our dear h.

Kids today just can’t bare to declare something. That’s what the grammarians tell me. (We must, of course, ignore the decisiveness of a “no!” from kids asked if they want to play outside instead of in front of the Wii, which must be some sort of anomaly from these grammatic vacillators that are our youth.) Obviously, I am far too intimidated by the wilding of American youngsters to approach one of them and listen to its speech, so I am trusting that this is a well-researched opinion and not just some made-up rubbish like the rest of the grammarians’ claims.

The key feature that sets apart those who have the conviction necessary to say what they mean and the sort of unwashed masses who kinda can’t, like, just say something is the use of qualifying phrases like kind of, sort of, and like. (I’m going to ignore like because it is far too multi-faceted for the present post.) These qualifiers are perceived as recent bastardizations of proper English, used by the kids and the cool to sorta stick it to oldsters who are so uptight and categorical. You can tell they must be recent hipster slang because they’re written as contractions without apostrophes – which is the grammar equivalent of sticking a dunce cap on a phrase and making it sit in the corner.

Now let’s pretend for a second we’re famous and well-respected grammarians – Lynne Truss, William Safire, or your own personal hero – and create a narrative that fits our beliefs that kids use kind of and sort of all the time and real grown-ups almost never use them. One possibility is that kids today are more concerned with snark than content, so you have to always hedge to avoid piddling squabbles like:

“Yo dawg, that red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I don’t see no red car, but there is a slammin’ burgundy car over there.”
“Yeah, that’s the one I was talking about.”
“It’s not red, you colorblind flibbertygibbet. It’s burgundy.” (and so on…)

Compare to the obviously more genial conversation that hedges lead to:

“Yo dawg, that kinda red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I think it’s more sorta burgundy.”
“It’s sorta red, kinda burgundy. Hard to say.”
“Yeah, guess so.” (handshake, or high fives exchanged in a friendly manner)

Of course, we must check to make sure that this narrative is supported by the facts of English usage. Alas, the story is — in truth — spun out of whole cloth. As it turns out, it is precisely us oldsters (or more precisely, our ancestors) who are to blame for introducing these hedges in the first place. Furthermore, the introduction of kind of and sort of proceeded by a slow, steady, — and, some hard-liners might say, pernicious — grammatical change, akin to those little puzzles where by changing one letter at a time you can convert CAT to DOG. (All credit for this is due to Whitney Tabor, who discussed this in a 1994 dissertation, and Rob Malouf, who discussed it in his book on mixed categories.)

It goes like this. You start with the undeniably grammatical construction a kind of, as in (1), where a kind of takes a noun phrase as its argument (e.g., awful torture):

(1) The trip to Irvine was a kind of awful torture.
(1′) I knowe that sorte of men ryght well [attested 1560]

This construction was in the language by Middle English, as shown by (1′). The next step (which I for one consider grammatical as well) is to let a kind of modify an adjective, yielding a sentence like (2):

(2) The trip to Irvine was a kind of fun – namely, the bad kind.
(2′) Its a fine ewnin but its a sort a caad [1790]

This was in place in the language by the start of the 19th century, although it may have been somewhat colloquial then, and has seemed to have died out in most dialects by now. After all, it’s an unstable transition state, an adverb with an article, so it’s no surprise that people would want to stabilize it. There’s two options: either revert to an adjective, which gets us right back to square (1), or drop the article. People started to drop the article by the mid-19th century, so that a kind of, which converts an adjective (e.g., fun) to a noun phrase (a kind of fun), becomes an pure adverb that merely modifies an adjective, as in (3):

(3) The trip to Irvine was kind of fun. I did get to see the widest highway segment in the U.S.
(3′) I was kind of provoked at the way you came up [1830]

You dang kids! Always ruining the language with your archaisms! Maybe the kids today do hedge their statements a lot, and maybe kind of and sort of are in part to blame. But they’ve got nearly two hundred years of usage by people like you and me and Dickens to draw these phrases from, and to justify their usage.  So maybe everyone ought to give them a pass.

Summary: kind of and sort of aren’t new things that only kids say. They were derived over time from the unquestionably acceptable usage a kind of X, where X can be just about any noun. In their current usage, kind/sort of have been around for almost 200 years, and even back then were being written as kind o’ and kinda as well.  And no less a personage than Charles Dickens (see usage 14d) used it in his writing. Perhaps they are informal, but they’re not ungrammatical.

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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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