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Yeild to Pedestrians

I had just finished walking around the University of North Carolina for the last time last weekend (having been there for a psycholinguistics conference), and my camera had just run out of battery power, when I came to this intersection between the campus and my hotel.  I skipped part of the last poster session at the conference just so I could go replace my batteries and get this picture.  Of course, that wasn’t strictly necessary; the ubiquitous Google Street View also has a picture of the sign, albeit significantly blurrier.

The sign filled me with nostalgia, as during my sophomore year at Princeton, there was roadwork going on on the road between my dorm and the rest of campus, and the start of this roadwork was demarcated by a gigantic light-up sign that screamed something about being prepared to yeild.  Somehow, despite the fact that this sign was up for months, I never bothered to get a picture of it.  And here the Universe interceded to give me another chance.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I usually misspell “yield” the first time I write it.

I was on the phone with my girlfriend last night, when we had a scintillating conversation about grammar. (It is not entirely clear why she continues to talk to me, given that I find conversations about grammar to be scintillating.) The central part of it revolved around her having used farther in a sentence and then immediately questioning whether it ought to have been further. Neither of us had the slightest idea, despite the facts that she’s well-spoken/well-read and I went to Catholic school, where English class consisted of learning the same bloody grammar rules over and over again.

Now why could it be that two fairly intelligent people can’t remember a meaning difference between these two words? Some might say it’s because there is no meaning difference between these words. But such people would be dunces. I happen to know that those people would be dunces because I’ve read a lot of grammar books and they all agree that people who can’t differentiate farther and further are, point of fact, dunces. Regrettably, this means that the following people are dunces: the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Milton [cited in OED], Charles Dickens [in Martin Chuzzlewit], and John Bunyan [in Pilgrim’s Progress].

They’ve all confused farther and further. Here’s the deal, according to today’s spokesperson for prescriptivism, Tim at Mother Tongue Annoyances: farther is to be used in situations involving distance or length, and further is to be used in situations involving time or amount. In other words, farther refers to literal distance, and further refers to metaphorical distance.

Let’s consider this opinion. First off, are there situations where only one or the other is acceptable? It would seem not. The OED cites examples of farther used metaphorically (1) and of further used non-metaphorically (2):

(1) Then we need argue no farther. [Edgeworth 1802]
(2) It was not thought safe for the ships to proceed further in the darkness. [Macaulay 1855]

And citations for such usage extend back over 700 years. So it’s looking like the two are pretty interchangeable. Specifically, there doesn’t see to be a generalized distinction between further as strictly metaphorical. And in case you were worried that in the past they were the same but since have separated in meaning, you’d be misguided. Google Books returns 11 hits for walked further before 1800 to 19 hits for walked farther before 1800. That’s an insignificant difference between the two, so there’s no evidence of the metaphorical sense prior to 1800. But the same is true recently: Google Books has 654 hits for walked further and 649 hits for walked farther since 1990. So at the least, further has been and continues to be used in non-metaphorical senses, which makes the two look pretty much indistinguishable. That said, there are situations where only further is acceptable to me:

(1) *Farther research is necessary before I agree to buy a third grill.
(2) *I am soliciting farther advice regarding my grilling needs.

These situations use further as an adjective meaning “additional” or “more extensive”, which is a role that farther just can’t take in my idiolect. However, the OED [def’n. B2] disagrees, citing usages such as:

(3) There is one farther objection made by those who have answered this book. [Jonathan Swift 1704]

And if the author of A Modest Proposal is willing to use farther to mean “additional”, I’m not about to disagree. Except I’m going to disagree: this usage seems to be quite rare, especially in modern English; the instances I could find on Google Books were either very old or were scanning errors where further research was misread as farther. So there is one distinction between the farther and further; in some very metaphorical usages, farther is ungrammatical. Such minor distinctions aside, it doesn’t look like farther/further was a strict distinction in the past, and it definitely isn’t now. The OED does claim that in standard English (i.e., Oxonian English), farther is preferred as the comparative form of far and further is preferred when the notion of distance is absent, so you may want to keep that in mind for formal writing purposes. However, for everyday usage, go with whichever sounds better. I know I prefer to use further in most situations (perhaps because I prefer its vowel), while my girlfriend prefers farther. Just don’t go around telling people their choices are wrong. There is no categorical distinction between their usages, only preferences.

Summary: Farther and further are basically the same, and in most situations you can decide between them on the basis of which one sounds more pleasant to you. If you’re striving to follow the conventions of formal English, the OED claims there’s a preference for farther to mean “more distant” and for further when literal distance is not salient, but these are only preferences, not something inalienable. Let your ears decide.

I haven’t looked through much of the prescriptivist blather that no doubt filled the Internet last week as a result of “National Grammar Day”, but I have given some of it a once over. At first I was somewhat concerned, because most of what I read was metered and about obviously bad grammar (misspellings, misapostrophications, misconjugations, and the like). Could it be that National Grammar Day would be as unexciting to me as it would be to any normal person? Could it be that all the invective-filled overzealous prescriptivists I’ve grown accustomed to fighting had fled the web? Well, that would be dreadful, as it would put me out of a blogging job and force me to refocus on my research and other tasks befitting a graduate student.

A fate worse than death, that’d be.

Thankfully, no sooner should I start worrying than my fears were assuaged. I went to the Society for the Protection of Good Grammar’s (creators of National Grammar Day) website, and found that they were running a poll for the city with the worst grammar in the U.S. Then I felt that feeling, that wonderful feeling, where disgust at someone’s self-righteousness becomes epicaricacy when you realize they were wrong about the very point they were so self-righteous about.

Before discussing the grammar of the poll, let me just state that the poll’s methodology is fatally flawed. In this poll, you’re voting for the most egregious error from amongst a set of 19 grammatically flawed examples. The town from which the most egregious error comes is then considered to have the worst grammar. Now, I was a math major who recoiled in terror from statistics, and even I can tell you that this isn’t how it should work. It’s biased against large cities, doesn’t reflect average “bad grammaticality” of the city, etc., etc. I know that this is a potshot, because obviously prescriptivists have more important things to think about than experimental design, but the principles of good poll construction oughtn’t to take hiatus just because it’s not National Poll Design Day. I fully expect their next poll will be more robustly designed.

On the grammar end, of the 19 candidates quite a number are just misspellings or word confusion, such as “DEVELOPMENT PROPRETY FOR SALE” and “Please use the provided receptable [instead of receptacle]”. People differ, but personally I don’t consider misspellings or most word confusions to be indicative of poor grammar, but rather of failed lexical access. I am definitely reluctant to call that bad grammar.

However, the one particularly odd item in this poll was a headline from an Altoona, PA newspaper:

(1) Ex-Indonesian president dies

I read this at least five times before I figured out what the supposed violation was; you may be more finely tuned and have figured it out faster, but if not, it’s that the prefix ex- is attached to Indonesian rather than to president. The claim here is that “ex-Indonesian president dies” would not be equivalent to (2a) or (2b), only to (2c):

(2a) Former Indonesian president dies
(2b) Indonesian former president dies
(2c) Formerly Indonesian president dies

and therefore the proper headline should be:

(1′) Indonesian ex-president dies

Which is stupid. Obviously, ex- is intended to modify the phrase Indonesian president, and that’s what it does. ex- is capable of modifying a whole noun phrase, not just the word it’s next to. That’s not unique in English; possessive ‘s can also modify a whole noun phrase from the periphery of the phrase:

(3a) The king of England’s crown is jaunty
(3b) *The king’s of England crown is jaunty

Some might argue that (1) is suboptimal because it is ambiguous between (2a) and (2c) — assuming you agree with me that (1) can have the meaning of (2c). I’ll grant that, but (1′) is ambiguous too, between (2a) and (2b). And what’s it matter? In this case all three of (2a-c) are true, since it seems to me that Suharto ceases to have any nationality when he ceases to be alive. Plus, (3a) is ambiguous between whether the king of the crown of England is jaunty or the crown of the king of England is jaunty, and we’re fine with peripheral ‘s in that situation. So there’s no reason that ambiguity should make (1) wrong. And ambiguity is the only apparent potential problem with the newspaper’s headline as it’s written.

Furthermore, (1′) has additional problems. In the Suharto situation, ex- directly modifying president is okay because Indonesian can modify ex-president, but consider:

(4) ex-New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton pushed hard for the Erie Canal.
(4′) *New York ex-Gov. DeWitt Clinton pushed hard for the Erie Canal.

(4′) is just plain wrong to me, and if I give the benefit of the doubt and try to parse it, I’d say it carries a heavy implication that DeWitt Clinton was a New Yorker who was a governor, but not the governor of New York. So why say that (1′) and (4) are right, when we could more neatly say that (1) and (4) are right?

And to conclude this silly debate, the AP Stylebook says that (1) is the proper form, not (1′).  So regardless of whether or not (1) is ‘good’ grammar, it’s not Altoona’s fault that their newspaper followed the conventions of the Associated Press. (Altoona, by the way, is in Western Pennsylvania, so I’ve got its back.)

All that’s well and good, but what really interested me is that ex-Indonesian president dies is considered nearly grammatically correct at all. For me, dies is in an unacceptable tense; dies is in the simple present tense, which in English implies a habitual or repeated action (I eat every day at noon), and not even ex-Indonesian president Suharto repeatedly dies. In fact, I would be hesitant to call (1) grammatical because of this; I’d much prefer ex-Indonesian president died or ex-Indonesian president has died. But I suppose simple present is commonplace in headlines, so it’s considered okay.  Stupid headlines and their preferential tense treatment.  I’m off to sulk over that.

Summary: ex- can — and I think ought to — be used to modify an entire noun phrase, not just its head noun.  So ex-Indonesian president is fine to mean former Indonesian president.  If you’re really concerned about ex- usage, just use former and formerly instead; there’s no chance of mistaking former as modifying an adjective nor of formerly modifying a noun.

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has declared March 4 to be “National Grammar Day“. They’re reasonable and polite about it, suggesting that you kindly reprimand any non-standard usages that cross your path that day. The problem is that prescriptivists tend to have a hard time not being obnoxious about grammar. Let’s take, for instance, the writings of James Cochrane, author of Between You and I. I’ve already discussed what a sourpuss he is, but let’s look at a few more of his statements from that book:

“This is English that is not only bad, but stupid, and it should be mocked at jeered at until it disappears out of sheer embarrassment.”
“What can be the reason for what is not merely ungrammatical English, but actually stupid English?”
“When seen in the form ‘in the throws of’ [as opposed to in the throes of], it should be treated with ridicule and contempt.”

You see, this is why we can’t have nice holidays about grammar. Can you imagine this sort of vitriol for other holidays?

[Valentine’s Day]: “Being single is is not only bad, but stupid, and it should be mocked at jeered at until it disappears out of sheer embarrassment.”
[National Soup Month]: “When dinner is seen in a form lacking soup, it should be treated with ridicule and contempt.”

Look, I understand that grammatical errors can be frustrating. I don’t like it any more than you do when people use the greengrocer’s apostrophe. But then again, I don’t like it when people do a lot of things, yet I still manage not to call the guy taking up more than his fair share of the bus seat an ignorant backwater bumpkin. Nor do I inform the cashier who rings up my apples as something costing $14/lb that he is not merely being incompetent, but actually appallingly stupid. So it’s fine if you want to go around correcting people’s English usage on Tuesday, but do so in a way that’s polite. More importantly, don’t correct people’s English unless you are certain you are right. In case you were unsure, the following are not valid reasons to be certain that X is grammatically unacceptable:

1. You learned X was bad grammar in school
2. Your favorite prescriptivist asserted X was bad grammar
3. Everyone knows X is bad grammar
4. X is an illogical construction (cf. idioms)

And lastly, make sure that what you’re complaining about isn’t a regionalism — especially if you are in the region from which that regionalism comes. Don’t tell Texans that I might could use your help is bad grammar; double modals follow grammatical rules, so they’re actually good grammar within Texan English. On that note, let me just warn you that if you attempt to correct my regionalisms (e.g., positive anymore, needs cleaned) on National Grammar Day, you’ll find that March 4th also happens to be National Beat-People-Up Day.

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".



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