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I’ve flown north for the winter, leaving behind this crummy weather:

Thank God I have sunglasses now.

for this:

Ah, no squinting!

Much better.  Along with leaving that damnable squint-inducing sun, I thought I’d also left behind the world of grammar curmudgeons when I got back to Pittsburgh.  After all, this is the sort of town where many people add an r to wash and half the people find nothing the slightest bit odd about saying “My grammar doesn’t need corrected.” But as always, I was mistaken.

Last month, I argued that “five times bigger” is obviously grammatical.  Unfortunately, James Kilpatrick didn’t read that post. Today I looked at Literal-Minded, who directed me to The Language Guy, who directed me to an old Kilpatrick column, which directed me to an older Kilpatrick column, in which he opines that “statistically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘six times lower.'”  I am not a statistician.  That much I will freely admit.  However, I’m willing to bet that neither Kilpatrick nor Lewis Guignard of Crouse, N.C., to whom Kilpatrick turns to buttress his claim, are statisticians either.  And the reason I am willing to make that bet is that, statistically speaking, there is such a thing as “six times lower”.

In fact, if Google is to be trusted, there are on the order of 16,000 such things as “six times lower” on the Internet.  And it’s not just a bunch of idiots using “six times lower”.  The phrase is attested in an Irish newspaper, an Australian newspaper, and an Indian government press release.  Furthermore, there are a lot of hits for times lower in Google Scholar, including 10 or so in books and journals with the word “statistics” in their titles, suggesting that people who actually are statisticians are fine with the construction as well.  So, statistically speaking, Kilpatrick is completely wrong.

As it turns out, the construction is over 200 years old.  David Hume, he of the famous philosophical development that I forgot as soon as I turned in the AP European History test, wrote in his History of England:

“Yet the middling price of cattle, so late as the reign of king Richard, we find to be above eight, near ten times lower than the present.”

Given that Hume died in 1776, I am pretty comfortable in claiming that the construction X times lower predates Kilpatrick. Heck, it predates the United States of America.

Now the only remaining objection to the eminently reasonable X times lower construction is that its meaning isn’t immediately clear. But that’s rubbish. It means exactly what it sounds like it ought to mean. The Brie was six times cheaper than the cave-aged Gruyere means that if the Brie cost $4, then the Gruyere cost $24. But don’t just trust me on that one. Trust the press release for the Nobel Prize awarded to Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, William D. Phillips, and Secretary of Energy nominee Steven Chu:

“It was found that the temperature was about 240 µK. This … agreed very well with a theoretically calculated temperature – the Doppler limit … Phillips found in 1988 that a temperature as low as 40µK could be attained. This value was six times lower than the theoretically calculated Doppler limit!”

So, just as with five times bigger, if you continue to object to six times lower, you are, statistically speaking, dumb.

Summary: “Six times lower” is no less intelligible and no less grammatical than “five times bigger”.  Which, of course, is both intelligible and grammatical.

There’s an old story of British and American politicians meeting up for some reason.  I don’t remember what it was, so let’s suppose it was to plan something exciting, like the construction of Atlantropa.  Anyway, they work out some plan that both sides consider incredibly wise.  They decide that the plan should be brought before Parliament, so the Brit says “Let’s table the plan!”  Of course, the American replies that if it’s such a great plan, it should be immediately brought before Parliament, rather than indefinitely shelved.  I’m not sure if the story has a denouement, but if it does, it’s probably the start of a World War or something, all over a simple misunderstanding: “tabling” means opposite things in the two countries.

I know that’s a really boring story, but it stuck in my head when I read it as a kid (I have always been a history nerd, it seems), and it actually came to my rescue a little while ago.  I was reading an article on how Bahrain wants to institute a law fining any organization that fails to produce fully grammatical Arabic copies of all their documents.  I think it’s rather obvious that this is a terrible idea, especially in light of the massive amount of foreign investment in Bahrain, so I was pleased when I read in the article that the proposal was “tabled by five members from the upper house”.  Good riddance, I said.

But then I started to wonder why anyone was writing an article about a proposal that was introduced and immediately put aside.  And what made these five members so powerful that they alone could overrule the proposal?  The answer is simple: they were Bahraini.  Unlike Americans, for whom tabling a proposal means suspending discussion of it indefinitely, Bahraini, British, and just about every other sort of English uses tabling a proposal to mean introducing it.  Of course a mere five legislators could introduce stupid legislation.  The trouble is that it usually takes a lot more to get rid of such junk.

[I eventually found the reference to the story I was talking about up above.  It’s from Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, at least if Wikipedia is to be trusted.  Although in light of that “no nots at the end of a sentence” claim, I’m not sure.]

I was kicking about Wikipedia yesterday, learning about historical stock market crashes and whatnot, which (if pressed) I could justify as being related to my current research.  Over the course of my random walk down Wiki Street, I eventually happened upon a list of words with disputed usages.  This page claimed that “Some prescriptivists argue not should not conclude a sentence.”  That would mean someone out there thinks that you oughtn’t to say something like (1):

(1) I wish were a rich man, but alas I am not.

Unfortunately, the bane of Wikipedia strikes here; there is no citation for this claim.  I choose to disbelieve.  I’ve looked at a few prescriptivist books, even the ones I count on to mindlessly report every prescriptivist canard the author has ever heard, and none of them make even the scarcest mention of this supposed controversy.  It doesn’t even begin to make any sense.  I know prescriptivists say some dumb things, but I think this is below even their threshold. Has anyone else ever heard this claim, or is Wikipedia — dare I say it? — misinformed?

Okay, it’s been a while, but at last here’s the second half from the earlier post about the use of that as a human-referring relative pronoun (HRRP). The issue before us is determining whether it’s all right to say something like:

(1) Everyone that knows me likes me

The point of contention is not whether this is too egotistical to be said, but rather whether the relative pronoun that is too demeaning to the humans composing everyone.  Are we required to revise (1) to

(1′) Everyone who knows me likes me ?

In the last post, historical usage revealed that it was historically common to use that as a relative pronoun with people.  (In fact, who wasn’t even a relative pronoun until the 15th century.)  However, history also showed that the behavior of relative pronouns is constantly changing.  So the question is a bit different in this post; we need to know whether the “people need who” rule is valid now, even if it wasn’t valid before.  And with that, we turn to the great repository of language that the world has ever known: the Internet.  I ran some quick Google searches, and here’re the results:*

X = who X = that X = whom
The people X I know 1700 438000 5990
The people X I saw 172 738 64
The man X I know 63 43400 43
The man X I saw 241 19600 18800
The people X know me 93700 36300 18
The people X saw me 2010 63 2

(The man X knows/saw me is omitted because of insufficient attestations.)  The high-level summary is that sometimes who is preferred to that, and sometimes it’s the other way around. On occasion, whom asserts itself as well, although it’s never the most popular form.  Okay, that’s great!  Now we know that that is an acceptable HRRP, just as it has been throughout history (see previous post).  So, prescriptivists, would you mind terribly dropping the claim that who is for people and that is not?  Much obliged.

But what’s more interesting is that there is a clear pattern to the usages. Note that that is most common when the relative clause contains a subject (I) but no object, and least common when the relative clause contains an object (me) but no subject. Who runs the other way, appearing mostly with the know/saw me clauses. If you’ll permit a bit of terminology, this shows people prefer that in Object-Extracted Relative Clauses (ORCs) and prefer who in Subject-Extracted Relative Clauses (SRCs).

(A relative clause can be thought of as a sentence turned inside out; one noun phrase is moved from its position inside the sentence to a position of prominence before everything else. If the subject is extracted, you get something like The man ate the fish -> The man that ___ ate the fish. If the object is extracted, you get something like The man ate the fish -> The fish that the man ate ___. The former is an SRC, and the latter is an ORC.)

This same result, the SRC-ORC distinction, pops up for different verbs (I tested pass as well) and different pronouns (they know/know them worked too). (Unfortunately, I couldn’t test to see if longer NPs in the relative clauses worked the same due to the limitations of online searches, but I’m willing to bet that the same is true for non-pronominal or long NPs.)

What we’re seeing here is that both who and that are acceptable as HRRPs, despite what prescriptivists say. But the interesting thing is that different contexts prefer one or the other.  I’ve got a conjecture about this: who is preferred in simpler contexts, and that in more complicated ones. In a psycholinguistic sense, it’s plausible that who is more complex than that, because that is the default relative pronoun. You have to check when you use who that you’re referring to a person (or other sentient being), but you don’t have to do that with that. When you’re working with a more cognitively taxing context, it’s costly to expend still more effort to use who than to settle for the default that.

There’s been a ton of psycholinguistic research that shows that ORCs are harder to produce and comprehend than SRCs are, so that might explain the differential deployment of who and that. I don’t know. But following on Florian Jaeger and Roger Levy’s work on that-omission being tied to processing and production difficulty, this strikes me as a potentially interesting conjecture. Of course, testing that would require corpus annotation, a controlled study, and all that jazz that I decided to take a break from after my comps paper. So it goes.

Summary: That is a perfectly fine relative pronoun, even for people. In fact, in many contexts, that is more common as a human-referring relative pronoun than who. (“The people that I know”, for instance, is more common than “the people who(m) I know”.) Interestingly, that seems to be more common for more difficult relative clauses.

*: Google uses heuristics to guess how many webpages use a string, so the estimated number of results shown on the first page is often inflated. By clicking a few pages of results down (I went to page 10), you get a substantially more accurate estimate. For instance, Google claimed there were “about 3,090” hits for the man whom I know at first, but when I attempted to access its tenth page of results, it recanted and claimed that there were actually only 43 results. WOW. So all of the numbers reported above are from the tenth, or last, page of results. Even then, these should be treated as highly variable estimates; a difference should be at least an order or two of magnitude before it is trusted.

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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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