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You know how prescriptivists are always on about how kids these days lade their speech with hedges like like or kinda or sorta?  (Of course, adults do the same thing, but that’s neither here nor there.) I wrote about this a while back and, like a moth to a flame, a prescriptivist flew through and commented on the travesty that is kids’ speech today.  Why don’t these dang kids just come out and say things categorically and unequivocally?

Well, if kids will permit me to take up their mantle for a moment, I’ve got to say, the kids are right to do what they do. Prescriptivists don’t hedge nearly enough. Witness Josh Abraham’s open letter to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

[…] you recommend punctuating as follows:

4   Though it is less rigorously applied than it used to be, there is a rule that when a noun phrase such as “stainless steel” is used to qualify another noun, it is hyphenated, as “stainless-steel kitchen”. Thus you have corrugated iron, but a corrugated-iron roof. The match has a second half, but lots of second-half excitement. Tom Jones was written in the 18th century, but is an 18th-century novel. The train leaves at seven o’clock; it is the seven-o’clock train.


Therefore, crazy lady who does not practice what she preaches, one has zero tolerance, but a zero-freakin’-hyphen-tolerance approach. Where the bloody blazes is the dang hyphen betwixt “Zero” and “Tolerance” in your stupid title, you daffy bird?!?

This isn’t out of the ordinary for prescriptivists; hardly a month goes by without the Language Loggers pillorying some foolishly certain prescriptivist for breaking the very rule the prescriptivist was trying to impose.  For goodness’ sake, guys, learn how to hedge!  We descriptivists appreciate you making it easy for us to show that your advice is poorly-thought-out, but c’mon — we do like a challenge every now and then.  Offering up such obvious hypocrisy makes it like shooting fish in a barrel.

[hat tip for the Abraham letter to Justin Moss]


Also, a dispatch from the “I majored in math and therefore find patterns in everything” portion of my brain: If you’ll be so kind as to direct your attention to the Blogroll to your left, you’ll note that I finally (only, what eight months after the fact?) got around to re-naming “Notes from the Copy Editor” to “Language is the People’s“.  This means that the blogroll now has an unintentional linear separator.  All of the Language Blogs come before “lively” in the dictionary, while all of the Not Language Blogs come after. Unfortunately, this means that it will be very difficult for me to add a new blog to the blogroll if it does not fit this scheme.  I wish I could say I was joking.  Please adjust your blog names accordingly.


Nashville, Tennessee, is home to Vanderbilt University, the Grand Ole Opry, and apparently a ton of different languages.  So many, in fact, that they’re bleeding the city dry, according to Councilman Eric Crafton.  He was the driving force behind a special election for an English-only measure in Nashville that got voted on Thursday.

It failed.

I’m not here to talk about why I think such legislation is a bad idea, because this is just a grammar blog, not a linguistics or politics blog.  I’ll just mention what happened in Miami when they tried the same thing: everyone hated it, and it got repealed.  I’ll also mention that I happen to know a lot of smart people who are contributing to the economy, whose first language is not English, and who are able to converse in English, but aren’t great at understanding written English legalese.  I’ll also mention that there’s something known as the critical period in language learning, which prevents most adults from ever becoming fluent in a language they didn’t learn in childhood.  So these lazy immigrants don’t learn English not because they’re lazy, but because the task is almost insurmountably hard.  All right, I guess I was here to talk about why I think this is a bad idea.

But the thing I wanted to point out — and this at least borders on grammar — is that proponents of the measure called it an “English First” measure, as opposed to the more common appellation “English Only”.  Here is the text of the measure as it is listed on Nashville’s Election Commission‘s website, and I’ve taken the liberty of bolding a few words in it:

“English is the official language of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. Official actions which bind or commit the government shall be taken only in the English language, and all official government communications and publications shall be in English. No person shall have a right to government services in any other language. All meetings of the Metro Council, Boards, and Commissions of the Metropolitan Government shall be conducted in English. The Metro Council may make specific exceptions to protect public health and safety.”

For not being an “English Only” rule, there sure are a lot of universal quantifiers (all, only, any other) in the measure’s text.  Saying something puts “English First” implies that something else comes second.  You don’t often say, “For breakfast, I shall first eat one quail’s egg.  I shall then be done.”  Nor do you often say, “My plans for tonight are to first watch television, and second, watch television.”  (Maybe facetiously.) I fail to see what comes second in the “English First” measure.  Possibly more English?  Or perhaps silence?  I guess the idea is that the Council may, at its discretion, choose to permit other languages for health and safety purposes, so that qualifies as “Other Languages Second”.  But, given that no person would have had a right to receive anything in another language, I don’t imagine the Metro Council would have often voluntarily exercised the “Other Languages Second” clause.

On a similar point, some of the English-only folks apparently find “anti-English-Only” to be too unwieldy, too hyphenated, too reasonable, so they just say “anti-English”. I guess I’m anti-English, then. Who’d’ve thunk it? (Besides prescriptivists, that is.)

Barack Obama was sworn in as president on Monday, in a ceremony that I completely missed because, due to the three hour time difference between San Diego and Washington, it started at 7 in the morning — or, as I prefer to call it, “why on earth did I set an alarm this early?”   However, I did eventually catch one part of the ceremony: the oath of office.  And of all the parts I could have caught, you might think that’s about the least exciting, and in general I would agree with you.

But Monday’s was no ordinary oath, because of a floating faithfully.  The only constitutionally mandated part of the inauguration ceremony is that the President must recite the following oath:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

(And yes, Ability is capitalized in the original text. An insidious German influence, perhaps?) Presidents have better things to fill their brains with than the exact form of a sentence that a bunch of white-hairs came up with 220 years ago, so the Chief Justice feeds the President the sentence a few words at a time and the President repeats what the Chief Justice says.  And that generally works pretty well, except that even Chief Justices aren’t perfect. And so, with the eyes of the world upon him, John Roberts choked:

ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama…
OBAMA: I, Barack…
ROBERTS: … do solemnly swear…
OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…
ROBERTS: … that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully…
OBAMA: … that I will execute…
ROBERTS: … faithfully the office of president of the United States…
OBAMA: … the office of president of the United States faithfully…
ROBERTS: … and will to the best of my ability…
OBAMA: … and will to the best of my ability…

Now, Ben Zimmer has already commented on this at Language Log, as has Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded. Not to mention that Obama and Roberts did a do-over to make sure that no one was giving the Constitution short shrift. (After all, if all the Constitution demands of the President is that he say one little sentence, it’s only polite to make sure you get it right.)  But Liz asked me to comment, and by gum, I’m not about to let down a friend. I’ve got precious little to add, but I will make three small points.

First off, it doesn’t actually make a difference which position faithfully is in.  In all three forms (will faithfully execute, will execute faithfully, and will execute the Office … faithfully), faithfully has to modify the verb execute.  I suppose that you could argue that if faithfully occurs at the very end of the clause, it could modify swear, but no native speaker of English would interpret it as such.  Also, a couple of ill-informed prescriptivists have attempted to claim that Roberts was rectifying a grammatical error in the Constitution by avoiding a split infinitive.  That’s an imbecilic rationale, not only because there is no reason to be against split infinitives in English, but because there is no infinitive in any of these versions of the oath.  So it wasn’t for semantic reasons that Obama had to retake the oath.

Secondly, there was one person who didn’t botch the oath.  Sure, the captioner was probably working from a script and all, but still, kudos are due.  At least if you were deaf you weren’t confused.

There’s one final point I’d like to make here, one that may seem to have no connection whatsoever to the inauguration of a president.  My dear Pittsburgh Steelers made it back to the Super Bowl with a resounding walloping of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.  How is this relevant?  Well, at least one attendee of the inauguration was a Steelers fan. (That’s a screenshot of the Terrible Towel, in case it’s not immediately obvious.)

Actually, make that two attendees:

I happened upon something on, the online version of the newspaper The Oklahoman.  I say “something” because it was certainly not an article, I don’t think it was a column, and it was so scattered that I daren’t call it an opinion piece.  I suppose that this may be the sort of writing that contributed to the newspaper being named The Worst Newspaper in America by the Columbia Journalism Review in 1999. The headline (what lured me in) was “Rules of grammar are not set in stone”, but the text did not seem to hold any significant relationship to its headline. As far as I could tell, it was basically a statement that perhaps ain’t is a word, but then again, of course it’s not, but maybe it is, and by the way, I think you can split infinitives.

My brain is still a bit sore from the whole ordeal, but there’s one bit of insanity that stood out heads and shoulders above the rest:

“Grammarians still wrangle over whether the wild and wooly English language should be saddled with civilized Latin grammar.”

No, we don’t. You might as well say “biologists still wonder whether a penguin wouldn’t be better off as a lion”, or “chefs still debate whether peanut butter could be improved by making it gazpacho”.  Penguins have an ecological niche just like lions do, and peanut butter has as much its own taste as gazpacho does. Similarly, English has as much a grammar as Latin did.

There is about as much debate about this point as there is about whether Barack Obama really qualifies as a “natural-born citizen” according to the Constitution.  Yes, there are people who fervently claim that Obama’s birth certificate is a fake, or he was born in Hawaii before it was a state, or whatever.  But these people are wrong.  So too with Latin-loving prescriptivists; they exist, but they’re wrong. Very wrong. They don’t understand languages at all.

Point of fact, English isn’t so wild anyway.  For instance, there is a very specific word order to English, which is not true of free-word-order languages like Russian, Warlpiri, or (guess what!) Latin.  The only reason that Latin seems orderly is because it’s a dead language, so there’s hardly anyone around to use it — and therefore, hardly any data that could disprove the grammatical rules that people think Latin obeys.  It’s static in a way that no living language will ever be.  Which leads to one final point: if Latin’s grammar was so wonderful, why did the language die out?  The answer, of course, is that it didn’t — instead, it morphed into the various extant Romance languages, which, you’ll notice, people rarely suggest English should adopt the grammar of.

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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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