Every time National Grammar Day comes around, I’m struck with a spot of dread. Any of my friends or acquaintances might, at any moment, spring upon me and shout “Hey! It’s totally your day! So don’t you hate when people use the passive voice, since you’re all into grammar?” And then I will be forced, as the crabby old coot I am, to meet their well-meaning inquiry with the level of vitriol normally reserved for a hairdresser who’s decided to treat your head as a testing ground for a new theory of hair design. “No,” I’ll shout, “that’s not it at all! I love the passive, I love variation! Grammar isn’t about telling people what they can’t say; it’s about finding out what people do say, and why they say it!” And through that outburst, my Facebook friend count will be reduced by one.
My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn’t say something. But if you really study language, you know that there’s so much more to it than that. Each time March 4th comes and goes, we’re missing an opportunity to show people how wonderful the field of linguistics is. So if you’ll permit me to steal a moment, let me show you the two papers that really made me fall in love with the field.
The first is from Murray, Frazer, and Simon: “Need + Past Participle in American English“, which is the first in a series of three papers on the Midwestern/Appalachian construction needs done (e.g., this article needs re-written, my cat needs washed). This paper made me realize how deep the rabbit-hole of colloquial and dialectal speech goes. (Sadly, you need a subscription to JSTOR to read it.)
The second paper is the one that launched me into the exciting world of alternation studies, Bresnan & Nikitina’s “On the Gradience of the Dative Alternation“. (This paper has since been superseded by revised versions, but I think this draft is still the best version for an alternations newbie.) If you ever have the chance, take a look at these papers. Maybe they won’t do anything for you, but then again, maybe they will, and maybe you’ll understand why I think so many celebrants of National Grammar Day are missing the point.
On to the meat of the post. As you might remember from last year, my favorite way to celebrate National Grammar Day is by debunking popular grammar myths. Here’re 10 facts about the English language that run counter to the rubbish that pedants prescribe. The first eight are from the last year of posts here at Motivated Grammar. The last two are from other sites. Explanations and justifications for the statements below are found by following the links, so if you disagree, please don’t grouse to me that I must be wrong until after you’ve read the reasons why you are.
Singular they is standard English. What’s wrong with the sentence Everyone celebrates today in their own way? Historical usage, contemporary usage, the usage of revered writers, acceptance by language authorities, analogous constructions, and issues of ambiguity all agree: absolutely nothing.
Slow is an adverb. It has been used as such for years, for centuries even. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals. You may resume drinking Dr Pepper if you so choose.
People are using hopefully correctly. Hopefully has two distinct usages, one a regular adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and the other a sentence-modifying adverb meaning approximately “I hope” or “With any luck”. The latter usage has been unreasonably derided, because it is a sentential adverb and it is a new meaning for an old word. But neither of those complaints is valid, especially since…
The meanings of words can and do change over time. Hopefully isn’t the only word with a new-meaning stigma; prescriptivists often vilify words that have sprouted new meanings. But this is a very standard part of the English language. In fact, not only hopefully, but also of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.
You can eat healthy food. This meaning was fine for 300 years, and then Alfred Ayers came along and declared it wrong. Of course, it was he who was wrong, but his edict has stuck around at the edges of prescriptivism ever since.
I’m good is good. Every once in a while, someone gives me guff about my careful avoidance of the phrase I’m well when I am asked how I am. There’s nothing wrong with I’m well, but it isn’t what I mean to say. There is also nothing wrong with I’m good, and it is what I mean to say.
Between and among differ not in number, but in vagueness. The rule that between can only be used with two items, and among with more than two, is specious. The real tendency of English favors between when the connections are conceptualized as being specifically between individuals, and among when the connections are more vague and collective.
An invite is informal, but hardly wrong. It’s a minor point, of course, but the noun has been around for 500 years. I mention this post mostly because there was a great discussion in the comments about the psychology of prescription.
And from others:
Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style isn’t a good grammar reference book. From Geoff Pullum. While Strunk & White are able dispensers of style advice, they drop the ball in their grammatical advice, and unfortunately, that’s what people use them for. Pullum explains why the 50th anniversary of the book should have been met not with celebrations, but with shaking heads.
Choosing between which and that is more interesting than you’d think. It’s nearing five years old now, but Arnold Zwicky posted about his understanding of different contexts in which which and that can be used as relativizers in a relative clause. It’s much more interesting and rewarding than just saying that which is to be limited to non-restrictive clauses. It’s also much more accurate.
Want more debunked myths? 10 more are available on last year’s post! See why 10 items or less, different than, and alright are all right. Want still more, preferably in fewer-than-140-character chunks? Follow Motivated Grammar on Twitter.
[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]
[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]