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Last month, we grammar bloggers were all abuzz about the Queen’s English Society and their quixotic quest for the instatement of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell.

There is little I could add to this quartet of brilliant battery, so instead of a general discussion of the Society’s shortcomings, I want to look at one of the things they’re complaining about as an example of bad English. The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?

  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”

Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels.  It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing.

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for?  Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs.  Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms.

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right.  Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!

Regarding point 3, this is a contentious point, and I don’t want you to think that I’m caricaturing the QES, so let me quote the entirety of their paragraph on it:

“This linguistic misfit [Ms.] came about because certain — note: certain, not all — women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status. Or perhaps they were annoyed that they could not identify a man as married or single by his title. We won’t begrudge these women their complexes but surely there is a better solution to their problem than an unpronounceable buzz!”

Women, amiright? Well, no. Actually, the original push for Ms. was to avoid mistaking a married woman for an unmarried woman or vice versa.  Ben Zimmer found the first known proposal for Ms. in a 1901 newspaper column (probably written by a man), which says:

“Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

This is certainly a conundrum that I face often. Ms. is not (only) popular because women rightfully feel no need to disclose their marital status*, but because it offers a way for both males and females to address a woman whose marital status is unknown.

Of course, the QES has a counter-proposal to make Ms. unnecessary. They propose introducing an unmarried male title to complete the symmetry with Miss and Mrs. and then to make the choice of titles rely on age. Despite the QES’s claim that this is “so simple and sensible”, I think any reasonable person will see that this is a far inferior solution, and so I won’t bother with further comment on that numbskullery.

Summary: Ms. isn’t some recent feminist invention, it’s pronounceable, and it’s a useful addition to English. There is no reasonable reason to oppose it.

*: Not to mention that marital status isn’t all or nothing. What is the right title for someone divorced, widowed, separated, etc.? Ms. is a convenient way to solve that problem of etiquette.

I know it’s become common over these last few posts for me to discuss etymological fallacies, but that’s only because they’re so easy to disprove. They’re like a little vacation for me, a pathetic little vacation I take without moving from in front of my computer.

The current etymologically-motivated complaint I’ve grown tired of is the claim that you can’t say center around. This one’s fun because it involves geometry. (I must confess that I never actually took a geometry class. Instead, I took topology, which is sort of like geometry where the entire world is made of infinitely flexible rubber. This is why I can think of geometry as fun.)

Suppose you have a circle O. The circle gets its name from its center, O, so you might want to say that the circle O is centered at point O. But at the same time, the circle is located all around point O, so I can’t see anything unreasonable in saying that the circle is centered around point O either.

Other people, though, can. And they do. I especially like the exhortation of that last link:

“How can you center around anything? You cannot. You can center on or focus on something, but not around it. Think about it!”

So I started to think about it.  And try as I might, I couldn’t see how you could center on something. Take, for instance, that king of three-dimensional objects, the sphere.  Suppose the sphere X is on point O. Then the sphere X must be above point O, by the definition of on.  To have point O as its center, sphere X must extend equally in all directions from point O.  (More generally, point O must be the average of all points in object X.)  But it can only be the case that X is on O and X has O as its center if X is an impossibly droopy sphere; otherwise the center of X will have to be above O. Even if we move beyond spheres, it’s really only inverted bowl-type mathematical objects that could rest on their own centers. So really, isn’t center on illogical, too? Oughtn’t it to be center at?*

Please tell me you’re thinking that this discussion is really stupid.  It is, isn’t it? After all, if geometric logic really determined the proper choice of preposition in an idiomatic construction, we’d all be saying that this debate centers at a contentious point. And of course, we don’t. The Google n-gram corpus has 4858 examples of “debate centers on” and 1763 of “debate centers around”, but does not have a single attestation of “debate centers at” in a trillion words. Language isn’t geometry, and there is no reason to try to make it so. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) puts it, “[…] questionable or sound, logic is simply not the point. Center around is a standard idiom […]”

So let’s stop dismissing center around out-of-hand for “logical” reasons and look at it dispassionately. How standard of an idiom is it? Well, it’s a fairly old construction; the OED first attests it in 1868 in Edward Freeman‘s solidly scholarly The History of the Norman Conquest:

(1) “It is around the King..that the main storm of battle is made to centre.”

Google Books has some even older attestations:

(2a) “Clouds of deep crimson centered around him, and one would think, by the glory of his parting, he was loath to deprive the earth of her light […]” [1824]
(2b) “[…] I occasionally acted as chaperon to Miss Jameson, but as my hopes centered more trustfully around one object, my taste for general society diminished […]” [1840]
(2c) “His thoughts returned to Miss Percival; his hopes again centered around her.” [1840]

Is center on any older? Not much. The OED’s first attestation of center on comes from 1789, but this usage is based on the obsolete definition “to converge on”. If we don’t accept that example because of the (subtle) difference in meaning, the next attestation is in 1867. That puts it contemporaneous with the first attestation of center around. Google Books has some older attestations, although they might fit better with the “converge on” meaning:

(3a) “Our hope centered on God in Christ, and our hearts ready to leave the world.” [1775]
(3b) “Had it centered on a monarch, it would have given the means of a vigorous and healthy government; but it never centered on a monarch.” [1834]

MWDEU notes that up through the 19th century, in was the primary idiomatic preposition used with center, alongside a smattering of on, upon, and around. More recent usage has shifted these proportions, with on and around taking precedence in American English and round frequent in British English. (in has really fallen by the wayside.) And between the emergence of center around and grammarians’ first complaints about it in the 1920s, no one seems to have thought it illogical. I guess they just weren’t as good at geometry back then.

Summary: There’s nothing illogical about center around, at least nothing inconsistent with the logic of language. (And center on isn’t a paragon of logic itself.) Regardless of the question of logic, center around has been around for 150 years, and there’s no reason to ditch it now.

*: And while we’re at it, why are prescriptivists willing to accept center as a verb in the first place? Don’t they know the verb center comes from the noun center? I thought they hated all the bastard verbs that come from nouns, like access.

I like reading the Economist. I had a subscription to it when I was back in college and someone had moved away from my dorm without sending them a forwarding address. (I also had a subscription to Newsweek, Time, and Us Weekly that way.) I think they have insightful analysis of economic things that I otherwise don’t know very much about.

But I also think they have a completely insane style guide. For instance, did you ever think about the fact that under the circumstances is strange? I sure didn’t.  But the Economist has, and even demands that their editors remove it.  After all,

Circumstances stand around a thing, so it is in, not under, them.”

Etymologically, they are right. Circumstance comes from Old French circum-, circonstance, which comes from Latin circumstantia, which meant “standing around, surrounding condition” (all this is from the OED, not me). But then, circumstance wasn’t originally pluralizable, since its original English meaning was “that which surrounds”. Pluralizing the original English circumstance would be akin to saying “I saw the outsides of my house”.

Look, etymological reasoning is never a solid reason for a prescription. Bradshaw of the future had a wonderful post that I always like to refer to that discusses the etymological fallacy, and a while ago I listed a set of words whose meanings have changed, spitting in the face of etymology. The fact that a word meant something in Latin, or Old French, or even Old English does not mean that it means the same thing now. And sure enough, circumstance doesn’t mean “that which surrounds” anymore. In fact, here are the first seven definitions of circumstance from the OED that are not considered obsolete:

  1. The logical surroundings or ‘adjuncts’ of an action; the time, place, manner, cause, occasion, etc., amid which it takes place
  2. An adverbial adjunct.
  3. ‘The adjuncts of a fact which make it more or less criminal; or make an accusation more or less probable.’
  4. The ‘condition or state of affairs’ surrounding and affecting an agent.
  5. The external conditions prevailing at the time.
  6. Condition or state as to material welfare.
  7. Circumstantiality of detail.

The definitions go on, but they move further and further away from the original definition of “that which surrounds”. Notice that only two of the listed definitions even mention surrounding, and they apply only metaphorically. So the original meaning is pretty well lost here.

Now note further that while it might not make a whole lot of sense to say under with any of these definitions, it doesn’t make any more sense to say in either. They’re all metaphorical meanings, with abstract surroundment, so prepositions of position are all “logically” weird. (Such metaphorical usages are why the whole “logic of language” argument tends to break down, as Emily discussed in her guest post.)

Furthermore, under the circumstances has been attested for many, many years; the OED first attests it in 1665. That said, the OED has, since at least 1893, claimed a usage distinction between in and under the circumstances: “Mere situation is expressed by ‘in the circumstances’, action affected is performed ‘under the circumstances’.” But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (among others) dismisses this distinction as cryptic and unrelated to actual usage. Both in and under the circumstances are commonly used, and there is no reason to avoid either one aside from personal prepositional preference.

Or, to put it in a format that the Economist will recognize:

SIR – Your prohibition against under the circumstances is based on an etymological fallacy. I assume for consistency’s sake that you also write stamina are, since stamina is plural in Latin. Or, more relevantly to your publication, I assume you use laissez-faire economics only when describing someone else’s economy to them because it comes from the second person plural conjugation of French laisser.”

Summary: Under the circumstances is fine. So is in the circumstances.  Use them as you see fit.

*: A perhaps interesting footnote: here I am defending under the circumstances, and yet it appears I haven’t ever used the phrase on this blog.  I have used in with circumstances three times, though as in some/appropriate/certain circumstances as opposed to in the circumstances.  Using it with the still sounds funky to me.

I feel like this past month more and more people have mentioned to me their belief that languages either do or should strive to be logical. On the one hand, this is an obvious point. A more logical language is a more learnable language, and since language is passed down from generation to generation, we expect that exceedingly difficult-to-acquire portions of a language will be eventually lost by this process. That’s fairly uncontroversial and is known as “regularization” in linguistics. But the problem is that the logic of language is generally opaque. It’s not the same as the logic of mathematics or the logic of argumentation, so it’s hardly obvious what it means for a language to be logical. I’d wanted to make a post about this, but I was having trouble saying what I meant to say. Thankfully, my labmate, Emily Morgan, ended up saying some great stuff about it in a comment elsewhere. She’s been kind enough to elaborate on those thoughts here. Without further babbling from me, here’s a guest post from her.

When linguists speak out against prescriptivism, one question we get asked is why we care so much about it. This post is an attempt to answer that question.

To begin with, it’s important to point out that linguists generally aren’t blanketly opposed to prescriptivism; rather, we’re opposed to uninformed or misinformed prescriptivism. So for example, I’m very much in favor of standard spelling and punctuation use, but with the understanding that these are more or less arbitrary conventions–not because I believe that these particular conventions are better than any others. Prescriptivist rules often come with supposed justifications, but under further scrutiny those justifications frequently don’t hold water. In particular, many rules are justified on the basis of some “logical” argument. The problem with that is that it’s easy to construct arguments that sound logical for certain cases, but don’t follow the bigger-picture logic of how language works. To give an analogy from mathematics, I could make a pseudo-logical argument that because we count …8, 9, 10… then the next number after 18, 19 should be 110. Of course, given an understanding of how the decimal system works, that’s nonsense. But without that broader understanding, it would sound logical. So bringing this back to language, if someone tries to argue, for example, that You drive too slow is incorrect because slow is an adjective not an adverb, that sounds logical under the simplified view that slow is an adjective while slowly is an adverb. But in the bigger picture, we find that slow can be used either as an adjective or an adverb–and has had both uses for hundreds of years.

That bigger-picture argument puts a lot of weight on descriptive generalizations about how native speakers use their language. I think it’s important to understand why linguists so often use arguments like these, which are based on descriptions of what native speakers do. The underlying reason is that language is a natural phenomenon, and our goal as linguists is to understand how it works. And to do so, we call upon all the empirical tools of science, and our primary source of data is the way that people actually do use language. Now, I recognize that how people do use language and how people should use language are not inherently the same thing. But I think that any claims about how people should use language need to be grounded in a solid understanding of what language is. And I think that many prescriptivists fundamentally misunderstand this. Language is not an ideal system that we as individual speakers are trying to draw upon or conform to. Language is something that we as a community of speakers collectively create and reinvent each time we speak. So any statement that we make about language is inextricably rooted in a descriptive generalization about what that community does. Even the most fundamental notions of grammar—things like the division of utterances into words, or the grouping of words into parts of speech—are not a priori assumptions about how communication should work: rather, they’re based on our empirical understanding of how speakers treat language.

So in the bigger picture, why do we linguists care about all of this? There’s a lot of reasons, but I think the most fundamental is that there’s hugely widespread misunderstanding of a topic that we care a lot about, and we feel a professional obligation to set the record straight. In the worst case, baseless prescriptions like “don’t split infinitives” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” actually lead to worse writing, as people learn to go through contortions to avoid what are actually perfectly standard grammatical constructions. In milder cases, people just waste their time trying to remember rules like the supposed distinctions between that/which and less/fewer, which are mostly harmless when followed, but equally harmless when violated. Additionally, as Gabe discussed recently, these shibboleths distract from the true pleasure of studying language, which is an amazingly rich and fascinatingly complicated system—but instead of being exposed to the excitement of unsolved questions in linguistics, people are instead being drilled on arbitrary and unnecessary rules. To draw another analogy to math, it’s the same sort of regret I feel for people who had poor math instruction early in school, and end up hating all things number-related, without ever seeing the beauty of abstraction that comes out in higher-level math. (If you are one of those number-haters, feel free to substitute your own favorite discipline or activity, and consider that sense of “But you don’t understand!” that you feel when someone misunderstands it or dislikes it for no good reason.)

Finally, I want to clarify that in arguing for more permissive, less prescriptive attitudes towards grammar, we are not trying to convince people to use language in ways that sound unnatural to them. As native speakers, we all have intuitions about what sounds right and what sounds wrong. Gabe can say “needs done”, but to me that sounds unnatural, and so I never use it myself. One underlying assumption to the linguist’s descriptive approach to language, which we probably don’t stress enough, is that there can be more than one right way to say something, and the fact that we are describing variation between speakers does not mean that we expect to find the same variation within all individual speakers. So no one is trying to convince you to say “needs done” if it sounds wrong to your ear—we’re only trying to convince you not to be upset if someone else does use it. As a caveat, I recognize that this position gets more complicated when thinking about English as a Second Language instruction, or when teaching people who have grown up speaking a dialect that deviates in major ways from Standard English, in which cases it’s obviously valuable to discuss what standards exist and what cultural implications they bear. But even in these cases, the fundamental ideas remain unchanged: we should acknowledge variation as natural, and any usage advice needs to be based on factually grounded descriptions of that variation.

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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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