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I’ve been looking through some unfinished drafts of posts from last year, trying to toss some of them together into something meaningful, and I found one that was talking about the stupid Gizmodo “Hashtags are ruining English” piece from last January. (Given hashtag‘s selection as ADS Word of the Year, I think that claim has been safely rebutted.) Apparently, in a fit of light madness, I read through the piece’s comments. I didn’t find any of them particularly noteworthy, save one. A commenter named Ephemeral wrote:

“The point is that texting and hashtags are at the root of the increasing illiteracy. Why worry about what an adjective is? If it doesn’t fit in my 140 character limit, it could be an adverb, for all I care. And, if it can’t be reduced to a less-than-five-character ‘word’ with letters and digits, then I am not interested anyway. […] #ltr8”

The rant doesn’t really make any sense (character limits are making kids confuse adverbs and adjectives?), but the point is clear: Ephemeral is mad because kids today just use whatever the hell they feel like to express themselves.

To drive home the point, Ephemeral adds a hashtag to the end of the comment: #ltr8. That’s one of those “less-than-five-character ‘words'”, you’ll note. Except that no one uses this tag. (Literally no one.) I can only guess that the intended hashtag was a leet-speak version of later, which would be #l8r. #ltr8 would be, I don’t know, “later-ate”?

If it were the case that one could say later by typing in ltr8 and pronouncing it “later”, then maybe that would be indicative of increasing illiteracy (or mild dyslexia). But this isn’t the case, as the Google results show, and what little sense there was in Ephemeral’s point falls apart. It’s not because Ephemeral’s making an error while complaining about an error, which wouldn’t negate a valid argument. It’s because Ephemeral is declaring something simplistic despite not being able to understand it.

This is rampant in armchair linguistic analysis, and really irritating. Non-standard dialects are the prime example of this; if you ask people unfamiliar with it to speak African-American Vernacular English (i.e., ugh, “Ebonics”), all they’re going to do is stop conjugating verbs in the present tense. “I be real happy,” they might say. No wonder these same people would view it as a deficient form of English; according to their knowledge of it, it’s just Standard American English with a few rules taken out.

But the truth is that there are extensive differences between AAVE and SAE, including an ability in AAVE to distinguish between past tenses that SAE doesn’t morphologically distinguish. In terms of speaking about the past, it would have to be SAE that’s the deficient dialect. But because the people griping about AAVE haven’t tried to learn it, they don’t see any additional structure, and assume it must be deficient.

So too with textspeak. If you don’t understand the patterns, and you really think that #ltr8 is something that people would say to each other despite its flouting of reason, then of course you’ll see think it deficient. In your mind, anyone can say anything in textspeak, even if it’s nonsense. Since there are apparently no rules whatsoever in textspeak, it’s no surprise if you perceive it as a bogeyman out to destroy your rule-based language. But if you find out that #ltr8 isn’t acceptable in texts, maybe you start to realize that textspeak has rules, albeit different (and less strictly enforced) ones from formal English.

What I think I’m getting at here is that before you say “X is decreasing literacy”, make sure that you are sufficently literate in X to know what you’re talking about.

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I’ve re-read an old column by Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor (a job title I would not have thought existed), discussing a complaint that Noam Chomsky committed a linguistic error by using anticipate in place of expect.

The column was a rollercoaster for me, because my many interactions with honest-to-goodness prescriptivists has rendered me unable to detect well-crafted satires until it’s too late. I swallowed Chivers’s faux stance, clucking my tongue all the while, only to realize at the end, pulling into the station, that there was no real danger there at all. In fact, I felt pretty happy for having read it.

But I had committed myself to becoming miserable from reading something, and in the idiotic hopes of providing that misery, I proceeded to the comments. Why do I do this? Is it some misguided penance for imagined crimes? Well, whatever, here’s a comment:

“Thinking of ’10 items or less’ reminded me of another sign of the times, ‘this door is alarmed’ – alarmed, presumably, by the widespread misuse of the English language.”

Maybe I’ve been suckered once again, and that’s not a complaint from the commenter — but it probably is. And if so, it’s a foolish one; alarmed here is a predicative adjective formed from the past participle of the verb alarm. This sort of functional shift is really common in English, and very productive (by which I mean that it can be generated on the fly and with a wide range of verbs). And it doesn’t cause any distress in other instances, such as “the trap is set”, “the painting is finished”, “the parking meters are bagged”, “the door is locked”, and so on.

It’s not a hard thing to notice that there isn’t really anything unusual or wrong about this sign. I mean, yeah, I can see thinking at first “hmm, that’s an odd turn of phrase.” But it really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that it’s nothing unordinary. And in general, a lot of the misguided complaints I see are ones where a small amount of thought will reveal that, if the construction isn’t obviously right, it at least isn’t obviously wrong.

Which is a little bit weird, isn’t it? So many of the complaints about grammar are based on this idea that people are saying things without thinking about them (e.g., you’re and your) or saying things only because they hear other people saying them and thus assume they’re acceptable. But in fact, that’s just what the complainers are doing; either they’re not thinking at all and just repeating the condemnation they heard from some some authority figure, or they are thinking, but only in order to amass evidence against the usage.

If you want to be an authority on language — and especially if you’re really as devoted to improving and protecting the language as so many people say they are — then you can’t fall prey to the knee-jerk “doesn’t sound right to me” reaction. You can’t decide you want to complain about a usage and then sit and think only about reasons to discredit it. And, similarly, you can’t do the opposite, deciding that you want to accept something and then only looking for reasons to accept it.* If you can’t do that, then you’re as lazy about policing the language as you think others are about using it.


*: This is a problem that is much rarer, of course, but I’ll confess to the occasional attack of it when I attempt to argue that some rare or confusing bit of my dialect ought to be considered standard in formal written prose just because it sounds fine to me. “What do you mean we shouldn’t use positive anymore here? You’re trampling my linguistic heritage!”

goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

We’re all Rolling Stones fans here, right? I mean, we’re all here on a grammar blog, so I don’t think I’m jumping to too wild a conclusion to assume that we’re almost all oldsters, whether in actual age or personality. So let’s talk about the classic “Get Off of My Cloud”:

As it turns out, the Stones weren’t terribly fond of this song; they felt it was a rushed follow-up to the runaway success of “Satisfaction”. But some grammar peevers dislike it for an unrelated reason:

“‘Off of’ is no way to talk. It IS really, really bad English.”

Hatred of off of is widespread. It pops up commonly in peeve lists. Some professional grammar commentators share this complaint: the quote above is from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia*, and Grammar Girl tersely dismisses it with “You jump off the pier, not off OF the pier”.

So what’s supposedly wrong with off of? The main problem seems to be that the of is unnecessary, but another common one is that since it’s on and not on of, it must be off and not off of. I also see complaints that it’s dialectal or informal or American, that one can’t put two prepositions next to each other, or that it ought to be from. And worse, given all of these problems, the phrase is supposedly spreading.

Let’s take these in reverse order. First, I’m unconvinced that it’s spreading, unless you’re talking about a very recent (last 20 years) spread. Here’re the Google Books counts, and you’ll note that modern off of usage is still below its peak in 1910. The Corpus of Historical American English has a slightly different picture, with more-or-less stable usage from 1900 to the 1980s, and then a jolt up in the 90s and 2000s. Maybe it’s spreading, maybe not. But let’s talk about why it’s not bad either way.

I’ll start with the easiest objections. No, it shouldn’t just be from. Consider:

(1a) The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed off of Route 395.
(1b) *The numbers station is broadcasting from a shed from Route 395.

And yes, you can put two prepositions next to each other, as in this unobjectionable example:

(2) I pulled a coat out of the closet.

Going on to a somewhat more complex objection, antonymic phrases do not have to share structures or prepositions. The fact that you get on and not on of a train doesn’t mean that you have to get off and not off of it. Consider:

(3a) I put the sandwiches into the picnic basket, but someone has pulled them out of it.
(3b) One velociraptor was in front of Muldoon, the other next to him.

And now on to the involved discussions. One question is whether off is always sufficient, and off of thus always unnecessarily wordy. And the answer, I think, depends on that of a second question: whether off of is dialectal.

In my idiolect, off of is perfectly standard. I was probably in my twenties before I heard someone object to it. That’s not to say I can’t use off without of. To the contrary, I prefer (4) without of, though both forms are acceptable to me:

(4) The leaves fell off the tree.

That said, of is not always superfluous to me. A few examples where I find removing of to make the sentence noticeably worse:

(5a) It’s a way of profiting off of something you expect to drop in value.
(5b) My new invention will knock the socks off of the scientific community.
(5c) I broke your statue by knocking the top off of it.

You may not agree, even if you come from an off of idiolect, that these forms are better, but that’s not important. The key point is only that sometimes, to some people, off of is distinctly more mellifluous than off. Dismissing off of out of hand as superfluous is valid only in dialects that already don’t allow it.

Let me elaborate this “necessity depends on dialect” point by proposing an insane argument. I’ve mentioned before that, being from Pittsburgh, I am perfectly content to say The car needs washed instead of The car needs to be washed. Within my dialect, to be is often superfluous, and there are some sentences that I find greatly improved by omitting it. Thus, I could see arguing that to be is, at least sometimes, unnecessary. But if I argued this to someone speaking a “standard” dialect of English, I would sound crazy. Saying that of in off of is across-the-board unnecessary sounds equally crazy to me.**

So is off of dialectal and/or informal? The answer would seem to be yes to both. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it “only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional” in current use. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says it’s “primarily a form used in speech”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says it’s avoided at “Planned and Oratorical levels and in Semiformal and Formal writing.”

Those sources are generally pretty trustworthy with their opinions, and given the amount of people who find off of unacceptable, I’m inclined to believe that it really is dialectal. When that’s coupled with its primarily spoken usage patterns, it’s no surprise that it would feel informal, especially to people from other dialects. And using the Corpus of Contemporary American English as a measuring stick of informality, off of occurs in speech twice as often as in written fiction, about four times as often as in newspapers/magazines, and almost ten times as often as in academic writing. The more formal the style, the less likely you’ll see off of.

All that said, its informality doesn’t mean it’s an illiteracy. Off of used to be standard in English; the MWDEU starts off with a Shakespearean usage [1592] and continues with Pepys [1668] and Bunyan [1678]. In the last century, they show it used by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Harry Truman, among others. So if it is making a comeback, it’s no harbinger of linguistic doom, just a return to form.

Summary: There is nothing linguistically or grammatically wrong with off of. It’s nonstandard in some dialects and informal in most, so you should probably avoid it if you’re concerned about your writing seeming formal. But when formality isn’t a concern, use it as you see fit.

*: This is a surprising stance, because it comes from Patricia O’Conner of Grammarphobia, who’s normally a lot less judgmental about such things. In fact, three years later, she softened her stance, although she remains against off of. I included her original opinion because her reconsideration shows that even hard-line opinions can (and should) be altered in the face of evidence, so long as the commentator is reasonable.

**: In fact, I and others within my dialect seem to have strong intuitions about times when the to be can and can’t be felicitiously dropped, in the same way as I see off of. It’s not a matter of necessity but of felicity.

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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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