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People pop in fairly regularly to complain about “one of the only”, which I’m just really not that interested in. Usually the complaints are in response to my argument a few years ago that it was perfectly grammatical and interpretable (specifically rebutting Richard Lederer’s silly claim that only is equivalent to one and therefore is inappropriate for referring to multiple items). I haven’t gotten as many only=one complaints lately, but I’ve now received a new objection, presented as part of a comment by Derek Schmidt:

When [only] precedes a noun used in plural, it implies that there are no other similar items that belong to the list. “The only kinds of writing utensils on my desk are pencils and pens and highlighters.” […] But I have many of those pens, so if someone asked if they could borrow a pen, and I said, “No, that’s one of the only writing utensils on my desk!” that would be a little disingenuous and if someone was standing at my desk and saw the number of writing utensils, they would be baffled and think me a fool. Rightly so. Because they would understand it (logically, even) as meaning “that’s one of the few”, which is very false. So… “one of the only” means about as much as “one of them”.

To buttress his point, he referred me to a grammar column in the Oklahoman, which I never grow tired of noting was once called the “Worst Newspaper in America” by the Columbia Journalism Review. That was 14 years ago now, and I sometimes wonder if it is fair to keep bringing this up. Then I read Gene Owens’s grammar column in it and I wish the CJR had been harsher.*

About one example of “one of the only”, Owens writes:

“Now I can understand if he were the only English speaker or if he were only one of a few English speakers,” Jerry said, “but I don’t know how he could be one of the only English speakers.” That’s easy, Jerry. If he was any English speaker at all, he was one of the only English speakers in the area. In fact, he was one of the only English speakers in the world. […] The TV commentator probably meant “one of the few English speakers in the area.” But even if the colonel was “one of the many English speakers in the area,” he still was one of the only ones.

It continues on in this vein for a while, and but his point seems to be approximately the same as Schmidt’s, boiling down to the following statements:

  • It is grammatical to say “one of the only”.
  • It is used regularly in place of “one of the few”.
  • Examining it literally, one could say “one of the only” to describe something that there are many of.
  • This would be a strange situation to use it in.
  • Therefore “one of the only” oughtn’t be used in the case where it wouldn’t be strange.

Up till the last sentence, I agree. In fact, I don’t think any of those points are controversial.** But the last sentence is a big leap, and one that we demonstrably don’t make in language. Would it be silly of me to say:

(1) I have three hairs on my head.

Thankfully I’m still young and hirsute enough to have many more than three hairs on my head, and I think we’d all agree it would be a silly statement. But, parsing it literally, it is true: I do have three hairs on my head, though in addition I have another hundred thousand. In case this is such a weird setting that you don’t agree it’s literally true, here’s another example:

(2) Some of the tomatoes I purchased are red.

If I show you the bin of cherry tomatoes I just bought, and they’re all red, am I lying? No, not literally. But I am being pragmatically inappropriate — you expect “some” to mean “some but not all”, just as you expect “three” to generally mean “three and no more”. These are examples of what’s known as a scalar implicature: we expect people to use the most restrictive form available (given their knowledge of the world), even though less restrictive forms may be consistent too.***

To return to Schmidt’s example, it may be truthful but absurd to protest that one of 30 pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”. But just because the truth value is the same when I protest that one of two pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”, this doesn’t mean that the pragmatic appropriateness doesn’t change either. Upon hearing “one of the only”, the listener knows, having never really heard this used to mean “one of many”, that pragmatically it will mean “one of the (relatively) few”.

There is, perhaps, nothing in the semantics to block its other meanings, but no one ever uses it as such, just as no one ever says they have three hairs when they have thousands. This is a strong constraint on the construction, one that people on both sides of the argument can agree on. I guess the difference is whether you view this usage restriction as evidence of people’s implicit linguistic knowledge (as I do) or as evidence of people failing to understand their native language (as Schmidt & Owens do).

Finally, and now I’m really splitting hairs, I’m not convinced that “one of the only” can always be replaced by “one of the few”, as the literalists suggest. If we’re being very literal, at what point do we have to switch off of few? I wouldn’t have a problem with saying “one of the only places where you can buy Cherikee Red“, even if there are hundreds of such stores, because relative to the number of stores that don’t sell it, they’re few. But saying “one of the few” when there’s hundreds? It doesn’t bother me, but I’d think it’d be worse to a literalist than using “one of the only”, whose only problem is that it is too true.

Summary: If a sentence could theoretically be used to describe a situation but is never used to describe such a situation, that doesn’t mean that the sentence is inappropriate or ungrammatical. It means that people have strong pragmatic constraints blocking the usage, exactly the sort of thing that we need to be aware of in a complete understanding of a language.


*: I am being unfair. Owens’s column is at least imaginative, and has an entire town mythos built up over the course of his very short columns. But I never understand what grammatical point he’s trying to make in them, and as far as I can tell, I’d disagree with it if I did. As for the “worst newspaper” claim, this was largely a result of the ownership of the paper by the Gaylord family, who thankfully sold it in 2011, though the CJR notes it’s still not great.

**: Well, it might be pragmatically appropriate to use “one of the few” in cases where the number of objects is large in absolute number but small relative to the total, such as speaking about a subset of rocks on the beach or something.  I’m not finding a clear example of this, but I don’t want to rule it out.

***: Scalar implicatures were first brought to my attention when one of my fellow grad students (now a post-doc at Yale), Kate Davidson, was investigating them in American Sign Language. Here’s an (I hope fairly accessible and interesting) example of her research in ASL scalar implicature.

You know I hate it when people mock English-as-a-second-language speakers for their grammatical missteps. If your sense of humor is so unrefined as to find ESL speakers’ errors jestworthy, I think you’re a boor. Internet society doesn’t think the same, but then again, Internet society also thinks it’s acceptable to shout “FIRST!” in a comment thread and that being racist when you know better is somehow subversive.

So I hope you won’t think me hypocritical for mocking someone whose knowledge of English is clearly lacking. There’s a key difference, though, in that English is this person’s native language. On an old post talking about one of the only, I recently got this comment:

“‘One of the only’ is poor grammar because ‘one of’ implies plural and ‘the only’ implies one. ‘One of the one’ doesn’t do much for logic.”

No.

If you have gone a sizable portion of your life speaking and hearing English (which I assume one has to have to be bloviating on what’s poor grammar) and you think that only implies one, then you do not know English. And yet, this is a common misconception:

“How can something be ‘one of the only’ when ‘only’ means ‘one?'”

“‘One of the only’ – could this be correct usage? ‘Only’ means ‘alone, solely.'”

Only refers to one or sole and has no meaning.”

Guys, I don’t know where you think you’ve gotten the authority to lecture people on English, but if you can’t understand the meaning of only, you do not have that authority.* Sure, in some situations, only refers to a single item, as in:

(1a) This is my only stick of gum. Do not eat it.

But only really means “this and no more”, where “this” can be singular or plural or mass. I could just as readily say:

(1b) These are my only sticks of gum. Do not eat them.

You absolutely cannot be fluent in English and not have been exposed to perfectly acceptable usages of plural only. Google Books N-grams shows that over the past 200 years of published works, one in every 100,000 pairs of words is only two. Including only 3/4/5 gets us up to 1 in 50,000. Given that a person hears around that many words each day, and that there are many other uses of plural only, it’s a conservative estimate to say that a fluent English speaker is exposed to plural only at least once a day.

Non-singular only isn’t questionable, it isn’t obscure, it isn’t rare, it isn’t debatable. Only does not mean or imply or refer to “one” in general. If you think it does, you are not sufficiently informed to correct anyone’s usage.


*: Which is weird, because even some authors who are well-regarded by the literary set (though not by linguists) claim this. Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis’s book “Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay” contains an absurd assertion that one of the only both is oxymoronic and new. Neither is true, not even a little, and yet Lederer is the author of a newspaper column as well as tens of books on English.

I first encountered the Grammar Sins Tumblr when they started following me on Twitter. From the name, you probably know what to expect: a catalogue of venial sins being treated as though they were mortal. Someone misspelled something; this means English is dying. Someone used a comma splice; that distant humming you hear is Charles Dickens spinning in his grave.

Whereas normally looking at this would set me down a road you’ve no doubt grown as sick of as I have, talking about the silliness of the obsession with minor errors and the look-at-me nature of correcting these everyday missteps, today I’m going to calm down and focus before I rant.

So let’s talk specifically about the presence of non-native English speakers and their mistakes in these peeveblogs. It was this recent post that galled me, describing the misspelling of veggie as vegi as “unforgivable”.

[Fresh vegi salad]

The indefensible offense.

Now, that’s cheap hyperbole any way you slice it — frankly, I’m not sure of many offenses that are more forgivable than a comprehensible misspelling on a corner-store sign. But the thing that really ground on me was that the next post revealed that the sign was up in a bodega, which, assuming the author is as careful with words as she expects others to be, suggests that the signmaker’s native language is not English.

Is this what we have become as a society? Are there no more pressing concerns in this world than whether non-native speakers make minor spelling mistakes? This isn’t some one-off whine, either; it’s something of a trend both at Grammar Sins (see here, here, here) and for peevebloggers in general (here, here). Unforgivable is making fun of mistakes in a second language, not making the mistakes.

Isn’t this the sort of thing that Americans have traditionally accused our mortal enemies — the French — of doing? In my youth, it was a standard belief that the French were real jerks, because if you went there and spoke in broken French, instead of switching to English, they’d supposedly just complain that you weren’t speaking French right and turn up their noses. This was viewed as incredibly rude; unfairly, of course, because it’s even ruder to assume that people in another country ought to speak your language.

Nevertheless, we Americans got quite self-righteous about the supposed language snobbishness that this represented. Now, it seems our self-righteousness has been supplanted by the very judgmentalism that we once condemned. And it’s surprisingly cross-class. It’s difficult not to sense a connection between the impulses that drive these blogs begrudging the second-language greengrocers their apostrophes and those that drive English Only legislation.

I’m just touchy about this kind of thing because I know how strong a barrier language can be. Learning a second language is really damn hard, and it’s a bit rich to mock people for their imperfect acquisition, especially in a society that’s so monolithically monolingual as ours. I’m even touchier about this because I have school friends who are far smarter than me, but lack my casual intimacy with English and thus seem dumber, and are frankly screwed if they want to get a good job here. And I’m touchiest about this because I have a lot of first- or second-generation immigrant friends whose older family members are borderline shut-ins because their limited English skills make it nearly impossible to participate in American society.* So I get pretty hot when people’s analysis of this problem amounts to “Ha ha! They spelled something wrong! *facepalm/derpface*”

Just in case it’s not obvious, I don’t mean that spelling and grammatical errors should be given carte blanche. Stores should try to get proofreaders for any signs that are going to be up awhile, and I would be happy to correct any store’s signage for a small fee (hint). But being a prig about it and making fun of people behind their backs is childish. This is a social sin far outstripping that of even egregious language errors — especially when the error is in a second language.

*: Combining those last two into a single anecdote, my friend’s mom was an electrical engineer in China, and is a waitress in a Chinese restaurant here.

It’s National Grammar Day, so as usual, I’m taking the opportunity to look back on some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here over the last year. But before I get to that, let’s talk briefly about language change.

Language changes. There’s no question about that — just look at anything Chaucer wrote and it’s clear we’re no longer speaking his language. These aren’t limited to changes at the periphery, but at the very core of the language. Case markings that were once crucial have been lost, leaving us with subject/object distinctions only for pronouns (and even then, not all of them). Negation, tense marking, verbal moods, all these have changed, and they continue to do so now.

Some people take the stance that language change is in and of itself bad, that it represents a decline in the language. That’s just silly; surely Modern English is no worse than Old English in any general sense.

Others take a very similar, though much more reasonable, stance: that language change is bad because consistency is good. We want people to be able to understand us in the future. (I’m thinking here of the introductory Shakespeare editions I read in high school, where outdated words and phrases were translated in footnotes.)

So yes, consistency is good — but isn’t language change good, too? We weed out words that we no longer need (like trierarch, the commander of a trireme). We introduce new words that are necessary in the modern world (like byte or algorithm). We adapt words to new uses (like driving a car from driving animals). This doesn’t mean that Modern English is inherently better than Old English, but I think it’s hard to argue Modern English isn’t the better choice for the modern world.

Many writers on language assume that the users of a language are brutes who are always trying to screw up the language, but the truth is we’re not. Language users are trying to make the best language they can, according to their needs and usage. When language change happens, there’s a reason behind it, even if it’s only something seemingly silly like enlivening the language with new slang. So the big question is: is the motivation for consistency more or less valid than the motivation for the change?

I think we should err on the side of the change. Long-term consistency is nice, but it’s not of primary importance. Outside of fiction and historical accounts, we generally don’t need to be able to extract the subtle nuances from old writing. Hard though it may be to admit it, there is very little that the future is going to need to learn from us directly; we’re not losing too much if they find it a little harder to understand us.

Language change, though, can move us to a superior language. We see shortcomings in our native languages every time we think “I wish there was a way to say…” A language is probably improved by making it easier to say the things that people have to or want to say. And if a language change takes off, presumably it takes off because people find it to be beneficial. When a language change appears, there’s presumably a reason for it; when it’s widely adopted, there’s presumably a compelling reason for it.

The benefits of consistency are fairly clear, but the exact benefit or motivation for a change is more obscure. That’s why I tend to give language change the benefit of the doubt.

Enough of my philosophizing. Here’s the yearly clearinghouse of 10 busted grammar myths. (The statements below are the reality, not the myth.)

Each other and one another are basically the same. You can forget any rule about using each other with two people and one another with more than two. English has never consistently imposed this restriction.

There is nothing wrong with I’m good. Since I was knee-high to a bug’s eye, I’ve had people tell me that one must never say “I’m good” when asked how one is doing. Well, here’s an argument why that’s nothing but hokum.

The S-Series: Anyway(s), Backward(s), Toward(s), Beside(s). A four-part series on words that appear both with and without a final s. Which ones are standard, and where?

Amount of is just fine with count nouns. Amount of with a count noun (e.g., amount of people) is at worst a bit informal. The combination is useful for suggesting that the pluralized count noun is best thought of as a mass or aggregation.

Verbal can mean oral. In common usage, people tend to use verbal to describe spoken language, which sticklers insist is more properly described as oral. But outside of certain limited contexts where light ambiguity is intolerable, verbal is just fine.

Twitter’s hashtags aren’t destroying English. I’ve never been entirely clear why, but many people insist that whatever the newest form of communication is, it’s going to destroy the language. Whether it’s the telegraph, the telegram, text messages, or Twitter, the next big thing is claimed to be the nail in English’s coffin. And yet, English survives.

Changing language is nothing at all like changing math. Sometimes people complain that allowing language to change due to common usage would be like letting triangles have more than 180 degrees if enough people thought they did. This is bosh, and here’s why.

And a few myths debunked by others:

Whom is moribund and that’s okay. (from Mike Pope) On rare occasions, I run across someone trying very hard to keep whom in the language, usually by berating people who haven’t used it. But the truth is that it’s going to leave the language, and there’s no reason to worry. Mike Pope explains why.

Uh, um, and other disfluencies aren’t all bad. (from Michael Erard, at Slate) One of the most interesting psycholinguistic papers I read early in grad school was one on the idea that disfluencies were informative to the listener, by warning them of a complicated or unexpected continuation. Michael Erard discusses some recent research in this vein that suggests we ought not to purge the ums from our speech.

Descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t directly opposed. (from Arrant Pedantry) At times, people suggest that educated linguists are hypocritical for holding a descriptivist stance on language while simultaneously knowing that some ways of saying things are better (e.g., clearer, more attractive) than others. Jonathon Owen shines some light on this by representing the two forces as orthogonal continua — much more light than I’ve shone on it with this summary.

Some redundant stuff isn’t really redundant. (from Arnold Zwicky, at Language Log) I’m cheating, because this is actually a post from more than five years ago, but I found it within the last year. (This is an eleventh myth anyway, so I’m bending rules left and right.) Looking at pilotless drones, Arnold Zwicky explains how an appositive reading of adjectives explains away some seeming redundancies. If pilotless drones comes from the non-restrictive relative clause “drones, which are pilotless”, then there’s no redundancy. A bit technical, but well worth it.

Want to see somewhere between 10 and 30 more debunked myths? Check out some or all of the last three years of NGD posts: 2011, 2010, and 2009.

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About The Blog

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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