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I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” […] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad […]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[…] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ […]”

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.


*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

I was recently blindsided by one of the lesser dangers of the quarter system: that everyone else seems to be back in school. Because UC San Diego has three quarters instead of two semesters, I’ll remain out of school for another couple weeks, a benefit I pay for with classes extending into mid-June, a Faustian bargain if ever one were.

Of course, many of you have entered into an even more Faustian bargain, trading your summers off for silly baubles like “good pay” or “dental insurance”. In light of that, I thought maybe you’d want to relive your wild university days, the excitement of seeing your schoolchums again, and the heady rush of a new school year laid out before your feet for the taking.

I can’t quite offer that, but what I can give you is a reading list — a syllabus, if you will — of back-to-school books that I’ve enjoyed and that I think you might enjoy as well, to trick your brain into thinking it’s back in school. Here goes:

[Reading a book on the beach]

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent. This book arrived in y mailbox as a free addition to Origins of the Specious, and I didn’t expect much of it. I’d never been fond of invented languages, as they struck me as the work of utopian prescriptivists — a better sort of person than a haughty prescriptivist, but still not my cup of tea.

But the book looks at the differing motivations for constructed languages, from the squaring-the-circle task of creating perfectly precise languages to the pragmatic task of creating simplified languages that help people with communication problems. There were two significant realizations I got out of this book. One was simply that constructed languages were more than mere flights of hobbyist fancy. The second is best summarized by Okrent: “This is a story about why language refuses to be cured and why it succeeds, not in spite of, but because of, the very qualities that the language inventors have tried to engineer away.”

Okrent threads through the book her attempt at learning Klingon, making the book into a kind of travelogue through the land of invented languages, not just an sterile discussion of them. It’s a fun read, and very informative, especially if invented languages are your thing. If not, it’s still a worthwhile read, because Okrent manages to use invented languages as an investigative tool into the nature of natural languages.

The Fight for English, David Crystal. First off, David Crystal is a master. He writes books, blog posts, articles, everything, with a prodigiousness that would make rabbits blush. And somehow everything he writes is good! But, if I’m being honest, I’d never read any of his books until I was back in Pittsburgh and found this one at Half Price Books.

In it, Crystal details the history of English, the history of English usage, and the history of English usage advice. He discusses the various historical influences on our bastard tongue, the desire and need for standardized English, and attempts to create and teach it. Famous thinkers and writers pass by, each trying their hand at fixing English. Times change, and the grammatical becomes ungrammatical. Times change more, and the ungrammatical becomes grammatical again. Through it all, Crystal provides calm guidance through the tempest, offering a much-needed antidote to the shrill complaints thrown by English’s “defenders” and the lackadaisical unconcern shown by others, all wrapped in a persistently amusing package.

My dad actually read the book before I could, and reported back to me that he thoroughly enjoyed it and that now he understood what I talk about on this blog. Can I offer much more than that in way of praise?

Language Myths, ed. Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill. Another used bookstore find, this one from only a week or two ago, when I found a Japanese store with an entire aisle of $1 used books. (I bought 10.) This is a bit more academic than the other books above, but it’s well worth it. It’s a collection of short essays, 8-9 pages each, investigating and debunking various language myths.

Unlike the smaller myths I tend to talk about, this book hits the more general ones — among others, that women talk too much, that some languages are strictly better than others, that everyone has an accent but me — and coolly analyzes them. Some are revealed as complete myths, others as grains of truth in a wheat-field of misinterpretation. I’m only halfway through, so maybe the end is terrible, but so far it’s exceeded my expectations. Try this on for size if you’re in the mood for something a little more academic, to really get back to the college vibe.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen. This last one isn’t about language, but it is about learning, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books. Loewen studies the most commonly used American history textbooks and examines how they systemically distort our (and our children’s) understanding of both history and our modern world. From unthinking American exceptionalism to hero worship to the belittling of those whose views don’t fit the mainstream, Loewen shows the ways that our young minds were filled with bad information.

The book is especially relevant now, as a large swath of the populace garbs itself in the clothing of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and the early days of the Republic. We must be careful not to simplify the past, nor to think of it as a preordained battle between the good guys (who invariably won) and the bad (who never seem to have compelling arguments). Historical times are not qualitatively different from the modern day, but you’d never know it from how we’re taught history. This is a book that can make you mad, but in that good I-want-to-change-the-world way.

I jest about the uselessness of Twitter, but I find myself more and more defending it to the people in my daily life, a sure sign that I am crossing over into some sort of addiction that I ought to be fighting. One of the agents of this addiction is the Fake AP Stylebook, which offers one- and two-liners in the style of, well, a stylebook. For instance:

Thorough research is the key to quality reporting. Read the ENTIRE Wikipedia article before writing your story.

Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!

Use English measurement units to avoid confusing readers: “The suspect was four cubits, eight barleycorns in height.”

The folks behind the Fake AP Stylebook (who call themselves The Bureau Chiefs) followed up on this with a book, Write More Good, which I received a copy of recently. I was looking forward to reading it, because I enjoy the stylebook entry parody format, but I was also a bit concerned that it wouldn’t translate well to a book. As it turns out, The Bureau Chiefs felt the same; the book breaks out of the 140-character Twitter restrictions and places its jokes into paragraphs, maintaining a quick-fire approach to the joke delivery, but also giving the jokes a bit more chance to develop, like the slow-aged bourbons that The Chiefs prefer.

[Cover of Write More Good]

The book, like the Twitter feed, is all about writing and journalism, and it presents a surprisingly honest look at the field — the sort of harsh yet good-natured honesty that only good Horatian satire can provide.* Shots are taken at the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, be them “Give the readers what they want”, “Every story has two equal sides”, or “Armageddon waits around every corner”. The chapter on science reporting was full of stuff like this:

“When it comes to the possibility that global warming is caused by human behavior, the opinion of a man with an MBA who does consulting work for oil companies is just as valid as the opinion of a man with multiple doctorates in climatology […] The opinions of the former may even be more useful, as he is less likely to be prejudiced by spending too much time on the subject.”

Or:

“Replacing FIVE NEW EXTRASOLAR PLANETS DISCOVERED with HAVE ASTRONOMERS FOUND THE REAL PLANET PANDORA? could mean the difference between another night of instant ramen and a string of filet mignon dinners at five-star restaurants.” [BTW, This really happens.]

The writers are not out for blood. They mock, but they mock lovingly. Sure, journalists might not be living up to the standards we’d desire, but a lot of that is due to the readers, and they are not spared:

“[…] don’t try too hard to make the math portions of your writing understandable. If someone with a nontechnical background reads it and realizes they can actually follow what you’re saying, the result will not be a lightbulb going off and the realization that maybe math isn’t so scary. They will instead make sure no one saw them doing math and, if if anyone was watching, they’ll explain that, ha ha, they just happened to open up the newspaper to some math: Oh, man, what was THAT doing there? I must have picked up someone else’s paper because, no sir, not me—math is gay.”

At first it seems like a silly little book, but in the end it makes a number of good points. Journalists are falling short of their ideal. Owners care about cash more than journalism. And — the one that really resonated with me — even as we non-journalists bemoan the state of modern journalism, we’re all complicit in its downfall.

At the same time, the book is positively hilarious. Even as I winced, even as I regretted the times I’ve read an article about a puppy parade and skipped the one about a political debate, I kept on laughing. It’s Horatian satire at its best, funny and a bit admonishing. The Chiefs have put up Chapter 3 of the book online for you to judge for yourself whether it’s worth reading. I recommend it heartily.

*: Another good thing about the book is that it got me to look into the history of satire a bit. Apparently, there are two schools of satire: the Horatian school, which views the satirized subject as folly and criticizes it with light-hearted humor, and the Juvenalian school, which views the satirized subject as evil and ridicules it scathingly. The things one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know!

Racing around the web in a frantic but doomed attempt to escape writing a very large and very significant paper that has held me in its grasp for the better part of a year, I happened upon Rachael Cayley’s discussion of a review of the re-release of the original Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Why does the re-release matter? Well, Fowler’s Dictionary has had three editions, the second revised by Ernest Gowers* and the third by Robert Burchfield. The revisions, especially Burchfield’s, have drifted afield from Fowler’s original prescriptivist viewpoint to a descriptivist viewpoint — much, I think, to the betterment of the work.

But, of course, my opinion is mine alone. Many grammarians rue Burchfield’s involvement as the ruination of a classic. One of these mourners is Barton Swaim, who wrote a review in The New Criterion that Cayley summarized with:

“Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists.”

I can’t convey over text the specific face I was making in response to this summary, but it involves eye rolling, a sarcastic smile, a little head nod, and a few muscles moving to places I didn’t know they moved. Ha ha, yeah, sure, that’s a real argument there. We should totally accept a philosophical position about language because it’s what people want to do and it’s fun. Yeah, that’s an opinion worth publishing.

Gimme some more of that prescriptivist fun! (from Abstruse Goose)

But the joke’s on me, because it turns out that is what Swaim’s arguing. I thought that it was the role of the educated expert to see through pomp and circumstance and to analyze claims on their merit. But Swaim is enamoured of the idea that experts are there only to give the people what they want.

And what the people want, according to Swaim, is dictations about usage, like those Fowler gave out. Whereas those idiot descriptivists, here’s what they want:

“The job of somebody compiling a dictionary of English usage, in their [descriptivists’] view, is to tell us what most people say, not to exercise a fictional authority over the language by inventing reasons why this or that usage is ‘pedantic’ or ‘monstrous.'”

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t apologize for holding this position. Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules? I stopped playing Simon Says when I was in grade school, thanks.

But you see, Swaim worries that in the course of doing away with that fictional authority, the descriptivists are missing out on important information about English usage, like Fowler’s opinion that orotund is a “monstrosity”. Swaim writes:

“Surely, though, it would be useful to know that even in the late twentieth century there was something faintly ridiculous about the word orotund. But that’s the sort of usefulness descriptivists have no use for.”

I stopped and checked, and not one of the other usage guides I have on my shelf mention orotund. Apparently, it’s the sort of usefulness prescriptivists have no use for either. And I don’t blame them. The word orotund, according to Google N-grams, is now used slightly less often than the word apiary. I do not need to know that a dead guy disapproved of it 85 years ago.

Enough of this. I’m going to skip ahead through Swaim’s distaste for David Crystal’s introduction to the reprint, past Swaim’s claim that prescriptivism is “an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society,” and is not an “ism” at all. I want to address one final part that really got my goat. I hate it when someone tries to ascribe underlying motivations to me, to psychoanalyze me from a distance with no idea why I do what I do. So I’m more than a little cheesed at Swaim’s armchair analysis of what makes us descriptivists tick:

“To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they [descriptivists] argue further, is to engage in class prejudice. And here, I think, is the real reason for the intense dislike descriptivists feel for the older attitudes. The idea of “correctness” is linked in their minds with snobbery.”

No. If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.

And even if we descriptivists were all a bunch of communist Levellers who were motivated entirely by a desire to bring down the edifice of class structure and create a new egalitarian society, it wouldn’t change the fact that Swaim’s arguing that we should enforce rules with absolutely no basis in the language they supposedly protect!

Swaim’s society is a bunch of stressed imbeciles who are so scared of making a writing mistake that they need to have someone tell them exactly what to do in every situation. Nuance? Analysis? Facts? DAMMIT I AM A BUSY MAN, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE!

Maybe Swaim is right, and society is like that. But that doesn’t mean that this is something we should be encouraging by writing what society wants. Maybe it means instead that we’ve collectively done a poor job understanding language. Maybe we’ve done a poor job teaching people that language doesn’t work like that. Maybe it’s something we should work on changing rather than writing about how much we miss having someone enforce their opinions of language upon us.

And that’s the point that Swaim totally misses. Cayley calls him out for it:

“[…] a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.”

To conclude, let me put it this way. Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.


*: whose great-grandson later taught me my first undergraduate mathematics course and is awesome.

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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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