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I was scanning through Paul Yeager’s book, Literally, the Best Language Book Ever, and, as with most all books of peeves, I found myself at times slightly at odds with the author. It wasn’t that I thought his preferred usages were wrong, or even that they weren’t my preferred usage (they often were), but that I felt like he never bothered to explain what was wrong with his dispreferred usage.

And then I read one claim that made me understand his linguistic philosophy, revealing that the incompleteness of his arguments was intentional, and indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of language. The claim was in a discussion of how one should make the past tense of forecast, and in arguing that only forecast (not forecasted) is correct, he reveals a crucial (and misguided) assumption in his argument:

Language doesn’t work like the local supermarket; there are no buy-one-get-one-free deals: one word, one past tense.

I immediately thought of an exchange from Arrested Development, when Lindsay Bluth, rich philanthropist, tries to convince Johnny Bark, a nature activist, to stop protecting a tree from her family’s bulldozers:

Lindsay: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
Johnny Bark: You don’t really get nature, do you?

This is the problem with many peeveologists; they don’t really get language. In Yeager’s case, he adheres to the axiom of One Right Way: there is a single correct form of each word, a single correct way of saying any given thing. Once you determine that one usage is right, all the others must be wrong by extension. But any linguist can explain to you that is one wrong way of looking at language. Just to hammer home the point, let me offer some examples of Multiple Right Ways:

Pronunciation. People will pronounce some words differently depending on context. For instance, I vary my pronunciation of either and neither and route and homage and caramel, because sometimes one way sounds better than the other in a given situation. Most people, I would wager, have a set of words with similarly variable pronunciation. I’ll bet you do.

Numbers. This is really a subpoint under pronunciation, but how do you say 1387? “One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen eighty-seven”, and “one three eight seven” are all standard in some contexts.

Word choice. There are tons of these. One example: kid and child are two words for the same thing, differing primarily in tone. Or damp and moist, or bother, annoy, and irritate.

Morphology. When I was a math major, I had to write a lot of either formulas or formulae, and my choice of plural varied with the context. People and persons are each acceptable in different contexts as well. Looking specifically at past tenses, I wrote a few months ago about variation in the past tense of shine, and similar variation appears in dreamed/dreamt, dived/dove, and lighted/lit, among others.

Syntactic structure. Syntactic alternations give you multiple ways to say the same thing. The dative alternation lets one say either I gave him the gift or I gave the gift to him; the genitive alternation offers the friend of the president and the president’s friend; the needs doing alternation yields the house needs to be cleaned and the house needs cleaning. Because in some cases one sounds better than the other (e.g., I gave John the gift he always wanted vs. I gave the gift John always wanted to him), this sort of alternation is really useful.

It’s essential to note that in these alternations, the alternate forms are not identical in meaning or use. The point is instead that in many situations, one form is no more right than the other(s). In other situations, one form might be more right than another, but the other(s) still might not be wrong.

Sure, there’s something to be said for consistency, for using specific words in consistently prescribed ways. And sometimes you can do that, but not always. The trouble is that the world rarely submits to sharp definitions. The world rarely has one right way to do something, and so neither does language. That’s a fact that every language commentator needs to understand. Unfortunately, few of them do.

Fitzedward Hall is an amazing fellow. “Was”, that is; he’s dead now, of course, as amazing fellows too often are. I recently became acquainted with an old book of his, Recent Exemplifications of False Philology, thanks to Google Books. The book is this blog, only more complete, better written, and a century older. It gives examples of mistaken grammatical beliefs held by various grammaticasters, famous and not, and why they are mistaken. And his writing style! Check this out:

“The criticaster, having looked for a given expression, or sense of an expression, in his dictionary, but without finding it there, or even without this preliminary toil, conceives it to be novel, unauthorized, contrary to analogy, vulgar, superfluous, or what not. Flushed with his precious discovery, he explodes it before the public. Universal shallowness wonders and applauds; and Aristarchus the Little, fired to dare fresh achievements, is certain of new weeds to wreathe with his deciduous bays. […]

Defect of substantial reasons must be compensated somehow; and no compensation for it is more obvious, or is oftener called into play, than an air of impatient contempt towards those who disrelish ipsedixitism.”

I don’t know who Aristarchus the Little is, but I think the righteous condemnation comes through pretty clearly through the years. I don’t really have anything else specific to say about the book, since most of the myths it debunks are long settled by now, but its style and writing certainly make it worth a skim-through, if nothing more than to remind you how far we haven’t come since Hall’s day.

A few months ago, I received John McWhorter’s new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, in the mail and I rapidly and rapaciously read through it, enjoying myself all the while. The best part of the book is not, as you might think, that it has a “dirty” word in the title. Yes, that’s a lot of fun if you’re secretly immature like I am, but what’s better about the book is McWhorter’s proposal about what led to our modern English. (The language, not the band.)

McWhorter’s main observation in the book is that English is very strange: it’s a Germanic language that doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. You probably already knew that, especially if you’ve ever known or looked at German. If you’re up on the basic history of English, you might even offer an explanation for this, noting that the Norman Invasion in 1066 resulted in England being a temporarily bilingual country, with English the language of the commoners, but French the language of the government. As always happens in these situations, the languages influenced each other, and English underwent a few changes. And to illustrate that point, you might offer the example of Latinate words in English, which often exist almost as fancier versions to their Germanic counterparts (for instance, eat and consume). That’s what I always used to do.

But McWhorter offers a somewhat different view of the strangeness of English. Sure, he notes, there are these differences in words, but it’s not just words that take English away from its Germanic roots; it’s syntax as well. For instance, Germanic languages ask questions like Sprechen Sie Deutsch?, which transliterates to Speak you German?, whereas English asks questions like Do you speak German?, with a meaningless do tossed in for good measure. Similarly, Germanic languages have hardy case systems with lots of suffixes. English only has case-marking on pronouns (I vs. me vs. my), and even there it is slowly being lost from the language (as in the protracted death of whom).

McWhorter’s proposal is that Modern English is in some sense a creole, that invasions of England by the Danish and the Norwegians, along with a significant number of remaining Celts, resulted in a substantial proportion of Old English speakers being non-native speakers of Old English. That allowed for the loss of the Old English case system, along with the adoption of certain Celtic syntactic structures (such as the meaningless do in Do you speak German?). Yet written Old English stayed much the same, because written language is very resistant to change (witness the spelling of knight) Then the Normans took over, and that led to a century and a half where French was the written language of England. When English regained its post as the written language of England, there was no longer such a strong adherence to its old ways, and so the new written language was more like the new (spoken) Middle English, the semi-creolized and weakly simplified version of Old English. So the change the Normans wrought was far more substantial than adding a few ten-dollar words to the lexicon; it also led to the debut of a syntactically different version of English.

Not knowing much about historical linguistics myself, I’m not qualified to fully assess McWhorter’s arguments, but I didn’t see any glaring holes. However, I’m a bit concerned that he’s given short shrift to the competing theories about the history of English. The counter-proposals, which McWhorter insists are held by most historical linguists, seem like strawmen. For instance, McWhorter proposes that meaningless do spread into English by contact with Welsh, which is one of only a handful of languages in the world with meaningless do, and he claims that the opposing theory is that meaningless do just appeared in English purely coincidentally. Well, given those two options, I’d obviously take the former, as I would assume most everyone would. Yet McWhorter insists that almost all historical linguists studying English hold the opposing viewpoint, so they almost certainly have a better reason to do so than what he’s telling us. But again, historical linguistics is not an area of any expertise for me, so maybe the opposing argument is as flimsy as he portrays it.

The second half of the book is an interesting corollary to McWhorter’s “English is a bastard” proposal; since the English we revere today is the result of having essentially incompetent speakers mangle it thoroughly a millennium ago, why would we protect it now? It’s a strange twist when suddenly the book starts talking about grammar rules after discussing the details of language change, and it’s not entirely fluid. But he makes a good point, and I think it’s an argument worth having in battles against prescriptivists; language is much more resilient than it is given credit for.

So, on the whole, a pretty good book, if occasionally a bit too insistent for my taste. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff.

Back in high school, I used to read etiquette guides. In fact, I read them and took extensive notes, because I was going to be somebody, and somehow I got the idea in my head that impeccable etiquette was a crucial part of that.  It was a simple error I’d made, mistaking a need for “good manners” as a need for “good etiquette”.  I worked on this for probably two or three years, and now I can’t tell you a single rule I read out of an etiquette book.  Why?  Because there was absolutely no discernable method or pattern to the rules of etiquette.  In search of a pattern, I even studied the history of etiquette guides in college, spending Saturday afternoons up on the third floor of the University Library pulling out books that hadn’t been borrowed since 1943, containing advice on the use of calling cards and what use good etiquette had in a world with horseless carriages. I certainly enjoyed it, but I’d be reluctant to say I really learned anything.

I was reminded of this period of my life when, at the used bookstore, I chanced upon a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.  I opened up to a random page in the middle, and was happy to find out that it was about eating, something I happen to know a little bit about.  Luckily, this portion of the book is available online, so you can follow along! The question posed to Miss Manners is a simple one:

“How do you eat spaghetti with a [fork and] spoon?”

To which Miss Manners icily replies that eating spaghetti with a fork and spoon was “outrageous”, because

“A fork is the only utensil that may be used to eat spaghetti while anyone is looking.”

Miss Manners delves slightly into the details of how to eat spaghetti using only the fork — plant the fork on the plate, twirl, present to mouth — and closes with a tart reprimand that allowing the ends of the spaghetti to fall back onto the plate after a bite would be unthinkable, and that the only acceptable solution is to slurp the remnants into your mouth.  (Of course, she doesn’t use the proletarian term slurp, but rather dances around it by suggesting that the eater inhale.)

To this, an agitated reader responds:

“[Your proposed method is] Proper, perhaps, for a Roto-Rooter man. The correct way to eat spaghetti is with a fork and a soup spoon. […] One cannot eat spaghetti properly without a soup spoon.  Shame on you.”

(Why, by the way, a soup spoon?  Why is there no such restriction on the fork?)  And, of course, Miss Manners replies with this convincing counter-argument:

“In the civilized world, which includes the United States and Italy, it is incorrect to eat spaghetti with a spoon.  The definition of ‘civilized’ is a society that does not consider it correct to eat spaghetti with a spoon.”

Two dandies

"I say, Eustace! That man eats spaghetti, yet he uses a spoon!"
"Edward, you have espied a true scoundrel!"

So, to recap, the entire debate consists of three points: 1) Miss Manners asserts that using a spoon is unacceptable; 2) A reader asserts that not using a soup spoon is unacceptable; 3) Miss Manners counters that using a spoon (any sort) is uncivilized.

It is a fruitless argument where both sides insist that the boundary of acceptability is what they say it is — without a single piece of evidence in favor of their points — each implying that it is self-evidently obvious that their claim is true, heedless of the fact that their opponent considers it self-evidently false.  No evidence is given, no argumentation advanced, nothing.  And then, just in case you couldn’t pick up on the subtle connection I’m trying to make between etiquette mavens and language mavens, Miss Manners underscores the point by changing the very definition of a word (civilized) to pretend that it supports her claim. (Much as grammaticasters misuse educated as meaning “agreeing with me”.)

I think you can see why I stopped analyzing etiquette advice in my free time. But, why, again, did I replace it with analyzing arguments over grammar?  The evidence presented here suggests it is because I am stupid.

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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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