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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.


Last post, I argued that “I’m good” is a perfectly acceptable response to “How are you?”, because the linking verb am takes an adjective, and good is an adjective. “I’m well” is a fine response as well, although I personally prefer “I’m good” as it seems to refer more to my state of mind than my state of health.

In this post, I’d like to take a little extension into the related response, “I’m feeling good”. I’m also going to talk about its darker cousin, “I’m feeling bad” and explain the difference between bad and badly in this context. Originally, I’d hoped to talk about “I’m doing good” as well, but I’m going to shunt that off to yet another post.

Let’s start with “I’m feeling good”. In short, it’s fine, and here’s why. Feel is like be in that it can be a linking verb, taking a predicate adjective that modifies the subject. When one says “I’m feeling good”, good modifies I, not feeling. Some might argue that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (“content” vs. “moral”), but I just don’t see it, and anyway, I’m going to show that that ambiguity isn’t a big problem.

Going deeper on the adjective point, it might seem a bit weird to say that good describes how you are, not how you feel. Let’s compare the use of a somewhat clearer adjective/adverb pair: crazy/crazily. (1a) means that I’m a bit weird, whereas (1b) is itself a bit weird:

(1a) I’m feeling crazy. [adjective, modifies me]
(1b) ?I’m feeling crazily. [adverb, modifies feel]

What makes “I’m feeling X” a more grammatically interesting structure than last post’s “I’m X” is that, unlike with be, you can modify the verb feel with an adverb. (1b) isn’t ungrammatical; it’s just uncommon. Suppose, for instance, you’ve lost your autographed Harvey Haddix baseball in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You dive in and start feeling around for it, but blinded by fear of losing the ball, you’re feeling crazily amongst the balls.

When you adverbially modify feel, it’s a different sense of the verb from the one that takes a predicate adjective. In “I’m feeling crazy”, the verb refers to one’s sense of interoception, one’s perception of oneself. In “I’m feeling crazily”, the verb refers to one’s sense of exteroception, one’s perception of the outside world.* (The exteroception verb sense can also take a predicate adjective, as in “gelatin feels squishy”.)

So if you’re concerned that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (i.e., are you moral or at ease?), you ought to fear ambiguity in “I’m feeling well” (i.e., are you talking about your intero- or exteroception?) just the same. Ambiguity is pretty unavoidable sometimes. As a result, there’s no grammatical reason not to say “I’m feeling good”, although it might not be standard depending on your age and dialect. And “I’m feeling well” is fine, too.

Moving on to “I’m feeling bad(ly)”, the standard contemporary form is I feel bad. However, I feel badly, though non-standard, is pretty common and pretty robust. In fact, at various times it has been argued to be the standard form; Charles Dod wrote a nice article in 1875 arguing that I feel badly was being used as the standard form, in order to avoid the supposedly ambiguous I feel bad. He continued by arguing that here badly was functioning as an adjective even though it looked like an adverb. His discussion raises some important points, many going beyond the mere adjective/adverb distinction:

The expression [feel badly] is needed; hence it is correct. We must allow the speaker to explain what he means, and not let the grammarians force upon him a meaning which he rejects. Let us then review our grammatical principles; if we cannot adjust the phrase to our principles, we must adjust the principles to our phrase. It is a fact, that respectable and well-educated people do say, “I feel badly.” Now let us explain the fact. We may have to widen our generalization to let this fact in; but being a fact, we cannot leave it out of view in any theory we may form. We may be sure that we have overlooked something in our analysis of the phrase, “I feel badly.”

Dod argues that feel badly is necessary because feel bad can’t mean what we want it to mean. I disagree with him there, at least in current American English, but the truth is that many people — even the educated — do use feel badly where feel bad would seem to be prescribed. This is a fact that cries out for an explanation, and merely claiming that its users don’t know their English isn’t a very good one.

Let me offer a proposal. As with “I’m feeling crazily”, feel is very strongly biased against adverbial modification in this usage, where one is reporting one’s own feelings. For instance, if I hear someone say “I feel badly”, it’s so unlikely to me that they’re complaining about the incompetence of their exteroception that I find it difficult to get that interpretation of the sentence. Pretty much the only interpretation that comes to mind is “I feel bad”, unless the context suggests that the incompetent exteroception meaning is likely. So even if you hear “I feel badly”, it’s hard to misinterpret it.

As a result, I feel badly exists in a sort of weird situation, where there is very little to suggest that it is erroneous, and a decent amount to suggest it is correct. The meaning is biased against misintrepretation, the verb can take either an adjective or adverb in different situations, bad is ambiguous (or so Dod says), and there’s a general bias to err on the side of adverbs over adjectives. Add those up, and it’s easy to expect I feel badly to be an especially persistent non-standard usage. That said, if you want to follow Educated American English, I feel bad is the better form.

Why do people make grammar errors? In a general sense, errors are of two types: errors of competence and errors of performance. Errors of competence are the easy ones to explain; they’re mistakes made because one doesn’t know the correct form. I’m well familiar with these mistakes from speaking in my Spanish classes last year despite not knowing what prepositions go with what verbs and so on.

Errors of performance are a bit more interesting. Performance errors are those where one does know the correct form but still makes a mistake. For instance, I generally know the rules of English grammar. Yet when a helpful reader went through the blog archives and copy-edited for me, the list of typos and other errors he’d found were staggering. For most of the errors he found, I immediately agreed that I’d made a mistake. So why would I have screwed these things up if I knew they were errors?

Well, language happens in real time, with real-time constraints and pressures, such as having to convert from language in the mind to mouth/hand movements. That makes the task difficult, and difficult tasks are open to performance errors. Language production is difficult enough a task that immediate perfection is usually a pipe dream. The number of performance errors can be reduced if one has a chance to go back and edit, but even then some errors might slip through.

In general, spending more time on production (let’s include editing time in production time) decreases the frequency of errors. Faster production will have more performance errors, slower production will have less. This is an example of what’s known as a speed-accuracy tradeoff, and here’s a schematic of it from an MIT course:

As time spent increases (x-axis), accuracy increases (y-axis). Improved competence on the task lifts accuracy at all speeds.

Since language is so automatic, it might be difficult to think of changing the speed of production to affect accuracy. So to make it a little clearer, I’m willing to return to a bane of my elementary school career: Simon Says. The game is pretty simple, where you do what you’re told, but only when it’s prefaced with “Simon says X”. When commands are given out slowly, there’s almost no danger of screwing up and following a bare instruction. Low speed, high accuracy. But as it gets faster, you’re doing things sometimes before you fully process them, and that means that sometimes you’ll jump at “Jump!” before realizing that there was no “Simon says” before it. High speed, low accuracy.

Speaking or writing is much the same. If you’re going slow, you’re not going to make that many errors (unless you’re going slowly because your focus is divided or the task is difficult). If you’re going fast, you’re more likely to screw things up, even when you know the rules.

So if slowing down reduces errors, why don’t we all just slow down? As my friend Dan put it, you can speak really slowly and make (almost) no errors, but your audience will walk away before you finish your sentence. Instead, the intelligent speaker/writer aims for some reasonable combination of speed and accuracy. What’s reasonable changes due to external pressures, such as the urgency or importance of a situation. A shouted “Move!” is appropriate if a car is barrelling down on a friend; “You should take a few steps back to get out of the way,” may be more appropriate when the friend is in the path of a crawling steamroller. A quick text to a friend can have errors if it saves time (and remains comprehensible); an important email to a client is worth the extra time to reduce the errors. Problems arise when someone thinks they have more time than they actually do or they need less accuracy than they actually do.

The point of all of this is that a rational speaker or writer won’t necessarily aim for maximally grammatical production, unless the task requires it. Instead, the rational producer aims for maximizing grammaticality without spending excessive time. If there is a better way to spend one’s time and the production is good enough, a rational producer should send it off as-is. As a result, we shouldn’t think that someone making a grammar error means they don’t know the grammar, or that they don’t care. If speed is the primary concern, one has to accept some errors. If errors can’t be tolerated, one has to accept slower production.

It was early Saturday morning and I had woken up in someone I’d never met’s guest room. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to wake them with my preferred morning activity of singing along to The Go! Team, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and went off in search of grammatical ranting, figuring that would be a nice silent activity.

It was, but just barely. For it was that morning that I found the perfect grammar rant, and it was hard to keep quiet with the confounding mixture of disgust and glee it created within me.

I knew from the title that it had potential: what I’m hating (grammar edition). It starts off, as you might expect, with the ABCs of grammar rants: ad hominem attacks, belittling, and contempt. The author lists 11 things she wants writers to get through their “very thick and probably misshapen skull[s]”. And, as you again might have guessed, some of these supposedly important errors are neither important nor errors. The first three are:

  1. putting punctuation outside quotation marks (non-standard but acceptable in American English, standard in British English)
  2. using anyways (discussed here; non-standard but grammatical)
  3. using alright (discussed here; standard informal English, reviled by a vocal minority)

It continues like this, with each piece of the advice also containing that trademark prescriptivist viciousness toward people who dare to have a different idea of English than the author does. The point that the author hopes to convey is that writing is — to borrow a phrase from Lynne Truss — a zero-tolerance business. She even makes it explicit at the start:

“Also, don’t give me any horsey about how you’re lazy or in a hurry. If you expect people who read your work to take you seriously, you need to extend them the courtesy of proper grammar. Unless you think your readers are stupid. DO YOU THINK THEY’RE STUPID? DO YOU?”

Strangely, this rapidly escalating castigation is quite nice by prescriptivist standards. Normally, a prescriptivist accuses someone making a grammatical error of being an idiot themselves, rather than merely mistaking their audience for idiots. But it still carries that no-tolerance attitude. Any error is indicative of a moral failing, of being discourteous to, if not contemptuous of, one’s readers. It’s a very common opinion amongst amateur grammarians. But like so many others, including Lynne Truss (who famously left out a hyphen in her book’s subtitle despite railing in the book itself about people who do just that), today’s author has a double standard about these errors. No tolerance for you, but for me, well:

“*Inevitably, there are dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in this post. If you email me to tell me about any of them, I will eat your face.”

And there was an update:

“Well, I called it. Spelled a word [grammar, no less –ed.] wrong in the title. If you were one of the exalted few who read this before I corrected it, consider yourself lucky. […] it will probably happen again tomorrow.”

That, unlike all the rest of the post, is a fair position to take: errors are inevitable, and while you must strive to avoid them, you’re never going to be completely rid of them. But in the post itself, the author declares unequivocally that any errors in a piece of writing are discourteous to one’s readers and a tacit insult to their intelligence.

It was this contradiction that made me think that the writer thinks I’m stupid, not the occasional grammar errors. (Errors plural, because there’s another one that I’ll get to in a moment.) I agree wholeheartedly in forgiving errors, because we all make them. I agree as well that editing and trying to minimize the number of errors in your writing shows that you care about what you’ve written and you care about your readers.

But errors are inevitable, and they come from many different sources. Some are from a writer’s ignorance of the standard forms of their language, some are from a lack of careful attention (typos and homophones especially), and some are due to differences of opinion in standard usage between the writer and the reader.

To sit there and paint all grammar errors with a broad brush, as indicators of a lack of intelligence or couth, and then to excuse oneself for the same thing? That’s simply illogical.

To return to the error mentioned above, it’s a particularly detested one — one, in fact, that I’m surprised didn’t make the list of 11 errors. I’ve helpfully bolded the mistake, which occurred in the middle of berating anyways for sounding childish:

“Unless your a Brit, in which case we’re all just staring at your teeth rather than listening to you anyway.”

Actually, wait. Maybe the author is right and errors like that really do show that an author thinks their audience is stupid. That would explain the belief that we would find a Brits-have-bad-teeth joke fresh 13 years after Austin Powers ran them into the ground.

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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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