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It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, friends, and things are only going to speed up, because I’m currently sitting in the San Diego airport, waiting to jet off to the Big Apple for the CUNY conference on sentence processing, the psycholinguistic event of the year.

My view for the next seven-ish hours.

The bad news is that that means there probably won’t be a new post this week (unless you generously count this one). But the good news is that I’ve got a couple of updates from the week that was.

First, the grammar myths article from last weekend got picked up by Visual Thesaurus (subscription-based). The content’s the same as it was here, but the layout’s a little better and it has a nice little picture of my head so that you know that despite being a grad student, I can still pretend to look presentable.

Second, I was interviewed for a piece on redundancy in language by Colleen Ross of the CBC. There’s an audio version of it as well as a text version. They’re more or less the same — although there are small differences — and personally I prefer the audio version. But perhaps that’s just because is no comment section on the audio version, meaning that the bottom half of the page isn’t filled with amateur peevelogists saying that “issues” is a grave plague upon the language.

Lastly, I’m presenting a poster at CUNY on my recent research into uncertainty during reading. We found evidence that readers maintain uncertainty about word order in the parts of a sentence they have already read. For instance, when reading The journalist that the fact surprised …, readers also think that perhaps they read The fact that the journalist surprised (someone) …. (The former is a relative clause, the latter a complement clause.) I intend to go into more depth on this once I get back, but in the meantime, you can check out the poster here and see what the heck it is that a psycholinguist does.

Today I’m unveiling a little side project I’ve been doing off and on for the past few months, one that I previewed a bit in last week’s All of what sudden? post. It’s called SeeTweet, and it generates maps with the locations of the most recent tweets containing a search term. So if, for instance, you want to assess the geographical extent of a dialectal variant, you can. Let’s say you’ve been hearing about the needs done construction, as in

(1) Maybe the majority’s attitude needs adjusted

and now you want to know where people say something so silly. Well, SeeTweet can tell you:

Needs fixed map

Mapping "needs fixed" with SeeTweet

As you can see, it’s pretty well localized to a stretch from Iowa to central Pennsylvania, a region similar to the (North?) Midland dialect region.* Of course, this particular case doesn’t need SeeTweet. Murray, Frazer, and Simon wrote a series of papers detailing the geographic range of this and related usages (e.g., wants done) in the late 90s, and the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project has also mapped known usages of needs done. But whereas this previous work has required a lot of time and effort, SeeTweet provides a quick and easy approximation, a starting point for more advanced investigations.

It’s no replacement for the YGDP or the Dictionary of American Regional English, of course; it’s much noisier data than either of these projects. It can offer a different kind of view, though, one that can be assembled to track more ephemeral usages (e.g., event-related usages like “Carmaggedon” or “Jerry Meals“) in real-time, as well as assembling a lot of data on persistent usages (e.g., pop and soda).

So I’m hoping that you’ll be able to go out and use SeeTweet to look into the geographical distribution of something interesting, whether for academic purposes or just to waste time at the end of the week. I’ve put together some sample investigations in a SeeTweet gallery, and I’d love to see what sort of great uses you’ll put it to. If you find something neat, leave a comment here or in the gallery, or send an email to seetweetmaps@gmail.com.

[A couple of friends offered great advice/testing on earlier versions of SeeTweet and must be acknowledged for it. Thanks to Dan (who came up with the name SeeTweet), Rodolfo, Maria, Casey, Ari, Rebecca, Noah, Anoush, and Chris.]


*: There are a couple of dots out West, but I’m betting that those are from immigrants like me who were raised in the Midland region and ended up out West.

It’s March 4th again, which means that it’s National Grammar Day again, which means that it’s time to dig through the archives again and pull out some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here on Motivated Grammar this year. And that is the only fun part about National Grammar Day for me.

If you’re new here, you might be surprised at that. “But Gabe!” you cry, “Aren’t you all about grammar? Wouldn’t you love a day celebrating it?” And my response to that question is a curt no. You see, I’m all about grammar and language and the like. Hell, I’m in grad school studying it. But when most people say they’re interested in grammar, they mean they’re interested in learning a set of rules. And the rules they’re trying to learn hold about as much relationship to English as runway models’ clothes hold to the clothes in your wardrobe. These grammar rules — or to be more accurate, myths — are viewed as signs of high culture and linguistic erudition, but the truth is that they are far from the truth, and are at best harmless.

At their worst, these myths serve as a means for those who shout the loudest to shut up those who meekly try to use the language. I’ve known many people who’ve sought to improve their grammatical knowledge, only to be dismayed by the sheer number of un- and counter-intuitive rules that met them. In fact, in my younger years I was one of them. For you see, I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town, and I thought that one of the keys to class mobility was an impeccable command of the English language. (As Peter Gabriel put it in “Big Time”, I was stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.) And that command, I thought, would come through the study of grammatical primers.

But like my failed attempt to master the rules of etiquette, my attempt to master the so-called rules of grammar too met with defeat, as I found myself unable to keep so many seemingly arbitrary rules in my head. And so I gave up and figured I could learn all I needed to know about the English language by observation of skilled writers and speakers. I spent some substantial effort in high school mimicking the speech styles of friends whose speech I admired, and the writing style of good authors.

Through it all, though, I kept entertaining the notion that I’d eventually know all the rules. And then, over the course of a couple years and a couple courses in linguistics, I came to realize that my very goal was a load of hokum. Yes, there are rules to English, like verb conjugation, or that adjectives usually precede nouns. But every native speaker already knows these rules. The ones discussed in the books, the ones I was trying to learn, they’re just nits to pick. And the nits aren’t even ones that correspond to any real form of English anyway.

If you want to know the rules of English, look in an English-as-a-second-language textbook, not Strunk and White. If you want to know how to use English effectively, read and listen to those whose language you enjoy and admire. Good English is constrained by rules, not defined by them.

But now I’m rambling, so let me stop that and move on to presenting the truth behind ten of these minor myths that people dress up as rules. I’ve included a brief summary of why the myth is untrue, but for the full story, follow the links:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways. Anyway is the more common form, but that’s a historical accident. Related forms always and sometimes are more common than their s-less companions, so clearly anyways isn’t inherently ungrammatical.

Nothing’s wrong with center around. Despite the claims that this usage is logically inconsistent, and that centers on is necessary, center around has been a valid part of English for around 200 years now. No reason to stop now.

There’s not just one right way to say something. Do you worry if the past tense of dive is dived or dove? Or do you worry about shined and shone? Well, a lot of the time there isn’t a single right or best way of saying it. As it turns out, a lot factors can affect the decision. And often it’s best to go with your gut feeling.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is always acceptable. The myth that it isn’t is the result of a half-baked argument John Dryden concocted in the 17th century to explain why he was a better playwright than Ben Jonson. He was wrong about being better than Jonson, and he was wrong about the prepositions, too. Unfortunately, three-and-a-half centuries of people have fallen for his myth.

“Ebonics” isn’t lazy English. Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English as linguists generally call it, isn’t a deficient form of English. It’s a dialect, or possibly even a creole, of English with its own distinctive and systematic syntactic, phonological, and morphological features.

Gender-neutral language isn’t bad language. Using words like spokesperson doesn’t harm the language, and doesn’t start us down some slippery slope where the word human will have to be replaced by huperson or something. Similarly, using they to refer to a single person of unknown gender is a usage that’s been going on for centuries.

Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation. Sure, Ms. is newer than Mrs. and Miss, but it’s a standard title. It’s a good solution to the asymmetry that female titles depend on maritial status and the male title does not.

Jealous can be used to mean envious. Some people try to claim that jealousy and envy are totally distinct, but they’re not, and they’ve been used in overlapping senses since Chaucer’s time.

And a few myths from other blogs:

Non-literal literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of literally. All of us share the conclusion that non-literal literally has been used for years, by writers good and bad, and is here to stay. But the three of us disagree on whether or not it’s a stylistically good usage. I found this an interesting exercise in seeing how different descriptivists dispense usage advice.

A lot of what gets called “passive” isn’t really. Language commentators often denigrate an impersonal usage by calling it a “passive”, and demanding that it be converted to an active form. But lots of impersonal forms are active already, and there isn’t anything wrong with the passive anyway(s). Geoff Pullum explains the English passive over at Language Log.

Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language.

Lastly, if you want another 20 myths debunked (or another 20 minutes’ break from work), check out our Grammar Day mythbusting from 2010 and 2009.

[Update 03/04/2012: Another National Grammar Day means ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

Hey all, I’ve got a spot of free time on the horizon and I’m thinking of spending at least some of it improving this blog. On the whole this blog is more or less the same as it was years ago when it was getting a hit or two each day, and now that there are regular readers and a bit of a community here, my big question is: what do you, the readers, want?

I’m soliciting your thoughts on every part of the site, from its posts to its design to its philosophy. Anything you’ve thought about the site, whether good or bad, is useful (especially the bad stuff). What makes you come back to the blog, and what makes you want to leave? Let me seed the conversation with a list of questions I’ve been asking myself:

Regarding the posts: Are there things you generally like or dislike about the posts, such as their layout or length? Do they need more illustrations/photos? Are there certain kinds of posts you like or dislike? Is the writing style too esoteric, too simplistic, too gruff, too rambling, too condescending, too certain? Am I too much of an old grouch?

Regarding Motivated Grammar in general: Is there anything new you’d like to see added or anything from an older version that you wish were still here? Do you want anything more from @MGrammar on Twitter? Is there any need for or interest in a forum to go along with the blog? Would you like to see a Motivated Grammar page on Facebook or MySpace or some other social networking site, or to hear a Motivated Grammar podcast?

Don’t limit your comments to only these points. I want to know anything that will make your time here more pleasant and more useful. I’m interested in new readers’ thoughts as well as the old-timers’. Either comment here (anonymously if you think I will be made very sad and it will ruin our friendship) or drop a line to motivatedgrammar[at]gmail.com. Thanks for helping make this blog what it is and thanks in advance for your advice.

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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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