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If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.

*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

I’ve been meaning to set up some sort of occasional round-up of interesting pieces on the rest of the Internet, and with the new year, there’s no better time to start.  I’ll be posting these (hopefully consistently) every other Friday, starting today. This edition is going to go a bit outside the past 14 days; I hope this doesn’t sour you to it.

A couple links with commentary:

* Jonathon Owen’s post on relative pronouns and the silly proscriptions they engender is really darn good, and having been posted on Christmas Eve, it would have made a great present, if only I’d seen it then.  This part I’m quoting isn’t even my favorite part, that’s how good it is:

If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes.

* This isn’t exactly language-related, but here’s a post from Christopher Simmons on the University of California’s scrapped new logo & brand identity. The core point of the article is the debate about to what extent knowledge of the underlying purpose or process is necessary in order to fairly critique the outcome. In the case of the logo, was it fair to hate it without knowing exactly how it was used, how the designers presented it, and what the University asked the designers for?

I see a parallel here with language; we often wonder when it’s fair to critique someone’s usage, and to what extent one must know their background or dialect. I disagree with many of Simmons’s points; logo design is more about the impression it makes than the intent behind it, so it seems to me that a reaction like “I don’t like it” must be taken into account — just as I must occasionally swallow my pride and write “needs to be done” instead of “needs done” in formal writing, even though I can fully justify the usage. But I like his thoughts on valid and invalid, helpful and unhelpful, and justified and unjustified complaints. (Full disclosure: I thought that the new logo & identity were a poor choice, especially compared to the semi-traditional identity that they were intended to replace.)

* Also a bit afield from the usual here, but John McIntyre wrote yesterday that (journalistic) editors are supposed to provide skepticism at least as much as they provide story improvements. I was a little embarrassed, having finished the piece, that I’d never thought of such seemingly obvious points — the true sign of a good and well-needed discussion. We too readily bemoan the loss of editing in contemporary publishing when we see errors that don’t matter (like a headline I’ve seen for three straight days on a website, confusing “effect” for “affect”), but we miss out on the really crucial losses — the fact-checking and oversight of the information we receive.

A couple without:

* Johnson (Lane Greene) on singular they (and a follow-up on singular/plural you.

* Geoff Nunberg on big data misinterpreted as a plural.

* Be a online DARE beta tester! (via Mr. Verb)

* Ben Zimmer recounts the ADS word-of-the-year voting.

A picture to close it out:

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother's Christmas gathering.

The view as I (and my allergies) escaped the two dogs & three cats at my grandmother’s Christmas gathering.

A news story’s making the rounds this week that the members of the U.S. Congress have stopped talking at an 11th-grade level and have started talking at a 10th-grade level. This fits very neatly into the overall feeling that America is becoming ever more anti-intellectual, that Congress has become a group of petty and immature cliques who exist primarily to prevent each other from accomplishing anything, which is why the story has picked up steam. And perhaps these feelings are accurate, but this story doesn’t provide any evidence of it.

In short, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test that’s used in this analysis is completely inappropriate for the task.

I discussed this during the Vice-Presidential debates back in 2008, and Chad Nilep at the Society for Linguistic Anthropology and Mark Liberman at Language Log each talked about it in light of this new story. Here’s an updated set of arguments why the whole thing is nonsense.

How do we deal with speech errors? Speech has something that writing doesn’t have: disfluencies. Whether it’s a filled pause (uh, um, you know), a correction (We have — I mean, don’t have), an aborted phrase (I am a man with– I have goals), there’re lots of words that come through in speech that wouldn’t be in edited writing. Here’s an example from the 2008 debate, where Gwen Ifill said:

“The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill — or didn’t pass it, I should say.”

That’s a sentence supposedly at the eighth-grade level. If we remove the mistakes & repetitions, we get a sentence that has now dropped a grade level. That’s the same drop that Congress supposedly has undergone. Maybe they just started editing the Congressional Record more tightly?

Grade levels aren’t based on content or ideas. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level calculation uses two statistics: syllables per word and words per sentence. These are imprecise stand-ins for want we really want, which is presumably the difficulty of the individual words and the complexity of the sentence structure. Word difficulty is going to be tied to their predictability in context, their frequency in the language, their morphological complexity, and other factors, all of which are loosely correlated with the number of syllables. Longer words will in general be more difficult, but there is a lot of noise in the correlation. Because we’re only using an estimate of the difficulty, our estimate of the grade level is inherently imprecise.

There is no punctuation in speech. There are lots of different ways to punctuate a speech. Is a given pause supposed to indicate a comma, a semicolon, or a period? The difference between these can be substantial; Nilep’s post shows how punctuating the speech errors as sentences of their own drop a sentence from grade level 28(!) to 10.

The rhetorical style of a speaker also comes into play here. Suppose Senator X and Senator Y deliver the same speech. Senator X uses a staccato style, where each clause becomes its own sentence. Senator Y uses a more relaxed and naturalistic style, combining some clauses with semicolon-ish pauses. Because the reading level calculation is based largely on number of words per sentence, Senator Y is going to get a much higher grade level, even though the only difference is in the delivery, not any of the content.

What does the grade level measure? The idea of grade-level estimation for writing was to give a quick estimate of how difficult a passage is to understand. The main readability scores were calibrated by asking people with known reading proficiency (as determined by a comprehension test or the grade level they were in) to read passages of various difficulty and to answer comprehension questions. The goal of the calibration was to get it so that if a piece of writing had a grade level of X, then people who read at the X level would be able to get some given percent of the comprehension questions right. Crucially, the grade level does not measure the content of the text, or the intelligence of the ideas it contains. In fact, for readability — the purpose the tests were developed for — a lower score is always better, assuming the same information is conveyed.

As I mentioned above, there’s a world of difference between reading and writing, so this calibration is probably invalid for speech. But if was valid, then we’d probably want to see the level go down.

The designers knew grade levels were imprecise measures. In a 1963 paper, George Klare wrote:

“Formulas appear to give score accurate to, or even within, one grade-level. Yet actually they are seldom this accurate.”

In a 2000 paper, George Klare wrote:

“Typical readability formulas are statistical regression equations, not mathematical identities, and do not reach that level of precision.”

I mention the two quotes here because they span 40 years of readability research, and the point remains the same. Grade-level assessment is somewhat informative, but it’s not very precise. You can be reasonably certain that a child will understand a third-grade level story better than a twelfth-grade level one. It is not nearly so certain that a tenth-grade level and eleventh-grade level story will be distinguishable. In fact, the Kincaid et al paper from 1975 that debuted the Flesch-Kincaid reading level calculation acknowledges its imprecision:

“Actually, readability formulas are only accurate to within one grade level, so an error of .1 grade level is trivial.”

Conclusions. So what we have here is a difference of 1 grade level (which is the edge of meaningfulness in ideal circumstances) when the reading level calculation is applied to speech, on which it is uncalibrated and in which we don’t have clear plans in place to account for the vagaries of punctuation and the issue of speech errors. Also, we have no data on the cause of the grade level decrease, whether it’s due to dumbing down, a push for clarity, or just new punctuation guidelines at the Congressional Record.

Which is to say, we have no reason to believe in this effect, nor to draw conclusions about its source, other than the unfortunate fact that we have a belief crying out to be validated.

Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry fame tweeted a link to this piece at the New York Daily News.* It’s a discussion of the online open letter that George Zimmerman put up, explaining his current situation and asking for contributions to his defense fund. I’ll skip the details of the Zimmerman/Martin case here, because the Daily News piece is so tangentially related to it that it could just as easily be about a man inconsequentially accused of stealing kitties as it is a microcosm of American paranoia, prejudice, and gun laws.

What’s interesting about the letter, it seems, is that it is not well-written, leading one of the Daily News’s bloggers to critique its “really bad grammar”. Why is that newsworthy? I don’t know — something about how Zimmerman’s playing “fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar” is only going to support the idea that he’s also “a careless vigilante who played fast and loose with the law”.

Of course, Zimmerman isn’t playing fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar. If he were doing that, he would be writing things like “Me innocents are”, violating in three words English rules of word order, subject-verb agreement, noun-adjective agreement, and case assignment. No, the eight objections the author raises to Zimmerman’s writing are four word choices and four punctuation choices — three of them comma placement. Two of these (periods outside quotation marks and that/which) are American stylistic standards that are not uniformly followed even by Americans. As Jonathon noted, “Let’s be fair: George Zimmerman’s really bad grammar is no worse than most people’s”.

Such overexcited objections are old hat; what I found interesting was a question posed by the author of the post, Alexander Nazaryan. Zimmerman uses whom in one of his relative clauses where who is clearly more appropriate, to the confoundment of Nazaryan. Nazaryan asks:

“Why does Zimmerman use the outdated and notoriously tricky objective pronoun ‘whom’ when ‘who’ is correct and, in any case, would generally suffice? ‘Whom’ may sound more sophisticated, but it is wrong.”

Nazaryan has partially answered his own question by noting the whiff of sophistication around whom, but if he really wants to know the motivation, he need look no further than a mirror. As a preface to his piece, Nazaryan writes that when he was a high school English teacher, he would sometimes punish students by making them write letters of apology with “the only stipulation [being] that the grammar in such a missive had to be impeccable.”

Why? Not because it’s a useful learning experience, a hands-on application of the language skills he’s teaching them. Rather, it’s because Nazaryan claims “good grammar equaled a clean conscience”, which is first-order balderdash.**

He notes that it would take multiple drafts before the student got the letter to adhere to his grammar. That’s unsurprising; judging by his examples of the prescribed changes (no final prepositions!), his grammar contained a bunch of unmotivated edicts that were not accurate representations of English, written or otherwise.

So why would someone feel so compelled to try to use an outdated and tricky pronoun that they put it in where it isn’t needed? This isn’t tough to see; people are taught — by pedantic English teachers like this very author — that English has rules that one must use when writing correctly. Yet these rules, these supposedly critical rules, cause you to write in ways that feel unnatural and don’t reflect standard English. Whom, due to its rarity in informal and spoken English, sounds more formal than who. If I knew I didn’t know which to use, but I knew whom was formal and unfamiliar, much like the rules I was supposed to have learned in school, I’d probably choose it here.

Uninformed English teachers like Nazaryan have caused this, with his ill-explained (and often unexplainable) edicts that lead people to become so confused about what’s right and wrong that they try to use what sounds fancier in the vain hope of cracking the mysterious code that is their own native language. And tying good grammar to clean consciences or honesty or moral probity or good thinking only intensifies the problem, as people who’d normally try to stick to their natural form of English feel compelled to reach for a formal form that they’ve never been properly taught.

*: Jonathon’s since followed up with a post addressing the piece’s ridiculousness, especially its “explicit moralization of grammar”.

**: I know I harp on certain points, so I’m trying to be short about this, but really?! How in the hell would anyone ever convince themselves of something so patently absurd? I have to assume this is sarcasm, because otherwise, what?

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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