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Let me talk about something that I feel like I’ve been circling around for some time, but never quite directly addressed. It’s a common thing in grammar grousers: playing up other people’s questionable usages as symptomatic of a larger disease while playing down one’s own as a clever subversion of stodgy English. Whereas the complainant’s usages are all justified by improving the language or enlivening the prose or just plain sounding right, the scorned writer’s usages are utterly unjustified — not because the complainant has considered possible justifications and found none of them sufficient, but rather because it is simply self-evident that an error is an error.*

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizbeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey. I find both of those to be worse than the targets of her ire — especially rapey, the jokey tone of which I find borderline offensive. Crucially, though, even as I reject her words, I can see why she likes them; it’s just that for me, their benefits don’t outweigh their downsides. Williams, on the other hand, seems to ignore any potential upsides to the usages she dislikes. When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

Similarly, I got into a short Twitter war with a follower who tweeted that she wanted to send copies of education majors’ grammatical errors to future employers. I pointed out that the follower (whose Twitter name is “Grammar Nazi”, about which the less said the better) had questionable usages in her bio:

“A soon to graduate English major whose biggest turn on is good grammar.”

In my grammar, there’re three missing hyphens, but she responded to me noting this with “I’m sure you’re aware compounding is a grey area. Rules may be generally agreed upon, but no official guidelines exist.” Such “generally agreed-upon” rules were probably settled enough for the tweeter to treat as errors had others broken them, but because she’s doing it, it’s okay. Her choice to go against the standards is justified, because she sees the justification. The education majors’, with their justifications left implicit, probably wouldn’t be.**

This forgiveness extends, of course, to include other people whose viewpoint the writer is sympathetic to. Kyle Wiens, who wrote that Harvard Business Review piece on his intolerance for grammar errors in his hiring practices, had a couple of questionable usages in the piece — nothing too bad, but things that would violate a true Zero Tolerance stance. Another blogger quoted some of the piece and added:

“Ignoring the one or two grammatical glitches within the quoted text (they may be the result of a message that was delivered orally, rather than in written form), the message […] should be taken to heart. If you write poorly, you tell your reader: I haven’t changed. My education hasn’t made me better, it hasn’t touched my core. […] I’m certainly not looking to have excellence be part of my personal brand – it’s too hard and too time consuming.”

The blogger seeks out an explanation for Wiens’s errors that diminishes the errors, but then chooses an explanation for everyone else’s that diminishes the writers.

We all do this to some extent. The most prominent example for me is when I come home from work and find a pile of dishes in the sink from my roommates. “C’mon guys, you can’t be bothered to do the dishes?” I wonder to myself and to anyone I talk to over the next few days. Yet I’ve just realized that I forgot to finish the dishes this morning before going to campus. Somehow I can’t muster the same indignation at myself as I have toward my roommates, because I had an excuse. (And I’ll tell you it as soon as I figure it out.)

Sure, it’s fair to give known-good writers more leeway than known-bad ones. But every error has a cause, and every usage a rationale. Don’t decide ahead of time that someone can’t be wrong or can’t be right.

*: This isn’t unique to grammar by any means; half of politics is explaining away your side’s missteps while playing up the other side’s.

*: By the way, you may wonder if I’m not doing exactly what I oppose here by complaining about a minor error that some people do not see as an error. On that, two points. One, hyphenating phrases that are used as adjectives (especially more-than-two-word phrases) is about as standard a rule of punctuation as one can find. Similarly with hyphenating a phrasal verb in its nominal form. Two, not that she needs to justify herself to me, but she doesn’t explain any reason why she’s breaking the rule, so as far as I can tell, she’s breaking the rule just to break it — hardly appropriate behavior for an otherwise hard-liner.

Hey all, this is super last-minute, but I figured why not ask. Some of my friends and I were joking about playing in a fantasy football league this year, so I set one up, but everyone’s since backed out. So I figured I’d see if anyone was interested in being part of a Motivated Grammar fantasy football league in order to build camaraderie. The first week of games starts tonight, so we’ll skip the first week and hold the draft on Saturday (the 8th) at 5pm Pacific Time. If you can’t make the draft, you can just auto-draft and probably end up with a better team than the people who’re actually there.

If you want to join, go to http://football.fantasysports.yahoo.com/f1/register/joinprivateleague_league_select
The league ID is: 815468
The league password is: yayfootball

If we don’t have at least 8 people by this weekend, I’ll probably call it off. And, of course, I won’t be offended in the least if no one joins; this is pretty far outside our wheelhouse.

It’s the day after Labor Day, the traditional first day of school in my hometown. With the end of summer vacation comes a sound in the distance, the slow, steady approach of writing assignments. And so, as a fellow whose classes are still nearly a month away (ah, the quarter system!), I thought I’d toss together some basic grammar review for the new school year.

This series is going to be somewhat different from the rest of my posts; the matters under discussion are mostly settled, and I’ll be more prescriptivist than usual because they’re guidelines for writing that’s graded as much on adherence to Edited English as it is graded on content. I’m still going to let you know when a rule’s bunkum, but I might say it’s well-regarded bunkum that you’d be wise to adhere to.

Lastly, I’m trying to make this series accessible and simple, but I’m sure I’ll be coming up short of those goals in these first iterations. I’d love any advice or criticism of it that you’re willing to give, because I’d like to revise and improve these posts in the future. So thanks in advance for your comments.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]

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.

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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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