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A couple of pieces of language news have come through the pipes lately. I only have a little bit to say about each of them, so I figured, why not combine them? (The answer, as any SEOer worth their salt could tell you, is that presenting them separately will drive additional traffic to the site. But you are worth far more to me than mere traffic stats, dear reader, and so I’ll present them together in a more efficient package.)

The first bit of news is that the AP has at last caved to the present and changed their stylebook to request email over e-mail. Some people made quite a bit of fuss over this, but it really doesn’t matter. The AP Stylebook no more determines the English language than any else does. The stylebook is reacting to modern English, not shaping it. John McIntyre and Arnold Zwicky and Jan Freeman have more on how much this doesn’t matter.

I'm very sorry to report that this sweet animated gif is now out-of-date around the AP offices.

The second bit of news is that the Oxford English Dictionary has a new update out, including revised “R” words, foods, Australian slang, and a couple of Internet initialisms: OMG and LOL. People also are freaking out over this. To clarify, the inclusion of LOL in the OED does not mean that it should be used in formal writing, it does not mean that the folks at the OED necessary like it, or anything more than that they believe it is a sufficiently common and important word in contemporary English that it should be recorded with its definition. No more, no less. They join other popular initialisms as BFF, IMHO, TMI, and everyone’s favorite, WTF. This was met with a wide range of misinterpretations on Twitter:

[The “some words are based on people’s opinions” line just keeps on making me laugh.]

The third bit of news is that the OED has added a new verbal sense (i.e., definition) to heart, meaning to love or be fond of. (This, by the way, is not the only verbal definition of heart; one definition, to embolden, dates back to 897 AD.) Contrary to what some have reported, it is not entered into the OED as <3, nor as ♥. It is simply a new sense for the five-letter word heart.

I repeat, as even some actual newspapers have claimed otherwise, that the symbol ♥ is not in the OED. Try, if you have a subscription to the OED, searching for ♥ online. You will find no such entry.

Furthermore, there are articles announcing that ♥ would be the first symbol in the OED, but that’s not right either. Under the heading C, one finds the symbol ©. So, no, ♥ is not in the OED, but even if it were, that wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Keep calm; English carries on.

This concludes the language news for today. Good night and good luck.

You know that I think too many people try to catch other people on grammar mistakes and typos. It’s alright (but often rudely done) when the correcter is right. It’s irritating when the correcter is neither right nor wrong (as with omitting or including Oxford commas). And then there’s the hypercorrection, where the correcter really wants to prove their superiority, and just starts making corrections willy-nilly, often miscorrecting perfectly acceptable writing. Here’s a fun example, posted as either a “job LOL” or a “work fail” on Failblog:


OH BOOM! Hey, person who just wanted to keep a common area clean! You and your reasonable request just got served! Scorched Earth LOL!

Except: I count five corrections, of which two are invalid, one is a question of tone, and only two are actually valid complaints. Oh, and there’s a missed correction.

Correction 1: whoever to whomever. See, this is why whom is leaving English. Very few people, even those who want to see it stay in the language, know how to use it correctly (i.e., as the accusative case form of who, not as the formal version of who). Briefly, whom(ever) is used when the noun phrase it’s replacing would be an object of a verb. The wh-word in whoever ate this pizza is replacing a subject NP, which means that it should get nominative case (whoever), not accusative case (whomever). If the clause were “whoever this pizza ate”, then one could add the m. But it is not, and the correction is wrong.

Correction 2: Removing the comma before and. Because this and is joining two verb phrases into a single verb phrase with a single subject, there’s no syntactic reason to have this comma. The comma is also inappropriate from a rhetorical standpoint; a speaker wouldn’t pause before this and. Score 1 for the correcter.

Correction 3: Replacing the comma with a semicolon before you are gross. No, semicolons generally join two complete sentences into a single sentence, and whoever … here isn’t complete.* A comma is indeed correct here; this is an example of left-dislocation, rare in written English but common in spoken English and many other languages**. In left-dislocation, a noun phrase describing the subject or object of the sentence is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic of the sentence, and then is referred to later by a pronoun.

Because the specific pronoun here is you, this could also be a case of the whoever phrase being a vocative phrase appended at the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is common in spoken English and shows up often in online comments: e.g., “John, you need to grow up.” If it’s viewed as a vocative, then a comma is again correct. A colon could also be appropriate, as a greeting for the entire message, like the opening to a business letter. Either way, a semicolon is incorrect, and so is the corrector.

Correction 4: Parenthesizing profanity. The corrector claims that there’s no need for profanity. This is an issue of style, and isn’t really right or wrong. In a business setting, like the one this pizza box was apparently found in, written profanity may be inappropriate. However, having been in college recently enough to remember roommates who left empty pizza boxes scattered like lamps around a living room, I would argue that profanity is merited in these cases.

Correction 5: it’s replacing its. That’s a good change. The added rationale, though, should have a colon in place of its comma: need an apostrophe: ITS = possessive.

Missed Correction: the space in who ever. Whoever ought to be a single word here, because it’s the indefinite/generalized form of who, which is standardly written as a single word any more. Who ever would be appropriate if ever were an adverb modifying the verb (e.g., Who ever heard of a snozzberry?). When the correcter added the M, they retained the space, and that’s a missed opportunity to correct.

All in all, this is a microcosm of why I hate people correcting people’s grammar. The correctors are often wrong themselves, and in the course of trying to show up someone else, they completely miss the point — in this case, the undeniable fact that abandoned pizza boxes belong in the trash. Correctors: You’re not helping. And if you’re not helping, you could at least have the decency to be right.

*: It could be complete as a question, but here it’s obviously supposed to be a declarative sentence.

**: I first became aware of left-dislocation in French sentences like Mon ami, il est comme un sandwich, and there’s a whole class of languages that regularly do this.

On the message board of a Facebook group complaining about Facebook’s use of “unlike” as a verb:

Free advice: if you’re saying that you’re in support of grammar because you refuse to use the neologism “unlike”, then you really oughtn’t to use “win” as a mass noun right beforehand. Also, gloating that 16 people joined a Facebook group is like gloating that you breathed 16 times today.

At the turn of the new year, I wrote post about Tom Torriglia, who’d managed to get a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle stating his opposition to pronouncing the year 2010 as “two thousand ten”. Torriglia, as it turns out, is the head of a group he calls NAGG (National Association for Good Grammar). He is also in the process of writing a book about all the various companies that NAGG has complained to about the grammar of their advertisements, and how (strangely) no one at the companies ever really listened. A draft of the book is available online. So I looked through it, and I can see why the companies never listened to his complaints: they’re mostly rubbish. A few examples:

Ordinal dates for cardinal dates – Torriglia complains about a Fox Sports Net ad for the MLB All-Star Game that had a date written as “March 5th”. Torriglia claims that the cardinal “March 5” is the only acceptable form in writing, and that the ordinal “March 5th” is speech improperly transcribed. If this were an error, it would be one with a long history: here is an example from the front-page of a 1740 sermon, here is an example in a 1773 from Colonel Burgess Ball, and here is a series of examples in an 1832 letter from Charles Darwin. It sure seems acceptable.

Me replacing I – The next complaint is about a children’s show called Buster and Me. Torriglia claims that this ought to be Buster and I. His rationale is a quote from “Subject pronouns are used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence”, but this point is completely irrelevant because Buster and Me/I is not a sentence. The default case for English pronouns outside of sentences is the accusative (or object) case (me, him, her, etc.). If someone asks “Who wants ice cream?”, you can either reply with a full sentence “I do!” or the single word “Me!” Note that you cannot reply with the single word “I”, because it is not in the default case. In the absence of a full sentence* to assign a case to the noun phrase Buster and Me — as in the title — accusative me will be preferred over nominative I.

dead body is redundant – His rationale: “[T]he Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines body as a corpse.” If that is the only definition for body in the RHUD, then it’s not a very good dictionary; the online Oxford English Dictionary lists more that 30 definitions of the word, only one of which is “Short (or euphemistic) for ‘dead body’, corpse.” Yes, body can mean “corpse”, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s just one example of a live body:

(2) “whilst all the rest of my body is sore with cold.”

Strangely, Torriglia follows up his claim that dead body is redundant by noting that a body can, in fact, be alive. Perhaps the dictionary he’s using, in addition to defining body as “corpse”, defines redundant as “clarificatory”.

Slow is not an adverb – It is. See an earlier post on this matter if you don’t believe me.

Torriglia’s book is riddled with errors and absurd claims, so why am I confident that the book will be a best-seller? Simple: a successful popular grammar book is required to contain as many erroneous and unsubtantiated claims as possible. Plus, Torriglia’s got the style down just right. He starts by noting that “This book is a [sic] light-hearted in approach but serious in intent”, and adds the disclaimer “No advertising copywriters were harmed during the writing of this book although I really hope I get to strangle each and every one of them someday!”, as well as noting, in response to a poorly-written email, that “The grammar police had to snuff that guy.” Lynne Truss, you’ve got a competitor in anger!

*: Technically, it’s not a full sentence that assigns the case, but rather a case governor like an inflectional phrase (IP).

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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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