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In Wednesday’s post, I was complained about how the Daily Mail treated an obvious non-expert as an expert, writing an article that gave us her ill-informed opinions as though they somehow mattered. Now, having looked through the comments on that article, I’m compelled to do a bonus Friday post, because some of the comments are masterpieces of grammar ramblings. I’ve posted commentary below them, but really, they’re the stars of the show, and I’m just the nettling MC making the obvious joke.

A large number of students and adults can’t tell the difference between
their, there, they’re
It’s, its’, its,
loose, lose
– Batman, Newport, strange planet called ‘Earth’, 07/12/2010 14:43

Its’?

Not to nitpick, but there is no such word as its’
– Natalie, Durham, 7/12/2010 17:01
Yes there is! Educate yourself THEN comment….
– marie, athens, 7/12/2010 7:54

Is there anything more marvelous than a snotty remark from someone who is wrong? And again, its’?

Not sure why you’ve been red arrowed when it’s totally true. ‘Asian talk’ such as “innit” and “bro” has become part of the day-to-day language.
Get on a bus in London and I doubt you’ll hear a single English voice.
Act fast now and cut immigration – if you go in a shop and hear them speaking in foreign remind them what country they live in!!!

My dear British National Party friend, bro is American talk, and we’ll thank you to cite us appropriately. Also, “speaking in foreign”? C’mon.

How about the very latest, infuriating beauty? Question: ‘Have you got a girl-friend?’
Answer: ‘Yes I do’. I long to witness such an exchange on TV and hear the interviewer ask ‘Yes, you do what?’ The answer will, of course, be ‘Yes, I do have a girl-friend’. The learned interviewer will then humiliate the ignoramus – for the benefit of all – with ‘Do you mean “Yes, I have”?

If you’ll excuse some longer commentary, no, the interviewee doesn’t mean that. The interviewee is using verb phrase ellipsis. VP ellipsis is where a verb phrase would be repeated but is instead left out or replaced with an appropriate auxiliary. The auxiliary is based on the tense of the VP being replaced, so you’d use do in the present tense, will in the future, did in the past, and so on. This kind of ellipsis replaces the verb and its objects. If the verb isn’t replaced, then the objects have to stick around, too*. In response to “Did you eat the fish yet?” one can say “Yes, I did” or “Yes, I ate it”, but “Yes, I ate” is distinctly strange to say here. So too with the “Have you got a girlfriend?” question; “Yes, I do” or “Yes, I have a girlfriend”, or even “Yes, I have one” would be standard. But “Yes, I have” would only be a standard response if the question were “Have you had a girlfriend?”.

It is noticible how poor grammar is now quite normal amongst the younger generations. You only have to look at the standard from the articles written on here & other media. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are graduates they are employing. Also the media has made a big effort to move away from those who speak the queens english or proper english. Instead they push regional accents where possible. Where they have their own dialect. Like some say “us” instead of “me”. Unless children are avid book readers, they will pick up poor grammar from the internet, media etc. The problem is we have let standards slip. I know a few students who are wanting to go into teaching, because it is so much easier to get on courses. I would not want them teaching my children, they seem,undisciplined ignorant of history & basic facts. Have been brought up on a shallow celeb culture. They have poor grammar & would be passing this on to future pupils. We need to stop the cycle of this now.

If you’re serious in your concerns about bad grammar on the Internet, might I suggest you not post anymore?

*: In some cases you can elide only the object, but these are generally in cases where the verb is being specifically focused on, i.e., He didn’t think I saw it, but I saw. They also, at least to me, sound generally awkward unless they are delivered angrily, in which case grammatical awkwardness is the least of one’s concerns.

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The World Cup’s over now, but there’s a little point that’s keeps gnawing at me. I followed the World Cup primarily through Yahoo!’s sports site (previously mentioned for its poor choices in headline truncation), and I have to admit that despite my general disdain for comments on sports sites, I found myself actually following theirs. Not, of course, because the comments offered any insights, but rather out of a worrisome inability to stop looking at them. They were mini-Medusas, turning my brain to stone each time I looked upon their inane blabberings and tried to figure out why the commenter thought I needed to hear their thoughts. And worse, they had a siren’s song, a cer—n undeniable beauty in their weird blend of nationalism, chauvinism, mockery, pop culture references, and insanity that kept me unable to turn away.

Curious about the dashes in cer—n? Well, so am I. Yahoo!’s commenting software has an apparently very strange censorship module in it. Like a standard censorship module, it replaces words it finds offensive with dashes. In order to deter the more clever vulgarians, it also replaces dirty words hidden within other words. This is why glasses is censored into gl— in the following comment:

The Refs need gl---.

That’s a little out of the ordinary; in my experience, most automatic-censoring software checks against a dictionary, and lets words whose only fault is containing an obscene word go through untouched. This isn’t a hard feature to program in, so I am led to believe that Yahoo! consciously decided to omit it. Maybe they were having trouble with commenters using minced oaths like “We’re going to kick your glasses!” and they decided to remove even within-word obscenities to foil them. That would also explain this comment:

kudos in major quan---ies

I’m going to go out on a limb and suppose that the commenter wished to offer major quantities of kudos, which would of course be censored by a censor that seeks out vulgarities lurking within words. Nothing too weird there. But then I found these comments:

technolo---

Apparently FIFA president Sepp Blatter isn’t the only one against technology; Yahoo!’s censor is adamant that the word not be reproduced in full. For some reason, the string gy is marked as obscene. The only explanation I can come up with for that is that the censor wanted to prevent brainiacs slipping gay by the censor by omitting its vowel. That’s an implausible explanation, though, especially since I’ve seen gay come through uncensored in other comments.

Now what about the censorship I engaged in in the opening paragraph, cer—n? Why would I do something so silly? Well, check out these comments:

Based on context, surely the censored words in the comments above are meant to be Captain, certain, and entertaining, which suggests that the Yahoo! censor believes tai to be a vulgarity.*

I was worried that my lexicon of vulgarities had fallen out of date, which would ruin the street cred that I have so precisely cultivated, so I rushed onto Urban Dictionary to find out what made tai censorable. Strangely, there was only one obscene definition for tai on Urban Dictionary. But I don’t think that it has anywhere near the general appeal to need censoring; it was the eighth definition listed on Urban Dictionary, buried under references to the band The Academy Is… and a claims that folks with the name Tai are “unusually fly”, “elite, perfect, cool guy in planet”, and “a total badass”. I tried looking on Google, but struck out there as well, with searches for “tai obscene” and “tai vulgarity” not returning anything useful.**

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Have I offended you by saying gy and tai all willy-nilly? If so, please accept my heartfelt apolo—.


*: Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s not tai that’s obscene but rather ta or tain, which are also in all three words. Judging from the gl— and quan—ies examples, though, it appears that all and only the obscene letters are dashed out.

**: I was shocked to find out you could search for any phrase with “obscene” in it and not get a single porn site. I found that especially surprising with “Tai” given that Kobe Tai was a famous pornographic actress in the late 90s.

I imagine you international readers might be slightly surprised by this, what with my being an American and all, but I get pretty excited for the World Cup. Sure, in my rankings of footballs, I’d put association football below American, Canadian, Australian, and rugby footballs, but one can’t beat the pageantry of the Cup. It’s also one of the few major sporting events where the U.S. is always big underdog, so that it’s fun to cheer for them.

The past few days have been pretty good for many of the Anglophone countries that comprise most of this blog’s readership, what with the U.S. and England both advancing, Australia pulling down a win, and France utterly collapsing in what I hope was a cathartic experience for the Irish. (I know my Ireland-obsessed friend enjoyed it. Stan, how was it for you?)

Anyway, I was cruising on Yahoo! after yesterday’s U.S.-Algeria game to see how the Ghana-Germany game played out, when suddenly a headline derailed me:

"Germany beats Ghana 1-0, wins World Cup"

Well, gosh, so much for my excitement. I suppose Germany winning the World Cup shouldn’t be so surprising. I’m just surprised how quickly they did it. Well, kudos to the Black Stars for making it to the finals. I might as well click through to the story:

"Germany beats Ghana 1-0, wins World Cup group"

Oh. It’s a shame the headline column didn’t have room for five extra letters.

The first is from AA Gill, who, having dealt with letter writers who have nothing better to do than to darken his door by complaining about supposed improprieties in his grammar, shoots back:

“I love the rabid grammarians. You are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of grocery labels. For them, the written and the spoken language are a constant torment of misplaced commas, swallowed vowels, and “uns” usurping “ins”. Oh, the bliss of them. They are utterly redundant. The grammarians’ ire and fury count for naught. They make not the slightest scintilla of difference to the flow of the great torrent of language; they can’t change a single syllable in anyone’s mouth, or reunite the simplest infinitive. I love them, because they so utterly miss the point, comma, semicolon, exclamation mark.”

And, in a quite similar vein, Mike Pope forwarded me this gem from TruePath in a comment at The Volokh Conspiracy:

“[…] if the goal of prescriptivists was just to guard against things some readers find annoying then their primary obligation would be to shut up. No error of grammar can be as annoying as someone who lectures people about their grammar (this is different than genuinely trying to inform someone that most people find something to be poor grammar)”

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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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