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A woman drove past me recently in a car with a license plate holder reading “ALUMNI — BOSTON COLLEGE”. It’s a perfectly standard thing to have on one’s car — although BC was a bit of a surprise given that I’m in San Diego –, but it also presented a minor choice point in my day. I could either think of it as totally unremarkable and move on, or I could fret over its grammaticality.*

It looked like this, except mounted on a car instead of floating in a featureless void.

The problem with the license plate holder is a minor one that you’d easily never know if you’re unfamiliar with Latin. I was unaware of it until college, and even then it was perhaps only because I went to a school so fond of Latin as a scholarly language that our degrees were not BAs but ABs (Artium Baccalaureus instead of Bachelor of Arts) and our diplomas were written entirely in Latin.**

Anyway, the problem is that alumni is, at least in Latin, plural. Furthermore, it’s masculine (or mixed-gender). For a single graduate, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnus for a male or alumna for a female. And for multiple female graduates, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnae.

I imagine many of you readers already knew that, but maybe you didn’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t. Why? Because I can’t help noticing it. I suspect that a majority of the English speaking population doesn’t think that alumni has even the hint of inherent plurality about it. I’m looking at the Corpus of Contemporary American English right now, and there are 70 hits for “an alumni”, 61 of them in writing.*** That’s more common than “an alumna” and “an alum”, and only 29 hits less than “an alumnus”. Quite simply, singular alumni is standard in all but the most formal of Englishes, and I’m not sure it’s non-standard even there.

Why is singular alumni standard? Because it fits better with English. We don’t really like gender on our nouns (at least not anymore — Old English was fond of it). And we don’t really care about adjusting the plurality of borrowed words, especially not from Latin — see agenda or stamina. Rather than having to remember a fairly idiosyncratic gender/number system, it’s easier to treat alumni as a base singular form with a zero-plural, just like strong ol’ Germanic words like sheep or fish. And it saves university bookstores from having to stock four different license plate holders.

[EX-CUSE: Syracuse Alumni]

It’s a tangent, but this pun is almost enough to make me wish I had gone to Syracuse.

To return to the point of the opening paragraph, I can’t, much as I’d like to, stop myself from correcting singular alumni. It’s not even like it’s a choice, or a conscious decision — I see singular alumni, and my brain says “alumnus” or “alumna”. That much is automatic.

Where the choice comes in is whether I say something about it or judge people for it. In almost every situation, I don’t. For seemingly everybody, singular alumni is acceptable. For many of the rest, they’re okay when it’s used in a reasonable situation (such as when you don’t know the gender of the person buying the item). It’s only in very formal or very edited English (or around close friends who I think will be interested) that I would raise the issue. In other situations, bringing it up would just seem like an attempt to show off my passing familiarity with Latin, which would be a especially pathetic boast.

This is not linguistic whateverism. I’m not saying that editing is stupid or that nothing should be corrected. Editing, I can’t stress enough, is critical. But my point is that for all of you who insist that, say, it’s for its kills you and you can’t stop yourself from correcting it: yes, you can. We’re not beasts; we have self-control. When it’s something trifling, or in an ephemeral setting, or clearly not indicative of a larger ignorance of the language, you can and should let it pass. You’ll be happier for it, and you might even see a drop in your overall peevishness levels.

*: This is a false dichotomy; there is clearly a third way — to base a blog post upon it, thereby spending far more effort than if I had been content to simply complain about its grammaticality. Given that I’m going to berate that choice as a foolish use of one’s time, I’m aware of the irony in mine.

**: In fact, we are so enamored of traditional uses of Latin that to this day the salutorian of the class delivers their graduation speech entirely in Latin. The graduating seniors are given a copy of the speech in both Latin and English, with the Latinate portion marked for where to laugh, cheer, applaud, etc. I don’t think the rest of the audience is given this cheat sheet, thereby creating the illusion that we all speak Latin fluently enough to understand it in oratorical form.

I know, it sounds stupid and pretentious and ridiculous, and it is. But it was also great silly fun to overlaugh at something incomprehensible, sort of like being a member of a studio audience clapping at “APPLAUSE” signs must be. I highly recommend you petition your alma mater to do the same.

***: Many of these are in noun-noun compounds like “an alumni club” or “an alumni trustee”, where the grammatical number of alumni is unclear. Though my original intuition is that it’s being thought of as plural in these cases, English does tend to disprefer plural first nouns in noun-noun compounds (cf. mousetrap, cowcatcher, leafblower). Also, if one were to replace alumni in these compounds with some standardly pluralized noun like student, it’d be “student club”, not “students club”. Thus, I’m inclined to think of these examples as further, though weaker, evidence of singular usage alumni.

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If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version (http://www.oed.com). And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

Read the rest of this entry »

I happened upon something on NewsOK.com, the online version of the newspaper The Oklahoman.  I say “something” because it was certainly not an article, I don’t think it was a column, and it was so scattered that I daren’t call it an opinion piece.  I suppose that this may be the sort of writing that contributed to the newspaper being named The Worst Newspaper in America by the Columbia Journalism Review in 1999. The headline (what lured me in) was “Rules of grammar are not set in stone”, but the text did not seem to hold any significant relationship to its headline. As far as I could tell, it was basically a statement that perhaps ain’t is a word, but then again, of course it’s not, but maybe it is, and by the way, I think you can split infinitives.

My brain is still a bit sore from the whole ordeal, but there’s one bit of insanity that stood out heads and shoulders above the rest:

“Grammarians still wrangle over whether the wild and wooly English language should be saddled with civilized Latin grammar.”

No, we don’t. You might as well say “biologists still wonder whether a penguin wouldn’t be better off as a lion”, or “chefs still debate whether peanut butter could be improved by making it gazpacho”.  Penguins have an ecological niche just like lions do, and peanut butter has as much its own taste as gazpacho does. Similarly, English has as much a grammar as Latin did.

There is about as much debate about this point as there is about whether Barack Obama really qualifies as a “natural-born citizen” according to the Constitution.  Yes, there are people who fervently claim that Obama’s birth certificate is a fake, or he was born in Hawaii before it was a state, or whatever.  But these people are wrong.  So too with Latin-loving prescriptivists; they exist, but they’re wrong. Very wrong. They don’t understand languages at all.

Point of fact, English isn’t so wild anyway.  For instance, there is a very specific word order to English, which is not true of free-word-order languages like Russian, Warlpiri, or (guess what!) Latin.  The only reason that Latin seems orderly is because it’s a dead language, so there’s hardly anyone around to use it — and therefore, hardly any data that could disprove the grammatical rules that people think Latin obeys.  It’s static in a way that no living language will ever be.  Which leads to one final point: if Latin’s grammar was so wonderful, why did the language die out?  The answer, of course, is that it didn’t — instead, it morphed into the various extant Romance languages, which, you’ll notice, people rarely suggest English should adopt the grammar of.

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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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