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It’s March 4th again, which means that it’s National Grammar Day again, which means that it’s time to dig through the archives again and pull out some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here on Motivated Grammar this year. And that is the only fun part about National Grammar Day for me.

If you’re new here, you might be surprised at that. “But Gabe!” you cry, “Aren’t you all about grammar? Wouldn’t you love a day celebrating it?” And my response to that question is a curt no. You see, I’m all about grammar and language and the like. Hell, I’m in grad school studying it. But when most people say they’re interested in grammar, they mean they’re interested in learning a set of rules. And the rules they’re trying to learn hold about as much relationship to English as runway models’ clothes hold to the clothes in your wardrobe. These grammar rules — or to be more accurate, myths — are viewed as signs of high culture and linguistic erudition, but the truth is that they are far from the truth, and are at best harmless.

At their worst, these myths serve as a means for those who shout the loudest to shut up those who meekly try to use the language. I’ve known many people who’ve sought to improve their grammatical knowledge, only to be dismayed by the sheer number of un- and counter-intuitive rules that met them. In fact, in my younger years I was one of them. For you see, I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town, and I thought that one of the keys to class mobility was an impeccable command of the English language. (As Peter Gabriel put it in “Big Time”, I was stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.) And that command, I thought, would come through the study of grammatical primers.

But like my failed attempt to master the rules of etiquette, my attempt to master the so-called rules of grammar too met with defeat, as I found myself unable to keep so many seemingly arbitrary rules in my head. And so I gave up and figured I could learn all I needed to know about the English language by observation of skilled writers and speakers. I spent some substantial effort in high school mimicking the speech styles of friends whose speech I admired, and the writing style of good authors.

Through it all, though, I kept entertaining the notion that I’d eventually know all the rules. And then, over the course of a couple years and a couple courses in linguistics, I came to realize that my very goal was a load of hokum. Yes, there are rules to English, like verb conjugation, or that adjectives usually precede nouns. But every native speaker already knows these rules. The ones discussed in the books, the ones I was trying to learn, they’re just nits to pick. And the nits aren’t even ones that correspond to any real form of English anyway.

If you want to know the rules of English, look in an English-as-a-second-language textbook, not Strunk and White. If you want to know how to use English effectively, read and listen to those whose language you enjoy and admire. Good English is constrained by rules, not defined by them.

But now I’m rambling, so let me stop that and move on to presenting the truth behind ten of these minor myths that people dress up as rules. I’ve included a brief summary of why the myth is untrue, but for the full story, follow the links:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways. Anyway is the more common form, but that’s a historical accident. Related forms always and sometimes are more common than their s-less companions, so clearly anyways isn’t inherently ungrammatical.

Nothing’s wrong with center around. Despite the claims that this usage is logically inconsistent, and that centers on is necessary, center around has been a valid part of English for around 200 years now. No reason to stop now.

There’s not just one right way to say something. Do you worry if the past tense of dive is dived or dove? Or do you worry about shined and shone? Well, a lot of the time there isn’t a single right or best way of saying it. As it turns out, a lot factors can affect the decision. And often it’s best to go with your gut feeling.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is always acceptable. The myth that it isn’t is the result of a half-baked argument John Dryden concocted in the 17th century to explain why he was a better playwright than Ben Jonson. He was wrong about being better than Jonson, and he was wrong about the prepositions, too. Unfortunately, three-and-a-half centuries of people have fallen for his myth.

“Ebonics” isn’t lazy English. Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English as linguists generally call it, isn’t a deficient form of English. It’s a dialect, or possibly even a creole, of English with its own distinctive and systematic syntactic, phonological, and morphological features.

Gender-neutral language isn’t bad language. Using words like spokesperson doesn’t harm the language, and doesn’t start us down some slippery slope where the word human will have to be replaced by huperson or something. Similarly, using they to refer to a single person of unknown gender is a usage that’s been going on for centuries.

Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation. Sure, Ms. is newer than Mrs. and Miss, but it’s a standard title. It’s a good solution to the asymmetry that female titles depend on maritial status and the male title does not.

Jealous can be used to mean envious. Some people try to claim that jealousy and envy are totally distinct, but they’re not, and they’ve been used in overlapping senses since Chaucer’s time.

And a few myths from other blogs:

Non-literal literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of literally. All of us share the conclusion that non-literal literally has been used for years, by writers good and bad, and is here to stay. But the three of us disagree on whether or not it’s a stylistically good usage. I found this an interesting exercise in seeing how different descriptivists dispense usage advice.

A lot of what gets called “passive” isn’t really. Language commentators often denigrate an impersonal usage by calling it a “passive”, and demanding that it be converted to an active form. But lots of impersonal forms are active already, and there isn’t anything wrong with the passive anyway(s). Geoff Pullum explains the English passive over at Language Log.

Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language.

Lastly, if you want another 20 myths debunked (or another 20 minutes’ break from work), check out our Grammar Day mythbusting from 2010 and 2009.

[Update 03/04/2012: Another National Grammar Day means ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out.

The post is about non-literal literally, one of the most commonly cited signs of the linguistic apocalypse predicted by the grammar devotionals. But, as Stan shows, it’s far more complicated and interesting than that. Non-literal literally isn’t new (Ben Zimmer found it in the 1760s), and it isn’t restricted to the uneducated (Stan offers examples from Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others).

I’m going to quote out a few especially interesting parts of Stan’s post, but again, you really ought to read the whole thing. First, on the motivation for using non-literal literally:

Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.

On the fact that this path is hardly unique to literally:

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totallyreally, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.

Here’s his take-home message:

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it.

I’m with Stan. Honestly — and this may shock some of you who’ve been operating under the misapprehension that just because I don’t like prescriptivism that I am unable to distinguish better usage from worse — I don’t care for non-literal literally. I can’t find any examples of me using it in writing, and if I use it in speech, I believe I do so sparingly. My primary objection is that it strikes me as a poor word for the task; if you regularly can’t find a better way to intensify a statement than cheap hyperbole, you’re not a very effective writer. To get on a soapbox a moment, I find the overuse of hyperbole to be one of the most annoying stylistic shortcomings of contemporary writing, especially in Internet communication. This is a personal peeve about writing, so I don’t expect everyone to fall in line behind me on it, but it explains my personal dislike of non-literal literally.

The objection that non-literal literally conflicts with the primary meaning of the word is of secondary concern to me. This conflict is generally minor. It’s rare that one is honestly unsure whether or not the user literally did something, especially in speech, where intonation can clearly indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable usages of literally; should we, for instance, ban literally when it doesn’t adhere to its literal meaning of “to the letter”?

Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

A few days ago, John McGrath, Wordnik’s Director of Product Development, sent me a link to the preview version of Wordnik’s new thesaurus feature.  Wordnik, if you’re not familiar with it, is an online dictionary that integrates information from traditional dictionaries and online usage to give a more complete picture of a word’s meaning.  Merging these supervised and unsupervised data sources is of course a brilliant idea, and I think within a few years it will become a necessary part of any online dictionary.

I decided to test the Wordnik thesaurus with two types of words that often aren’t adequately represented in traditional thesauruses: colloquial phrasal verbs and insults.  The particular colloquial verb I tested was flesh out, which tends to pop into my head when I’m writing academically, as I want to first give an overview of the point I’m arguing, and then flesh it out.  Sadly, I’ve never found a synonym for flesh out that befits the tone of academic writing. Many thesauruses, even online ones, don’t list flesh out, and those that do haven’t given me enough alternatives to find a good one.  So I tried looking up flesh out on Wordnik, and I have to say it performed better than I expected.  It offered a few words that were pretty good equivalents (detail, fill in, round out, exposit), and, as would be expected from a semisupervised method, a few that were somewhat off (instance, set forth).  Still nothing that really fits my needs, but I’m not sure the word I’d be looking for even exists. (If you have any suggestions for a flesh out equivalent, let me know.)

The second test word was a common insult I employ in writing: imbecile.  The problem is that it’s so general; I often have situations where I want to make a quite specific insult, not merely to point out that someone is an imbecile, but also to specify the type of their imbecility (conscious ignorance, malicious misinformation, insufficient expertise, etc.).  Ever since I realized that “The Big Book of Being Rude” that I purchased on clearance at Half Price Books was woefully lacking in specific insults, I’ve been looking for a new source. I was hoping the thesaurus would suggest some more specific insults that I could record for later use in particular situations.

It seemed like this was a task that a thesaurus that monitored online usage would be preternaturally good at; after all, what does one do on the internet other than call people idiots?  Alas, this search didn’t go as well as flesh out, although the thesaurus still made a good effort.  Strangely, most of the responses were for imbecile as an adjective (which strikes me as comparatively rare) rather than a noun.  My main source of sadness was that it didn’t generate anywhere near the range of possibilities I’d expect in insults, offering mostly run-of-the-mill words like buffoon, dullard, or fool.  But it did offer two interesting ones with which I was unfamiliar. One was nidget, a now-forgotten word that lacked a single usage example.  The other was anile, which led me to uncover what I like to call the Great Anile Conspiracy — a strange and almost exciting phenomenon that I hope to detail in an upcoming post.  While the Wordnik thesaurus didn’t really give me a more specific insult, at least it tipped me off to two interesting words, so that’s something.

I realized, though, that expecting more specific insults from imbecile may have been an unfair query. I decided to try again with a more specific insult: blowhard.  The results were hit-and-miss.  The synonyms were spot-on: big mouth, blusterer, boaster, braggart, line-shooter, loudmouth, and — my personal favorite — vaunter.  The “words used in the same context” results weren’t, offering such words as Parker, valetudinarian, and book-review. How those occur in similar contexts to blowhard is opaque to me. However, I found rather hilarious and surprisingly accurate its choice of ex-governor as a contextual neighbor of blowhard — are there better examples of blowhards than Sarah Palin and Rod Blagojevich?

So all in all, the Wordnik thesaurus was worth checking out. It takes advantage of the capabilities of the Internet to offer both solid synonyms and noisy possibly related words. Its algorithms aren’t perfect, of course, but the mistakes are mostly pretty reasonable and/or enjoyable. It hasn’t replaced thesaurus.com as my primary online thesaurus*, but it’s already interesting, and I’m looking forward to future developments that could make it supplant Roget’s in my heart.

*: I certainly hope that Wordnik hurries up and replaces thesaurus.com as my thesaurus of choice, now that I’ve read the Wall Street Journal’s blog post noting that it (well, its parent site, reference.com) has the highest number of trackers on its site of any of the top 50 most popular domains.

Should be apparent from his stunning takedown of the “uninformed bossiness” of Strunk and White in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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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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