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This blog was linked to a while ago in a Reddit discussion of uninterested and disinterested. (My opinion on them is that uninterested is restricted to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “impartial”, and that’s an opinion based on both historical and modern usage. In fact, despite the dire cries that people are causing the two words to smear together, it actually looks like the distinction between them is growing over time.)

The reason I bring this up again is that one of the Redditors was proposing that having a strong distinction could make sense, because:

“Some people draw a distinction between disinterested and uninterested. There is nothing to lose and perhaps subtlety to be gained by using that distinction yourself. Therefore observing the distinction should always be recommended.”

But I’ve already asked my question about this in the title: is there really nothing to lose? Is there no cost to maintaining a strict distinction between words? Or, more generally, is there no cost to maintaining a grammar rule?

Well, in a myopic sense, no, there’s nothing much to lose by having the rule. In the case of uninterested and disinterested, it would be hard to argue that not being able to use disinterested to mean “unconcerned” is a substantial loss. It can be done, though: I, for instance, am a great lover of alliteration, and as a result, I like to have synonyms with as many different initial letters as possible. There’s a cost, small though it may be, to not having disinterested available as I’m constructing sentences. But that’s a triviality.

A more substantial consequence is that it introduces a discontinuity in the historical record. If we decide that from now on disinterested only means “impartial”, then historical and current uses of the “unconcerned” sense will be opaque to people taught the hard-and-fast rule. That’s problematic because, despite the belief of some people that this is an illiterate usage, it’s actually common even for good writers to use. This, again, isn’t a big problem; we regularly understand misused words, especially ones whose intended meanings are very close to their actual meanings. Saying that we can’t have a rule of grammar because sometimes it isn’t followed is the sort of whateverism that people accuse descriptivists of, not a reasonable concern.*

No, the true cost is a higher-level cost: the overhead of having another distinction. This might also seem trivial. After all, we have tons and tons of usage rules and distinctions, and a lexical distinction like this is really little more than remembering a definition. But let me illustrate my point with an example I recently saw on Tumblr (sorry for the illegibility):

The distinction here is well-established: affect is almost always the verb, effect almost always the noun.** Yet here we see that it is costly to maintain the distinction. First, it’s costly to remember which homophone goes in which role. Second, it’s costly to make an error, as people may mock you for it. Third, it’s very easy to get it wrong, as the replier did here.

If there were really no downside to adding an additional rule, we’d expect to see every possibly useful distinction be made. We’d expect, for instance, to have a clear singular/plural second-person distinction in English (instead of just you). I’d expect to see an inclusive/exclusive first-person plural distinction as well, as I sometimes want to establish whether I’m saying we to include the person I’m speaking to or not. The subjunctive wouldn’t be disappearing, nor would whom.

But all distinctions are not made. In fact, relatively few of the possible distinctions we could make at the word level are made. And that suggests that even if the reasons I’ve listed for not maintaining a lot of distinctions aren’t valid, there must be something that keeps us from making all the distinctions we could make.

So next time someone says “there oughta be a rule”, think about why there isn’t. Rules aren’t free, and only the ones whose benefits outweigh their costs are going to be created and maintained. The costs and benefits change over time, and that’s part of why languages are forever changing.

*: Of course, if the distinction is regularly violated, then it’s hardly whateverist to say that it doesn’t exist.

**: Affect is a noun in psychology, effect a verb meaning “to cause” that is largely reviled by prescriptivists.

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.

goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

Remember when Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves was the big thing? Surely you remember the heady rush when our society realized it was alright to publicly shame someone for their grammatical, punctuative, or spelling errors because a humourously mean British woman said it was, right? I sure do, because it was this blossoming of societal unpleasantness that definitively kicked me off the rolls of peevers and into my current role as a shamer of the shamers.

If there was anything new about Truss’s book, it was the philosophical stance of Zero Tolerance toward errors. Sure, previous writers had been intolerant; reading through Bierce’s Write it Right or Vizetelly’s Handbook or Partridge’s Usage and Abusage will provide ample examples of small errors treated as signs of complete illiteracy. But Truss’s Zero Tolerance policy took off among non-professionals in a way that these previous books hadn’t.

The true indicator of a best-seller is finding it years later in a $1 clearance rack at a used book store. Same with best-selling albums at a record store.

It’s been eight years since Truss’s book hit the scene, and while it’s no longer as prominent as it once was, the Zero Tolerance philosophy remains influential. Witness Kyle Wiens’s post on the Harvard Business Review’s blog from earlier this week. Wiens has started his own company, where he demands that any potential employee pass a grammar test before being hired, regardless of whether the position involves any substantial writing component.

His argument isn’t without merit. Basically, Wiens argues that attention to grammar is an indication of attention to detail in general. Of course, it’s a noisy indicator — especially when he’s hiring programmers, I imagine — but is it any noisier than the fashion-based or etiquette-based decisions that we already expect employers to use in their hiring decisions? If we tolerate employers using whether our shoes are shined or whether we hold the handshake appropriately long as indicators of future job performance, then surely there’s nothing strange about them using our grammatical competence. At least grammar shows up in every interaction, face-to-face or electronic. So if I may damn with faint praise, a grammar test probably isn’t worse than most of the other assessment methods employers use.

Thus I’m not going to condemn his use of a grammar test, but rather his method of using it: he’s an adherent to Truss’s Zero Tolerance approach.

Zero Tolerance might be a valid enforcement approach to matters like murder, where the delineation between “okiedokie” and “not okiedokie” is obvious.* But grammar simply isn’t one of those things, or at least it isn’t when you’re talking about what most people mean when they refer to “grammar”. I think we can all agree that The CEO are mistaken is wrong, but no native speaker is going to say that’s okay. Instead, what Wiens appears to be concerned with is pretty much just spelling, as Geoff Pullum notes. That’s fairly settled if you assume that all test-takers use Standard American English spellings (so no favourite, cancelled, etc.).**

But Wiens undermines his own intolerance in his post, where he uses some “debatable” constructions and includes links on each of them to justify their use. They’re things that any reasonable person ought to know are fine, like starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending a clause with a preposition.

Good for him, I say, but Zero Tolerance doesn’t accept explanations for deviations from its norm. That’s kind of the definition of Zero Tolerance: when confronting a possible error, don’t seek out explanations or rationales, just mark it wrong. There is no excuse that can justify deviation from the norm. Anything less than that is playing fast and loose with the term “Zero Tolerance”. And if we’re doing that, then I’m Zero Tolerance, too, in that I only accept usages that are standard or that can be reasonably justified as a dialectal difference or a reasonable/useful extension of current norms.

A real Zero Tolerancer wouldn’t be interested in the facts that Wiens marshals in favor of his choice; everything is black-and-white. If questions about split infinitives or final-prepositions were on such a test, Wiens would fail. It doesn’t matter that he’s right, he’s justified, and he’s seeking out relevant information to explain his decision-making. These all sound like good qualities for an employee, yet Wiens would be, to the Zero Tolerancer, inattentive and unemployable. Quite simply, Wiens is aware of a grey area even as he’s arguing for a black-and-white view.

Lastly, though it’s downright hackneyed to point out when a Zero Tolerancer makes a mistake, it is at the same time essential. As Dan of Our Bold Hero notes, Wiens failed to put a hyphen in the compound verb grammar test, and he falls into the same unhyphenated trap as Truss did by not hyphenating zero tolerance as a prenominal adjective. Were we Zero Tolerancers, his post would already be in the dustbin.

*: Even this isn’t clear enough, as evidenced by the distinction between murder and manslaughter and the various levels of each. As you might have guessed, I don’t believe in Zero Tolerance for anything.

**: Though in both of these cases, typos and thinkos still happen, and Zero Tolerance is unwilling to forgive this. As a result, employees of a philosophically-committed-to-ZT company will have to waste a lot of time proofreading even the quickest correspondence to make sure that not a single mistake makes it through.

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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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