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I first encountered the Grammar Sins Tumblr when they started following me on Twitter. From the name, you probably know what to expect: a catalogue of venial sins being treated as though they were mortal. Someone misspelled something; this means English is dying. Someone used a comma splice; that distant humming you hear is Charles Dickens spinning in his grave.

Whereas normally looking at this would set me down a road you’ve no doubt grown as sick of as I have, talking about the silliness of the obsession with minor errors and the look-at-me nature of correcting these everyday missteps, today I’m going to calm down and focus before I rant.

So let’s talk specifically about the presence of non-native English speakers and their mistakes in these peeveblogs. It was this recent post that galled me, describing the misspelling of veggie as vegi as “unforgivable”.

[Fresh vegi salad]

The indefensible offense.

Now, that’s cheap hyperbole any way you slice it — frankly, I’m not sure of many offenses that are more forgivable than a comprehensible misspelling on a corner-store sign. But the thing that really ground on me was that the next post revealed that the sign was up in a bodega, which, assuming the author is as careful with words as she expects others to be, suggests that the signmaker’s native language is not English.

Is this what we have become as a society? Are there no more pressing concerns in this world than whether non-native speakers make minor spelling mistakes? This isn’t some one-off whine, either; it’s something of a trend both at Grammar Sins (see here, here, here) and for peevebloggers in general (here, here). Unforgivable is making fun of mistakes in a second language, not making the mistakes.

Isn’t this the sort of thing that Americans have traditionally accused our mortal enemies — the French — of doing? In my youth, it was a standard belief that the French were real jerks, because if you went there and spoke in broken French, instead of switching to English, they’d supposedly just complain that you weren’t speaking French right and turn up their noses. This was viewed as incredibly rude; unfairly, of course, because it’s even ruder to assume that people in another country ought to speak your language.

Nevertheless, we Americans got quite self-righteous about the supposed language snobbishness that this represented. Now, it seems our self-righteousness has been supplanted by the very judgmentalism that we once condemned. And it’s surprisingly cross-class. It’s difficult not to sense a connection between the impulses that drive these blogs begrudging the second-language greengrocers their apostrophes and those that drive English Only legislation.

I’m just touchy about this kind of thing because I know how strong a barrier language can be. Learning a second language is really damn hard, and it’s a bit rich to mock people for their imperfect acquisition, especially in a society that’s so monolithically monolingual as ours. I’m even touchier about this because I have school friends who are far smarter than me, but lack my casual intimacy with English and thus seem dumber, and are frankly screwed if they want to get a good job here. And I’m touchiest about this because I have a lot of first- or second-generation immigrant friends whose older family members are borderline shut-ins because their limited English skills make it nearly impossible to participate in American society.* So I get pretty hot when people’s analysis of this problem amounts to “Ha ha! They spelled something wrong! *facepalm/derpface*”

Just in case it’s not obvious, I don’t mean that spelling and grammatical errors should be given carte blanche. Stores should try to get proofreaders for any signs that are going to be up awhile, and I would be happy to correct any store’s signage for a small fee (hint). But being a prig about it and making fun of people behind their backs is childish. This is a social sin far outstripping that of even egregious language errors — especially when the error is in a second language.

*: Combining those last two into a single anecdote, my friend’s mom was an electrical engineer in China, and is a waitress in a Chinese restaurant here.

Ambiguity and fear of ambiguity are common arguments for a variety of grammatical as well as editorial choices. For example, some people insist that since shouldn’t be used like because (as in “since you’re here so early, let’s build the trebuchet we’ve been planning”), because since could also mean “from that time forward”. The fear is that readers or listeners will commit to that latter reading and find it confusing — if not impossible — to switch tracks to the former reading.

Now, in the case of since, it’s actually rare that both meanings are reasonable for long enough to cause confusion; differences in the type of constituent or verb tense following the since tend to quickly disambiguate the sentence. But in other cases, ambiguity can be real and persistent:

(1) Since I was young, I went to church with my Mom […]

In rare cases, the ambiguity can even be such that a reader can’t confidently determine which is intended, and in even rarer cases, the difference is meaningful. To insure against this confusion, some writers eschew the “because” meaning of since completely.

And that sounds like a good idea, except for one thing: there’s a flip side to the problem. So long as a substantial fraction of the linguistic community continues to permit the ambiguous form, it doesn’t matter whether you personally avoid the ambiguity; the ambiguous situation arises from unambiguous usage as well. In this case, it’s that ambiguity can arise even in the time-based usage of since:

(2) Since I was young, I have understood how right Benito Juárez, the outstanding Mexican patriot, was when he said: “Respecting others’ rights is the way to peace.”

Even if you never use the “because” meaning, your reader (probably) doesn’t know that. When they get to “Since I was young…”, they still might think that you’re using the “because” form. Again, this is probably only a temporary ambiguity. But it’s as much an ambiguous setting as the one that everyone complains about, so to avoid ambiguity, it also needs eschewed.

Here’s another example, from the cover of a book I’m reading:

The book is on Walter O’Malley, a former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the one who moved them to Los Angeles back in the 1950s. The front cover of the book, pictured above, reads “The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles”.

Now, if there were no such thing as the Oxford comma in this world, this subtitle would be unambiguous — baseball’s most controversial owner would clearly be an apposition referring to Walter O’Malley. (This is, by the way, the intended reading.) But because the Oxford comma exists, this could be a list. That’s the case even if neither the writer nor the reader ever uses the Oxford comma. The possibility of the Oxford comma will still color the interpretations.

I see two lessons here for usage in general. The first is that your writing and speaking do not exist in a vacuum. The principles of usage on which you make your usage decisions ought to take account of how other people use the language. It’s nice*, perhaps, if a writer insists that nauseous can only mean “inducing nausea”, but if no one else adheres to this rule, their readers probably won’t be able to recognize or use that principle in interpreting the writing. Common usage has an unavoidable influence on one’s readers and listeners.

The second is that ambiguity is not limited to contested usages. We tend to think of these debates about ambiguity as each influencing a particular choice or construction, but there’s almost always an overlooked construction that’s affected as well. If the fear of ambiguity is sufficient for a writer to avoid the ambiguous choice (e.g., the Oxford comma or because-since), then the fear of ambiguity also ought to cause the writer to avoid the ambiguity inducer (e.g., appositives in lists, time-since).

There are cases where that second avoidance is reasonable — I think I try to avoid appositives in lists, for instance — but in many situations, this would be tantamount to cutting the word out of the language. If both those senses of since are out, when could it be used? In cases like this, we really have to think hard about the intensity and importance of the ambiguity in the usage before deciding whether or not it’s tolerable. A blanket dictum against ambiguity is too broad a brush.

*: I’m, of course, using nice here in a sense somewhere between the rare “precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct” and the obsolete “displaying foolishness or silliness” meanings.

I was reading through a brief response by Erin Brenner to Bill Walsh’s contention that the try and X construction should be opposed. (You know, like “I’ll try and write a new post sometime soon.”) Walsh’s basic point:

“‘I have to enforce this peeve,’ [Walsh] said. ‘You try to do something. To try and do something is to (a) try to do it, and (b) do it, which is not the intended meaning of the phrase.’

And Brenner’s:

The problem I have with Walsh’s reasoning is that try and is an idiom. There’s no point in trying to make sense of an idiom’s grammar; an idiom has its own unique (‘peculiar,’ says the American Heritage Dictionary) grammar. It doesn’t have to make literal sense.”

I agree with Brenner here. Sure, try and X doesn’t seem to make much sense.* But it doesn’t matter if it makes sense; if we’re trying to study language, we don’t get to say “I don’t understand this data” and throw it away. We’re stuck with the fact that people say and write try and X (the OED even offers an example from Paradise Regained, and Google Books has one from 1603) and it feels natural to most people.

When Walsh says that “To try and do something is to (a) try to do it, and (b) do it”, it’s clear what he’s getting at, but he’s wrong because that’s not what it means. What it means is what people use it to mean, and people overwhelmingly use it to mean (approximately) “try to do something”. That’s how language works; if everyone thinks a construction means X, then it means X.

It’s a similar problem with could care less, which people exasperatedly complain should be couldn’t care less. Of course it “should”. But everyone understands could care less to mean what it’s used to mean (with the possible exception of non-native English speakers and obstinate native speakers). And whenever most everyone agrees on what something means, whether it be a word or a phrase or an idiom, that’s right, no matter how illogical it seems.

That might sound weird. But if we’re going to treat language as something to be studied, as a science, then that ties our hands a bit. Quantum mechanics is a hot mess, and it sure would have been easier if it were Newtonian physics all the way down. But physicists don’t get to say, “nah, that’s crazy, let’s just keep using Newtonian models.”** Taxonomists don’t get to say “nope, platypuses are too strange, we just won’t classify them.” And so on.

[Psyduck]

Thankfully, taxonomists don’t have to classify Psyduck.

You can have an unassailable argument for why we shouldn’t be able to get the meaning out of a word or phrase or construction, but if everyone understands it, your argument is wrong. This is an essential fact of language. There are rules in language, but if the language itself breaks them, then it’s a shortcoming of the rule, not of the language.

So what can we say about try and? We can try to put together an explanation for how the unexpected meaning arose, looking at possible ancestries for it, possible analogical routes that might have spurred it. We can classify where and when and how it’s used (it’s generally informal, for instance). But when it comes time to figure out how it makes sense, it could well end up that all we can do is throw up our hands, call it an idiom, and move on. After all, what’s really interesting about language (at least for linguists) is the higher-level stuff like phonology or syntax or computational psycholinguistics; idioms are just the charming baubles that catch our eyes.

Of course, none of this means that one can’t be against an idiom — only that its supposed illogic is one of the weakest reasons to oppose it. I don’t have a problem with Walsh correcting try and in situations where it’s inappropriate or likely to cause confusion (e.g., formal writing or writing directed at an international audience). I do the same with non-literal literally, not because it’s confusing or incomprehensible or uneducated or new — it’s not — but because it feels cheap and hyperbolic to me, especially when used regularly. But these are stylistic choices, not grammatical ones. They aren’t returning logic to language.

*: It makes a little bit more sense when you think of the construction as an analogue of come and X or go and X, and realize that and in this situation is indicating dependence between the attempt and the action rather than simultaneity. The seeming noncompositionality of the construction may be in part due to language change, as the MWDEU notes that various related constructions (e.g., begin and) were common in the past, and thus when try and emerged, the dependent sense of and may have been more productive. In fact, the MWDEU hypothesizes that try and may predate try to.

**: Of course, they can do this when they’re staying at macroscopic scales, where quantum effects are undetectable — and thank God for that, or I’d’ve never survived college physics classes.

Gender-neutral language really burns some people’s beans. One common argument against gender-neutral language is that it’s something new. See, everyone was fine with generic he up until [insert some turning point usually in the 1960s or 1970s], which means concerns about gender neutrality in language are just manufactured complaints by “arrogant ideologues” or people over-concerned with “sensitivity”, and therefore ought to be ignored.

I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.

But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

Freshmen. In the mid-19th century, the first American women’s colleges appeared. One of the earliest of these, Elmira College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage. Rutgers, similarly, proposed novian to replace “freshman” when they began accepting female students.

Mankind. You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind”; here’s Anthony Trollope doing so in 1874, and other people’s attestations from 1858, 1843, 1783, and 1740. This suggests that mankind was viewed as sufficiently likely to be non-generic as to cause at least hesitation if not confusion. In some sense, this is sort of an early generic he or she. Speaking of which…

He or she. He or she really gets people’s goats, and to some extent I can see why; it’s not short and simple like pronouns standardly are, and it can throw off the rhythm of the sentence. (This is why I prefer singular they.) Given that it’s ungainly, you might suspect, as most people do, that this is a new usage that only appeared once it was too politically incorrect to ignore women. But while it only started getting popular in the 70s, it’s been used much longer than that. Here it appears 19 times in two paragraphs in an 1864 book of Mormon Doctrine. Turning from religion to law, here it is in an 1844 Maryland law, and here it is in various British laws from 1815. Here’re examples from Acts passed by the First American Congress in 1790, and so on and so on.

Person as a morpheme. Another common complaint is about supposedly ugly new words like salesperson or chairperson or firefighter.* But such gender-neutralized forms were already being created as needed before the 1970s. Here’s salesperson used 100 times in a book from 1916.** Here’s another example, in the title of an article discussing paying commission to salespeople back in 1919. The OED offers even older examples, with tradesperson in 1886 and work-person in 1807.

Singular they. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.

In conclusion, I’m definitely not saying that gender-neutral language was as prominent in the past as it is today. I’m just saying that when someone says that everyone was fine with non-neutral English up until the 1970s, they’re wrong. Clearly people were concerned about this before then, and adjusted the language to be gender-neutral when it seemed appropriate. This is not something totally new; it is not unprecedented; it is not a dastardly attempt to undermine the English language. It is just an expansion of an existing concern about English usage.


*: I just want to jump in and note that I find firefighter more precise and cooler-sounding than fireman; then again, I may have some unresolved issues with the latter term stemming from the difficulties I had in beating Fire Man when playing Mega Man.

**: The first part of this book is even titled “The Salesperson and Efficient Salesmanship”, showing gradient gender-neutrality decision-making, where gender-neutral forms are used when the gender is prominent or easily removed, and non-neutral forms when the gender is subtler or difficult to remove.

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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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