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It was early Saturday morning and I had woken up in someone I’d never met’s guest room. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to wake them with my preferred morning activity of singing along to The Go! Team, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and went off in search of grammatical ranting, figuring that would be a nice silent activity.

It was, but just barely. For it was that morning that I found the perfect grammar rant, and it was hard to keep quiet with the confounding mixture of disgust and glee it created within me.

I knew from the title that it had potential: what I’m hating (grammar edition). It starts off, as you might expect, with the ABCs of grammar rants: ad hominem attacks, belittling, and contempt. The author lists 11 things she wants writers to get through their “very thick and probably misshapen skull[s]”. And, as you again might have guessed, some of these supposedly important errors are neither important nor errors. The first three are:

  1. putting punctuation outside quotation marks (non-standard but acceptable in American English, standard in British English)
  2. using anyways (discussed here; non-standard but grammatical)
  3. using alright (discussed here; standard informal English, reviled by a vocal minority)

It continues like this, with each piece of the advice also containing that trademark prescriptivist viciousness toward people who dare to have a different idea of English than the author does. The point that the author hopes to convey is that writing is — to borrow a phrase from Lynne Truss — a zero-tolerance business. She even makes it explicit at the start:

“Also, don’t give me any horsey about how you’re lazy or in a hurry. If you expect people who read your work to take you seriously, you need to extend them the courtesy of proper grammar. Unless you think your readers are stupid. DO YOU THINK THEY’RE STUPID? DO YOU?”

Strangely, this rapidly escalating castigation is quite nice by prescriptivist standards. Normally, a prescriptivist accuses someone making a grammatical error of being an idiot themselves, rather than merely mistaking their audience for idiots. But it still carries that no-tolerance attitude. Any error is indicative of a moral failing, of being discourteous to, if not contemptuous of, one’s readers. It’s a very common opinion amongst amateur grammarians. But like so many others, including Lynne Truss (who famously left out a hyphen in her book’s subtitle despite railing in the book itself about people who do just that), today’s author has a double standard about these errors. No tolerance for you, but for me, well:

“*Inevitably, there are dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in this post. If you email me to tell me about any of them, I will eat your face.”

And there was an update:

“Well, I called it. Spelled a word [grammar, no less –ed.] wrong in the title. If you were one of the exalted few who read this before I corrected it, consider yourself lucky. […] it will probably happen again tomorrow.”

That, unlike all the rest of the post, is a fair position to take: errors are inevitable, and while you must strive to avoid them, you’re never going to be completely rid of them. But in the post itself, the author declares unequivocally that any errors in a piece of writing are discourteous to one’s readers and a tacit insult to their intelligence.

It was this contradiction that made me think that the writer thinks I’m stupid, not the occasional grammar errors. (Errors plural, because there’s another one that I’ll get to in a moment.) I agree wholeheartedly in forgiving errors, because we all make them. I agree as well that editing and trying to minimize the number of errors in your writing shows that you care about what you’ve written and you care about your readers.

But errors are inevitable, and they come from many different sources. Some are from a writer’s ignorance of the standard forms of their language, some are from a lack of careful attention (typos and homophones especially), and some are due to differences of opinion in standard usage between the writer and the reader.

To sit there and paint all grammar errors with a broad brush, as indicators of a lack of intelligence or couth, and then to excuse oneself for the same thing? That’s simply illogical.

To return to the error mentioned above, it’s a particularly detested one — one, in fact, that I’m surprised didn’t make the list of 11 errors. I’ve helpfully bolded the mistake, which occurred in the middle of berating anyways for sounding childish:

“Unless your a Brit, in which case we’re all just staring at your teeth rather than listening to you anyway.”

Actually, wait. Maybe the author is right and errors like that really do show that an author thinks their audience is stupid. That would explain the belief that we would find a Brits-have-bad-teeth joke fresh 13 years after Austin Powers ran them into the ground.

A couple of pieces of language news have come through the pipes lately. I only have a little bit to say about each of them, so I figured, why not combine them? (The answer, as any SEOer worth their salt could tell you, is that presenting them separately will drive additional traffic to the site. But you are worth far more to me than mere traffic stats, dear reader, and so I’ll present them together in a more efficient package.)

The first bit of news is that the AP has at last caved to the present and changed their stylebook to request email over e-mail. Some people made quite a bit of fuss over this, but it really doesn’t matter. The AP Stylebook no more determines the English language than any else does. The stylebook is reacting to modern English, not shaping it. John McIntyre and Arnold Zwicky and Jan Freeman have more on how much this doesn’t matter.

I'm very sorry to report that this sweet animated gif is now out-of-date around the AP offices.

The second bit of news is that the Oxford English Dictionary has a new update out, including revised “R” words, foods, Australian slang, and a couple of Internet initialisms: OMG and LOL. People also are freaking out over this. To clarify, the inclusion of LOL in the OED does not mean that it should be used in formal writing, it does not mean that the folks at the OED necessary like it, or anything more than that they believe it is a sufficiently common and important word in contemporary English that it should be recorded with its definition. No more, no less. They join other popular initialisms as BFF, IMHO, TMI, and everyone’s favorite, WTF. This was met with a wide range of misinterpretations on Twitter:

[The “some words are based on people’s opinions” line just keeps on making me laugh.]

The third bit of news is that the OED has added a new verbal sense (i.e., definition) to heart, meaning to love or be fond of. (This, by the way, is not the only verbal definition of heart; one definition, to embolden, dates back to 897 AD.) Contrary to what some have reported, it is not entered into the OED as <3, nor as ♥. It is simply a new sense for the five-letter word heart.

I repeat, as even some actual newspapers have claimed otherwise, that the symbol ♥ is not in the OED. Try, if you have a subscription to the OED, searching for ♥ online. You will find no such entry.

Furthermore, there are articles announcing that ♥ would be the first symbol in the OED, but that’s not right either. Under the heading C, one finds the symbol ©. So, no, ♥ is not in the OED, but even if it were, that wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Keep calm; English carries on.

This concludes the language news for today. Good night and good luck.

You know that I think too many people try to catch other people on grammar mistakes and typos. It’s alright (but often rudely done) when the correcter is right. It’s irritating when the correcter is neither right nor wrong (as with omitting or including Oxford commas). And then there’s the hypercorrection, where the correcter really wants to prove their superiority, and just starts making corrections willy-nilly, often miscorrecting perfectly acceptable writing. Here’s a fun example, posted as either a “job LOL” or a “work fail” on Failblog:


OH BOOM! Hey, person who just wanted to keep a common area clean! You and your reasonable request just got served! Scorched Earth LOL!

Except: I count five corrections, of which two are invalid, one is a question of tone, and only two are actually valid complaints. Oh, and there’s a missed correction.

Correction 1: whoever to whomever. See, this is why whom is leaving English. Very few people, even those who want to see it stay in the language, know how to use it correctly (i.e., as the accusative case form of who, not as the formal version of who). Briefly, whom(ever) is used when the noun phrase it’s replacing would be an object of a verb. The wh-word in whoever ate this pizza is replacing a subject NP, which means that it should get nominative case (whoever), not accusative case (whomever). If the clause were “whoever this pizza ate”, then one could add the m. But it is not, and the correction is wrong.

Correction 2: Removing the comma before and. Because this and is joining two verb phrases into a single verb phrase with a single subject, there’s no syntactic reason to have this comma. The comma is also inappropriate from a rhetorical standpoint; a speaker wouldn’t pause before this and. Score 1 for the correcter.

Correction 3: Replacing the comma with a semicolon before you are gross. No, semicolons generally join two complete sentences into a single sentence, and whoever … here isn’t complete.* A comma is indeed correct here; this is an example of left-dislocation, rare in written English but common in spoken English and many other languages**. In left-dislocation, a noun phrase describing the subject or object of the sentence is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic of the sentence, and then is referred to later by a pronoun.

Because the specific pronoun here is you, this could also be a case of the whoever phrase being a vocative phrase appended at the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is common in spoken English and shows up often in online comments: e.g., “John, you need to grow up.” If it’s viewed as a vocative, then a comma is again correct. A colon could also be appropriate, as a greeting for the entire message, like the opening to a business letter. Either way, a semicolon is incorrect, and so is the corrector.

Correction 4: Parenthesizing profanity. The corrector claims that there’s no need for profanity. This is an issue of style, and isn’t really right or wrong. In a business setting, like the one this pizza box was apparently found in, written profanity may be inappropriate. However, having been in college recently enough to remember roommates who left empty pizza boxes scattered like lamps around a living room, I would argue that profanity is merited in these cases.

Correction 5: it’s replacing its. That’s a good change. The added rationale, though, should have a colon in place of its comma: need an apostrophe: ITS = possessive.

Missed Correction: the space in who ever. Whoever ought to be a single word here, because it’s the indefinite/generalized form of who, which is standardly written as a single word any more. Who ever would be appropriate if ever were an adverb modifying the verb (e.g., Who ever heard of a snozzberry?). When the correcter added the M, they retained the space, and that’s a missed opportunity to correct.

All in all, this is a microcosm of why I hate people correcting people’s grammar. The correctors are often wrong themselves, and in the course of trying to show up someone else, they completely miss the point — in this case, the undeniable fact that abandoned pizza boxes belong in the trash. Correctors: You’re not helping. And if you’re not helping, you could at least have the decency to be right.

*: It could be complete as a question, but here it’s obviously supposed to be a declarative sentence.

**: I first became aware of left-dislocation in French sentences like Mon ami, il est comme un sandwich, and there’s a whole class of languages that regularly do this.

There’s an unfortunate tendency to believe that we are the inheritors of a Golden Age of Punctuation, and that people today are ruining it with their errant apostrophes, unnecessary quotation marks, and overabundant ellipses. I consider it unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that it exposes a vanity within us, a belief that we were decent enough in our day, but that the younger folks are ruining the brilliant language we built and maintained. The second is that it suggests that new teaching methods or new technology are primarily to blame for modern linguistic shortcomings, when the fact is that these errors existed back in our day as well. The problem isn’t (primarily) that kids aren’t being taught what we were, but rather that the new ideas failed to solve our problems.

So I really enjoy collecting examples of incorrect usage from the past, such as an apostrophe to mark a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon or its with an apostrophe in a 1984 John Mellencamp music video, as a reminder that errors in English are not solely the province of the current age. At least some sources of these errors are timeless, and it’s just as important to fix the timeless ones as any uniquely modern sources.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a beautiful multimedia presentation of one of the great moments of Pittsburgh sports history, the 1960 World Series. The ’60 Series, which concluded 50 years ago today, was your standard David-Goliath series. The relatively-unknown Pittsburgh Pirates (David) were up against the nearly-universally-hated New York Yankees (Goliath), and through the first six games the Yankees had outscored the Pirates 46-17. Despite the lopsided scoring, the Pirates and Yankees had split the six games 3-3, setting up the deciding Game Seven in Pittsburgh. The final game was a back-and-forth affair that was capped with a walk-off home run by “Maz” (Bill Mazeroski), a popular second baseman known for his glove, not his bat. The home run moved Maz into the pantheon of Pittsburgh sports legends, and in the minds of a few ambitious Pittsburghers, into politics:

“President”. Maybe these fellows were just being temperate in their revelry, knowing that Maz wasn’t really in the running for the Presidency. But I think it’s more likely that they’re just your average guys, making the same average misuses as we do 50 years later. In fact, I’m reminded of a picture I found a month ago of some Steeler fans who’d made an error of their own:

[Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images]

So it goes.

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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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