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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.

I picked up an old paperback version of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage at a used bookstore some time ago. It was $3, and I was pretty sure someone I held in some esteem had recommended it to me. Now I believe only the first part of that sentence; I don’t suspect anyone would have recommended it. I’d thought the book was going to be somewhere between the good-if-somewhat-too-conservative Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the wonderfully accurate Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU). Instead, it’s largely a series of unsupported statements from Partridge that this or that is unacceptable and dismissals of certain usages out of hand.

That’s par for the course with prescriptivists. Sometimes Partridge goes one step further and tries to cite evidence, although this often devolves into a contradiction. Case in point: alright. My take on alright is that, well, it’s perfectly all right. (MWDEU feels the same.) The word has been around for 100 years now, it has a different meaning and intonation pattern than all right for many (most?) people, and it follows by analogy from altogether, although, already, and almost. Partridge does not agree. His entry on alright starts off with

alright is an incorrect spelling of all right and an illogical form thereof.”

Now, Partridge was writing in the 1940s, and at that point the form alright had less of a pedigree, so it’s not fair to judge him through 21st-century eyes. Thus, I’m not going to argue the claim that, at that point, alright was an incorrect variant spelling of all right, although I do believe he is wrong about that. Instead, let’s look at his claim of that alright is “illogical”. Six of the seven paragraphs of Partridge’s entry on alright are from a 1938 letter to The Observer, which Partridge quotes without stating what it is intended to show. The letter is informative in a way that Partridge’s opinions are not, discussing the process of single words being formed from multiple words, and actually bothering to justify (some of) its positions. Let me reproduce just the concluding paragraph of the letter; the rest of the letter gives the evidence for the opinion the writer holds:

“I have personally no doubt that there is a single word alright, with a somewhat fluid meaning, but distinct from that of all right. This word, however, is a colloquialism, very convenient in everyday intercourse but of no importance whatever in literary composition. I find that I use it regularly in ordinary conversation, but never have occasion to write it except in familiar correspondence. When I do write it, I spell it as two words!”

Of course, I’d dispute the claim that alright is of no literary importance, and I don’t understand why the author would write it as two words, given the lengths he goes to in the letter to establish that it is a single word, but those are just quibbles. The key point here is that Partridge asserts that alright is illogical, then quotes, without comment, a six-paragraph letter establishing that, actually, alright is a perfectly logical word. There’s even a point in the letter in which the author says “Obviously, if alright represents a compound word which actually exists, it has a certain justification.” (That justification having been given just before.) Partridge could as well have said “The Sun revolves around the Earth” and then cited Copernicus. Sure, Partridge might have an argument somewhere up his sleeve that alright really is illogical, but he omits that argument and instead delivers its exact antithesis. That, I believe, is an example of an illogical formulation. Alright is not.

It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if prescriptivists believe that illogical is a generic adjective meaning “bad for some unspecifiable reason”, much in the same way that they complain about us kids using cool or nice as a generic adjective for something pleasant. Given the prescriptivist penchant for insisting that words must have very clearly defined meanings and their obsession with precision in language, it just seems weird how cavalierly they toss illogical about.

I’m sorry for the punny title — despite the fact that I have not written on spaces in words/phrases, and despite the fact that today’s entry is on the distinction between a while and awhile, there was no need to call it that. If it makes you feel any better, I’m paying the price for this title now, as my brain is stuck on an infinite loop of the Staind song with this title.

But having that song is my head is just as well, because Staind got it wrong. According to Amazon, the song’s title on the CD is “It’s Been Awhile”, when it ought to be “It’s Been a While”. The basic idea with a while/awhile is that it’s two words when it’s a noun phrase, and one word when it’s an adverb. One way to check this is to see if you can replace a while/awhile by for a while. If you can, it’s one word; if you can’t, it’s two words. So, for instance:

(1a) After the needlessly long hike, I slept awhile and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.
(1b) After the needlessly long hike, I slept for a while and dreamt of tossing the hike-leader off a cliff.

(2a) It’s been a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.
(2b) *It’s been for a while since I thought that Staind was a good band.

In sentence (1a), awhile refers to the period of sleeping. It’s an adverbial phrase, modifying slept. In sentence (2a), you’re using a while refers to the length of time between when I thought Staind was a good band and now (when, of course, I think Staind is a great band). It’s a noun phrase, and could grammatically be replaced with a more explicit length of time, such as ten minutes, 600 seconds, or one-sixth of an hour, but not by the phrase for ten minutes.

Awhile isn’t a really big player in Standard American English anymore, if it ever was. Google Books turns up ~2000 hits for awhile in books since 2000, compared to ~48000 for a while. In my experience, people generally use for a while instead of awhile. This is a happy circumstance, because it means that when you’re uncertain about which form to use, you’ll be pretty likely to succeed if you choose a while with the space. I would even go so far as to say that you will always succeed if you include the space; the Oxford English Dictionary considers a while to be an acceptable spelling for both the adverb [1c(a)] and noun [1c(b)] uses. In fact, the adverbial sense was originally two words; its first two attestations in the OED (from 1000 and 1250 AD) were as two words, and only later does the single-word spelling appear. And, though the OED considers it an improper usage, awhile as a noun phrase has been attested in serious writings over 100 years ago (1872, 1882). So you’re not in bad company if you add or subtract a space improperly.

[I forgot to mention this at first, but this post was actually the result of a request by erinstraza. I intend to respond to more of the backlog of requests in the near future.]

Summary: Here’s the deal with awhile/a while. One word means adverb, two words means noun phrase. (As a possible mnemonic, adverb is a single word and noun phrase is two words.) If you can replace it with for a while, it’s one word. You can’t really be considered wrong (by British standards, at least) if you always use it as two words, and you probably oughtn’t to be considered wrong if you always write it as one — but I would advise against that.


The Inner Spaces series so far:
I: A lot about alot (10/24/07)
II: All right (10/26/07)
III: Can not be split? (10/27/07)
IV: It’s Been a While (01/14/08)

(1) You cannot use can not.
(2) You can not use cannot.

Is one or the other of these sentences more grammatically correct? If so, does that make it also more semantically correct?

First off, here’s what I think about them. Up until some time last year, I was convinced that can not was the only acceptable way to write it, and cannot was an error, a neologism, or at least something a bit informal (when it actually has been in use for six centuries). Then for some reason I became convinced that both were acceptable and began using cannot because it is less ambiguous:

(3) I (cannot/can not) eat the cake, because I am too full.
(4) I (*cannot/can not) eat the cake if you want to save it for later.

See, the negation in can not could either negate the modal can (i.e., I am unable to do something) or the predicate (i.e, I am able to not do something), whereas the negation in cannot can only negate the modal. So I personally try to use cannot when I want to negate the modal and can not when I want to negate the predicate. This distinction is relevant to me because I actually do intend to negate the predicates of such sentences sometimes. Most reasonable people do not. If you are one of the people who don’t do this, then there is no reason for the choice of cannot/can not to matter to you. That’s not entirely true; some people argue that can not must be used when you want to emphasize the not, and I’ll drink to that.

Other people’s opinions vary. Neither Strunk nor Fowler seem to explicitly state a preference between the forms, although I can’t find an instance of either of them using can not. The OED, MWDEU, AskOxford, the Columbia Guide to Standard Modern English, and Paul Brians (and me) all agree that while cannot is the more common modern usage, both are acceptable. But of course there are also dissenters, and let me attempt to counter one argument against can not.

This argument is that of Language Hat, (the author of this brilliant diatribe against language “snoot” David Foster Wallace) who is justly irate that the definition of cannot in one dictionary is “can not”. We agree that these two forms are not equivalent (see sentence (4)), but I disagree with his secondary argument that cannot is properly one word because it is pronounced as such. Many phrases are properly written out as multiple words even though they are pronounced as single words. These include should have, going to, want to, go to, out of. And English orthography is hardly beholden to pronunciation (tho it mite be nice if it were).

Summary: Both cannot or can not are generally fine. The one-word form is preferred in contemporary English, but the two-word form must be used when you want to emphasize the negation or you want to negate the predicate. And as for the questions at the beginning, both sentences are grammatically correct, but only (2) is semantically correct: you are allowed to not use cannot.


The Inner Spaces series so far:
I: A lot about alot (10/24/07)
II: All right (10/26/07)
III: Can not be split? (10/27/07)
IV: It’s Been a While (01/14/08)

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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