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One of the most common claims levelled against descriptivists, and against linguists of every stripe, is that our linguistic philosophy amounts to “anything goes”. Whenever anyone says something, the thought is, we will take it as a valid sentence in their language.

Of course, prescriptivists and other anti-descriptivists denounce this position as folly. But so do (almost) all descriptivists. The position is intellectually bankrupt. There are many reasons for an utterance not to be assumed to be grammatical. For instance, young speakers of the language speak pretty terribly (“I goed to the store”), so they clearly need to be exempted from the set of speakers establishing the grammar of the language. You will not find a linguist listening to a three-year-old and dutifully transcribing their speech as grammatical forms of the language.

But that one’s pretty obvious. In a more problematic case, we also know that people make grammatical errors that they subsequently recognize as errors. I know this especially well because every third post or so I get a comment or email asking if I didn’t make a grammatical error in a sentence, and often it’s because I did. I’m not talking about sentences that merely deviate from stylebook norms (YOUR PERIODS FOLLOW THE QUOTES YOU IDIOT!), but undeniably ungrammatical utterances like These is a big problem or worse. If it were really anything goes, you’d see linguists rushing to the defense of these ill-formed sentences even as I said “no, no, they’re not right!”

So let me try to state the maximally descriptivist position that I think a reasonable person could take. It’s that the set of grammatical utterances of a language is the set of utterances that can be made by speakers who have sufficient linguistic ability (i.e., adults who are fluent in the language) such that the speaker making that utterance does not find a problem with it after careful examination. More briefly, it’s the set of sentences that a qualified speaker would accept. But this is hardly “anything goes” — it’s more like “anything meeting certain standards goes”, and that’s a major philosophical shift. In fact, the difference between this theoretical “certain standards” descriptivist and a moderate prescriptivist is little more than a difference of what the standards are.*

And if we’re treating this as the descriptivist baseline, I have to confess that I am a bit less accepting than that. For me, the set of grammatical utterances is community-based; a sentence is grammatical in a linguistic community if and only if it is considered acceptable by a substantial portion of the linguistic community. Note that this is equivalent to the position I sketched above when the “community” is the individual; the difference is that my position does not extend the individual’s grammaticality judgments any further unless the rest of the community agrees.**

Now, the descriptivist philosophy I’ve outlined doesn’t rule out an additional prescriptive preference in stylistic matters, nor does it say that one can’t have a preference between two grammatical sentences. It is only defining the set of grammatical sentences. Most every descriptivist I know has these sorts of stylistic preferences. I, for instance, don’t like hyperbolic usages like figurative literally. Do I think they’re ungrammatical? No, not usually. But would I advise people to avoid them? Yes. And would people be right to ignore my advice? Sure, if they didn’t care what I think (and why should they?).

Lastly — and this is a point that Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry has made better in two of his posts, but it’s important enough to repeat — this means that descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t necessarily at odds. You can be a descriptivist who acknowledges that something is an acceptable usage even as you avoid it yourself. And in fact, I know many self-described prescriptivist editors who hold this (I think eminently reasonable) position.

What’re your thoughts on the matter? If you’re a descriptivist, do you hold one of the philosophies I’ve sketched above, or something else? If you’re a prescriptivist, do you feel that your philosophy meshes with this sort of descriptivism, or do descriptivists still seem like whateverist hippies dancing in the ruins of English?


*: That little more, though, contains the philosophical difference I tweeted the other day: if usage and rules conflict, the descriptivist will base grammaticality on usage, the prescriptivist on rules.

**: To clarify, I think the maximal-descriptivist position is valid for describing idiolects, one’s personal form of the language. But for the purposes of delineating a dialect or language, it doesn’t matter if one person thinks a certain usage is good if all the rest of the world disagrees.

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At the bus stop where I catch the campus shuttle each morning, there are two benches, each of which usually has an ad on it. One of the benches has an ad right now that I find to be grammatically strange:

"Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home"

(If the picture doesn’t load or it’s too blurry, the ad reads “Call Gary Kent To Sell or Short Sale Your Home”.)

When I first saw this ad, I’d only heard of short selling as something in finance, a way of profiting off of a stock or commodity that you expect will drop in value. You sell somebody something that you borrowed, and wait for its value to drop, then buy back the borrowed thing and return it to the person you borrowed it from. It’s a dangerous form of speculation, and the excitingly-named “naked short sell” maneuver has been banned in a number of countries. Short selling in finance, therefore, is not very popular in the public mind.

A short sale in real estate, on the other hand, is a rescue maneuver. It’s designed to allow a homeowner who can no longer afford a mortgage the opportunity to sell the house at market value, even if that is less than the remaining balance on the mortgage. I don’t entirely understand how this is so different from a regular house sale, since it usually still leaves the original homeowner on the hook for the amount of the mortgage above the sale price, but hey, that’s why I parlayed my degree in math into linguistics and not into finance. And the details are irrelevant to the present issue, which is: why did Gary Kent or his copywriters choose to treat short sale as a verb? Why not use short sell as the verb?

The decision struck me as especially strange since it goes against parallelism; not three words earlier in the sentence, the verb sell is used. It certainly seems like a conscious choice to have used short sale as the verb and not short sell. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon choice to make. Google says there’re around 1 million hits of the phrase “how to short sale”, and “short sale your house” gets another 3.6 million. Here’s something especially crazy: the corresponding versions of these phrases using short sell are substantially less common, getting only 150,000 and 26,000 hits, respectively. Short sale is actually a more common verb than short sell!

So it’s probably not a mere error, which means that the psycholinguist in me can come out and wonder why people behave in this grammatically strange way. Why would one prefer a backformation of a verb from its nominal form, short sale, to its “standard” verb form, short sell? I don’t know, but here are four possible explanations I’ve come up with for why people might do this.

Compounding. It might be that the addition of short to sale changes the morphological properties of sell. People go back and forth on whether compound or affixed nouns and verbs are morphologically opaque. You might have encountered this if you’ve ever had a debate with yourself as to whether the plural is passers-by (morphologically transparent) or passer-bys (morphologically opaque)? Or mongeese versus mongooses? Or what about the past tense of forgo? (Personally, I avoid forgo in the past tense because I think both forwent and forgoed sound crummy.) It’s not always clear whether a compound form should be opaque to morphological processes. One possible explanation, then, is that the copywriter thinks of short sale as an opaque compound, and they won’t go in and change the form of just one of the component words. That forces the use of a null morphological transformation to create the verb from the compound noun, rather than going into the compound and changing the component noun sale back into the verb sell.

Differentiation. I mentioned above that I only knew short selling from finance. I imagine many other people are more familiar with the finance meaning as well. The problem is that short selling in finance has a bad reputation; it is widely viewed as a contributor to the market crash of 1929 that set off the Great Depression as well as the crash that led to our current recession. A real estate short sale is designed to help a homeowner get out of the recession, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid making people recall the financial construction that threw them into their current predicament. Using a different verb form sets the two meanings apart a bit, perhaps reducing a seller’s discomfort with the transaction.

Idiomatic Avoidance. To “sell oneself short” is an idiom with a fairly negative connotation, meaning that you aren’t advertising your abilities properly, or you aren’t getting your money’s worth. To suggest that they would sell your house short, then, is something that no real estate agent would want. So the copywriter might have avoided “short sell” to avoid triggering “sell short” in people’s minds.

Recognition/SEO. One last possibility I’d consider is that the use of short sale is intended to ensure that the viewer of the ad will recognize what’s being talked about immediately. (The asterisks certainly suggest that the copywriter was trying to call attention to the short selling aspect of the ad.) This is especially important in the online world, where some browsers don’t perform stemming (looking for other morphological forms of a search term); if a searcher looks for “short sale”, some engines wouldn’t return an ad saying “sell or short sell your home”. The mild ungrammaticality is well worth the extra traffic, as any Search Engine Optimization consultant could tell you. And you would get extra traffic; Google Trends shows around 10 times as much traffic for “short sale” as for “short sell” over the last year and a half:

Google Trends Stats

What do you think? Do you have any other ideas, or maybe even inside information from a real estate office, on the use of verbal short sale? Information on why a short sale without debt forgiveness is different from a regular house sale would also be appreciated.

(By the way, this is also a good example of why I’m a descriptivist. Trying to figure out why people go against grammatical standards a lot more rewarding than just condemning them for it.)

Once again, I’ve got a question for you dear readers.  As I so regularly do in my spare time instead of cultivating rewarding interpersonal relationships, I was reading a piece on grammatical/punctuation errors, by Toni Bowers.  Of course, being quarrelsome, I disagreed with half of her six points.  I could agree with three points in the article: don’t confuse me and I, don’t confuse its and it’s, don’t confuse their, they’re, and there.  But there’s nothing wrong with an apostrophe after an acronym/initialism, so CD’s is fine.  Furthermore, periods are fine within quotation marks if you’re British or prefer the British style — and if you really care about which goes inside the other and you’re not editing a text that has to conform with a specific style guide, you need to re-analyze your priorities.  And the last point the great debate of standard accusative pronouns (me, you, them) versus reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, themselves). I wouldn’t necessarily say I disagree with her point, but that’s because I am not sure how I feel about her example sentence.  So I figured I’d ask the smartest (and least susceptible to flattery) folks on the internet: how do the following two sentences compare for you?

(1a) I have enough salsa for you and myself.
(1b) I have enough salsa for you and me.

Are both acceptable?  Neither?  Only one?  And how do they compare to these two sentences?

(2a) I have enough salsa for myself.
(2b) I have enough salsa for me.

And lastly, how do they compare to these four sentences?

(3a) Troy has enough salsa for you and himself.
(3b) Troy has enough salsa for you and him. (Assuming him refers to Troy)

Please leave a comment if you have any opinions on the matter.  If you can, give a ranking of these sentences as well.  Next week we’ll look at your thoughts and compare them to the expectations of prescriptivists and syntacticians.  Oooh, I’m giddy with excitement!

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a quick post asking for your opinions on Philip Corbett’s contention that may and might both express possibility, but that might is used when the possibility is less likely. For example, the work in (1a) is more likely to get done than in (1b):

(1a) If I can distract the kittens, I may be able to get my work done.
(1b) If I can distract the kittens, I might be able to get my work done.

I had never heard this before, and I didn’t find it to be the case in my own usages, so I posed the question to you all, and you didn’t disappoint. Nor did you agree. Three commenters concurred with Corbett about the difference, with may being more probable than might. One felt that the difference was one of involvement, that might suggests the subject is somehow more involved in the action than may. Two thought that the difference was one of formality, but one thought that may was more formal and the other thought it was less. And at least three agreed with me that there wasn’t any clear difference.

I think Bob Hale nailed it in his comment when he wrote

“My usage of “may” and “might” probably doesn’t correspond exactly to your usage of “may” and “might” or to anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s consistent for an individual and it certainly isn’t consistent between individuals.”

It is worth noting that no one felt that might was more probable than may, so maybe there is a grain of truth to Corbett’s contention, but that grain is drowned out by the overwhelming muddle.

Summary: may and might should be regarded as essentially interchangeable, because different people don’t agree on what the difference between them would be.

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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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