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Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.

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.

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.

What is a moot point?

I can’t think of a time I’ve seen it used to mean anything other than “previously decided” or “debatable only as an academic exercise”. And yet I’ve recently been encountering people claiming that this is wrong, wrong, WRONG, and that moot in fact means quite the opposite: a point that is open for meaningful debate. A representative example of this claim from the recent “20 Common Grammar Mistakes that (Almost) Everyone Makes” article*:

Contrary to common misuse, ‘moot’ doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.”

Of course, if (almost) everyone misuses a word the same way, then it’s probably not a misuse. But setting that point aside, if moot really means the opposite of how it’s normally used, how could that have happened?

Let’s start the answer by noting that non-American English speakers might be wondering what I’m going on about. It seems that moot means something different depending on which side of the Atlantic it’s being used on. A little history: the OED reports that adjectival moot arose in legal parlance to describe hypothetical cases used as practice for law students. Thus the earliest meaning of moot referred to a debate without practical consequences, whether because the case was hypothetical or because it was a real case that had already been decided.**

Between the emergence of adjectival moot in the 1500s and modern times, its meaning spread out in two directions. One is that of American English: a point that is unrelated to law, is debatable, and whose debate has no practical consequences. Whether I should have been so enamored of The Juliana Theory’s “Into the Dark” when it was on heavy radio rotation in 2000 is a moot point, because I can’t go back and tell my younger self that the song was maudlin emo crap. But it’s also a debatable topic, because my interest in that song got me to seek out their album, which had better songs and which later led me to find out about a split EP containing Dawson High’s song “Port Matilda”, which had a huge influence on my artistic sensibilities throughout college. Points can be made on either side, but the decision can’t change.

The other direction in which moot spread was to a point that was just generally open for debate, whether or not it had practical consequences. This is what’s being claimed above to be the “correct” meaning, but here the author’s running afoul of our curious American tendency to confuse the British usage (which is what it is) for the correct usage. In my experience with American English, it’s at least the much less common meaning if not non-standard.

Of course, the two meanings are not very far apart. A point that some of the complainants overlook about the American meaning is that while the debate doesn’t matter, the point is still debatable. Sometimes it may not feel this way; Lynne Murphy cites an old Saturday Night Live sketch “The Question is Moot”, where Jesse Jackson is a game show host who repeatedly interrupts his contestants’ answers by declaring that the question is moot — i.e., unworthy of debate or speculation.

But this, crucially, does not mean that it could not be debated. It doesn’t work for points that are settled and beyond debate. Don’t these sentences sound strange?

(1a) ?Whether cats built the Sphinx is a moot point.
(1b) ?It’s a moot point whether Wayne’s World inspired Bridge Over the River Kwai.***

There is one sense of moot that I haven’t touched on yet. Looking through COCA, I found this example:

It shrank a bit, though its generous size should make the reduction moot.”

This seems to be a recently emerging meaning, for an undeniable but negligible matter. As far as I know, this is limited to predicative usages (e.g., the reduction was moot but not *the moot reduction). And maybe that’s what all this fuss is about, but I don’t think so.

Lastly, the word is moot, not mute. The standard pronunciation rhymes with boot. The pronunciation may be slowly moving toward mute, but at the moment, rhymes-with-boot is the dominant pronunciation in Standard American English.


*: For expert deconstruction of this article, see Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey.

**: If we consider the nominal moot as well, it goes back to Old English and could refer to a non-hypothetical court as well; a moot was any assembly of people, but especially one with judicial purposes. The OED notes that this usage persists, but I think it has to be restricted to British (or at least non-American) Englishes, because all the contemporary occurrences sound like nonsense to me.

***: In case you worry that the oddness of these sentences stems from the oddness of their topics, compare with That cats built the Sphinx is an idiotic notion, which sounds fine to me.

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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, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

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.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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