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It looks like CNN credulously spit out another story from Global Language Monitor (GLM). Basically, GLM did their usual thing of running a speech (in this case, Obama’s oil spill speech from mid-June) through some mindless statistics, getting out the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, and then reporting it as though it was actually meaningful analysis. Language Log and Johnson already explained why the GLM analysis is nonsense, and as a result, CNN actually substantially re-wrote the story.

I discussed the meaninglessness of grade level analysis a year and a half ago in more depth, but this time let me just offer an illustration of why grade-level analysis is not at all appropriate for political analysis.  Here’s a bit from the early part of Obama’s address.  It has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of 10.2, a level that GLM said reflected Obama’s “elite ethos”

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

Okay, but let me show you another passage that I’ve chosen to exactly match the above passage in Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It ought to be equally reflective of an elite ethos:

“one Gulf Already, America unlike millions even has oil does of spill ever be its minutes of not for disaster the And the single matter event earthquake we this epidemic, are a damage spilled The worst into environmental months it’s that or of a that of faced. will oil an is or like a hurricane, fighting Mexico more days. in an gallons that have and years.”

If the extent of your analysis is to look at grade levels, you’re going to say that these two passages are equivalent. That’s because the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula is merely a weighted linear combination of number of words per sentence and number of letters per word. Since these two paragraphs contain the same words, letters, spaces, and periods, the statistics are the same for each, and therefore any conclusion drawn about the first paragraph solely from these statistics necessarily must be drawn about the second paragraph as well.

That’s the problem. These statistics and readability tests don’t look into word frequency, semantics, pragmatics, fluidity, rhetoric, style, or anything that actual humans do to assess the readability and meaningfulness of a text. The tests, after all, are intended as an approximation for when an informed analyst is not available, not as a data source in lieu of informed analysis.

To be fair, GLM’s analysis doesn’t stop at grade levels. They also offer the proportion of passive sentences in the address, which they report as “the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century”. And that’s something, except for Mark Liberman’s discovery that it’s not nearly true. Bush’s similar post-Katrina address had 17% passives; Obama’s post-oil-spill address lagged behind with a mere 11%. (GLM’s president, by the way, considers “There will be setbacks” to be a passive sentence, so it’s not terribly surprising that their passive statistics aren’t great.) But even if the count were right, the passive proportion is not an inherently meaningful statistic either, because passives are employed by good writers for reasons other than evasion, which seems to be the only use GLM can come up with for them.

I hesitate to say that there is no useful information to be found by calculating simple statistics on major presidential addresses. But readability scores are dependent on the choice of punctuation for a speech, overlook rhetorical devices and structure, ignore frequency and semantics, and haven’t been shown to correlate very well with listener comprehension. It is unlikely that useful information will come such simplistic analyses. And though it is not impossible that one day someone will find it, I have not yet seen a single informative result from grade level or other simple statistical analysis on political speech.


On occasion, I look up at the tagline of this blog (“Prescriptivism Must Die”) and wonder if perhaps I’m being too harsh.  But then I read something like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Disagreeable English, and realize that the tagline is, if anything, understating the case.

Fiske seems to believe he is in some sort of competition for the title of King Prescriptivist, and his book seems to be his equivalent of the Eveningwear Competition.  His book flaunts everything that is wrong with prescriptivism: ad hominem attacks, unresearched prescriptions, illogic, wild invective against those who disagree with him.  You might remember his quote that the to no end idiom, which many of you well-educated readers use, is a “bastardization born of mishearing”, when — of course — he presented no evidence for this claim.

In his books, Fiske is a bully who asserts that disagreeing with him or making a simple usage error is evidence of poor mental faculties.  As it is with anyone who argues by bluster and bluff, proving Fiske wrong is an exercise in futility.  It’s like nailing jelly to the wall; you can do it, sure, but he’s just going to ignore the nail of evidence and continue his descent to the floor of absurdity.  It is a complete and utter waste of time.  That said, I haven’t much of a stomach for bullies, and have some time to waste.

Let’s start with an example of a bald assertion made without any effort made to back it up.  Check out this weaselly use of the passive: “Though both words are in common use, normality is considered preferable to normalcy.”  Who considers normality preferable, exactly? Certainly not The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which, by the way, is being sold through Fiske’s website), in which it is written that “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE [American English] as legitimate alternatives.”  This sort of unsourced claim is exactly why everyone’s always up in arms about the passive voice.  This is “mistakes were made” territory.

Most of the book consists of these unjustified ipse dixit proclamations. I can see why; when Fiske does offer justifications, he often contradicts himself. Here’s a line from page 284: “Preventive is preferable to preventative because it has one fewer syllable.” Hey, look, I’m fine with that. Speaking as a light dyslexic, I am all too willing to accept shorter words; there’s less for me to transpose. But a mere 12 pages earlier in the book, Fiske talks about perquisite, which he sneers is “commonly called a perk by the ever-monosyllabic, ever-hasty everyman”. So is conciseness the sign of an efficient mind or a hasty mind?  We are left to wonder.

And then he does the same thing again when talking about one of the only: “Only does not mean two or more; it means one, sole, alone. One of the only then is altogether nonsensical—and further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean.” This is quite incorrect, and there are so many ways to show it — in fact, I did so in a previous post. One could cite the 20-odd pre-1800 usages of the phrase “one of the only” in Google Books, or perhaps the 634 pre-1800 usages of the phrase “the only two“, which surely would be ruled out if only could not possibly refer to two or more objects. One could even go back a bit farther and point out the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation of a plural usage of only in Pecock’s Repressor, printed around 1450. Yes, yes, all of these would be well and good, and would serve to illustrate that there is no historical injunction against only modifying a plural noun. But the particular usages I choose to cite in defense of one of the only are a bit more modern:

(1) “We have words aplenty that mean to annoy; the only other words that mean to aggravate are worsen and exacerbate.”
(2) “[…] the only people inclined to use & in place of and […]” [Italics author’s, boldface mine.]

These usages are from pages 30 and 43 of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Clearly, Fiske himself scarcely knows what only means, since his stated definition doesn’t match his observed usage of plural only.  So if (1) and (2) are fine, why would Fiske object to saying that “worsen is one of the only words that mean to aggravate,” or that “the new copywriter is one of the only people inclined to use &”? It’s beyond me.

All right, enough of that. So Fiske occasionally contradicts himself. Who doesn’t?  So Fiske sometimes doesn’t support his beliefs. Is it fair to excoriate someone for that? In most cases I’d say no. But Fiske is a bully, one who launches vicious ad hominem attacks against the intelligence of other writers. For instance, when Burt Sugar, a boxing writer for the Los Angeles Times decided to get a bit cute, writing of an out-of-shape boxer that he “has gone north–as in north of 250 pounds,” Fiske responded that “Mr. Sugar, like some of the boxers he writes about, has apparently had his ear deformed, his brains addled.” After all, he’s used north of, which Fiske describes as “[i]diotic for more than.” Never mind that I found this usage to actually be rather clever, with its implication that the boxer had metaphorically gone on vacation. Fiske clearly did not, and that makes Sugar an idiot.

Another example: Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, is apparently a fool. After all, he used the wrong tense in this sentence: “If I would have been a publishing house, I would’ve eagerly taken David’s book.” Yeah, it’s not right, but it doesn’t reveal any glaring intellectual deficit, right? Wrong! Fiske writes “Mr. Lowry’s use of would have exposes an inability to reason well—as does his imagining he might conceivably have been a publishing house.” Yep, I’m sure that Lowry was really imagining that.

So if I may be excused for the well-worn phrase, Fiske is really a pot calling a kettle black.  If these writers have addled brains and an inability to reason, then one can scarcely imagine what Fiske has.

One last point, and perhaps the most frustrating one, is that on rare occasions Fiske shows admirable lucidity. For instance, he admonishes one questioner that “[p]erhaps you have trouble understanding why fixing to is improper because—dislike it though you may—it is not improper; it is, as you say, Southern.” Oh, if only that reasonable Robert Hartwell Fiske could sit down and talk to the Fiske who spazzes over Sugar’s north of, or the one who baldly asserts that normalcy is to be avoided.  Maybe then we would have been spared Fiske’s disagreeable complaints.  But instead, we are treated to the vitriol of a crank who views any error, whether large or small, as incontrovertible evidence of the end of English.

And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. I can’t help but feel cynical about the day, in the same way that Matt Lane at Math Goes Pop! felt cynical about yesterday’s “Square Root Day”. The problem is that Square Root Day doesn’t get anyone excited about real math, but rather about simple arithmetic coincidences. Likewise, to the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language.

As such, I might as well do what I can with National Grammar Day and debunk a few of the grammar myths you might encounter today. That also gives me an excuse to go through and call up a few interesting posts that I’d forgotten about, both my own and others’. So here are 10 facts about the English language that go against the unjustified beliefs peddled by prescriptivists. I’m putting summaries of the posts here, with links to the original posts so that you can see why the prescriptivists’ claims should be regarded as myths, no matter how loudly they are proclaimed. To prevent misinterpretation, I am not going to state the myths here, only the corresponding truths:

You can use that in relative clauses with people. (Part I, Part II) Whether you’re speaking historically or restricting yourself to present usage, you’re mistaken if you think that is strictly for things. Phrases like the people that I know are actually more common in contemporary English than the people who(m) I know.

10 items or less lines are perfectly fine, grammatically speaking. The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses. Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically. Please stop complaining about this.

Different than is perfectly acceptable. There are three major arguments claiming from is the only preposition that can be used with different. They’re all invalid. Not only that, but historical usage justifies the continued usage of different than.

Alright is all right. Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although. I think to many people (including myself), the two spellings have slightly different meanings and could reasonably be considered two separate and equally valid words.

Over can mean “more than”. The idea that over can’t mean “more than” is such rubbish that I wouldn’t have believed anyone believed it, were I not constantly dealing with prescriptivist idiocy. Truth is, over has been used to mean “more than” for 1000 years.

Nauseous can mean “sickened”. nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”. Anyone concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion is either naive or shedding crocodile tears. If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

From Language Log:

You can end a sentence with a preposition, Dryden be damned! I wrote about this in the context of the question “Where are you at?”, but it’s a more general problem than that, and is one of the best-known grammatical bugaboos. No serious scholar of the English language holds this view.

They can be singular in certain situations. To quote an idol of mine, Geoff Pullum: “Avoid singular they if you want to; nobody is making you use it. But don’t ever think that it is new (it goes back to early English centuries ago), or that it is illogical (there is no logical conflict between being syntactically singular and semantically plural), or that it is ungrammatical (it is used by the finest writers who ever used English, writers who uncontroversially knew what they were doing).”

Often a passive sentence is better than its active counterpart. In my younger years, I was repeatedly admonished for using the passive voice in my writing. The admonishers were mistaken, though. Many famous detractors of the passive voice (the passive is opposed by many) consistently use the passive voice in appropriate circumstances. Don’t be scared away from it. Honestly, it’s very useful.

And one from the Volokh Conspiracy:

Split infinitives when you feel like it. Honestly, if you think that it’s improper to split an infinitive in English, you need help. This has never been a rational or justifiable rule of English, and just looking at competent English writing should be enough to disabuse you of this notion. Split infinitives are commonly quite beautiful, especially when compared to the often-barbarous sound of an unsplit infinitive.

[Update 03/04/2010: For National Grammar Day 2010, I’ve listed 10 more bogus grammar myths, addressing topics such as sentence-adverbial hopefully, healthy/healthful, between/among, and more on singular they.]

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

This is a continuation of my last post, about Global Language Monitor’s analysis of the vice-presidential debate, which, as far as I can tell, basically consisted of feeding the debate transcript into Microsoft Word, looking at the numbers, and making up an explanation as to why the results mattered.  I’d stated two complaints with Global Language Monitor’s analysis; the first was that they had assigned readability scores to the debate, and the second was that they’d claimed Sarah Palin was overusing the passive.  I spent the last post long-windedly arguing that readability is bunk when you’re talking about extemporaneous speech, and now it’s time for me to do something I thought I would never do: defend Sarah Palin.

We all know the passive; we’ve all heard of its unsavory practices.  For all the hell it goes through on a daily basis, it’s a wonder that it keeps showing up to work.  The passive gets maligned as too wordy, too evasive, too wimpy.  Strunk & White opposed it, George Orwell opposed it, and Microsoft Word opposes it.  It’s opposed by just about any prescriptivist you can find shouting drivel.  According to the anti-passivists, there’s only one reason to use a passive, and that’s to avoid responsibility.  The problem with the passive, they claim, is that passives don’t tell you who is the “doer of the action” — or as we linguists like to call it, the agent.

The most commonly cited example of the terrible agentless passive is “Mistakes were made”, which is sufficiently reviled to have its own Wikipedia entry. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, passives can have explicit agents, as in this sentence from Kofi Annan:

(1) In both cases, the gravest mistakes were made by Member States […]

Not only can passives have an agent, but non-passive sentences can be agentless.  Here’s four non-passive agentless restatements of “Mistakes were made”:

(2a) Someone made mistakes.
(2b) There were mistakes.
(2c) Mistakes happened.
(2d) People made mistakes.

So we see that in spite of the conventional wisdom, passives don’t necessarily indicate a desire to evade responsibility, and non-passives don’t indicate forthrightness.  In fairness, the Global Language Monitor analysis does acknowledge this, stating merely that passives can be evasive, but then they follow that up by claiming that Palin used passives specifically to evade responsibility:

“Passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility; Biden used active voice when referring to Cheney and Bush; Palin countered with passive deflections.”

Kudos, GLM, for being honest and stating that passives aren’t by definition bad.  But there’s one minor tripping point to this analysis: Palin didn’t use passives to deflect responsibility when Biden mentioned Bush or Cheney.  OOPS!

Here’s the data.  I searched through the CNN transcript and noted each time that Biden said “Bush” or “Cheney”.  Each time I found a Bush/Cheney reference, I put the first three (or more, if she stayed on the topic) paragraphs of Palin’s response into a file.  So this file contained all of her direct responses to Biden’s mentions of Bush or Cheney, a set of 75 sentences.  There are (by my count) eight passive clauses in this dataset, occurring in seven sentences, so 9% percent of her sentences have at least one passive clause. But let’s look at representative examples of these passives:

(3a) “And our commanders on the ground will tell us when those conditions have been met.”
(3b) “[…] those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”
(3c) “No Child Left Behind was implemented.”

None of these use the passive to deflect responsibility.  In fact, in all of these sentences, the agents would probably be proud to be explicitly named.  “Me! It’s me who is not allowing a dangerous regime to obtain nuclear weapons!”, they’d scream.

So why does GLM think that Palin was using passive deflections?  Well, my guess is that it fits with the narrative that all Republicans are constantly trying to distance themselves from President Bush, so GLM assumed that when Palin used the passive, it must have been used evasively.  But to find out if this wasn’t really the case, you just had to spend a couple of minutes READING THE TEXT.  It took me ten minutes to compile the sentences and read them.  It was painful ten minutes, because I so staunchly disagree with almost everything Palin says, but I did it.  GLM, clearly, did not, preferring instead to regurgitate Word’s readability statistics and tack on some bunk commentary.  I know it’s tough checking facts because there’s a chance they won’t support the point you want to make, but you really ought to do it before you send out spurious analysis in a press release.

Summary: Let no one say I’ve never defended Sarah Palin.  Her use of the passive in the VP debate, although more common than Biden’s, was not used to distance herself from Bush and Cheney, but rather was employed as a standard stylistic device.  Mashing together Word’s readability statistics and some made-up rubbish doesn’t make good analysis.  Let’s stop trying to pin so much importance on the delivery of the message and actually pay attention to the message itself.

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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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