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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.

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.

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.]

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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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