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It’s National Grammar Day, so as usual, I’m taking the opportunity to look back on some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here over the last year. But before I get to that, let’s talk briefly about language change.

Language changes. There’s no question about that — just look at anything Chaucer wrote and it’s clear we’re no longer speaking his language. These aren’t limited to changes at the periphery, but at the very core of the language. Case markings that were once crucial have been lost, leaving us with subject/object distinctions only for pronouns (and even then, not all of them). Negation, tense marking, verbal moods, all these have changed, and they continue to do so now.

Some people take the stance that language change is in and of itself bad, that it represents a decline in the language. That’s just silly; surely Modern English is no worse than Old English in any general sense.

Others take a very similar, though much more reasonable, stance: that language change is bad because consistency is good. We want people to be able to understand us in the future. (I’m thinking here of the introductory Shakespeare editions I read in high school, where outdated words and phrases were translated in footnotes.)

So yes, consistency is good — but isn’t language change good, too? We weed out words that we no longer need (like trierarch, the commander of a trireme). We introduce new words that are necessary in the modern world (like byte or algorithm). We adapt words to new uses (like driving a car from driving animals). This doesn’t mean that Modern English is inherently better than Old English, but I think it’s hard to argue Modern English isn’t the better choice for the modern world.

Many writers on language assume that the users of a language are brutes who are always trying to screw up the language, but the truth is we’re not. Language users are trying to make the best language they can, according to their needs and usage. When language change happens, there’s a reason behind it, even if it’s only something seemingly silly like enlivening the language with new slang. So the big question is: is the motivation for consistency more or less valid than the motivation for the change?

I think we should err on the side of the change. Long-term consistency is nice, but it’s not of primary importance. Outside of fiction and historical accounts, we generally don’t need to be able to extract the subtle nuances from old writing. Hard though it may be to admit it, there is very little that the future is going to need to learn from us directly; we’re not losing too much if they find it a little harder to understand us.

Language change, though, can move us to a superior language. We see shortcomings in our native languages every time we think “I wish there was a way to say…” A language is probably improved by making it easier to say the things that people have to or want to say. And if a language change takes off, presumably it takes off because people find it to be beneficial. When a language change appears, there’s presumably a reason for it; when it’s widely adopted, there’s presumably a compelling reason for it.

The benefits of consistency are fairly clear, but the exact benefit or motivation for a change is more obscure. That’s why I tend to give language change the benefit of the doubt.

Enough of my philosophizing. Here’s the yearly clearinghouse of 10 busted grammar myths. (The statements below are the reality, not the myth.)

Each other and one another are basically the same. You can forget any rule about using each other with two people and one another with more than two. English has never consistently imposed this restriction.

There is nothing wrong with I’m good. Since I was knee-high to a bug’s eye, I’ve had people tell me that one must never say “I’m good” when asked how one is doing. Well, here’s an argument why that’s nothing but hokum.

The S-Series: Anyway(s), Backward(s), Toward(s), Beside(s). A four-part series on words that appear both with and without a final s. Which ones are standard, and where?

Amount of is just fine with count nouns. Amount of with a count noun (e.g., amount of people) is at worst a bit informal. The combination is useful for suggesting that the pluralized count noun is best thought of as a mass or aggregation.

Verbal can mean oral. In common usage, people tend to use verbal to describe spoken language, which sticklers insist is more properly described as oral. But outside of certain limited contexts where light ambiguity is intolerable, verbal is just fine.

Twitter’s hashtags aren’t destroying English. I’ve never been entirely clear why, but many people insist that whatever the newest form of communication is, it’s going to destroy the language. Whether it’s the telegraph, the telegram, text messages, or Twitter, the next big thing is claimed to be the nail in English’s coffin. And yet, English survives.

Changing language is nothing at all like changing math. Sometimes people complain that allowing language to change due to common usage would be like letting triangles have more than 180 degrees if enough people thought they did. This is bosh, and here’s why.

And a few myths debunked by others:

Whom is moribund and that’s okay. (from Mike Pope) On rare occasions, I run across someone trying very hard to keep whom in the language, usually by berating people who haven’t used it. But the truth is that it’s going to leave the language, and there’s no reason to worry. Mike Pope explains why.

Uh, um, and other disfluencies aren’t all bad. (from Michael Erard, at Slate) One of the most interesting psycholinguistic papers I read early in grad school was one on the idea that disfluencies were informative to the listener, by warning them of a complicated or unexpected continuation. Michael Erard discusses some recent research in this vein that suggests we ought not to purge the ums from our speech.

Descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t directly opposed. (from Arrant Pedantry) At times, people suggest that educated linguists are hypocritical for holding a descriptivist stance on language while simultaneously knowing that some ways of saying things are better (e.g., clearer, more attractive) than others. Jonathon Owen shines some light on this by representing the two forces as orthogonal continua — much more light than I’ve shone on it with this summary.

Some redundant stuff isn’t really redundant. (from Arnold Zwicky, at Language Log) I’m cheating, because this is actually a post from more than five years ago, but I found it within the last year. (This is an eleventh myth anyway, so I’m bending rules left and right.) Looking at pilotless drones, Arnold Zwicky explains how an appositive reading of adjectives explains away some seeming redundancies. If pilotless drones comes from the non-restrictive relative clause “drones, which are pilotless”, then there’s no redundancy. A bit technical, but well worth it.

Want to see somewhere between 10 and 30 more debunked myths? Check out some or all of the last three years of NGD posts: 2011, 2010, and 2009.

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I am not the sort of person who receives an inordinate number of invitations, likely due in no small part to my propensity to swing conversational topics away from things like popular movies or good books and over to the specifics of the language by which one talks about such things. As such, it is not in the cards for me to be picky about the tenor of an invitation. I never understood the people who refuse to go to a party because they were invited at the last minute. My response is always, “I’ll be ready in three minutes, thanks thanks thanks.” This may be because I was — and this may surprise some of you — not one of the popular kids in high school.

Okay, actually, I’m lying. In truth, I am picky about the invitations I accept, just because many of the things that my friends enjoy doing hold no inducement for me. Bars, dancing, sunny day beach trips, all not my cup of tea. Unless there’s cheap food or a thrift store involved, I’m out. But when I reject an invitation, I always have a valid reason: it sounds boring. Some other people do not; instead they complain about the fact that they have not been given an invitation, but rather an invite. This is because those people assume invite is either just a recent truncation of the full and more proper invitation, or the recent co-opting of the verb invite into a noun. In either case, it’s unacceptable. As Eric Partridge writes in Usage and Abusage:

invite for (an) invitation is incorrect and ill-bred and far too common”

A sharp dismissal. Except, wait, what the hell does it mean for a word to be “ill-bred”? The only meaning I can come up with is that the word was formed through improper means. But that’s patently false, as nominal invite comes from verbal invite by the same means as some uncontroversial nouns like command and request, both of which started life as verbs according to the MWDEU. In fact, this method (zero-affixation) of forming nouns from verbs used to be quite commonplace.  Arnold Zwicky has found that nominal request took the place of nominal ask, which first showed up a millennium ago.  Adam Albright found the following words in the OED as nouns:

adorn, disturb, arrive, destroy, relate, pray, recede, announce, ask, think, amaze, depart, reduce, produce, maintain, retain, detain, deploy, retire, acquit, greet, defend, divulge, startle, entertain, vanish

The attestations of these are all in the past; it’s likely few people would consider all (or even many) of these valid nouns nowadays. But I think it gives some evidence that invite isn’t ill-bred; it’s attested back to the 1600s in the OED, and it was formed by what used to be a pretty productive rule. So it’s not incorrect, it’s not ill-bred, and since neither of the first two hold, there’s no reason to complain about its commonness.  Sorry Eric Partridge, but zero-for-three.

Now, there does seem to be some truth to the claim that invite is less formal than invitation; the MWDEU’s historical examples of nominal invite are often from the mouths of lower-class characters or light writing. But being informal is not the same as being bad grammar, no matter how badly the prescriptivists want that to be the case.

Summary: Nominal invite, as in I got an invite, isn’t a recent piece of bad grammar. It’s been attested since the 17th century and it came from a previously common grammatical rule. At worst, it’s informal. I’d use invitation if you don’t feel like a fight, but when you’re in a bad mood, use nominal invite and tear into anyone who dares object.

I haven’t posted anything in a while because it was the end of the quarter and, even without any classwork to speak of, I had to get a few components of my research together before spring break. And now I’m on break, so I’m having trouble putting together the energy to concoct a proper post. However, there are four other posts that I found semi-recently that I was so very fond of that I had to share them with you all.

The first is Mark Liberman’s Language Log post “Teaching Zombie Rules“, which offers a potential answer to the problem I find myself in quite a lot: how should one deal with grammar rules that aren’t really rules?  Sure, it’s an easy question once you’re a professor or even a grad student.  I use the grammar that I believe to be best justified, and if anyone tells me I’m wrong, I present the facts that back up my usage.  If a pedant insists I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, because they don’t hold any power over me.  But what if you’re a student preparing for a grammar test that includes zombie rules (the SAT, for instance)?  Even worse, what if you’re a tutor preparing someone else for a grammar test?  How do you teach a rule you know to be wrong?  Liberman’s answer is great, in part because it recasts the problem in terms of audience design.

The second is this year’s Grammar Day post from John at Bradshaw of the Future.  John points out that all these grammar points that we all care so much about are just insignificant pieces of the whole.  The core of English (or any other language’s) grammar is essentially the same across all its users.  A few people saying “between you and I” isn’t going to change the fact that English is an Subject-Verb-Object language or that it has singular and plural morphology, but not dual morphology (as in American Sign Language).  This is why you shouldn’t get up in arms about the horrendous English these kids today speak — virtually everything they say is grammatically correct anyway.  (John has a history of good Grammar Day posts; last year’s was a gem as well.)

The last is a two-pack: Arnold Zwicky’s Grammar Day post from last year on Language Log, and this year’s version on his own blog.  There’re a lot of good points in these posts, but I’m just going to mention the minor one that prescriptivists have this infuriating tendency to constantly couch their opinions in light absurdity so that when someone complains that their beliefs are ill-founded, they can point to the absurd part and saying “Can’t you tell I’m joking?!?!?”  It’s like when you’re talking to someone about their spouse and they growl, “Sometimes I just want to wring his/her neck,” and then after they stare into the middle distance for a second, they sort of chuckle.  Sure, they’re probably chuckling about the absurdity of the statement, but then again, you have to wonder if they were if they were really chuckling at the mental image.  So too with prescriptivists; I think they think they’re joking, but having dealt with them and occasionally incurred their wrath, I’m not so sure they are.

I hope you enjoy those links as much as I did.

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About The Blog

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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