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I jest about the uselessness of Twitter, but I find myself more and more defending it to the people in my daily life, a sure sign that I am crossing over into some sort of addiction that I ought to be fighting. One of the agents of this addiction is the Fake AP Stylebook, which offers one- and two-liners in the style of, well, a stylebook. For instance:

Thorough research is the key to quality reporting. Read the ENTIRE Wikipedia article before writing your story.

Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!

Use English measurement units to avoid confusing readers: “The suspect was four cubits, eight barleycorns in height.”

The folks behind the Fake AP Stylebook (who call themselves The Bureau Chiefs) followed up on this with a book, Write More Good, which I received a copy of recently. I was looking forward to reading it, because I enjoy the stylebook entry parody format, but I was also a bit concerned that it wouldn’t translate well to a book. As it turns out, The Bureau Chiefs felt the same; the book breaks out of the 140-character Twitter restrictions and places its jokes into paragraphs, maintaining a quick-fire approach to the joke delivery, but also giving the jokes a bit more chance to develop, like the slow-aged bourbons that The Chiefs prefer.

[Cover of Write More Good]

The book, like the Twitter feed, is all about writing and journalism, and it presents a surprisingly honest look at the field — the sort of harsh yet good-natured honesty that only good Horatian satire can provide.* Shots are taken at the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, be them “Give the readers what they want”, “Every story has two equal sides”, or “Armageddon waits around every corner”. The chapter on science reporting was full of stuff like this:

“When it comes to the possibility that global warming is caused by human behavior, the opinion of a man with an MBA who does consulting work for oil companies is just as valid as the opinion of a man with multiple doctorates in climatology […] The opinions of the former may even be more useful, as he is less likely to be prejudiced by spending too much time on the subject.”


“Replacing FIVE NEW EXTRASOLAR PLANETS DISCOVERED with HAVE ASTRONOMERS FOUND THE REAL PLANET PANDORA? could mean the difference between another night of instant ramen and a string of filet mignon dinners at five-star restaurants.” [BTW, This really happens.]

The writers are not out for blood. They mock, but they mock lovingly. Sure, journalists might not be living up to the standards we’d desire, but a lot of that is due to the readers, and they are not spared:

“[…] don’t try too hard to make the math portions of your writing understandable. If someone with a nontechnical background reads it and realizes they can actually follow what you’re saying, the result will not be a lightbulb going off and the realization that maybe math isn’t so scary. They will instead make sure no one saw them doing math and, if if anyone was watching, they’ll explain that, ha ha, they just happened to open up the newspaper to some math: Oh, man, what was THAT doing there? I must have picked up someone else’s paper because, no sir, not me—math is gay.”

At first it seems like a silly little book, but in the end it makes a number of good points. Journalists are falling short of their ideal. Owners care about cash more than journalism. And — the one that really resonated with me — even as we non-journalists bemoan the state of modern journalism, we’re all complicit in its downfall.

At the same time, the book is positively hilarious. Even as I winced, even as I regretted the times I’ve read an article about a puppy parade and skipped the one about a political debate, I kept on laughing. It’s Horatian satire at its best, funny and a bit admonishing. The Chiefs have put up Chapter 3 of the book online for you to judge for yourself whether it’s worth reading. I recommend it heartily.

*: Another good thing about the book is that it got me to look into the history of satire a bit. Apparently, there are two schools of satire: the Horatian school, which views the satirized subject as folly and criticizes it with light-hearted humor, and the Juvenalian school, which views the satirized subject as evil and ridicules it scathingly. The things one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know!

A few months ago, I received John McWhorter’s new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, in the mail and I rapidly and rapaciously read through it, enjoying myself all the while. The best part of the book is not, as you might think, that it has a “dirty” word in the title. Yes, that’s a lot of fun if you’re secretly immature like I am, but what’s better about the book is McWhorter’s proposal about what led to our modern English. (The language, not the band.)

McWhorter’s main observation in the book is that English is very strange: it’s a Germanic language that doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. You probably already knew that, especially if you’ve ever known or looked at German. If you’re up on the basic history of English, you might even offer an explanation for this, noting that the Norman Invasion in 1066 resulted in England being a temporarily bilingual country, with English the language of the commoners, but French the language of the government. As always happens in these situations, the languages influenced each other, and English underwent a few changes. And to illustrate that point, you might offer the example of Latinate words in English, which often exist almost as fancier versions to their Germanic counterparts (for instance, eat and consume). That’s what I always used to do.

But McWhorter offers a somewhat different view of the strangeness of English. Sure, he notes, there are these differences in words, but it’s not just words that take English away from its Germanic roots; it’s syntax as well. For instance, Germanic languages ask questions like Sprechen Sie Deutsch?, which transliterates to Speak you German?, whereas English asks questions like Do you speak German?, with a meaningless do tossed in for good measure. Similarly, Germanic languages have hardy case systems with lots of suffixes. English only has case-marking on pronouns (I vs. me vs. my), and even there it is slowly being lost from the language (as in the protracted death of whom).

McWhorter’s proposal is that Modern English is in some sense a creole, that invasions of England by the Danish and the Norwegians, along with a significant number of remaining Celts, resulted in a substantial proportion of Old English speakers being non-native speakers of Old English. That allowed for the loss of the Old English case system, along with the adoption of certain Celtic syntactic structures (such as the meaningless do in Do you speak German?). Yet written Old English stayed much the same, because written language is very resistant to change (witness the spelling of knight) Then the Normans took over, and that led to a century and a half where French was the written language of England. When English regained its post as the written language of England, there was no longer such a strong adherence to its old ways, and so the new written language was more like the new (spoken) Middle English, the semi-creolized and weakly simplified version of Old English. So the change the Normans wrought was far more substantial than adding a few ten-dollar words to the lexicon; it also led to the debut of a syntactically different version of English.

Not knowing much about historical linguistics myself, I’m not qualified to fully assess McWhorter’s arguments, but I didn’t see any glaring holes. However, I’m a bit concerned that he’s given short shrift to the competing theories about the history of English. The counter-proposals, which McWhorter insists are held by most historical linguists, seem like strawmen. For instance, McWhorter proposes that meaningless do spread into English by contact with Welsh, which is one of only a handful of languages in the world with meaningless do, and he claims that the opposing theory is that meaningless do just appeared in English purely coincidentally. Well, given those two options, I’d obviously take the former, as I would assume most everyone would. Yet McWhorter insists that almost all historical linguists studying English hold the opposing viewpoint, so they almost certainly have a better reason to do so than what he’s telling us. But again, historical linguistics is not an area of any expertise for me, so maybe the opposing argument is as flimsy as he portrays it.

The second half of the book is an interesting corollary to McWhorter’s “English is a bastard” proposal; since the English we revere today is the result of having essentially incompetent speakers mangle it thoroughly a millennium ago, why would we protect it now? It’s a strange twist when suddenly the book starts talking about grammar rules after discussing the details of language change, and it’s not entirely fluid. But he makes a good point, and I think it’s an argument worth having in battles against prescriptivists; language is much more resilient than it is given credit for.

So, on the whole, a pretty good book, if occasionally a bit too insistent for my taste. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff.

I am unabashedly in love with “Origins of the Specious”. It’s got a clever title, alluding to that controversially correct tome of Darwin’s, an homage to a field of study with even more ill-informed cranks than grammar. More importantly, it’s a wonderful book, one that I would despise for its attempt to render me superfluous, were it not for its friendly approachable style, and how very spot-on it is.

The book is written by Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, who argue the same sorts of points as I do, but who came to their opinions through a much different path. They are not the rebellious sort — a point that they establish right in the book’s introduction — but unlike most popular grammarians, who upon seeing a singular they or other such “mistake” shove their fingers into their ears like a petulant child and scream “NA NA NA! I can’t understand you! You’re stupid!”, O’Conner and Kellerman are sensible. If choosing a grammarian were like selecting a president, they’d win — hands down — because they’re the ones you could sit down and have a meal with. They’re reasonable, and more importantly, they’re right.  They are proponents of a simple principle, that language usage is a democracy:

“People often ask me who decides what’s right. The answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. […] You may kick and scream too, when you find out that many of your most cherished beliefs about English are as phony as a three-dollar bill. Hey, I know the feeling! […] Keep an open mind and expect the unexpected. Feel free to grumble too. Democracy can be exasperating when you’re on the losing side. But English is a work in progress, and always will be […]” (pg. xvii)

“Origins” is a list of lexical, grammatical, and etymological myths, expertly debunked. It’s a massacre of the misinformed beliefs of most prescriptivists: common edicts against none are (p. 26), drive friendly (p.29), and data is (p. 177), among others, all fall under their sword. The best part is that these sword-wielders are not young Turks, who prescriptivists would readily write off, but rather the trusted old guard. O’Conner and Kellerman aren’t writing because they believe that what they write is the way language should be, but rather because what they write is what language is. Tired of the knowing winks and hardy slaps on the back that misinformed prescriptivists give them, they fight back, showing everyone where they’re wrong. In the introduction, they even note that they occasionally regret their findings, yet they present them nevertheless. This is science, done right, and it alone would justify the book.

“Origins” is split up into chapters, each covering a separate area of the language. The first considers the claim that Americans are destroying the proper English of the Brits. I hope it’s not giving away too much to reveal that O’Conner and Kellerman conclude that we aren’t. In fact, on many points American English is more conservative than British English. The next chapter does what I do, debunking spurious grammar edicts, and this was the part of the book that appealed most to me. It was top-notch. Others might prefer the chapters on mangled words and idioms, or on the etymology of popular words and phrases, or on fractured French borrowings (the gallingly non-Gallic pronunciation of lingerie, for instance). There’s something for everyone who likes words and is interested in their real backstories.

But best of all, the book is well-written, easy to read, and unremittingly pleasant (unlike many grammar books). I read it in a week, despite the deadlines I had looming. Those days I longed for the bus ride, when I’d set aside time to set aside my other work and devote myself to the book. I took the long way home on occasion to squeeze a few more pages in. I read in bed with the lights off, a small desk lamp illuminating the pages so everyone would think I was asleep and not bother me.

All in all, it’s a great book, assuming you’re into this kind of thing — which, if you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly are.

Apparently this blog has become sufficiently well-known that I have begun to receive gifts as a result of my writing. I don’t know why anyone would do such a thing, but I greatly appreciate it, because I love nothing more than free things.  (It’s an unfortunate family trait.) Over the past few months, I’ve received a number of grammar books, and slowly it dawned on me that these weren’t truly free gifts; presumably, it would be proper for me to review the books I’ve received. And so I’m starting up a series of book reviews.  If you have a book that you’d like to see reviewed, let me know (motivatedgrammar gmail com).  If you have any thoughts about what you’d like to see in these reviews, also let me know.

The first book I’m going to review is the first one I received: Martha Brockenbrough‘s Things That Make Us [Sic]. Looking at the dust jacket when it arrived, I figured the book was just going to be like the Apostrophe Protection Society’s web page, a series of pictures of grammar errors with condescending finger-wagging. I was pleased to find that it was not a picture-book, but that was about the high point for me.

Brockenbrough, as you may know, is the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. We don’t see eye-to-eye on grammar, so I was expecting to find that I’d mark up the book with red pen, gnashing my teeth all the while.  That expectation was slightly off; while there were points I disagreed with, on the whole her advice was relatively uncontroversial, and she did include the now-obligatory section of debunked grammar myths. There were two points I strongly disagreed with:

  • staunch should not be used as a verb [debunked here]
  • People that I know should always be people who I know [debunked here and here]

Pretty minor disagreements, really.  But then there was the part where for five pages Brockenbrough fantasizes that Justin Timberlake is checked into grammar rehab.  At the climax of the fantasy, Timberlake reports to his grammar therapist that he has found an error in Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone: “When you got nothing, you got nothing left to lose,” notes Timberlake, ought to be “when you‘ve got nothing, you‘ve got nothing left to lose.”

The reader is stunned!  Justin Timberlake, grammatical imbecile, has now been converted into the pedant we’d always hoped he’d be!  His therapist responds, teary-eyed, “That’s where the artistry of the song comes in. […] Dylan is increasing the folsky feel of his song by playing a bit with the verb tenses.”  I have absolutely no objection to that argument.  That’s the point of poetic license, and I think the song would be slightly worse with the change.  But to lionize Dylan for using a grammatical error to relate to his audience after excoriating Timberlake for his grammatical errors strikes me as a bit unfair — especially seeing what happens to Timberlake’s song after Brockenbrough corrects it!  The original lyrics are:

“When you cheated, girl / My heart bleeded, girl.”

You wouldn’t mistake this couplet for Alexander Pope’s work, but it has a nice three-syllable end-rhyme.  That long end-rhyme makes up for the repetition of girl; I think it’s cheap to rhyme two lines by repeating a word, but not if it’s as part of a long rhyme.  I really don’t mind this, and in fact, the use of bleeded strikes me as charming.  But putting my poetic sensibilities aside, here’s Brockenbrough’s preferred form:

“When you cheated, girl / My heart did bleed, girl.”

Oof.  If ungrammaticality is the price we must pay to avoid lines like this, I accept the trade.

The book continues on like this, swapping between basic grammar lessons and these weird excursuses, many of which take the form of letters written by Brockenbrough to those who have incurred the wrath of SPOGG.  As I mentioned above, the points in the grammar lessons were mostly valid.  A few times Brockenbrough overreached in arguing that her usage preferences could be justified by improving clarity, and there was the occasional appearance of the recency illusion (i.e., claiming that some “error” is only recently attested when it’s actually been commonplace for years).  Otherwise, I mostly agreed with her advice — or at least didn’t strongly oppose it — and, again, I did appreciate the mentioning of grammar myths at the end. I would have liked to see more convincing arguments against the myths, of course, but this book wasn’t written with me in mind.  So, in terms of content, the book was alright.  If you’re someone who makes a lot of common grammatical errors, the information is pretty good.  People with pretty decent grammar, though, won’t get much out of it.

But, alas, I’m not here to tell you the book is alright, and that’s because I had two stylistic problems with the book.  I wish these points hadn’t skewed my opinion so much, but these were huge distractions, and are the things that still stick in my craw after putting the book down.  First, the whole book has that creepy but-of-course-I’m-only-joking vibe that makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Some of the jokes were funny, like the proposal that Dekalb, Illinois be renamed “Deka#”. (Pound symbol, “lb”, get it?)  But the self-righteous-haha-it’s-meta! tone of the letters and other excursuses quickly grows tiresome.  For instance, immediately following the discussion that staunch can be a verb, but shouldn’t, there is a letter to Rep. Jay Inslee, condescendingly reprimanding him for using staunch as a verb — even though the previous page said it’s technically acceptable!  The letters aren’t really funny — they’re nagging, they’re awkward, and they usually harp on obvious points, like correcting obvious spelling errors in text messages.  And, outside the letters, there’s this one paragraph where Brockenbrough goes moderately insane, launching ad hominem attacks against people who don’t fawn over apostrophes.  Sure, I get that it’s all probably supposed to be an over-the-top joke, but after two hundred pages of it, it’s hard to believe there’s no truth underlying the jest.

I’d perhaps have been able to overlook this joking-or-am-I? tone of the book if it weren’t for the fact that the whole book is written in first-person plural, or as Brockenbrough calls it when writing to the Queen of England, “the royal we”.  It starts off on page 2, when Brockenbrough writes “As we write, Billboard‘s list of top-selling albums contains two serious spelling errors.” (One of the errors, by the way, is kingz, which I would be reluctant to call serious.) Perhaps there is a ghostwriter to this book, but otherwise, this usage is just weird.  It continues throughout the book; I didn’t notice a single instance of I or me or myself or my in the book, except in quotes or example sentences.  This is also standard practice on the SPOGG website and blog, although not in Brockenbrough’s Encarta column.  I get the idea; Brockenbrough is claiming to speak for the SPOGG as a whole.  Maybe that’s standard practice for people who found organizations and write books — I’ve done neither, so I wouldn’t know.  But when you’re talking about grammar, which is so idiosyncratic, I doubt one can speak for the membership as a whole.  The use of this royal we throughout really grated on me, especially as it felt like a crutch.  It was as though Brockenbrough wasn’t confident enough in her grammatical opinions, and had to constantly imply that other people felt the same way she did.

So, on the whole, the book has some good points: it’s not overly prescriptivist, it argues against some common grammar myths, and it has some decent jokes.  It’s a quick and easy read as well, and does a pretty good job of explaining some less intuitive aspects of grammar.   But those are needles of goodness lost in a haystack of poorly justified condescension, royal wes, only-half-joking tones, and discomfitting fantasies.  It’s like Eats, Shoots and Leaves if Lynne Truss weren’t quite so mean.

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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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