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My roommate, his girlfriend, and I trudged over to the mall food court last night for something resembling a dinner.   Being secret monarchists, they headed to the decadent Burger King, while I, ever-conscious of my health, went over to the Mongolian Grill instead, which might very well be regarded as a healthy alternative if you only disregard the fatty meat I laded my bowl with and the near-gallon of soy sauce and oil it was cooked in.  But this is not a post about the shabby meals we eat; rather it is a post about the shabby English attending our meals.  Had Henry Watson Fowler, author of The King’s English, accompanied us, he would have fallen over when he saw my roommate’s food.  Not merely because Fowler has been dead for the better part of a century (after all, dead people can be made to stand; I’ve watched both Weekends at Bernie’s), but because of the coupon my roommate got with his meal.  I might not have this exactly right, but if memory serves, it read:

(1) “Try one Free New BK Burger Shots, Saturday 3/14 […]”

That’s pretty awkward, what with the disagreement in number between one and Burger Shots.  I think we all get the idea that supposed to be coming across here: Burger Shots are bonsai burgers, small little mini-burgers that are not sold separately.  So one can’t order a Burger Shot, but rather must order two or six Burger Shots.  The problem is that talking about two Burger Shots is ambiguous.  Do you mean one order of a two-pack of Burger Shots or two separate orders of Burger Shots (i.e., four or twelve burgers)?  This is a common problem that I encounter when ordering at fast food restaurants, especially through the voice destroyers known as drive-thru intercoms.  If the coupon were to offer “two free Burger Shots”, customers might argue that they were led to believe they were getting two orders for free.  Standardly, the way of getting around this problem is to use a grouping term, like “order of” or “X-packs“, where X is some number.  And, in fact, we do see this in an online Burger Shots coupon, which reads:

(2) “Click on the coupon below to receive a free 2-pack BK BURGER SHOTS […]”

But even here the Burger King’s English is not quite right; the standard usage would be 2-pack of.  No one goes around talking about the six-pack Heinz ketchup they bought to honor the greatest team in professional football.  (I’m not being hyperbolic here; Google did not return a single hit for the phrase “six-pack heinz ketchup”.)  I’ve got to say, these usages strike me as quite odd.  I think almost everyone will agree that both (1) and (2) are obviously ungrammatical.  (2) might just be a typo, where the copywriter thought they’d put in an of, and the error was too small to be noticed.  This typo explanation is especially likely since it’s a web coupon.  It’s hard to see where the writer was going with (1), though, and given that there are two separate weird usages, I’m beginning to wonder if Burger King is consciously trying to re-write the grammar of Burger Shots.

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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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