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It’s March 4th again, which means that it’s National Grammar Day again, which means that it’s time to dig through the archives again and pull out some of the grammar myths that have been debunked here on Motivated Grammar this year. And that is the only fun part about National Grammar Day for me.

If you’re new here, you might be surprised at that. “But Gabe!” you cry, “Aren’t you all about grammar? Wouldn’t you love a day celebrating it?” And my response to that question is a curt no. You see, I’m all about grammar and language and the like. Hell, I’m in grad school studying it. But when most people say they’re interested in grammar, they mean they’re interested in learning a set of rules. And the rules they’re trying to learn hold about as much relationship to English as runway models’ clothes hold to the clothes in your wardrobe. These grammar rules — or to be more accurate, myths — are viewed as signs of high culture and linguistic erudition, but the truth is that they are far from the truth, and are at best harmless.

At their worst, these myths serve as a means for those who shout the loudest to shut up those who meekly try to use the language. I’ve known many people who’ve sought to improve their grammatical knowledge, only to be dismayed by the sheer number of un- and counter-intuitive rules that met them. In fact, in my younger years I was one of them. For you see, I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town, and I thought that one of the keys to class mobility was an impeccable command of the English language. (As Peter Gabriel put it in “Big Time”, I was stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out.) And that command, I thought, would come through the study of grammatical primers.

But like my failed attempt to master the rules of etiquette, my attempt to master the so-called rules of grammar too met with defeat, as I found myself unable to keep so many seemingly arbitrary rules in my head. And so I gave up and figured I could learn all I needed to know about the English language by observation of skilled writers and speakers. I spent some substantial effort in high school mimicking the speech styles of friends whose speech I admired, and the writing style of good authors.

Through it all, though, I kept entertaining the notion that I’d eventually know all the rules. And then, over the course of a couple years and a couple courses in linguistics, I came to realize that my very goal was a load of hokum. Yes, there are rules to English, like verb conjugation, or that adjectives usually precede nouns. But every native speaker already knows these rules. The ones discussed in the books, the ones I was trying to learn, they’re just nits to pick. And the nits aren’t even ones that correspond to any real form of English anyway.

If you want to know the rules of English, look in an English-as-a-second-language textbook, not Strunk and White. If you want to know how to use English effectively, read and listen to those whose language you enjoy and admire. Good English is constrained by rules, not defined by them.

But now I’m rambling, so let me stop that and move on to presenting the truth behind ten of these minor myths that people dress up as rules. I’ve included a brief summary of why the myth is untrue, but for the full story, follow the links:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways. Anyway is the more common form, but that’s a historical accident. Related forms always and sometimes are more common than their s-less companions, so clearly anyways isn’t inherently ungrammatical.

Nothing’s wrong with center around. Despite the claims that this usage is logically inconsistent, and that centers on is necessary, center around has been a valid part of English for around 200 years now. No reason to stop now.

There’s not just one right way to say something. Do you worry if the past tense of dive is dived or dove? Or do you worry about shined and shone? Well, a lot of the time there isn’t a single right or best way of saying it. As it turns out, a lot factors can affect the decision. And often it’s best to go with your gut feeling.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is always acceptable. The myth that it isn’t is the result of a half-baked argument John Dryden concocted in the 17th century to explain why he was a better playwright than Ben Jonson. He was wrong about being better than Jonson, and he was wrong about the prepositions, too. Unfortunately, three-and-a-half centuries of people have fallen for his myth.

“Ebonics” isn’t lazy English. Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English as linguists generally call it, isn’t a deficient form of English. It’s a dialect, or possibly even a creole, of English with its own distinctive and systematic syntactic, phonological, and morphological features.

Gender-neutral language isn’t bad language. Using words like spokesperson doesn’t harm the language, and doesn’t start us down some slippery slope where the word human will have to be replaced by huperson or something. Similarly, using they to refer to a single person of unknown gender is a usage that’s been going on for centuries.

Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation. Sure, Ms. is newer than Mrs. and Miss, but it’s a standard title. It’s a good solution to the asymmetry that female titles depend on maritial status and the male title does not.

Jealous can be used to mean envious. Some people try to claim that jealousy and envy are totally distinct, but they’re not, and they’ve been used in overlapping senses since Chaucer’s time.

And a few myths from other blogs:

Non-literal literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of literally. All of us share the conclusion that non-literal literally has been used for years, by writers good and bad, and is here to stay. But the three of us disagree on whether or not it’s a stylistically good usage. I found this an interesting exercise in seeing how different descriptivists dispense usage advice.

A lot of what gets called “passive” isn’t really. Language commentators often denigrate an impersonal usage by calling it a “passive”, and demanding that it be converted to an active form. But lots of impersonal forms are active already, and there isn’t anything wrong with the passive anyway(s). Geoff Pullum explains the English passive over at Language Log.

Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language.

Lastly, if you want another 20 myths debunked (or another 20 minutes’ break from work), check out our Grammar Day mythbusting from 2010 and 2009.

[Update 03/04/2012: Another National Grammar Day means ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

I saw this interesting headline on Google News recently: “DEA seeks Ebonics experts to help with cases“. And since an old friend and recent commenter had put African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics (I’ll just call it AAVE) in my mind, the story came at just the right time to convince me to click on it. (I was also motivated by that slight twinge of a fleeting thought that perhaps I could pass as an expert, since I am familiar with variation in American English, before I remembered that I don’t know anything about AAVE.)

The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:

“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”‘”*

More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:

(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.

The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.

But I’m not pointing this story out solely because it’s interesting or because I think the tense system of AAVE is kind of beautiful. I’m pointing it out because there is idiocy afoot, as always seems to happen when AAVE is discussed.

Back in 1996, the Oakland (Calif.) school board passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics/AAVE as a language. It was to be treated similarly to other non-English languages for the purposes of instruction — i.e., students raised speaking AAVE instead of SAE could receive some of the same programs that other English as a Second Language students. Speaking as a linguist, this is a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, ignorance of the specifics, and imprecise wording on the resolution, the pretty good idea seemed like a horrible one to most people. Many people thought that children were going to be taught AAVE in place of SAE, which would have been a bad idea. Some thought the resolution stated that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to use AAVE over SAE.** And a lot were just appalled that AAVE could possibly be thought of something with any distinctive structure, since everyone knew it’s just defective English.*** But the key lesson here is that a good idea lost out because of widespread misinterpretation and a misguided protectionism for Standard English.

Returning to the DEA-looking-for-translators story, we see history repeating itself thanks to the lobbying group English First:

“Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.

‘Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,’ said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.

‘I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,’ he said. ‘I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.'”

None of what Hogan says here makes any sense if you actually are familiar with the DEA’s goals. His quotes are talking about something else entirely. How is it going in the wrong direction to find someone who can convert essentially coded communication into a form that can be entered as evidence? Does English First support drug dealers? Judging from Hogan’s response, yes. He wants drug dealers pursued if they’re using code words, but apparently not if they’re speaking another language or dialect. Excuse me for shouting, but as a lobbyist, THIS GUY GETS TO TALK TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES MORE EASILY THAN YOU DO.

I don’t know what sort of fantasy world Hogan lives in (probably one where he and not Hulk is the most famous Hogan in the world), but saying that a language is of questionable merit doesn’t make it go away. If it did, the USSR would have eliminated a lot of Central Asian languages as less important than Russian. Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it. Hogan’s pigheadedness would only hamstring the DEA. I don’t see how he doesn’t see that.

*: Yes, that’s six apostrophes there. The quote was four-levels nested, sot here are two single quotes and two double quotes. I do believe this is the most apostrophes I have ever used at once and I am kind of excited.

**: The culprit there was the phrase “genetically based”, which was interpreted as referring to people’s knowledge of a language when really it was referring to the relationship between languages.

***: I am embarrassed to say I fell into this camp, although that was because I had had no linguistic training yet and also was 13 and thus an idiot.

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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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