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My parents sent me a link to this article on prescriptivist idiocy.  I’ll be honest: I couldn’t read it.  I got through the first two paragraphs and suddenly all the words were drowned out by the voice in my head screaming.  Just listen to this:

Some people avoid Krispy Kreme because of the calories. Angela Nickerson won’t go there because of the Ks.

“I confess, I’m a spelling, grammar and punctuation snob,” says the 35-year-old travel writer from Sacramento, Calif. “And I won’t patronize businesses with misspelled signs. It’s like hearing fingernails running down a chalkboard.”

Oh, come off it.  Names aren’t English.  (If they were, John Humphrys would have to change his to Humphries, and I think my first name would be properly pronounced something like gab-REE-ul, with a short initial a, stress on the second syllable, and a schwa in the last.)  So too with store names.  Naming something, at least to me, falls under something similar to poetic license.  But this is not a point that I am interested in arguing.

Instead, I want to ask a more pragmatic question.  If Nickerson really is as intransigent as she claims, where could she get a doughnut? I assume she would consider donut to be a misspelling of doughnut, so the big names in the industry would be out.  Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts (a double whammy due to the in’), Winchell’s Donuts, and Mr. Donut: all out. She could flee to Canada, but then she’d be assailed by Tim Hortons, which lacks the possessive apostrophe.  Even mom-and-pop donuteries would be unacceptable; Randy’s Donuts, the famous one with the giant donut on its roof, is out, as is the best donut place in San Diego, Donut Haven.  Grocery stores are mostly out as well: Ralphs lacks an apostrophe, and Safeway isn’t a word at all, so it’s inherently misspelled. I love to hold grudges, and I love to discriminate against businesses for stupid reasons, but if it came down to it, I’d be the first to swallow my pride so I could swallow a good donut.

All that said, having re-skimmed the article, I’m not entirely sure that Nickerson has been correctly characterized in the article.  She may well mean that she won’t shop at places whose advertisements contain misspellings of actual words (i.e., that she wouldn’t shop at a supermarket that advertises “appels” or “cukecumbers”), but that she’s fine with stores whose names themselves are irregular.  That makes a lot more sense to me, although it’s still not a platform I’d endorse.  If that’s what she meant, then I apologize for furthering her mischaracterization from the article.  But certainly there are people out there who hold the more extreme opinion, who won’t shop at a place that has taken artistic license with its name, and they, I think, are fools.

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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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