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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.]

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Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out.

The post is about non-literal literally, one of the most commonly cited signs of the linguistic apocalypse predicted by the grammar devotionals. But, as Stan shows, it’s far more complicated and interesting than that. Non-literal literally isn’t new (Ben Zimmer found it in the 1760s), and it isn’t restricted to the uneducated (Stan offers examples from Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others).

I’m going to quote out a few especially interesting parts of Stan’s post, but again, you really ought to read the whole thing. First, on the motivation for using non-literal literally:

Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.

On the fact that this path is hardly unique to literally:

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totallyreally, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.

Here’s his take-home message:

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it.

I’m with Stan. Honestly — and this may shock some of you who’ve been operating under the misapprehension that just because I don’t like prescriptivism that I am unable to distinguish better usage from worse — I don’t care for non-literal literally. I can’t find any examples of me using it in writing, and if I use it in speech, I believe I do so sparingly. My primary objection is that it strikes me as a poor word for the task; if you regularly can’t find a better way to intensify a statement than cheap hyperbole, you’re not a very effective writer. To get on a soapbox a moment, I find the overuse of hyperbole to be one of the most annoying stylistic shortcomings of contemporary writing, especially in Internet communication. This is a personal peeve about writing, so I don’t expect everyone to fall in line behind me on it, but it explains my personal dislike of non-literal literally.

The objection that non-literal literally conflicts with the primary meaning of the word is of secondary concern to me. This conflict is generally minor. It’s rare that one is honestly unsure whether or not the user literally did something, especially in speech, where intonation can clearly indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable usages of literally; should we, for instance, ban literally when it doesn’t adhere to its literal meaning of “to the letter”?

Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.

I was scanning through Paul Yeager’s book, Literally, the Best Language Book Ever, and, as with most all books of peeves, I found myself at times slightly at odds with the author. It wasn’t that I thought his preferred usages were wrong, or even that they weren’t my preferred usage (they often were), but that I felt like he never bothered to explain what was wrong with his dispreferred usage.

And then I read one claim that made me understand his linguistic philosophy, revealing that the incompleteness of his arguments was intentional, and indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of language. The claim was in a discussion of how one should make the past tense of forecast, and in arguing that only forecast (not forecasted) is correct, he reveals a crucial (and misguided) assumption in his argument:

Language doesn’t work like the local supermarket; there are no buy-one-get-one-free deals: one word, one past tense.

I immediately thought of an exchange from Arrested Development, when Lindsay Bluth, rich philanthropist, tries to convince Johnny Bark, a nature activist, to stop protecting a tree from her family’s bulldozers:

Lindsay: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
Johnny Bark: You don’t really get nature, do you?

This is the problem with many peeveologists; they don’t really get language. In Yeager’s case, he adheres to the axiom of One Right Way: there is a single correct form of each word, a single correct way of saying any given thing. Once you determine that one usage is right, all the others must be wrong by extension. But any linguist can explain to you that is one wrong way of looking at language. Just to hammer home the point, let me offer some examples of Multiple Right Ways:

Pronunciation. People will pronounce some words differently depending on context. For instance, I vary my pronunciation of either and neither and route and homage and caramel, because sometimes one way sounds better than the other in a given situation. Most people, I would wager, have a set of words with similarly variable pronunciation. I’ll bet you do.

Numbers. This is really a subpoint under pronunciation, but how do you say 1387? “One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen eighty-seven”, and “one three eight seven” are all standard in some contexts.

Word choice. There are tons of these. One example: kid and child are two words for the same thing, differing primarily in tone. Or damp and moist, or bother, annoy, and irritate.

Morphology. When I was a math major, I had to write a lot of either formulas or formulae, and my choice of plural varied with the context. People and persons are each acceptable in different contexts as well. Looking specifically at past tenses, I wrote a few months ago about variation in the past tense of shine, and similar variation appears in dreamed/dreamt, dived/dove, and lighted/lit, among others.

Syntactic structure. Syntactic alternations give you multiple ways to say the same thing. The dative alternation lets one say either I gave him the gift or I gave the gift to him; the genitive alternation offers the friend of the president and the president’s friend; the needs doing alternation yields the house needs to be cleaned and the house needs cleaning. Because in some cases one sounds better than the other (e.g., I gave John the gift he always wanted vs. I gave the gift John always wanted to him), this sort of alternation is really useful.

It’s essential to note that in these alternations, the alternate forms are not identical in meaning or use. The point is instead that in many situations, one form is no more right than the other(s). In other situations, one form might be more right than another, but the other(s) still might not be wrong.

Sure, there’s something to be said for consistency, for using specific words in consistently prescribed ways. And sometimes you can do that, but not always. The trouble is that the world rarely submits to sharp definitions. The world rarely has one right way to do something, and so neither does language. That’s a fact that every language commentator needs to understand. Unfortunately, few of them do.

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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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