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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.

Suppose, dear reader, that you’ve end up on the receiving end of a rather severe paper cut.  At first, there’s nothing but a line on your skin to explain the searing pain, but then slowly the line darkens and a tiny bit of blood seeps out.  Fearing that more will follow that, you rush off to the medicine cabinet to obtain a bandage.  If someone were to obstruct your path, would you yell (1a) or (1b)?

(1a) Out of my way! I have to staunch the flow of blood!
(1b) Out of my way! I have to stanch the flow of blood!

(Please ignore the fact that no normal person would say either in this situation.)  Up through a few days ago, I operated under the assumption that (1b) was the more proper form, but that many people would say (1a) because of the rarity of stanch.  As you might have guessed from the qualifying statement “up through a few days ago”, it turns out that that assumption was wrong.

I found this out by reading through Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [Sic], which I’ll be reviewing in the near future.  In it, Brockenbrough writes:

“Although ‘staunch’ can be used to stem the flow as well, the Society believes words are more powerful when their meanings are narrow. […] The word ‘nice,’ for example, has been used to mean ignorant, foolish, dainty, timid, slutty, or strange. […] It would be… nice to stanch this tide before we lose another fine word.”

Now, you may be wondering why someone telling me not to do something I already preferred not to do would make me realize that it was alright to do it.  The answer, of course, is that the reason not to do it is stupid.  Brockenbrough is worried that by using one word (staunch) as both a verb and an adjective, we’ll no longer be able to tell what we mean in a given situation.  I am going to make a hyperbolic statement here and guess that there is no sentence in which staunch is ambiguous between verb and adjective.  The problem with nice is that every one of its potential meanings is adjectival, so if you say Timothy is a nice young man, you have very little information about which meaning of nice is intended*. (The smart money’s on “slutty”, of course.)  Compare that to the following sentences containing staunch:

(2a) After staunch resistance, NAT may come to IPv6 after all.
(2b) Stimulus Aims to Staunch Industry Job Losses
(2c) Calgary Meals on Wheels could not function without the more than 46,000 hours of donated time given each year by our staunch and loyal corps of some 650 volunteers.
(2d) […] some brandy was applied to staunch the bleeding of his cheeks […]

I doubt you had any trouble with any of them.  What’s more, it’s not verbal usage that’s depriving staunch of a single narrow meaning — the OED lists six definitions for adjectival staunch, each attested since at least 1650.  And, lest you still cling to the idea that clarity will somehow be affected down the road, I’d like to point out that Brockenbrough herself has used one of these verb-or-adjective words in her argument against verbal staunch.  She used mean, which can function either as a verb meaning “denote” or as an adjective meaning “ill-tempered”. I bet you could immediately tell which meaning was intended when you read the quote.  The lesson here is that multiple meanings are fine, so long as context can be used to disambiguate them.

But all that shows is that the argument against verbal staunch for the sake of clarity is specious. We need to take it one step further and show that verbal staunch (and adjectival stanch) are okay.  I’ll defer here to others: MWDEU, the American Heritage Book of English Usage, and the Columbia Guide to Standard American English. All of them say the same thing, that stanch is the more common verbal spelling and that staunch is the more common adjectival spelling, but that the two are interchangeable. Whether you use them or not, there’s no prohibition against staunching the flow of blood, nor against assembling a collection of stanch friends.  Personally, I’m going to continue differentiating them in my usage, but I wouldn’t hold anyone else to that.

Summary: Although staunch is the most common spelling of the adjective meaning “firm” and stanch is the most common spelling of the verb meaning “stop (the flow)”, both spellings are acceptable for both meanings.

*Assuming that you buy into all those meanings of nice, of course.  In my lexicon, though, nice almost invariably means “pleasant” or “good”, and certainly doesn’t mean any of those things Brockenbrough listed. As a result, Timothy is a nice young man is pretty unambiguous, if a little vague.

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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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