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Back in high school, I used to read etiquette guides. In fact, I read them and took extensive notes, because I was going to be somebody, and somehow I got the idea in my head that impeccable etiquette was a crucial part of that.  It was a simple error I’d made, mistaking a need for “good manners” as a need for “good etiquette”.  I worked on this for probably two or three years, and now I can’t tell you a single rule I read out of an etiquette book.  Why?  Because there was absolutely no discernable method or pattern to the rules of etiquette.  In search of a pattern, I even studied the history of etiquette guides in college, spending Saturday afternoons up on the third floor of the University Library pulling out books that hadn’t been borrowed since 1943, containing advice on the use of calling cards and what use good etiquette had in a world with horseless carriages. I certainly enjoyed it, but I’d be reluctant to say I really learned anything.

I was reminded of this period of my life when, at the used bookstore, I chanced upon a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.  I opened up to a random page in the middle, and was happy to find out that it was about eating, something I happen to know a little bit about.  Luckily, this portion of the book is available online, so you can follow along! The question posed to Miss Manners is a simple one:

“How do you eat spaghetti with a [fork and] spoon?”

To which Miss Manners icily replies that eating spaghetti with a fork and spoon was “outrageous”, because

“A fork is the only utensil that may be used to eat spaghetti while anyone is looking.”

Miss Manners delves slightly into the details of how to eat spaghetti using only the fork — plant the fork on the plate, twirl, present to mouth — and closes with a tart reprimand that allowing the ends of the spaghetti to fall back onto the plate after a bite would be unthinkable, and that the only acceptable solution is to slurp the remnants into your mouth.  (Of course, she doesn’t use the proletarian term slurp, but rather dances around it by suggesting that the eater inhale.)

To this, an agitated reader responds:

“[Your proposed method is] Proper, perhaps, for a Roto-Rooter man. The correct way to eat spaghetti is with a fork and a soup spoon. […] One cannot eat spaghetti properly without a soup spoon.  Shame on you.”

(Why, by the way, a soup spoon?  Why is there no such restriction on the fork?)  And, of course, Miss Manners replies with this convincing counter-argument:

“In the civilized world, which includes the United States and Italy, it is incorrect to eat spaghetti with a spoon.  The definition of ‘civilized’ is a society that does not consider it correct to eat spaghetti with a spoon.”

Two dandies

"I say, Eustace! That man eats spaghetti, yet he uses a spoon!"
"Edward, you have espied a true scoundrel!"

So, to recap, the entire debate consists of three points: 1) Miss Manners asserts that using a spoon is unacceptable; 2) A reader asserts that not using a soup spoon is unacceptable; 3) Miss Manners counters that using a spoon (any sort) is uncivilized.

It is a fruitless argument where both sides insist that the boundary of acceptability is what they say it is — without a single piece of evidence in favor of their points — each implying that it is self-evidently obvious that their claim is true, heedless of the fact that their opponent considers it self-evidently false.  No evidence is given, no argumentation advanced, nothing.  And then, just in case you couldn’t pick up on the subtle connection I’m trying to make between etiquette mavens and language mavens, Miss Manners underscores the point by changing the very definition of a word (civilized) to pretend that it supports her claim. (Much as grammaticasters misuse educated as meaning “agreeing with me”.)

I think you can see why I stopped analyzing etiquette advice in my free time. But, why, again, did I replace it with analyzing arguments over grammar?  The evidence presented here suggests it is because I am stupid.

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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.

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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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