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I haven’t posted anything in a while because it was the end of the quarter and, even without any classwork to speak of, I had to get a few components of my research together before spring break. And now I’m on break, so I’m having trouble putting together the energy to concoct a proper post. However, there are four other posts that I found semi-recently that I was so very fond of that I had to share them with you all.

The first is Mark Liberman’s Language Log post “Teaching Zombie Rules“, which offers a potential answer to the problem I find myself in quite a lot: how should one deal with grammar rules that aren’t really rules?  Sure, it’s an easy question once you’re a professor or even a grad student.  I use the grammar that I believe to be best justified, and if anyone tells me I’m wrong, I present the facts that back up my usage.  If a pedant insists I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, because they don’t hold any power over me.  But what if you’re a student preparing for a grammar test that includes zombie rules (the SAT, for instance)?  Even worse, what if you’re a tutor preparing someone else for a grammar test?  How do you teach a rule you know to be wrong?  Liberman’s answer is great, in part because it recasts the problem in terms of audience design.

The second is this year’s Grammar Day post from John at Bradshaw of the Future.  John points out that all these grammar points that we all care so much about are just insignificant pieces of the whole.  The core of English (or any other language’s) grammar is essentially the same across all its users.  A few people saying “between you and I” isn’t going to change the fact that English is an Subject-Verb-Object language or that it has singular and plural morphology, but not dual morphology (as in American Sign Language).  This is why you shouldn’t get up in arms about the horrendous English these kids today speak — virtually everything they say is grammatically correct anyway.  (John has a history of good Grammar Day posts; last year’s was a gem as well.)

The last is a two-pack: Arnold Zwicky’s Grammar Day post from last year on Language Log, and this year’s version on his own blog.  There’re a lot of good points in these posts, but I’m just going to mention the minor one that prescriptivists have this infuriating tendency to constantly couch their opinions in light absurdity so that when someone complains that their beliefs are ill-founded, they can point to the absurd part and saying “Can’t you tell I’m joking?!?!?”  It’s like when you’re talking to someone about their spouse and they growl, “Sometimes I just want to wring his/her neck,” and then after they stare into the middle distance for a second, they sort of chuckle.  Sure, they’re probably chuckling about the absurdity of the statement, but then again, you have to wonder if they were if they were really chuckling at the mental image.  So too with prescriptivists; I think they think they’re joking, but having dealt with them and occasionally incurred their wrath, I’m not so sure they are.

I hope you enjoy those links as much as I did.

And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. I can’t help but feel cynical about the day, in the same way that Matt Lane at Math Goes Pop! felt cynical about yesterday’s “Square Root Day”. The problem is that Square Root Day doesn’t get anyone excited about real math, but rather about simple arithmetic coincidences. Likewise, to the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language.

As such, I might as well do what I can with National Grammar Day and debunk a few of the grammar myths you might encounter today. That also gives me an excuse to go through and call up a few interesting posts that I’d forgotten about, both my own and others’. So here are 10 facts about the English language that go against the unjustified beliefs peddled by prescriptivists. I’m putting summaries of the posts here, with links to the original posts so that you can see why the prescriptivists’ claims should be regarded as myths, no matter how loudly they are proclaimed. To prevent misinterpretation, I am not going to state the myths here, only the corresponding truths:

You can use that in relative clauses with people. (Part I, Part II) Whether you’re speaking historically or restricting yourself to present usage, you’re mistaken if you think that is strictly for things. Phrases like the people that I know are actually more common in contemporary English than the people who(m) I know.

10 items or less lines are perfectly fine, grammatically speaking. The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses. Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically. Please stop complaining about this.

Different than is perfectly acceptable. There are three major arguments claiming from is the only preposition that can be used with different. They’re all invalid. Not only that, but historical usage justifies the continued usage of different than.

Alright is all right. Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although. I think to many people (including myself), the two spellings have slightly different meanings and could reasonably be considered two separate and equally valid words.

Over can mean “more than”. The idea that over can’t mean “more than” is such rubbish that I wouldn’t have believed anyone believed it, were I not constantly dealing with prescriptivist idiocy. Truth is, over has been used to mean “more than” for 1000 years.

Nauseous can mean “sickened”. nauseous has had two meanings for the past 150 years, both “sickened” and “sickening”. Anyone concerned that having two meanings will lead to terrible confusion is either naive or shedding crocodile tears. If you can’t figure out what “I feel nauseous” is supposed to mean, you’re actively trying to misinterpret it.

From Language Log:

You can end a sentence with a preposition, Dryden be damned! I wrote about this in the context of the question “Where are you at?”, but it’s a more general problem than that, and is one of the best-known grammatical bugaboos. No serious scholar of the English language holds this view.

They can be singular in certain situations. To quote an idol of mine, Geoff Pullum: “Avoid singular they if you want to; nobody is making you use it. But don’t ever think that it is new (it goes back to early English centuries ago), or that it is illogical (there is no logical conflict between being syntactically singular and semantically plural), or that it is ungrammatical (it is used by the finest writers who ever used English, writers who uncontroversially knew what they were doing).”

Often a passive sentence is better than its active counterpart. In my younger years, I was repeatedly admonished for using the passive voice in my writing. The admonishers were mistaken, though. Many famous detractors of the passive voice (the passive is opposed by many) consistently use the passive voice in appropriate circumstances. Don’t be scared away from it. Honestly, it’s very useful.

And one from the Volokh Conspiracy:

Split infinitives when you feel like it. Honestly, if you think that it’s improper to split an infinitive in English, you need help. This has never been a rational or justifiable rule of English, and just looking at competent English writing should be enough to disabuse you of this notion. Split infinitives are commonly quite beautiful, especially when compared to the often-barbarous sound of an unsplit infinitive.

[Update 03/04/2010: For National Grammar Day 2010, I’ve listed 10 more bogus grammar myths, addressing topics such as sentence-adverbial hopefully, healthy/healthful, between/among, and more on singular they.]

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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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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