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A while ago, I had a brief online conversation with someone who had claimed that “cakes are done, people are finished”. The conversation, if it can be called such, had three exchanges: I sent a link explaining why this is distinction is utter hokum, the respondent agreed and resolved that she would not complain about it anymore, and then she tweeted another unexplained claim that something else was ungrammatical.

More recently, I found a column starting out thus:

“I’ve always had a problem with split infinitives. That is, I seem to always be guilty of writing them. My publisher […] used to always correct me. I would argue with him that the sentence doesn’t sound right when it’s grammatically correct. […] Like my former publisher, I have my own grammatical pet peeves”

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

These situations are one of the more frustrating types of interactions I have with the grammatically inclined. Sure, many of them won’t listen to reason at all, and keep on insisting that, e.g., split infinitives are killing English, no matter how much evidence you amass against that point. That kind of person is easy to recognize and their conversations easy to excuse oneself from. But there’re also a lot of people who will listen to reason, agree that one of their most firmly held grammatical convictions is invalid, and then unquestioningly bring up another one. Grammar rules, in their minds, are valid until proven invalid.

These are the conversations I can’t extricate myself from. I want to stay and disprove each next claim in the hopes that eventually they’ll recognize that they ought to scrutinize their beliefs. But that scrutiny never comes. “Oh, this rule’s wrong? Well, surely this one isn’t. It is? Well, surely this one isn’t. It is? Well…”

It’s twisting Occam’s Razor on its head; it’s grabbing a piece of candy from a bowl, tasting it and hating it, and then grabbing another; it’s burning one’s hand on a kettle, then touching the burner to see if it’s hot too.

It’s all nonsense. The assumption that new rules are valid is bad because there’s nothing to prevent the excessive proliferation of rules. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Anyone can learn to use English standardly, but it takes dedication to go through and learn an ever-expanding set of rules that don’t square with the language you’ve used your entire life. Doing that surely proves one’s intelligence.*

If there’s only one thing you ever take from this blog, I hope it’s a spirit of grammatical skepticism, both toward what other people tell you and what you tell yourself. If someone says you’re speaking ungrammatically, I hope you look into whether they’re right, and ask them why they think they are. And if you think someone else’s grammar is wrong, I hope you look into whether you know as much as you think you do about language.

*: Lest I be too dismissive, there is one good reason to accept rules until they’re proven wrong: concern that adherents to the rules will think you stupid.

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About The Blog

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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