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A while ago, I was scanning through recent entries on a stolidly prescriptivist grammar blog. It’s a blog that I occasionally mine for grammar myths to debunk, and while there I noticed that they had switched off comments on all the posts.

If I may get on a soap-box for a paragraph, I can’t stand when an ostensibly informative blog doesn’t have comments. There’s no reason to think that a given blogger knows anything about the subject they’ve chosen to blog about. Leaving on comments is a sort of check-and-balance system, where readers can point out flaws in an argument, introduce new information, and debate controversial points. Sure, commenters at large blogs and news sites are often rambling imbeciles promoting porn sites or superficial political philosophies (see, among others, CNN’s commenters), but at small blogs — exactly where you need something to prove that the blogger knows what they’re talking about — commenters are usually informative, helpful, and insightful members of a small community (see, among others, this blog’s commenters). I just don’t trust bloggers who close comments, because they aren’t interested in learning the facts. They want you to hear what they have to say and accept it unquestioningly. That’s just not the way I think blogs should work, so I get a little cheesed when people turn off comments.

Anyway, back to that blog. It kept on parroting obvious prescriptivist canards that I couldn’t correct because I couldn’t comment. I’m an academic, so someone being wrong about something I know about really sticks in my craw. Luckily, there was one post — the “pet peeves” post — that still allowed comments, where I hoped I could explain the error of their prescriptivist ways. However, the comments for that post were moderated to exclude comments that, among other things, contain “overly negative language, or are not directly related to a pet peeve.” Drat!

I needed a back door, and conveniently someone had left a comment complaining about sentence-modifying hopefully:

Hopefully… It is an adverb, not a verb. It is not a substitute for ‘I hope’. It means ‘in a hopeful manner’ or ‘full of hope’.”

Exactly the sort of prescriptivism I’d like to correct. Hopefully doesn’t get used as a verb. No one thinks it does, except for the author of this awful post, who made the absurd claim that hopefully is “most commonly used” as a verb. Figuring that the commenter was just repeating the complaint from that post, I set the plan in motion by replying innocently:

“Who thinks ‘hopefully’ is a verb? I have never seen anyone use it as such.”

And the original commenter justified the claim with a reference to that post, just as I’d hoped.

I replied again, pointing out that the referenced post was nonsensical and linking to the post here explaining why there is nothing wrong with the sentential usage of hopefully. Sadly, the comment never got through! But in getting it rejected, I got the best thing I could have hoped for, the whole reason I was trolling in the first place. Check out this comment from the owner of the blog:

“The pet peeves page is intended to be a list of pet peeves–a list of things that annoy people–not a discussion about whether we agree, disagree, whether they’re valid, not valid, etc.”

What a marvelous statement of the prescriptivist position, right? It doesn’t matter if your gripe’s valid or if it makes any sense; what matters is that you’ve decided to be annoyed by something, and you want other people to change because of it. This is insane. It’s so insane, in fact, that I can’t even think of an analogy for it. But that’s the way prescriptivism works: you choose what’s going to make you angry, and everyone else is expected to play along.

I posted one last comment, which I am certain adhered to the restrictions. It didn’t get through the moderation, so let me go ahead and say it here: The thing that annoys me is when someone hangs on to an obviously incorrect and easily disproven belief about language, and forces it upon others. You could call it my pet peeve.

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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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