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Bernard Lamb is at it again. Well, to be precise, he was at it again, because the piece I just found dates back to October. But it’s just as poorly reasoned as anything new, so let’s go back and take a look.

Lamb, as you may remember from a previous encounter, is an Emeritus Reader in Genetics at ICL and president of the Queen’s English Society. He’s an old prescriptivist whose opinions were reached not by studying linguistics or the English language but by observing his students’ writing and complaining about its quality.

There’s no reason to go through the whole article, because most of it is uninteresting fluff and Stan Carey already said all that really needed to be said about the Queen’s English Society’s position. I just want to mention two things that Lamb wrote.

“It is sometimes argued that grammatical rules are invalid because some great writer broke one. That is nonsense. Great writers understand the rules and can knowledgeably break them occasionally for specific effects such as surprise or humour.”

Oh, the great-writers-versus-everyone-else argument. Lamb brazenly begs the question (and I mean this in the traditional sense that he surely would not object to) here. If a great writer breaks a rule, it is for a specific intentional effect, every time. How do we know that this is for intentional effect? Because we are reading a great writer. Okay, fine. Then explain the specific purposes that Jane Austen intended in the 87 separate uses of singular they that Henry Churchyard found in her writings.

“New phrases may be worth adopting if they convey a meaning that is neat, clear and concise – such as ‘yummy mummy’.”

Really? I mean, I’m not saying that yummy mummy shouldn’t be a part of English, but Lamb considers that a prime example of neatness, clearness, and concision amongst new phrases in English? That’s even odder when you consider that the QES disapproved of Ms. up till last year.

[Cereal box]

Probably not the meaning Lamb is thinking of.

I’m going back to the well of madness that is the Queen’s English Society. You might remember them for the savaging they received at the hands of Stan Carey, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell. A brief summary: they’re a group of misguided pedants insisting that everyone else ought to be as obsessed as they are with minutiae like the specific placement of only. In order to enforce this belief, they propose saddling us with a language academy akin to that employed by the French. And who do they think ought to be that language academy? Why, the QES, of course!

One of the Economist‘s blogs has an interview with the president of the Queen’s English Society, and right off the bat, it pointed out why the QES is thoroughly unqualified to be a language academy.

Their president, Bernard Lamb, is a geneticist who teaches at Imperial College London. He’s an actual scientist, so surely he knows that solid data is necessary before jumping to any conclusions or inciting any panics about the state of society. Surely he has some evidence to support his strongly held belief that English is in dire straits, and that a language academy will fix it. So let’s see his complete response to the question “Has the standard of English really dropped?”:

“It has, yes. Punctuation is down, and spelling standards are down. My students confuse things like “weather” and “whether”, or “their” and “they’re”, which should have been corrected long ago. If I see a correct semicolon, that makes my day! They’re so useful!”

It has, yes. I don’t mean to be needlessly snarky, but a geneticist’s opinion of English doesn’t prove anything. And it doesn’t help matters that his only bit of data is the completely irrelevant anecdotal evidence that his students make spelling errors.

Why is it irrelevant? First, it contains no reference point, so the fact that his students’ English is currently bad is not evidence that the standards have dropped; it might have been just as bad a century ago. Secondly, it’s anecdotal evidence based on a sample of students in a science class. Perhaps the admission standards of his university are slipping, generating a drop in the competence of his students that is completely independent of any trend in society as a whole. Thirdly, if the worst problem you can think of to prove that English is falling apart is a couple of typos, I’m unimpressed.

Let’s reverse the situation. Suppose that instead of a bioscientist telling us about language, it was me, a linguist, talking about medicine. The interviewer asks “Are people healthier now?”, and I respond

“Oh my, yes. Smallpox infections are down. My students take multi-vitamin supplements, which have been shown to be good for your health. If I see someone eat a banana, it makes my day! Potassium is so useful!”

It’d be obvious that I was just blowing smoke, that I held a belief and was just reaching for anything I could come up with to justify it. But, because so many people want to believe that language standards are falling, this sort of non-evidence is seen as compelling.

Let me close by noting that I’m not saying that standards are definitely not falling. I just haven’t seen the evidence for the fall of English. Maybe Lamb has that evidence, and he’s chosen not to present it. (“I have here in my hand a list of 205 grammatical mistakes ruining our language.”) I doubt it. Determining society’s overall grammaticality level at different points in time is an exquisitely difficult and poorly defined task, and I am unaware of any controlled experiments to assess a claim like Lamb’s. Judging by his response to the question, I think he is too.

Last month, we grammar bloggers were all abuzz about the Queen’s English Society and their quixotic quest for the instatement of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell.

There is little I could add to this quartet of brilliant battery, so instead of a general discussion of the Society’s shortcomings, I want to look at one of the things they’re complaining about as an example of bad English. The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?

  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”

Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels.  It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing.

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for?  Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs.  Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms.

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right.  Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!

Regarding point 3, this is a contentious point, and I don’t want you to think that I’m caricaturing the QES, so let me quote the entirety of their paragraph on it:

“This linguistic misfit [Ms.] came about because certain — note: certain, not all — women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status. Or perhaps they were annoyed that they could not identify a man as married or single by his title. We won’t begrudge these women their complexes but surely there is a better solution to their problem than an unpronounceable buzz!”

Women, amiright? Well, no. Actually, the original push for Ms. was to avoid mistaking a married woman for an unmarried woman or vice versa.  Ben Zimmer found the first known proposal for Ms. in a 1901 newspaper column (probably written by a man), which says:

“Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

This is certainly a conundrum that I face often. Ms. is not (only) popular because women rightfully feel no need to disclose their marital status*, but because it offers a way for both males and females to address a woman whose marital status is unknown.

Of course, the QES has a counter-proposal to make Ms. unnecessary. They propose introducing an unmarried male title to complete the symmetry with Miss and Mrs. and then to make the choice of titles rely on age. Despite the QES’s claim that this is “so simple and sensible”, I think any reasonable person will see that this is a far inferior solution, and so I won’t bother with further comment on that numbskullery.

Summary: Ms. isn’t some recent feminist invention, it’s pronounceable, and it’s a useful addition to English. There is no reasonable reason to oppose it.

*: Not to mention that marital status isn’t all or nothing. What is the right title for someone divorced, widowed, separated, etc.? Ms. is a convenient way to solve that problem of etiquette.

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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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