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Every time National Grammar Day comes around, I’m struck with a spot of dread. Any of my friends or acquaintances might, at any moment, spring upon me and shout “Hey! It’s totally your day! So don’t you hate when people use the passive voice, since you’re all into grammar?” And then I will be forced, as the crabby old coot I am, to meet their well-meaning inquiry with the level of vitriol normally reserved for a hairdresser who’s decided to treat your head as a testing ground for a new theory of hair design. “No,” I’ll shout, “that’s not it at all! I love the passive, I love variation! Grammar isn’t about telling people what they can’t say; it’s about finding out what people do say, and why they say it!” And through that outburst, my Facebook friend count will be reduced by one.

My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn’t say something. But if you really study language, you know that there’s so much more to it than that. Each time March 4th comes and goes, we’re missing an opportunity to show people how wonderful the field of linguistics is. So if you’ll permit me to steal a moment, let me show you the two papers that really made me fall in love with the field.

The first is from Murray, Frazer, and Simon: “Need + Past Participle in American English“, which is the first in a series of three papers on the Midwestern/Appalachian construction needs done (e.g., this article needs re-written, my cat needs washed). This paper made me realize how deep the rabbit-hole of colloquial and dialectal speech goes. (Sadly, you need a subscription to JSTOR to read it.)

The second paper is the one that launched me into the exciting world of alternation studies, Bresnan & Nikitina’s “On the Gradience of the Dative Alternation“. (This paper has since been superseded by revised versions, but I think this draft is still the best version for an alternations newbie.) If you ever have the chance, take a look at these papers. Maybe they won’t do anything for you, but then again, maybe they will, and maybe you’ll understand why I think so many celebrants of National Grammar Day are missing the point.

On to the meat of the post. As you might remember from last year, my favorite way to celebrate National Grammar Day is by debunking popular grammar myths. Here’re 10 facts about the English language that run counter to the rubbish that pedants prescribe. The first eight are from the last year of posts here at Motivated Grammar. The last two are from other sites. Explanations and justifications for the statements below are found by following the links, so if you disagree, please don’t grouse to me that I must be wrong until after you’ve read the reasons why you are.

Singular they is standard English. What’s wrong with the sentence Everyone celebrates today in their own way? Historical usage, contemporary usage, the usage of revered writers, acceptance by language authorities, analogous constructions, and issues of ambiguity all agree: absolutely nothing.

Slow is an adverb. It has been used as such for years, for centuries even. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals. You may resume drinking Dr Pepper if you so choose.

People are using hopefully correctly. Hopefully has two distinct usages, one a regular adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and the other a sentence-modifying adverb meaning approximately “I hope” or “With any luck”. The latter usage has been unreasonably derided, because it is a sentential adverb and it is a new meaning for an old word. But neither of those complaints is valid, especially since…

The meanings of words can and do change over time. Hopefully isn’t the only word with a new-meaning stigma; prescriptivists often vilify words that have sprouted new meanings. But this is a very standard part of the English language. In fact, not only hopefully, but also of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.

You can eat healthy food. This meaning was fine for 300 years, and then Alfred Ayers came along and declared it wrong. Of course, it was he who was wrong, but his edict has stuck around at the edges of prescriptivism ever since.

I’m good is good. Every once in a while, someone gives me guff about my careful avoidance of the phrase I’m well when I am asked how I am. There’s nothing wrong with I’m well, but it isn’t what I mean to say. There is also nothing wrong with I’m good, and it is what I mean to say.

Between and among differ not in number, but in vagueness. The rule that between can only be used with two items, and among with more than two, is specious. The real tendency of English favors between when the connections are conceptualized as being specifically between individuals, and among when the connections are more vague and collective.

An invite is informal, but hardly wrong. It’s a minor point, of course, but the noun has been around for 500 years. I mention this post mostly because there was a great discussion in the comments about the psychology of prescription.

And from others:

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style isn’t a good grammar reference book. From Geoff Pullum. While Strunk & White are able dispensers of style advice, they drop the ball in their grammatical advice, and unfortunately, that’s what people use them for. Pullum explains why the 50th anniversary of the book should have been met not with celebrations, but with shaking heads.

Choosing between which and that is more interesting than you’d think. It’s nearing five years old now, but Arnold Zwicky posted about his understanding of different contexts in which which and that can be used as relativizers in a relative clause. It’s much more interesting and rewarding than just saying that which is to be limited to non-restrictive clauses. It’s also much more accurate.

Want more debunked myths? 10 more are available on last year’s post! See why 10 items or less, different than, and alright are all right. Want still more, preferably in fewer-than-140-character chunks? Follow Motivated Grammar on Twitter.

[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.]

At the turn of the new year, I wrote post about Tom Torriglia, who’d managed to get a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle stating his opposition to pronouncing the year 2010 as “two thousand ten”. Torriglia, as it turns out, is the head of a group he calls NAGG (National Association for Good Grammar). He is also in the process of writing a book about all the various companies that NAGG has complained to about the grammar of their advertisements, and how (strangely) no one at the companies ever really listened. A draft of the book is available online. So I looked through it, and I can see why the companies never listened to his complaints: they’re mostly rubbish. A few examples:

Ordinal dates for cardinal dates – Torriglia complains about a Fox Sports Net ad for the MLB All-Star Game that had a date written as “March 5th”. Torriglia claims that the cardinal “March 5” is the only acceptable form in writing, and that the ordinal “March 5th” is speech improperly transcribed. If this were an error, it would be one with a long history: here is an example from the front-page of a 1740 sermon, here is an example in a 1773 from Colonel Burgess Ball, and here is a series of examples in an 1832 letter from Charles Darwin. It sure seems acceptable.

Me replacing I – The next complaint is about a children’s show called Buster and Me. Torriglia claims that this ought to be Buster and I. His rationale is a quote from “Subject pronouns are used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence”, but this point is completely irrelevant because Buster and Me/I is not a sentence. The default case for English pronouns outside of sentences is the accusative (or object) case (me, him, her, etc.). If someone asks “Who wants ice cream?”, you can either reply with a full sentence “I do!” or the single word “Me!” Note that you cannot reply with the single word “I”, because it is not in the default case. In the absence of a full sentence* to assign a case to the noun phrase Buster and Me — as in the title — accusative me will be preferred over nominative I.

dead body is redundant – His rationale: “[T]he Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines body as a corpse.” If that is the only definition for body in the RHUD, then it’s not a very good dictionary; the online Oxford English Dictionary lists more that 30 definitions of the word, only one of which is “Short (or euphemistic) for ‘dead body’, corpse.” Yes, body can mean “corpse”, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s just one example of a live body:

(2) “whilst all the rest of my body is sore with cold.”

Strangely, Torriglia follows up his claim that dead body is redundant by noting that a body can, in fact, be alive. Perhaps the dictionary he’s using, in addition to defining body as “corpse”, defines redundant as “clarificatory”.

Slow is not an adverb – It is. See an earlier post on this matter if you don’t believe me.

Torriglia’s book is riddled with errors and absurd claims, so why am I confident that the book will be a best-seller? Simple: a successful popular grammar book is required to contain as many erroneous and unsubtantiated claims as possible. Plus, Torriglia’s got the style down just right. He starts by noting that “This book is a [sic] light-hearted in approach but serious in intent”, and adds the disclaimer “No advertising copywriters were harmed during the writing of this book although I really hope I get to strangle each and every one of them someday!”, as well as noting, in response to a poorly-written email, that “The grammar police had to snuff that guy.” Lynne Truss, you’ve got a competitor in anger!

*: Technically, it’s not a full sentence that assigns the case, but rather a case governor like an inflectional phrase (IP).

Have you ever had to confront a dirty truth about one of your childhood heroes?  I have.  I used to worship Woodrow Wilson.  My elementary and high school history books treated him like a brainiac whose sole problem was his aloofness.  He’d have a great idea, like the League of Nations, or the Fourteen Points, or a less-punitive Treaty of Versailles, but then the lunkheads in Congress — I’m looking at you, Henry Cabot Lodge — would vote him down, seemingly because they were jealous of how smart and great he was.

I graduated from high school and went on to college at Wilson’s alma mater, excited about all the stuff on campus named for him or otherwise honoring him.  And then, during my junior year, I started reading about how Wilson was actually a pretty heavy-duty racist, even for his time. (This came from reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, one of the inspirations for this blog.)  It was a crushing blow, and revealed to me that, even though I thought I had matured beyond hero worship, hero worship isn’t something you ever really outgrow.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is another of my boyhood heroes.  My best friend in elementary school and I listened to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day album incessantly throughout much of 1996 and 1997. I still get the song “Mr. Popeil” stuck in my head from time to time, and the lyrics to “Amish Paradise” are etched into my brain.   Thus it is with a profound sense of sadness and tarnished dreams that I inform you that even Weird Al can be wrong — though not nearly so badly so as Wilson.  Weird Al posted a video on Twitter in which he stops a car because he sees a road sign reading

You might be able to predict what happens next: Weird Al gets out of the car, walks over to the sign, and attaches a Post-It with “LY” written on it.  Turning to the camera, he says “Grammar, people! C’mon!”

This may have contributed to the appearance of “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” as one of the top trending topics on Twitter. (It appeared with the dashes between the letters on Twitter; I’m not spelling it out or anything.)  Twitter discussions of grammar, with or without dashes, are probably something best avoided, so I’m a little dismayed at what Weird Al has wrought.  But more than anything else, I am sorry to say that Weird Al is incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with the phrase drive slow.

Whoa, there!  Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve gone round the bend.  There’s nothing wrong with drive slow?  Yes, you read that right.  Slow is what’s known as a flat adverb, one that lacks an -ly suffix and therefore looks the same as an adjective.  Another flat adverb is right, which I used in the phrase read that right a few sentences ago.  But I think my favorite example of a flat adverb is fast, because it’s uncontroversially an adverb, and it has no -ly version:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! poster
(1a) Varla insists on driving fast.
(1b) *Varla insists on driving fastly.

(2a) Linda prefers to drive slow.
(2b) Linda prefers to drive slowly.

(The * means the sentence is ungrammatical.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adverbial slow appeared around 1500 and has stuck around the language ever since. Adverbial fast and right are even older, dating back to 1205 and 950 respectively, so it’s clear that flat adverbs like slow have a long pedigree.

Not only that, but the pedigree is distinguished as well. Thackeray includes the line “[…] we drove very slow for the last two stages on the road […]” in his 1848 classic Vanity Fair. Even Shakespeare himself would smile upon the road sign; he used adverbial slow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “[…] but O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!”

And, if you’re the sort who only accepts grammar if some authority tells you it’s the case, you’ll be interested to hear that The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Usage and Abusage, and The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style all accept adverbial slow in the context of a road sign. (Fowler’s does so begrudgingly, the others openly.)

So, no, idol-of-my-youth and all your re-tweeters, the sign didn’t need corrected. Your ire is misplaced. The same is true for Dr. Pepper’s slogan “drink it slow”. (It is worth noting, though, that adverbial slow can only follow the verb; it usually can’t be an adverb if it precedes the verb. I slow drove down the street, for instance, is wrong.)

Summary: It’s fine to use slow as an adverb; it is part of a class of words that can be either adjectives or adverbs, and has been for 500 years. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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