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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 grammarbook.com: “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).

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This article from the San Francisco Chronicle made my head spin. It’s about an accordionist, Tom Torriglia, who thinks that saying the current year, 2010, as “two thousand (and) ten” is bad grammar, and insists that everyone ought to say “twenty ten” instead. The story, amazingly, ran on the front page. And there are four things I want to say about it.

1) When Torriglia claims that no one would say “I was born in one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three,” he may be right. But people would write it, as for instance in the New Jersey State Constitution:

“[…] ten seats shall be filled by election in the year one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three […]”

2) Furthermore, sometimes people say “nineteen hundred (and) fifty-three”. That’s more similar to “two thousand (and) ten” than “one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three” is, phonologically speaking, so it’s the more relevant comparison. Here’re snippets from an (oral) interview* of Dr. Walter Cooper at the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Online Project:

“My parents came north in nineteen hundred and twenty-one. […] And I had interviewed in May nineteen hundred forty-six, so the—I met with the director of admissions, I remember his name, I won’t call it now. […] We married in January of nineteen hundred and fifty-three, and well, being married, I then confronted the housing segregation in Rochester.”

3) Torriglia is so convinced that two thousand ten is bad grammar and illogical (he claims to cringe at it) that he even insists that two thousand nine is bad grammar and that it ought to have been twenty aught nine.

4) Torriglia is 56. He is no longer young enough to be this foolish. Neither, for that matter, is the 145-year-old Chronicle.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with either pronunciation. Twenty ten will probably be the more common one since it’s shorter, but two thousand ten won’t disappear. Nor should it, Tom Torriglia’s opinion notwithstanding.

[Update, 01/04/10: One additional thought here. How did Torriglia pronounce the year 2000, if “two thousand” wasn’t acceptable? “Twenty aught aught”? If so, he’s completely absurd.]

*: The silver lining to having read the Chronicle article is that it led me to this interview. If you’ve got some time on your hands, I recommend reading it; it starts off with a fascinating first-hand look at the way that even northern companies and colleges exhibited fairly open racism against even highly intelligent blacks in the forties and fifties, and it pushes further on from there.

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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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