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Down With Grammar Snobs!

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It’s time to declare war on grammar snobs. They are both annoying and wrong:

The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

Some other pedantic stipulations are destructive pieces of folklore, like the belief that it is wrong to split an infinitive or to end a sentence with a preposition. We should be entirely relaxed about that sort of choice. Why worry, as some pedants do, about whether to write “firstly” or “first” when you begin a list of points? Either is correct.

The range of legitimate variation is wider than you would imagine. Yes, you may use “hopefully” as an adverb modifying an entire sentence; and you may use “they” as a singular generic pronoun; and you may say “between you and I.” The pedants’ prohibitions on constructions like these are not supported by the evidence of general usage.

Pedantry is poor manners, certainly, but also poor scholarship. If someone tells you that you “can’t” write something, ask them why not. Rarely will they have an answer that makes grammatical sense; it is probably just a superstition that they have carried around with them for years.

This is followed with a history of grammar snobbery that should make any grammar snob think twice about the “rules” they believe in.

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  • Scott P.

    Agreed. Grammar rules no course make sense of.

    • NonyNony

      Note that he says “grammar rules invoked by pedants”.

      Though I guess you just proved him wrong by being a pedant invoking a grammar rule he wasn’t thinking of. Well done sir!

      • cleek

        “Pedantry is greater accuracy than the case requires.”

        — Geoffrey Madan

        • Bruce B.

          Pedantry is more precision than required; it may or may not be any more accurate.

          • DrS

            Well done.

    • Vance Maverick

      The grammar rules you would teach a language learner “make sense”, or at least are valid (so much so that we can use them to sort your sentence). The which/that distinction, not so much.

      Language Log, and especially Pullum, has been useful in clarifying this line of thought.

    • AlanInSF

      Rules of grammar are descriptive, not prescriptive. I’ma leave it at that.

      Nothing, however, excuses the misuse of “begs the question,” “unique,” “literally: and crap like that.

      • recurse

        On the contrary, the continued insistence that things cannot be “more” or “less” unique shows a remarkable degree of ignorance amongst the pedants of this world.

        Let me introduce you to Hamming Distance.

  • djw

    I’m always struck by the number of people who are capable, on an intellectual level, of understanding that language is an evolving social practice that ‘rules of language’ can merely describe, rather than a game with a fixed, unchanging set of rules, but can’t stomach actually applying that obvious social fact to the language use around them–always changing because that’s what languages do.

    The implied premise of the language police is that at time and place X the evolution of the English language should stop because that’s when we got it right somehow. It’s the Westminster Kennel Club approach to linguistics.

    • rea

      It’s the Westminster Kennel Club approach to linguistics.

      Patty Hearst wins?

      • Aaron Baker

        Yeah. I know the linguists are right here; I also know that the no-split-infinitive rule is an inane import from Latin (which really can’t split its infinitives because an infinitive in Latin is always a single word); AND YET seeing a split English infinitive makes me uncomfortable. I avoid them even as I concede the “rule” is stupid. “Like” as a conjunction is another example. I’d probably sooner jump into a bucket of someone else’s vomit than use “like” that way, even though it’s a very old and immediately comprehensible English usage.

        • CJColucci

          A perfect example of a convention that generally makes sense v. a “rule.” Literate readers feel uneasy with split infinitives not because of a bogus grammatical rule, but because almost any sentence with a split infinitive sounds worse than a sentence re-cast to avoid the issue. The recasting may involve more than un-splitting the infinitive, but is usually worth the effort. The Star Trek problem isn’t that “to boldly go” splits the infinitive, but that it wrecks the otherwise parallel structure of the sentence: “to find… to seek…to BOLDLY go” But where re-casting doesn’t work, or sounds artificial or forced, split away.

          • infovore

            The Star Trek example is interesting though: by building then “wrecking” the parallel structure you get extra stress on “boldly” that otherwise just would not be there.

            • Richard Hershberger

              Note also that the line is iambic pentameter (slightly flawed by having to give equal stress to “no man”). Any of the standard “corrections” to avoid the split infinitive would screw it up.

            • Linnaeus

              I think the “wrecked” version sounds better, but that may be because I’m used to hearing it that way.

    • Ahuitzotl

      I disagree. Language is constantly evolving by a process of change and resistance. Just because some people are trying to compel a change, does not mean there is no right to resist it.

      • djw

        Who said anything about “rights”? Obviously resistance is part of the process. The question under discussion is whether the mantle resisters of linguistic change claim is warranted, not whether their resistance activities should be permitted. The invocation of ‘rights’ in this context doesn’t make any sense.

        I would also contest the claim that linguistic change occurs primarily because of intentionality (“some people are trying to compel”). Most people are trying to communicate with understandably little concern for whether their particular approach adheres to the technical rules asserted by others; I don’t think the notion that their intention is to change language could stand up to scrutiny. (there are exceptions, of course–when I intentionally use ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ in reference to hypothetical individuals, I’m participating in an intentional effort to make language conventions less reflexively sexist. But that’s much more the exception than the rule.)

        • Hogan

          When you have the historical picture before you, and can see how Indo-European gradually slipped into Germanic, Germanic into Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon into the English of Chaucer, then Shakespeare, and then Henry James, the process of linguistic change seems as ineluctable and impersonal as continental drift. From this Olympian point of view, not even the Norman invasion had much of an effect on the structure of the language, and all the tirades of all the grammarians since the Renaissance sound like the prattlings of landscape gardeners who hope by frantic efforts to keep Alaska from bumping into Asia.

          • When you have the historical picture before you, and can see how Indo-European gradually slipped into Germanic, Germanic into Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon into the English of Chaucer, then Shakespeare, then Henry James, and then Jerry Lewis.

            Fixed for the nice laaaay-dies in the audience.

            • Hogan

              With the dresses and the purses and the GLAVEN.

      • Gayle Force

        I used to teach middle school in East New York and the South Bronx. At the beginning of the year, before teaching any grammar, I’d introduce the line from Caliban in The Tempest, “You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” Then I told the kids we would be learning the language of the oppressors, to better throw it back in their faces. I rarely had any complaints about learning grammar after that.

        • that kid in the corner

          David Foster Wallace describes similar conversations with African-American composition students. (The linked piece is long – search for “standard white english” to find the relevant portion.)

      • dr. fancypants

        Just because some people are trying to compel a change, does not mean there is no right to resist it.

        The problem is, many of the “rules” invoked by the pedants have never been rules of the English language. For example, the “which/that” distinction, the no-split infinitive “rule”, and the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence “rule” have never been actual rules of the language.

      • Language is constantly evolving by a process of change and resistance. Just because some people are trying to compel a change, does not mean there is no right to resist it.

        Except of course that many of the classic grammar pedant rules are people trying to impose change (anti-split infinitives and being against the singular “they” are two great examples; these are just made up bans on then existing practice that have little traction over centuries now and often make writing far worse: I’ll take “they” over “he/she” over “he” any day of the week).

        I resist this.

        I do get grumpy about “is comprised of”, but mostly because people using “comprise” in the first place are trying to sound high faluting in the first place, so when they mess it up, I get irritated. (“Is composed of” is perfectly fine, people!)

    • keta

      The implied premise of the language police right wing is that at time and place X the evolution of the English language American cultural mores and standards should stop because that’s when we got it right somehow.

      I hope my fixes didn’t fuck any same-sex grammar.

  • rea

    While I don’t freak out over trivial violations of grammar rules, the problem with double negatives isn’t grammar, but meaning. Double negative = positive–it’s just arithmetic. He wants “no satisfaction,” but he can’t get it–he’s constrained to put up with satisfaction.

    • Captain Bringdown

      If you parse the words literally, you can draw that conclusion. But in this example it’s obvious to any fluent English speaker that the double negative acts an intensifier, not as a negation of a negation. The meaning is quite clear.

      • joe from Lowell

        You know what else has meanings that are quite clear?

        The sentences in Lolcats pictures.

        Do the sentence in Lolcats pictures contain errors?

        • rea

          O, hai–I can haz grammar?

        • Captain Bringdown

          Do the sentence in Lolcats pictures contain errors?

          Nope.

          A speech delivered at a public event marking a great tragedy, for instance, demands a highly formal register; commentary on the Super Bowl needs a conversational tone. If you mix them up, you have failed not just in standards of language but in proper behavior as well.

          It’s all about context and audience.

          • joe from Lowell

            Nope yourself.

            They do contain errors. The people who write them deliberately include errors. You can ask them; that’s actually the point.

            The relevance of context here is to make those rules-of-English errors desirable, but they don’t cease to be errors. If they weren’t errors – if the cats were speaking correctly – you’d lose much of the meaning and humor.

            Let me make my point perfectly clear: if the cats are merely expressing themselves in an equally valid, just different, dialect, you lose much of the meaning and humor. It is essential that the cats are using language that is wrong.

            • Captain Bringdown

              Context. If you use the Queen’s English in a Lolcat, you have failed in standards of language. In the context of Lolcats, what’s “wrong” is right and what’s “right” is wrong.

              • wca

                Exactly. If cats could use the Queen’s English, they wouldn’t.

                • jim, some guy in iowa

                  if you *wanted* a cat to use the queen’s english, it wouldn’t

                • Linnaeus
                • that kid in the corner

                  I’m fond of quoting Wittgenstein to my housecat: “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” The cat invariably looks back at me like I’m a total idiot.

              • joe from Lowell

                I repeat:

                The relevance of context here is to make those rules-of-English errors desirable, but they don’t cease to be errors. If they weren’t errors – if the cats were speaking correctly – you’d lose much of the meaning and humor.

                Yes, the context is relevant. It’s relevant in that it makes errors necessary and desirable. Not “equally valid differences.” Errors. The cats’ language has to be wrong. They have to not be using English as correctly as the reader does.

                It is “right” for the purposes of the created of a Lolcats panel to use incorrect language, absolutely. That is, there has to be thing thing called “incorrect language,” and they have to use it, and use it in a manner that people will understand as incorrect.

                • busker type

                  it’s incorrect because its hard to understand, and because it’s not the way people normally talk/write. not vice versa.

                • joe from Lowell

                  It’s not even remotely hard to understand.

                  I can haz cheezeburger?

                  That is just as easy to understand as the correct English.

                • Bruce B.

                  I favor the lolcats with good spelling and usage because that much better fits my sense of what’s going on in most cats’ heads. I find the wanton misspelling and general incoherence better for really stupid cats (and dogs and such), but not most members of the species.

                  Admittedly this is a kind of esoteric taste thing.

              • nixnutz

                I guess this is a separate/secondary issue but it does get at what’s wrong with most of the actual grammar policing that you see on the internet. In the case of Lolcats you are able to clearly see that the author is playing with non-standard usage as a stylistic choice but when a grammar extremist corrects someone’s grammar they are not giving the author the same credit. Unless you’re teaching a freshman comp. course you need to assume that I know what I’m doing and my usage is a consciously chosen element of my voice. To “correct” that is not only absurd but insulting.

            • keta

              Wait, there’s supposed to be humour in those things?

              Now that premise is funny.

      • Aaron Baker

        Right, negatives have more than one function in many (probably all languages).

        And languages do differ here. Classical Latin really does seem to have regarded 2 negatives as equaling a positive: e.g. nonnulli, “not no,” meaning “some.”

        English never did things this way, until forced into the mold of Latin. One of my favorite English examples is a quadruple negative from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “[the Knight] never yet no villainy ne said/ In all his life, unto no manner wight.”

        • Hogan

          Pfft. What did Chaucer know about writing?

          • Aaron Baker

            You’ve got me there. The guy was a hack.

        • Aaron Baker

          A qualification: sometimes English uses a double negative with the second negative as logically negating; e.g. “What I do here is not nothing,” meaning something like “not worthless.”

          Context usually makes clear whether the second is negating the first or is merely intensive.

        • rea

          You’ve got to admit, modern usage is a bit different than in Chaucer’s day; for example, the heterosexual knyght:

          He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
          But, for to tellen yow of his array,
          His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

          • Richard Hershberger

            You are absolutely right that present-day English differs from that of Chaucer’s day in many respects. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them, at least in the context of informal present-day English. The double negative in “I can’t get no satisfaction” is the direct descendant via an unbroken line from Chaucer’s day to today. That some people along the way declared it ungrammatical doesn’t make it so.

        • infovore

          But this is Chaucer deliberately playing with language: you’re supposed to have some trouble figuring out the meaning, and whether it is complimentary or otherwise of the Knight.

          • Hogan

            How do we know that?

            • infovore

              Point taken, we don’t really know that. But you don’t write something that convoluted by accident, and it matches the overall tone of the Tales.

              • Hogan

                It’s not convoluted if you start from the assumption that negatives are repeated for emphasis, not to set up a logic puzzle.

                • infovore

                  But then the excess of denial makes the point by itself: we’re not to take this description of the Knight at face value.

      • William Berry

        Yes, conveying sense, not following some rigid syntactic logic, is everything. The double negative is completely standard in Spanish, for example.

    • wca

      the problem with double negatives isn’t grammar, but meaning

      Yet what we consider a “double negative” often makes perfect sense in another language without the particular hang-ups that English has.

      • joe from Lowell

        And in those languages, it’s correct usage. Because different languages have different rules of grammar.

        • wca

          The point, of course, being that “it’s just arithmetic” isn’t really convincing. Our hang-ups with double negatives are a convention, and there’s not much point in saying anything other than that. No appeal to math necessary.

          • joe from Lowell

            Oh, I see what you’re saying.

            I read rea’s statement about arithmetic as an explanation of English’s internal logic, not as a universal.

            • Richard Hershberger

              Perhaps, but it is a factually incorrect explanation of English’s internal logic. The derogated double negative has been a feature of English grammar all along. Some people declare it ungrammatical, but that does not make it so.

              • joe from Lowell

                I guess it depends, according the most popular theory here, on how many people call it ungrammatical.

                “Some people” along the way didn’t declare it ungrammatical. It came to be very widely considered ungrammatical. Most people came to see it as ungrammatical.

                Which, for some reason, doesn’t count.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  It doesn’t count because whether or not a usage is grammatical is not subject to rule by fiat.

                  Here is an analogy. Consider the posted speed limit on a particular road. Suppose it is posted as 45 mph, but everyone consistently drives it around 50-55 mph. Grammar, in this analogy, is how people actually drive. Prescriptive grammar rules are the posted limit. Break the posted limit and you might get pulled over and cited, but probably not, and probably not unless the cop is bored, has his quota to meet, or is really after you for something else. And most of the time the cop is breaking the limit, too.

                • joe from Lowell

                  It doesn’t count because whether or not a usage is grammatical is not subject to rule by fiat.

                  ???

                  There is nothing whatsoever about “fiat” in my comment. I’m describing exactly the same social-popularity dynamic as the OP and the comments I replied to.

                • dr. fancypants

                  It came to be very widely considered ungrammatical.

                  But did it actually come to be “very widely” considered ungrammatical, or does it just appear that way because the people with social power established that norm? I’d be curious to see numbers on actual usage, though I imagine it would be hard to do that research.

                  A lot of grammar pedantry over the centuries has really been about the “right people” distinguishing themselves from the “wrong people,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those instances.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  “There is nothing whatsoever about “fiat” in my comment. I’m describing exactly the same social-popularity dynamic as the OP and the comments I replied to.”

                  I’m not married to the word “fiat.” The point is that opinions about what is grammatical are not the same thing as what is in fact grammatical. So long as this category error persists there is no way to avoid muddled thinking on the topic.

                • joe from Lowell

                  But did it actually come to be “very widely” considered ungrammatical, or does it just appear that way because the people with social power established that norm?

                  I guess this goes to definitions. Are public-school teachers “people with social power?”

                  And if a norm established by people with social power does take root and become the norm, is it any less the norm?

                  People seem to be arguing that the rules of grammar follow popularity of usage, except in those cases in which social power plays some role in the popularization of that usage.

                • joe from Lowell

                  The point is that opinions about what is grammatical are not the same thing as what is in fact grammatical.

                  I wonder, Richard, is English the sole academic subject in which the most educated scholars of the field play no role whatsoever in establishing understandings, or are there others?

                • Malaclypse

                  People seem to be arguing that the rules of grammar follow popularity of usage, except in those cases in which social power plays some role in the popularization of that usage.

                  But the two are inherently intertwined. The scope of “Standard English” is broadened by virtue of the fact that mastery of this form is required for middle-class employment.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Here is an analogy. Consider the posted speed limit on a particular road. Suppose it is posted as 45 mph, but everyone consistently drives it around 50-55 mph. Grammar, in this analogy, is how people actually drive. Prescriptive grammar rules are the posted limit. Break the posted limit and you might get pulled over and cited, but probably not, and probably not unless the cop is bored, has his quota to meet, or is really after you for something else. And most of the time the cop is breaking the limit, too.

                  Yep.

                • joe from Lowell

                  But the two are inherently intertwined.

                  Of course they’re intertwined! That’s the flaw with the people talking about social-construction out of one side of their mouths and throwing dismissive “Some powerful people decided that” out of the other.

                  You can’t do that.

                • JR in WV

                  Yes, indeed. It’s the same as the over-ornate supply of silverware at a fancy and upper-crust dinner party, with fish knife and asparagus pronger etc, etc.

                  Typically one can go from outermost utensil to inner utensil, if all utensils have corresponding food courses. But if not, then you are cast into uncharted waters unless you attend lots of these sort of dinner parties, being wealthy and upper crust!

                  It allows the inside crowd to feel superior to the outside and less wealthy and respected crowd, which somehow makes them feel better. It passeth understanding to me, but whatever.

                  Grammar is dependent upon the unique conditions present at the time of utterance, over-formal can get you over-charged at the garage, for one example of a negative outcome.

                  You do want to talk sort of like your neighbors, lest they think you are a snob, or a dummy, depending again on circumstances.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  “I wonder, Richard, is English the sole academic subject in which the most educated scholars of the field play no role whatsoever in establishing understandings, or are there others?”

                  First off, the most educated scholars in the study of language are called “linguists” and they disagree with you.

                  Secondly, you are still conflating what is true with what is believed to be true. The universe did not start behaving according to general relativity because Einstein declared it to be so.

                  This all comes down to what we mean by “grammatical.” You seem to be operating on the basis that what is and is not grammatical is defined by opinion, like what clothes are in fashion this week. To determine if a usage is grammatical you find the appropriate body of opinion makers and ask them. If they collectively decide that henceforth the first person nominative personal pronoun is “fugwort” then so it is. If anyone or everyone persists in using “I” then they simply are wrong. Hector them enough and you might even be able to persuade them to agree that it should be “fugwort” even as they still use “I”, thereby proving your point.

                  We simply are talking about two different things. If you are interested in prescriptive usage rules, and you want to follow them yourself, then more power to you. Most of them are harmless most of the time.

                • dr. fancypants

                  I guess this goes to definitions. Are public-school teachers “people with social power?”

                  If public school teachers determined the curriculum this would be a relevant question. Public school curriculum does generally reflect the perspective of the socially powerful more than the socially powerless. That’s not a contentious claim, is it?

                  People seem to be arguing that the rules of grammar follow popularity of usage, except in those cases in which social power plays some role in the popularization of that usage.

                  You’re misreading my comment terribly if you think that’s what I’m arguing. Let me try again:

                  1. The question of whether particular usage is “very widely considered ungrammatical” is a question of fact.

                  2. The fact that public schools teach that certain usages are ungrammatical does not answer that question.

                  3. In order to answer that question, you would have to go out and look at how people use language in the real world.

                  4. Unless you have evidence of that form, there’s really no good basis for claiming that certain usage is “very widely considered” ungrammatical.

      • Aaron Baker

        If it’s good enough for French or Ancient Greek, it shouldn’t really bother us Anglo-Saxons.

      • DrDick

        “English” does not actually have those hang ups, only certain prestigious formal dialects do. Many dialects of English are completely comfortable with double or triple negatives and a lot of other constructions not found in “standard English” or ORP. The point is that there is no unitary English, but rather a plethora of different dialects, all of which are grammatically consistent internally, but with different phonemic and syntactical structures.

        • Lurker

          Yep. This is essentially a question of social power. Those who are able to use the register which contains no double-negatives, are educated and able to wield power. Now, the demand made is double:
          a) Double negatives are a traditional feature of English language, with a well-defined grammatical meaning. Their use is asthetically pleasing and increases the expressive power of English language. Therefore, their use should not be socially sanctioned.
          b) This would help those whose normal registers include double negatives act in higher levels of society.

          The first part of the argument is aesthetic and nonpolitical. The latter part is inevitable and turns this into political question.

    • rea

      Well, then context: use a double negative all you want in informal speech–but don’t use no double negative when writing statutes or insurance policies.

      • Captain Bringdown

        Agreed. Context and audience matter.

        • sparks

          Context is certainly not nothing.

      • DrDick

        Nor in term papers for my classes. Context really is the most important factor. I do not care how my students speak when they are with their friends, but in writing in the course or formally speaking (as in class presentations), they must use standard English, as that is part of what I am trying to teach them.

        • jmack

          Agreed. I also get substantial resistance from many of my high school students when I challenge the notion of “proper” pronunciation as well; it is quite important to many of them they pronounce things correctly and others don’t. For some reason, “axe” for “ask” seems to cause the most visceral reaction.

          • JR in WV

            Here locally I know many guys in construction and mining, hands-on using giant machines termed excavators. But local dialect means that universally they call the machines they work with “escavators” and look at you funny if you use the correct name.

            Highly trained and experienced and well paid guys, too. The top of working class employees. Good at what they do, trusted to operate a machine that cost the best part of half a million dollars, and which could cause huge damage if it were to hit a high-pressure gas transmission line, for example…

      • tsam

        Are you against using it for a contextual tool–to add some nuance to the prose?

        (I guess that belongs under literature rather than a formal paper…)

    • e julius drivingstorm

      Irregardless, you can’t not like the Rolling Stones.

      • wca

        I could care less about the Rolling Stones.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Yeah, yeah. (Which is not to say, “yeah, yeah, yeah!”.)

    • busker type

      lots of things we say don’t make any sense if they are parsed out literally. Like the phrase “put up with” to use an example from your post. Doesn’t make them ungrammatical.

      Anyone who doesn’t understand what “can’t get no ____” means is probably not a native English speaker.

      • R. Johnston

        I certainly understand “I can’t get no ___” as a form not intended to be parsed literally. The problem, for me, is that it’s actually much more useful as a form intended to be parsed literally than as some sort of intensifier. Intensifiers abound; a way to say “I can’t help but get some ___ no matter how much I want none and how hard I try not to get any” in many fewer words is quite welcome.

        • busker type

          some things are difficult to say in some languages. Gottlob Frege solved this problem… but nobody ever listens to Gottlob Frege!

    • Hogan

      “A double negative is an affirmative, but a double affirmative is never a negative.”

      “Yeah. Right.”

    • Richard Hershberger

      “While I don’t freak out over trivial violations of grammar rules…”

      …followed, inevitably, by a complaint over a violation of an imagined grammar rule…

    • UserGoogol

      Isn’t that wrong?

    • matt w

      Double negative = positive–it’s just arithmetic.

      No, no, no, no, no, no.

    • MikeN

      You mean like the “any” in “I don’t get any satisfaction”?

      Surely the correct usage as far as meaning goes would be “I don’t get satisfaction”.

      Try explaining this to Chinese students:
      T:”I don’t have any pens” means “I don’t have even one pen”.
      S: But when you say “I don’t have pens” doesn’t that mean you don’t have even one?

      Certainly in Standard English “not…any” is an accepted form of double negative, while “not…no” isn’t.

    • This really just isn’t true. It very much depends on the semantics of negation.

      For example consider
      –1
      (That’s the same as -1, yay)
      vs.
      A–
      (which is worse than an A!)

      Or I say, “No no no no a thousand times no!” An even number of “nos” in this case doesn’t equal a “yes”.

      Vs. “Start a new positive life! Say ‘no’ to ‘no’!”

      Minus as bivalent negation vs. as a cumulative diminisher.

      Similarly, in intuitionistic logic, the law of double negation doesn’t hold (and yet is not an intensifier). Thus ~~P doesn’t equal P because ‘~’ means, roughly, “There is no proof that”.

      For me the acid test is that no one, literally no one, gets confused about the intensifying use of multiple negation in English. No one sincerely thinks that “I ain’t giving you nothing!” means “I’m giving you something.” You have to work super hard to get from the former to the latter.

  • jamesjhare

    Bryan Henderson has a problem. That doesn’t mean there is “no” proper English. There are many grammar rules that are very important. The most common grammar errors actually do distort meaning and inhibit exchange of ideas. Yes, there are some folks who take their stylistic preferences out on others. I wish we lived in a world where the only complaints that could be made about grammar were simple stylistic errors. Instead the Internet is a Wild Wild West of grammar where even the simplest to correct errors are repeated over and over and over again. Folks aren’t grammar “snobs” for pointing out errors that destroy meaning or render it opaque. They’re trying to help other people to understand that hey – some of these grammar rules matter and when you ignore them you obscure your meaning.

    • Vance Maverick

      What are you talking about? Your grammar is OK (though “the simplest to correct errors” is a bit eccentric) but your meaning is entirely obscured.

    • carolannie

      Exactly. It is difficult enough to communicate, but when you have to guess at the meaning of a communication due to poor grammar and usage, life becomes unnecessarily difficult. This is a trend in news articles where writers who should know better confuse homonyms, or use adjectives as adverbs, etc.

      • keta

        This “trend” is because of the dearth of editors. A lot of journalists (christ, professional writers in any field) are lousy spellers and lazy with grammar but having an editor or two work the copy before publication corrects these things.

        Or used to. Cutbacks means fewer editors and fewer editors means we all get to read sloppy work.

        I blame Obama.

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      Let’s eat Grandma!

      • Blanche Davidian

        NO! Let’s eat, grandma!

        • Hogan

          Shoots and leaves?

      • joe from Lowell

        Bill O’Reilly, a responsible newsman, and a rabbi get on an elevator. Two people or three?

        (OK, I made that one really easy.)

        • Hogan

          “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

        • Manny Kant

          If it’s two, I suppose the best way to say that would be “A Rabbi and Bill O’Reilly, a responsible newsman, got in an elevator.” Is there any other way to distinguish it?

        • Lurker

          Or just one? Though I find O’Reilly a bit of an odd name for a rabbi. Perhaps Bill is short for Bileam and he has inherited Judaism from his mother who made his Irish father convert. And he must be from some very poor synagogue. Otherwise, he would not need to double as a newsman.

          Technically, your punctuation might also signify that you are underlining the peculiarity that a responsible newsman also works as a rabbi.

          • joe from Lowell

            Naw, if I was calling Bill-O a rabbi, I’d need yet another comma, after rabbi. And I’d need an s at the end of get.

  • Mr. Rogers

    Does this mean I have to stop complaining about people misusing “begs the question”?

    • Captain Bringdown

      Yeah, it does. I don’t care for that usage either, but when something becomes widely used, it is by definition correct.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        The Axe Bodyspray Rule.

        • the ordinary fool

          +1

        • keta

          Nice!

      • Mr. Rogers

        Dammit!

        I know you’re right, but even still….

      • Malaclypse

        By this reasoning, it is legitimate to wonder if Obama will declare Marshall Law.

        • Mr. Rogers

          That would be Law affordable to middle class suburbanites. One would think Campos’ work would show you how unlikey that was.

        • joe from Lowell

          Is “teh” now proper spelling?

          • Srsly Dad Y

            Yah

            • Malaclypse

              Srsly.

          • wca

            Is “ain’t” a word?

            • busker type

              yes.

              • joe from Lowell

                Yes, slang words are definitely a type of word.

                • DrDick

                  That is not a “slang” word, but a standard construction in many English dialects, including my native dialect.

                • joe from Lowell

                  ain’t
                  ānt/Submit
                  informal
                  contraction
                  am not; are not; is not.
                  “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
                  has not; have not.
                  “they ain’t got nothing to say”

                • DrDick

                  Again, this is a dialectal difference. “Informal” in this context refers to it being in a dialect other than Standard English. Slang is something else all together.

              • UncleEbeneezer

                But it’s meaningless without swing.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  +A.

            • Murc

              I use ain’t as a contraction form of “am not.”

              People who use it as a synonym for “isn’t” give me hives, but I don’t usually correct them.

              • DrDick

                In my native dialect (part of the Mid-South band), it is the universal negative for the verb “to be”. I admit that there are certain constructions in various dialects that grate on me as well, but I recognize that these are acceptable in context.

              • Manny Kant

                This seems to have once been considered perfectly correct. You see it in nineteenth century English novels, being spoken by upper class characters.

              • keta

                That’s interesting.

                I didn’t realize that people who commonly use the term would make that distinction. It reinforces the fact that there are layers upon layers when it comes to language use, and to try and codify – and then enforce – rules around it is a mug’s game.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Ain’t “I” a pronoun?

        • keta

          Doesn’t he already have a law degree?

          If not, I blame Obama.

      • joe from Lowell

        If it’s widely used in one sub-population and not in others, is it correct?

        Is it correct for that one sub-population and incorrect for others?

        Do I therefore have to know someone’s biography before I can decide if their usages of “ain’t no” is grammatically correct?

        • busker type

          Do I therefore have to know someone’s biography before I can decide if their usages of “ain’t no” is grammatically correct?

          Why do you need to know if it’s grammatically correct? you understand it don’t you? have you ever been confused about what it means? Are you just looking for some reason to feel superior to people who use this construction?

          • joe from Lowell

            Why do you need to know if it’s grammatically correct?

            I don’t. I just find the topic of language interesting. Can you answer my question now?

            you understand it don’t you?

            Yes, just as I understood what my 1-year-old wanted from a series of grunts and gestures. Can you answer my question now?

            have you ever been confused about what it means?

            Nope. Can you answer my question now?

            Are you just looking for some reason to feel superior to people who use this construction?

            Nope. Can you answer my question now?

            If it’s widely used in one sub-population and not in others, is it correct?

            Is it correct for that one sub-population and incorrect for others?

            Do I therefore have to know someone’s biography before I can decide if their usages of “ain’t no” is grammatically correct?

            • busker type

              If it’s widely used in one sub-population and not in others, is it correct?

              If you must talk about it in terms of correct or incorrect, then it’s correct for those populations that use it. It’s not correct in those populations that don’t.

              Is it correct for that one sub-population and incorrect for others?

              Again, while reiterating my objections to the concept of ‘correctness’ as noted above and explained further in another comment below, yes.

              Do I therefore have to know someone’s biography before I can decide if their usages of “ain’t no” is grammatically correct?

              You are really doing a better job than I could of demonstrating why ‘correctness’ in grammar is a failed concept, but while reiterating my objections, etc. etc., yes.
              Can you at least give me some idea why you’re so invested in this idea of’correctness’?

              • joe from Lowell

                I’ve already told my interest here; I find the topic interesting.

                If you had a reasonable argument you make, you wouldn’t feel the need to change the subject to my motives. That’s generally what someone does when they give up on trying to support their contention, or even refute the opposing party’s contention, and instead characterize the contention they cannot refute as some that BAD PEOPLE DO. The problem is, I don’t care if you think I’m a BAD PERSON, so I’m not even remotely subject to this sort of social control. I realize this makes me very frustrating to have as an opponent. Sorry about that, but no, I’m not the slightest bit interested in letting you deflect there conversation into my motives.

                You are really doing a better job than I could of demonstrating why ‘correctness’ in grammar is a failed concept, (blahblah blah blah blah blah, I’m so awesome) but while reiterating my objections, etc. etc., yes.

                By saying yes, you are acknowledging that it can be incorrect for some people to use that grammar.

                • busker type

                  Sorry for impugning your motives. I shouldn’t have done that.
                  let me try again:

                  Your view is similar to saying “the Milky Way is at the center of the universe.” There is nothing internally inconsistent about this view, and its extremely difficult to come up with any external evidence against it, but it just doesn’t tell us anything useful about the nature of the universe, and it would tend to prevent people who believe in it from pursuing more useful lines of inquiry.

                  In my view, just as there is no ‘center’ of the universe there is also no ‘correct’ dialect of English. The very notion is unusefull, and furthermore it does a great deal of harm in that it alienates people who speak non-standard English.

        • DrDick

          You need to retire from the grammar police. If you can understand what they are saying and it is not socially inappropriate (as in a classroom or business setting), just ignore it. It really is not any of your business.

          • joe from Lowell

            I don’t need to “retire” from anything, since I don’t go around correcting people’s grammar. Which means that, in the guise of telling me not to go around telling people what to say, you’ve decided you’re going to go around telling me what to think. I need to “retire” from having an opinion about correct grammar, while you consider yourself quite admirable, I’m sure, for so vigorously volunteering to tell people their ideas – not even usage, just ideas – about grammar are wrong.

            Nicely done.

            • busker type

              The idea that non-standard English is “wrong” is actually a harmful ideology with real world consequences for people who don’t learn Standard English (or some other upper-class dialect) at home. No one would argue that there isn’t a value in learning to speak Standard English if you want to have a career in a field where that is valued, but if your starting point is to tell people that the way they speak, the way their families and communities speak, is “wrong” and therefore inferior… that is something I’m going to push back against all day long.

              So… good for you for not correcting people’s grammar, but I make no apologies for taking a stand on this one.

              ETA- also, language is just a lot more interesting when you take a descriptive rather than proscriptive approach to word choice, pronunciation and syntax.

              • joe from Lowell

                Explaining to me that you have a very strong political motive to favor one answer over the other doesn’t make me more inclined to think your preferred answer is objectively correct. Quite the opposite, it makes me think you’re going to be inclined towards bias in evaluating the question.

                • busker type

                  I doubt I can convince you of anything, but I think it’s worthwhile to point out why you’re wrong.

                • joe from Lowell

                  I think it’s worthwhile to point out why you’re wrong.

                  As long as we accept that it’s the journey, not the destination, sure.

                  But still, neither speculative imaginings about my motives, nor an explanation about why my position is politically inconvenient, actually demonstrate that I’m wrong about anything.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  This is practically a textbook example of an ad hominem argument.

                • joe from Lowell

                  This is practically a textbook example of an ad hominem argument.

                  Clearly, you’re referring to busker’s habit of asking about my motives.

                • DrDick

                  an explanation about why my position is politically inconvenient, actually demonstrate that I’m wrong about anything.

                  It is not “politically inconvenient”, it is empirically and factually wrong, which is what we keep telling you and you keep ignoring. There is no single, unitary rule in English, any more than there is a single unitary dialect (and if there were, ORP has precedent over your preferred Standard English).

                • Richard Hershberger

                  “Clearly, you’re referring to busker’s habit of asking about my motives.”

                  I am beginning to suspect you of being an unserious person. Note that this is not an ad hominem argument. It is an ad hominem conclusion.

              • djw

                The idea that non-standard English is “wrong” is actually a harmful ideology with real world consequences for people who don’t learn Standard English (or some other upper-class dialect) at home.

                Right. Assertions of the inferiority/superiority of some dialects over others is pretty much almost always a form of class politics. (What we now try to call ‘standard’ English was not long ago called ‘King’s English). I called it ‘arbitrary’ below but that’s not really true.

                • DrDick

                  It is all about asserting social and political power over those whose dialects differ from yours.

                • UncleEbeneezer

                  Right. Assertions of the inferiority/superiority of some dialects over others is pretty much almost always a form of class politics.

                  See for example: the conservative response to Ebonics, Immigrants who speak with accents or heaven forbid a pidgin dialect like Spanglish. It’s always a mark of stupidity/laziness/lack-of-Patriotism that threatens Real America. Also too, kids these days with their slang…

                • tsam

                  I’m never letting go of my prejudice against southern accents. I don’t care if it’s wrong and stupid, I’m keeping this one.

                • Josephine

                  I’m never letting go of my prejudice against southern accents. I don’t care if it’s wrong and stupid, I’m keeping this one.

                  I’m never letting go of my prejudice against the kind of things that are said in southern accents. I don’t care if it’s wrong and stupid, I’m keeping this one.

              • DrDick

                Yep!

        • Richard Hershberger

          “If it’s widely used in one sub-population and not in others, is it correct?”

          Yes, within the dialect of the sub-population where it is widely used.

          “Is it correct for that one sub-population and incorrect for others?”

          Close, but not quite. It is correct for the relevant dialect. Dialect use does not correlate precisely with demographics. It is unremarkable for a person to shift from one dialect to another depending on circumstances.

          “Do I therefore have to know someone’s biography before I can decide if their usages of “ain’t no” is grammatically correct?”

          No, you need to know what dialect that person is using. If, for example, the person is aiming for Formal Standard English and inserts an “ain’t”, then he has missed his aim. If he is aiming for informal usage, or is using a non-Standard dialect in which “ain’t” is correct, then the conclusion will be different.

          • joe from Lowell

            I think this hits closer to the truth, but it doesn’t quite support the original contention.

            If we locate correctness in a few centers instead of one, that still leaves plenty of room for error, even popular error, to exist.

            • Richard Hershberger

              I think the original contention was vague. One side is talking about Formal Standard English, while the other side is talking about English more broadly. The thing is, many people regard Formal Standard English as the only true English, and everything else as a decayed version of Formal Standard English. This is both historically untrue and non-useful.

              Then there are the myriad untrue claims about what is and is not Formal Standard English. Claims that, for example, split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition or using “which” in a restrictive relative clause are ungrammatical are factually incorrect claims about Formal Standard English.

              • joe from Lowell

                That same point – that several different discussions are getting smooshed together – occurred to me as well.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  Keep clear the distinction between Formal Standard English (or, if we are really going to be precise, Formal Standard American English) and English in general, and much of the disagreement goes away. In particular, the claim that descriptivists argue that “anything goes” is shown to be a straw man. Descriptivists routinely acknowledge the social and professional advantages held by those fluent in Formal Standard English.

                  (Ir)regardless, there remain many false claims about what is and is not Formal Standard English that many people enjoy clucking their tongues disapprovingly over.

                  Did I mention singular “they”? Perfectly standard.

    • gmack

      Again, it depends on context. I correct student (mis-)uses of “begging the question” in their papers. I do this not because I don’t understand their use of the phrase, but because I am also trying to teach them how to avoid committing the petitio principii (begging the question) fallacy in their writing, and I want to use the phrase begging the question in this formal sense. In other words, most of my students are not aware that begging the question also refers to an informal fallacy, and I want to alert them to this meaning, because there will be times when I use the phrase in this way.

      • Bruce B.

        This strikes me as a really solid way to go. You’ve got a specific concern, and there are alternatives at hand that don’t carry the same risk of fallacious thinking.

        • The anti-snoot position here isn’t that there are no rules worth teaching, it’s that rules need to have a practical justification. And “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it is” aren’t practical justifications, nor is “because that’s the way Sister Whatsherface taught me in 1972”.

          “It’s not clear to me what this means” or “writing like this won’t be accepted in a professional setting” are practical justifications, but they need to be based on ongoing observation.

          For some reason a lot of people seem to assume the anti-snoot position is that students shouldn’t be taught grammar. I have yet to encounter someone who actually believes that. Students should be taught to write and how to speak in public and how to have a fruitful discussion, and they should learn how to use language as a tool. But the English they’re taught in school is no more “correct” than the English they learned to speak at home.

    • UserGoogol

      I am a rigorous defender of the phrase “begs the question,” and not just as a neutral descriptivist statement, but as a perfectly sensible way to interpret that phrase in most dialects of English.

      “Begs the question” meaning assuming the conclusion is a weird idiomatic usage which uses both “begs” and “question” in a way people usually don’t. Petitio principii is a useful enough concept that it makes sense to keep that idiom around, but it’s a weird and archaic. The other interpretation, on the other hand, is an almost literal interpretation of the words: what you are saying begs for more questions to be asked. Since that is also a concept which is very useful in conversations, the more literal meaning has become rather useful, and scrapping it would be a shame.

      As a matter of clarity it is annoying that two very different meanings have been associated with the same phrase. But in almost every context, it’s pretty clear which people are talking about, especially since the way people say “beg the question” generally invites more context. But since “circular reasoning” is a much clearer way to explain the fallacy, (there’s a technical distinction between petitio principii and circulus in probando, but the distinction is usually irrelevant) it’s not really clear the modern usage should be the one to surrender.

      • UserGoogol

        Appropriately enough, “but since ‘circular reasoning'” should probably be “and since ‘circular reasoning.'” I originally had another sentence in there which took a contrary position, but as written both those sentences that begin with but are kind of arguing the same point.

      • Jordan

        Yeah, this is a good explanation. When I was younger and dumber, “misuse” of “begs the question” annoyed me, because I thought it was an attempt by people at using a higher register, without knowing how to do it.

        Then I realized that (1) this is a really stupid thing to be annoyed by in the first place, and (2) while I don’t agree at all that the “raises the question/issue” usage is a straightforward literal reading (it is a weird usage of “begs”), it is easy to see how it can be read that way.

        I still correct my students in philosophy classes who use “begs the question” in the colloquial sense in their academic papers, but even that seems like an eventual losing cause.

    • joe from Lowell

      Does this mean I have to stop complaining about people misusing “begs the question”?

      Hmmmm…but are they really misusing it?

      • Jordan

        I dunno, do you keep misusing “appeal to authority”?

    • dr. fancypants

      [Basically repeated a comment already made by someone else. That’ll teach me not to read all the comments before stepping in.]

    • Nope.

      But such complaining might put you in uncomfortable company.

  • joe from Lowell

    This goes much too far in the other direction.

    you may say “between you and I.”

    May I say “I gave it to he?” May I say “I had to climb over she to get the phone?”

    I can give you an answer why you’re not supposed to use the subject form after a preposition: because the definition of a subject form of a pronoun is, in part, the form that denotes that the pronoun is performing action, while the definition of the object form is, in part, the form that denotes that the pronoun is receiving action.

    • NonyNony

      If you say it to someone and they understand what you mean then yes you can say it. That’s how language works. If you said “I gave it to he”, for example, I’d assume you were affecting a faux-Renfair form of speech as a gag (a la Stan Lee’s dialogue for Thor back in the day) but I’d understand exactly what you mean.

      Writing has some different rules because it is more formal, but in context “I gave it to he” could be appropriate (see the aforementioned Lee, Stan and his character of Thor, among others).

      • joe from Lowell

        If you say it to someone and they understand what you mean then yes you can say it. That’s how language works.

        I understand every Lolcats sentence I’ve ever seen, so what you’re saying is that they don’t contain any errors of usage, spelling, or grammar.

        Sometimes, when someone uses the wrong word in a sentence – Get that bowl on the table, when she means that plate – I understand exactly what she’s saying. Does that make “bowl” the correct word?

        People can effectively convey meaning through a series of grunts. So what?

        Writing has some different rules because it is more formal

        Written English has the same rules as spoken English. We just apply them more strictly because it’s more formal, but the rules are the same.

      • Hogan

        My go-to faux-Renfair is “Now begin we our sentence order to invert.”

        • joe from Lowell

          I used to use the Spongebob Squarepants song to introduce inverted sentences.

          Absorbant and yellow and porous is he!

    • djw

      The quoted passage is a widespread, common usage. Your example does not. The rules follow and describe the logic of actual usage, but they don’t dictate it; otherwise there wouldn’t be so many inconsistencies and exceptions in the rules. That’s the difference between a language with a social life and Esperanto.

      • joe from Lowell

        Actually, most of the exceptions to the rules in English came about from its history as a blended language, drawing on other languages, each of which had its own rules.

        The quoted passage is a widespread, common usage.

        Common among whom? If a particular error is common among a subpopulation, and very rare among others, does it cease to be an error among that subpopulation, but remains one among the larger population?

        How far do you wish to apply this popularity contest approach? “Whom” is less popular than “ain’t.” Does that mean “To whom did you address this letter?” is now, or soon to be, incorrect? While “That ain’t my car” is correct?

        • djw

          How far do you wish to apply this popularity contest approach?

          That’s what language is.

          • joe from Lowell

            And the most popular convention of all is the acceptance of there being such a thing as correct language.

            Your convention/popularity argument requires throwing out that most popular convention.

            • djw

              And the most popular convention of all is the acceptance of there being such a thing as correct language.

              …and the precise content of ‘correctness’, of course, is internally contested and constantly changing.

              To be clear, in some contexts (pretty much only as a teacher for me) I’ll correct certain usages or formulations I’m perfectly capable of understanding as ‘incorrect.’ But that’s because as a teacher I’m preparing a student to write and communicate for particular contexts where that particular usage hasn’t caught on yet (and may never catch on). Adherence to certain rules of language and older linguistic norms (or norms of language of a particular social class) are often used as proxies for fitness in certain social contexts the student may well want to enter. To say ‘this is incorrect’ in those situations is a easily understood proxy for ‘it’s probably a wiser strategy for you to communicate differently’.

              • joe from Lowell

                …and the precise content of ‘correctness’, of course, is internally contested and constantly changing.

                Sure, just like the membership of Congress. And yet, we don’t deny that there is a Congress just because its content changes.

                Anyway, since this is all about “strategy,” I’d suggest that the accomplishment of your aim as described in your final paragraph is best-served by acknowledging the existence of correct English – which you already know, as you choose to “correct” and mark things as “incorrect.”

                • djw

                  Sure, just like the membership of Congress. And yet, we don’t deny that there is a Congress just because its content changes.

                  OK, but Congress is a social convention with clear, easily delineated boundaries. We know exactly how and when the composition of congress changes because the rules (elections, resignation, impeachment, etc) are controlling and dictate practice. A sidelong glance at the history of language makes clear that the rules of language aren’t controlling and dictating how change occurs, they’re descriptive, capturing rather than dictating change. Different social practices have different kinds of rules. A dictionary or Strunk and White is not the equivalent of a Constitution.

                • joe from Lowell

                  I can totally buy the argument that the boundaries of the thing are fuzzy, but that’s quite a different claim than saying that there is no thing at all. I like to compare it to neighborhoods. It’s often difficult to precisely define the borders or a neighborhood, but we know SoHo and the Highlands and Chartley exist.

                  I certainly agree that social practice changes what counts as correct English; what I don’t agree with is the claim that this observation eliminates the existence of correct English.

                • djw

                  I can totally buy the argument that the boundaries of the thing are fuzzy, but that’s quite a different claim than saying that there is no thing at all.

                  That’s not the claim being made. “The rules are evolving and primarily follow rather than dictate practice” isn’t remotely the equivalent of “there are no rules at all”. We can say with some confidence that “I gave it to he” is wrong. (We can’t say with the same certainty that it always will be, obviously.)

                • joe from Lowell

                  That’s not the claim being made.

                  When you take the observation “The rules change based on usage” so far as to characterize any and all recognition of rules violation as the language police doing something wrong, that is the claim being made.

                  For it not to be, you have to acknowledge that resistance to non-standard use is a legitimate part of the process (as you come to do elsewhere in the thread), rather than dismiss it as an exercise in class warfare with no linguistic basis.

                • djw

                  When you take the observation “The rules change based on usage” so far as to characterize any and all recognition of rules violation as the language police doing something wrong, that is the claim being made.

                  Where you go wrong is bolded. An error that isn’t in common social use in a dialect or region or community or whatever is just an error. Obviously, things that might be reasonably classified as errors at T1 can become a regional/dialect variation at T2, but most errors never become that. When I say follows usage, I thought it was fairly obvious I didn’t mean “any single speech act” as usage.

                • joe from Lowell

                  It was quite clear you weren’t referring to individual speech acts, but I’m afraid you have to go a bit father than that before you’re making sense.

                  How common is common? How common must the pushback – which is also a usage – be for it to control?

                • Hogan

                  How many votes does it take to get elected to Congress?

            • DrDick

              “Correct language” is code for “the dialect of the dominant social group.” Always has been.

              • CJColucci

                And, I think, always recognized as such.

                Adherence to certain rules of language and older linguistic norms (or norms of language of a particular social class) are often used as proxies for fitness in certain social contexts the student may well want to enter. To say ‘this is incorrect’ in those situations is a easily understood proxy for ‘it’s probably a wiser strategy for you to communicate differently’.

                I suspect many of us are saying the same thing. And it is the schools’ proper business to give to train students in this extremely useful skill.
                Some “rules” are not actually rules at all, but in many cases it can be shown that adherence to them produces prose that simply works better. The that/which distinction, for example, has no basis in linguistic history or grammar or logic, but if you follow it your readers will never be confused, even briefly, about your meaning.

                • joe from Lowell

                  And, I think, always recognized as such.

                  Yes, indeed.

                  DrDick keeps throwing out the observation “This socially-constructed phenomenon is heavily influenced by social power” as if it’s some important and less-than-universally-understood contribution, and which somehow refutes the argument that there can be erroneous attempt to engage in that social phenomenon.

                • gmack

                  Right. If I may make a brief observation. JfL is trying to argue that it’s possible to say “X is the incorrect usage” without reifying existing grammar rules. In other words, I think his position is that one can acknowledge that grammar rules are changing and that they track power relations while simultaneously arguing that some uses are incorrect.

                  For my part, I have little interest in this question one way or the other. To my mind, it’s important to know grammar rules, particularly the ones that are defined by dominant groups as “correct grammar,” because those rules are often integral to understanding meaning. Let me explain what I mean via an example: If I am reading a novel in which the narrator says, “Just between you and I…” it might be important to notice that this is a formally incorrect construction. This knowledge might help me know something about the narrator and help me construct meaning out of the novel (this, I think, is part of the point of the lolcats example too. The fact that they are speaking incorrectly is one of the main sources of the humor. One literally could have no idea of what was going on in this cultural phenomenon if one did not know that they were violating grammar rules).

            • Richard Hershberger

              “And the most popular convention of all is the acceptance of there being such a thing as correct language.”

              Even stipulating to the truth of this claim (for purposes of argument only: I think it extremely questionable) you are making the category error of confusing how language is used with how it is discussed.

              • joe from Lowell

                Calling my evocation of both language usage and language discussion an “error” is pretty much the textbook definition of the defining-your-conclusion fallacy.

                • DrDick

                  I happen to work with several linguists who would be happy to explain to you at great length and in excruciating detail how and why you are empirically and theoretically incorrect. I do not expect to be able to educate you in actual linguistics, however.

                • Richard Hershberger

                  There are two approaches we see in these discussions to defining “grammatical English” (or whatever language we want to discuss). A linguist regards the language as a subject for study. The language is defined as being how its users use it. (There are some refinements to this, but this works as a first approximation.) Any other approach leads to utter nonsense. It would be like an entomologist who doesn’t study actual insects, and indeed regards actual insects as an irrelevant distraction.

                  The prescriptivist language maven defines “grammatical English” differently. It is some Platonic ideal of English which actual English users copy only imperfectly. They are then judged by how closely they manage to copy it.

                  This definition has serious problems. The most obvious is how do we know what is the ideal? Various schemes have been tried over the three centuries or so this discussion has been going on (in English: longer in some other languages). They always come down to the consensus opinion of some elite group.

                  Nowadays this elite group tends to be writers of usage manuals. You can pick some particular peeve and trace it back through usage manuals. If you simultaneously trace the usage through writers in general, the correspondence with the opinions of the usage writers will usually be weak.

                  A good example is the purported distinction between ‘that’ and ‘which.’ This floated around in usage manuals from the mid-19th century on, but was generally ignored until the mid-to-late 20th century, when (American) copy editors picked up the rule. It has never really spread beyond copy-edited prose, but it gets talked about a lot. This, by the way, is a rare and resounding success story by the standards of the genre. Read old usage manuals and you will find hair-raising invective against unremarkable usages. (Pop quiz: Why is “reliable” not a word? Why is “The house is being built” ungrammatical?)

                  The Platonic ideal model only works, inasmuch as it works at all, until you look at language over time. It is perfectly obvious that what is and is not grammatical English has changed over the centuries, unless you want to argue that the Authorized Version of the Bible was a failed attempt at producing the Revised Standard Version. So you need a Platonic ideal for 1600 and a different Platonic ideal for 2000, and a series of transitional Platonic ideals along the way, all of this disconnected from what actual writers are doing. I have no idea how one would go about this, much less why.

          • Captain Bringdown

            That’s what language is.

            Yep.

        • Malaclypse

          “Whom” is less popular than “ain’t.”

          While this may be true in spoken English, in written English “whom” is (technically) overused.

          • joe from Lowell

            Indeed. I could turn that question around: does the popularity of the over-correcting “Whom in place of who” make it grammatically correct?

            • Richard Hershberger

              It certainly potentially can. This is both true as a general statement about language, and about English pronouns, which have changed quite a lot over the centuries. There is no reason in principle that “whom” could not become a standard form in some syntactic contexts calling for the nominative case.

              Whether or not it has achieved this status is a judgment call. I would say no, but I would happily entertain arguments that it has.

          • Manny Kant

            I don’t think this is really true. Yes, the overcorrection of using “whom” in written English when you mean “who” does exist, but I think even in written English it’s still more common to use “who” when you mean “whom”.

        • ScarsdaleVibe

          Does that mean “To whom did you address this letter?” is now, or soon to be, incorrect?

          As someone who largely agrees with you, I don’t buy this. I see no reason why that sentence is or would be incorrect. I’ll concede that language and usage are constantly evolving, but I will only go so far as to say that alternatives are evolving, not that anything is rendered incorrect-to argue otherwise is just reverse snobbery. In a few decades that sentence may be considered archaic, but that’s a long way off.

          • joe from Lowell

            Actually, you’re agreeing with me. I think it’s pretty obvious that the answer to that question is No.

            • Richard Hershberger

              It is certainly correct now. The use of “whom” in this context is optional in Formal Standard English. I think it unlikely that it will disappear in the short term. Over the long term, I think it will, in the same way that “thou” is no longer an option as the second person nominative personal pronoun, except in extremely restricted contexts. But I could be wrong. Predictions, as Yogi Berra probably did not point out, are hard: especially about the future.

      • DrDick

        Or dead languages like Latin and Classical Greek. The reality is that few if any actual Romans spoke the way Cato wrote.

        • wca

          The reality is that few if any actual Romans spoke the way Cato wrote.

          This just cries out for an illustration.

          • Lee Rudolph

            I was hoping for an apposite LOLCato.

            • LOLCato

              The sidekick of the Green-Lantern Hornet.

              • tsam

                PINK PANTHER!

                • rea

                  OJ

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Actually one of the most common formulations I hear is “between her and I” which just barbaric.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        The edit timer lies.

    • Captain Bringdown

      “I gave it to he” and “I had to climb over she to get the phone” aren’t commonly used. “Between you and I” is.

      • joe from Lowell

        So what?

        “Teh” is commonly used on the internet. Does that make it less erroneous?

        • Malaclypse

          Is Huck Finn riddled with grammatical errors?

          • joe from Lowell

            Is the Pope Catholic?

          • mds

            Is Huck Finn riddled with grammatical errors?

            Yes. It is deliberately so riddled.

            • DrDick

              No, it is a highly effective, and accurate, portrayal of dialectal English. It is the dialect of a subordinate group, poor whites, and so gets stigmatized as “low class”, even though it is every bit as grammatically complex and consistent as Standard English.

              • keta

                Yep. Patois. Or “patios” as I’ve seen it spelt by some fisherfolk.

        • Hogan

          If you meant to type “the,” then it’s erroneous. If you meant to type “teh,” then it isn’t.

          • I think that in most dialects of English, most competent speakers and writers will class “teh” as an erroneous spelling of “the”, and regard deliberate use of it as humorous, ironic, or an attempt to represent such erroneous usage.

            There may be some small dialects where not using “teh” would be regarded as incorrect (perhaps some “l33t” speakers), but those dialects currently embrace the “incorrectness” relative to mainstream dialects.

            In 20 years, it might be correct in a lot more dialects, though I imagine still rather informal.

      • ScarsdaleVibe

        I only correct this in writing, because it’s not a mere stylistic choice, it’s an actual rule (one that is freely broken and thus perhaps no longer a rule, but at the very least, it *was* a rule).

        Anyway, live and let live. As long as people don’t commit reverse snobbery by making the facile argument that I must say “between you and I,” I will refrain from correcting people.

      • jim48043

        This arises from an aversion to the use of the perfectly good word “me.” Almost as bad is the incorrect use of “myself,” in order to avoid the shunned “me.”

        If Strunk & White recommend the writer use “me” “confidently,” it’s more than good enough for me.

        OTOH, there is the technically ungrammatical, but overwhelmingly used, “it’s me.” Few save pedants say “’tis I.”

        • Manny Kant

          It’s actually an overcorrection. Kids are taught that saying “Me and Jimmy went to the store” is wrong, so they just assume that they always should use “I” and end up overusing it.

          • MikeN

            Exactly. It is a hypercorrection used by people who are afraid of being blasted by prescriptionists for using “You and me should go to the park”- the same overanxious people who got so much of the grammarian ball rolling in the first place.

    • cleek

      there are dialects which blend object/subject pronouns. Jamaican, for example, shuns ‘me’ in favor of ‘i’.

      • joe from Lowell

        Of course. Dialects have somewhat different rules. That what makes them dialects, as opposed to either standard form, or a different language.

        • busker type

          methinks you misunderstand what a dialect is.

          Standard English is a dialect, as is Jamaican English.

          • joe from Lowell

            di·a·lect
            ˈdīəˌlekt/Submit
            noun
            a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.

            Nope. Standard English is not particular to a specific region of social group. Jamaican English is.

            • DrDick

              No, Standard English is the dialect of the Midwestern professional classes, which has gained hegemonic dominance in the US. ORP is based on the professional class Oxfordshire dialect, which gained dominance owing to the fact that the children of the nobility were educated there. As Toqueville noted, in the early 19th century Southern elite men spoke late Harvard dons, while the women spoke like their slaves.

              • joe from Lowell

                Standard English is learned, taught, and spoken all over the globe. It is not a specialized dialect unique to a region.

                I can predict your reply already: “But that’s because of social power.”

                Yes, yes it is. That is why Standard English is learned, taught, spoken, and written all over the globe, and why it is not “a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”

                • Richard Hershberger

                  You are both wrong. There is no single Standard English. There are at the least Standard British English and Standard American English. A case can be made for Standard Australian English, and even for Standard Indian English.

                  My former pastor’s first language is German. He is fluent in English, but I knew the first time I heard him speak that he has been taught Standard British English.

                  Also, I think you are under the misapprehension that “dialect” only refers to regional forms of a language. From Merriam Webster Online:

                  “d : a variety of language whose identity is fixed by a factor other than geography (as social class) “

                • DrDick

                  There are at the least Standard British English and Standard American English. A case can be made for Standard Australian English, and even for Standard Indian English.

                  However, what Joe, and most Americans, calls “Standard English” is exactly what I describe. The British version is ORP (Oxford Received Pronunciation). The other two may also be called “Standard English” in their countries, but are not the version referred to by Joe.

                  I actually talk about social dialects in my classes, which is why I specified “professional class”.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Granted, there are different Standard Englishes in different societies.

                  And yes, I came up a little short in that sentence. I should have written, “It is not a specialized dialect unique to a region or social group,” as I did both in the final sentence of my comment, in the definition I quoted, and as far as I can tell, everywhere else except that one sentence.

            • Linnaeus

              Think of a standard form of a language as a dialect that becomes institutionalized and codified, hence, it becomes the “standard dialect”.

            • busker type

              Standard English is peculiar to a specific region or social group. That’s why not everybody speaks it.

              • joe from Lowell

                I’m more inclined to give the dictionaries’ opinion more weight than yours on this. I don’t think that’s utterly unreasonable of me.

                • busker type

                  this is not a response to what I wrote.

                • djw

                  If you’re switching to an appeal to lexicographical authority, that rather undermines your objection to my assertion that the rules of language follow rather than control correct practice. Editors of dictionaries make changes in new editions to reflect changes in the conventional practices of spoken and written language all the time.

                • busker type

                  You seem to have an idea that Standard English is not a dialect, but it clearly fits within the dictionary definition you have quoted above.

                • joe from Lowell

                  But I’m not objecting to your observation that the rules of language follow practice. I’m objecting to the “rather than control” bit. I agree with the first half, and am quite aware that dictionaries change over time. This notion that rejecting your argument is “The Westminster Kennel Club Rules” is quite mistaken.

                  I’m sure there actually are people who think that correct English is frozen in a particular time, but the tempting simplicity of arguing against them doesn’t put all arguments for a tighter definition than you like to use into the same category.

                • djw

                  But I’m not objecting to your observation that the rules of language follow practice. I’m objecting to the “rather than control” bit.

                  I don’t understand the claim your making here at all. If we accept the following two premises: 1) rules follow practice and 2) the (surely utterly banal) observation that the practice of speaking in a language changes over time, then how can we not accept the “doesn’t control” claim?

                • joe from Lowell

                  Quite easily, David: we’d simply have to acknowledge the (rather obvious) point that the control exercised is not absolute in practice, just as the following of usage is not absolute in practice, but that the two are eternally in tension with each other in an iterative process.

                • Well, here’s some linguists:

                  Although many people believe that the variety of language they and the people around them speak is not a dialect, in reality, everyone speaks a dialect, since dialects are simply varieties of the same language. Many people also believe that there is only one correct form of a language, but in truth, no dialect is superior to another on linguistic grounds. All dialects are systematic language varieties that follow regular patterns of vocabulary choice, grammar, and pronunciation.

                  “Standard” X is a dialect of X.

                  Wikipedia identifies two senses:

                  The term dialect (from the ancient Greek word διάλεκτος diálektos, “discourse”, from διά diá, “through” and λέγω legō, “I speak”) is used in two distinct ways. One usage—the more common among linguists—refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers.[1] The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class.[2] A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect, a dialect that is associated with a particular ethnic group can be termed as ethnolect, and a regional dialect may be termed a regiolect or topolect.[citation needed] According to this definition, any variety of a language constitutes “a dialect”, including any standard varieties.

                  The other usage refers to a language that is socially subordinated to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not derived from it.[3] In this sense, the standard language is not itself considered a dialect.

                  The latter sense is the one I think you’re using Joe. I think that use isn’t all that helpful in general and isn’t really linguistically meaningful.

                  So, for example, there is a specific group of people who are speakers of standard English: People educated in standard English. They are regionally and socially (to some extent) diverse (though tending toward upper classes). But a lot of trade dialects work that way too.

              • joe from Lowell

                Well, it’s a quick response, from someone who had to run out.

                Standard English is peculiar to a specific region or social group.

                No, it’s not. Standard English is learned, taught, spoken, and read all over the world. It is certainly not specific to a certain region of social group. Both the spatial and group diversity of the people who use it are vastly greater than those within any given dialect.

                • Malaclypse

                  Humour me. I’ve misplaced my torch, and feel we really need to get under the bonnet on this. Are you quite certain the Queen’s English is a universal standard?

                • Hogan

                  What’s English for lingua franca?

                • gmack

                  I’ll just add, apropos of perhaps nothing, that “global English” (i.e., the English that is spoken, frequently as a second language) in international contexts, is a rather different beast than all other English dialects (the so-called “King’s English” included). Or at least, that’s what my local ESL instructor tells me.

                • joe from Lowell

                  I didn’t say anything about either the Queen’s English, or about a universal standard.

                  I said Standard English was spoken, taught, used, and learned all over the world.

                  Do you actually disagree? Is it really your contention that English-language students in Laos are being taught “ain’t?” Or that if I ask a Paraguyan who learned English in school where I can find a flock of cockatoos, I’ll be told “We ain’t got no cockatoos in Paraguy?”

                • DrDick

                  I said Standard English was spoken, taught, used, and learned all over the world.

                  Except that there are many different versions of English taught all over the world. Indeed, in most parts of the world they are more likely to be taught ORP that what you call “Standard English”.

                • gmack

                  Hmm. I think the hang-up is on the phrase “Standard English”? I mean, you’re right that probably most English classes getting taught around the world are not teaching their students the word, “ain’t.” But I’m also guessing there’s some variation. If, for instance, the students learning English will be going to the U.S., they probably should be taught that usage (and will probably be taught that while it’s used, it’s also seen as informal). I mean, that’s how I was taught Spanish, for instance. There are loads of Spanish dialects, and most of my instruction focused on “Castilian Spanish” (which is already a contested concept, I must add), but I was also taught different regional variations, on the assumption that I might find myself not in Spain but in, say, Paraguay.

                • Malaclypse

                  I said Standard English was spoken, taught, used, and learned all over the world.

                  Okay. What word in Standard English describes the part of the automobile’s body which covers the engine?

                  Or is there more than one Standard English?

                • tsam

                  There are two. One is a headcover and the other is a headcover. One is correct and the other is not because AMERCIA DAMMIT

                • Hogan

                  Mercian? Fuck that western shit! EAST! MIDLANDS!

                • wjts

                  Okay. What word in Standard English describes the part of the automobile’s body which covers the engine?

                  To move the question beyond lexical differences, which of these sentences is written in Standard English and which is written in a dialect?

                  A. Manchester United are arguably the most popular football club in the world.

                  B. Manchester United is arguably the most popular soccer team in the world.

                • I said Standard English was spoken, taught, used, and learned all over the world.

                  And this is also true of many other English dialects, though mostly in acting schools.

                  You can really tell the difference between people taught various UK derived dialects vs. US derived ones. Proximity plays a role, but so does history. I think the fact that there are distinct Standards taught is dispositive as to whether the Standards are dialects are not. They are all, clearly, English. They differ from each other. They are each taught across the world etc.

        • Lee Rudolph

          No, what makes them dialects is not having an army. As everybody knows.

    • Hogan

      Meh. People who say “between you and I” are for the most part hypercorrecting–they got taught that “Bob and me went to the ballgame” is wrong, but not exactly why, so they’ve decided “Bob and I” is always the right construction. It’s not just that there are rules; it’s that rules get taught in dumb ways, without explaining the reasoning behind them (which would also help in recognizing when it’s more communicatively useful to break the rule than to follow it).

      • tsam

        I was taught to say the sentence without the “you and”

        More for (you and) me

        (You and) I don’t need no satisfaction or other elusive existential states of being.

    • Aaron Baker

      “Between you and I” is an example of what could be called “hyper-correction.” People who use it (at least originally) have done so because they were told over and over again not to use “me” where “I” is correct.

      If in fact it’s a widespread usage now, there’s nothing at all “wrong” about an English grammar book saying: “‘me’ represents the direct object of a verb except (sometimes) after the preposition “between,” where ‘I’ can be substituted for ‘me.'”

      To give an example of a comparable oddity in another language: in Ancient Greek, plural neuter nouns as subjects take a singular, rather than a plural, form of the verb. Once upon a time in Proto-Indo-European, the neuter plural may have been a collective singular. By the time we get to Greek the neuter plural really IS regarded as a plural, but the verbal anomaly remains, and evidently didn’t bother anybody.

      I would add that you mayn’t say “I gave it to she,” insofar as if you say it, English-speakers will look at you strangely because no one else says it that way. People do say “between you and I.” That’s the only real difference.

      • dbk

        Hohoho, thanks for that. I was just treated by my spouse to a mini-lecture on the “schema Attikon” – actually though, it must have bothered somebody, because this dialectical peculiarity died out in the Hellenistic period (koine) when the plural became standard. Neuter plurals continue to be treated as grammatical plurals in MGk.Fun stuff!

        • Aaron Baker

          I should have better qualified what I was saying. Maybe: “was found unremarkable for a very long time” rather than “didn’t bother anybody.”

    • Richard Hershberger

      You seem to be assuming that pronoun case is necessarily unaffected by whether or not the pronoun is by itself or is in conjunction with another pronoun. Why do you believe this?

      • Aaron Baker

        I don’t think I was assuming anything of the kind. I was just quickly sketching one way a grammar might describe the practice here. one could add (or say instead) that when the first person (singular only?) pronoun is conjoined with another personal pronoun after a preposition, “I” can be used in place of “me,” the more commonly occurring form.

        English has long been moving toward a distinction in pronouns between those that precede verbs and those that come after verbs (and prepositions) or stand alone: e.g. “I sing” vs. “She loves me” and “Who’s there?” “Me.” “For him and I” is swimming against this tide. So, if I were writing an English grammar, I’d (duh) note the usual practice as being usual (whether I’d use the word “rule” or not) and treat “for you and I” as an exception to that general principle or rule–and I can’t see anyone being more bothered by that arrangement then by being told the usual English plural is some form of -s ending–but see “oxen,” “children, “feet,” “deer,” and so on.

        • Richard Hershberger

          I was aiming at responding to Joe from Lowell’s (rhetorical?) question ‘May I say “I gave it to he?” May I say “I had to climb over she to get the phone?”’ The question implies that the syntactic context of “between you and I” are the same as those of his examples. Absent this assumption, they clearly are irrelevant.

  • Warren Terra

    Can’t we deride pettifogging adherence to unnecessarily strict enforcement of obsolete rules while still insisting that people make some effort to adhere to the rules actually in use in our society?

    • jamesjhare

      It seems conflating one with the other is all the rage. Apparently desiring some shared rules for creating shared meaning is being a “snob.”

      • cleek

        but there’s no meaning lost if you use “her and i” instead of “her and me”. nobody will fail to understand you. some will diagram the sentence in their heads and note that your choice of pronoun violated a rule learned when they were very young; and then they will become distracted and start debating if you need to be corrected or not. and while they’re deliberating, they might miss some of the conversation. but nobody will misunderstand what that particular sentence meant.

        • ScarsdaleVibe

          How about a truce? Live and let live?

          A coworker corrected a variation of “between you and me,” and I was nearly apoplectic (internally only, I have excellent self-control). I will not correct anyone who says “between you and I” as long as they respect my preference for “between you and me.” I will not buy any argument that says “between you and me” is now incorrect, only that an alternative has evolved.

          • Lurker

            It should be clear to anyone that “between” is a pronoun requiring accusative case. Thus, the personal pronoun there need be in oblique case. Of course, doing that instinctively means that you have had strong exposure to German or Old English. Otherwise, it is just a rule that seems to have no basis.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      It’s like the George Carlin joke applied to language. Everyone who drives faster than me is a maniac. Everyone who drives slower is an asshole. (I would add, anyone whose car is worth much less than mine is pitiable; anyone who spent a lot more is pretentious.) Anyone who upholds grammar rules we like is a wise teacher. Anyone who upholds rules we don’t like is a pettifogging pedant.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        i thought everybody already *knew* if they were more like me the world would be an immensely better place

      • R. Johnston

        “Everyone who drives faster than I

        *R. Johnston ducks rotten tomatoes thrown by the crowd.*

        • Manny Kant

          Well played.

      • gmack

        There’s a lot of truth to this. It’s part of the reason why I find this debate between the “pedants” and the “whatever language is used is proper” to be a distraction. My own view is that we should be promoting love of language in general, a sincere appreciation of its beauty and the astonishing inventiveness of its users. Such a love of language loves the strict grammar rules, not because they’re “true,” but because the allow for an endless proliferation of new meanings; and it loves the violation/modification of these grammar rules, because that’s partly how this invention of meaning proceeds.

        So: Stop scolding the grocer’s “Ten items or less” sign, and instead marvel at the ways in which rappers develop their poetic descriptions of, say, what a good day looks like.

  • NewishLawyer

    I have a lot of friends who like to describe themselves as a grammar nerds or post from various grammar groups on social media.

    There is something about how grammar is the perfect way of showing intelligence on the Internet because it is not really about analysis or making connections but is good for quick and pithy memes and silliness. The Internet seems to thrive on equal parts of silliness and unhinged rants.

  • cleek

    prohibit prescription !

    • rea

      Republican drug program . . .

    • DrDick

      Proscribe prescription!

      • Blanche Davidian

        Cicero’s last words: “Proscribe proscription!”

  • rdennist

    But firstly! It’s so annoying to be on the receiving end of firstly. And no, you MUST get affect and effect correct every time!

  • Murc

    Context is also important. How people talk and write in informal and personal settings is very different, in my opinion, than how they “should” talk and write in, say, a formal or academic setting.

    For example: I write comments on this blog and on others in a deliberately conversational or, at best, literary style, because what we’re doing here is having a conversation. I’ll use sentence fragments, run-ons, occasionally use things that aren’t real words but look right phonetically (“F’rinstance”) drop a g off the end of a word and replace it with an apostrophe, stuff like that. And that’s fine. We’re among friends here.

    I would never, ever do that in, say, an academic paper. Or if I were testifying in court. Or submitting a budgetary proposal at work. Breaking the rules is fine, but in my opinion you have to actually know what they are, why they exist, and when it is appropriate to adhere to them before you start breaking them.

    It also seems worth noting that it makes sense to maintain a firm standard rather than introduce a million exceptions. Ending a sentence with a preposition is one of those things I go back and forth on; a lot of the time it looks and works fine. A lot of the time it really, really doesn’t. I understand that people who edit for a living or are seriously involved in linguistic studies and development would rather have the bright-line rule than try and adjudicate a million individual cases.

    • djw

      Of course. Like any social practice, there are different customs and norms for different social contexts. But the assumption here that the rules that govern academic writing or court testimony are “the real ones” compared to the rules governing more conversational context is simply arbitrary.

      • joe from Lowell

        there are different customs and norms for different social contexts

        Hmm…are there grammatical rules for casual conversation that aren’t also rules in formal academic writing?

        It seems to me that the difference is that casual spoken conversation rules are a smaller subset of the the rules for formal writing, rather than a different set altogether. This suggests to me that the difference is about being more or less attentive to the rules in one context than in another, rather than the rules actually being different.

        • busker type

          no, because if you go around using “whom” in casual conversation you are doing it wrong.

          • joe from Lowell

            Socially wrong. Not grammatically wrong.

            • busker type

              same thing.

              • joe from Lowell

                Lol

                • Marek

                  Harrumph!

            • Lurker

              In fact, languages have things called “registers”. Different registers have different rules for syntax and grammar. To navigate a social situation, you need to know the register needed in that situation. For example, if you give court testimony in the register used for royal charters, officer’s commissions etc, you are using too high style and sound ridiculous. Does that mean that the language you use at court is sloppy? No, it means there exists even a more formal register than the one used at everyday legal business.

              At school, the register I learned best when studying English is the one you consider “proper”. When I talked to people in the US using that register in everyday workplace situations, someone noted that I sound like Mr. Spock. It was very necessary for me to actively learn more relaxed register for normal social interaction. And being a non-native speaker, I will never be able to navigate between different registers as easily as any native American.

              The main result of education is the ability to use a correct register for any situation.

        • Richard Hershberger

          Gosh, there is a lot built into that! You effectively are declaring written language to be normative, and spoken language an imperfect attempt to reproduce written language. You are going down a rabbit hole. Consider that all natural languages are spoken (or some analogue such as being signed), while not all natural languages are written. What rules are speakers of a language with no written form attempting to emulate?

    • Joe Bob the III

      Exactly!

      Consider the source: the WSJ. And the audience: businesspeople. My personal, and highly prejudiced, belief is that a lot of people who work in the field of business can’t communicate in Standard Written English even when they want to. This article is just telling its audience it is okay to stop trying.

      I recall a specific instance when I was a recently minted college grad and had a temp job in a bank. One of the people I worked for was a young woman taking a community college course titled: Business English. The fact someone decided it would be a good idea to teach Business English and not just English struck me as the perfect distillation of everything wrong with the corporate world.

      • Lurker

        In fact, ths shows a need for active maintenance of Standard English. It is all well and good to have a Standard form of languag but it should not stray too far away from the rich and lively motherlode of actual, normal speech of the people. Otherwise, it becomes a stulted, lifeless literary language.

        This happened to Latin. For centuries, the writings and oratory of Cato and Cicero were the model to be followed, while the vernacular went on. This was a severe impediment to the development of Roman literature.

        If WSJ, a right-wing, business-oriented paper is starting to publish pieces like this, it is a sign that the stultification of the English language is becoming an obstacle of business life. That should really ring some bells. You don’t want English going the way of Latin and Arabic.

  • the ordinary fool

    I think I generally agree with this if there’s no reason to maintain the distinction, e.g. who cares if someone splits an infinitive if meaning is clear?

    I will concede that this is probably at the edge of what that argument can support, but I think the were/was distinction for referring to past events that were contrary to fact/not contrary to fact is a useful distinction.

    I.e., “If he were doing yesterday then blah blah blah” implies he wasn’t actually doing and is counterfactual. “If he was doing then blah blah blah” means the speaker is unsure what happened yesterday.

    Admittedly, I would not ever correct someone speaking to me about this, but I think it’s an elegant way to convey subtle shades of meaning in writing at the very least.

    • Murc

      I think I generally agree with this if there’s no reason to maintain the distinction, e.g. who cares if someone splits an infinitive if meaning is clear?

      With respect to split infinitives, the people who cared were Oxford dons with hard-ons for Latin who considered it their sacred duty to make English as much like it as possible. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, so it was decided you shouldn’t split one in English.

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I think the subjunctive in English is dead. Dead dead dead. Dead like Dillinger. No one seems to get it right or make any were/was distinction. Although I credit Beyoncé for “If I Were A Boy.” Other than that, it’s just was was was no matter what.

      And that’s ok, that’s fine. I try to get it right but I don’t correct people. That’s my position on all this. As long as nobody insists I drop the were/was distinction or anything else I’m cool.

      • Marek

        Hey, get bent, I took Latin and I love the subjunctive.

  • Joe_JP

    Kory Stamper, Emily Brewster and the guy over at Merriam Webster also in their videos etc. repeatedly note “proper” usage is more flexible than certain assumed “rules.”

    • Linnaeus

      Yep – anyone who has had written work professionally edited has probably had his or her grammar corrected from time to time even when what the author originally wrote was “technically” correct. You could write, “that is nonsense up with which I will not put,” but no editor is going to leave that in the piece unchanged.

      • keta

        Exactly. And no two houses will correct the same way. Which is yet more proof that there’s more than one way to skim a kittiwake.

  • Hogan

    The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes.

    • wca

      That came from Kentucky Fried Movie, didn’t it?

  • Rob in CT

    Gambini: Your honor, everything that guy just said is bullshit.

    ;)

    Clearly, English should work exactly the way I learned that it works, complete with a bit of a mashup between late-20th century American and early-20th century British style and my own grammatical misunderstandings (I seriously did not “get” grammar in 5th grade. Somehow I survived and have a job that involves a lot of writing).

    • ScarsdaleVibe

      I got no more use for this guy!

      I really slacked off in elementary school and junior high before cleaning up my act in high school. Especially English-I loved reading, but it seemed like all we ever did was diagram sentences and memorize vocabulary words (reading is the best way to develop your vocabulary, not memorizing shit in a book!). Regularly got Cs (I could not for the life of me correctly underline the goddamn adverbial or adjective clause!). Now I find that shit fascinating. Go figure.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        “now i find that shit fascinating”

        me too. i’m a lot more interested in how sentences are supposed to be put together even though now i write for casual consumption instead of for a passing grade. it’s like carpentry- or maybe plumbing- i think gertrude stein said ‘sentences should be well constructed and not leak’. not that i always, or even usually, get the job done right

  • calling all toasters

    This would be a terrific rule to use when teaching children and second-language learners. We could call it “Whole Grammar” and give everyone an A. Then we could watch the stupid fuckers flail as they try to make themselves understood by the rest of the world. It would be great fun for all.

    • joe from Lowell

      Actually, in practice, guided “flailing” is the best way to learn and teach English to ELLs.

      But it certainly doesn’t require the “Everything is Awesome!” theory of grammar to operationalize that.

    • Origami Isopod

      Nice strawman. Does it keep the crows off your corn?

    • Anna in PDX

      I have been reading this blog for a long time and I don’t think you have ever sounded this curmudgeonly before. Is nonstandard grammar just a bridge too far for you?

  • njorl

    I mildly disagree. I think of the pedants as the predators that devour the herbivores with harmful mutations. If a new linguistic development is worthwhile, it will withstand the pedants, possibly killing many in the process to create a superior breed of pedant.

    • Rob in CT

      I kind of love this comment.

    • Vance Maverick

      The people who make grocery stores rewrite their signs to say “10 items or fewer” are not making anything better, even in a cod-Darwinian sense.

      • ScarsdaleVibe

        I’m a pedant, but if the meaning is clear, as it is there, you should really let it go. Also, “less” is monosyllabic and just sounds better.

        • joe from Lowell

          Agreed, it’s totally appropriate to use non-standard English on a sign in a grocery store.

      • dbk

        Or we could just write “≤10 items” and skip that lesson on countable vs. non-countable nouns and their corresponding quantifiers…

        • wca

          “≤10 items”

          You would be shocked at how many people would read this version incorrectly. People confuse less than and greater than signs all the time

          • dbk

            I know, I know – it was a bit of joke!

        • Hogan

          My preference would be “No more than 10 items or we break your thumbs,” but maybe that’s just me.

          • wca

            Harrumph!

          • dbk

            Hmm, maybe the not-entirely-standard-but-pretty-universally-understood “10 items MAX” would do the trick these days :-)

            • tsam

              Well I’m Mark, not MAX, so I’ll be bringing through 14 items, TYVM.

              • dbk

                Okay, I can’t say I didn’t see that one coming … which kind of reminds me of another point, viz. language is fun! We can play with it, often to our own delight and that of others – I came to this thread thinking “Oh, no, not ANOTHER one of THOSE threads.”

                But in fact I’m getting a lot of pleasure out of the comments. As my dear Midwestern-Mother-with-Appalachian-roots used to say, LGM commenters are “quick on the uptake.”

                And as my kids would say, coolz.

                • Hogan

                  There’s a Pogo strip that ends with Beauregard saying to Albert, “Fighting? I thought we were dancing.” We get some of that around here.

                • tsam

                  I love these discussions–as long as you stay out of the acrimonious shit. I have no time for that bullshit.

                  Also, if the pendants and grammar police had their way, snark wouldn’t exist. Part of humor is deliberately breaking or misusing the rules. I’ll stay on that side of the line.

  • Ahenobarbus

    Some people choose to be annoyed by grammatical errors. Others choose to be annoyed by ketchup. It’s pretty much the same thing in different guise.

    • wca

      Is a martini made with vodka a grammatical error in the language of drinks?

      • DrPretorius

        No. It is a grievous mortal sin.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      You know, +1.

      • Vance Maverick

        I think this is going to be one of those posts in which regulars make surprising remarks (what paper-thin distinctions are we talking about? context suggests you’re talking about condiments, but that makes no sense) and lurkers pop up never to be heard from again.

  • Lee Rudolph

    It’s hard not to enjoy the sight of people who (rightly!) decry Republican politicians who declare “I’m not a scientist, but…” saying, essentially, “I’m not a linguist, but…”. But it’s also hard to enjoy.

    I too am not a linguist. But one daughter is (not, presently, professionally practicing; she gave up her tenure in the linguistics department at a University of California campus after 10 years, some as department chair, to do other things). As she says, it’s all pretty complicated. When she’s being (as it were) a civilian, she is as alive to what I would call “social [or sociolinguistic?] misbehavior”, what Eric’s “grammar snobs” call “bad grammar”, and what she doesn’t call either one, as anyone is; like me, the (other) “snobs”, and everyone else who uses language (that is, excluding a few obvious classes of people, everyfuckingbody), she draws conclusions about language users from the way they use language. Some of those conclusions can be pretty harsh (speaking for myself and the [other] snobs, not necessarily for her); some of them can be very positive, too. People judge people! All the time!! This is not news!!!

    The vitriol that gets thrown in “grammar snob” discussions, though, often seems to have an extraordinarily low pH. So, as I say, it’s hard for me to really enjoy as much as, say, a good bout of condiment condemnation.

    [Added: those who are so inclined should look up the distinction Grice makes between “flouting” a conversational maxim and “violating” one.]

    • Richard Hershberger

      Points for citing Paul Grice. The Gricean Maxims explain beautifully how someone claiming to be precise is so terribly often merely being a dick.

  • LeoFromChicago

    I dunno. Not much of a grammar buff myself, but this definitely sounds like pedantry from the opposite direction.

  • Downpuppy

    Since that twit professor’s putrid puling about moral “facts” vs mere opinions appeared in the Times a fortnight or so back, I’ve pondered how anyone could get a degree in philosophy without realizing that language is congealed opinions. What does he think philosophy has been doing for the last century?

    Didn’t expect to see it in the WSJ, though.

    • Lee Rudolph

      The comparative of “congealed” is “congereeled”.

      Bet you didn’t know that!

    • apogean

      Yeah, how could anyone study philosophy without adopting my vague pretheoretical notions of how language and morality work? Those fucking morons. obviously there’s no such things as moral facts or grammatical rules; why would anyone with a philosophy degree think that an issue worth investigating?

      • Origami Isopod

        You might want to read the piece before you defend the author thereof.

  • tsam

    I just want the word “whom” gone. Right now. It’s fucking dumb and deserves to die.

    • apogean

      English has conjugated prepositions (he/him, she/her, they/them, I/me, we/us). Who/whom is just an extension of this idea. It’s also not a made up rule, except insofar as anything is, but rather grounded in historical usage from the Germanic.

      Anyway, who/whom is already most of the way gone and if you want to go around saying “who did you give the gift to?” everyone will understand what you mean. (moreso than if you respond “I gave it to she.”)

      • tsam

        The only reason I hate it so much is because aside from the poetic use njorl quoted below, any way of using “who” in a sentence sounds just fine. But most of the time I hear someone speak the word “whom” it comes out as incredibly pompous.

        It’s just a personal thing–there is no other reason than that. It likely stems from one experience. I should probably dismount and stop bitching about it but where’s the fun in that???

        • Lurker

          This is curious as the rules for using “whom” are some of the most logical and regular in the whole of English grammar. If you have mastered the ability to parse every sentence for its syntax while writing, usage of “whom” should be a breeze.

          • tsam

            It’s not that, I just hate the sound of it.

            To me, it grates on my nerves like hearing pundits say “going forward” for no apparent reason (which is a new way of saying “ummmmm” or “ya know” or “like”)

          • Linnaeus

            As an aside, I didn’t fully understand how to use “whom” in English until I started learning German in school.

            • MikeN

              Article in Slate about using “whom” in online dating forums:

              http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/02/19/whom_men_who_use_this_pronoun_in_online_dating_ads_get_more_contacts_from.html

              The fact is that incorrect uses of whom occur rather frequently. “Whom did they think was underwriting the signage …,” journalist Ari L. Noonan cleverly wrote in a Culver City online newspaper recently. But to laugh at Noonan for making a grammatical error would be to miss the point. What’s important is that if you and he are both using online dating services, he will get more sex than you unless you up the frequency of whom in your writing.

              • Anna in PDX

                That article is the slatest slate article I’ve seen yet.

      • Richard Hershberger

        Strictly as a friendly tip and not trying to be an asshole, in the same spirit as I might point out that your fly is open, those are pronouns, not prepositions, and one does not conjugate pronouns, one declines them. One conjugates verbs. If you don’t want to be troubled to remember this, and there likely is no good reason you should, the umbrella terms that includes both conjugation and declension is “inflection,” so it would be perfectly correct to say that English inflects (some) pronouns.

        For the inevitable “but if apogean calls them prepositions and says we conjugate them, doesn’t that make it right for you dirty hippie descriptivists?” the answer is no. First off, descriptivists don’t say people don’t make language errors. The argument is over what constitutes an error. Secondly, technical terms of art are a great example of words that you have to use according to their technical definitions, at least when using them within the relevant subject area. So if, for example, you want to say that some development in politics is a “quantum leap” you are merely guilty of using a tired and crappy metaphor. But if discussing particle physics, stick to using it to refer to a particle moving from one quantum state to another.

    • njorl

      So you’re saying you want the bell to toll for “whom”.

      • tsam

        If you’re talking about the Metallica song, I’ll allow it.

        Otherwise, NO. I have spoken.

    • Rob Patterson

      Using who when whom is technically correct –> Eh, who cares?

      Using whom when who is right –> You sound like a twat.

      • rea

        Whom cares?

      • tsam

        Exactly!

        Thank you.

      • joe from Lowell

        I once rearranged someone’s sentence, which contained “who,” in a thread to emphasize some point, or clarify the relationship between the claims in the sentence, but I made a typo which the computer corrected to “whom” when the “who” was perfectly fine, and everyone (quite reasonably) concluded that I was correcting “who” to “whom” and getting it wrong.

        That was not goodly. Not funly at all.

      • Joe Bob the III

        Same for I/me/myself.

        Almost every time myself = twat.

        • tsam

          My business partner uses “myself” for I, me and myself. It makes me laugh–though I don’t bother correcting him.

          • Lee Rudolph

            My business partner uses “myself” for I

            Really? He says things like “Well, myself am off for the day”???

            • tsam

              It’s almost that bad.

              I have heard “Will you send that to myself?”

              Yes, that has happened.

            • tsam’s business partner is Bizarro Superman? Damn.

  • tsam

    I have to add that much of my language construction on the internet is specifically designed to grate on grammar pedants.

  • RPorrofatto

    We should not misunderestimate our need for rules. Look, you teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test. It’s simple. Because rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning? And that’s what counts. Grammar is not where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream. Anyone who says that is just trying to disassemble (for you grammar snobs that means not tell the truth). How many hands have you shaked is a lot more important that whether you are a grammar looser.

  • apogean

    Here’s a sort of mild argument in favor of prescriptivism (though not of course pedantry to uphold rules that are not rules):

    Of course, most people get along fine without explicit knowledge of grammatical rules. Those people are native language learners with the benefit of immersion; it’s basically impossible not to learn enough to make yourself understood (even if not enough to impress the upper classes). This is just basic developmental psychology.

    The people for whom grammatical correctness really matters are the people learning a language after the critical period. What you want, in that case, is simple and consistent rules that are followed consistently. A language where most users know a single set of simple rules has an advantage to being learned by non-community members, and truly has a leg up as a medium of communication. And the more people learn the rules and use them consistently – even the natural language learners – the more the language can be said to be an effective medium of communication. Also this has the effect that we should resist changes in usage all else equal because of transaction costs.

    The implications of this argument are that we should all learn Esperanto or Loglan or something.

    • apogean

      Plus, we have examples of languages that do a. Bad Job, i.e.:
      -Usage varies so widely for subgroups that dialects are not mutually intelligible for a non-native speaker (Colloquial Arabic)
      -grammatical rules are either so complex as to be overwhelming (Modern Standard Arabic) or simple enough that they underdetermine usage (Chinese)
      -Lack of widespread knowledge of grammatical rules makes language learning harder for non-natives (English, Modern Standard Arabic)

      • Origami Isopod

        Languages just are. They don’t do a “good job” or a “bad job.”

        • Lee Rudolph

          In that, they are like trolls.

      • Anna in PDX

        Wow, we are down on Arabic here aren’t we? It does do some things very well. Like, swearing.

  • LiveFreeOrShop

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    Those with a decent understanding of grammar would not likely read, let alone finish the article because they’ve heard all that crap a thousand times and being lectured on grammar by a journalist from Rupert’s fucking garbage heap is just too annoying for words.

    If you want to read something REALLY interesting about the prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate, go find the April, 2001, issue of Harper’s magazine and read “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” by David Foster Wallace.

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      +1 on both counts.

      Since when is Loomis signing on to what’s in the WSJ anyway? Someone’s about to lose his socialist cred.

    • Richard Hershberger

      Eh? The WSJ piece, its place of publication notwithstanding, is dead on. The Wallace article, by way of contrast, is a steaming turd pile. See http://languagehat.com/david-foster-wallace-demolished/ for the long form.

  • No mention of James Nicoll’s comment on the purity of the english language? Tch.

    Lemme fix that:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

    • Bruce B.

      One of James’ best lines, for sure. :)

    • DrDick

      Where would you like your internets delivered?

      • Lurking Canadian

        Deliver them to Booker T. Washington. James’ll understand.

  • Nigel Holmes

    I take it this is the same Oliver Kamm whose mission in life was to berate the dishonourable left who failed to support the west’s great mission of fucking up the Middle East. I guess his work there is done.

    He pretty much fits the picture in my head of the kind of people who write “anti-pedant” articles like that.

    • Origami Isopod

      I thought I remembered the name from somewhere.

      That said, I happen to agree with his article.

      • Nigel Holmes

        The general idea that usage is all that decides what’s acceptable is obviously right. The stupid self approval that’s on display there is what gets on my nerves. Look at this bit: ‘If someone tells you that you “can’t” write something, ask them why not. Rarely will they have an answer that makes grammatical sense; it is probably just a superstition that they have carried around with them for years.’ Non-native English speakers often ask me to correct their English. If I see something you’d never say in English, I wouldn’t be able to tell them why it was wrong. That’s how knowledge of a language works, the “rules” are internalised experience.

    • djw

      This is a good old fashioned ad hominem, of the sort even the strictest language pedant would recognize.

      • Nigel Holmes

        Well “ad hominems” are a pretty legitimate argument most of the time. But I didn’t mean to suggest that what he was saying was false because of his character (it’s mostly true, obviously), only that his character was typical of the kind of hectoring that he’s engaged in.

        Incidentally are there a lot of people going around correcting other people’s English in America? I never correct other people unasked and I’ve only once been corrected myself (for using “quote” as a noun).

  • Matty

    Can we talk about the comments over at the WSJ piece? I’ve never seen such a collection of pearl-clutching. There’s at least one person bemoaning the upcoming fracturing of English in to mutually unintelligible languages within decades, and so many people misusing the AAVE habitual be. It’s somehow worse than the Chicago Trib comments and those 1.) Use Facebook and 2.) draw from people who read the Trib as their main source of information.

    • I believe, sir, that one has a string of pearl-clutching, not a collection.

    • Origami Isopod

      It’s the Wall Street Urinal. What did you expect?

      • Higher-quality piss.

        • Lee Rudolph

          And 24 karat gold bugs to aim at!

    • MikeN

      Well of course, people who read the WSJ know that Negroes talk like that because they are ignorant and lazy (when in actuality, it is the people complaining who are ignorant and lazy because they don’t know what they are talking about and can’t be bothered to find out).

  • Grammar pendants are the jewelry hung from comma chains.

    • tsam

      Also, apostrophe’s, too.

  • tsam

    Pedantry is pretty lame, but there are a few things that really grind my gears:

    There/their/they’re
    Were/we’re
    loose/lose (why is that one so damn difficult?)

    • Lurker

      In faxt, these expressions are exactly the same phonetically. There is no reason why they should not be written identically in Latin alphabet. Requiring that the written form carries additional information about the grammatical function of the word is a way towards ideographic writing. That is the main reason why the Chinese consider their system so good: the text carries much more information than the read-out form.

      • tsam

        I’ll add one of my other peeves by saying that they should of made different words for each.

        • Hogan

          should of

          I KILL YOU NOW

          • jim, some guy in iowa

            ah, there’s limits to everything, aren’t there?

          • tsam

            I cannot tell you how often I see that, written by adults! All I can think is, “REALLY? REALLY?”

      • wca

        In faxt, these expressions are exactly the same phonetically.

        Isn’t that only true of the first set?

        • Malaclypse

          Sure, become a prescriptivist now.

          • wca

            I find it interesting that some people just don’t seem to hear differences in pronunciation. To me, the second and third sets of examples upthread don’t even sound alike. So, like tsam, I do wonder how people mix up the words.

            that said, I do live in a state where you can go to the local farmers’ market and get “bald peanuts”, so …

            • tsam

              Will I be sorry I asked what “bald peanuts” are? Sounds like something a looser would call them. Should of gone with blade peanuts.

              • Hogan

                “Boiled” as filtered through that accent you don’t like. You know the one.

              • Lee Rudolph

                We were discussing that regional delicacy just the other day, but using standard spelling, not “eye dialect”—spelling tailored to (something not entirely unlike) the regional pronunciation.

                It’s very possible (I’m not sure enough of myself to say it’s certain) that in the same state, wca might also be able to go to the local NASCAR track and get to see a car with its tars on far.

                • Hogan

                  In my town he would have a choice of tap, still or sparkling wooder.

                • wca

                  We can normally spell “boiled peanuts” down here, although I have seen “bald peanuts” actually written on a sign once.

                  And if you do happen to be passing through, pick up a bag. They’re awesome. (And not that canned Margaret Holmes crap, either.)

                • Boiled peanuts are horrible.

              • tsam

                I must have been sheltered coming up. I found out the boids in Joisey choip, and that tars catch far, and all that ohl in the golf didn’t hurt nuthin.

  • JMP

    Do people actually complain about using “they” as a generic singular? That’s just silly, plus what would they prefer? “Ze”/”Zir” are not actual words commonly used, and just looks weird and confusing to most people; while using “he” as a generic is pretty damn sexist.

    • tsam

      I don’t, because it helps me avoid gender specific terms that might make me sound like an asshole.

    • Anticorium

      Yes, people actually complain. And what they prefer, in large numbers, is to use “he” as the generic, because “pretty damn sexist” is just dumb old feminism.

    • Hogan

      Here is John Simon on the same point of grammar:

      The fact that some people are too thickheaded to grasp, for example, that “anyone” is singular, as the “one” in it plainly denotes, does not oblige those who know better to tolerate “anyone can do as they please.” The correct form is, of course, “anyone may do as he pleases,” but in America, in informal usage, “can” has pretty much replaced “may” in this sense, and there is nothing more to be done about it; but we cannot and must not let “one” become plural. That way madness lies.

      And don’t let fanatical feminists convince you that it must be “as he or she pleases,” which is clumsy and usually serves no other purpose than that of placating the kind of extremist who does not deserve to be placated. The impersonal “he” covers both sexes.

      • keta

        More Simon:

        “There is, I believe, a morality of language: an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us.”

        Fuck him and his bag of sheep.

      • CJColucci

        This is just silly. With a bit of thought you can say: “Everybody can/may do as they please,” satisfying subject-verb agreement and avoiding awkwardness, sexism and over-earnest anti-sexism. It’s not that hard.

        • tsam

          I’m still accepting “Anyone can do as they please” over “he pleases”–assuming we don’t want to write “he or she”.

          • Hogan

            My father’s defense of using “they” was “The professor turned from the chalkboard and noticed that everyone was scratching his nose.” You’d think he would have noticed before . . .

            • CJColucci

              I agree that the “they” usage beats many of the alternatives. My point is that we don’t need to have this squabble at all. There are too many other and good ways to do the job without raising anyone’s hackles.

            • tsam

              Just a day in the life of a professor with an itch.

          • Linnaeus

            I remember reading somewhere that use of the third person plural pronoun as a neuter singular pronoun has been a practice in English for a long time.

      • JMP

        “The impersonal “he” covers both sexes.”

        Uh, no it doesn’t; that’s the whole point of the singular “they”.

    • Jordan

      My partner *hates* singular “they”. When we get drunk and nerdy, we argue about it. She gets the feminism point, but just can’t stand singular they anyways (she will cut you if you use “he” or “mankind” or whatever, though).

      She is a community college professor who mostly teaches comp1 and comp2, though, so that might explain some of it.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    The absolute worst is the ban on split infinitives – there is literally no better place to put an adverb than INSIDE the verb it modifies. To accommodate it, you have to make so many linguistic twists and turn that just butcher any flow or poetry in the language.

  • William Berry

    M-W Word of the Day: sprachgefuhl (assume dieresis on the “u”).

    It’s all about the fluent speaker’s intuitive feel for the language.

    It won’t lead you wrong, even if it gets you sneered at by pretentious snobs!

    • wca

      sprachgefuhl

      Gesundheit!

      (Why do I always want to say “gesundheit” after I hear one of these German compound words?)

  • The Miracle of Language written by Charles Laird (1953) is a wonderful tour through the history of the English Language. The description from the book’s Amazon page captures the essence of the book and the foolishness of grammar pedants:

    This book is about the English language, it’s nature, history & development (including urban legends of etymologies), & how it is taught. The author makes a good case that English, like Chinese, is a distributive language (word positioning determines meaning) vs. Latin et al which are inflective languages (word endings, such as cases, determine meaning). p. 152: “Any careful examination of the so-called parts of speech will reveal that they mean very little…They do not reveal the functioning of Modern English. The grammar of an inflected language, Latin, has been forced upon a distributed language, English, which has been wrenched in an attempt to make it fit the alien grammar.” Therefore, it is absurd to judge English by Latin standards & educators should modify their methods of teaching English to reflect this. Educators should admit that p. 219: “Words mean what they mean by common consent, so a given spelling, pronunciation, or construction is “right” or “wrong” depending upon its currency” & p. 218: “Adjectives often cannot be distinguished from adverbs & that words like up, out, off & by are frequently not prepositions but some part of the verb or complement.” Furthermore, he argues that English has by far the most words, the greatest flexibility & precision, & virtually the only books of synonyms reflecting this– p. 54: “Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist.” Furthermore, p. 236: “A movement from inflection as a grammatical device toward distribution seems to be a movement toward a modern world” & p. 238: “English has by all odds the best prospect of becoming a world language.” He points out that historically, languages follow financial success vs. political success; daily usage (e.g. Anglo-Saxon) triumphs over political conquest (Norman French). As he perceptively notes: p. 17: “If language is intimately related to being human, then when we study language we are, to a remarkable degree.

    • Malaclypse

      This book is about the English language, it’s nature, history & development

      Awesome.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Grammar is like etiquette, it’s there to help people, not put them down.

    Properly applied etiquette makes people more comfortable in social situations.

    Properly applied grammar helps people communicate more clearly.

    Throwing the baby out with the bath water is a typically useless proposal from a WSJ editorial.

  • William Berry

    BTW, an interesting approach to the whole question of register is taken by the M-W Dictionary of English Usage*. The examples are arranged in a subtle hierarchy that you might not notice immediately. The approach is entirely descriptive, and there is no commentary as to correctness. But by the time you get to the last example of the many given for a heavily used word you are likely (I started to type “liable”, and that would have been OK!) to be on the very edge of a WTF (think Jphn O’Hara or Henry Miller).

    *The best and most useful of the lot, IMNSHO. Better than the Harper’s, and way better than the corny and obsolete Fowler’s.

  • Nigel Holmes

    Being reminded of this guy’s existence has put me in a really bad mood. Anyone tempted to treat him as some expert in grammar (or as a voice for liberalism in language usage) might like to look here.

  • sharculese

    I would say the rancor this thread has generated is shocking, but honestly, it’s… completely predictable.

    • tsam

      no its not ur dum

    • Linnaeus

      I expected much more rancor, to be honest.

      • keta

        It’s rancour, bogdamnit! (cute little smiley face emoticon thingee here.)

  • Jordan

    Now THIS is how you do a vacation post!

  • keta

    Bog’s parenthetical balls, language police and their ilk should pull their grammar books out of their collective asses and fucking relax.

    Language is a fluid and beautiful thing and if a writer accurately conveys their intended message, who the fuck cares exactly how this is done as long as it’s respectful of the forum it lives in.

    Some of the most beautiful writing in the English languages punishes conventional rules and brilliantly soars because of it. Personally, I think language is meant to be played with, much like most everything else in life. It’s only when the prescriptivists march in that the joy is sucked out of such things.

  • that kid in the corner

    1) Grr to language snobbery, says this English teacher. Something like 95% of it is unjustifiable bullshit.
    2) Still, I recognize that in this country at this moment your use of language signifies a great deal about where you’re from, where your parents are from, and how you did in school. Being able to speak and write in what DF Wallace called “Standard White English” is going to be helpful in navigating the real world at some point, because that’s the language the people in power speak. As the language evolves and (hopefully) democratizes, this or that rule may become an anachronism, but for the time being a lot of this shit matters.
    3) I am tickled that so many beer, condiment, and music snobs are patting themselves on the back in this thread for their tolerance in matters linguistic.

    • CJColucci

      Still, I recognize that in this country at this moment your use of language signifies a great deal about where you’re from, where your parents are from, and how you did in school.

      As opposed to where and when? Why can’t we just be honest with the children we educate? We want them to learn to use “Standard White English” because it is a tool of power, not because it is “right” while the language we speak on the ball field or in the bar is “wrong.” I think they can handle the truth. And then we can teach many, though not all, of the grammar-maven’s crotchets not as “rules,” (though some small number of them really are) but as tools that, usually, make meaning clearer and, almost always, signal what one uses Standard White English to signal.

      • that kid in the corner

        As opposed to the perfect world we’ll one day inhabit after the revolution :). I was just trying to express my pragmatism.

        I like what you’re saying about being honest with the youngsters, and I try to do so (more sensitively than DF Wallace seems to have done with his students, I hope).

        Eg: “You speak differently to your grandparents than you do to your brothers and sisters, or your teachers, or your friends, or your girl/boyfriend. Different ways of speaking and writing work in different situations – we’re going to focus on speaking and writing the way teachers and bosses expect you to speak. It’s not a better or worse way of speaking and writing – but it’s what people expect of you in these situations. So quit calling each other ‘fool,’ please.”

  • Gregor Sansa

    Am I a horrible person for being happy when my daughter says “whom”, thus dooming another generation to suffer pointless grammar mismatch? I don’t correct her “who”s, mind you, I just do it “correctly” myself.

  • jeer9

    I’m surprised that in such a long thread on this topic no one has referred to Melville’s satirical take (under the initial section called Etymology – which is in fact the first word in Moby Dick, not “Call.”

    (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

    The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

  • William Berry

    Lowthites, Copperudites, and Newmanites, all of you!

    Most of you?

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