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Motivated Grammar
September 10, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I’m not advocating the abolition of grammar, but rather its justification. I’m not quite sure what that will entail in the end, but I’m starting out by pointing out grammar rules that just don’t make sense, don’t work, or don’t have any justification. All I want is for our rules of grammar to be well-motivated.
posted by Joe Beese (90 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
The rules of grammar have a perfect justification. Because some old Bishop wanted to make English into Latin. Now, get back to diagramming that fucking sentence.
posted by absalom at 2:26 PM on September 10, 2010 [21 favorites]


grammar a a is is of the that there for good what need place context syntax understanding motivation you I I I I those we
posted by boo_radley at 2:32 PM on September 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


I am advocating the abolition of grammar.

Or, rather: Advocation the abolitional grammar of the am I is in (of?) within before (whom [if]).
posted by The World Famous at 2:33 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


.
posted by davejay at 2:35 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


How's this for motivation? So that we can be sure we understand each other.
posted by King Bee at 2:35 PM on September 10, 2010 [19 favorites]


I'm well aware of the irony of posting a sentence fragment above.
posted by King Bee at 2:36 PM on September 10, 2010


I never get tired of trotting this out in these conversations.
posted by Gator at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


It's hard to joke about abolishing grammar without first understanding what it is and how it works. Fortunately, I've never had that handicap. Consider it abolished. (P.S. this blog linked to doesn't advocate the abolishment of grammar, just the occasional flagrant flouting of rules, which is all that any artform is, as long as it has a referent based in a fixed tradition, or rigid format.

aM i DOING this righT?

See also: "Where's the Harvard admissions office at, motherfucker?"

)
posted by chavenet at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now, get back to diagramming that fucking sentence.

People learning foreign languages in schools and Americans of the past (say, in the time of Little House on the Prairie) really know/knew their sentence diagrams. I have learned more about the structure of English sentences in Spanish classes and through glimpses of school lessons in Little House on the Prairie than in and recent school courses. I'm sure there were lessons in elementary and Jr High school, but that was ages ago.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:41 PM on September 10, 2010


I don't mind grammar. Changing English into a phonetically written language would be nice though.
posted by Memo at 2:47 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


We definitely need to get rid of the "rule" (it's actually more of a guideline) to not end sentences with prepositions, because I have no idea what that's about.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:48 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


People who rail against grammar rules are likely also the kind of people that eat raw, cold hot dogs. "Hey, it's food isn't it?"

No. No, it's not.

On the other hand, people who stick to grammar rules with uncommon intensity are likely also the kind of people that walk back into the kitchen and harangue the chef for trying out new ideas. "You can't put bacon on a maple doughnut!"

Yes. Yes, you can.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:49 PM on September 10, 2010 [8 favorites]


I am a mixed prescriptivist-descriptivist.

The cure for descriptivism is to read YouTube comments or Ask.Yahoo.Com threads, witch iz were wer headin f u thro out all prescptvsm, u no!??

Somewhere in the grim future of language - bloody, senseless wars are being fought because some asshole decided to save a few characters of text on an important international peace treaty, but not ne1 cars bcuz it is lulz.
posted by loquacious at 2:49 PM on September 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


I wish he supported my pedantic insistence on hyphenating "e-mail".
posted by Joe Beese at 2:50 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I never end sentences with a preposition! Ha ha, up I crack myself.
posted by GaelFC at 2:53 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think we should spell it grammer.
posted by ND¢ at 2:53 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was taught, in my classes on teaching English as a second language, that if a native speaker uses it, and native speakers understand it, then it's grammatically valid. On the other hand, we have a more formal grammar that's used in certain specific circumstances, but as Motivated Grammar points out, a lot of the rules there are crap. One suspects they exist for the same reason that Received Pronunciation exists, as class markers.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:55 PM on September 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


the kind of people that eat raw, cold hot dogs

You mean people WHO eat, etc., etc.

This IS going to be one of those threads, isn't it?
posted by Gator at 2:56 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Somewhere in the grim future of language - bloody, senseless wars are being fought because some asshole decided to save a few characters of text on an important international peace treaty, but not ne1 cars bcuz it is lulz.

I would absolutely read this novel.
posted by lalex at 2:59 PM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think it's wise for us to question the motivation of Grammer. He's doing things these days which really seem desperate or perhaps coming from a questionable place.
posted by hippybear at 3:02 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


We definitely need to get rid of the "rule" (it's actually more of a guideline) to not end sentences with prepositions, because I have no idea what that's about.

That is the first rule that is discussed when you click on the link.
posted by Falconetti at 3:02 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I for one think that all proper nouns should be capitalised - that's why I think Metafilter should ban all users whose usernames don't start with a capital letter.

Unfortunately for some reason the moderators haven't yet implemented this, I don't know why not.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:03 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't quite know what to expect on click-thru, but I quite like this blog. It aligns with my own dismissive sensibilities and the writing is very sharp.
posted by muddgirl at 3:06 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


If we all spoke txt in the futr, we would ironically be using a more logical grammar. Forget "color/colour" we'd have culr.

Language, like music, has both rules and enough flexibility to allow lots of noodling and rulebreaking while still being understood. We are apparently addicted to fiddling with our languages, which is why English is such a hairy mismatched monster, but an interesting one.
posted by emjaybee at 3:08 PM on September 10, 2010


"All I want is for our rules of grammar to be well-motivated."

NOOOO.
posted by pwnguin at 3:09 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo!*

*Buffalo?
posted by basicchannel at 3:10 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Grammar is an attainable ideal, but it's really just a class signifier, as much as bitching about grammar, and saying that grammar is a class signifier are class signifiers.
posted by hanoixan at 3:13 PM on September 10, 2010


That is the first rule that is discussed when you click on the link.

I just wanted to make the joke by ending the sentence with the word "about".
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:14 PM on September 10, 2010


the kind of people that eat raw, cold hot dogs

You mean people WHO eat, etc., etc.


Cold? How else would a raw hot dog be?
posted by Flashman at 3:15 PM on September 10, 2010


I just wanted to make the joke by ending the sentence with the word "about".

Yeah, well, this isn't the thread you should make that joke in.
posted by The World Famous at 3:16 PM on September 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


Language, like music, has both rules and enough flexibility to allow lots of noodling and rulebreaking while still being understood.

what emjaybee said

Also, Wittgenstein - no language amateur, he - was a big fan of meaning being defined by how a word or phrase is *used*. Language is about meaning, and meaning is fungible, due to the phenomenal creative capacity and malleable nature of our language-making brains.
posted by Vibrissae at 3:20 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Abolish the rules of language?

Ludicrous! Viruses don't have rules. They just do virus stuff.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:27 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would absolutely read this novel.

Douglas Adams kind of already wrote it, but it was just a side plot about the part where Arthur Dent's accidental but incredibly offensive words fell into a wormhole and drifted across the negotiating table of two warring alien races at an incredibly bad time. They were at war for eons and then finally figured out what happened - causing them to send an enormous fleet of their best war-waging starships - which were promptly swallowed by a small dog thanks to a gross miscalculation of of scale.

Apparently this kind of thing happens all the time, which may or may not explain the mysterious thoughts of a certain bowl of petunias. Those words were, of course: "Oh no. Not again."
posted by loquacious at 3:29 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


My friend abolish grammar, I show Metafilter, why no?
posted by qvantamon at 3:31 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Changing English into a phonetically written language would be nice though

Whose phonetics? Midwestern US? Northern England? Appalachian? Southern India? Phonetic spelling sounds great, right up until you think about the huge variation in accents and pronunciations you have within English.
posted by Forktine at 3:38 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I say we call pedantic syntactic outrage gramgrar.
posted by defenestration at 3:41 PM on September 10, 2010 [12 favorites]


All I know is that every time someone uses the word "alright" rather than "all right," God horribly violates a hamster.

Please, think of the hamsters.
posted by jscalzi at 3:44 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


I reckon there probably is a place for unbending grammar rules in some cases, notably legal text. Allowing laws or contracts to be interpreted based on "well, it looks like they probably meant this" is a very dangerous idea. (Even if it sometimes gets a bit silly.) That said, for the most part it's just so much easier to subscribe to the "easiest way of conveying meaning" rule.

Haven't looked through all the old blog entries yet, so I don't know if it covers my pet hate - people whining about split infinitives. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is completely acceptable, and is in fact much better than the non-split alternative because it maintains the rhythm and the internal rhyme in alternate syllables which make that phrase sound so good. Whatever some prescriptivist might say.
posted by ZsigE at 3:44 PM on September 10, 2010


I am prescriptivist-descriptivist, or maybe descriptivist-prescriptivist. I do believe in "rules," sort of, but grammar is, in my opinion, a part of rhetoric and cannot be divorced from meaning or situation. Rules for rules' sake are pointless, but so is the idea that just because a statement can conceivably be parsed that it should stand as A-OK and 100% perfect all the time. Excessive prescriptionism is elitist, sure, but a complete breakdown of any sort of grammatical order creates communicative chaos -- we're at the tower of Babel, people!. Rather than think of English as A language that someone masters, perhaps we should think of it as a changing body of skills, rules, terms, etc. that can be shaped variously as dictated by speaker, audience, location, situation, intention, and so forth. Rather than learning English, we should learn Englishes; a deep understanding of the prescribed and implicit grammars of a language enables one not only to speak The Queen's English, as it were, but also to adapt with great flexibility to a variety of communication situations. Does everyone need to speak as though they were writing a legal brief for the Supreme Court? No, but I think it would be nice if everyone could parse that sort of talk; and, on the flip side of the grammatical coin, the Official Practices of any particular Language or Discursive Community should be clearly explained so as to indicate why they exist (and how they create meaning) but flexible enough to allow for growth, change, and integration of new structures of communication.

On the subject of the blog, I noticed this line in another post:
For some reason, prescriptivists simply hate gender-neutral language, whether it’s changing titles (spokesperson, chair) or using gender-neutral pronouns (he or she, they).
Um, no. That is total bullshit. I know plenty of stuffy grammar-prescriptive types who have no problem with, use, and promote gender-neutral language. Some prescriptivists may not like it, sure, but that's just a dumb statement, and being prescriptivist has nothing to do with one's preference or opposition to gender-neutral language. I know that many, many of my students -- who couldn't give a rat's ass about following or protecting grammatical rules -- prefer to use masculine-gendered language because it's easier, more common, and it is what they are used to.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:49 PM on September 10, 2010


Damn! I missed my error in parallel construction in the last sentence.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:50 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wish he supported my pedantic insistence on hyphenating "e-mail".

We absolutely have to get that useless hyphen out of there, the way we have already with Abomb, bmovie, csection, Dday, ftsop, gstring, Hbomb, etc.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:50 PM on September 10, 2010


Last post for now:

For all those who think that we don't need some measure of grammatical regularity, I give you the speech-writing of Charlie Kelly:

Hello fellow American. This you should vote for me. I lead power! Good.
Thank you... thank you. If you vote me, I'm hot.
Taxes. They'll be lower. Son.
The democratic vote for me is the right thing to do Philadelphia,
so do.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:52 PM on September 10, 2010


Prescriptivism Must Die!

Die, prescriptivism, die!

But not advocating the abolition of grammar. Got it.

I say, do whatever the hell you want, but it's still going to hurt my ears if you write between him and I.

("Well motivated"? By the rules themselves or the person making the rules? I'm assuming he means well founded, or logically based, or something along those lines. Well motivated brings what I want my child to be when she starts piano lessons. If you have a problem with all grammar, at least give me clarity and lack of ambiguity. "Well motivated", indeed.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:02 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


It makes me mad when people talk about things like "don't end a sentence with a preposition" as "grammar". That's nonsense. It shows they don't really know what the word means. It's grammar all the way down.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:06 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


End this will, well.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:06 PM on September 10, 2010


While we're at it I think that the world "lapel" should rhyme with "staple" instead of "rappel." Sounds dirtier.

I also hate it when you ask someone, "How are you?" and they say, "Well." While it may be true that you are good at existing, that's not what either you or I mean.
posted by cmoj at 4:10 PM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


I see grammar as a set of available tools rather than a set of rules. So I just try to use the right tools for a specific job.
posted by snsranch at 4:13 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Madam, I endeavor to never end my sentences with a preposition, preferring rather a proposition.
posted by klangklangston at 4:16 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


For all those who think that we don't need some measure of grammatical regularity

empty set
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:19 PM on September 10, 2010


I, sadly, believe in grammar, and the English language, and the rules involved. Why? Because I teach ESL/EFL. Helping students to bridge the gap between the two languages is hard enough without running into a student whose previous teacher either didn't know the language very well (both Japanese English teachers as well as native speakers), or felt that the rules of the language weren't all that important, since it's a changing language.

Yes, it's a changing language. Native speakers have the luxury of knowing what it used to be, and a pretty good understanding of what it's becoming. ESL/EFL students don't have that luxury, so I try to teach them English that, in most cases, won't be considered poor English.

It kind of sucks when I run into a junior high student who tells me "But my conversation school teacher told me 'I is' is okay."
posted by Ghidorah at 4:24 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


tl;dr
posted by Vindaloo at 4:35 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


English that, in most cases, won't be considered poor English.

Nobody has a problem with this. It's a pragmatic approach to teaching English to foreigners. But what you're teaching does not represent the grammar of English. It represents an arbitrary but stylistically prestigious dialect.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:36 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or, rather, it doesn't even do that.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:39 PM on September 10, 2010


I, sadly, believe in grammar, and the English language, and the rules involved. Why? Because I teach ESL/EFL.

I don't know. I also teach ESL and whenever prescriptivism enters into the classroom it seems absurd.

"You can't end a sentence with a preposition!"
"Why not? Won't they be understood just as well? What's the point of propping up confusing rules few people use that only serve to make them feel too insecure to speak?"

It's a fine line to walk.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:40 PM on September 10, 2010


I am a linguistics PhD student at Cornell. My life revolves around "grammar," in a certain sense of that word. Accurate descriptive grammars and the (un)grammaticality judgments of native speakers are the sine qua non of my day-to-day work.

Does anyone else find it troubling that so many people get so worked up over a notion of "grammar" that we linguists—grammar professionals, you might say—consider totally invalid?
posted by einzelsprachlich at 5:02 PM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


Disagreements between science and conservatism are nothing new.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:05 PM on September 10, 2010


Does anyone else find it troubling that so many people get so worked up over a notion of "grammar" that we linguists—grammar professionals, you might say—consider totally invalid?

I can't speak for others. But no, I don't find it troubling - for the same reason that I don't find it troubling that judges' views of the law differ considerably from those of legal scholars.
posted by The World Famous at 5:13 PM on September 10, 2010


I do not understand his argument against Omit Needless Words. Not that I agree that Omit Needless Words is a grammar rule, but when you argue against it by omitting a bunch of words and then declaring that the sentence is harder to parse without them, all you've done is chosen words that weren't Needless in the first place. The only thing that proves is that you shouldn't Omit Needed Words.

(And possibly that random capitalization is fun.)
posted by jacquilynne at 5:16 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another ESL teacher here, and I do think that doing this job has made me much more of a prescriptivist. I teach in Japan, just as Ghidorah does, and I have found that many learners are very interested in the "right" way to speak, and will cling to rules they have been taught, regardless of whether those rules are useful or correct. In fact, they will often hold on to those rules even when directly told, "No, what you're saying is incorrect," simply because that's what their high school teacher (or their Eikaiwa teacher, depending on whom they hold in higher regard) told them to be true.

Since ESL/EFL students are learning the language in a highly artificial manner (from textbooks and purposefully leveled role-playing, for example, rather than immersion), having a well-defined set of rules to which they can adhere is better for them than a protracted conversation about every situation in which those rules can be broken or ignored. As a wiser person than I once said, "First learn the rules, then break the rules."

The confusion engendered in trying to explain all the subtle differences and nuances involved in including or excluding the postposition-preposition seriously impedes the main goal of the lesson, which is simply to get them to use English in an intelligible way. In the case of this particular rule, though, I usually tell them to follow their own aesthetic sense. [1]

Personally, while I do agree with the blog writer's position, I still find myself avoiding post-preps when I speak. I like the sound of "To whom did you give it?" rather than "Who did you give it to?" Yes, it makes me sound like an 18th century Latinist, but dammit - I like it.

[1] In other cases I consciously encourage usage that I find appealing, linguistic imperialism be damned. I also used to explain away certain usage differences by saying, "Well, maybe in British/Canadian/Australian English that's okay..." but mainly just to needle my British, Canadian and Australian co-workers. The students were in on the joke, and it was all in good fun.
posted by MShades at 5:22 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The problem is: Who defines what the needless words are?

In isolation, I would prefer the sentence "And capitalization is fun," but you might not feel that this stripped-down sentence better represented what you wanted to say.
posted by Dumsnill at 5:22 PM on September 10, 2010


Who defines what the needless words are?

The reader or listener.
posted by The World Famous at 5:23 PM on September 10, 2010


The reader or listener.

Sure, we like what we like.
posted by Dumsnill at 5:26 PM on September 10, 2010


Sure, we like what we like.

Or, more accurately, we need what we need.
posted by The World Famous at 5:27 PM on September 10, 2010


Another motivation: If we don't have rules, we might end up like this!
posted by ymgve at 6:00 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


> a lot of the rules there are crap. One suspects they exist for the same reason that Received
> Pronunciation exists, as class markers.
> posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:55 PM on September 10 [1 favorite +] [!]

Teachers is just trying to help you not to sound like someone who's going to work in the lube shed for the rest of his life.
posted by jfuller at 6:08 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're an empty set!
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:12 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wonder how many people in this thread who would consider themselves anti-prescriptivists regularly make fun of Sarah Palin, W, or, for a more recent reference, Jan Brewer for their inarticulate speaking and writing?

Personally, I think the prescriptivist-descriptivist debate is pretty much a bogus creation. Grammar -- that is, articulated "rules" for constructing meaning through words -- is a part of rhetoric, meaning, context... What einzelsprachlich does is valuable, essential even, but I think that him saying that grammar (as understood in the traditional sense) is "invalid" is kind of like someone who studies human anatomy and fitness saying the rules of basketball are invalid, or that ballet moves are invalid. The constructs we make to limit our verbal/written expression are as much a part of the way we create meaning as are the elements of content within those limitations.

I teach writing and literary analysis. I don't give a damn if when a student leaves my classroom they use text-speak or twitter syntax exclusively. But, frankly, that doesn't cut it when it comes to writing a thoughtful analysis, at least initially. They don't need to learn new concepts alone; they have to learn all new ways of thinking, and part of that includes certain "grammatical" guidelines. Having a deep understanding of "grammar" -- the ability to put ever more complex patterns of words together and how changing those structures changes meaning -- is necessary in order to express certain complex ideas. So that's what I make them do. Does it have an elitist heritage? Is it somewhat distant from the lived reality of 99% of people? Sure, but so fucking what? The beauty of language is that it is not in any one person's possession, so I am going to give that tool of the elite to as many people as I can, and hopefully, I'll make a positive impact in some way -- usually in ways I cannot even begin to imagine -- on their lived realities. The master's house and the master's tools notwithstanding, I don't see it as an act of indoctrination; this isn't Harry Reid and "Obama doesn't speak like a Negro." It's about linguistic -- and thus cognitive -- flexibility. I give them, as best I can, a new way of speaking, writing, and thinking. They learn how to use it, then they can change it up, modify it, bring in new and different ways and create something better, something that enables us to think new thoughts; they can expose the limits of the linguistic/cognitive structures traditionally held to be "proper" and expand them, and in turn expand their own. To me, it's not very different from learning another language. When you learn a second language, you don't forget the first one (I would hope). You've got a new conceptual and structural vocabulary; your brain expands, it becomes more complex, and it becomes something new. Breaking rules without understanding what you're doing is basically meaningless. (Although I don't think that's what this blogger is advocating). To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined sentence is not worth saying.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:38 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


My position is that "the rules" are synthesized by each speaker through observation and imitation, rather than being learned from a set and inflexible manual. If we're teaching a second language, we can shortcut that process of observation and by sharing our own observation, as well as those of others, up to the point where the learner has experience with the most commonly recognized rules. After that point, the learner is obligated to take up the synthesis on their own, or else remain at a low-skilled level of competence.

What you're doing with your students is teaching them a specific style of the English language, appropriate to a certain project, academic writing. You've synthesized your understanding of that style, and are helping them to do the same thing. However, while their synthesis will be influenced by yours, it won't match it, and when they pass their version of academic English on to other students, those students won't form a version that is precisely congruent with that of their teachers.

That's what makes the insistence on rules like "never end a sentence with a preposition" or "never split infinitives"" so silly. Those rules were invented and patched on to English, and have never been observed. Following them causes you to create sentences that native speakers regard as clumsy or even wrong, while violating them passes without notice, and insisting that they be followed marks you as a crank.

Prescriptivists are ordering back the tide. It's a bit amusing watching them stand knee-deep with their faces red and angry, unless they happen to be grading papers.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:26 PM on September 10, 2010


Grammar -- that is, articulated "rules" for constructing meaning through words -- is a part of rhetoric, meaning, context...

I share your interest in teaching the younguns how to be good readers and writers, but I think conflating those skills with "grammar" is a mistake. You can express yourself persuasively and musically in your native language without ever familiarizing yourself with the categories of traditional grammar.

"Grammar," as I use that word, neither needs to be learned nor contributes much to one's abilities as a verbal stylist. It's my grammar that tells me that *"In Soviet Russia, his₁ wife loves [every man]₁", *"Who what said?" (vs. "Who said what?"), and *"This thread laughs me" are all impossible sentences of English. Is this really "part of rhetoric" in any useful way?
posted by einzelsprachlich at 7:34 PM on September 10, 2010


You can express yourself persuasively and musically in your native language without ever familiarizing yourself with the categories of traditional grammar.

That depends entirely on who your audience is. If you're writing a persuasive brief in federal court, I assure you that you will need to have familiarized yourself with the categories of traditional grammar in order to be persuasive.
posted by The World Famous at 7:43 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Having just finished my class, and RTFA, I need to clarify. I'm not trying to argue for prepositions and the end of sentences. I have had to teach whom to students, not because I thought it was worthwhile, but because it's on the university entrance examinations here. In teaching them, I explained to them that they needed it for the test, but that very few people actually use it.

As I said, my goal is to teach English that most people wouldn't have a problem with. Honestly, my ultimate end goal is to give students the ability to express themselves in a language and have their listeners take them seriously. It might be an arbitrary but stylistically prestigious dialect, but it's also lowest common denominator stuff. It can be easily understood and accepted by the widest group. That's my goal.

I have, unfortunately, worked alongside teachers who either had no concept of English grammar (both Japanese and native speakers alike). I've also worked with people who argue that Japanese English (and Singlish) are just as valid as American English, and who argue that we should encourage their use. I strongly disagree with this, mostly following what Saxon Kane and The World Famous have said. I want my students to be received well when they speak, not to be laughed at for poor sentence construction.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:20 PM on September 10, 2010


I wonder how many people in this thread who would consider themselves anti-prescriptivists regularly make fun of Sarah Palin, W, or, for a more recent reference, Jan Brewer for their inarticulate speaking and writing?

Personally? I don't. I'm a pretty far-left progressive who regularly finds herself defending Bush's (and Bill Clinton's) use of nuke-u-lar. Deconstructing the message is more productive than mocking the courier, especially when the courier is part of the message.

There are a surprising number of "progressive" prescriptivists. They're easy to spot because they tend to argue vehemently against gender-neutral pronouns.
posted by muddgirl at 8:39 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


WTF?

I clicked this expecting that the post would talk about any of the actual problems with the language, rather than a couple of silly conventions that a few people mistakenly believe are grammatical rules.

How about:

1) Get rid of all irregular verbs. That's right -- I am, you am, he am, she am, we am, y'all am (really, the plural should be different), they am.

2) Regularize all verbs that change their vowel with their tense -- I swim, I swimmed, I have swimmed.

3) Make possessive pronouns consistent with the rest of the language -- I's, he's, she's, they's, you's, y'all's.

4) Have either regulated sentence structure (preferable) or cases (less preferable), but not both -- I hit he, or Him I hit, but both at once is just redundant.

5) Introduce a gender neutral singular pronoun that can refer to a person, or else change the connotations of "it".

6) For non-English languages that have it, eliminate the random "gendering" of nouns -- la, le, der, die, pick one and stick with it.

I mean, if you want to talk about things which exist in language for NO REASON, why not pick the real targets?
posted by kyrademon at 8:42 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jimmy Havok: Um, I think I pretty much said just what you said. And, I never said people only learn language through RTFM. I also never said that what I taught my students would be replicated exactly by them. In fact, I said the exact opposite of that -- that was kind of my point. We all learn to speak and, to some extent, to write through absorption, immersion, synthesis, osmosis, whatever. If you can then think about what it is that you're doing -- reflect on what you've absorbed -- you gain an understanding of how you think and communicate and, hopefully, develop your abilities to do so even further.

einzel: I'm not sure what you mean, but, if I understand you correctly, you're saying, "What you and other non-linguists mean by grammar is not what I as a linguistics research mean by grammar, and even though I know what you mean by grammar I'm going to only think about what I mean by grammar, so you are using the word incorrectly and your point is null and void."

What you mean by grammar (at least, as I think I understand it) is not really part of what I'm talking about, I don't think. Perhaps I am incorrectly using grammar too specifically to mean "syntax"; I'm not sure.

But I do not mean issues such as sentence-ending prepositions, split infinitives, etc. I mean understanding the relationship between subjects and predicates, independent clauses and dependent clauses, where to put modifiers so as to clarify (or, if it is your intention, obscure) meaning, how changing the order of the words and phrases in a statement can emphasize or de-emphasize ideas, how the syntactical rhythm of a sentence, paragraph, page, etc. can shape the emotional and intellectual reception of it and create multiple levels of meaning beyond the literal, etc. That is very, very closely tied to rhetoric and meaning; it is essential to it. Yes, some people can express themselves quite eloquently w/o conscious knowledge of these issues. Some people can also create beautiful music on a saxophone without knowing a single scale or the difference between a minor chord or a major chord; but, it helps if you DO know those things, and if you're not one of the lucky few blessed with the innate skill, it is pretty important to obtain that knowledge. You can also enjoy eloquent speech (or beautiful music) without understanding the rules, but if you want to analyze in detail how it works, it helps to know that stuff.

My goal is not to prescribe a certain set of rules as "right," but rather to educate my students in a particular style and demonstrate to them how the generally accepted conventions of that style are used to create certain kinds of meanings that otherwise may not be able to be expressed or even conceived. Then they can take those conventions and do what they will with them; it's another tool in the toolbox. And it is an important tool to have, because at times if one attempts to express certain ideas without paying attention to the format in which those ideas are materialized, confusion and imprecision will follow. The goal is not to memorize rules to replace others, but to become multilingual within your native tongue, to incorporate at a deep level of your cognitive operations multiple patterns and structuring principles so that it becomes a part of the way think, speak, write, etc, and they can respond to and create meaning within a variety of situations.

But like I said before, I'm not convinced there really is a prescriptivist monster roaming the streets of the English language, tormenting people. There are people who are more insistent on following rules, and there are people who aren't. I don't see the "debate." I mean, who are we talking about, Andy Rooney? I'm not really sure what "tide" is being "ordered back" ... the tide of high school students using text-speak and getting marks off their papers for it? Sure, there are some cranky English teachers who will drop you a letter grade if you split an infinitive, but is this some sort of big problem? I mean, students in Texas will soon be taught that the Republican Party is the champion of the Civil Rights movement with MLK Jr. as a footnote. Who cares if they learn some overly fussy rules and then 99% of them go on to forget them? Am I some sort of unreasonable crank or fuddy-duddy because I tell my students they need to have a subject and a verb in every sentence or I point out when an adjective is misplaced and doesn't modify the word it is intended to modify? W/R/T the original post, I think that the author, despite his general sensibleness, is creating a ridiculous strawman, as I mentioned above re: his comment that all prescriptivists hate gender-neutral language. His rancor over the preposition rule is based on... Dryden and Grammar Girl? And his problem with Omit Needless Words comes from Strunk & White who, I'm pretty sure, advocate it as a stylistic positive, not as a rule that will make a statement meaningful or not (I don't have a copy of the work handy to check). Also I note that a few post back he quotes admiringly from a book by Fitzedward Hall that takes down needless prescriptions in grammar. It is a bit funny that Hall's writing reveals a very complex understanding of grammar & syntax and is highly mannered.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:03 PM on September 10, 2010


muddgirl:There are a surprising number of "progressive" prescriptivists. They're easy to spot because they tend to argue vehemently against gender-neutral pronouns.

If you say so, I guess I believe it. Maybe it's because I'm in a field (English literature) that has been thoroughly infused by feminist theories, but I can't recall ever coming across anyone who argued against gender-neutral language. Sure, there have been older faculty who say, "Yeah, I get the mankind>humankind thing, but I've been using 'he' as the generic pronoun for 50 years, so fuck it, I'm not going to stop," but even they are becoming something of a rarity. I tend to notice when masculine language is used, and I'd say that I almost never read anything in my field written past, say, 1990, that uses "he" as the generic pronoun -- it is almost always "she," or the whole issue is avoided by rewriting the sentence.* Almost as universally accepted is the use of gender-neutral terms, such as -person for -man. Perhaps that's more a sign of my tunnel vision than the general acceptance of non-sexist language outside of the academy.

*There's the whole "they" issue also ("What was that one person doing? They were buying a cake.") which some people resist on the grounds that it is ungrammatical because it slips between singular and plural, although I read somewhere (can't recall) that they as a generic singular pronoun has a longer history than its prohibition as such. Regardless, I object to it only on the grounds of clarity; in my everyday speech I use "they" for "he/she" all the time, but in my writing I avoid it, and I encourage my students to do so as well, because of the dangers of muddying antecedent/pronoun connections. As I do with all grammatical rules, I emphasize clarity and precision in thought and the expression of that thought; when following a "rule" helps to communicate an idea where a more colloquial expression might confuse things, follow the rule. And, of course, in order to determine whether you need to follow the rule or not, you need to think carefully about just what it is you are saying.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:21 PM on September 10, 2010


I speak English well!
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:22 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


1) Get rid of all irregular verbs. That's right -- I am, you am, he am, she am, we am, y'all am (really, the plural should be different), they am.

There are certainly languages that have chosen to do this, and the sky has not fallen on their heads. However, it's worth remembering what would be lost in doing so. The verb conjugations (I am, he is, etc) offers an extra level of redundancy that helps preserve meaning in ambiguous situations (such as in a noisy environment where you can't hear every word). So what you gain in simplicity, you may lose in clarity in some situations.

English has a lot of redundancies built (evolved?) into it. Those redundancies add complexity for non-native speakers, but they are often there because they serve important functions for preserving meaning in imperfect situations.

6) For non-English languages that have it, eliminate the random "gendering" of nouns -- la, le, der, die, pick one and stick with it.

I'm sure there's a functional argument, similar to the redundancy one I just gave, to be made for gendered nouns, but as someone who has had to struggle with this whenever learning another language, I'd love to see all the gendered nouns disappear across the world. Other than as a source of ribald humor, all that gendered nouns have provided me is with a colossal pain in the ass.

So yeah, I want my redundancies and oddities where I'm used to it and I get all the benefit, but when learning another language I want it to be simple, rational, and easily predictable. Isn't hypocrisy beautiful?
posted by Forktine at 10:22 PM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


How's this for compromise: if we can just get rid of the term "butt hurt" you all can have the rest of your LULZ any way you see fit.
posted by squeakyfromme at 10:27 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


even though I know what you mean by grammar I'm going to only think about what I mean by grammar, so you are using the word incorrectly and your point is null and void.

I apologize for the jerky “get off my lawn”iness that’s creeping into my posts and smothering my point.

I think I now understand why you are calling grammar part of a continuum that includes rhetoric—it’s because the rhetorical devices you want to teach your students (and thank you for providing some details about those) aren’t formulable except in terms of grammar, right? Well, that’s plainly true, and your agnosticism about the ontological status of that grammar is praiseworthy.

What I meant when I characterized traditional grammar as “invalid” was: as a theory of language structure, traditional grammar is wrong, or at least it’s not self-evidently right. Take “subjects and predicates,” for instance... you’ll find papers, non-insane papers, eliminating the “subject” altogether (e.g. Starke 2004, “Contra Specifiers”), and the “predicate” only has grammatical status in a subset of current theories (e.g. that of Cornell’s own John Bowers). It’s not alone in being wrong—no theory of language has achieved anything like descriptive adequacy—but many of its advocates seem unwilling to recognize it as a theory (or a tool, as you put it) that has to be revised in the face of counterevidence. They assert "the rules" like we know what those are. That's not right.

You, on the other hand, seem to be saying that you have a theory—a set of tools for approaching language—which you have found effective for helping your students learn to fashion beautiful discourses. As far as empirical results of theories go, that's not bad. I just hope you’re open to the idea of revising the selection of tools in your kit from time to time. :)
posted by einzelsprachlich at 11:50 PM on September 10, 2010


I wish he supported my pedantic insistence on hyphenating "e-mail".

Save one of those hot dogs, Joe; I'm still holding out with you.

For me it's a visual problem. The hyphenless version looks too much like the French word for enamel... which distracts and annoys me.
posted by rokusan at 12:49 AM on September 11, 2010


...not to sound like someone who's going to work in the lube shed for the rest of his life.

You probably meant that to sound waaay less sexy than the way my sick, sick brain interpreted it.
posted by rokusan at 12:50 AM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


You know, "grammar" actually evolved as a way to make written text easier for people to read aloud. If you've ever seen an illuminated medieval text, you will have noticed that it is one giant block of text that puts even a "Should I dump this person" AskMe to shame. No paragraph breaks, no punctuation - sometimes there aren't even any spaces between WORDS.

If you're a monk trying to communicate the Word at breakfast when it's your turn, you're finding that it's harder that it needs to be. So you come up with some symbols, almost like stage directions in theater, to help yourself and your fellow monks with the task of enlightening your novices.

Comma = pause.
Period=longer pause.
Question mark=end on the "questioning" pitch.
And so on.

All "grammar" was supposed to be was directions for emphasis, pauses, and breaths in reading aloud. It was supposed to mimic the way a reasonably articulate person would speak. If it doesn't anymore, is it because it's "restrictive," or is it because there aren't very many articulate people left?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 1:02 AM on September 11, 2010


Grammar? Too old you are. Train you I cannot.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:32 AM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Punctuation isn't grammar.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:54 AM on September 11, 2010


but I can't recall ever coming across anyone who argued against gender-neutral language

Not gender-neutral language. Gender-neutral pronouns, specifically "invented" ones like Spivak. "Zie/Hir" seem to be the most popular, recently.

They really, REALLY piss some people off. It's fun. Personally, I try to use "they" as much as possible but sometimes a well-placed hir really fixes a sentence.
posted by muddgirl at 7:40 AM on September 11, 2010


Wittgenstein - no language amateur, he - was a big fan of meaning being defined by how a word or phrase is *used*.

As the man up on the ladder said to his trained-pig assistant, "Hammer!"
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:32 AM on September 11, 2010


We have to distinguish between two kinds of "grammar":

1) stylistic rules about what constitutes "proper" English

2) how people who speak a language put words, suffixes, prefixes, etc. together to say things.

If you're learning a foreign language, you're mostly learning the second kind of grammar - whether to put adjectives before the noun or after, how to work tenses and aspects.

The first kind of grammar doesn't concern itself much with second kind. It assumes you know how to put words together, and concentrates on what kinds of constructions are wrong or improper. For example, take "I had like three of them" vs. "I had about three of them." The grammatical structure of the two sentences is identical, but the usage of "like" to mean "about" or "approximately" is considered improper.

The two kinds of grammar aren't contradictory. The first kind of grammar assumes the second, and linguists, who study the second kind of grammar, do understand stylistic rules, and mostly write in proper English.

And, though the snarking will never end, people who object to certain stylistic rules as silly aren't arguing that we should get rid of word order or tenses, or punctuation marks.
posted by nangar at 9:57 AM on September 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I sometimes fancy myself inured to prescriptivist exaggeration, because I waste so much of my time reading books claiming the certain death of our once proud culture will result if people are permitted to continue confusing your and you’re. But every dang time I think they can’t beat me, the prescriptivists have to go and crazy it up a notch."

I think I'm in love.
posted by edheil at 12:41 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm with Forktine on kyrademon's suggestions. Redundancy is helpful to understand sentences as they are being voiced, incrementally and over a lossy medium. Gendered pronouns are also part of that, though they are a pain when you need to rebuild your lexicon for a foreign language.

1) Get rid of all irregular verbs. That's right -- I am, you am, he am, she am, we am, y'all am (really, the plural should be different), they am.

Another thing to consider is euphony. Having clitics and verbs easy to voice together is important. They are always next to each other, and they are probably parsed as one entity in a chorded fashion. Irregular verbs likely appeared by having frequently used verbs change to fit the pronoun before (or two interchangeable verbs being alternated, with the more pronounceable version being picked).

3) Make possessive pronouns consistent with the rest of the language -- I's, he's, she's, they's, you's, y'all's.

I's and they's are just hard to pronounce. she's conflicts with she is until the listener falls back to word order. Having pronouns as a single word means less sentence fragments to hold in mind; now that they are a single word, why not make pronouns as distinctive as possible from each other?
posted by Tobu at 1:11 PM on September 11, 2010


Some supporting evidence that verbs are parsed with their pronouns, culled from recent youtube comments: posted by Tobu at 1:29 PM on September 11, 2010


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