correctness rests upon usage; all usage is relative
August 25, 2015 8:12 AM   Subscribe

"What of those grammar rules that were entirely dreamt up in an age of moral prescriptivism, reflecting nothing of historical or literary usage, to encourage the poor English language to be more like an entirely different (and entirely dead) language, namely Latin? Wait, which rules are those? It seems pretty crazy but the popular grammar rules familiar to most of us may in fact be completely fake and have no basis in linguistic reality. The English language didn't change to make those rules obsolete, they were simply fictional from the start." || Dear Pedants: Your Fave Grammar Rule is Probably Fake, by Chi Luu.
posted by divined by radio (168 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
The one "grammar rule" that is guaranteed to drive me nuts is "a double negative is bad grammar."

No.

It's bad form because it's clear as mud and near impossible to easily read, but it is, in fact, perfectly acceptable grammar that cleanly tokenizes.

/grammar pedant
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:18 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Part of the problem is that so called "grammar" pedants repeatedly fail to distinguish between grammar and style.

/semantic pedant.
//not really.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:27 AM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


Its funny this argument: a) its important to learn standard dialect for "communication, clarity and even persuasive style" but that its b) "not inherently linguistically better."

The key word is clearly "LINGUISTICALLY". What metric do you use for "linguistic"?

Because since the standard dialect is understood by more people, is admitted to be clearer and more persuasive - then certainly by many other metrics it is "better".

The ironic thing is the perhaps pedantry is actually useful in maintaining a more coherent standard language that is less susceptible to dialectical fragmentation? Which could also be quite useful in a more universalist cosmopolitan world.
posted by mary8nne at 8:28 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't know a single grammar nazi -- and I know some several if my Facebook feed is anything to judge by -- who bothers to really give a shit about split infinitives. They also think prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Mostly, they just promote the use of Oxford commas and roll their eyes at people who can't pick the correct their/there/they're.

I don't doubt that such grammar nazis exist, but I see way more instances of smug people explaining why split infinitives are actually totally fine and your teacher was wrong than I see instances of teachers (or anyone else) actually saying there's a problem with split infinitives. In my high school english classes -- which were over 20 years ago now -- we had specific lessons on how moving adjectives and adverbs around in a sentence changed the nuance of the sentence and they specifically included splitting infinitives as a possibility.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:28 AM on August 25, 2015 [26 favorites]


One thing that is often missing from articles like this (and there are *so many*) is that in formal writing what was once prescriptivist is now generally descriptvist. So-called bad grammar, even if the grammar is made up, is seen so rarely that it becomes jarring, which takes away from the clarity of the writing.
posted by frogmanjack at 8:31 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


But now how will randos judge people's grammar usage on the Internet
posted by Kitteh at 8:32 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Weirdly, I am okay with whatever sentence construction works, grammatical or otherwise, but if you put two spaces after a period we can never be friends.
posted by maxsparber at 8:32 AM on August 25, 2015 [29 favorites]


People have a perfectly good innate sense of grammar anyway. It's not as if people don't get how their particular language or dialect pluralises or forms tenses: this comes with the basic toolkit.

Stop worrying about grammar.

I would however insist that nobody be allowed any form of device capable of capturing and distributing the written word unless they have learned Orwell's rules. No, they're not perfect. They would, however, make everything about the Internet a thousand times better. And the pluperfect, the gerund and the gerundive can all go to merry hell.
posted by Devonian at 8:33 AM on August 25, 2015


MY fave grammar rule is Strunk and White #7, and I'll be damned if I let it slide when I see it! DAMNED I SAY

(It's the one that explains why this is wrong: "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.")
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:33 AM on August 25, 2015 [21 favorites]


The people thirst for rules, but those haughty bastards on Language Log won't provide sensible ones (No, no: that lovely demotic way you talk is just fine for the likes of you), so they get mad ones from charlatans and morons.
posted by Segundus at 8:33 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


O gudness thnk no longer hvae I speek properly to?
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:34 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why did it assume my favourite grammar rule is "Don't split infinitives?" It's not. I actually don't care about that. In fact, I care far more about misplacing modifiers (which aren't exactly a grammar issue, just a clarity issue), which is the problem avoided by splitting infinitives in many of those examples.

My favourite grammar rule is "Get countable/non-countable right." 90% of the time, this means either don't say "amount of people," "less people,' "less calories," or "10 items or less." This article failed to address and stress the importance of my favourite grammar rule, despite having promised to address it in the headline. Stupid article.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:35 AM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


Sing it, Showbiz-Liz! Misplaced modifiers suck!
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:36 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hate to see that diminutive form of "favorite" in an article about language.
posted by chavenet at 8:40 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


The linguists I have known of course embrace "the language as she are writ and used," but in so writing in their published works all use the tried and true prescriptivist rules. It is a matter of register.
posted by Postroad at 8:40 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]




OMG. I'm so embarrassed. I actually misplaced a modifier in one of those comments. In my defence, I changed the sentences direction after I started writing it. Had I written the sentence as I originally envisioned, it would have been fine.

There's an internet law about posting grammar pedantry that covers this, I believe.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:44 AM on August 25, 2015


I've always wondered what it would be like if we were all still using cretaceous periods.
posted by Kabanos at 8:46 AM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


If only I had a penguin...: "There's an internet law about posting grammar pedantry that covers this, I believe."

Muphry's Law
posted by mhum at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


From DNG's wikipedia link: "Nevertheless, even most prescriptivists accept the most common usage 'there are less cups of flour in this canister'"

WHO? WHO would accept that? It's like nails on a chalkboard. I do not accept that.

Also, I'm going to say that people who spell "favorite" "color" and "theater" don't get to poo-poo rules just because they're made up.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Oxford comma is more important than ever.
posted by kersplunk at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2015 [70 favorites]


kerpunk, i think i love you.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:54 AM on August 25, 2015


This thread is starting to look like "Dear Grammar Pedants, you're absolutely right!"
posted by gorgor_balabala at 8:55 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Loose" and "lose" are the same word now. Usage has spoken, and the words that Usage has joined together, let no man put asunder. Confused by "it's" versus "its"? Here's a handy tip: fuck it! The more people who do it wrong, the sooner it won't be wrong anymore. Ain't Usage grand?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:56 AM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


Because since the standard dialect is understood by more people, is admitted to be clearer and more persuasive - then certainly by many other metrics it is "better".

But as is pointed out in the article - and this is a really important point - it's no accident that the "standard dialect" excludes variation that is associated with disadvantaged socioeconomic groups1. Saying that the standard dialect is is clearer and more persuasive for a wider audience may be true, but it's not an apolitical truth.

Those are also not the only metrics worth considering. There are others, such as how well they communicate a shared cultural identity.

According to the metric that this particular author is addressing in this particular article - that of grammatical correctness, they are all equal. The belief in the ungrammaticality of non-standard Englishes (which is widespread) is the specific idea that she's addressing.

1 I phrased it this way, because there actually isn't a single, standard dialect. Instead, there is a range of variation that is considered acceptable, and a range of variation that isn't. To illustrate what I mean, imagine two people interviewing for a job in an American city. One is a recent transplant from the UK and speaks with a middle class London accent. The other speaks Appalachian English. Both speak a variety that's different than the interviewer's. Which person's language variety will be considered unprofessional? Which person's language variety will be considered pleasant - even sexy? Which person will be expected to accommodate to "Standard American English"?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:57 AM on August 25, 2015 [20 favorites]


Grammar doesn't real, but it's/loose/your etc are spelling and word choice issues.
posted by prize bull octorok at 8:58 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


My lost cause, and one which I NEVER see people talking about, is the slow, sad demise of the hyphen to join compound adjectives. Like the Oxford comma, you CAN often leave it out without too much loss of clarity, but never using it can lead to some really murky meanings. I am sad for the diminutive hyphen and its quiet passing.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:59 AM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


Wow kerpunk, and here I'd naively thought that fighting apartheid to its demise was the most notable thing about Mandela!!
posted by riverlife at 8:59 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is a truth universally acknowledged that my form of writing/speech is intrinsically more correct and defensible than any tedious mewling or uneven caterwauling any of you may utter from time to time as you stagger from one hovel to the next.
posted by aramaic at 9:00 AM on August 25, 2015 [13 favorites]


My favourite grammar rule is "Get countable/non-countable right." 90% of the time, this means either don't say "amount of people," "less people,' "less calories," or "10 items or less." This article failed to address and stress the importance of my favourite grammar rule, despite having promised to address it in the headline. Stupid article.

Stannis?
posted by leotrotsky at 9:03 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Oxford comma is more important than ever.

I would watch this show.
posted by Kabanos at 9:05 AM on August 25, 2015


also, bidialectalism is like a real thing

it is totally possible to have a society that has a "standard" for broad communication without treating non-standard usages and varieties as "grammatically incorrect" or "inferior"
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:05 AM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


For individual writers: go fer it.

For groups: pick one stylebook, as they vary -- and stay with it so your group's product is consistent.
posted by hank at 9:06 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Really, what caterwauling is not uneven?
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:06 AM on August 25, 2015


If someone I know well corrects my spoken grammar then I'll flip them off and says, "How was the grammar on that one?" So, I agree with the article, and wanted to offer that bit of practical advice.
posted by codacorolla at 9:09 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hate to see that diminutive form of "favorite" in an article about language.

Quite right. It's not my favourite thing either.
posted by bonehead at 9:09 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do these arguments take place in languages other than English? Serious question.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:10 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


PS: Oxford comma foreva
posted by mudpuppie at 9:11 AM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


My journalism prof at university told me to be careful with my intensifiers. She said to avoid using, for example, the word "very," and instead use the word "fucking." Then, when going back to edit, I should delete all the "fuckings," except when they're used in a direct quote. I should let the copy editor deal with tidying up the quotes. This was back in the olden days when one composed on a typewriter instead of a word processor. Her theory still works, but it's easier to clean one's act up. I have pretty much gotten over the last of my pre-new world reflexes--I've quit putting two spaces after a period. For years, though, I took advantage of my Windows 95's settings to make my keyboard click like a typewriter.

Rules are easy targets, doomed to be abused by the careful writer, and scorned by the writer who merely lets laziness or ignorance guide his hand. I have my pet peeves, but they are my burden to carry: fewer/less, unique/unusual (et alia), and so on. When I see them misused I gnash my gums a bit in a silent miff, and try to carry on. I am uncomfortable when I don't take the time to edit for clarity. Usually this entails throwing out a bunch of subordinate clauses I was so proud of when they occurred to me while in the throes of composing--I tend to get a little purple when I lose myself in an idea. That's a burden the reader will carry, and I believe most readers are not very patient with self-indulgent writing.

Anyhow, in my universe the English language is poor in synonyms but rich in words that convey nearly infinite shades of meaning to most any notion. There is only one right word. The rest mean something else. A careful, or gifted writer can make you take back things you didn't even steal. The lazy writer will have you ignore his meaning in favor of wasting your morning imagining which branch on the tree of evolution his hairy-legged, flea-bitten ancestors rode to its dead end.
posted by mule98J at 9:11 AM on August 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


I will totally cop to being a grammar pedant. I'm trying to get better, I swear, and really, I mostly just roll my eyes in silent exasperation and complain to my other grammar pedant friends (I guess a bunch of us together makes us a murder of grammar pedants, or something?). Although I will admit that an "it's" instead of the correct "its" in the WaPo the other day pretty much ruined my day.
posted by holborne at 9:11 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've always had a secret dream of inventing a prescriptivist grammar rule and seeing people adopt it. Just to watch the world burn, I guess.

I have the perfect rule, too: "Suspicious" means "having suspicions." "Suspect" means "subject to suspicions." So all the signs saying "We report suspicious people to the police" are wrong, they should say "We report all SUSPECT people to the police."

I made that up, it obviously isn't a distinction in common use, if anyone uses it at all, but I imagine there are tons of people out there who would delight in being able to tell everyone in earshot how much smarter they are than those dopes who make the Neighborhood Watch signs.
posted by lore at 9:13 AM on August 25, 2015 [30 favorites]


We don't need pedantry in order to avoid fragmentation. On the published writing side, editors can wield their red pens to standardize within an organization. In my job, we use a variant of Chicago, and don't give a damn about APA, MLA, JAMA, or AP.

In more interactive discussions, we have a wide variety of feedback mechanisms to negotiate meaning.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:19 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Oxford comma is more important than ever.

Thank you. I've found that it takes me longer to read books by writers who don't use the Oxford comma.

I don't know why but split infinitives make we want to vomit, especially when I use one by accident. That particular rule must have been drilled in hard during my schooling.

My current pet peeve is "bored of". Ugh.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:19 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


What, because it's supposed to be "bored with"? That's...pretty petty, even for a pet peeve.
posted by lore at 9:21 AM on August 25, 2015


Trust this thread to resurrect me. I don't like "bored of," either, but it's nothing compared to "should of".

By the way, lore, that invented rule is brilliant. So plausible.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:23 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


an age of moral prescriptivism […] If we are no longer hampered by the Victorian era’s moral trends, whether in restrictive fashion or in civil rights, why are we still submitting to its made up language rules? The world has moved on.

Dear linguists: your fave Whig view of history is definitely fake
posted by RogerB at 9:24 AM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


And the pluperfect, the gerund and the gerundive can all go to merry hell.

Um. May I ask how you intend to refer to something that happened before something else in the past?
posted by damayanti at 9:25 AM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm trying to be less of a pedant about certain grammatical things. The point of grammar is to make meaning clear, and as long as it's clear what someone is trying to say, I'm going to try to be okay with the way they say it.

I will, however, die on the hill of proper apostrophe usage, and proper use of quotation marks, and I will die there happily.
posted by SansPoint at 9:27 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Um. May I ask how you intend to refer to something that happened before something else in the past?

We shall destroy all tenses and live in the eternal now!!!!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:28 AM on August 25, 2015 [17 favorites]


damayanti Um. May I ask how you intend to refer to something that happened before something else in the past?

Look, I didn't even make it up to the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Subjunctive Intentional in Dr. Streetmentioner, so I give up.
posted by SansPoint at 9:28 AM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


We shall destroy all tenses and live in the eternal now!!!!

Ahem. We are destroying all tenses and living in the eternal now!!!!

I am so ashamed....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:30 AM on August 25, 2015 [34 favorites]


This, I hope, becomes the obligatory retort for things like this, as oblig. XKCD 927 is for standards creep:

Obligatory Softer World 1003: When you correct someone's grammar, try to remember those rules are like the stars you see through a telescope, just pretty echoes of the long dead. (Beautiful, but gone.)

That being said, I love grammar rules. Try this for fun: take a piece (and it's easier if you choose your piece from before about 1930), and translate it into latin. Now, go back, rewrite the original making sure that every single one of Strunk and White's rules are broken, and then translate the rewrite into latin. It will blow your mind.
posted by eclectist at 9:31 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


In fact, globalization seems to result in less linguistic diversity because negotiating common language is up there with eating, fucking, and fighting on the list of what humans do socially.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2015


Saussure, the structuralist, divided language into two forms:

La Parole - the language you (singular) speak and use

La Langue - an abstraction that averages out all the La Paroles in a given language to come up with a description of a language

(excuse any bad French above)

Given that language is used to communicate and that we do a reasonable job at it, what with all our idiosyncratic Paroles, grammar rules arise out of the Langue where they are used to describe how we speak. Prescriptive grammars are meant to insure good communication. Some do, some don't. In Russian I can say

I don't know nothing.

Perfectly understandable to a Russian. If I admit that about all of the above I actually don't know nothing either you know what I mean.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Its funny this argument: a) its important to learn standard dialect for "communication, clarity and even persuasive style" but that its b) "not inherently linguistically better." The key word is clearly "LINGUISTICALLY". What metric do you use for "linguistic"?

There are basically two aspects to the argument:
1) What Kutsuwamushi mentioned - "communication, clarity, and even persuasive style" = sounding acceptably upper middle class. Not sounding poor. Not sounding black. And so on. We can't divorce this from its social context. It is inherently based in oppressive power structures. Is it still useful to learn this style? Probably, because we live in reality and in reality you have to sound acceptably upper middle class to be respected. But it is also useful to understand why it is that way, and work in ourselves to change it, like thinking "why does this person sound 'stupid' to me? Is it because they are actually saying stupid things, or because I associate their word use with a racial/cultural/class stereotype about intelligence?" (sometime I'll talk about the trolls in The Hobbit here...) or "I want to tell my supervisee at work to follow the style guide, should I say that she wrote something 'ungrammatical' or should I perhaps use different language?"

2) If you are still worried that our language is somehow dying or losing nuance, it's not. It's undergoing procedures that languages have undergone since prehistory.
posted by capricorn at 9:37 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Be still my beat heart!
Adjure the gerund and gerundive is take the road to hell.
And write sound like poorly executed translation from Chinese.
posted by rdone at 9:37 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Do these arguments take place in languages other than English? Serious question.

I work in a bilingual office (English/French). I am a native English speaker and sometimes I will be writing something in French and ask my francophone colleague for clarification: "Is it better to use _____ or _____?"

I would say four times out of five she pulls out a grammar to check, or says she will call our contract translator to ask his view. These are not abstruse cases, and my protests that I am only looking for her intuitive grasp of what sounds right go unheeded.

My understanding is that for French, the purism was a national push: two centuries ago, even after the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, most of the citizens of France still did not speak French but a sprawl of regional dialects (Occitan, Angevin, Poitevin, even Walloon near the Belgian border). Getting the maison in order linguistically was a major priority and even now the names of Bescherelle and Larousse are familiar to anyone who has every studied the language.

For me in English, I have gradually become far more easygoing about language usage. I do occasionally wonder why people why people who mean to employ either discreet or discrete seem to choose the other one about 80% of the time, or if people writing diffuse or defuse realize that these are still two different words in SWE. "He is trying to 'diffuse' the bomb? If he does not succeed, the bomb will diffuse him."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


What, because it's supposed to be "bored with"? That's...pretty petty, even for a pet peeve.

There, there. It's okay. You go right on using "bored of" if that's what floats your boat. I only used the term "pet peeve" to distinguish from "annoyance that makes me want to lose the ability to see or hear".
posted by fuse theorem at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


You grammar pedants are nauseous, and it's making me nauseated.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


My journalism prof at university told me to be careful with my intensifiers. She said to avoid using, for example, the word "very," and instead use the word "fucking."

I had an English professor back in the seventies who urged the same rule, only he told us to use the word "damned".

Simpler times....
posted by BWA at 9:40 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


"More" is the opposite of "less", and "many" the opposite of "few", so logically the opposite of "fewer" should be "manyer" (pronounced "man-yer").

There, there. It's okay. You go right on using "bored of" if that's what floats your boat.

I'm bored of zombies. I'm bored with zombies. "Bored of" sounds better to me.
posted by Pyry at 9:41 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know, the convention of whether to drive on the left or right side of the road is arbitrary, but that doesn't mean that you can drive on whatever side of the road you want to.

Abandon 'hopefully', all ye who enter here
posted by thelonius at 9:42 AM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


What strikes me as odd is that this argument between the two visions of thought on grammar is by now old hat...This "battle" was raged years and years ago.
posted by Postroad at 9:43 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


YMMV, but rules of grammar sure helped me out when I was learning English as a non-native speaker coming into the US school system, so they're good for something other than oppressing people sometimes anyway.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:52 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I'm bored with zombies" sounds like you get bored in the company of zombies. And who wouldn't? Their communication skills are atrocious.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:52 AM on August 25, 2015 [15 favorites]


YMMV, but rules of grammar sure helped me out when I was learning English as a non-native speaker coming into the US school system, so they're good for something other than oppressing people sometimes anyway.

Public education is another mechanism of language standardization.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:55 AM on August 25, 2015


I'm bored of zombies. I'm bored with zombies. "Bored of" sounds better to me.

Being bored of zombies suggests that you do not care for zombies.

Being bored with zombies suggest that some mad necromancer has gone to the trouble of creating a very unpleasant drill and is trying to put a hole in you.

Yes, my favorite subject heading is "Boring -- conferences."
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:56 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Even supreme grammar pedant DFW (who described himself as a "Snoot Prescriptivist" in a critical review of a dictionary) was known to split an infinitive or use a terminal preposition when it suited him. I'm definitely in the prescriptivist camp, but if you're a sufficiently skilled writer, good grammar is ultimately whatever works.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:56 AM on August 25, 2015


"Bored of" sounds dumb to me, but I'd rather avoid the whole thing and just say "bored by," which is clearer and directer (ha).
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:56 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Should 'ave. I am so totally using this, against all therapists' advice.
posted by Oyéah at 9:58 AM on August 25, 2015


The advice re replacing 'very' with a curse word is from Mark Twain.

My own mnemonic: In 'discrete', the e's are separated. In 'discreet', they're together, having a secret affair.
posted by smokysunday at 9:58 AM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


For special occasions one may, say bored alongside, (though it sounds painful.)
posted by Oyéah at 9:59 AM on August 25, 2015


1) What Kutsuwamushi mentioned - "communication, clarity, and even persuasive style" = sounding acceptably upper middle class. Not sounding poor. Not sounding black. And so on. We can't divorce this from its social context. It is inherently based in oppressive power structures. Is it still useful to learn this style? Probably, because we live in reality and in reality you have to sound acceptably upper middle class to be respected. But it is also useful to understand why it is that way, and work in ourselves to change it, like thinking "why does this person sound 'stupid' to me? Is it because they are actually saying stupid things, or because I associate their word use with a racial/cultural/class stereotype about intelligence?" (sometime I'll talk about the trolls in The Hobbit here...) or "I want to tell my supervisee at work to follow the style guide, should I say that she wrote something 'ungrammatical' or should I perhaps use different language?"

The problems arise when we try to apply all of this to pedagogy, where beginning writing students often have trouble negotiating the tension between the political promise of critical linguistic analysis and the utility of mastering existing linguistic registers. Particularly at the associates' degree level, the students tend to want the ability to use the register of socioeconomic privilege to the point that critical pedagogy is itself an imposition of the (comparatively "higher-up") instructors' desires and standards.

And this is without getting into the requirements given to writing instructors. In the academy as in life, the managerial class is characterized by affiliation to middle-class/upper-class whiteness and works hard to enforce and reproduce the hierarchy that benefits it.

"I'm bored with zombies" sounds like you get bored in the company of zombies. And who wouldn't? Their communication skills are atrocious.

I'm bored by zombies. "Zombies" here functions as a synecdoche for the contemporary fascination with certain genre conventions derived from various popular works of fiction that posit the existence of infectious, anthropophagous humanoid creatures. "Bored" refers not to drilling or related activities, but rather to a feeling of apathy or uninterest.
posted by kewb at 10:01 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


"bored by," which is clearer

Do you go to some sort of zombie dentist? That can't be hygienic.
posted by bonehead at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


it is totally possible to have a society that has a "standard" for broad communication without treating non-standard usages and varieties as "grammatically incorrect" or "inferior"

Why would we want to do a foolish thing like that? My freshman English teacher would be horrified!
posted by theorique at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2015


thebrokedown: My lost cause, and one which I NEVER see people talking about, is the slow, sad demise of the hyphen to join compound adjectives.

This point was driven home to me by the 2002 release of the David Arquette film Eight Legged Freaks, which, I was surprised to learn, was not about eight freaks with legs.
posted by Bromius at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


"bored by," which is clearer

Do you go to some sort of zombie dentist? That can't be hygienic.


Fine. "I find zombies boring," and no I don't mean I frequently happen upon them drilling something.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:06 AM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh, and Strunk and White can go to hell. Any usage manual that cites, as a putatively incorrect use of the passive voice, the sentence, "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
posted by Bromius at 10:06 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


IIRC, the Split Infinitive rule was made up by a Restoration-era playwright in order to prove why his own writing was better than that of Shakespeare, who often split infinitives and thus, clearly, didn't know his craft.

So that's fun.

As for myself, my own views on the matter are of a sort-of meta-descriptivist bent nowadays. That is to say, from a philosophical view, I believe that language usage is as good as its ability to communicate, no more, no less, and from a practical view, follow whatever rules the descriptivists use in their own writing. They're pretty well-learned, after all.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:07 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I had a friend send me a thank-you note the other day for editing a Facebook post (on second glance) to say "lie" instead of "lay." What do I win?
posted by psoas at 10:07 AM on August 25, 2015


"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'"
Apparently Humpty got bored of the discussion.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:07 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


So if I understand this business correctly (or should I say "correct me if I'm wrong"), it's still wrong to say "to boldly go where no man has gone before", but it's OK to say "to boldly go where no one has gone before"?
posted by Alter Cocker at 10:08 AM on August 25, 2015


"bored of" seems to mean something like "I've lost interest in" whereas "bored by" suggests "I have no interest in". If you were never interested in zombies you might say "bored by", but if you were interested at one point but lost that interest, then "bored of" seems to suggest that.
posted by Pyry at 10:08 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


if you put two spaces after a period we can never be friends.

(T_T)

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and two spaces is what was done. I used to hate it that HTML took my two spaces and made it one space, so I fought back for several months by using nonbreaking spaces, even though it was awkward and difficult to type.

In fact there are two spaces after the "done." above but HTML has eaten one. That's how strong the force of habit is. I just don't bother to go back and replace them with non-breaking          spaces         anymore.

(And if that's irritating: I also learned to spell dilemma "dilemna" and did not know until my 40s that this was widely considered incorrect and/or controversial. Both spellings look wrong now.)
posted by Foosnark at 10:10 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Prescriptive grammars are meant to insure good communication.

Do you mean "grammars" as in works on grammar, individual grammatical rules, or abstract grammatical systems as a whole?

It's really not so simple regardless. "Standard English" is about a lot more than just good communication; it's also a linguistic shibboleth, used to sort out who belongs and who doesn't. It's really easy to see this if you consider how not all variation is stigmatized. We actually accept a lot of variation in "Standard English" that has just as much potential to confuse.

And many of these rules have never been about clarity. People weren't told to use "he" instead of "they" for hypothetical persons because "they" was unclear. People were told to avoid split infinitives because they were unclear. These were based on beliefs about language and grammar that had very little to do with clarity.

YMMV, but rules of grammar sure helped me out when I was learning English as a non-native speaker coming into the US school system, so they're good for something other than oppressing people sometimes anyway.

It's not that linguists believe that grammar rules aren't real.1 No one is arguing against teaching grammatical rules to second language learners, unless on pedagogical grounds (immersion models, etc).

The problem that is addressed in this article is that a lot of people believe that rules like "it's bad to split an infinitive" are some kind of objective truth and not a matter of (changing) social convention. That non-standard usages are "ungrammatical."

1 I mean, some of them - definitely not all, and possibly even not most - will object to conceiving them as rules, but all of them will agree that language is patterned and can be described, e.g. for the benefit of someone learning it as an adult. This is why it's really ridiculous when people respond to criticisms of prescriptivist arguments with stuff like but how to talk we willlllll????!11111!?!!?!!11
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:13 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Steven Pinker on the false distinction between "Prescriptivism" and "Descriptivism":
Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn’t over ain’t, dragged over drug, and can’t get any over can’t get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa.

But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:13 AM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


>We shall destroy all tenses and live in the eternal now!!!!

Possibly related: did you know that you cannot RUN through a campground? You can only RAN through a campground. Because it's past tents. I said that to my daughter, and she told me never to speak to her again.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 10:17 AM on August 25, 2015 [38 favorites]


Re: Pinker on descriptivism v.s prescriptivism: Previously on Metafilter.
posted by kewb at 10:20 AM on August 25, 2015


The real question though is whether there are benefits to slowing down the rate of change of language evolution. Pedantry just seems to be one way we slow down change in language usage. Which I think does have benefits such as the increased widespread usage, elimination of dialectical fragmentation, easy readability of older texts, recordings, video etc.

I agree that "standard english" is often used to maintain social-economic hierarchies but the alternative seems worse - fragmentation. I simply cannot see how a non-prescriptivist pedagogy will not quickly lead to total fragmentation.
posted by mary8nne at 10:20 AM on August 25, 2015


Whoops! Here is the previously I meant to link regarding Pinker.
posted by kewb at 10:22 AM on August 25, 2015


"bored of" seems to mean something like "I've lost interest in" whereas "bored by" suggests "I have no interest in". If you were never interested in zombies you might say "bored by", but if you were interested at one point but lost that interest, then "bored of" seems to suggest that.

Fuck it. "Zombies suck."
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:23 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fine. "I find zombies boring," and no I don't mean I frequently happen upon them drilling something.

Where is this happy world were you live? The damn things are all over the place around here.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:30 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fuck it. "Zombies suck."

I will now direct you to the Splatterpunk section....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:31 AM on August 25, 2015


I said that to my daughter, and she told me never to speak to her again.

Harsh, but fair.
posted by jedicus at 10:31 AM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


sir bored of zombies

of the lancashire zombies
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:36 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I simply cannot see how a non-prescriptivist pedagogy will not quickly lead to total fragmentation.

People ignore prescriptivism constantly, but it does not cause social fragmentation. Instead, new norms emerge dynamically from unfettered usage; all of us were talking to others and listening to others well before we were taught the "rules." And all of us write e-mails, texts, and MeFi posts that are mutually intelligible and serve social functions even when they break "the rules" of prescriptivist pedagogy.

Language doesn't work because of teachers; it works because we are language-producing organisms, and we were such long before the first grammarian discovered red ink.
posted by kewb at 10:36 AM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


A friend I met just before we were teenagers still can't spell and still tangles his tongue every time he talks. He's an architect now. I work with programmers from India, China, Belarus, and several other places. Some of them are better programmers than I am. I never correct anyone's grammar during conversation but now and then I ask for clarification. Same for email, texts, and so forth. I do hold formal documents to a higher standard, especially if I expect to need to refer to them often, or refer others to them. So I think rigor should be context-sensitive.

And one more thing, I apply Jon Postel's dictum about internet protocols much more widely: Be liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you send.
posted by kingless at 10:41 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


TheophileEscargot quoting Pinker: Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.

The central problem I have with prescriptivists is that they don't say, "that's the way it's done around here." Instead, they say nonsense like, "The Oxford comma serves to resolve ambiguity." Which is a bullshit rationalization because if you need a silent quirk of orthography to resolve contextual ambiguity you should reorder the series, if not the entire sentence/utterance. The same thing goes for injunctions against double negatives.

mary8nne: I agree that "standard english" is often used to maintain social-economic hierarchies but the alternative seems worse - fragmentation. I simply cannot see how a non-prescriptivist pedagogy will not quickly lead to total fragmentation.

Well, it depends on what you mean by fragmentation. This is a false dichotomy because the alternative to standardization isn't necessarily fragmentation, it's negotiation.

Cultural fragmentation happens because of cultural isolation. AAVE exists because of a history racism, discrimination, and the persistence of de facto segregation. A common observation in linguistics is that when minorities are allowed to assimilate into the dominant culture, they often do so.

Modal fragmentation is interesting, but not a sign of a cultural apocalypse. Chat modes are not new. Telegraph, amateur radio, CB, emergency, and military radio operators have their own community-specific modes for min-maxing meaning over limited bandwidth.

People generally switch modes in order to be understood.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:56 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


he problems arise when we try to apply all of this to pedagogy,... And this is without getting into the requirements given to writing instructors.

It's not necessary to teach students that the standard variety they're using is the only grammatically correct variety, or that it's "better" than the variety that they naturally speak.

They actually do okay if you tell them that they're learning the conventions of academic writing, which includes the use of a particular variety. One thing that comes really naturally is phrasing it in terms of "translation," e.g. just as you would translate from French to English for an English-speaking audience, you would translate into a formal variety for a formal audience.

You can even throw some sociolinguistics at them. You can teach them about gauging an audience and making informed choices about their language use. What are their goals, and how can they best achieve them?

I let my students use the singular "they" and the world didn't fall down. I told them that I would highlight it in their papers but not mark it off.

I mean, I'm saying this as a linguist who has been a writing instructor. We're already thinking about pedagogy - and in fact a lot of us are so vocal about this because we think that a lot of current pedagogy is counter-productive. Reconciling criticisms of standard language ideology with pedagogy just isn't really the problem its made out to be.

Some good reading on this subject is Says Who? by Anne Curzan, a professor of English and Linguistics who directed the writing program at the University of Michigan.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:01 AM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't care if you say "bored of, with, by, around, under or through," but can we please avoid "try and" for "try to"? It's one of my last remaining hills and I intend to die on, and be buried under, it.
posted by The Bellman at 11:21 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


on rereading your comments and your other contributions in the thread, kewb, i might have misunderstood you, and if so i apologize.

i think the point was worth making anyway because "but this doesn't work in the classroom" is a common response that is just, well, not true in my experience.

there are other things that don't work in the classroom, like alienating minority students by teaching them that they talk wrong, giving bullshit rationalizations of rules that don't make sense, and so on.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:23 AM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


My dim memory of public school curriculum was filled with things that were taught "because that's how we do it around here." (Square dance and pudding come to mind.) And then I went to college where there was a class on proper research writing in my major "because that's how we do it around here." Then I went to grad school in a new field where I got yet another class on research writing for my major "because that's how we do it around here." Then I landed a job where my boss pointed to the bright orange Chicago Manual of Style and said, "that's how we do it around here."

And I have no problem with any of that because that's what the reader expects in each of those contexts.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:29 AM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not grammar, but a stupid convention I will never understand: Who decided that periods and commas should go inside quotation marks? I will never observe that convention, unless what is a quoted is a complete sentence. It looks stupid.
posted by Eyebeams at 11:38 AM on August 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


"I will never observe that convention, unless what is a quoted is a complete sentence. It looks stupid."

Sure. But if you were to publish, the copy editor would change it to conform to house style, and house style in most instances will follow standard conventional grammar.
posted by Postroad at 11:44 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Suspicious" means "having suspicions." "Suspect" means "subject to suspicions." So all the signs saying "We report suspicious people to the police" are wrong, they should say "We report all SUSPECT people to the police."

Thank you, Technically Correct Man!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


The only grammar rule that is inviolable grammar rule is "Omit needless words." Or, as a better writer said, "In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigor it will give to your style." --Sydney Smith
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:09 PM on August 25, 2015


new norms emerge dynamically from unfettered usage; all of us were talking to others and listening to others well before we were taught the "rules."

But thats exactly my point! By explicitly defining the rules and pushing for a more prescriptivist idea of language we can actually slow down the emergence of local usages that will not be comprehensible across geographic expanses.

Also arguing that "people will switch to common usage" actually presumes that there is a Standard Usage known - which is only possible by the assertion of "correct". And also means that those who do not learn dominant classes dialect will continue to be easily discriminated against.
posted by mary8nne at 12:10 PM on August 25, 2015


Does a prescriptivist notion of language actually lead to progressive social outcomes by unifying usage towards a single dialect?
posted by mary8nne at 12:14 PM on August 25, 2015


But thats exactly my point! By explicitly defining the rules and pushing for a more prescriptivist idea of language we can actually slow down the emergence of local usages that will not be comprehensible across geographic expanses.

Ignoring the bald assertion that traditionally prescriptive pedagogy has any measurable effect on the rate of linguistic divergence, what do you think it is that drives that divergence? For as long as there is a functional need to communicate across those geographic expanses, I suspect that humans will continue to be able to maintain a mutually intelligible dialect between them.
posted by invitapriore at 12:14 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


The only grammar rule that is inviolable grammar rule is "Omit needless words." Or, as a better writer said, "In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigor it will give to your style." --Sydney Smith

The grammar that inviolable rule "Omit words." as better said, "composing, a rule, your through other you written: have idea vigor will to style." --Smith
posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:18 PM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Omit words.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:20 PM on August 25, 2015


Omit words. Better.
posted by FritoKAL at 12:29 PM on August 25, 2015


Omit. Better: pen vigor, style.

every Strunkian is an unconverted Beckettian
posted by RogerB at 12:31 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


All the scolds in the world simply can't compete with home culture and mass media.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:51 PM on August 25, 2015


slow, sad demise of the hyphen to join compound adjectives

This is interesting. I remember seeing this a lot when I was a kid and I almost never see it now. I completely forgot it was possible. Maybe I should start using it --- I really like hyphens. :-)
posted by smidgen at 1:03 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like the double space after period, BTW. But that's just because I write a lot in text editors with a fixed width font using a mechanical keyboard.
posted by smidgen at 1:04 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Does a prescriptivist notion of language actually lead to progressive social outcomes by unifying usage towards a single dialect?


No.

For one example, see China's push towards the use of Mandarin. I have some Cantonese speaking friends who have some very strong feelings on the subject, and I don't think "progressive social outcomes" is one phrase they would use to describe what's going on.
posted by damayanti at 1:08 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


[Ooop, sorry mary8nne; didn't realize that was a hypothetical, and thus, is not directed at you but at the "But one language is awesome and unifying!" idea]
posted by damayanti at 1:09 PM on August 25, 2015


Omit words. Better.

Omit words. Mostly words. Not too wordy.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:12 PM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


OMIT
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:14 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


OM.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:23 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]




The weird thing is that I have no idea whether I tend to say "bored of," "bored with," or "bored by." And I never will know, because I will never again be able to use the phrase without thinking of this thread. It's the Heisenberg Uncertainly Participle.
posted by lore at 1:41 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that Standard English and its grammar is just one of the innumerable dialects of English. It's a serviceable dialect for a cultural norm and is the most effective for communicating with a wide audience. As a cultural standard, its grammar has to be prescriptive.

It is by no means the only "valid" form of the language. Each of the many dialects has its own grammar, and AFAIK none of these are published in books for people to memorise. Any written grammar would fall in the prescriptive category and not reflective of how people actually speak (aside from those who have learned and internalized it).
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 1:43 PM on August 25, 2015


My current pet peeve is "bored of". Ugh.
posted by fuse theorem at 12:19 PM on August 25 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


What, because it's supposed to be "bored with"? That's...pretty petty, even for a pet peeve.
posted by lore at 12:21 PM on August 25 [+] [!]


whoa whoa whoa... the "pet" in "pet peeve" means "petty"?

man, i love language and its weirdness. i thought it meant something that you carry around and love like a pet, which never made any sense, because you also you also hate this thing.
posted by sio42 at 1:49 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Brevity is...wit." - The Simpsons
posted by Bromius at 1:51 PM on August 25, 2015


the "pet" in "pet peeve" means "petty"?

No, it doesn't, and I don't think he was implying that it does: ""thing that provokes one most," 1919, from pet (n.1) in the adjectival sense "especially cherished" (1826), here in jocular or ironic use with peeve (n.)."

As for me, I grow tired of zombies.

I grow tired with zombies.

I grow tired by zombies.

FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:59 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Unless "pet" comes from "petty," (Probably? Obscure.) but "pet peeve" doesn't come from the modern association of "petty".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:01 PM on August 25, 2015


And god damn all these Anglo-Saxons mangling our good Norman words.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:02 PM on August 25, 2015


aw man i was hoping it meant petty.

so it just means an especially cherished thing that provokes you.
sounds like a pet. or at least my cats at 3 am....
posted by sio42 at 2:08 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


> My lost cause, and one which I NEVER see people talking about, is the slow, sad demise of the hyphen to join compound adjectives.

I fight this fight with you.
posted by desuetude at 2:23 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm bored and there are zombies here, but they're not the reason that I'm bored.
posted by straight at 2:33 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Now try it in E-prime: I feel bored, but the zombies here with me didn't make me feel that way.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:37 PM on August 25, 2015


Or, as a better writer said, "In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigor it will give to your style." --Sydney Smith

I really can't even tell you how totally disappointing that sentence quoted was upon discovering there's no hidden, shorter sentence revealed by striking out half of the sentence's words.
posted by straight at 2:56 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I really can't even tell you how totally disappointing that sentence quoted was upon discovering there's no hidden, shorter sentence revealed by striking out half of the sentence's words.

Damn. So close.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 3:03 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I grew up a code-switcher with prescriptivist parents — not their fault; my father recalled a high school teacher who handed out a list of 100 oft-"misused" words on the first day of class and declared that anyone who made any of the listed mistakes would not only fail the assignment but the semester. With different cause but similar result, my mother's family had come from rural Indiana, where stump-jumpers, ridge-runners and hillbillies were all meaningful social distinctions.

They both complained mightily about the lack of rote memorization in my English education — my father was aghast that we were told to sound out words in order to spell them instead of just drilling endlessly on vocabulary. By now (in part by my dad's grad school in rhetoric) they're both far, far more liberal.

But from there and through a journalism degree, I've long been of the mind that while words mean things, they're generally pretty squishy and arbitrary — nothing enforces the arbitrary nature of prescriptivism like having to correct to "e-mail" and "Web Site." At least the AP has something like a justification for many of its rules — though god knows I've never filed by teletype, I appreciate the guidelines of clarity and concision it helped codify.

The only thing that consistently bugs me is the use of quotation marks for emphasis, because it makes the "best" deal sound sarcastic. But I'll also admit being the guy who wrote in a bug report for a totally juvenile flash game about gory exploding heads complaining about their use of "disinterested" to mean "uninterested." Misplaced and ambiguous modifiers tend to make me twitch too.

But in general, I tend to be much more excited about novel combinations and odd polyglot accidents1 than preserving "correct" usage.

"The Oxford comma is more important than ever."

A reader may be excused for thinking so, but writers and editors who make this argument are signaling nothing more than incompetence and class pretensions. Anyway, that's what Ayn Rand, my parents and God say.

"And this is without getting into the requirements given to writing instructors. In the academy as in life, the managerial class is characterized by affiliation to middle-class/upper-class whiteness and works hard to enforce and reproduce the hierarchy that benefits it."

This was the explicit ethos that the New York Times "objective" standard was formulated with — to provide middle managers access to the mores and affectations of the upper classes, so they might more effectively emulate them.

"Cultural fragmentation happens because of cultural isolation. AAVE exists because of a history racism, discrimination, and the persistence of de facto segregation. A common observation in linguistics is that when minorities are allowed to assimilate into the dominant culture, they often do so."

Something that's sometimes lost in thinking about the evolution of AAVE is that slaves spoke hundreds of different languages when they were taken to America; you'd expect their language to reflect that, and some features (like some "non-standard" grammar) are reasonably traced back there.

"I don't care if you say "bored of, with, by, around, under or through," but can we please avoid "try and" for "try to"? It's one of my last remaining hills and I intend to die on, and be buried under, it."

A couple months ago, I got curious about that idiom and tried to find some history on it — it goes back hundreds of years, and there are a couple other idioms that use the "and" as a modifier for a verb phrase. I think I deleted those bookmarks though, so maybe someone else has them handy.


1) A couple days ago, I went searching to try and find out the actual origins of the phrase I heard often in Thailand, "ting ting tang," often translated as "same same, but different." The first thing I found was that there's a Thai idiom that does translate to "same same, but/only different," but it's only a little like "ting ting tang." "Dtaeng" is a (transliterated) word that does mean difference, but "ting" (or "dting") is, like, slapping/hitting/poking/up against, which I could see a tenuous connection. But "ting" seems more likely to be a Thai pronunciation of the English word "thing," especially since Thai grammar does use reduplication to imply similarity. So my best guess is that it's a Thai-English pidgin phrase.
posted by klangklangston at 3:16 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


In a linguistic context, yes. Though in a social context, the fakeness of these “grammatical” rules is precisely what gives them their utility.

Take, for example, the much derided proscription against splitting infinitives, born of the desire of 18th-century snobs to signal their educatedness by adopting the constraints of Latin. Linguistically, it makes no sense in English; one would never derive this from studying English grammar. Furthermore, anyone who follows it is doomed to sound clunky and stilted, having closed off several of the well-worn paths of English usage. But that is precisely what gave it its utility in its milieu. This “rule” is not a grammatical rule, but a social rule, or more precisely a social code for signalling to insiders one's own insider status, much like the gay hanky code, the colours of skinheads' bootlaces or the rules of etiquette once they have left consideration far behind and gotten into the arbitrary functions of cutlery.

Much as a bright stable boy is not meant to, in a million years, be able to infer from first principles which knife to use for which course at a banquet, and thus be able to bluff his way uninvited into the gentry, a clever and articulate commoner is not meant to figure out that one is meant to say to go boldly, never to boldly go, when all their instincts and years of experience tell them otherwise. That knowledge is for members of a semi-secret club. The fact that it makes their diction clunky and clumsy to those not in the know (i.e., all those using the English language naturally like uneducated rubes) also serves as a signal of mutual recognition.

Of course, it is not a perfect secret; people are great mimics, and secrets such as this leak, becoming separated from their insider rationale and becoming mere fashion; after a while, the “smart” people are straitjacketing their speech with unsplit infinitives, much in the way that the fashionable set in Paris (or Shoreditch) might well be promenading about in ridiculous hats. And like all fashions, it moves downmarket, in this case, eventually joining the background noise of “common sense” about “proper” forms of speech.
posted by acb at 3:18 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Damn. So close.

See? Really disappointing.
posted by straight at 3:22 PM on August 25, 2015


Arguments like these do take place in other languages, and they often take a very political turn. In Quebec, there's a lot of debate about "correct" French, especially about borrowing from English and the "proper" way to speak, but writing, at least in a formal and non-literary way, is very codified, as ricochet biscuit (hi!) notes above. In literature, most authors use a fairly formal style, but their characters might use a more normal dialect. But poetry or, in some cases, narrative work, might be written wholly in a Quebec (or Franco-Ontarian, or Acadian) dialect.

One thing to note is that spoken French is fairly distinct from written French, even for Parisian-dialect cultured French people. That distance is even greater between my Quebec spoken dialect and the French I write on my job. E.g.: you'll hear French people casually use the first person plural "nous" (equivalent to "we") as a subject, for instance "nous mangeons" for "we eat"/"we're eating", whereas it's completely unnatural to me, because I always use the third-person singular collective "on" (somewhat similar to "one"), giving "on mange". That is despite my teachers reminding me, when I would write, that "on" excludes the person speaking; in my spoken dialect, it doesn't.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:39 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


At Harvard we do not end our sentences with propositions.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


All this "rules are bullshit" is ok for native speakers. Us foreign speakers need them, because when we make a mistake, it's often a mistake, not a lower register or an informal usage or a rare topolect.

So yeah, check your native-speaker privilege, y'all!
posted by kandinski at 4:26 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


MetaFilter: All the scolds in the world
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:41 PM on August 25, 2015


The parents of my students object to the poor grammar of their children, usually objecting to matters of usage rather than grammar and usually making grammatical mistakes as they do so. Every generation is sure they were educated better than the following one.
posted by Peach at 5:01 PM on August 25, 2015


The conversation about the Oxford comma is exasperating because the people who would require it appear to be editor-types who mysteriously don't trust writers and editors to use it optionally for clarification. For every "want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard" there is a "want to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and L Ron Hubbard." Use the serial comma for clarification where needed, don't use it when it's not needed.

My pet peeve is using "comprised of" when you want "composed of." I don't care so much unless you're a writer or editor. I saw it in "Station Eleven" last night! This book is published by Alfred A. Knopf. It's a National Book Award Finalist and a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist!
posted by vunder at 5:35 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


editor-types who mysteriously don't trust writers and editors to use it optionally for clarification

One of the jobs of editor-types (or, more properly, copyeditors) is to ensure consistency. It's not a mysterious distrust of writers or editors, and it's usually in the service of readers, not writers.

And I just copyedited a friend's dissertation and had to change every single "is comprised of" to "comprises," so I feel you on that.
posted by jaguar at 6:46 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


"One of the jobs of editor-types (or, more properly, copyeditors) is to ensure consistency. It's not a mysterious distrust of writers or editors, and it's usually in the service of readers, not writers. "

Right, which is why the AP rule — one of the bastions of consistency as ethos — is that the serial comma be omitted unless absolutely necessary for clarity.

(The bullshit class part is pretty obvious when you notice how often it's called the Oxford comma rather than serial comma. Cf. why Vampire Weekend are pisspot strainers.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:10 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'll try and make sure they fucking really, bury you there. This is said in the spirit of Mefi camaraderie. It's important where you get buried at. Then you won't be bored by the other dirt.
posted by Oyéah at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


loreI've always had a secret dream of inventing a prescriptivist grammar rule and seeing people adopt it. Just to watch the world burn, I guess.

I have the perfect rule, too: "Suspicious" means "having suspicions." "Suspect" means "subject to suspicions." So all the signs saying "We report suspicious people to the police" are wrong, they should say "We report all SUSPECT people to the police."


Ahem. That's prescriptivist semantics, not prescriptivist grammar.

///OK, maybe a little bit.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:38 PM on August 25, 2015


It is imperative that we subjunct while (or when?) gerunding.

(I've fallen into the Oxford coma.)
posted by Chitownfats at 9:44 PM on August 25, 2015


Drat! (... and up I cannot get.) Sorry.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:57 PM on August 25, 2015


Right, which is why the AP rule — one of the bastions of consistency as ethos — is that the serial comma be omitted unless absolutely necessary for clarity.

Right, but AP is mainly for journalism, yes? And there are actual space issues for print journalism. The friend for whom I edited the dissertation has a journalism background, and I've been fixing her (lack of ) serial commas for a long time, but I'm fully aware that her training would lead her to leave them out, because of space constraints. I don't think that makes her a bad person, but I think the lack of serial comma is very similar to the double-space after a hyphen, in terms of being a remnant that made sense given a dying technology but now just seems sort of silly.

And as for pretension, I learned it was the Harvard Comma. Calling it the Oxford Comma at least gave me a level of remove. I was thrilled to learn the term "serial comma," as it seemed to take it out of the realm of classism.
posted by jaguar at 10:04 PM on August 25, 2015


AP style is for efficiency and there's no good reason to prescribe more punctuation than necessary for clarity. As editors, we make judgements about style for clarity reasons all the time, so I have never understood the deathgrip on the serial comma. Again, I feel that it presumes that the writer and editor are incapable of sound judgement. It removes the art of the decision and requires a full recast of my second example.
posted by vunder at 10:14 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I really can't even tell you how totally disappointing that sentence quoted was upon discovering there's no hidden, shorter sentence revealed by striking out half of the sentence's words.

Well, you haven't seen the first draft:

"In fucking composing, fucking as fucking a fucking general fucking rule, fucking run fucking your fucking pen fucking through fucking every fucking other fucking word fucking you fucking have fucking written: fucking you fucking have fucking no fucking idea fucking what fucking vigor fucking it fucking will fucking give fucking to fucking your fucking style."
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:17 PM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


As editors, we make judgements about style for clarity reasons all the time, so I have never understood the deathgrip on the serial comma. Again, I feel that it presumes that the writer and editor are incapable of sound judgement.

And I am sure there are a handful of writers who are so crystalline and precise that they are able to make those calls in the name of style. I think the issue is the legions of mediocre writers who are penning our textbooks and news articles and blogposts who are not so precise. I'd rather that the default punctuation land on "As explicit as possible" and then let talented writers work backwards. Not because I am handcuffed to a certain style (I have very very very seriously relaxed my prescriptivism since my full-time employ as a copyeditor and then copywriter) but because I firmly believe that a lot of what writers think of as "style" is actually something that's confusing as hell to a reader. I'm a lot more sympathetic to readers complaining about any grammar/style choice than I am to writers complaining about editors constraining a grammar/style choice. When I'm editing/proofing, my main concern is whether the reader is likely to pick up the nuances the writer intended, without getting tripped up in weird grammar or punctuation (or, if the sentiment expressed is supposed to be tripped-up-y, without getting tripped up in grammar or punctuation unintended by the author). It's silly to absolutely prioritize the writer's style choices over the actual effect, because there are a lot of crappy-to-mediocre writers. I'm ok with there being a class of professionals tasked with protecting the reading public from their exuberances.

None of this to say that I think all grammar rules are inviolable. I agree with previous sentiments that "standard grammar" is a code, and it's useful to teach people how to communicate in that code, the same way it's useful to teach people how to dress for job interviews.
posted by jaguar at 10:30 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


The conversation about the Oxford comma is exasperating because the people who would require it appear to be editor-types who mysteriously don't trust writers and editors to use it optionally for clarification. For every "want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard" there is a "want to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and L Ron Hubbard." Use the serial comma for clarification where needed, don't use it when it's not needed.
Part of writing well is anticipating things your audience will encounter as ambiguities. Since you come to the audience as it is, you think about whether they do or do not expect the serial comma, and then you avoid constructions where that convention might produce ambiguities.

Writing for a "serial comma" register or audience, no good writer will construct anything that looks like your second example; writing for an audience or register that drops the serial comma, no good writer will construct a phrase like your first example. There's no particular case for moral superiority, efficiency, or anything else that holds up all that well for all cases and all audiences where punctuating lists is concerned. Really, if you insist that there is The One True Way of Grammar, you will be wrong before someone somewhere.

That said, switching conventions or registers in the middle of a piece of writing often -- not always or everywhere, because there is no "always" or "everywhere" for writing conventions -- causes trouble for readers.
posted by kewb at 3:43 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are two rules: communicate and please. If you do both, you have succeeded.

Communicating isn't hard if you have been using the language for a few years.

Pleasing is harder. Your grammar is like your tailoring: maybe it should not matter, but you will be judged by the material and cut. Think about who you want to impress (or at least avoid disappointing) and what they might think of the way you select words and put them together.
posted by pracowity at 5:42 AM on August 26, 2015


There are two rules: communicate and please. If you do both, you have succeeded.

That and project (or at least reinforce) your desired image. Are you an upstanding pillar of the establishment, a groovy hepcat, a straight-talkin' regular Joe, or something else? Writing like a Jane Austen character may be “proper”, but it will look ridiculous in a lot of contexts.

I read once that George W. Bush had to unlearn a lot of the habits he learned at Yale before becoming credible as an anti-intellectual Texan conservative politician. Presumably this involved a dialect coach running through the pronunciation of “nucular” with him until he had it nailed down.
posted by acb at 6:47 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


10 year veteran of teaching community college level English language learners here.

All self-described "grammar nazis" are hereby required to walk the walk and volunteer at their local community college (or equivalent) ESL department. You may not complain on the internet again about grammar until you have completed 200 volunteer hours. After that you will earn the right to one internet comment about grammar per every 25 service hours.

Sorry, but them's the rules.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 6:57 AM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just love how she complains, outraged, about fake grammar rules as though there were other real ones that can and should be enforced - just not those ones other people like.
posted by corb at 7:18 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


All this "rules are bullshit" is ok for native speakers. Us foreign speakers need them, because when we make a mistake, it's often a mistake, not a lower register or an informal usage or a rare topolect. So yeah, check your native-speaker privilege, y'all!

But this isn't the type of "rule" that we're discussing at all. No one's saying that grammatical rules aren't real and that people learning English as a foreign language shouldn't be taught how to follow them.

What they're saying is that prescriptive rules - those rules that you have to follow to speak a respected standard variety - are rather arbitrary, and are often based on misunderstanding and prejudice. They're saying that it's bullshit that people think that language that follows prescriptive rules is better, more correct, etc.

This claim is not any of these claims:

(a) language has no rules at all and all rules are bullshit
(b) standard varieties are useless
(c) we should not teach students prescriptive rules

I just love how she complains, outraged, about fake grammar rules as though there were other real ones that can and should be enforced - just not those ones other people like.

I really did not get that reading from the article at all. Did we read the same thing?

That said, if we've decide that it's a good thing to have a standard variety for wide communication, then we have to have rules that define that standard variety. While all such rules will be by necessity somewhat arbitrary (no variety is "better" linguistically), some rules can be more ridiculous than others. It's silly to try to make English like Latin, and stupid to insist that gender neutral language is wrong because it violates some pedant's misinformed ideas about grammatical logic. It's less silly to say that you should use "flammable" instead of "inflammable" to avoid potentially dangerous confusion when writing safety materials.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:39 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, there are some grammar rules almost all dialects have, like subject-verb order (even in Yodaese, obeyed this rule must be), the use of a special form for verbs in the third person singular, and subject-verb inversion in most questions (who are you? vs. you are who?)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:44 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I definitely don't get a sense of "complaining" or "outrage" from her essay at all. She wrote, "Most people have a linguistic hobby horse or two (I have a whole stable of them myself) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—as long as we acknowledge that often these conventions are subjective and not forever fixed universal rules of language that define a person's intelligence." That sounds really fair and low-key to me.

I love this piece because it is so easy for me to read and the concepts are made totally digestible for me as an uneducated layperson. I love written English more than anything, but most linguistics stuff flies way over my head. I'm also a recovering prescriptivist who has always struggled with wanting to sound "educated" (decidedly white, upper/middle-class) because it makes me see myself as a class traitor, like I'm trying to escape where I came from and what I am. Lots and lots of feels about language, grammar, usage, and perceived rectitude.

So this --
It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style. But it happens to be a historically privileged dialect and is not inherently linguistically better than other, non-standard dialects of English.
-- made me feel a lot better, and also reminded me of Jamila Lyiscott's "3 ways to speak English," which is something I would like to be reminded of every day for the rest of my life.
posted by divined by radio at 7:49 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or, as you could put it in a sort of Chomskyan way, a native speaker is a sort of machine to recognize grammatical utterances. So even though a French Canadian goalie might ask "Who own the chief?", his American boss will quickly correct him: "Who OWNZZZ the Chiefs!"
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:52 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, the Board of Zombies meets regularly in my neighbor's garage. They have a pair of 15" EV's and a seriously muscular sub-woofer. I used to like my eardrums, but I have learned to be tolerant of the ringing sensation.

Historical whimsy (regarding standardizing a language) seems to be underrated. I understand that Standard Japanese once was an obscure dialect spoken in the pre-Tokugawa era by dwellers of a small fief in the south-central area of Honshu. Now it's what is taught to kids from California who want to come to Japan and teach standard English to Japanese. That's rad, yeah? Maybe it's still cool. I lose track.
posted by mule98J at 10:22 AM on August 26, 2015


Whey you at widdiz language shizz doo?
I, mostly speak honky.
Why you do dat?
My parents were honkies, even my Dad who was Native American.
I mostly speak honky too, except on the weekends, when I DJ.
Nice.
Yeah.
posted by Oyéah at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2015


My favourite grammar rule is "Get countable/non-countable right." 90% of the time, this means either don't say "amount of people," "less people,' "less calories," or "10 items or less." This article failed to address and stress the importance of my favourite grammar rule, despite having promised to address it in the headline. Stupid article.

Headline on clickbait listicle on my feed mere minutes ago: Which City In Canada has the Least Amount of Ashley Madison Users?

It is almost as if some editor (internal or external) decided that fewest was too snooty, and put in three words to replace it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:56 AM on August 27, 2015


...two spaces

Um, yeah. For those of us who took typing lessons on physical typewriters, and whose instructors drilled "two spaces after a period" into us like it was a holy tenet, this is a hard habit to break.
posted by malaprohibita at 7:32 AM on August 27, 2015


"Right, but AP is mainly for journalism, yes? And there are actual space issues for print journalism. The friend for whom I edited the dissertation has a journalism background, and I've been fixing her (lack of ) serial commas for a long time, but I'm fully aware that her training would lead her to leave them out, because of space constraints. I don't think that makes her a bad person, but I think the lack of serial comma is very similar to the double-space after a hyphen, in terms of being a remnant that made sense given a dying technology but now just seems sort of silly."

Double space after the hyphen? Do you mean spaces on either side of an em-dash, which is AP style (and one I had to buffalo myself into because it feels unnatural)?

The answer for serial commas in a dissertation is "what does the style guide call for?" I edited a friend's dissertation and she used Chicago, so in they go.

I guess my disagreement here comes from a bias toward as few characters as possible to make a statement, bre-wit and all that. That and commas are a pause that slows reading, so having fewer of them makes for fewer chances to lose the plot.

But, like I said above, I tend to think of this as all arbitrary aesthetic preference. God knows I don't know the keyboard shortcut for an en-dash.

And as for pretension, I learned it was the Harvard Comma. Calling it the Oxford Comma at least gave me a level of remove. I was thrilled to learn the term "serial comma," as it seemed to take it out of the realm of classism.

It's rare in my experience to find someone who insists on a serial comma — usually, if they're insisting, it's the Oxford.

"I'm also a recovering prescriptivist who has always struggled with wanting to sound "educated" (decidedly white, upper/middle-class) because it makes me see myself as a class traitor, like I'm trying to escape where I came from and what I am. Lots and lots of feels about language, grammar, usage, and perceived rectitude."

I feel you on that, though I've come to see an ability to code switch as a valuable skill, especially when dealing with members of the public. And one of the advantages of living outside where I grew up is that a lot of the weird phrases I grew up with are seen as just colorful Midwesternisms.
posted by klangklangston at 10:50 AM on August 27, 2015


« Older Vixen joins the Arrowverse; the WWE and...   |   The Most Timeless Songs Of All Time Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments