Category Archives: English Language

Be Careful What You Wish For

Some comments on social media sites claim that English is irrational and lacks consistency. Like Jonathan Swift, those who air these views seek order, and complain:

. . . that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities and, that in many instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar’.

Swift felt that ‘some Method should be thought on for Ascertaining and Fixing our Language for ever, after such Alterations are made in it as shall be thought requisite.’

Like Swift, Daniel Defoe wanted to establish an Academy on French lines:

. . . to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d.

Swift and Defoe were concerned, as most commentators before the mid-twentieth century were, with the written language, and, to be fair to them, they were unable to analyse speech in the ways that have since become possible. Today’s naysayers have no such excuse. Whether Swift’s and Defoe’s views would have been any different if they had been able to do so is unknowable, but at least their contemporary Samuel Johnson saw that:

. . . sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash [tie down] the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

What Swift and Defoe failed to appreciate, and what their successors today fail to appreciate, is that there are variants and inconsistencies in language because there are variants and inconsistencies in people and in the ways they interact. As Michael Halliday put it:

The particular form taken by the grammatical system of language is closely related to the social and personal needs that language is required to serve.

In George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the purpose of the fictional language Newspeak was:

. . . not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that . . . a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

Those who want to control language might like to think on’t.

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Rules

I happen to have drafted the following before John McIntyre posted a typically trenchant piece about rules on his blog. I hope the following will act as a complement (and as a compliment).

The term grammar rules is freely used and often without much thought about what it might mean. Typically it is used as a kind of guide to linguistic good manners. As Harry Ritchie writes in ‘English for the Natives’, grammar itself is assumed to be:

. . . a weird combination of finicky word usage and obscure social etiquette, like knowing how to address a viscount or where to place the sorbet spoons. The whole nebulous subject presided over by stern, scary men, who write books telling us we always get things wrong: ‘One should, of course, say “It is I, your viscountness”. All other forms are grievous errors. Sorbet spoons to the immediate left of fish-knives.’

Those who take such a view are reluctant to tell us where the rules come from, presumably because they don’t know. Those of us who have taken just a little more than cursory glance at the subject know that grammar rules describe how a language works, much as the laws of physics describe how the universe works. Newton didn’t make it up when he claimed that:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

He based his statement on what he had observed. Similarly, if we notice that verbs like might, shall and can behave in a certain way, we can conclude certain things about them: they are are invariable, they form their interrogatives by inversion, and they are followed by an infinitive which is not preceded by the particle to. If we see that a word that takes its meaning from a second word in the same sentence cannot come before that second word if that second word is inside a subordinate clause, we can conclude, as the linguist Lanacker did in 1969, that there is a rule of English grammar that states that an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

By contrast, there is no rule that prevents us from ending sentences with a preposition, using they to refer to just one person, placing an adjunct between to and the verb or using coordinated I as the complement of a preposition. Native English speakers do these things all the time, and have done so for centuries. To say that they speak or write ungrammatically in doing so is as ludicrous as if Newton had said that an object at rest SHOULDN’T stay at rest and an object in motion SHOULDN’T stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

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What’s Wrong With Peeving?

It gives me great pleasure to publish the following guest post by Bessel Dekker, a retired lecturer in linguistics at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (University of Applied Sciences). It was he who gave me the idea for my series of posts on the Negative Canon.

 

Elsewhere, there is a discussion about the “most irritating words and phrases” participants can think of. It has been going on for two years now, it has been liked by over 100 people and contributions exceed 2,000.

One wonders why. Are the grounds for irritation so much more numerous than the linguistic phenomena which deserve our interest, which require being observed or investigated? It seems unlikely. At least that other thread has the virtue of calling a spade a spade: it is quite explicit about its subject, which is irritation.

By contrast, I find that there is something very unpleasant in that recurrent expression “pet peeves”. Apart from the fact that it has become hackneyed, there seems to be something cosy about it. We suggest that there is something personal, even private in our irritations: after all, they are only our pets, so do not mind us. But then we go on to be extremely judgemental and it turns out that we actually do want to be taken seriously. Very much so.

The main attraction in all this, it seems, is the illusion that we are in the right camp. We are the people who fight for correctness, who resist the rot that is setting in, who know what should be said and what should not. We are superior.

In fact, this implies that others are inferior. Others are wrong, or as the usual labels go, lazy, careless, uneducated. It seems obvious that there is a lot of violence in this. We acquire our own inclusion, our sense of being among the fastidious, by excluding others: the ones to be corrected, to be judged and to be labelled negatively.

As likely as not, we depict our own fastidious group as an embattled minority, standing for traditional values, fighting corruption, keeping up standards. In fact, we are not a minority at all: all our “pet” “peeves” have been repeated over and over again, and the repetition is going on on countless websites and elsewhere. We are not even aware of it, but we are victims of the Negative Canon, a highly conventionalised and stereotyped set of well-worn black sheep. If it is not the spelling of “its”, we object to uptalk, to discourse markers such as “so” and “like”, or to singular “they”.

What our petty peevery prevents us from doing is to understand the language. Our false sense of superiority blinds us to actual phenomena and developments in the language: the reasons why there are discourse markers, for instance. Or the fact that some discourse markers are new, while others are very old indeed. Or the reasons for notional agreement both in English and in other languages. Or the interesting phenomenon that in various languages the oblique case appears to be ousting the subject case. Or again, the way change spreads.

As long as we are more interested in being right, in feeling correct, superior and indeed safe than in studying the language as it is, as it shapes itself before our eyes (should we be willing to open those eyes), we are not interested in language but in ourselves. Language is not a personal game of one-upmanship: it is a social institution of astonishing complexity, and any effort to really understand it a little is much more rewarding than the judgementality which ignores other speakers’ motives, reasons and indeed their rights as participants in the social venture.

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Four Basic Points

1. The grammar of a language is the way its speakers put together units of meaning to form words and the way they put together words to form sentences. It contrasts with style, which is the way in which users of the language choose constructions from the grammatical repertoire and words from the lexical repertoire for their various communicative purposes. Grammar is a matter of fact. Style is a matter of opinion.

2. There is not just one English. There are many varieties and sub-varieties, and they vary according to geographical location and social class. These varieties have internally consistent grammars, and all thus have equal linguistic validity. Within any one variety, including Standard English, there are many styles, such as formal and informal, elegant and inelegant, effective and ineffective, friendly and distant, deferential and egalitarian, male and female.

3. Standard English, although a minority spoken dialect, is extremely important. It is the variety used in most published writing and it is readily understood by disparate geographical and social communities. There is widespread agreement on what constitutes it. The points which are hotly disputed are mostly questions of style such as the informal who set against the formal‘whom.

4. The terms ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are unhelpful in discussing language, except in speaking of infants and foreign learners. Language is best judged on its effectiveness. To say that a particular usage is incorrect is inadequately descriptive and insufficiently damning.

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What’s Wrong With Nonstandard Dialects?

Those who think that any English other than their versions of Standard English is ungrammatical, illiterate, incorrect, sloppy, lazy and so on usually have in mind, I suspect, the kind of English they simply don’t like. Many seem not to like features that have existed in the language for centuries, such as the use of ‘I’ in object position or as the complement of a preposition when it is coordinated with a noun or another pronoun, or the use of ‘they’ to refer to a singular antecedent.

The same sort of people don’t like constructions found in nonstandard dialects spoken by those they perceive to belong to a lower social class than themselves, such as the use of ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’, or the regular use of ‘was’ for all persons and numbers as the past tense of ‘be’.

What, I wonder, do such people make of nonstandard British regional dialects? Here are examples from four of them. Are these equally ungrammatical, illiterate, incorrect, sloppy and lazy? Or are they dialects which have the same linguistic validity as Standard English, but which for political, economic and social reasons weren’t selected for standardisation?

Ar like yat lowpin, its barie. (Cumbrian. More of the same here.)

Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick. (Geordie)

Ow bist? (Bristolian)

Another skill, uh, when we used to clean the dykes out all by hand with the old meak and the old didle and crome — that‘s all lugging. (East Anglian)

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Do you dislike it alot?

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 211, 375 records for ‘a lot’ and 67 for ‘alot’. In the smaller British National Corpus there are 22, 298 records for ‘a lot’ and 44 for ‘alot’. Two questions arise. First, I had supposed ‘alot’ to be mainly an American spelling, and I haven’t encountered it in the UK. However, ‘a lot’ occurs only 500 times more often than ‘alot’ in the BNC, compared with over 3,000 times more often in the COCA. One lesson from this is that our intuitions about language use can be mistaken. Are others as surprised as I was to find the solid printing relatively more frequent in British English than in American English? Second, why is there so much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the solid printing when it is so rare? Do the weepers and gnashers go out of their way to look for it, or do they just happen to read the kind of publications where it occurs? I suppose the same question could be asked about other concerns of the peeververein. It seems to be a manifestation of Caxton’s First Law. (Here’s another. Those who weren’t entirely asleep in high school English lessons like to tell us repeatedly that there’s a difference between your and you’re. Indeed there is, but it’s one that most of us seem to understand. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has, for example, 95 records for ‘You’re right about that’. It has none for ‘Your right about that’.)

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Five Words You Should Stop Worrying About

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Rob Reneilda (writer/editor; 28 years in newspapers, as he tells us) is good enough to inform his readers of ‘5 Words You’re Probably Misusing’. They are momentarily, during, constantly, continuously, continually, exponentially and concerted. (That’s seven, I know, but never mind.) I don’t think he’s right. I’ll try to explain why.

Firstly, he seems to want Americans to use momentarily in the way it’s used in British English, meaning ‘for a short time’, but in American English, it seems, it has meant ‘soon’ for around 150 years.

Secondly, he suggests that during the meeting can refer only to the period of the entire meeting. Oxford Dictionaries defines during both as ‘throughout the course or duration of (a period of time)’ and ‘at a particular point in the course of’. Merriam-Webster gives ‘at a point in the course of’ as well as ‘throughout the duration of’.

Thirdly, he makes the traditional distinction between continuously and continually, saying that the first means ‘incessantly’, the second,done in frequent and usually regular intervals’. But ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, drawing on corpus evidence, reports that ‘the line of demarcation between continual and continuous is no longer so sharp. Dictionary definitions in North America, Britain and Australia show that both are now used in the sense of “nonstop”, the meaning which used to belong to continuous . . .  As adverbs, continually and continuously also have much in common . . . Again there are examples of continually meaning “nonstop,” as well as “happening regularly” . . . And there’s continuously meaning “happening regularly” as well as “nonstop” . . . the meaning of both continuous(ly) and continual(ly) now depends to a large extent on the phenomena to which they are applied. As ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ concludes, ‘you can observe the distinctions . . . if you want to; quite a few writers, however, seem to make no distinction at all.’

Fourthly, exponentially, Mr Reinalda tells us, ‘refers to numbers being squared or cubed or taken to the nth power’. What he has against it is that it is ‘a tad hyperbolic’ when used figuratively. He suggests using dramatically or drastically instead, but it is not clear how either of those is any less hyperbolic. The first definition of exponential given in Oxford Dictionaries is ‘(Of an increase) becoming more and more rapid’. Merriam-Webster has ‘expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function; especially:  characterized by or being an extremely rapid increase (as in size or extent)’

Fifthly, he claims that ‘one person . . . cannot put forth a concerted effort’. Merriam-Webster, it is true, defines ‘concerted as  ‘done in a planned and deliberate way usually by several or many people’ (note that ‘usually’). But Oxford Dictionaries goes further in giving as its second definition ‘done with great effort or determination’.

If Mr Reinalda did any research before writing his post, he doesn’t cite any sources. As a result, he appears to be patronising his readers. He can, of course, dislike the way these words are sometimes used as much as he wants, and he doesn’t have to use them in that way himself, but if he is going to start laying down the law, he should at least have taken the trouble to find out what others more authoritative have said about them.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing on the web and elsewhere, and I see Mr Reinalda himself has form. Previous posts include The Grammar Mistake You Just Might Be Making, Are You Botching These Smart-Sounding Words? and Linguistic Mistakes Everyone Has to Stop Making in 2014. The danger is that many readers will unthinkingly accept what he and others like him say, and will thus perpetuate the kind of myths and superstitions about English that began with the eighteenth century grammarians. Lists, like these, of usages and constructions to be avoided come across as quick fixes, when there really is no short cut to understanding how language works and how to use it.

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