Tag Archives: English language

You Are How You Say It

I’ve recently read ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’, in which the social psychologist James Pennebaker  shows that while lexical words may tell us about a writer’s or speaker’s topic, function words, in particular personal pronouns, tell us about the writer or speaker and their relationship with the reader or listener. Computer analysis of thousands of pieces of text has enabled him and other researchers to identify the significance of the frequency of the words to which we don’t normally give a second thought.

It is already well established that pronouns occur more often in conversation than in writing. The Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus shows that, in the Conversation register, personal pronouns occur almost as frequently as nouns. By contrast, in the registers of Fiction, News and Academic Prose the proportion of nouns to pronouns is much higher, particularly in Academic Prose.

Pennebaker and his fellow researchers have taken this finding several stages further and shown, for example, that:

. . . the most commonly used word in spoken English, ‘I’, is used at far higher rates by followers than leaders, truth-tellers than liars. People who use high rates of articles – ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’ – do better in college than low users. And if you want to find your true love, compare the ways you use function words with that of your prospective partners.

Later in the book he asks:

Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essays is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that the poet who overuses the word ‘I ‘in his poetry is at higher risk of suicide? Or that a certain leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he’d lead his country into war?

His research shows that such connections can be made.

There also seem to be some differences in the use of function words between the sexes:

Women use first-person singular, cognitive, and social words more; men use articles more.

Our use of function words also says something about our social status:

People higher in the social hierarchy use first-person singular pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my at much lower rates than people lower in status. In any interaction between two people, the person with the higher status uses fewer ‘I’-words. This is not a typo. High-status people, when talking to lower-status people, use the words ‘I’, ’me’, and, ‘my’ at low rates. Conversely, the lower-status people tend to use ‘I’-words at high rates.

Those higher in status use first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) at much higher rates than those lower in status.

In written and spoken conversation, the person who uses more second-person pronouns like you and your is likely to be the person higher in status.

There’s much more, and I can only recommend that you get hold of a copy of the book if you’re at all interested. Some of his conclusions are counter-intuitive, but they are based on rigorous research. They can be applied in fields as varied as forensics, political forecasting, the analysis of literary texts and finding true love, but Pennebaker doesn’t offer any guarantees for the last.

The book has an associated website with a number of exercises that put some of his findings into practice. (Unfortunately, an interesting facility on the related site AnalyzeWords is not functioning at the moment.)


Filed under English Language, Language, Society, Spoken English

What is Grammar, How Does It Change . . . ?

This is a lightly edited repeat of a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere.

Grammar is the set of rules that tells us how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, may be combined to form words (morphology) and how words may be combined to form sentences (syntax). One rule of English grammar, for example, tells us that regular verbs form their past tense and past participle by the addition of -ed. We have to say, in modern Standard English, he walked and not *he wolk. Another tells us that determiners precede nouns. We have to say my house and not *house my. If you want something a little less obvious, then consider the fact that in English an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

These are real rules, which no normal adult native speaker of English will break. That’s why grammar is a matter of fact. It contrasts with style, which is a matter of opinion. There is no rule of English grammar that prohibits what is known inaccurately to most people as a split infinitive. It follows that whether a writer chooses to write ‘to suddenly realise’ or ‘to realise suddenly’ is a matter of style, of opinion. Nor is there any rule of English grammar that requires ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive relative clause. So an American president may choose to say ‘a day which will live in infamy’ or ‘a day that will live in infamy’ (and we know what he did choose). Both choices in each case are grammatical.

The rules of Standard English are codified in scholarly works of grammar. The early ones were little more than a reflection of the writer’s own preferences, but the past 30 years have seen the publication of grammars that go far beyond that approach, and they have been enormously improved by the availability of the evidence found in vast electronic corpora. The three monumental works during this period are ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ by Quirk and others, ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ by Biber and others and ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. They are based on a thorough examination of the way modern English is actually used, for, as Henry Sweet wrote in 1891:

In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called ‘ungrammatical’ expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.

The same thought has been expressed in our own day by the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’:

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all.

As long ago as the early sixteenth century, John Colet saw that this was also true of Latin, as indeed it is of any language:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

It would take a major piece of research to compare these three very long (and expensive) books, although all three have shortened versions.  The authors of the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, at least, do have a different approach to some topics. They use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’, where others use ‘restrictive’ (or ‘defining’) and ‘non-restrictive’ (or ‘non-defining’) to describe the two types of relative clause. They do not consider what most others call the ‘were-subjunctive’ to be subjunctive at all, giving it instead the term ‘irrealis were’. Where most other linguists recognise only two English tenses, present and past, they speak of the perfect as ‘a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection’. They class as prepositions words that other grammars class as adverbs or subordinating conjunctions.

The ‘Longman Grammar’ draws heavily on evidence from the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus, and concentrates particularly on the grammatical differences between the four registers of Conversation, Fiction, News and Academic Prose. The stripped-down version, the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is one of the best general introductions to English grammar.

I suspect that there is much more agreement than disagreement in all three. They are concerned only with Standard English, and, as Huddleston and Pullum have written:

[There is] remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.

So much for the rules of grammar themselves. The answer to the question ‘How are they changed?’ the answer is that, unlike style, they generally change very slowly. The erosion of inflections, for example, has been going on for centuries, and it continues. Our pronouns are pale shadows of their former selves, and it looks as if the remaining inflections will reduce further, with the growing merging of I and me, for example, and the loss of  whom in all but the most formal contexts. The subjunctive, too, at least in British English, is all but extinct. These changes are not to be regretted. They are part of the very essence of language, and they occur because the needs of a language’s speakers change. Like the Sabbath, language was made for man, and not man for language. As Michael Halliday, the linguist most closely associated with Systemic Functional Linguistics, has written, ‘Language is as it is because of what it has to do’.

There is no single Standard English, but each major English-speaking state has its own standard. Any changes to those standards following the technological developments of the past few decades are likely to be in vocabulary rather than in grammatical structures. At the same time, the English used in computer mediated communication is developing its own grammatical forms. John McWhorter describes one aspect here. I would say that the most likely outcome is that the language of the web and texting, where it has its own identity, will grow alongside other varieties, rather than replace them.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Standard English

The Negative Canon: Introduction

A fellow contributor to the LinkedIn group Grammar Geeks, Bessel Dekker, has suggested the term negative canon for those features of English that are frequently the object of the attention of those in various Facebook groups and elsewhere who seek to tell us how to use our own language. They complain about current developments in the language, oblivious to the fact that such developments are sometimes far from new, and that English contains features that have come about through the type of changes in the past that they condemn in the present. We are asked to accept what they say because that’s their opinion or what they’ve always been taught.

A prominent characteristic of the negative canon is that it consists of a relatively small number of features which come up time and again, and are often of the kind that Geoffrey Pullum has called ‘the most intellectually trivial details of standard written English’.  As an example, Bessel has listed the following salient features of Afro-American Vernacular English:

(1) the multiple negative.
(2) nonstandard forms such as aks.
(3) absence the forms of be when it is a copula.
(4) uninflected be when it is an existential verb.
(5) word order which is different from that in Standard English.

His point is that of these five, only the first two are habitually seized upon. Other instances include sentence adverbs, where hopefully is often disdained, but all the others are ignored. Similarly, the pronunciation mischievious is thought to be an indication of moral decline and the end of civilisation as we know it, but, as Bessel has said, it is not the first, let alone the only, case were epenthesis has caused language change.

Bessel has therefore made an important distinction between the negative canon and what he has called the negative pool. While the latter consists of all instances that could be objected against, the former comprises the usual suspects which are in fact singled out. Thus, sadly as a sentence adverb, for example, would be in the negative pool only, while hopefully has made the negative canon. The composition of the negative canon, it seems, is quite arbitrary, which suggests that no that no systematic study underlies it.

Bessel has suggested a few criteria which give an item a good chance of being included in the negative canon. They are:

(a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
(b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
(c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

(d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
(e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
(f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

It might, as Bessel has also suggested, be illuminating to compile an inventory of items that make up the negative canon and to trace each to its first source. That may be a little ambitious for Caxton, but in a series of forthcoming posts I plan to examine some of the usages in question in an attempt to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from prejudice, reality from fantasy. They can for convenience be considered under the headings of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography and punctuation. Negative canon posts will not be in any particular order, and not necessarily uninterrupted by unrelated posts.


Filed under Language, The Negative Canon

The Grammar of Speech

As a supplement to my post yesterday, it might be of some interest to mention that Ronald Carter (‘Grammar and Spoken English’ in ‘Applying English Grammar’) has listed some of the ways in which the grammar of spoken English differs from the grammar of written English. They include:

‘Heads’ and ‘tails’. Heads ‘occur at the beginning of clauses and help listeners orient to a topic’:

The white house on the corner, is that where she lives?

That girl, Jill, her sister, she works in our office.

Tails ‘occur at the end of clauses, normally echoing an antecedent pronoun and help to reinforce what we are saying’:

She’s a very good swimmer, Jenny is.

It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?

Ellipsis ‘in which subjects and verbs are omitted because we can assume our listeners know what we mean’.

Discourse markers. Anyway, right, okay, I see, I mean, mind you, well, right, what’s more, so, now.

Vague language. Words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, or anything, or whatever, sort of.

Deixis. ‘The “orientational” features of language and includes words and phrases which point to particular features of a situation.’

Modal expressions. Modal verbs, but also words and phrases such as: possibly, probably, I don’t know, I don’t think, I think, I suppose, perhaps.

Carter quotes this piece of speech from ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Sure we got there um at seven actually around six fifteen and class starts at seven and I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high and I was the only one there and I was the only one there I was. And I yeah I was thinking gosh you know is this the right place or may be everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in there’s nothing said you know come on in knock on the door and come in or anything like that.

That is very different from what we’d expect to find in a piece of formal writing, but isn’t it still Standard English?


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Spoken English, Standard English

Standard or Non?

Six of the following sentences are written in Standard English. Which are they? Answers and comments in my next post.

1. Yon house hasn’t been lived in for a year.
2. I ain’t seen nothing.
3. Someone should have told us, shouldn’t they?
4. I only done it last week.
5. This check-out is for less than five items.
6. Can I go now?
7. Happen she were in a hurry.
8. You’ll need to slowly back out and then turn round.
9. It was only when I come home that I seen it.
10. What was you after?
11. I’m afraid I don’t really know who you’re referring to.
12. They invited my husband and I to lunch.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

Teach Them What They Know

The teaching of English has recently been in the news in the UK following the proposal for a test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling for children between the ages of 7 and 11. David Crystal was consulted on the test, and has set out some of his objections to in this post on his blog. The numerous comments support his view. The basic problem seems to be summed up in those words that drew so much attention a couple of weeks ago in the letter written to the Education Secretary by 100 academics: ‘too much, too young’.

Children don’t need to be taught the grammar of their own dialect. They learn that by the time they go to school, without instruction and without effort. What they need to be taught is the Standard English dialect. How that is done and when it is done is a matter for professional educationalists. Because Standard English is the dialect of the printed and written word its use requires instruction in the conventions of punctuation and spelling by teachers who are themselves properly trained, and who understand that punctuation and spelling are not grammar.

Grammar is, in very simple terms, a description of how a language works, and a prior understanding of it will help in learning Standard English, just as it will help in learning other languages, provided the distinction between learning grammar and learning about grammar is maintained. How and when it is introduced is again a matter for professional educationalists. But here’s an off-the-wall proposal to get the harrumphers going. Why shouldn’t schools teach grammar in terms of the predominant regional dialect? This would give young children something they could relate to, it would remove the shame that it is sometimes associated with regional dialects and it would give children a sound basis on which to build when they came to learn  Standard English, as they most certainly must.


Filed under Dialects, Education, English Language, Standard English

More on what grammar isn’t

An English language test introduced into British primary schools this week has prompted some interest in the topic, including this test published by the BBC. It’s hopeless, for the reasons Peter Harvey gives in this post on his blog.


Filed under English Language