pageok
pageok
pageok
National Grammar Day:

Arnold Zwicky (Language Log) has many wise thoughts on the subject. Here's one, though you should read the whole post:

[T]he assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and therefore impede communication ... is mostly just taken for granted, without any kind of defense -- in what way is "between you and I" less clear than "between you and me"? in what way is "all shook up" less clear than "all shaken up"? they're non-standard, certainly, but LESS CLEAR? -- and the occasional explanations of how particular non-standard usages are unclear don't survive scrutiny. Instead, it's just an article of faith that non-standard variants (and conversational, informal, and innovative variants, and variants restricted to certain geographic regions or social groups) are unclear, vague, sloppy, or lazy ....
This has been my experience as well, not in all instances, of course, but in many: Often people complain about some (supposedly) novel usage, and assert that it's stripping the language of clarity or precision or useful distinctions, but on closer analysis the assertion proves to be unfounded.

Oren:
It seems to me that the loss of clarity in the language as a whole is quite a bit more than the sum of all the little deviations from the standard usage. The logic, then, follows a slippery-slope argument - it's OK in small amounts but there is simply no way to allow "small amounts" without losing control altogether.
2.28.2008 2:58am
Evelyn Marie Blaine (mail):
In general, I think it's obvious that nonstandard forms are no less clear than the standard ones. There are particular instances, however, when nonstandard English collapses two semantically distinct standard forms into one: in those cases, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that precision is lost. Examples:

subjunctive (irrealis) "if he were" / indicative (realis) "if he was" => indicative (now ambiguously realis and irrealis) "if he was"

unmarked "I shall" / volitionally marked "I will" => all-purpose "I will" (no longer any way to mark volition or intensity of purpose)
2.28.2008 3:10am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Just think of all that has been lost since the familiar pronouns got dropped. It's amazing that I can even drag myself to breakfast in the morning.
2.28.2008 4:11am
LM (mail):
Oh, and what are you trying to tell those of us who breakfast in pajamas at noon over our keyboards? That you're like holier than thou or something?
2.28.2008 4:56am
John McCall (mail):
I disagree. No, grammar variants don't much reduce clarity, but accumulations of new senses for existing words certainly do, and that's a far more common mode of language change. Still, it's silly to protest these changes, not because they're somehow for the best in this most perfect of all possible worlds, but simply because --- by the time you've been coached to fear and loathe some new variant, it's become so well-established that it simply won't budge. Imagine the great Conservative, standing athwart World War I, yelling at the historians to stop describing the Somme and just settle down in peace.
2.28.2008 5:38am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Wm. Empson claims that Fowler was about showing ordinary Englishmen why they ought to care about their language.

As far as I know, nobody is down on Fowler.

So there's a distinction still to be made, that schoolmarmism perhaps has simply misconstrued.
2.28.2008 6:05am
b.:
[1] those who take the time to master a second (or third+) language will likely find that many so-called essential features of one language may be wholly absent and uncompensated for in another.

how is it, for instance, that the Chinese survive in daily conversation without any phonetic distinction between the words "he" (), "she" (), and "it" (), each of which is pronounced "ta(1)"?

[2] the idea that the exchange of prescriptive usages for non-standard variants comes ever at the expense of clarity seems most plausible when examined on the subsentential or even subclausal level as Evelyn Marie Blaine does above. meaning and comprehension, however, are as much a function of context (i.e. pragmatics) as they are of syntax, semantics, or phonetics.

[3] most adult language speakers of non-impaired cognitive ability are competent communicators regardless--or, in some cases, in spite of--their formal educational achievements. precision and clarity are each highly-valued by language learners and speakers alike--and for good reason. when language shifts occur, they must necessarily reflect these competent adult communicators' preference for precision and clarity absent of showing of widespread "error" or "incompetence."

[4] no doubt, most prescriptivists and curmudgeonly would-be grammar mavens will argue that non-standard variants are precisely that: errors introduced to our language by way of incompetence, the evidence being their and their readers' relative inability to understand select non-standard variants at first blush.

remember, however, that what may seem unclear when spoken *between* language communities, may be--and likely *is*--perfectly clear when spoken within that community.
2.28.2008 6:29am
BruceM (mail) (www):
Proper grammar is a signal of education and to a lesser extent intelligence in the same way that spinning rims on your car is a symbol of wealth and (very) disposable income. Plus, if there were no proper grammar, snobs would have one less thing to be snobby about.

On another note, I think you have to distinguish between improper grammar that's just technically improper yet doesn't reduce clarity versus improper grammar that, while not reducing clarity, just sounds horrendously bad. "The runner winned the race" does not reduce clarity, but it just sounds like the speaker is horribly uneducated.

Then again, some technically proper grammar also sounds strange, for example, "None of the children was harmed in the car accident" usually throws people off guard, even though "none" is grammatically singular and is the subject of the sentence.
2.28.2008 6:34am
Judicious Overlord (mail):
I agree standard usage shouldn't be considered bible, with the proviso that one should learn the rules before breaking them. Some of the best writing is just that because it flaunts the rules, often with a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude. The only time I really worry about standard usage is when ambiguity might otherwise prevail. I also make an attempt at structuring sentences carefully to aid in comprehension, though I see that as more a stylistic issue.
2.28.2008 6:41am
jim47:
B said:

how is it, for instance, that the Chinese survive in daily conversation without any phonetic distinction between the words "he" (他), "she" (她), and "it"


It seems that English actually went through a stage in which this was true of it as well. But for reasons of ambiguity, it did not last. According to Wikipedia:

the Anglo-Saxon he = "he" and heo = "she". By the 12th and 13th centuries, these had often weakened to a point where, according to the OED, they were "almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation." The modern feminine pronoun she, which first appears in the mid twelfth century, seems to have been drafted at least partly to reduce the increasing ambiguity of the pronoun system
2.28.2008 7:02am
LM (mail):

[...] with the proviso that one should learn the rules before breaking them.

In what realm isn't that good advice?
2.28.2008 7:04am
Ari (www):
"carefully to aid"; seems like you're worrying about standard usage (a usage that has long died out, no less), Judicious Overlord; "to carefully aid" is probably less ambiguous, in fact.

I like using proper grammar just to be a snob. It's sort of fun to throw a "whom" in a conservation every now and then.
2.28.2008 7:07am
Ari (www):
Damn. Just reread that sentence, Judicious, and it appears you were using "carefully" with "structuring;" oh well, that's the price one pays for being a grammar Nazi.
2.28.2008 7:09am
Judicious Overlord (mail):
Ari. You got me, I missed a comma. I guess it doesn't matter how careful you are, you'll always make some mistakes... and, if you're lucky enough to be me, they'll ironically occur just when you're talking about the measures you take to avoid them. Woe is me.
2.28.2008 7:23am
Left-Right-Left-Right:
Phrases like "between you and I" or "lay down for a nap" aren't unclear in terms of immediate conveyance of meaning, but incorrectness tends to make general usage fuzzy and more confusing. With repeated usage of both the grammatically correct and the incorrect, vague grammatical reasoning emerges that increases the difficulty of explaining what is proper.

The episode of The Office with the tangential discussion about "who" or "whom" is a great example: people can build up some pretty weird ideas about why a particular word should be used. "Whom" is a made-up word used to trick students!
2.28.2008 7:44am
Taeyoung (mail):
they're non-standard, certainly, but LESS CLEAR? -- and the occasional explanations of how particular non-standard usages are unclear don't survive scrutiny. Instead, it's just an article of faith that non-standard variants (and conversational, informal, and innovative variants, and variants restricted to certain geographic regions or social groups) are unclear, vague, sloppy, or lazy ....



The reason non-standard variants are unclear is that they're not standard -- people in different speaker populations use different non-standard variants, and we're not always familiar with the variants that are not our own. The United States does not have, comparatively speaking, a particularly diverse speaker population, so it's less of a problem here, but if you try to understand non-standard English spoken with, say, a broad West Country accent or heavy Scottish accent, you'll run into a lot more trouble. Some of those variants switch out basic morphology and vocabulary to the point that they can be almost unintelligible to most American dialect speakers. Language depends on shared rules and meanings and all that, and when you use non-standard forms and vocabulary, you reduce the chances that the listener is going to share those rules and meanings with you. Among other things, particularly when speaking with ESL speakers/listeners, they are unlikely to have learned your particular dialect in school.
2.28.2008 7:51am
WR:
"This is the sort of english up with which I will not put!" - Winston Churchill
2.28.2008 8:12am
PersonFromPorlock:
It may be less that new useages are unclear than that old ones are clear and not to be abandoned without cause.

So far as "proper" English goes, I reiterate my point that a language that began as a pidgin for Roman soldiers to haggle with Anglic pimps in doesn't have a lot of claim in that direction.
2.28.2008 8:12am
Alan Gunn (mail):

Then again, some technically proper grammar also sounds strange, for example, "None of the children was harmed in the car accident" usually throws people off guard, even though "none" is grammatically singular and is the subject of the sentence.

This is an example of the sort of thing that gives prescriptivists a bad name: it is not true that "none" is "grammatically singular." None can mean "not one" or "not any," and when it means "not any," it's plural. I'm sort of a prescriptivist myself, but I find myself disagreeing with people complaining about "grammatical errors" that aren't almost as often as with the barbarians who use apostrophes to form ordinary plurals (an error, but not a grammatical error). In legal circles, the main offenders are people who insist on following Fowler's suggested distinction between which and that, which has never been a rule of English usage. There are also a lot of lawyers who think verbs (and not just infinitives, either) can't be "split," which is just nuts.
2.28.2008 8:15am
Judicious Overlord (mail):
PersonFromPorlock:

scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons
- Horace, Ars Poetica, 18BC

Mayhap more to the liking of a proper chap.
2.28.2008 8:24am
Temp Guest (mail):
The comment about English making finer distinctions than Chinese in the third person singular amused me. I just recently had a discussion/argument with a Chinese colleague who was complaining about the extraordinary imprecision of English with regard to kinship terminology. Where we Americans use the term aunt to combine whole classes of people (including both affine and blood relations) the Chinese use an enormous vocabulary to distinguish, e.g., mother's second youngest sister from father's eldest brother's wife).

The astonishing linguistic ignorance of people who nitpick about English grammar astonishes me. For example, most of them are blissfully unaware that English has only two real (marked) tenses (present and past). All other tenses are formed by modal auxillary constructions, e.g., will or going to (gonna) to create a future-type verb phrase.

Man used to be pluralized in the standard way (man/mans). We got to the present irregular plural over the last thousand years as follows mans-->manes-->menes-->mens--men. What's the correct form?

What about the plural of house. Were it not for orthography people would realize that this word has recently developed one of the most irregular plurals in the English language, viz., h/au/s --> h/ow/zez. Only the initial aspirant is in common between the singular and plural forms. Quel horreure!!! Say it out loud if you don't believe me. If you are still not changing the dipthong yopu're actually speaking non-standard American English without realizing it.
2.28.2008 8:31am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
I'll add my vote to the "it's a slippery-slope" contingent. Yes, if you misuse I/me or who/whom, I'll probably get what you're trying to say. But the more errors you make, or more precisely, the less attention you pay to usage, the sloppier the thinking. Orwell said it well here: http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/patee.html. Sloppy language and sloppy thinking are a mutually reinforcing circle.
2.28.2008 9:01am
Hoosier:
b.--Those of us who have have "take[n] the time to master a second (or third+) language" also deeply appreciate when native speakers of the target language speak in standard idiom.
2.28.2008 9:12am
Anderson (mail):
I'm 100% against any "National Grammar," you so-called libertarians!
2.28.2008 9:18am
Wugong:
Where we Americans use the term aunt to combine whole classes of people (including both affine and blood relations) the Chinese use an enormous vocabulary to distinguish, e.g., mother's second youngest sister from father's eldest brother's wife).

Very true. Though because of the one child policy, these terms are quickly falling out of use among the younger generation in the mainland as many of them no longer have aunts and uncles of any kind.
2.28.2008 9:19am
Wugong:
Those of us who have have "take[n] the time to master a second (or third+) language" also deeply appreciate when native speakers of the target language speak in standard idiom.

The problem is, if the "standard idiom" is the type of language used in secondary language textbooks, it will often differ substantially from how the language is used in everyday speech between native speakers. If the goal of language learning is to communicate and understand effectively in the target language, it's to one's benefit to have native speakers speak like, well, real native speakers.
2.28.2008 9:38am
oledrunk (mail):
English did not originate in commerce between Roman Soldiers and the inhabitants of Britain. It is a West Germanic language.
2.28.2008 9:41am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Example from Zwicky himself

It [prescriptive grammar] is what some people (the ones who write the books) think everyone who speaks English should follow their rules.

_Mistakes_ p.20
2.28.2008 9:44am
b.:
Hoosier said:

Those of us who have have "take[n] the time to master a second (or third+) language" also deeply appreciate when native speakers of the target language speak in standard idiom.

agreed.

but the point of my comment and the post above was not that language speakers and learners should *not* appreciate adherence to a standard idiom, but rather that deviations from a standard idiom are not necessarily "unclear."

my comment argues an even stronger point, namely that these deviations are seldom if ever "unclear" when the listener considers: (1) the context in which the "deviant" utterance is made; and (2) the language-corpus of the speaker's community.

the existence of micro-level language communities likely complicates communication between communities. that point--though unmade by any commenter above--i concede.

but isn't that why we're all learning Esperanto?
2.28.2008 10:17am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
From Blazing Saddles:

Charlie: They said you was hung.
Sheriff Bart: And they was right!
If Charlie had used the "correct" form (='hanged'), his intended meaning would have been no more clear and the film would have been shorter by one gag (pun intended, of course). Cost-benefit, people!
2.28.2008 10:18am
Torquemada (mail):
"Man used to be pluralized in the standard way (man/mans). We got to the present irregular plural over the last thousand years as follows mans-->manes-->menes-->mens--men. What's the correct form?"

I love logic like this; if the present version was arrived at after long testing, all versions are correct. This is why I only hand in first drafts.

"Learn the rules first before you break them" was the best advice. It provides a baseline for communication and expression; rhetorical forms require the audience to know the baseline in order to appreciate why the author chose to break the rules. You'd have to know that "and" should be used only once in a list in order to appreciate the effect of an author using it many times in a list or not at all (a- versus poly-syndeton). You'd have to know "we was robbed" is wrong in order to appreciate the effect of phrasing it just so.
2.28.2008 10:32am
b.:
Torquemada, Judicious Overlord, &LM:

the issue of learning the rules before you break them is a question for pedagogues, educational content specialists, and our mothers.

the issue of whether non-standard variants are or are not "unclear" is a question for linguists.

sheesh. i hope there were no lawyers in the parties named above.
2.28.2008 10:49am
eck:
[O]n closer analysis the assertion proves to be unfounded.

Completely me agree.
2.28.2008 11:16am
Jeff S. (mail):
I'd take all the grammar errors in the world if people would just use less words.
2.28.2008 11:28am
Chukuang:
I'd take all the grammar errors in the world if people would just use less words.

Fewer words :)
2.28.2008 11:34am
PLR:
Ari. You got me, I missed a comma. I guess it doesn't matter how careful you are, you'll always make some mistakes... and, if you're lucky enough to be me, they'll ironically occur just when you're talking about the measures you take to avoid them. Woe is me.

I believe you mean "Woe am I."
I'd take all the grammar errors in the world if people would just use less words.

Or fewer words, for that matter.
2.28.2008 11:35am
Randy R. (mail):
One aspect of English grammar that has always driven me up the wall is the 'if not' construction, but in this case, the writer's intention is truly unclear.

Ex. "She was pretty, if not beautiful."

Does the speaker mean she is pretty, but not quite up to the level of beautiful? Or does the speaker mean that she is pretty, and might pass actually reach the level of beautiful?

In other words, using if not could mean the first part is true, the second not at all, or it could mean the first part is true, and the second part possibly true -- almost the complete opposite!

And yet, the sentence is grammatically correct, n'est-ce pas? So grammatical correctness does not always lead to clarity. Or, to say it another way, "it is clear, if not grammatical."
2.28.2008 11:56am
goofy (www):
About Evelyn Marie Blaine's comment about the collapse of irrealis "if he were" and "if he was":

1 The distinction between indicative and irrealis is still maintained.

present possible condition: "if I am"
past possible condition: "if I was"

present counterfactual condition: "if I were/was"
past counterfactual condition: "if I had been"

Out of context, you might find cases of "if I was" and not know if it refers to a past possible condition or a present counterfactual condition. But this is what context is for.

2 It's not only nonstandard variants that collapse two forms into one, and so "lose precision". Standard English lost the singular second person pronoun "thou" and now only has one second person pronoun for both singular and plural. Some nonstandard variants still use "thou" or have created a new plural pronoun (yall), and so make a distinction that standard English does not make.

3 Different languages make different distinctions. But just because a language doesn't have separate lexical items for separate concepts doesn't mean that the speakers of that language cannot make the distinction. This is what paraphrasing is for.
2.28.2008 12:09pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
And how do we get by without having different case forms for every single noun, the way they do in Latin.
2.28.2008 12:25pm
Jay D:
•I say h/au/s/es :(

•I hate irregular standard spelling. I had forgotten (or never learned correctly) that "fourteen" has a "u" but "forty" doesn't. I was writing checks "fourty."

•I miss "is come."
2.28.2008 12:39pm
deweber (mail):
Given how early one develops one's accent and grammatical choices, it has always seemed to me that language is one of the most significant indicators of "outsideness" in humans. This may be a side effect of the human development process; but it clearly has been useful through out human history in providing solidification of groupings. See Shibboleth for the classic example. In this context, there is no "correct" grammar and accent but these do indicate where one fits within society. While we might all wish not to judge people by these feature, it seems we all do, probably instinctively.
2.28.2008 12:42pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Often, nonstandard variants develop because they are simultaneously clearer and shorter than standard forms. This is particularly true when new words are introduced.

On a knitting email list, people periodically complain about the use of "gifted":

"She gifted me yarn."

They all insist this is non-standard.
Yet' it's perfectly clear, and also short.

In contrast "She gave me yarn." is short, but not as precise because "give" doesn't automatically imply "as a gift".

"She gave me yarn as a gift." is longer.

Quite often, nouns become verbs for just this reason. Sometimes, they are horrible sounding verbs, but, the usage is still clear.


So, "to gift" to imply giving a gift is clear.
2.28.2008 12:43pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I wish we had pronouns to distinguish the inclusive and exclusive "we".

English (or at least the technical lingo for genealogy) would be enriched if it had words for machetuneste and other complex relationships. See discussion here.

The language inside my head is often close to Basic English or translated ASL, consisting of grunts and gestures to express "That! Bring." but at other times I appreciate the beauty and subtleties the language allowed the great wordsmiths and orators to create.

I applaud BruceM's analogy to spinning rims.
2.28.2008 12:44pm
Jay D:
"She was pretty, if not beautiful."

I always took that to mean the speaker thinks she is beautiful, but others may reasonably dispute that claim, however, the speaker thinks it would be unreasonable to think she was not pretty.
2.28.2008 12:45pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Me winning isn't, you do.
2.28.2008 12:57pm
Yoda:
Away put your weapon, I mean you no harm!
2.28.2008 1:01pm
Randy R. (mail):
"I wish we had pronouns to distinguish the inclusive and exclusive "we". "

Having a rather high opinion of my opinions, I find that the royal 'we' can and should be used by us peasants. So I sometimes say things like "we are a little angry today." Or upon seeing a friend with a new cut, "I see we have a new hairdo today!" Or expressing sympathy: "Are we upset?"

It's a little more than the royal we, because sometimes I use it to include you AND me. Somehow, it softens a harsh statement (I am angry), and sometimes it's just fun.

Thanks Jay, D, and that's how I take it usually. But sometimes on the printed page, this construction isn't always even that clear. I would caution writers on using it.
2.28.2008 1:08pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Lucia: I don't like "gifted" (despite its clarity), but the term is centuries old in standard English. The OED reports sources from the 1500s, and since. Lots of dictionaries freely available online likewise report this as standard usage.
2.28.2008 1:27pm
Torquemada (mail):
b.,

Thanks for the slam (if I was a lawyer, it'd hurt). The issue is the OP's skepticism of the received wisdom that nonstandard English is less clear than standard. How are standard and nonstandard classified and identified if not by rules, principles, guidelines, etc.? "That" is used when..., "which" is used when...

I think we are arguing that knowing these rules would make one's scribblings clearer. This is the argument of the NGD people as cited by Zwicky. Zwicky's own argument is that these "rules" are apparently either irrelevant or nugatory since language as it's really used involve all parties, and their assorted intellectual backgrounds, attempting to come to an understanding as they shout words at each other. (I merely added that knowing the rules and when to break them would enable one to also understand "meta"-messages in an expression that might further clarify things.)

sheesh. I hope being snotty is part of your job description.
2.28.2008 2:03pm
denis (mail):

One aspect of English grammar that has always driven me up the wall is the 'if not' construction, but in this case, the writer's intention is truly unclear.

Ex. "She was pretty, if not beautiful."

Does the speaker mean she is pretty, but not quite up to the level of beautiful? Or does the speaker mean that she is pretty, and might pass actually reach the level of beautiful?

In other words, using if not could mean the first part is true, the second not at all, or it could mean the first part is true, and the second part possibly true -- almost the complete opposite!

And yet, the sentence is grammatically correct, n'est-ce pas? So grammatical correctness does not always lead to clarity. Or, to say it another way, "it is clear, if not grammatical."


It depends in part on the particular adjectives used. There is only confusion if the second adjective expresses an even higher degree of the same attribute as the first adjective (e.g., one who is beautiful has more beauty than one who is merely pretty). "One of the best, if not the best" is the same kind of phrase. They rely on context for clarity, and I agree writers use these phrases too often and without care.

But sometimes this construction is used to distinguish between attributes that we commonly think go together, and then the meaning is clear on the face of the sentence. "He is celebrated, if not accomplished." "She is clever, if not highly educated."
2.28.2008 2:11pm
Hoosier:
>>>And how do we get by without having different case forms for every single noun, the way they do in Latin.


Very inflexible word order, together with many, many seeming prepositions that actually function as part of a verbal expression.

Deviations from standard word order stick out in speech like crazy. Which is why Yoda is so annoying after ten minutes. And why Jewish grandma's are cute: "To me you say this?!" Yiddish took from German the freedom to invert word order to signal emphasis. Translated to English, it sounds quaint.
2.28.2008 2:45pm
hattio1:
I think that, in general, if a non-standard usage has crept up, the likely implication is that it's as clear as the standard usage, or for some other reason it was adopted. IOW, folks are not going to adopt a less clear expression if it doesn't provide some other benefit (for example, being shorter, sounding cooler, signifying you are part of some sub-group within society.
2.28.2008 2:46pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
"Proper grammar is a signal of education"

And that's all that's necessary to defend it, not any arguments about clarity, precision, useful distinctions, or whether languages properly have prescriptive rules. Someone using nonstandard grammar is announcing that they are uneducated, that they wish to be perceived as uneducated, or that they are too lazy to make the effort to avoid being perceived as uneducated. It is socially useful to encourage education and esteem for education, and demanding standard grammar does so. Defenses of nonstandard usage undermine these ends, discouraging and devaluing education, whatever the intent behind the defense of nonstandard usage.
2.28.2008 2:51pm
spider:
I say "h/au/s/es" also. I often try to pronounce words phonetically, even to the point of sounding ridiculous -- i.e. I say "ve-ge-təbul" rather than "vech-təbul". Or "cəm-fur-təbul" rather than "cəmf-tur-bul". Or I say "for-ty" rather than "ford-y" as most people would say. I tone this down a bit with non-intimate people, so I don't scare people...

Something else that drives me nuts is "LOL" in internet discussion. LOL could be a useful signal to indicate that the reader is so incredibly amused that s/he is, in fact, not just smiling as would be indicated by a typical :-), but actually laughing out loud. But I suspect that 95% of the time, "LOL" writers are not actively laughing...

OK I know I sound psychotic in this post. I promise I'm more fun in real life!
2.28.2008 3:04pm
goofy (www):
"It is socially useful to encourage education and esteem for education"

I don't think anyone would disagree with this. Linguists don't object to speaking and writing correctly. What they object to is unfounded claims about what is correct.

"Defenses of nonstandard usage undermine these ends, discouraging and devaluing education, whatever the intent behind the defense of nonstandard usage."

I don't know what you mean by "defense". No one is suggesting that nonstandard forms should supplant standard forms. How does being curious about language, learning and writing about language, all kinds of language, discourage and devalue education?
2.28.2008 3:16pm
eck:
From William Caxton, a tale of how much better things were in the 15th century:
And ... a mercer cam into an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys And the good wyf answerde. that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry. for he also coude speke no frenshe. but wold haue hadde egges / and she vnderstode hym not / And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren / then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel / Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren / certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / by cause of dyuersite &chaunge of langage.
2.28.2008 3:21pm
Jay D:
Spider,

How about Feb-roo-ary (not Feb-yoo-ary)?
2.28.2008 3:23pm
spider:
Jay D,
Yeah, I do that too.
2.28.2008 3:31pm
Zywicki (mail):
He may be good at grammar but he doesn't know how to spell his last name correctly!
2.28.2008 3:35pm
LM (mail):
Do non-lawyers find the rest of this site as opaque as I find this thread? I'm guessing they don't. Well good for them, but I'm actually supposed to have learned this language.
2.28.2008 3:46pm
Visitor Again:
Discussing usage is so fun. Shudder.
2.28.2008 4:23pm
Dave N (mail):
OK I know I sound psychotic in this post. I promise I'm more fun in real life!
LOL.

And I did find that line funnier than a mere :-).
2.28.2008 5:39pm
spider:
I should add that I've studied a few other languages (Euro and non-Euro), and I much prefer them to English because what you see is what you get, for the most part, with regard to spelling-phonetic correspondence...

Sorry, I guess I've diverged from Volokh's main point about grammatical usage. Let me make a point in that regard:

I was reading a journal for lawyers a few days ago that features a regular language column. The author informed us that according to traditional usage, inanimate objects cannot take the possessive case, i.e. you can't say "The computer's screen" or "the building's roof". Rather, according to this author, we must say "the screen of the computer" or "the roof of the building".

Has anyone ever heard of such a rule? It sounds kind of crazy to me. I guess the idea is that a non-living being lacks the volition to truly "possess" something. But that's slicing the onion too finely, even for me...
2.28.2008 6:19pm
spider:
I should add that German and Arabic (and I'm sure other languages that I don't know about) tend to solve the problem of possession by stringing two inanimate nouns together without a possessive case marker, e.g. "computerscreen" or "buildingroof". Actually in Arabic it would be "screencomputer" and "roofbuilding".
2.28.2008 6:25pm
Hoosier:
spider--I always thought Arabic would be something like "the screen, the computer (one)".
2.28.2008 7:43pm
Hoosier:
spider--Re: your point about orthography and phonology--In what other languages would a speeling-bee make any sense?

I've also done some language study, though the only non-Indo-Euro I've studies is Biblical Hebrew, and that only to get a sense of how it works. But I suppose one could ask students to "point" defective-script languages. Short of that, I'm at a loss to think of languages that present significant spelling problems.
2.28.2008 7:48pm
spider:
Hoosier - I was referring to the Arabic construction known as "idafa". On the other hand, if you wanted to construct a noun-adjective phrase such as "the cheap computer", then in arabic it would be rendered as "al-computer al-cheap" [Sorry, I forget the vocab words :> ]

You're right, spelling bees make sense only in English. (French has some oddities also though) Lucky for the rest of the world that the greatest imperial powers, the British and the Americans, have the most messed-up language!
2.28.2008 8:09pm
spider:
... of course English has acquired loanwords (shampoo, pundit, etc.) from India and other places as a direct result of imperialism, but that is only a tiny cause of the overall screwed-up spelling scheme in English.
2.28.2008 8:12pm
Randy R. (mail):
Thank you, denis; that is an excellent analysis on my if-not problem.

Actually, if you want to talk clarity, it isn't really usage, but rather punctuation. Improper use of commas, semi-colons, colons, quote marks and so on have created numerous problems, some of them hilarious.
2.28.2008 10:37pm
lucia (mail) (www):
EV--

Oddly enough, as a non-owner of an OED, I know "to gift" is a verb and has been forever and ever. (Even my 1967 Merriam-Websters!) The fact that that particular word has verb a long time even comes up in the interminable mrs. language person snits on knitting lists.

What--evidently-- the knitting grammarians consider non-standard is for people other than god or kings to 'gift' small tangible items.


They are willing to accept that god gifted someone with grace, intelligence or golden hair or something that, but one woman can't gift another with yarn. It is then decreed a non-standard perversion of language, that should be nipped in the bud.

I know that just now, I commented on the fact that nouns become verbs, as they do. That happens not to be the case in this instance. Interestingly enough, to those griping about "to gift", it would appear that this particular transition is not seen as a word that is already a verb being used differently, but as the noun being turned into a verb.

They consider will post theories explaining why it is actually verb-to-noun shift even when if one shows them quotes from scripture or poems.

FWIW: I don't particularly like the usage. But it's clear. There are lots of usages I don't like. My approach is to avoid using them.
2.29.2008 3:27pm
markm (mail):

Jay D:
•I say h/au/s/es

Really? Including "s" and not "z" in both places?
2.29.2008 6:03pm
Mike Gallo (mail):
I'm with spider. I grew up north of Milwaukee and I pronounce 99.99999% of English words to pur fekt shun.

Incidentally, I spent a bit of time in the Dominican Republic, and it was a bit irritating that most of the population speaks with about a 3rd or 4th grade understanding of their own language. Few of those whom I met would have passed many of my high school level Spanish classes.

So, did I use "whom" correctly, or what?
3.3.2008 7:14pm