Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Grammar in the News

A reader of the Oklahoman newspaper recently wrote:

"I have always believed that proper grammar has been set in stone, so to speak, and that it does not change in any society, nor in any decade.”

I always want to sit these people down and say, "Okay. Sure. But can you tell me something? Who set these rules in stone and, while we're at it, can you show me the stone (so to speak) of which you speak?"

I think it would take about five minutes to demonstrate to one of these people that they don't know what grammar is. As I've written before, it's not a list of rules someone once "legislated." It's analysis of how the language is used. People like this Oklahoman reader bought — hook, line and sinker — a long-dead teacher's long-ago spiel about absolute rights and wrongs without ever asking, "What's your source on that?"

* * *

A commenter at Tennessean.com wrote:

"OK, I confess. I am somewhat of a grammatical snob. After all, I am a writer. ... The truth is, I have no problem with "casual" grammar. It would be a rather pretentious world if we all went around sounding like college term papers. I have even been known to occasionally split an infinitive myself. "

D'oh. Why is it that the people most willing to embrace the label of grammar snob don't even know some of the most basic facts, like there's no rule against splitting infinitives?

Plus, the idea that writers have an extraordinary grasp of grammar is silly. Perhaps the average writer is more grammar-savvy than the average stock broker, plumber, or president. But I know a lot of writers and none of them considers herself to have a good enough knowledge of grammar.

* * *

A reader of the Amarillo Globe News recently wrote to complain that Arne Duncan, President-Elect Obama's pick for education secretary, gave thanks to those " ... who gave my sister and I ..."

Commenters on the site said this was nitpicking — especially when you consider all the assaults on the English language committed by our current commander-in-chief. Others argued Duncan was speaking colloquially/idiomatically.

As someone who can't help but be peeved by certain objective uses of "I," I'm going to side with the letter-writer. Knowing when to use "my sister and I" versus "my sister and me" is basic stuff. It's not a nitpicky thing like whether you can use "have got" in place of plain old "have." The concept of subject and object pronouns is grammar 101 — important stuff. I suspect Duncan's words arose out of ignorance and not conscious choice. An education secretary nominee should demonstrate mastery of basic grammatical concepts.

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Di said...

I suggest the reader take the time to read Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue. Fascinating. And it explains the fluidity of language over centuries. And when all else fails, remember that there are things upon which two of the most sacred grammar/usage tomes (Chicago Manual of Style and AP) disagree.

LL Blackwell said...

Regarding grammar set in stone: Does she realize Shakespeare wrote in what is technically modern English? Does she believe only people who use his structure are speaking correctly? I mean, come on!

And yet there *is* something to say for educators (especially elementary, English, and social studies teachers--I can be more forgiving of math and science teachers) who have difficulties with basic grammar. Also, I am always appalled when librarians post to a certain listserv with major grammatical issues. Haven't they heard of proofreading, at the very least?

And that's where this is difficult: having a high standard without being completely ridiculous about it. We can't be perfect all the time, but we can at least try to *think* about what we're doing.

June Casagrande said...

Exactly! Where do these people think their most cherished grammar rules came from in the first place? For that matter, where do they think "thou" went?

June Casagrande said...

I think, Blackwell, there's nothing wrong with being "pro" or "con" certain standards/rules/usage issues as long people understand these are opinions. For example, as I've said here before, I dislike "there's" before a plural. But I don't write the rules.

Adrian Morgan said...

I disagree on the second one. Certainly the only way to play it safe is to stick with "I' for subject and "me" for object, but the tendency to override this rule (one way or the other) when a conjunction is involved is too deeply entrenched in too many speakers to be dismissed as an error.

As you say, it's one thing to have opinions, and another to mistake them for facts about the language.

June Casagrande said...

I see it less as something that's entrenched and more as a product of conscious effort. I see people giving much more thought to it than to most other stuff that comes out of their mouths. And if you ask them, which is right and why, they can't tell you. I find it a bit of a heartbreaker because none of them would ever say, "Joe really helped I" but throw in another person and they're stumped.

Of course, that's just my friends. You may run with a better crowd.

: )

Adrian Morgan said...

Wow, I think that's the first time I've ever posted a comment while you were still awake! In the past I've always had to wait until between 1:00am and 2:00am for your approval. :-)

I don't see any evidence that people think more consciously about this than they do about anything else in grammar. From a purely logical POV, though, if the form of a pronoun can be governed by its relation to one part of speech (a verb), then there's no reason why it might not also be governed by its relation to another part of speech (a conjunction).

Incidentally, me and all your other readers think you have an excellent blog.

June Casagrande said...

Considering how much I sleep (a lot), that really is amazing!

I like your point about associating the pronoun with a word other than the verb. (Like how people can think of "One in five dentists" as having "dentists" as its head noun instead of "one.") But I think that's just another way of looking at what, to me, appears to be confusion.

Seriously, though, I grew up in a Florida, so there was a lot of confusion about a lot of things -- including how to spell "Florida."

Thanks for the props on the blog!

Adrian Morgan said...

It could be worse. You could have grown up in the Florida, rather than just a Florida. (I'm reminded of a scene from Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad trilogy.)

You seem a little inconsistent, in that you wrote "I suspect Duncan's words arose [...] not [out of] conscious choice" but then "I see it [...] more as a product of conscious effort", so I'm not really sure what point you were making by writing both.

I have about 45 linguistics blogs that I read regularly, each with its own individual charm. I generally cycle through most of them alphabetically and come round again every few days (but I read Language Log every day). You're number 9, in between Cognition and Language Lab and David Crystal's blog. The list is on my blogroll under "Misc Linguistics", and the others should all be honoured to be included in your company.

June Casagrande said...

I spend all day chopping lard like that out of other people's sentences and STILL can't help but write like that. (In my defense, I was tired. I think.) Sorry 'bout that.

I'm not sure what I meant. But after I wrote that, I remembered something I should have mentioned: I occasionally teach a "grammar tips" class for Mediabistro. Most of the students are PR people or entry-level magazine writers or aspiring copy editors or aspiring novelists. With few exceptions, they're all stumped by the question of when to use "my sister and I" versus "my sister and me."

When I tell 'em to try dropping "my sister and" or plugging in "us" and "we," then they get it.

Oh, but of course, they've all heard that you can't end a sentence with a preposition.

So crazy!

P.S. I'm very honored to be on Language Log's blog roll! I'm on The Atlantic Monthly's, too (Barbara Wallraff's blog). I feel like I'm constantly in danger of LL and BW saying, "What the hell are we doing linking to THIS drivel?"

Until then ...

Adrian Morgan said...

Probably what I most like about your blog is that it has the atmosphere of a casual but stimulating conversation and makes me feel that I could chat to you all week.

But I should probably stop before I find myself telling you about, say, my worst memories of my Year Seven teacher, because that will give you nightmares and then you won't sleep so much anymore. (If you really want to know, write a post about prescriptivism in schools or something like that.)

June Casagrande said...

My seeming chatwithability is smoke and mirrors. In real life I usually just want to talk about death. I'm a hoot like that.

That's the nice thing about having a topic to blog about. The observational is secondary -- an accessory. The topic tethers it down.

Now I'm dying to know about your Year Seven teacher, but afraid to ask. (Where I come from, when people say their stories about a teacher will give nightmares, those stories usually involves, a case of Busch beer, a can of hog fat, and some banjo music.) But since you threw in that prescriptivism comment, I'm betting it's a good story. But I can't think of a thing to say about prescriptivsm in schools. (Other than, "Yo, lighten up, teachers").

Any chance you'd share anyway?

June Casagrande said...

Correct typos to read: "... those stories usually involve a ..."

goofy said...

The object-position "X and I" construction has been around since the 1600s, and I've noticed it in the speech of educated speakers. I'm not convinced that it's a mistake or confusion so much as an informal register. Conjoined pronouns behave differently than single pronouns. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a good overview of the subject.

Someone mentioned Bryson's The Mother Tongue: I've read it wouldn't recommend it. There are many better researched books on the history of English, like David Crystal's The Stories of English.

Adrian Morgan said...

(Feel free to take this to email any time you want.)

Basically Mrs McCauley didn't give a hoot about originality or expressiveness or anything like that. To give you an impression: at one art festival (for which students prepare by making their own costumes in art class), her class were all dressed as identical Mickey Mouse clones, each mask having been made to her very precise dictation, whereas every other teacher would just tell students the theme (e.g. "cartoon character") and let them come up with something to fit.

As for writing, what mattered most in essays and stories was whether you complied with various crazy rules that she had invented herself. When she taught 7th grade, every sentence had to contain at least 11 words, every paragraph had to contain at least 7 sentences, and so on. (I'm told that when she taught 4th grade, the minimum number of sentences in a paragraph was four, but within a class it was absolutely rigid). Complying with rules like this was pretty much what writing was about in her class, which I suffered throughout 1989. I have the kind of personality that's interested in when rules are meant to be broken, so I didn't like her at all.

And then there's the rule that EVERY sentence in an essay or story had to begin with a different word. I get the point of that as an excercise to help students pay attention to their sentence beginnings, but seriously, for everything you write at school for an entire year? Come on!

Enough about Year Seven.

I don't remember whether any teacher told us not to end a sentence with a preposition, but several of them told us not to start one with a conjunction. And they were just as wrong.

(P.S. On my blog, if I make a typo in a comment, I just edit the comment. Does Blogger not let you do that?)

June Casagrande said...

Goofy: If by "educated speakers" you mean people who are educated about grammar, I'm glad to hear it. As I said, the only people I know who say stuff like "Meet with Bill and I" don't understand subject and object pronouns and are mortified to learn that their choice isn't the most grammatically correct.

June Casagrande said...

8Fed: I don't understand how people like Mrs. McCauly are born into this world, much less how they get into TEACHING. Seriously, that sounds to me like she either had serious emotional damage resulting in control-freak issues (control-freak issues usually being rooted in fear) or she was just an ogre who liked making life difficult for young peope.

I mean, that Mickey Mouse thing -- Come on. That's not an act of a mentally healthy woman.

It's possible Blogger lets you fix typos, but I haven't figured out how. Seems once a comment is posted, there's no way to get back into it. So my shortcomings are always on public display.

Anyway, congratulations on surviving Mrs. McCauley! Seriously. Wow.

goofy said...

I don't know if they've been educated in grammar... I'm not sure why that's important. If it has been used by educated speakers and writers since the 1600s then I think it's correct at least in some registers. It seems to be found mostly in speech or informal prose.

June Casagrande said...

I was talking about the instances you said you had personally noticed. Not the ones dating back to 1600. I mean, unless secretly you're John McCain, in which case it could be both.

Again, my problem with this usage is that, when I hear it, it's from people who are trying to be as correct as possible. They don't know how. That makes it problematic for me. I suppose that, for me, there's a qualitative difference between something done by choice and something done out of ignorance.

(I'm inexplicably fond of saying, "might could," as in, "I might could make us some tortellini tonight." That doesn't exactly apply to what we're talking about, but it just came to mind.)

goofy said...

Out of ignorance of what, tho? Isn't it possible that it's, well, a variant English usage that some grammarians have interpreted as being done out of ignorance, but in fact is just a feature of informal English? After all the rules of one register don't necessarily apply to another register.

June Casagrande said...

Out of ignorance of a basic understanding of case and ignorance of the prescriptivist views they're actively trying to live up to.

goofy said...

About the latter (prescriptivist views)... since it's been around since before the rise prescriptivism in English, so I'm skeptical.

About the former... perhaps conjoined pronouns behave differently with respect to case in certain registers.

goofy said...

see: http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/Grano.finalthesis.pdf

June Casagrande said...

I guess I haven't explained myself well. All I'm saying is that the people I hear use "X and I" in the objective are the people who are actively trying to live up to the expectations of some English teacher. They'll admit just that. But they don't understand how.

I think that's a problem. I'll look at Zwicky's thingy now ...

goofy said...

OK, I see what you're saying. I think you have explained yourself well. :)

June Casagrande said...


: )

To take this in a slightly different direction, I think the anti-prescriptivist position (which, is it me, or is it reaching a fever pitch in academic circles?) is fine, but it overlooks one thing: Often, people just want to know how to comply with others' expectations. They don't care so much whether the expectations are wrong. They don't care whether the dude reading their cover letter is wrong to look down his nose at "between you and I." They're more interested in getting the job than in disproving the manager they'll never get an interview with anyway, you know?

Descriptivism tends to answer usage questions with stuff like, "Yes, people have been using the language that way for centuries." But, often, Joe Needsgrammarhelp already gets that. He knows people say "Between you and I." What he wants to know is whether it's "okay" if he says it, too. So he turns to people like me for guidance.

More and more, my guidance has been, "Worry less about 'right' and 'wrong' and more about understanding the mechanics at work."

And that's why I get a little fussy about "between you and I" -- because, in my limited experience, it demonstrates a failed attempt to understand those mechanics.

goofy said...

I don't think descriptivism answers usage questions at all, actually. Descriptivism describes and explains. But if you want advice, you want a prescription.

I'd just like prescriptivism to be rational and motivated. When you say it demonstrates a failed attempt to understand the mechanics of case, I think you mean hypercorrection? But is hypercorrection really the cause. Object-position "X and I" is "incorrect" because lots of people in positions of power think it is "incorrect". Or to put it another way, standard written English handles case and pronouns one way, and informal English handles them another way. The people who use object-position "X and I" might be using it because of hypercorrection, or they might be using it because it's part of their grammar. The thesis I linked to suggests it's influenced by hypercorrection but not caused by it.

June Casagrande said...

I didn't read all the Zwicky piece (75 pages and all) but I read enough to get some good stuff out of it.

My problem with prescriptivism is that it lacks self-awareness. They often say "This is the right way" when they should say "This is the wisest/safest way."

Thanks for the insights as to whether or not "between you and I" is hypercorrection. I labeled it that recently but then later questioned that analysis. It does seem somehow different but I wasn't able to put my finger on it. I like "influenced by not caused by."

Okay, now I'm off to dinner!

: )

goofy said...

My problem with a lot of prescriptivists is that they get their facts wrong, or they try to make their personal preferences into universal rules. Not you tho - your advice is even-handed and thoughtful.

June Casagrande said...

I don't consider myself a prescriptivist or a descriptivist (though if I had to choose a camp, it would definitely be the latter). I consider myself a journalist. And I consider journalism to be among the humblest of jobs. In a word, a journalist's job is to fetch. We fetch information and serve it in a way that makes it as digestible as possible.

I editorialize some. But for the most part, I want to be the reporter -- the messenger -- and not the source. It took me a while to figure out that this is my role. But now I know I don't care whether it's "right" to use "than me" in place of "than I." I just want to help people make educated choices between the two.

Of course, my thingy about "between you and I" is an exception -- a definite bias. But for the most part, I try to stick to that messenger job.

Anyway, that was a long entree to just saying: Thank you!

Adrian Morgan said...

At this point in the discussion I'll just add that my Year Five teacher, Mr. Gillies, always responded to sentences like "Me and Dad went to the beach" by asserting that Miandad is a Pakistani cricketter. (I was going to mention this before, but couldn't be bothered looking up the spelling for Miandad.)

Mr. Gillies also had a list of "banned" words up on the classroom wall, but I can only remember one of them, which was the word "got". His other prescriptivist peeve that I remember was the can/may distinction.

LL Blackwell said...

I've been out of town, so this is a little late in coming, but I must comment on the prescriptivist issue, since I am a high school English teacher who runs a tad with the prescriptivist crowd:

There's certainly good in it, when not over-used. It's really REALLY hard to concretely explain what a "complete thought" is, and so when I tell my students that a good analytical paragraph has 15 sentences, including three quotes from the text, etc., now I know that they know what is necessary to adequately support their ideas.

I hated English in high school (this is how I teach my students about irony, since I love my job), but I have to credit my school's method of essay writing to helping me be successful in college, even though once I got to college I pretty much had to leave it all behind. That's the sticking point with prescriptivism: it's helpful for a foundation, but you ultimately gotta find your own voice.

June Casagrande said...

Maybe that's how prescriptivism got so out of hand -- it was a convenient tool of control-freak teachers.

"Got" as a banned word? That's just insane. And such a waste. I mean, think of all the actual knowledge those teachers could have imparted instead of wasting all that time on misinformation. Such a shame.

June Casagrande said...

"I hated English in high school (this is how I teach my students about irony, since I love my job)"

That is hilarious. And, as a ninth-grade dropout who now writes grammar books, I can relate.

I can totally see how, as an exercise, keeping paragraphs to 15sentences could be really helpful. But Adrian's teacher seemed to use it as a whip and not a tool.

Prescriptivism gets ugly when it takes the position of "this is the right way and this is only right way." If I were a teacher, I'd be very comfortable laying down rules prefaced by "In this class, we ..."

That's my biggest problem with Strunk and White's "Elements": It's a former classroom guide misapplied. It's the difference between a teacher telling students "You can't chew gum" and her telling strangers at the mall that they "can't chew gum." The whole context thing.

Joel said...

This is a lovely dialog and has me thinking many thoughts about prescription, description, ontology, objectivity, education, etc. And I'm not going to share them. Instead I'm going to rant about the objective "I."

It's an abomination. As in "of desolation." God help us. I might be joking but I'm not (well, being perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but still; I'm mostly serious in my melodrama); it's like nukular fingers scraping on the chalkboard. Ick. It hurts my ears and the rest of my head.

No offense. But it needed to be said.

I guess I will add that I have some prescriptivist tendencies because I do believe in an objective truth out there somewhere--not that language (let alone a particular language) is directly linked up with it and not that we can ever be sure what it looks like. I guess it gets to what goofy said about rationality and motivation. Sure, it's possible for a conjunction to govern the pronominal form but that sounds less rational than rationalized. What's the point? What good does it do? How does it relate to other meaningful conventions? What does it do for cohesion, clarity and consistency. Yeah, I'm as big a fan of anarchy and dissonance as the next guy (bigger, probably), but we've got to have some decent rules before we can start breaking them, and when we're breaking them it's usually a good idea to have a reason for doing so. No, it's not enough that a lot of people have done it that way for a long time. As in most other spheres, the relative virtues of descrptivism notwithstanding, at some points the argument against the lemmings is pretty compelling. Which is to say, sometimes the fact that so many people do it is just another reason to wonder whether it's a good thing--yes, even with language.

The real problem with prescriptivism is when it's arbitrary, especially when it's authoritarian and arbitrary.

And what bothers me most is that so many folks who use the objective "I" do it with an air of superiority. Like those who use "whom" in the subjective. They've found their token and they're going to play it wherever they can. And in their minds it makes them better than the rest of us. That's not populism; it's just a really sad self-parody of elitism.

Not that I have strong feelings about it.

June Casagrande said...

"That's not populism; it's just a really sad self-parody of elitism."

Well put!

goofy said...

"I guess it gets to what goofy said about rationality and motivation. Sure, it's possible for a conjunction to govern the pronominal form but that sounds less rational than rationalized. What's the point? What good does it do? How does it relate to other meaningful conventions? What does it do for cohesion, clarity and consistency."

What does it not do for cohesion, clarity and consistency? There's nothing unclear or incoherent about object-position "X and I".

In language, there is no other authority than the speakers of the language. If all the speakers do it, then it is correct in that context. The fact that many people do is a very good reason to wonder if it is the thing to do - the very best reason.

However, object-position "X and I" is in fact much less common than object-position "X and me".

Joel said...

I do feel a little self-conscious making such a big deal out of this, but it would be disingenuous for me to pretend I don't care. Just know that I don't think you're an idiot because you happen to have the wrong opinion about it, okay, goofy? ;-)

The "X and I" objective usage is fundamentally inconsistent in at least two ways:
1) The object case first person pronoun without the "X and" companion is overwhelmingly "me."
2) As you yourself indicate, there is an equal--in fact, greater--number of occurrences of the "X and me" form to mean the exact same thing. How is that not inconsistent and confusing? And where is the precedent for a legitimate interchangeability between two otherwise mutually-exclusive forms in the same case? BTW, there may in fact be and I don't thereby concede if there is. ;-) I'm actually kinda curious about that.

The "X and I" objective usage intrinsically implies that "X and me" is redundant and, by extension, suggests the uselessness of "me" more generally (please pardon the unfortunate equivocation there; and I hope you won't run with it).

Is there another instance (other than the quite logical transformation of a singular to a plural subject and its impact on the verb) where the conjunction fundamentally changes the noun form?

Yeah, to me, the contradictions represented by objective "X and I" are the essence of unclear, inconsistent and without cohesion.

I would further argue that there is an aesthetic element to accepted usage. Granted, this might be subjective (and, in any case, I'm unprepared to make a strong case for it), but on these grounds as well, I'd say objective "X and I" loses. And that might have been my basic argument in the first place, the rest being admittedly rhetorical sound and fury.

Speaking of "X and me," not having read the thesis, I'd still be willing to bet, as we've already implied, that most practitioners of objective "X and I" are, in fact, conspicuously overcompensating to avoid subjective "X and me." Even if it's not an expression of hypercorrection, it sure reeks of it, and, again, "reeks" argues against.

I don't know if you consider the point open to disagreement, but I respectfully do disagree with the assertion that there is "no other authority than the speakers of the language," if by which we mean that the standards of language are unambiguously the majority or consensus opinion. The very existence of that beloved class of professionals known as editors (he says sincerely but simultaneously blatantly sucking up), not to mention teachers and, indeed, authors suggests that language can--and, I argue, should--be led and guided so that it attains to higher standards of principle and beauty.

We hope they are not snobs, pharisees or tyrants, but we need experts--propelled, ideally, by their love of and sense for the nature and rhythms of the language.

And we understand, not only by internal example but by analogy from parallel realms, that if the lovers of language, of Truth and of Beauty do not lead, then Commerce and the Sword will gladly turn the tongue to their own ends. This happens anyway, and is all the more reason--aside from entropy itself--that standards must be upheld and beauty and excellence pursued.

Really, I think this gets to an issue discussed at other times on this blog: whether the substantiality of an erroneous minority justifies altering a meaningful and reasonable standard. In the absence of a clear and compelling case in favor of the change (which I think this particular instance clearly lacks and which, in any event, has not been offered), I think it right to fight for the standard and against its degradation. We do agree, I hope, that it makes at least some difference whether we declare and, in whatever our domains of influence, attempt to maintain and encourage, grammatical standards.

Anyway, that's my opinion, which I humbly--despite the occasional impertinence of my rhetoric--offer. I might be wrong. Again, it strikes me how quickly this touches upon the feelings I have about more general and fundamental issues--of, for instance, objective truth and principle. Language is a curious creature.

goofy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goofy said...

Something I forgot to mention:

1 She sent a letter to I.
2 She sent a letter to Bob and I.

Logically, we might expect 1 to occur, since 2 occurs. But it doesn't. This is systematic, but it isn't logical.

"Is there another instance... where the conjunction fundamentally changes the noun form?"

At lot has been written on how case is assigned and what blocks the assignment of case, for instance Chomsky's "Barriers" (1986). I can't remember any other examples atm.


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