There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [ðɛr]. They’re a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [ðɛr] you need.

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If tests aren’t your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess “their”, “there” and “they’re” in that order. According to Google’s n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) “their” is the most common [ðɛr] in writing, followed by “there” and then “they’re”.
  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If the sentence has “[ðɛr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [ðɛr] referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it belong to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard  “articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [ðɛr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

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Great Ideas in Linguistics: Paradigm Levelling

One of the great things about being human is our ability to figure patterns and then apply them in new situations. In fact, that pretty much describes the vast bulk of scientific inquiry– someone notices a thing, notices other things like it, figures that they must be motivated by some underlying process and then tries to figure it out. From gravity to DNA to the fact that maybe DDT wasn’t such a panacea after all, all important scientific discoveries have sprung from that same general process of recognizing patterns.

And that process is at work in language as well. Let’s take a look at the following way of conjugating English verbs.


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walks                    They walk


Now, if you’re the noticing type of person you might find that there’ s a glaring problem that’s messing up an otherwise nice, predictable pattern: that odd out-of-place “s” in “She walks.” Why, it’s downright irksome. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get rid of it entirely and have a nice, lovely, completely predictable conjugation like this one:


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walk                   They walk


Of course it would. And in fact, there are some speakers of English who do just that. Dropping the third person singular “s”, as it turns out, is a common feature of African American English. And if similar processes in other languages, such as Latin, are any guide, we may all one day adopt this entirely sensible practice, which is commonly referred to as “paradigm levelling”.

In fact, English has already undergone a massive process of morphological simplification, including a lot of paradigm levelling, once before. During the transition from Old English to Middle English, we lost a whole bucketful of cases and person markings. This was partly due to language contact in the Danelaw, where Viking settlers interacted and intermarried with the local English-speaking population. Being no-nonsense second language learners, they did away with a lot of the odder patterns and left us with something that much more closely resembled the comparatively morphologically streamlined English of today.

And the same process has occurred over and over again the world’s languages.  People notice that something isn’t what you’d expect, given the pattern in place, and choose to follow the pattern rather than historical precedent, tidying away some of the messiness that inevitably creeps into languages over time. Paradigm levelling is a powerful force for linguistic change and a useful theoretical tool in historical linguistics.

Book Review: Punctuation..?

So the good folks over at Userdesign asked me to review their newest volume, Punctuation..? and I was happy to oblige. Linguists rarely study punctuation (it falls under the sub-field orthography, or the study of writing systems) but what we do study is the way that language attitudes and punctuation come together. I’ve written before about language attitudes when it come to grammar instruction and the strong prescriptive attitudes of most grammar instruction books. What makes this book so interesting is that it is partly prescriptive and partly descriptive. Since a descriptive bent in a grammar instruction manual is rare, I thought I’d delve into that a bit.

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Image copyright Userdesign, used with permission. (Click for link to site.)

So, first of all, how about a quick review of the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive approach to language?

  • Descriptive: This is what linguists do. We don’t make value or moral judgments about languages or language use, we just say what’s going on as best we can. You can think of it like an anthropological ethnography: we just describe what’s going on. 
  • Prescriptive: This is what people who write letters to the Times do. They have a very clear idea of what’s “right” and “wrong” with regards to language use and are all to happy to tell you about it. You can think of this like a manner book: it tells you what the author thinks you should be doing. 

As a linguist, my relationship with language is mainly scientific, so I have a clear preference for a descriptive stance. An ichthyologist doesn’t tell octopi, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong!” after all. At the same time, I live in a culture which has very rigid expectations for how an educated individual should write and sound, and if I want to be seen as an educated individual (and be considered for the types of jobs only open to educated individuals) you better believe I’m going to adhere to those societal standards. The problem comes when people have a purely prescriptive idea of what grammar is and what it should be. That can lead to nasty things like linguistic discrimination. I.e., language B (and thus all those individuals who speak language B) is clearly inferior to language A because they don’t do things properly. Since I think we can all agree that unfounded discrimination of this type is bad, you can see why linguists try their hardest to avoid value judgments of languages.

As I mentioned before, this book is a fascinating mix of prescriptive and descriptive snippets. For example, the author says this about exclamation points: “In everyday writing, the exclamation mark is often overused in the belief that it adds drama and excitement. It is, perhaps  the punctuation mark that should be used with the most restraint” (p 19). Did you notice that “should'”? Classic marker of a prescriptivist claiming their territory. But then you have this about Guillements: “Guillements are used in several languages to indicate passages of speech in the same way that single and double quotation marks (” “”) are used in the English language” (p. 22). (Guillements look like this, since I know you were wondering;  « and ». ) See, that’s a classical description of what a language does, along with parallels drawn to another, related, languages. It may not seem like much, but try to find a comparably descriptive stance in pretty much any widely-distributed grammar manual. And if you do, let me know so that I can go buy a copy of it. It’s change, and it’s positive change, and I’m a fan of it. Is this an indication of a sea-change in grammar manuals? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Over all, I found this book fascinating (though not, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended!). Particularly because it seems to stand in contrast to the division that I just spent this whole post building up. It’s always interesting to see the ways that stances towards language can bleed and melt together, for all that linguists (and I include myself here) try to show that there’s a nice, neat dividing line between the evil, scheming prescriptivists and the descriptivists in their shining armor here to bring a veneer of scientific detachment to our relationship with language. Those attitudes can and do co-exist. Data is messy.  Language is complex. Simple stories (no matter how pretty we might think them) are suspicious. But these distinctions can be useful, and I’m willing to stand by the descriptivist/prescriptivist, even if it’s harder than you might think to put people in one camp or the others.

But beyond being an interesting study in language attitdues, it was a fun read. I learned lots of neat little factoids, which is always a source of pure joy for me. (Did you know that this symbol:  is called a Pilcrow? I know right? I had no idea either; I always just called it the paragraph mark.)

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos
“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”
So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.