The problem with the grammar police

I’ll admit it: I used to be a die-hard grammar corrector. I practically stalked around conversations with a red pen, ready to jump out and shout “gotcha!” if someone ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or said “irregardless”. But I’ve done a lot of learning and growing since then and, looking back, I’m kind of ashamed. The truth is, when I used to correct people’s grammar, I wasn’t trying to help them. I was trying to make myself look like a language authority, but in doing so I was actually hurting people. Ironically, I only realized this after years of specialized training to become an actual authority on language.

Chicago police officer on segway
I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but if I catch you using “less” for “fewer” again, I’ll have to give you a ticket.

But what do I mean when I say I was hurting people? Well, like some other types of policing, the grammar police don’t target everyone equally. For example, there has been a lot of criticism of Rihanna’s language use in her new single “Work” being thrown around recently. But that fact is that her language is perfectly fine. She’s just using Jamaican Patois, which most American English speakers aren’t familiar with. People claiming that the language use in “Work” is wrong is sort of similar to American English speakers complaining that Nederhop group ChildsPlay’s language use is wrong. It’s not wrong at all, it’s just different.

And there’s the problem. The fact is that grammar policing isn’t targeting speech errors, it’s targeting differences that are, for many people, perfectly fine. And, overwhelmingly, the people who make “errors” are marginalized in other ways. Here are some examples to show you what I mean:

  • Misusing “ironic”: A lot of the lists of “common grammar errors” you see will include a lot of words where the “correct” use is actually less common then other ways the word is used. Take “ironic”. In general use it can mean surprising or remarkable. If you’re a literary theorist, however, irony has a specific technical meaning–and if you’re not a literary theorist you’re going to need to take a course on it to really get what irony’s about. The only people, then, who are going to use this word “correctly” will be those who are highly educated. And, let’s be real, you know what someone means when they say ironic and isn’t that the point?
  • Overusing words like “just”: This error is apparently so egregious that there’s an e-mail plug-in, targeted mainly at women, to help avoid it. However, as other linguists have pointed out, not only is there limited evidence that women say “just” more than men, but even if there were a difference why would the assumption be that women were overusing “just”? Couldn’t it be that men aren’t using it enough?
  • Double negatives: Also called negative concord, this “error” happens when multiple negatives are used in a sentence, as in, “There isn’t nothing wrong with my language.” This particular construction is perfectly natural and correct in a lot of dialects of American English, including African American English and Southern English, not to mention the standard in some other languages, including French.

In each of these cases, the “error” in question is one that’s produced more by certain groups of people. And those groups of people–less educated individuals, women, African Americans–face disadvantages in other aspects of their life too. This isn’t a mistake or coincidence. When we talk about certain ways of talking, we’re talking about certain types of people. And almost always we’re talking about people who already have the deck stacked against them.

Think about this: why don’t American English speakers point out whenever the Queen of England says things differently? For instance, she often fails to produce the “r” sound in words like “father”, which is definitely not standardized American English. But we don’t talk about how the Queen is “talking lazy” or “dropping letters” like we do about, for instance,  “th” being produced as “d” in African American English. They’re both perfectly regular, logical language varieties that differ from standardized American English…but only one group gets flack for it.

Now I’m not arguing that language errors don’t exist, since they clearly do. If you’ve ever accidentally said a spoonerism or suffered from a tip of the tongue moment then you know what it feel like when your language system breaks down for a second. But here’s a fundamental truth of linguistics: barring a condition like aphasia, a native speaker of a language uses their language correctly. And I think it’s important for us all to examine exactly why it is that we’ve been led to believe otherwise…and who it is that we’re being told is wrong.

 

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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.

googleChart
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.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgements

Today’s Great Idea in Linguistics comes to use from syntax. One interesting difference between syntax and other fields of linguistics is what is considered compelling evidence for a theory in syntax. The aim of transformational syntax is to produce a set of rules (originally phrase structure rules) that will let you produce all the grammatical sentences in a language and none of the ungrammatical ones.  So, if you’re proposing a new rule you need to show that the sentences it outputs are grammatical… but how do you do that?

Wessel smedbager04.jpg
I sentence you to ten hours of community service for ungrammatical utterances!

One way to test whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone’s said it before. Back in the day, before you had things like large searchable corpora–or, heck even the internet–this was  difficult, so say the least. Especially since the really interesting syntactic phenomena tend to be pretty rare. Lots of sentences have a subject and an object, but a lot fewer have things like wh-islands.

Another way is to see if someone will say it. This is a methodology that is often used in sociolinguistics research. The linguist interviews someone using questions that are specifically designed to elicit certain linguistic forms, like certain words or sounds. However, this methodology is chancy at best. Often times the person won’t produce whatever it is you’re looking for. Also it can be very hard to make questions or prompts to access very rare forms.

Another way to see whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone would say it. This is the type of evidence that has, historically, been used most often in syntax research. The concept is straightforward. You present a speaker of a language with a possible sentence and  they use thier intuition as a native speaker to determine whether it’s good (“grammatical”) or not (“ungrammatical”). These sentences are often outputs of a proposed structure and used to argue either for or against it.

However, in practice grammaticality judgements can occasionally be a bit more difficult. Think about the following sentences:

  • I ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This sounds pretty good to me. I’d say it’s “grammatical”.
  • *I did ate the carrot yesterday.
    • I put a star (*) in front of this sentence because it sounds bad to me, and I don’t think anyone would say it. I’d say it’s “ungrammatical”.
  • ? I done ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This one is a little more borderline. It’s actually something I might say, but only in a very informal context and I realize that not everyone would say it.

So if you were a syntactician working on these sentences, you’d have to decide whether your model should account for the last sentence or not. One way to get around this is by building probability into the syntactic structure. So I’m more likely to use a structure that produces the first example but there’s a small probability I might use the structure in the third example. To know what those probabilities are, however, you need to figure out how likely people are to use each of the competing structures (and whether there are other factors at play, like dialect) and for that you need either lots and lots of grammaticality judgements. It’s a new use of a traditional tool that’s helping to expand our understanding of language.

Meme Grammar

So the goal of linguistics is to find and describe the systematic ways in which humans use language. And boy howdy do we humans love using language systematically. A great example of this is internet memes.

What are internet memes? Well, let’s start with the idea of a “meme”. “Memes” were posited by Richard Dawkin in his book The Selfish Gene. He used the term to describe cultural ideas that are transmitted from individual to individual much like a virus or bacteria. The science mystique I’ve written about is a great example of a meme of this type. If you have fifteen minutes, I suggest Dan Dennett’s TED talk on the subject of memes as a much more thorough introduction.

So what about the internet part? Well, internet memes tend to be a bit narrower in their scope. Viral videos, for example, seem to be a separate category from intent memes even though they clearly fit into Dawkin’s idea of what a meme is. Generally, “internet meme” refers to a specific image and text that is associated with that image. These are generally called image macros. (For a through analysis of emerging and successful internet memes, as well as an excellent object lesson in why you shouldn’t scroll down to read the comments, I suggest Know Your Meme.) It’s the text that I’m particularly interested in here.

Memes which involve language require that it be used in a very specific way, and failure to obey these rules results in social consequences. In order to keep this post a manageable size, I’m just going to look at the use of language in the two most popular image memes, as ranked by memegenerator.net, though there is a lot more to study here. (I think a study of the differing uses of the initialisms MRW [my reaction when]  and MFW [my face when] on imgur and 4chan would show some very interesting patterns in the construction of identity in the two communities. Particularly since the 4chan community is made up of anonymous individuals and the imgur community is made up of named individuals who are attempting to gain status through points. But that’s a discussion for another day…)

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site.
The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site. If you don’t recognize all of these characters, congratulations on not spending all your free time on the internet.

Without further ado, let’s get to the grammar. (I know y’all are excited.)

Y U No

This meme is particularly interesting because its page on Meme Generator already has a grammatical description.

The Y U No meme actually began as Y U No Guy but eventually evolved into simply Y U No, the phrase being generally followed by some often ridiculous suggestion. Originally, the face of Y U No guy was taken from Japanese cartoon Gantz’ Chapter 55: Naked King, edited, and placed on a pink wallpaper. The text for the item reads “I TXT U … Y U NO TXTBAK?!” It appeared as a Tumblr file, garnering over 10,000 likes and reblogs.

It went totally viral, and has morphed into hundreds of different forms with a similar theme. When it was uploaded to MemeGenerator in a format that was editable, it really took off. The formula used was : “(X, subject noun), [WH]Y [YO]U NO (Y, verb)?”[Bold mine.]

A pretty good try, but it can definitely be improved upon. There are always two distinct groupings of text in this meme, always in impact font, white with a black border and in all caps. This is pretty consistent across all image macros. In order to indicate the break between the two text chunks, I will use — throughout this post. The chunk of text that appears above the image is a noun phrase that directly addresses someone or something, often a famous individual or corporation. The bottom text starts with “Y U NO” and finishes with a verb phrase. The verb phrase is an activity or action that the addressee from the first block of text could or should have done, and that the meme creator considers positive. It is also inflected as if “Y U NO” were structurally equivalent to “Why didn’t you”. So, since you would ask Steve Jobs “Why didn’t you donate more money to charity?”, a grammatical meme to that effect would be “STEVE JOBS — Y U NO DONATE MORE MONEY TO CHARITY”. In effect, this meme questions someone or thing who had the agency to do something positive why they chose not to do that thing. While this certainly has the potential to be a vehicle for social commentary, like most memes it’s mostly used for comedic effect. Finally, there is some variation in the punctuation of this meme. While no punctuation is the most common, an exclamation points, a question mark or both are all used. I would hypothesize that the the use of punctuation varies between internet communities… but I don’t really have the time or space to get into that here.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above.

Futurama Fry

This meme also has a brief grammatical analysis

The text surrounding the meme picture, as with other memes, follows a set formula. This phrasal template goes as follows: “Not sure if (insert thing)”, with the bottom line then reading “or just (other thing)”. It was first utilized in another meme entitled “I see what you did there”, where Fry is shown in two panels, with the first one with him in a wide-eyed expression of surprise, and the second one with the familiar half-lidded expression.

As an example of the phrasal template, Futurama Fry can be seen saying: “Not sure if just smart …. Or British”. Another example would be “Not sure if highbeams … or just bright headlights”. The main form of the meme seems to be with the text “Not sure if trolling or just stupid”.

This meme is particularly interesting because there seems to an extremely rigid syntactic structure. The phrase follow the form “NOT SURE IF _____ — OR _____”. The first blank can either be filled by a complete sentence or a subject complement while the second blank must be filled by a subject complement. Subject complements, also called predicates (But only by linguists; if you learned about predicates in school it’s probably something different. A subject complement is more like a predicate adjective or predicate noun.), are everything that can come after a form of the verb “to be” in a sentence. So, in a sentence like “It is raining”, “raining” is the subject complement. So, for the Futurama Fry meme, if you wanted to indicate that you were uncertain whther it was raining or sleeting, both of these forms would be correct:

  • NOT SURE IF IT’S RAINING — OR SLEETING
  • NOT SURE IF RAINING — OR SLEETING

Note that, if a complete sentence is used and abbreviation is possible, it must be abbreviated. Thus the following sentence is not a good Futurama Fry sentence:

  • *NOT SURE IF IT IS RAINING — OR SLEETING

This is particularly interesting  because the “phrasal template” description does not include this distinction, but it is quite robust. This is a great example of how humans notice and perpetuate linguistic patterns that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above. If you’re not sure whether it’s phonetics or phonology, may I recommend this post as a quick refresher?

So this is obviously very interesting to a linguist, since we’re really interested in extracting and distilling those patterns. But why is this useful/interesting to those of you who aren’t linguists? A couple of reasons.

  1. I hope you find it at least a little interesting and that it helps to enrich your knowledge of your experience as a human. Our capacity for patterning is so robust that it affects almost every aspect of our existence and yet it’s easy to forget that, to let our awareness of that slip our of our conscious minds. Some patterns deserve to be examined and criticized, though, and  linguistics provides an excellent low-risk training ground for that kind of analysis.
  2. If you are involved in internet communities I hope you can use this new knowledge to avoid the social consequences of violating meme grammars. These consequences can range from a gentle reprimand to mockery and scorn The gatekeepers of internet culture are many, vigilant and vicious.
  3. As with much linguistic inquiry, accurately noting and describing these patterns is the first step towards being able to use them in a useful way. I can think of many uses, for example, of a program that did large-scale sentiment analyses of image macros but was able to determine which were grammatical (and therefore more likely to be accepted and propagated by internet communities) and which were not.

Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten
In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?
Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/11507&gt;.

Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible

If you’re like me and have vivid memories of learning to read English, you probably remember being deeply frustrated. As far as four-year-old-Rachael was concerned,  math was nice and simple: two and two always, always equals four. Not sometimes. Not only when it felt like it. All the time. Nice and simple.

Reading, and particularly phonics, on the other hand, was a minefield of dirty tricks. Oh, sure, they told us that each letter represented a single sound, but even a kid knows that’s hooey. Cough? Bough? Come on, that was like throwing sand in a fight; completely unfair. And what about those vowels? What and cut rhyme with each other, not cut and put. Even as phonics training was increasing my phonemic awareness, pushing me to pay more attention to the speech sounds I made, English orthography (that’s our spelling system) was dragging me behind the ball-shed and pulling out my hair in clumps. Metaphorically.

Books that make literacy fun
“Oh man, they’re trying to tell us that A makes the ‘Aaahhh’ sound. What do they take us for, complete idiots? Or is that ‘whaahhht’ to they take us for?”
“I know, right? One-to-one correspondence? Complete rubbish!”
Of course, I did eventually pass third grade and gain mastery of the written English language. But it was an uphill battle all the way. Why? Because English orthography is retarded. Wait. I’m sorry. That’s completely unfair to individuals suffering from retardation. English orthography is spiteful, contradictory and completely unsuited to representing the second most widely-spoken second language. This poem really highlights the problem:

Recovering Sounds from Orthography

Brush up Your English

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead, it’s said like bed, not bead-
for goodness’ sake don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth, or brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s doze and rose and lose-
Just look them up- and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart-
Come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

A dreadful language? Man alive! I mastered it when I was five.

— T.S. Watt (1954)

So why don’t we get our acts together and fix this mess? Well… trying to fix it is kind of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. Basically, in renaissance England we started out with a basically phonetic spelling system. You actually sounded out words and wrote them as they sounded. “Aks” instead of “ask”, for example. (For what it’s worth, “aks” is the original pronunciation.) And you would be writing by hand. On very expensive parchment with very expensive quills and ink for very rich people.

Enter the printing press. Suddenly we can not only produce massive amounts of literature, but everyone can access them. Spelling goes from being something that only really rich people and scribes care about to a popular phenomena. And printing press owners were quick to capitalize on that phenomena  by printing spelling lists that showed the “correct” way to write words. Except there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement between the different printing houses and they were already so heavily invested in their own systems that they weren’t really willing to all switch over to a centralized system. By the time Samuel Johnson comes around to pin down every word of English like an entomologist in a field of butterflies, we have standardized spellings for most words… that all come from different systems developed by different people. And it’s just gotten more complex from there. One of the main reasons is that we keep shoving new words into the language without regard for how they’re spelled.

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.”

― James Nicoll

There’s actually a sound in English, the zh sort of sound in “lesiure”, that only exists in words we’ve “borrowed” from other language and, of course, there’s no letter for it. Of course not; that would be too simple. And English detests simple. If you’re really interested in more of the gory details, there’s a great lecture you can listen to/watch here by Edwin Duncan which goes into way more detail on the historical background. Or you can just scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary and wince constantly.