Arrant Pedantry

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Fifty Shades of Bad Grammar Advice

A few weeks ago, the folks at the grammar-checking website Grammarly wrote a piece about supposed grammar mistakes in Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite being a runaway hit, the book has frequently been criticized for its terrible prose, and Grammarly apparently saw an opportunity to fix some of the book’s problems (and probably sell its grammar-checking services along the way).

The first problem, of course, is that most of the errors Grammarly identified have nothing to do with grammar. The second is that most of their edits not only fail to fix the clunky prose but actually make it worse.

Mark Allen already took Grammarly to task in a post on the Copyediting blog, saying that their edits “lack restraint”, that “the list is full of style choices and non-errors”, and that “it fails to make a case for the value of proofreading, and, by association, . . . reflects poorly on the craft of copyediting.” I agreed and thought at the time that nothing more needed to be said.

But then Grammarly decided to go even further. In this infographic, they claim to have found “similar gaffes” in the works of authors ranging from Nicholas Sparks to Shakespeare.

The first edit suggests that Nicholas Sparks needs a comma in the sentence “I am a common man with common thoughts and I’ve led a common life.” It’s true that this is a compound sentence, and such sentences typically require a comma between the two independent clauses. But The Chicago Manual of Style says that the comma can be omitted when the clauses are short and closely related. This isn’t an error so much as a style choice.

Incidentally, Grammarly says that “E. L. James is not the first author to include a comma in her work when a semi-colon would be more appropriate, or vice versa.” But the supposed error here isn’t that James used a comma when she should have used a semicolon; it’s that she didn’t use a comma at all. (Also note that “semicolon” is not spelled with a hyphen and that the comma before “or vice versa” is not necessary.)

Error number 2 is comma misuse (which is somehow different from error number 1, which is also comma misuse). Grammarly says, “Many writers forget to include a comma when one is necessary, or include a comma when it is not necessary.” (By the way, the comma before “or include a comma when it is not necessary” is not necessary.) The supposed offender here is Hemingway, who wrote, “We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” Grammarly suggests putting a comma after “at night”, but that would be a mistake.

The sentence has a compound predicate with three verb phrases strung together with ands. Hemingway says that “We would (1) be together and (2) have our books and (3) at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” You don’t need a comma between the parts of a compound predicate, and if you want to set off the phrase “at night”, then you need commas on both sides: “We would be together and have our books and, at night, be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.” But that destroys the rhythm of the sentence and interferes with Hemingway’s signature style.

Error number 3 is wordiness, and the offender is Edith Wharton, who wrote, “Each time you happen to me all over again.” Grammarly suggests axing “all over”, leaving “Each time you happen to me again”. But this edit doesn’t fix a wordy sentence so much as it kills its emphasis. This is dialogue; shouldn’t dialogue sound like the way people talk?

Error number 4, colloquialisms, is not even an error by Grammarly’s own admission—it’s a stylistic choice. And choosing to use colloquialisms—more particularly, contractions—is a perfectly valid stylistic choice in fiction, especially in dialogue. Changing “doesn’t sound very exciting” to “it does not sound very exciting” is probably fine if you’re editing dialogue for Data from Star Trek, but it just isn’t how normal people talk.

The next error, commonly confused words, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Here Grammarly fingers F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing “to-night” rather than “tonight”. But this has nothing to do with confused words, because they’re the same word. To-night was the more common spelling until the 1930s, when the unhyphenated tonight surpassed it. This is not an error at all, let alone an error involving commonly confused words.

The sixth error, sentence fragments, is again debatable, and Grammarly even acknowledges that using fragments “is one way to emphasize an idea.” Once again, Grammarly says that it’s a style choice that for some reason you should never make. The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, rightly acknowledges that the proscription against sentence fragments has “no historical or grammatical foundation.”

Error number 7 is another puzzler. They say that determiners “help writers to be specific about what they are talking about.” Then they say that Boris Pasternak should have written “sent down to the earth” rather than “sent down to earth” in Doctor Zhivago. Where on the earth did they get that idea? Not only is “down to earth” far more common in writing, but there’s nothing unclear about it. Adding the “the” doesn’t solve any problem because there is no problem here. Incidentally, they say the error has to do with determiners, but they’re really talking about articles—a, an, and the. Articles are simply one type of determiner, which also includes possessive determiners, demonstratives, and quantifiers.

I’ll skip error number 8 for the moment and go to number 9, the passive voice. Again they note the passive voice is a stylistic choice and not a grammatical error, and then they edit it out anyway. In place of Mr. Darcy’s “My feelings will not be repressed” we now have “I will not repress my feelings.” Grammarly claims that the passive can cause “a lack of clarity in your writing”, but what is unclear about this line? Is anyone confused about it in the slightest? Instead of added clarity, we get a ham-fisted edit that shifts the focus from where it should be—the feelings—onto Mr. Darcy himself. This is exactly the sort of sentence that calls for the passive voice.

The eighth error is probably the most infuriating because it gets so many things wrong. Here they take Shakespeare himself to task over his supposed preposition misuse. They say that in The Tempest, Shakespeare should have written “such stuff on which dreams are made on” rather than “such stuff as dreams are made on”. The first problem with Grammarly’s correction is that it doubles the preposition “on”, creating a grammatical problem rather than fixing it.

The second problem with this correction is that which can’t be used as a relative pronoun referring to such—only as can do that. Their fix is not just awkward but doubly ungrammatical.

The third is that it simply ruins the meter of the line. Remember that Shakespeare often wrote in a meter called iambic pentameter, which means that each foot contains two syllables with stress on the second syllable and that there are five feet per line. Here’s the sentence from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(Note that these aren’t full lines because I’m omitting the text from surrounding sentences that make up part of the first and third lines.) Pay attention to the rhythm of those lines.

we ARE such STUFF
as DREAMS are MADE on AND our LITTle LIFE
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

Now compare Grammarly’s fix:

we ARE such STUFF
on WHICH dreams ARE made ON and OUR littLE life
is ROUNDed WITH a SLEEP

The second line has too many syllables, and the stresses have all shifted. Shakespeare’s line puts most of the stresses on nouns and verbs, while Grammarly’s fix puts it mostly on function words—pronouns, prepositions, determiners—and, maybe worst of all, on the second syllable of “little”. They have taken lines from one of the greatest writers in all of English history and turned them into ungrammatical doggerel. It takes some nerve to edit the Bard; it apparently takes sheer blinkered idiocy to edit him so badly.

So, just to recap, that’s nine supposed grammatical errors that Grammarly says will ruin your prose, most of which are not errors and have nothing to do with grammar. Their suggested fixes, on the other hand, sometimes introduce grammatical errors and always worsen the writing. The takeaway from all of this is not, as Grammarly says, that loves conquers all, but rather that Grammarly doesn’t know the first thing about grammar, let alone good writing.

Addendum: I decided to stop giving Grammarly such a bad time and help them out by editing their infographic pro bono.

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New Shirts, New Old Posts

Good news, everyone! I have a new T-shirt design inspired by that one movie featuring the popular interlocking brick system.

371130_1002686190_editingisawesomefinal_orig

Head over to the Arrant Pedantry Store to take a look.

I’ve also moved a couple of posts over here from a now-defunct site. When I finished grad school a couple of years ago, my wife and I launched a new site for our freelance editing endeavors, and shortly thereafter I got a full-time job. Though the site is gone, I wanted to keep our blog posts (all two of them) online, so you can now find them here.

Why You Need an Editor (by me)

Accepting and Rejecting Changes in Microsoft Word (by my wife, Ruth)

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Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

I recently received an email asking about the expression woe is me, namely what the plural would be and why it’s not woe am I. Though the phrase may strike modern speakers as bizarre if not downright ungrammatical, there’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation: it’s an archaic dative expression. Strange as it may seem, the correct form really is woe is me, not woe am I or woe is I, and the first-person plural would simply be woe is us. I’ll explain why.

Today English only has three cases—nominative (or subjective), objective, and genitive (or possessive)—and these cases only apply to personal pronouns and who. Old English, on the other hand, had four cases (and vestiges of a fifth), and they applied to all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Among these four were two different cases for objects: accusative and dative. (The forms that we now think of simply as object pronouns actually descend from the dative pronouns, though they now cover the functions of both the accusative and dative.) These correspond roughly to direct and indirect objects, respectively, though they could be used in other ways too.

For instance, some prepositions took accusative objects, and some took dative objects (and some took either depending on the meaning). Nouns and pronouns in the accusative and dative cases could also be used in ways that seem strange to modern speakers. The dative, for example, could be used in places where we would normally use to and a pronoun. In some constructions we still have the choice between a pronoun or to and a pronoun—think of how you can say either I gave her the ball or I gave the ball to her—but in Old English you could do this to a much greater degree.

In the phrase woe is me, woe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today. It really means woe is to me. Today the phrase woe is me is pretty fixed, but some past variations on the phrase make the meaning a little clearer. Sometimes it was used with a verb, and sometimes woe was simply followed by a noun or prepositional phrase. In the King James Bible, we find “If I be wicked, woe unto me” (Job 10:15). One example from Old English reads, “Wa biþ þonne þæm mannum” (woe be then [to] that man).

So “woe is I” is not simply a fancy or archaic way of saying “I am woe” and is thus not parallel to constructions like “it is I”, where the nominative form is usually prescribed and the objective form is proscribed. In “woe is me”, “me” is not a subject complement (also known as a predicative complement) but a type of dative construction.

Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe. And though we don’t have distinct dative pronouns anymore, you can still use any pronoun in the object case, so woe is us would also be correct.

Addendum: Arika Okrent, writing at Mental Floss, has also just posted a piece on this construction. She goes into a little more detail on related constructions in English, German, and Yiddish.

And here are a couple of articles by Jan Freeman from 2007, specifically addressing Patricia O’Conner’s Woe Is I and a column by William Safire on the phrase:

Woe Is Us, Part 1
Woe Is Us, Continued

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On Visual Thesaurus: “Clear and/or Unclear”

And/or is a surprisingly contentious little conjunction. Some lawyers love it, but most editors hate it—and many judges hate it too. Find out what the problem is in my newest post on Visual Thesaurus, “Clear and/or Unclear”.

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Get a Discount on Copyediting Newsletter

Attention, editors! Get a great deal on a subscription to Copyediting newsletter when you use the code COPY at checkout. It’s full of great information on style and usage, advice on getting your freelance business going, tech tips, and, of course, my column on grammar.

The code is good for any subscription, audio conference, or webinar, and it’s valid until January 31st. Check it out!

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Another Day, Another Worthless Grammar Quiz

Yesterday I did something I regret: I clicked on and took one of those stupid quizzes that go around Facebook. It’s called How good is your grammar? and I clicked on it not to find out how good my grammar is, but because I wanted to know what the test-maker thought good grammar was.

I started seeing problems with the test right away, including questions that had two or three right answers or no right answers, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t score higher than 13, a score which provided me this questionable feedback:

You’ve definitely got our respect! 13 out of 15 is a really, really impressive score. Your grammar skills are so good, you’re probably the person that picks your friends up on their mistakes, right? We’ll happily admit that this test was pretty hard and we’re pretty sure that you’re friends can’t do better – why not test them and find out?

“Picks your friends up on their mistakes”? I get what they mean, but I’ve never heard that expression before. And “We’ll happily admit that this test was pretty hard and we’re pretty sure that you’re friends can’t do better”? That compound sentence needs a comma before “and”, and more importantly, it should be “your friends”, not “you’re friends”.

The most frustrating part is that this quiz doesn’t provide a key or any question-specific feedback, so it’s impossible to tell what you’ve gotten wrong. I had to ask someone who managed to get 15 what his answers were, and the correct answers were pretty eyebrow-raising. To make matters worse, they seem to have changed since I took it yesterday. (Edited to add: As several people have pointed out, the answers seem to be right now, but some people are still reporting that they’re getting different scores every time even though they’re giving the same answers. Some are also reporting that they’re getting a score of 15 even when they deliberately answer ever question wrong, so it could be that the scoring is just random and the whole thing is a scam.) I’ll go through it question by question, highlighting the correct answer according to the quiz (at the time I took it) and explaining why it is or isn’t right.

  1. Let’s start quite easy: which of these sentences is grammatically correct?
    • There are seven girls in her class.
    • There’s seven girls in her class.
    • They’re seven girls in her class.

This one is fairly straightforward. Though there’s with a plural subject is quite common and is found even in edited writing, strict grammatical agreement requires there are. However, they’re seven girls is grammatical too, though with a very different meaning. Imagine that you were talking about seven different girls, and someone asked you who they were. You might respond, “They’re seven girls in her class.” It’s an unlikely conversation, but in that sense it’s not ungrammatical.

  1. Which of these is right?
    • The woman that works here
    • The woman who works here
    • The woman which works here

Many traditionalists insist that only who can be used to refer to people, but this isn’t true. That can also be used with people, as I’ve explained here and elsewhere. It has been in use since the days of Old English, over a thousand years ago, and great writers have been using it ever since. Even Bryan Garner, who is quite conservative in many regards, says it’s okay.

  1. What’s the subject in this sentence? ‘Today I went to the park’.
    • I
    • Today
    • Park

This is where things really start to get idiotic. The correct answer, according to the quiz, is park. In reality, the subject of the sentence is I. Park is the object of the preposition to.

  1. Should it be ‘there’, ‘they’re’ or ‘their’?
    • The students thought there homework was hard
    • The students thought their homework was hard
    • The students thought they’re homework was hard

This one’s easy: the correct answer is actually what the quiz says. (Though when I first took it, the options all had a superfluous comma after students. They’ve since been removed.)

  1. What’s a pronoun?
    • A word that stands in the place of a noun.
    • A ‘being’ word.
    • A particularly impressive noun.

It was at this point that I started wondering if the author of the quiz was just an idiot or if they were actually trolling everyone. A pronoun is not a particularly impressive noun; it’s a word that stands in the place of a noun or noun phrase.

  1. Which is right?
    • She could have done that.
    • She could of done that.
    • She could off done that.

Again, this one’s easy, and the quiz actually gets it right. Could’ve sounds just like could of, so people often incorrectly write the latter. (But no one writes could off. I don’t know why that’s even an option.

  1. Now they get a little bit trickier: Which is right?
    • If I was you, I would…
    • If I am you, I would…
    • If I were you, I would…

This is another oversimplification. Traditionally, were is used with counterfactual statements, but was has been used for centuries and appears in edited prose. (I once saw an example in Old English, which shows that this rule has been waning for over a millennium.)

  1. Which of these adjectives is a superlative?
    • Happy
    • Happier
    • Happiest

This one is right. Happy is a positive adjective, and happier is a comparative adjective.

  1. What’s the object in this sentence? ‘Yesterday she hated me’
    • Yesterday
    • She
    • There is no object in this sentence
    • Me

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The object is me.

  1. Which is right?
    • The boy to whom she gave the toy was called Matt.
    • The boy, who she gave the toy to, was called Matt.
    • The boy whom she gave the toy was called Matt.

Actually, all of them could be right depending on context and register. I don’t know why the second option has commas around the relative clause, but they’re not necessarily wrong. They could be correct if the clause is nonrestrictive, but it’s impossible to tell without more context.

The second option is informal, but it’s hard to call it wrong since that’s how pretty much every native English speaker would say it. Whom is on the decline, and there’s nothing wrong with preposition stranding, though it’s sometimes avoided in more formal speech and writing.

The other options are both correct. You can say either She gave him the toy or She gave the toy to him. The first has him as an indirect verbal object, while the second has it as an oblique (prepositional) object. You can make a relative clause out of either one, yielding either whom she gave the toy or to whom she gave the toy.

  1. And now for the really difficult ones: Which is grammatically correct?
    • There were fewer people in the shop today.
    • There were less people in the shop today.
    • Both are right.

Many people frown on less with count nouns, but there’s nothing technically wrong with it. Like so many grammar rules, this is an eighteenth-century invention. Fewer is the safer choice in formal speech or writing, though.

  1. How are you supposed to use apostrophes correctly? Which is right?
    • The ice-cream parlor was called Joes Ice’s
    • The ice cream parlor was called Joe’s Ices
    • The ice-cream parlor was called Joes Ices

Correct. Again, though, don’t ask me why two options have a hyphen while the other doesn’t.

  1. How about in this one?
    • Its going to be cold tomorrow.
    • It’s going to be cold tomorrow.
    • It going to be cold tomorrow.

Correct. Many people confuse it’s and its, but in this case you want the contraction. (I don’t know if anyone would actually say or write it going to be cold tomorrow.)

  1. A comma, colon or semi-colon? Which is right?
    • He wasn’t very hungry; he had already eaten earlier that day.
    • He wasn’t very hungry, he had already eaten earlier that day.
    • He wasn’t very hungry: he had already eaten earlier that day.

This one’s arguable. A semicolon might be preferred, but a colon wouldn’t technically be wrong since the second clause is elaborating on the first. The second option contains the error commonly known as a comma splice or run-on sentence.

  1. In the pluperfect tense, what is the second person form of the verb ‘to go’?
    • You have gone
    • You had gone
    • You went

Wrong again. Have gone is the present perfect; had gone is the pluperfect, also known as the past perfect. Also, when I first took the quiz, it asked for the third-person form, but you is the second person. This has since been fixed.

The strange thing is that I can’t figure out the scoring of the quiz, especially since it gives no feedback. I answered all the questions correctly—according to what’s actually traditionally correct—and yet I scored 13, even though I should have scored 11 because four of the supposedly correct answers are wrong. Either something is buggy with the quiz, or the author has been revising the answers and sometimes introducing errors. Either way, the quiz is absolute garbage and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Oh, and to cap things off, the author of the quiz obviously has no idea what linguists actually do. This is the feedback if you manage to score 15 out of 15:

Those weren’t even difficult for you, were they? Either you’re a professional linguistic researcher at the Institute for English Language or you had a little bit of luck with a couple of your answers… We congratulate you – when it comes to English grammar you really are the best!

Because linguistics is apparently about memorizing a bunch of normative, prescriptive rules about how to use language rather than actually, you know, researching how language works.

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Celtic and the History of the English Language

A little while ago a link to this list of 23 maps and charts on language went around on Twitter. It’s full of interesting stuff on linguistic diversity and the genetic relationships among languages, but there was one chart that bothered me: this one on the history of the English language by Sabio Lantz.

The Origins of English

The first and largest problem is that the timeline makes it look as though English began with the Celts and then received later contributions from the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and so on. While this is a decent account of the migrations and conquests that have occurred in the last two thousand years, it’s not an accurate account of the history of the English language. (To be fair, the bar on the bottom gets it right, but it leaves out all the contributions from other languages.)

English began with the Anglo-Saxons. They were a group of Germanic tribes originating in the area of the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark, and they spoke dialects of what might be called common West Germanic. There was no distinct English language at the time, just a group of dialects that would later evolve into English, Dutch, German, Low German, and Frisian. (Frisian, for the record, is English’s closest relative on the continent, and it’s close enough that you can buy a cow in Friesland by speaking Old English.)

The inhabitants of Great Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived were mostly romanized Celts who spoke Latin and a Celtic language that was the ancestor of modern-day Welsh and Cornish. (In what is now Scotland, the inhabitants spoke a different Celtic language, Gaelic, and perhaps also Pictish, but not much is known about Pictish.) But while there were Latin- and Celtic-speaking people in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, those languages probably had very little influence on Old English and should not be considered ancestors of English. English began as a distinct language when the Anglo-Saxons split off from their Germanic cousins and left mainland Europe beginning around 450 AD.

For years it was assumed that the Anglo-Saxons wiped out most of the Celts and forced the survivors to the edges of the island—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. But archaeological and genetic evidence has shown that this isn’t exactly the case. The Anglo-Saxons more likely conquered the Celts and intermarried with them. Old English became the language of government and education, but Celtic languages may have survived in Anglo-Saxon–occupied areas for quite some time.

From Old to Middle English

Old English continues until about 1066, when the Normans invaded and conquered England. At that point, the language of government became Old French—or at least the version of it spoken by the Normans—or Medieval Latin. Though peasants still spoke English, nobody was writing much in the language anymore. And when English made a comeback in the 1300s, it had changed quite radically. The complex system of declensions and other inflections from Old English were gone, and the language had borrowed considerably from French and Latin. Though there isn’t a firm line, by the end of the eleventh century Old English is considered to have ended and Middle English to have begun.

The differences between Old English and Middle English are quite stark. Just compare the Lord’s Prayer in each language:

Old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice
(source)

(The character that looks like a p with an ascender is called a thorn, and it is pronounced like the modern th. It could be either voiceless or voiced depending on its position in a word. The character that looks like an uncial d with a stroke through it is also pronounced just like a thorn, and the two symbols were used interchangeably. Don’t ask me why.)

Middle English:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to;
be thi wille don,
in erthe as in heuene.
Yyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce,
and foryyue to vs oure dettis,
as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;
and lede vs not in to temptacioun,
but delyuere vs fro yuel. Amen.
(source)

(Note that u and v could both represent either /u/ or /v/. V was used at the beginnings of words and u in the middle. Thus vs is “us” and yuel is “evil”.)

While you can probably muddle your way through some of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, there are a lot of words that are unfamiliar, such as gewurþe and soþlice. And this is probably one of the easiest short passages to read in Old English. Not only is it a familiar text, but it dates to the late Old English period. Older Old English text can be much more difficult. The Middle English, on the other hand, is quite readable if you know a little bit about Middle English spelling conventions.

And even where the Old English is readable, it shows grammatical inflections that are stripped away in Middle English. For example, ure, urne, and urum are all forms of “our” based on their grammatical case. In Middle English, though, they’re all oure, much like Modern English. As I said above, the change from Old English to Middle English was quite radical, and it was also quite sudden. My professor of Old English and Middle English said that there are cases where town chronicles essentially change from Old to Middle English in a generation.

But here’s where things get a little murky. Some have argued that the vernacular language didn’t really change that quickly—it was only the codified written form that did. That is, people were taught to write a sort of standard Old English that didn’t match what they spoke, just as people continued to write Latin even as they were speaking the evolving Romance dialects such as Old French and Old Spanish.

So perhaps the complex inflectional system of Old English didn’t disappear suddenly when the Normans invaded; perhaps it was disappearing gradually throughout the Old English period, but those few who were literate learned the old forms and retained them in writing. Then, when the Normans invaded and people mostly stopped writing in English, they also stopped learning how to write standard Old English. When they started writing English again a couple of centuries later, they simply wrote the language as it was spoken, free of the grammatical forms that had been artificially retained in Old English for so long. This also explains why there was so much dialectal variation in Middle English; because there was no standard form, people wrote their own local variety. It wasn’t until the end of the Middle English period that a new standard started to coalesce and Early Modern English was born.

Supposed Celtic Syntax in English

And with that history established, I can finally get to my second problem with that graphic above: the supposed Celtic remnants in English. English may be a Germanic language, but it differs from its Germanic cousins in several notable ways. In addition to the glut of French, Latin, Greek, and other borrowings that occurred in the Middle and Early Modern English periods, English has some striking syntactic differences from other Germanic languages.

English has what is known as the continuous or progressive aspect, which is formed with a form of be and a present participle. So we usually say I’m going to the store rather than just I go to the store. It’s rather unusual to use a periphrastic—that is, wordy—construction as the default when there’s a shorter option available. Many languages do not have progressive forms at all, and if they do, they’re used to specifically emphasize that an action is happening right now or is ongoing. English, on the other hand, uses it as the default form for many types of verbs. But in German, for example, you simply say Ich gehe in den Laden (“I go to the store”), not Ich bin gehende in den Laden (“I am going to the store”).

English also makes extensive use of a feature known as do support, wherein we insert do into certain kinds of constructions, mostly questions and negatives. So while German would have Magst du Eis? (“Like you ice cream?”), English inserts a dummy do: Do you like ice cream? These constructions are rare cross-linguistically and are very un-Germanic.

And some people have come up with a very interesting explanation for this unusual syntax: it comes from a Celtic substrate. That is, they believe that the Celtic population of Britain adopted Old English from their Anglo-Saxon conquerors but remained bilingual for some time. As they learned Old English, they carried over some of their native syntax. The Celtic languages have some rather unusual syntax themselves, highly favoring periphrastic constructions over inflected ones. Some of these constructions are roughly analogous to the English use of do support and progressive forms. For instance, in Welsh you might say Dwi yn mynd i’r siop (“I am in going to the shop”). (Disclaimer: I took all of one semester in Welsh, so I’m relying on what little I remember plus some help from various websites on Welsh grammar and a smattering of Google Translate.)

While this isn’t exactly like the English equivalent, it looks close. Welsh doesn’t have present participial forms but instead uses something called a verbal noun, which is a sort of cross between an infinitive and gerund. Welsh also uses the particle yn (“in”) to connect the verbal noun to the rest of the sentence, which is actually quite similar to constructions from late Middle and Early Modern English such as He was a-going to the store, where a- is just a worn-down version of the preposition on.

But Welsh uses this construction in all kinds of places where English doesn’t. To say I speak Welsh, for example, you say Dw’i’n siarad Cymraeg, which literally translated means I am in speaking Welsh. In English the progressive stresses that you are doing something right now, while the simple present is used for things that are done habitually or that are generally true. In Welsh, though, it’s unmarked—it’s simply a wordier way of stating something without any special progressive meaning. Despite its superficial similarities to the English progressive, it’s quite far from English in both use and meaning. Additionally, the English construction may have much more mundane origins in the conflation of gerunds and present participles in late Middle English, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Welsh’s use of do support—or, I should say, gwneud support—even less closely parallels that of English. In English, do is used in interrogatives (Do you like ice cream?), negatives (I don’t like ice cream), and emphatic statements (I do like ice cream), and it also appears as a stand-in for whole verb phrases (He thinks I don’t like ice cream, but I do). In Welsh, however, gwneud is not obligatory, and it can be used in simple affirmative statements without any emphasis.

Nor is it always used where it would be in English. Many questions and negatives are formed with a form of the be verb, bod, rather than gwneud. For example, Do you speak Welsh? is Wyt ti’n siarad Cymraeg? (“Are you in speaking Welsh?”), and I don’t understand is Dw i ddim yn deall (“I am not in understanding”). (This is probably simply because Welsh uses the pseudo-progressive in the affirmative form, so it uses the same construction in interrogatives and negatives, much like how English would turn “He is going to the store” into “Is he going to the store?” or “He isn’t going to the store.” Do is only used when there isn’t another auxiliary verb that could be used.)

But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem with the theory that English borrowed these constructions from Celtic: time. Both the progressive and do support start to appear in late Middle English (the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), but they don’t really take off until the sixteenth century and beyond, over a thousand years after the Anglo-Saxons began colonizing Great Britain. So if the Celtic inhabitants of Britain adopted English but carried over some Celtic syntax, and if the reason why that Celtic syntax never appeared in Old English is that the written language was a standardized form that didn’t match the vernacular, and if the reason why Middle English looks so different from Old English is that people were now writing the way they spoke, then why don’t we see these Celticisms until the end of the Middle English period, and then only rarely?

Proponents of the Celtic substrate theory argue that these features are so unusual that they could only have been borrowed into English from Celtic languages. They ask why English is the only Germanic language to develop them, but it’s easy to flip this sort of question around. Why did English wait for more than a thousand years to borrow these constructions? Why didn’t English borrow the verb-subject-object sentence order from the Celtic languages? Why didn’t it borrow the after-perfect, which uses after plus a gerund instead of have plus a past participle (She is after coming rather than She has come), or any other number of Celtic constructions? And maybe most importantly, why are there almost no lexical borrowings from Celtic languages into English? Words are the first things to be borrowed, while more structural grammatical features like syntax and morphology are among the last. And just to beat a dead horse, just because something developed in English doesn’t mean you should expect to see the same thing develop in related languages.

The best thing that the Celtic substrate theory has going for it, I think, is that it’s appealing. It neatly explains something that makes English unique and celebrates the Celtic heritage of the island. But there’s a danger whenever a theory is too attractive on an emotional level. You tend to overlook its weaknesses and play up its strengths, as John McWhorter does when he breathlessly explains the theory in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He stresses again and again how unique English is, how odd these constructions are, and how therefore they must have come from the Celtic languages.

I’m not a historical linguist and certainly not an expert in Celtic languages, but alarm bells started going off in my head when I read McWhorter’s book. There were just too many things that didn’t add up, too many pieces that didn’t quite fit. I wanted to believe it because it sounded so cool, but wanting to believe something doesn’t make it so. Of course, none of this is to say that it isn’t so. Maybe it’s all true but there just isn’t enough evidence to prove it yet. Maybe I’m being overly skeptical for nothing.

But in linguistics, as in other sciences, a good dose of skepticism is healthy. A crazy theory requires some crazy-good proof, and right now, all I see is a theory with enough holes in it to sink a fleet of Viking longboats.

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Book Review: The Sense of Style

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Viking.

The Sense of StyleI was intrigued when I first heard that Steven Pinker, the linguist and cognitive scientist, was writing a book on style. I’ve really enjoyed some of his other books, such as The Stuff of Thought, but wasn’t this the guy who had dedicated an entire chapter of The Language Instinct to bashing prescriptivists, calling them a bunch of “kibbitzers and nudniks” who peddle “bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago”? But even though it can be satisfying to bash nonsensical grammar rules, I’ve also long felt that linguists could offer some valuable insight into the field of writing. I was hopeful that Pinker would have some interesting things to say about writing, and he didn’t disappoint me.

I should be clear, though, that this is not your ordinary book on writing advice. It isn’t a quick reference book full of rules and examples of what to do and what not to do (for which I recommend Joseph Williams’s excellent Style). It’s something deeper and more substantial than that—it’s a thorough examination of what makes good writing good and why writing well is so hard.

Pinker starts by reverse-engineering some of his favorite passages of prose, taking them apart piece by piece to see what makes them tick. Though it’s an interesting exercise, it gets a little tedious at times as he picks passages apart. However, his point is valuable: good writing can only come from good reading, which means not only reading a lot but engaging with what you read.

He then explores classic style, which he calls “an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” Classic style starts with the assumption that the writer has seen something that they want to show to the reader, so the writer engages in a conversation with the reader to help direct their gaze. It’s not suitable for every kind of writing—for example, a user manual needs just a straightforward list of instructions, not a dialogue—but it works well for academic writing and other kinds of writing in which an author explains a new idea to the reader.

Then Pinker tackles perhaps the most difficult challenge in writing—overcoming the curse of knowledge. The cause of much bad writing, he says, is that the author is so close to the subject that they don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t already know what the author knows. They forget how they came by their knowledge and thus unthinkingly skip key pieces of explanation or use jargon that is obscure or opaque to outsiders. And to make things worse, even being aware of the curse of knowledge isn’t enough to ensure that you’ll write more clearly; that is, you can’t simply tell someone, “Keep the reader in mind!” and expect them to do so. The best solution, Pinker says, is to have test readers or editors who can tell you where something doesn’t make sense and needs to be revised.

The next chapters provide a crash course on syntax and a guide to creating greater textual coherence, and though they occasionally get bogged down in technical details, they’re full of good advice. For example, Pinker uses syntax tree diagrams to illustrate both the cause of and solution to problems like misplaced modifiers. Tree diagrams are much more intuitive than other diagramming methods like Reed-kellog, so you don’t need to be an expert in linguistics to see the differences between two example sentences. And though the guide to syntax is helpful, the chapter on coherence is even better. Pinker explains why seemingly well-written text is sometimes so hard to understand: because even though the sentences appear to hang together just fine, the ideas don’t. The solution is to keep consistent thematic strings throughout a piece, tying ideas together and making the connections between them clear.

The last and by far the longest chapter—it occupies over a third of the book—is essentially a miniature grammar and usage guide prefaced by a primer on the supposed clash between prescriptivism and descriptivism. It’s simultaneously the most interesting and most disappointing chapter in the book. Though it starts rather admirably by explaining the linguistics behind particular usage issues (something I try to do on this blog), it ends with Pinker indulging in some peevery himself. Ironically, some of the usage rules he endorses are no more valid than the ones he debunks, and he gives little justification for his preference, often simply stating that one form is classier. At least it’s clear, though, that these are his personal preferences and not universal laws. The bulk of the chapter, though, is a lucid guide to some common grammar and usage issues. (And yes, he does get in a little prescriptivist bashing.)

Despite some occasional missteps, The Sense of Style is full of valuable advice and is a welcome addition to the genre of writing guides.

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Interview at Grammarist

Forgive me if you’ve already seen this, but I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago at Grammarist.com. Find out what got me into language blogging, what my greatest accomplishment in the world of language is, and why you should care more about language. Check it out!

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Sneak Peek: “There Are a Number of Agreement Problems”

Unless you’re a subscriber to Copyediting newsletter, you don’t get the chance to read my “Grammar on the Edge” column. But now you can get a sneak peek of my most recent entry, “There Are a Number of Agreement Problems,” on Copyediting’s website.

You’ll still have to subscribe to get the whole thing, but maybe this will whet your appetite. (And a year’s subscription is only $79.) You’ll also get lots of great content from Erin Brenner, Mark Farrell, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, and others. Check it out!