Arrant Pedantry


Whence Did They Come?

In a recent episode of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, John McWhorter discussed the history of English personal pronouns. Why don’t we use ye or thee and thou anymore? What’s the deal with using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? And where do they and she come from?

The first half, on the loss of ye and the original second-person singular pronoun thou, is interesting, but the second half, on the origins of she and they, missed the mark, in my opinion.

I recommend listening to the whole thing, but here’s the short version. The pronouns she and they/them/their(s) are new to the language, relatively speaking. This is what the personal pronoun paradigm looked like in Old English:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative hit hēo hīe
Accusative hine hit hīe hīe
Dative him him hire him
Genitive his his hire heora

There was some variation in some forms in different dialects and sometimes even within a single dialect, but this table captures the basic forms. (Note that the vowels here basically have classical values, so would be pronounced somewhat like hey, hire would be something like hee-reh, and so on. A macron or acute accent just indicates that a vowel is longer.)

One thing that’s surprising is how recognizable many of them are. We can easily see he, him, and his in the singular masculine forms (though hine, along with all the other accusative forms, have been lost), it (which has lost its h) in the singular neuter forms, and her in the singular feminine forms. The real oddballs here are the singular feminine form, hēo, and the third-person plural forms. They look nothing like their modern forms.

These changes started when the case system started to disappear at the end of the Old English period. , hēo, and hie began to merge together, which would have led to a lot of confusion. But during the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500 AD), some new pronouns appeared, and then things started settling down into the paradigms we know now: he/him/his, it/it/its, she/her/her, and they/them/their. (Note that the original dative and genitive forms for it were identical to those for he, but it wasn’t until Early Modern English that these were replaced by it and his, respectively.)

The origin of they/them/their is fairly uncontroversial: these were apparently borrowed from Old Norse–speaking settlers, who invaded during the Old English period and captured large parts of eastern and northern England, forming what is known as the Danelaw. These Old Norse speakers gave us quite a lot of words, including anger, bag, eye, get, leg, and sky.

The Old Norse words for they/them/their looked like this:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative þeir þau þær
Accusative þá þau þær
Dative þeim þeim þeim
Genitive þeirra þeirra þeirra

If you look at the masculine column, you’ll notice the similarity to the current they/them/their paradigm. (Note that the letter that looks like a cross between a b and a p is a thorn, which stood for the sounds now represented by th in English.)

Many Norse borrowings lost their final r, and unstressed final vowels began to be dropped in Middle English, which would yield þei/þeim/þeir. (As with the Old English pronouns, the accusative form was lost.) It seems like a pretty straightforward case of borrowing. The English third-person pronouns began to merge together as the result of some regular sound changes, but the influx of Norse speakers provided us an alternative for the plural forms.

But not so fast, McWhorter says. Borrowing nouns, verbs, and the like is pretty common, but borrowing pronouns, especially personal pronouns, is pretty rare. So he proposes an alternative origin for they/them/their: the Old English demonstrative pronouns—that is, words like this and these (though in Old English, the demonstratives functioned as definite articles too). Since hē/hēo/hīe were becoming ambiguous, McWhorter argues, English speakers turned to the next best thing: a set of words meaning essentially “that one” or “those ones”. Here’s what the plural demonstrative pronouns in Old English looked like:

Case Plural
Nominative þā
Accusative þā
Dative þǣm/þām
Genitive þāra/þǣra

(Old English had a common plural form rather than separate plural forms for the masculine, neuter, and feminine genders.)

There’s some basis for this kind of change from a demonstrative to a person pronoun; third-person pronouns in many languages come from demonstratives, and the third-person plural pronouns in Old Norse actually come from demonstratives themselves, which explains why they look similar to the Old English demonstratives: they all start with þ, and the dative and genitive forms have the -m and -r on the end just like them/their and the Old Norse forms do.

But notice that the vowels are different. Instead of ei in the nominative, dative, and genitive forms, we have ā or ǣ. This may not seem like a big deal, but generally speaking, vowel changes don’t just randomly affect a few words at a time; they usually affect every word with that sound. There has to be some way to explain the change from ā to ei/ey.

And to make matters worse, we know that ā (/ɑː/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) raised to /ɔː/ (the vowel in court or caught if you don’t rhyme it with cot) during Middle English and eventually raised to /oʊ/ (the vowel in coat) during the Great Vowel Shift. In a nutshell, if English speakers had started using þā as the third-person plural pronoun in the nominative case, we’d be saying tho rather than they today.

But the biggest problem is that the historical evidence just doesn’t support the idea that they originates from þā. The first recorded instance of they, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is in a twelfth-century manuscript known as the Ormulum, written by a monk known only as Orm. Orm is the Old Norse word for worm, serpent, or dragon, and the manuscript is written in an East Midlands dialect, which means that it came from the Danelaw, the area once controlled by Norse speakers.

In the Ormulum we finds forms like þeȝȝ and þeȝȝre for they and their, respectively. (The letter ȝ, known as yogh, could represent a variety of sounds, but in this case it represents /i/ or /j/). Other early forms of they include þei, þai, and thei.

The spread of these new forms was gradual, moving from areas of heaviest Old Norse influence throughout the rest of the English-speaking British Isles. The early-fifteenth-century Hengwert Chaucer, a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, usually has they as the subject but retains her for genitives (from the Old English plural genitive form hiera or heora) and em for objects (from the Old English plural dative him. The ’em that we use today as a reduced form of them probably traces back to this, making it the last vestige of the original Old English third-person plural pronouns.

So to make a long story short, we have new pronouns that look like Old Norse pronouns that arose in an Old Norse–influenced area and then spread out from there. McWhorter’s argument boils down to “borrowing personal pronouns is rare, so it must not have happened”, and then he ignores or hand-waves away any problems with this theory. The idea that these pronouns instead come from the Old English þā just doesn’t appear to be supported either phonologically or historically.

This isn’t even an area of controversy. When I tweeted about McWhorter’s podcast, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper was surprised, responding, “I…didn’t realize there was an argument about the ety of ‘they’? I mean, all the etymologists I know agree it’s Old Norse.” Borrowing pronouns may be rare, but in this case all the signs point to yes.

For a more controversial etymology, though, you’ll have to wait until a later date, when I wade into the murky etymology of she.


Stupidity on Singular They

A few weeks ago, the National Review published a singularly stupid article on singular they. It’s wrong from literally the first sentence, in which the author, Josh Gelernter, says that “this week, the 127-year-old American Dialect Society voted the plural pronoun ‘they,’ used as a singular pronoun, their Word of the Year.” It isn’t from last week; this is a piece of old news that recently went viral again. The American Dialect Society announced its word of the year, as it typically does, at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, this is a good indication of the quality of the author’s research throughout the rest of the article.

After calling those who use singular they stupid and criticizing the ADS for failing to correct them (which is a fairly serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the ADS and the entire field of linguistics in general), Gelernter says that we already have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, and it’s he. He cites “the dictionary of record”, Webster’s Second International, for support. His choice of dictionary is telling. For those not familiar with it, Webster’s Second, or W2, was published in 1934 and has been out of print for decades.

The only reason someone would choose it over Webster’s Third, published in 1961, is as a reaction to the perception that W3 was overly permissive. When it was first published, it was widely criticized for its more descriptive stance, which did away with some of the more judgemental usage labels. Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or social progress of the last century.

Gelernter notes that W2’s first definition for man is “a member of the human race”, while the “male human being” sense “is the second-given, secondary definition.” Here it would have helped Gelernter to read the front matter of his dictionary. Unlike some other dictionaries, Merriam-Webster arranges entries not in order of primary or central meanings to more peripheral meanings but in order of historical attestation. Man was most likely originally gender-neutral, while the original word for a male human being was wer (which survives only in the word werewolf). Over time, though, wer fell out of use, and man began pulling double duty. 1The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.

So just because an entry is listed first in a Merriam-Webster dictionary does not mean it’s the primary definition, and just because a word originally meant one thing (and still does mean that thing to some extent) does not mean we must continue to use it that way.

Interestingly, Gelernter admits that the language lost some precision when the plural you pushed out the singular thou as a second-person pronoun, though, bizarrely, he says that it was for good reason, because you had caught on as a more polite form of address. The use of you as a singular pronoun started as a way to be polite and evolved into an obsession with social status, in which thou was eventually relegated to inferiors before finally dropping out of use.

The resurgence of singular they in the twentieth century was driven by a different sort of social force: an acknowledgement that the so-called gender-neutral he is not really gender-neutral. Research has shown that gender-neutral uses of he and man cause readers to think primarily of males, even when context makes it clear that the person could be of either gender. (Here’s just one example.) They send the message that men are the default and women are other. Embracing gender-neutral language, whether it’s he or she or they or some other solution, is about correcting that imbalance by acknowledging that women are people too.

And in case you still think that singular they is just some sort of newfangled politically correct usage, you should know that it has been in use since the 1300s and has been used by literary greats from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.2I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it. For centuries, nobody batted an eye at singular they, until grammarians started to proscribe it in favor of generic he in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Embracing singular they doesn’t break English grammar; it merely embraces something that’s been part of English grammar for seven centuries.

At the end, we get to the real heart of Gelernter’s article: ranting about new gender-neutral job titles in the armed forces. Gelernter seems to think that changing to gender-neutral titles will somehow make the members of our armed forces suddenly forget how to do their jobs. This isn’t really about grammar; it’s about imagining that it’s a burden to think about the ways in which language affects people, that it’s a burden to treat women with the same respect as men.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Josh Gelernter thinks about singular they or about gender-neutral language in general. Society will continue to march on, just as language has continued to march on in the eight decades since his beloved Webster’s Second was published. But remember that we have a choice in deciding how language will march on. We can use our language to reflect outdated and harmful stereotypes, or we can use it to treat others with the respect they deserve. I know which one I choose.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.
2. I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it.


To Boldly Split Infinitives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about split infinitives. (So did Merriam-Webster, which beat me to the punch.) If you’re unfamiliar with split infinitives or have thankfully managed to forget what they are since your high school days, it’s when you put some sort of modifier between the to and the infinitive verb itself—that is, a verb that is not inflected for tense, like be or go—and for many years it was considered verboten.

Kirk’s opening monologue on the show famously featured the split infinitive “to boldly go”, and it’s hard to imagine the phrase working so well without it. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” both sound terribly clunky, partly because they ruin the rhythm of the phrase. “To BOLDly GO” is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN. “BOLDly to GO” is a trochee followed by an iamb, meaning that we have a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, and then another stressed syllable—DUN-duh duh-DUN. “To GO BOLDly” is the reverse, an iamb followed by a trochee, leading to a stress clash in the middle where the two stresses butt up against each other and then ending on a weaker unstressed syllable. Blech.

But the root of the alleged problem with split infinitives concerns not meter but syntax. The question is where it’s syntactically permissible to put a modifier in a to-infinitive phrase. Normally, an adverb would go just in front of the verb it modifies, as in She boldly goes or He will boldly go. Things were a little different when the verb was an infinitive form preceded by to. In this case the adverb often went in front of the to, not in front of the verb itself.

As Merriam-Webster’s post notes, split infinitives date back at least to the fourteenth century, though they were not as common back then and were often used in different ways than they are today. But they mostly fell out of use in the sixteenth century and then roared back to life in the eighteenth century, only to be condemned by usage commentators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Incidentally, this illustrates a common pattern of prescriptivist complaints: a new usage arises, or perhaps it has existed for literally millennia, it goes unnoticed for decades or even centuries, someone finally notices it and decides they don’t like it (often because they don’t understand it), and suddenly everyone starts decrying this terrible new thing that’s ruining English.)

It’s not particularly clear, though, why people thought that this particular thing was ruining English. The older boldly to go was replaced by the resurgent to boldly go. It’s often claimed that people objected to split infinitives on the basis of analogy with Latin (Merriam-Webster’s post repeats this claim). In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, like ire, and it can’t be split. Ergo, since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be able to split them in English either. The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence to support it. Here’s the earliest recorded criticism of the split infinitive, according to Wikipedia:

The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mode from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons. . . . I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point. . . . The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

No mention of Latin or of the supposed unsplittability of infinitives. In fact, the only real argument is that uneducated people split infinitives, while good authors didn’t. Some modern usage commentators have used this purported Latin origin of the rule as the basis of a straw-man argument: Latin couldn’t split infinitives, but English isn’t Latin, so the rule isn’t valid. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster’s post does the same thing:

The rule against splitting the infinitive comes, as do many of our more irrational rules, from a desire to more rigidly adhere (or, if you prefer, “to adhere more rigidly”) to the structure of Latin. As in Old English, Latin infinitives are written as single words: there are no split infinitives, because a single word is difficult to split. Some linguistic commenters have pointed out that English isn’t splitting its infinitives, since the word to is not actually a part of the infinitive, but merely an appurtenance of it.

The problem with this argument (aside from the fact that the rule wasn’t based on Latin) is that modern English infinitives—not just Old English infinitives—are only one word too and can’t be split either. The infinitive in to boldly go is just go, and go certainly can’t be split. So this line of argument misses the point: the question isn’t whether the infinitive verb, which is a single word, can be split in half, but whether an adverb can be placed between to and the verb. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, the term split infinitive is a misnomer, since it’s not really the infinitive but the construction containing an infinitive that’s being split.

But in recent years I’ve seen some people take this terminological argument even further, saying that split infinitives don’t even exist because English infinitives can’t be split. I think this is silly. Of course they exist. It used to be that people would say boldly to go; then they started saying to boldly go instead. It doesn’t matter what you call the phenomenon of moving the adverb so that it’s snug up against the verb—it’s still a phenomenon. As Arnold Zwicky likes to say, “Labels are not definitions.” Just because the name doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We could call this phenomenon Steve, and it wouldn’t change what it is.

At this point, the most noteworthy thing about the split infinitive is that there are still some people who think there’s something wrong with it. The original objection was that it was wrong because uneducated people used it and good writers didn’t, but that hasn’t been true in decades. Most usage commentators have long since given up their objections to it, and some even point out that avoiding a split infinitive can cause awkwardness or even ambiguity. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker gives the example The board voted immediately to approve the casino. Which word does immediately modify—voted or approve?

But this hasn’t stopped The Economist from maintaining its opposition to split infinitives. Its style guide says, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

I call BS on this. Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them. If you’ve been worrying about splitting infinitives since your high school English teacher beat the fear of them into you, it’s time to let it go. If they’re good enough for Star Trek, they’re good enough for you too.

But just for fun, let’s do a little poll:

Do you find split infinitives annoying?

View Results

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A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are some slogans up with which I will not put.” Obviously, with a name like Arrant Pedantry, I couldn’t let that slogan pass by without comment.

The slogan is obviously attempting to follow the old rule against stranding prepositions. Prepositions usually come before their complements, but there are several constructions in English in which they’re commonly stranded, or left at the end without their complements. Preposition stranding is especially common in speech and informal writing, whereas preposition fronting (or keeping the preposition with its complement) is more typical of a very formal style. For example, you’d probably say Who did you give it to? when talking to a friend, but in a very formal situation, you might move that preposition up to the front: To whom did you give it?

This rule has been criticized and debunked countless times, but even if you believe firmly in it, you should recognize that there are some constructions where you can’t follow it. That is, following the rule sometimes produces sentences that are stylistically bad if not flat-out ungrammatical. The following constructions all require preposition stranding:

  1. Relative clauses introduced by that. The relative pronoun that cannot come after a preposition, which is one reason why some linguists argue that it’s really a conjunction (a form of the complementizer that) and not a true pronoun. You can’t say There aren’t any of that I know—you have to use which instead or leave the preposition at the end—There aren’t any that I know of.
  2. Relative clauses introduced with an omitted relative. As with the above example, the preposition in There aren’t any I know of can’t be fronted. There isn’t even anything to put it in front of, because the relative pronoun is gone. This should probably be considered a subset of the first item, because the most straightforward analysis is that relative that is omissible while other relatives aren’t. (This is another reason why some consider it not a true pronoun but rather a form of the complementizer thatthat is often omissible.)
  3. The fused relative construction. When you use what, whatever, or whoever as a relative pronoun, as in the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, the preposition must come at the end. Strangely, Reader’s Digest once declared that the correct version would be “I Still Haven’t Found for What I’m Looking”. But this is ungrammatical, because “what” cannot serve as the object of “for”. For the fronted version to work, you have to reword it to break up the fused relative: “I Still Haven’t Found That for Which I’m Looking”.
  4. A subordinate interrogative clause functioning as the complement of a preposition. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives the example We can’t agree on which grant we should apply for. The fronted form We can’t agree on for which grant we should apply sounds stilted and awkward at best.
  5. Passive clauses where the subject has been promoted from an object of a preposition. In Her apartment was broken into, there’s no way to reword the sentence to avoid the stranded preposition, because there’s nothing to put the preposition in front of. The only option is to turn it back into an active clause: Someone broke into her apartment.
  6. Hollow non-finite clauses. A non-finite clause is one that uses an infinitive or participial form rather than a tensed verb, so it has no overt subject. A hollow non-finite clause is also missing some other element that can be recovered from context. In That book is too valuable to part with, for example, the hollow non-finite clause is to part with. With is missing a complement, which makes it hollow, though we can recover its complement from context: that book. Sometimes you can flip a hollow non-finite clause around and insert the dummy subject it to put the complement back in its place. It’s too valuable to part with that book doesn’t really work, though It’s worth killing for a love is at least grammatical. It’s worth killing for this love is better, but in this case A love worth killing for is still stylistically preferable. But the important thing to note is that since the complement of the preposition is missing, there’s nowhere to move the preposition to. It has to remain stranded.

And that’s where the Deadpool tweet goes off the rails. Rather than leave the preposition stranded, they invent a place for it by inserting the completely unnecessary relative pronoun which. But A love for which worth killing sounds like caveman talk, so they stuck in the similarly unnecessary is: A love for which is worth killing. They’ve turned the non-finite clause into a finite one, but now it’s missing a subject. They could have fixed that by inserting a dummy it, as in A love for which it is worth killing, but they didn’t. The result is a completely ungrammatical mess, but one that sounds just sophisticated enough, thanks to its convoluted syntax, that it might fool some people into thinking it’s some sort of highfalutin form. It’s not.

Instead, it’s some sort of hideous freak, the product of an experiment conducted by people who didn’t fully understand what they were doing, just like Deadpool himself. Unlike Deadpool, though, this sentence doesn’t have any superhuman healing powers. If you ever find yourself writing something like this, do the merciful thing and put it out of its misery.


No, Online Grammar Errors Have Not Increased by 148%

Yesterday a post appeared on (home of Grammar Girl’s popular podcast) that appears to have been written by a company called Knowingly, which is promoting its Correctica grammar-checking tool. They claim that “online grammar errors have increased by 148% in nine years”. If true, it would be a pretty shocking claim, but the numbers immediately sent up some red flags.

They searched for seventeen different errors and compared the numbers from nine years ago to the numbers from today. From the description, I gather that the first set of numbers comes from a publicly available set of data that Google culled from public web pages. The data was released in 2006 and is hosted by the Linguistic Data Consortium. You can read more about the data here, but this part is the most relevant:

We processed 1,024,908,267,229 words of running text and are publishing the counts for all 1,176,470,663 five-word sequences that appear at least 40 times. There are 13,588,391 unique words, after discarding words that appear less than 200 times.

So the data is taken from over a trillion words of text, but some sequences were discarded if they didn’t appear frequently enough, and you can only search sequences up to five words long. Also note that while the data was released in 2006, it does not necessarily all come from 2006; some of it could have come from web pages that were older than that.

It sounds like the second set of numbers comes from a series of Google searches—it simply says “search result data today”. It isn’t explicitly stated, but it appears that the search terms were put in quotes to find exact strings. But we’re already comparing apples and oranges: though the first set of data came from a known sample size (just over a trillion words) and and was cleaned up a bit by having outliers thrown out, we have no idea how big the second sample size is. How many words are you effectively searching when you do a search in Google?

This is why corpora usually present not just raw numbers but normalized numbers—that is, not just an overall count, but a count per thousand words or something similar. Knowing that you have 500 instances of something in data set A and 1000 instances in data set B doesn’t mean anything unless you know how big those sets are, and in this case we don’t.

This problem is ameliorated somewhat by looking not just at the raw numbers but at the error rates. That is, they searched for both the correct and incorrect forms of each item, calculated how frequent the erroneous form was, and compared the rates from 2006 to the rates from 2015. It would still be better to compare two similar datasets, because we have no idea how different the cleaned-up Google Ngrams data is from raw Google search data, but at least this allows us to make some rough comparisons. But notice the huge differences between the “then” and “now” numbers in the table below. Obviously the 2015 data represents a much larger set. (I’ve split their table into two pieces, one for the correct terms and one for the incorrect terms, to make them fit in my column here.)

Correct Term



jugular vein



bear in mind



head over heels



chocolate mousse



egg yolk



without further ado



whet your appetite



heroin and morphine



reach across the aisle



herd mentality



weather vane



zombie horde



chili peppers



brake pedal



pique your interest



lessen the burden



bridal shower



Incorrect Term



juggler vein



bare in mind



head over heals



chocolate moose



egg yoke



without further adieu



wet your appetite



heroine and morphine



reach across the isle



heard mentality



weather vein



zombie hoard



chilly peppers



brake petal



peek your interest



lesson the burden



bridle shower



But then the Correctica team commits a really major statistical goof—they average all those percentages together to calculate an overall percentage. Here’s their data again:

Incorrect Term




juggler vein




bare in mind




head over heals




chocolate moose




egg yoke




without further adieu




wet your appetite




heroine and morphine




reach across the isle




heard mentality




weather vein




zombie hoard




chilly peppers




brake petal




peek your interest




lesson the burden




bridle shower







They simply add up all the percentages (1.2% + 1.9% + 6.6% + . . .) and divide by the numbers of percentages, 17. But this number is meaningless. Imagine that we were comparing two items: isn’t is used 9,900 times and ain’t 100 times, and regardless is used 999 times and irregardless 1 time. This means that when there’s a choice between isn’t and ain’t, ain’t is used 1% of the time (100/(9900+100)), and when there’s a choice between regardless and irregardless, irregardless is used .1% of the time (1/(999+1)). If you average 1% and .1%, you get .55%, but this isn’t the overall error rate.

But to get an overall error rate, you need to calculate the percentage from the totals. We have to take the total number of errors and the total number of opportunities to use either the correct or the incorrect form. This gives us (1+100/((9900+999)+(100+1))), or 101/11000, which works out to .92%, not .55%.

When we count up the totals and calculate the overall rates, we get an error rate of 1.88% for then (not 3.4%) and 2.38% for now (not 8.4%). That means the increase from 2006 to 2009 is not 148.2%, but a much more modest 26.64%. (By the way, I’m not sure where they got 148.2%; by my calculations, it should be 147.1%, but I could have made a mistake somewhere.) This is still a rather impressive increase in errors from 2009 to today, but the problems with the data set make it impossible to say for sure if this number is accurate or meaningful. “Heroine and morphine” occurred 45 times out of over a trillion words. Even if the error rate jumped 141.73% from 2009 to 2015, and even if the two sample sets were comparable, this would still probably amount to nothing more than statistical noise.

And even if these numbers were accurate and meaningful, there’s still the question of research design. They claim that grammar errors have increased, but all of the items are spelling errors, and most of them are rather obscure ones at that. At best, this study only tells us that these errors have increased that much, not that grammar errors in general have increased that much. If you’re setting out to study grammar errors (using grammar in the broad sense), why would you assume that these items are representative of the phenomenon in general?

So in sum, the study is completely bogus, and it’s obviously nothing more than an attempt to sell yet another grammar-checking service. Is it important to check your writing for errors? Sure. Can Correctica help you do that? I have no idea. But I do know that this study doesn’t show an epidemic of grammar errors as it claims to.

(Here’s the data if anyone’s interested.)


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

Now compare Grammarly’s fix:

we ARE such STUFF
on WHICH dreams ARE made ON and OUR littLE life

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.


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] those men).

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


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.


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

(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.

(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.


Mother’s Day

Today is officially Mother’s Day, and as with other holidays with possessive or plural endings, there’s a lot of confusion about what the correct form of the name is. The creator of Mother’s Day in the United States, Anna Jarvis, specifically stated that it should be a singular possessive to focus on individual mothers rather than mothers in general. But as sociolinguist Matt Gordon noted on Twitter, “that logic is quite peccable”; though it’s a nice sentiment, it’s grammatical nonsense.

English has a singular possessive and a plural possessive; it does not have a technically-plural-but-focusing-on-the-singular possessive. Though Jarvis may have wanted everyone to focus on their respective mothers, the fact is that it still celebrates all mothers. If I told you that tomorrow was Jonathon’s Day, you’d assume that it’s my day, not that it’s the day for all Jonathons but that they happen to be celebrating separately. That’s simply not how grammatical number works in English. If you have more than one thing, it’s plural, even if you’re considering those things individually.

This isn’t the only holiday that employs some grammatically suspect reasoning in its official spelling—Veterans Day officially has no apostrophe because the day doesn’t technically belong to veterans. But this is silly—apostrophes are used for lots of things beyond simple ownership.

It could be worse, though. The US Board on Geographic Names discourages possessives altogether, though it allows the possessive s without an apostrophe. The peak named for Pike is Pikes Peak, which is worse than grammatical nonsense—it’s an officially enshrined error. The worst part is that there isn’t even a reason given for this policy, though presumably it’s because they don’t want to indicate private ownership of geographical features. (Again, the apostrophe doesn’t necessarily show ownership.) But in this case you can’t even argue that Pike is a plural attributive noun, because there’s only one Pike who named the peak.

The sad truth is that the people in charge of deciding where or whether to put apostrophes in things don’t always have the best grasp of grammar, and they don’t always think to consult someone who does. But even if the grammar of Mother’s Day makes me roll my eyes, I can still appreciate the sentiment. In the end, arguing about the placement of an apostrophe is a quibble. What matters most is what the day really means. And this day is for you, Mom.

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