Arrant Pedantry


Cognates, False and Otherwise

A few months ago, I was editing some online German courses, and I came across one of my biggest peeves in discussions of language: false cognates that aren’t.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you’ve probably learned about false cognates at some point. According to most language teachers and even many language textbooks, false cognates are words that look like they should mean the same thing as their supposed English counterparts but don’t. But cognates don’t necessarily look the same or mean the same thing, and words that look the same and mean the same thing aren’t necessarily cognates.

In linguistics, cognate is a technical term meaning that words are etymologically related—that is, they have a common origin. The English one, two, three, German eins, zwei, drei, French un, deux, trois,, and Welsh un, dau, tri are all cognate—they and words for one, two, three in many other language all trace back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *oino, *dwo, *trei.

These sets are all pretty obvious, but not all cognates are. For example, the English four, five, German vier, fünf, French quatre, cinq, and Welsh pedwar, pump. The English and German are still obviously related, but the others less so. Fünf and pump are actually pretty close, but it seems a pretty long way from four and vier to pedwar, and an even longer way from them to quatre and cinq.

And yet these words all go back to the PIE *kwetwer and *penkwe. Though the modern-day forms aren’t as obviously related, linguists can nevertheless establish their relationships by tracing the them back through a series of sound changes to their conjectured historical forms.

And not all cognates share meaning. The English yoke, for instance, is related to the Latin jugular, the Greek zeugma, and the Hindi yoga, along with join, joust, conjugate, and many others. These words all trace back to the PIE *yeug ‘join’, and that sense can still be seen in some of its modern descendants, but if you’re learning Hindi, you can’t rely on the word yoke to tell you what yoga means.

Which brings us back to the German course that I was editing. Cognates are often presented as a way to learn vocabulary quickly, because the form and meaning are often similar enough to the form and meaning of the English word to make them easy to remember. But cognates often vary wildly in form (like four, quatre, and pedwar) and in meaning (like yoke, jugular, zeugma, and yoga). And many of the words presented as cognates are in fact not cognates but merely borrowings. Strictly speaking, cognates are words that have a common origin—that is, they were inherited from an ancestral language, just as the cognates above all descend from Proto-Indo-European. Cognates are like cousins—they may belong to different families, but they all trace back to a common ancestor.

But if cognates are like cousins, then borrowings are like clones, where a copy of word is taken directly from one language to another. Most of the cognates that I learned in French class years ago are actually borrowings. The English and French forms may look a little different now, but the resemblance is unmistakable. Many of the cognates in the German course I was editing were also borrowings, and in many cases they were words that were borrowed into both German and English from French:


Of these, only gold, hand, land, sand, and wind are actually cognates. Maybe it’s nitpicking to point out that the English jaguar and the German Jaguar aren’t cognates but borrowings from Portuguese. For a language learner, the important thing is that these words are similar in both languages, making them easy to learn.

But it’s the list of supposed false cognates that really irks me:

karton/cardboard box
peperoni/chili pepper
beamer/video projector
argument/proof, reasons

The German word is on the left and the English word on the right. Once again, many of these words are borrowings, mostly from French and Latin. All of these borrowings are clearly related, though their senses may have developed in different directions. For example, chef generally means “boss” in French, but it acquired its specialized sense in English from the longer phrase chef de cuisine, “head of the kitchen”. The earlier borrowing chief still maintains the sense of “head” or “boss”.

(It’s interesting that billion and trillion are on the list, since this isn’t necessarily an English/German difference—it also used to be an American/British difference, but the UK has adopted the same system as the US. Some languages use billion to mean a thousand million, while other languages use it to mean a million million. There’s a whole Wikipedia article on it.)

But some of these words really are cognate with English words—they just don’t necessarily look like it. Bad, for example, is cognate with the English bath. You just need to know that the English sounds spelled as <th>—like the /θ/ in thin or the /ð/ in then—generally became /d/ in German.

And, surprisingly, the German Gift, “poison”, is indeed cognate with the English gift. Gift is derived from the word give, and it means “something given”. The German word is essentially just a highly narrowed sense of the word: poison is something you give someone. (Well, hopefully not something you give someone.)

On a related note, that most notorious of alleged false cognates, the Spanish embarazado, really is related to the English embarrassed. They both trace back to an earlier word meaning “to put someone in an awkward or difficult situation”.

Rather than call these words false cognates, it would be more accurate to call them
false friends. This term is broad enough to encompass both words that are unrelated and words that are borrowings or cognates but that have different senses.

This isn’t to say that cognates aren’t useful in learning a language, of course, but sometimes it takes a little effort to see the connections. For example, when I learned German, one of my professors gave us a handout of some common English–German sound correlations, like the th ~ d connection above. For example, if you know that the English /p/ often corresponds to a German /f/ and that the English sound spelled <ea> often corresponds to the German /au/, then the relation between leap and laufen “to run” becomes clearer.

Or if you know that the English sound spelled <ch> often corresponds with the German /k/ or that the English /p/ often corresponds with the German /f/, then the relation between cheap and kaufen “to buy” becomes a little clearer. (Incidentally, this means that the English surname Chapman is cognate with the German Kaufmann.) And knowing that the English <y> sometimes corresponds to the German /g/ might help you see the relationship between the verb yearn and the German adverb gern “gladly, willingly”.

You don’t have to teach a course in historical linguistics in order to teach a foreign language like German, but you’re doing a disservice if you teach that obviously related pairs like Bad and bath aren’t actually related. Rather than teach students that language is random and treacherous, you can teach them to find the patterns that are already there. A little bit of linguistic background can go a long way.

Plus, you know, real etymology is a lot more fun.

Edited to add: In response to this post, Christopher Bergmann ( created this great diagram of helpful cognates, unhelpful or less-helpful cognates, false cognates, and so on:

Click to see the full-sized image.


The Drunk Australian Accent Theory

Last week a story started making the rounds claiming that the Australian accent is the result of an “alcoholic slur” from heavy-drinking early settlers. Here’s the story from the Telegraph, which is where I first saw it. The story has already been debunked by David Crystal and others, but it’s still going strong.

The story was first published in the Age by Dean Frenkel, a lecturer in public speaking and communications at Victoria University. Frenkel says that the early settlers frequently got drunk together, and their drunken slur began to be passed down to the rising generations.

Frenkel also says that “the average Australian speaks to just two thirds capacity—with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch”. As evidence, he lists these features of Australian English phonology: “Missing consonants can include missing ‘t’s (Impordant), ‘l’s (Austraya) and ‘s’s (yesh), while many of our vowels are lazily transformed into other vowels, especially ‘a’s to ‘e’s (stending) and ‘i’s (New South Wyles) and ‘i’s to ‘oi’s (noight).”

The first sentence makes it sound as if Frenkel has done extensive phonetic studies on Australians—after all, how else would you know what a person’s articulator muscles are doing?—but the claim is pretty far-fetched. One-third of the average Australian’s articulator muscles are always sedentary? Wouldn’t they be completely atrophied if they were always unused? That sounds less like an epidemic of laziness and more like a national health crisis. But the second sentence makes it clear that Frenkel doesn’t have the first clue when it comes to phonetics and phonology.

There’s no missing consonant in impordant—the [t] sound has simply been transformed into an alveolar flap, [r], which also happens in some parts of the US. This is a process of lenition, in which sounds become more vowel-like, but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to laziness or lax articulator muscles. Austraya does have a missing consonant—or rather, it has a liquid consonant, [l], that has been transformed into the semivowel [j]. This is also an example of lenition, but, again, lenition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the force of articulation. Yesh (I presume for yes) involves a slight change in the placement of the tip of the tongue—it moves slightly further back towards the palate—but nothing to do with the force of articulation.

The vowel changes have even less to do with laziness. As David Crystal notes in his debunking, the raising of [æ] to [ε] in standing actually requires more muscular energy to produce, not less. I assume that lowering the diphthong [eɪ] to [æɪ] in Wales would thus take a little bit less energy, but the raising and rounding of [aɪ] to [ɔɪ] would require a little more. In other words, there is no clear pattern of laziness or laxness. Frenkel simply assumes that there’s a standard for which Australians should be aiming and that anything that misses that standard is evidence of laziness, regardless of the actual effort expended.

Even if it were a matter of laziness, the claim that one-third of the articular muscles are always sedentary is absolutely preposterous. There’s no evidence that Frenkel has done any kind of research on the subject; this is just a number pulled from thin air based on his uninformed perceptions of Australian phonetics.

And, again, even if his claims about Australian vocal laxness were true, his claims about the origin of this supposed laxness are still pretty tough to swallow. The early settlers passed on a drunken slur to their children? For that to be even remotely possible, every adult in Australian would have had to be drunk literally all the time, including new mothers. If that were true, Australia would be facing a raging epidemic of fetal alcohol syndrome, not sedentary speech muscles.

As far as I know, there is absolutely zero evidence that Australian settlers were ever that drunk, that constant drunkenness can have an effect on children who aren’t drinking, or that the Australian accent has anything in common with inebriated speech.

When pressed, Frenkel attempts to weasel out of his claims, saying, “I am telling you, it is a theory.” But in his original article, he never claimed that it was a theory; he simply asserted it as fact. And strictly speaking, it isn’t even a theory—at best it’s a hypothesis, because he has clearly done no research to substantiate or verify it.

But all this ridiculousness is just a setup for his real argument, which is that Australians need more training in rhetoric. He says,

If we all received communication training, Australia would become a cleverer country. When rhetoric is presented effectively, it enables content to be communicated in a listener-friendly environment, with well-chosen words spoken at a listenable rate and with balanced volume, fluency, clarity and understandability.

Communication training could certainly be a good thing, but again, there’s a problem—this isn’t rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of discourse and argumentation; what Frenkel is describing is more like diction or elocution. He’s deploying bad logic and terrible linguistics in service of a completely muddled argument, which is that Australians need to learn to communicate better.

In the end, what really burns me about this story isn’t that Frenkel is peddling a load of tripe but that journalists are so eager to gobble it up. Their ignorance of linguistics is disappointing, but their utter credulousness is completely dismaying. And if that weren’t bad enough, in an effort to present a balanced take on the story, journalists are still giving him credence even when literally every linguist who has commented on it has said that it’s complete garbage.

Huffington Post ran the story with the subhead “It’s a highly controversial theory among other academics”. (They also originally called Frenkel a linguist, but this has been corrected.) But calling Frenkel’s hypothesis “a highly controversial theory among other academics” is like saying that alchemy is a highly controversial theory among chemists or that the flat-earth model is a highly controversial theory among geologists. This isn’t a real controversy, at least not in any meaningful way; it’s one uninformed guy spouting off nonsense and a lot other people calling him on it.

In the end, I think it was Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper who had the best response:



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.


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.


Lynne Truss and Chicken Little

Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is at it again, crying with her characteristic hyperbole and lack of perspective that the linguistic sky is falling because she got a minor bump on the head.

As usual, Truss hides behind the it’s-just-a-joke-but-no-seriously defense. She starts by claiming to have “an especially trivial linguistic point to make” but then claims that the English language is doomed, and it’s all linguists’ fault. According to Truss, linguists have sat back and watched while literacy levels have declined—and have profited from doing so.

What exactly is the problem this time? That some people mistakenly write some phrases as compound words when they’re not, such as maybe for may be or anyday for any day. (This isn’t even entirely true; anyday is almost nonexistent in print, even in American English, according to Google Ngram Viewer.) I guess from anyday it’s a short, slippery slope to complete language chaos, and then “we might as well all go off and kill ourselves.”

But it’s not clear what her complaint about erroneous compound words has to do with literacy levels. If the only problem with literacy is that some people write maybe when they mean may be, then it seems to be, as she originally says, an especially trivial point. Yes, some people deviate from standard orthography. While this may be irritating and may occasionally cause confusion, it’s not really an indication that people don’t know how to read or write. Even educated people make mistakes, and this has always been the case. It’s not a sign of impending doom.

But let’s consider the analogies she chose to illustrate linguists’ supposed negligence. She says that we’re like epidemiologists who simply catalog all the ways in which people die from diseases or like architects who make notes while buildings collapse. (Interestingly, she makes two remarks about how well paid linguists are. Of course, professors don’t actually make that much, especially those in the humanities or social sciences. And it smacks of hypocrisy from someone whose book has sold 3 million copies.)

Perhaps there is a minor crisis in literacy, at least in the UK. This article says that 16–24-year-olds in the UK are lagging behind many counterparts in other first-world countries. (The headline suggests that they’re trailing the entire world, but the study only looked at select countries from Europe and east Asia.) Wikipedia, however, says that the UK has a 99 percent literacy rate. Maybe young people are slipping a bit, and this is certainly something that educators should address, but it doesn’t appear that countless people are dying from an epidemic of slightly declining literacy rates or that our linguistic structures are collapsing. This is simply not the linguistic apocalypse that Truss makes it out to be.

Anyway, even if it were, why would it be linguists’ job to do something about it? Literacy is taught in primary and secondary school and is usually the responsibility of reading, language arts, or English teachers—not linguists. Why not criticize English professors for sitting back and collecting fat paychecks for writing about literary theory while our kids struggle to read? Because they’re not her ideological enemy, that’s why. Linguists often oppose language pedants like Truss, and so Truss finds some reason—contrived though it may be—to blame them. Though some applied linguists do in fact study things like language acquisition and literacy, most linguists hew to the more abstract and theoretical side of language—syntax, morphology, phonology, and so on. Blaming descriptive linguists for children’s illiteracy is like blaming physicists for children’s inability to ride bikes.

And maybe the real reason why linguists are unconcerned about the upcoming linguistic apocalypse is that there simply isn’t one. Maybe linguists are like meteorologists who observe that, contrary to the claims of some individuals, the sky is not actually falling. In studying the structure of other languages and the ways in which languages change, linguists have realized that language change is not decay. Consider the opening lines from Beowulf, an Old English epic poem over a thousand years old:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Only two words are instantly recognizable to modern English speakers: we and in. The changes from Old English to modern English haven’t made the language better or worse—just different. Some people maintain that they understand that language changes but say that they still oppose certain changes that seem to come from ignorance or laziness. They fear that if we’re not vigilant in opposing such changes, we’ll lose our ability to communicate. But the truth is that most of those changes from Old English to modern English also came from ignorance or laziness, and we seem to communicate just fine today.

Languages can change very radically over time, but contrary to popular belief, they never devolve into caveman grunting. This is because we all have an interest in both understanding and being understood, and we’re flexible enough to adapt to changes that happen within our lifetime. And with language, as opposed to morality or ethics, there is no inherent right or wrong. Correct language is, in a nutshell, what its users consider to be correct for a given time, place, and audience. One generation’s ignorant change is sometimes the next generation’s proper grammar.

It’s no surprise that Truss fundamentally misunderstands what linguists and lexicographers do. She even admits that she was “seriously unqualified” for linguistic debate a few years back, and it seems that nothing has changed. But that probably won’t stop her from continuing to prophesy the imminent destruction of the English language. Maybe Truss is less like Chicken Little and more like the boy who cried wolf, proclaiming disaster not because she actually sees one coming, but rather because she likes the attention.


Reflections on National Grammar Day

I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’ve been thinking a lot about National Grammar Day and want to blog about it anyway. Please forgive me for my untimeliness.

First off, I should say for those who don’t know me that I work as a copy editor. I clearly understand the value of using Standard American English when it is called for, and I know its rules and conventions quite well. I’m also a student of linguistics, and I find language fascinating. I understand the desire to celebrate language and to promote its good use, but unfortunately it appears that National Grammar Day does neither.

If you go to National Grammar Day’s web site and click on “About SPOGG” at the top of the page, you find this:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar is for pen-toters appalled by wanton displays of Bad English. . . . SPOGG is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It’s about clarity.

I can get behind those last two sentences (noting, of course, this description seems to exclude spoken English), but the first obviously flies in the face of the society’s name—is it trying to promote “good” (read “standard”) grammar, or simply ridicule what it deems to be displays of bad English? Well, if you read the SPOGG Blog, it appears to be the latter. None of the posts on the front page seem to deal with clarity; in each case it seems quite clear what the author intended, so obviously SPOGG is not about clarity after all.

In fact, what I gather from this post in particular is that SPOGG is more about the social value of using Standard English than it is about anything else. The message here is quite clear: using nonstandard English is like having spinach in your teeth. It’s like wearing a speedo on the bus. SPOGG isn’t about good, clean English or about clarity. It’s only about mocking those who violate a set of taboos. By following the rules, you signal to others that you belong to a certain group, one whose members care about linguistic manners in the same way that some people care about not putting their elbows on the table while they eat.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. If you delight in fussy little rules about spelling and punctuation, that’s your choice. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rules that are truly important and the guidelines and conventions that are more flexible and optional. John McIntyre made this point quite well in his post today on his blog, You Don’t Say.

Unfortunately, I find that SPOGG’s founder, Martha Brockenbrough, quite frequently fails to make this distinction. She also shows an appalling lack of knowledge on issues like how language changes, what linguists do, and, to top it all off, what grammar actually is. Of course, she falls back on the “Geez, can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already noted.

As I said at the start, I can appreciate the desire to celebrate grammar. I just wish National Grammar Day actually did that.


Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive*, it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voila! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing


So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.


*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.


Arrant Pedantry

When you study and work with language for a living, a lot of people naturally assume that you’re some sort of scowling, finger-wagging pedant who is secretly keeping a list of all the grammatical and usage errors they make. It’s difficult to make people understand that you only correct errors when you’re on the clock, and even then you sometimes do it grudgingly because that’s what the style guide says, not necessarily because you believe you’re actually improving the text. It’s even harder to make people understand that what you’re really interested in is understanding how language works, not telling people that they’re using the language wrong or that they’re somehow lacking or inferior because they split an infinitive and dangled a participle.

The problem is that too many people have had bad experiences with just such language pedants, the Miss Thistlebottoms of the world. Now, I have to say that I do believe that there should be standards in the language and that they should be taught to students and followed by writers and editors (when appropriate).

The problem is that the standards in English are too often defined or enforced by people who apparently pull rules out of thin air. These grammatical fussbudgets aren’t interested in a standard based on the usage of educated speakers and writers; rather, they seem to prefer rules that set them apart from the unwashed masses, that give them a reason to judge and condemn. The Elements of Style is their bible, Strunk and White are their prophets, and they sneer down their noses at those not of their faith. The objective, empirical truth of English usage is of no interest to them; they have faith in their false gospel of grammar.

Why do these grammar nazis bother me so? For a lot of reasons, actually. First of all, because a lot of people assume that I’m one of them, and that is simply not true. I was never much of a grammar nazi even when I was new to the field of editing; I favored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. I still enjoy editing, and I have some very good friends who are excellent editors, but too many people in that profession are either incompetent or tyrannical (or likely both).

Second, I have a strong respect for the truth. Most grammaristos will believe whatever falsehoods they happened to hear in their English classes. If an English teacher tells them that it’s always wrong to split an infinitive, to strand a preposition, or to use they with a singular antecedent, they will unquestioningly accept it as gospel truth, no matter how nonsensical it may be. Any rational person could do a little research and find all three of those “rules” broken by virtually all the finest English writers of the last several centuries. You’d think this would be enough to convince them that such rules are faulty, but the grammar pedants will usually respond with a retort like “Just because Shakespeare made mistakes doesn’t make it alright.” You simply can’t argue with people like that.

And as if those rules weren’t ridiculous enough, there are teachers in the world who tell their students that it’s outright wrong to use the final serial comma or to use the subordinator that when it could be omitted. These sorts of rules only serve to teach students that English is a difficult, frustrating subject that doesn’t make sense. These students then spend the rest of their lives fearing anyone in a position of grammatical authority and believing that many of their natural tendencies in the language are probably wrong.

When people are blindly stupid about grammar and usage, it makes me angry, but when people have been cowed into believing that no matter what they do, they’re always going to get it wrong, it just makes me sad. There’s something seriously wrong with the way English grammar is taught today. At some point the system was taken over by people who favored literary analysis over any sort of teaching of the principles of the language, so what little grammar is being taught is fundamentally flawed because no one has taken the time to learn it properly before they attempt to teach it to others. It’s a subject that’s been highly abused, and too often it’s used for abusive purposes.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what the solution is. I may not be a grammar nazi, but neither am I a grammar anarchist. All I know is that I don’t like the way things are, and I think it’s time for a change.


I Am Not an English Major

I am not an English major. It’s true that I used to be—I’m not disputing that. But I’m not anymore, even though my new major doesn’t really sound different. I’m an English language major. There’s a subtle yet profound difference there. Some keen and discerning people recognize that there’s a difference, but even then they don’t always catch on to what it is. I’m not learning English as a second language—I already speak it fluently, thanks. Nor am I learning how to teach English as a second language—if that’s what I wanted to do, I’d get a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) minor.

So what exactly is my major? Well, like the name says, I study the English language. Not its literature, but the actual language itself—cool stuff like grammar and usage and phonology and semantics and the history of the language. I can tell you everything about the Great Vowel Shift and what separates Old English from Modern English (for starters, Shakespeare is not Old English).

Why am I so frustrated that I have to explain all of this? It’s because people often ask my wife and me what our majors are (hers is English), and they almost invariably respond, “Oh, so you’re both English majors.” Well, no, not really. Our majors have exactly one required class in common. It’s true that we’re both editors and devout word nerds, but our fields of study are quite different. The English major focuses on literature and writing, whereas the English language major focuses on linguistics.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This is all thoroughly fascinating, but what’s the point? Isn’t this just another one of those fluffy humanities majors that don’t prepare you for the real world? What in the world do you actually do with a degree in English language, anyway? Flip burgers? I certainly hope not. Go on to law school? Ugh. No way. Teach high school? Not a chance. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got tons of respect for teachers, but I decided a long time ago that teaching wasn’t for me, and I’ve gotten tired of people asking, “So, are you going to be a teacher?” It was an annoying question when I was still an English major (and thus had more of a chance of teaching high school), but it’s a far more annoying question now that I’m an English language major (and thus have zero chance of teaching high school). They want someone to teach literature and writing and that sort of thing, not someone who can explain to students the difference between a punctual and a durative verb or the phonological and grammatical changes that separate the Germanic languages from the rest of the Indo-European language family.

Instead, I am going into the wonderful world of editing. Not just proofreading or typo-fixing: editing. I fix things like bad organization, grammatical errors, poor wording, and stylistic issues. I am the mechanic that fixes those funny squeals and clunks and keeps things running smoothly. I am the midwife that makes sure the words are delivered without any problems. I am the security guard that pats down suspicious-looking sentences and confiscates their contraband grammar. I am the janitor that cleans up authors’ messes, messes that they’re perfectly capable of cleaning up themselves, but they don’t bother because they know I’ll take care of it. I am the guy you complain about and gloat over in absentia every time you find the typo that slipped through. I am the guy who will likely never get his name on a book cover, no matter how much he works on that book.

That last thought depresses me sometimes. I might never be published. I might never see my name in print. I might never write anything that will be of value to anyone but me. But is that so bad? Do I have to be a writer to be valued? Is it true that those who can’t write, edit? I really don’t think so. I like what I do. I’m good at it. And if no one ever quite understands just what it is I do, I should take it as a compliment, for that is the curse of the editor: when we do our jobs well, no one even knows we are there.


In the Defense of English

I have always felt that English is a good language. I’m probably fairly biased when it comes to this subject, but I don’t care. English is a colorful and versatile language that readily accepts new borrowings, coinages, and idioms. Its grammar is simple and its vocabulary is broad. It’s also the most influential and widely spoken language in the world at the moment.

So why are we still so infatuated with Latin?

It’s not that I hate Latin; unlike some people, I don’t know it well enough to hate it. But I do know enough to know that Latin has been one of the greatest blessings and worst curses that the English language has ever seen. As you probably know, Latin was the language of scholarship for many years. This led to a huge influx of new words that greatly expanded English vocabulary. Unfortunately, Latin’s great prestige made English look backwards and barbaric by comparison.

The beauty of Latin was in its well-established rules. English—and any other language—was a mess of dialects and differing usages and pronunciations. Of course, the only reason Latin’s rules were so well-established is that it was long dead and fossilized by that time. There were no Latin dialects anymore because those dialects had evolved into full-fledged languages.

The result of this is that Latin rules were often imposed on English by grammarians seeking to turn English into a more enlightened tongue. The worst of these was Bishop Lowth, who took it upon himself to create an English pedagogical grammar textbook. Nearly two hundred fifty years later, we are still stuck with some of his infamous rules, including the prohibitions against split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions—rules that were based on Latin grammar. Ironically, in his own words, he opposed “forcing the English under the rules of a foreign language.”1

The damage done by Latin didn’t end there. Latin words may have enriched English vocabulary, but many of these borrowings were duplicates of English words. The Latin (and French) borrowings took on an elevated status, while the English doublets became cruder by comparison. Consider the following pairs: kingly and regal, house and mansion, heavenly and celestial, get and obtain. The first word in each pair is English, while the second is Latin or French. In each case the Latinate word is loftier. But why? Is Latin intrinsically better? Absolutely not. The Romans may have built an advanced empire, but it was not because their language was any better than the languages of the Gauls or Iberians or Germanic tribes.

More than fifteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, we still consider Romance languages to be beautiful and Germanic languages to be ugly. I say that anyone who believes this has never heard passages of Beowulf read aloud in authentic Old English. The Anglo-Saxons knew how to do things right; when translating from Latin, if they encountered a word that didn’t have an English equivalent, they made one up from English roots. And why shouldn’t they? English was just as legitimate a language as Latin, a language of poetry and scholarship.

I think that in many ways, we’ve forgotten and abandoned the roots of our language. Millions of people still study Latin, but how many study Old English? How many people think that got is just as good as obtained? The sad thing is, most people probably don’t even realize that they’re neglecting their native tongue; they’re too busy falling in love with silly words like defenestrate. Well, let me tell you something: there’s an English word for that, too, and it’s to throw out a window, which is what I’ll want to do next time someone tries to tell me that Latin is better than English.

1 A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 107

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