Arrant Pedantry

By

I Request You to Read This Post

Several weeks ago, I tweeted about a weird construction that I see frequently at work thanks to our project management system. Whenever someone assigns me to a project, I get an email like the one below:Hi Jonathon, [Name Redacted] just requested you to work on Editing. It's all yours.

I said that the construction sounded ungrammatical to me—you can ask someone to do something or request that they do it, but not request them to do it. Several people agreed with me, while others said that it makes sense to them if you stress you—they requested me to work on it, not someone else. Honestly, I’m not sure that stress changes anything, since the question is about what kind of complementation the verb request allows. Changing the stress doesn’t change the syntax.

However, Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor for The Oxford English Dictionary, quickly pointed out that the first sense of request in the OED is “to ask (a person), esp. in a polite or formal manner, to do something.” There are citations from around 1485 down to the present illustrating the construction request [someone] to [verb]. (Sense 3 is the request that [someone] [verb] construction, which has been around from 1554 to the present.) Jordan Smith, a linguistics PhD student at Iowa State, also pointed out that The Longman Grammar says that request is attested in the pattern [verb + NP + to-clause], just like ask. He agreed that it sounds odd, though.

So obviously the construction has been around for a while, and it’s apparently still around, but that didn’t explain why it sounds weird to me. I decided to do a little digging in the BYU corpora, and what I found was a little surprising.

The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) shows a slow decline in the request [someone] to [verb] construction, from 13.71 hits per million words in the 1820s to just .2 per million words in the first decade of the 2000s.

And it isn’t just that we’re using the verb request a lot less now than we were two hundred years ago. Though it has seen a moderate decline, it doesn’t match the curve for that particular construction.

Even if the construction hasn’t vanished entirely, it’s pretty close to nonexistent in modern published writing—at least in some parts of the world. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GLoWbE) shows that while it’s mostly gone in nations where English is the most widely spoken first language (the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand), it’s alive and well in South Asia (the taller bars in the middle are India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). (Interestingly, the only OED citation for this construction in the last fifty years comes from a book called World Food: India.) To a lesser extent, it also survives in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia (the two smallish bars at the right are Kenya and Tanzania).

It’s not clear why my work’s project management system uses a construction that is all but extinct in most varieties of English but is still alive and well in South Asia. The company is based in Utah, but it’s possible that they employ people from South Asia or that whoever wrote that text just happens to be among the few speakers of American English who still use it.

Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting example of language change in action. Peter Sokolowski, an editor for Merriam-Webster, likes to say, “Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don’t accept the changes made in their own time.” With apologies to Peter, I don’t think this is quite right. The changes we don’t accept are generally the ones made in our own time, but most changes happen without us really noticing. Constructions like request that [someone] [verb] fade out of use, and no one bemoans their loss. Other changes, like the shift from infinitives to gerunds and the others listed in this article by Arika Okrent, creep in without anyone getting worked up about them. It’s only the tip of the iceberg that we occasionally gripe about, while the vast bulk of language change slips by unnoticed.

This is important because we often conflate change and error—that is, we think that language changes begin as errors that gradually become accepted. For example, Bryan Garner’s entire Language Change Index is predicated on the notion that change is synonymous with error. But many things that are often considered wrong—towards, less with count nouns, which used as a restrictive relative pronoun—are quite old, while the rules forbidding their use are in fact the innovations. It’s perverse to call these changes that are creeping in when they’re really old features that are being pushed out. Indeed, the whole purpose of the index isn’t to tell you where a particular use falls on a scale of change, but to tell you how accepted that use is—that is, how much of an error it is.

So the next time you assume that a certain form must be a recent change because it’s disfavored, I request you to reexamine your assumptions. Language change is much more subtle and much more complex than you may think.

By

Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

A recent Twitter exchange about the term beg the question got me thinking again about the notion of skunked terms. David Ehrlich said that at some point the new sense of beg the question was going to become the correct one, and I said that that point had already come and gone.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s that begging the question is traditionally a type of circular reasoning. Increasingly, though, it’s being used in the newer sense of ‘raising the question’ or ‘demanding that we ask the question’. A couple of years ago, Stan Carey found that the newer sense makes up about 90 percent of the hits in the GloWbE corpus (and the percentage is even higher if you exclude mentions and only count uses).

On Language Log Neal Goldfarb wrote that the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers. On Twitter, many others agreed that the term was skunked, to borrow a term from Bryan Garner.

In his Modern American Usage, Garner writes, “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become ‘skunked.'”

Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change?

In some cases, though, it’s not clear what declaring a word skunked accomplishes. For instance, Garner says that data is skunked because some people object to its use with a plural verb, while others object to its use with a singular. Either way, you might annoy someone. But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.

And sometimes, as with beg the question, it almost seems silly to keep calling a new use skunked. If upwards of 90 percent of the uses of a term are in the new sense (and I suspect it’s even higher in speech), then the battle is all but over. We can’t realistically say that you should avoid using beg the question because it’s ambiguous, because it’s always clear in context. And the new sense certainly isn’t unclear or unfamiliar—how could it be if it’s the one that most people are using? The old sense may be unclear to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case, because it’s a rather technical term. The new use doesn’t change that.

So what it really comes down to is the fact that a very small but very vocal minority don’t like the new use and would rather say that it’s been ruined for everyone than to admit defeat. The question is, should that be enough reason to declare the term off-limits to everybody? Many editors and usage commentators argue that there’s no harm in avoidance, but Geoff Nunberg calls this rationale “the pedant’s veto“: “It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath.” (Arnold Zwicky, somewhat less charitably, calls this rationale “crazies win“.) Nunberg says that this sort of avoidance can be a wise course of action, but other times it seems a bit ridiculous.

Consider, for example, the Economist style guide, which is often mocked for its avoidance of split infinitives. It reads, “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.” Who are all these people who find split infinitives so annoying? And even if there are still a few people who cling to this non-rule, why should everybody else change just to make them happy? Indeed, it seems that most other usage guides have moved on at this point.

Perhaps the biggest problem with declaring a term skunked is that it’s not clear what the criteria are. How many sticklers does it take to skunk a term? How contentious does the debate need to be? And how do we know when it stops being skunked?

I have to wonder, though, if the entire notion of skunked terms is ultimately self-defeating. The people who are most likely to heed a warning to avoid a contentious usage are also the people who are most likely to adhere to traditional usage in the first place. The people who use beg the question in the new sense, for example, are most likely unaware not only of the traditional meaning but also of the fact that there’s a debate about its meaning. If the traditionalists all start avoiding the term, then all that will remain will be the new use. By declaring a term skunked and saying it should be avoided, it could be that all we really accomplish is to drive the old use out even faster.

Ultimately, the question is, how much do we care about the opinions of that small but vocal minority? Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I hate giving such a small group such disproportionate power over the language we all use. I’d rather spend my efforts trying to change opinions on usage than trying to placate the peevers. But I have to admit that there’s no easy answer. If there were, there’d be no reason to call a term skunked in the first place.

By

New Post on Visual Thesaurus: Less Usage Problems

I have a new post on Visual Thesaurus, and this one’s open to non-subscribers:

The distinction between less and fewer is one of the most popular rules in the peevers’ arsenal. It’s a staple of lists of grammar rules that everyone supposedly gets wrong, and sticklers have pressured stores into changing their signs from “10 items or less” to “10 items or fewer.” Students have it drilled into their heads that fewer is for things you can count while less is for things you can’t. But there’s a problem: the rule as it’s commonly taught is wrong, and it’s dulling our sense of what’s actually right.

Go here to read the rest.

By

Do Usage Debates Make You Nauseous?

Several days ago, the Twitter account for the Chicago Manual of Style tweeted, “If you’re feeling sick, use nauseated rather than nauseous. Despite common usage, whatever is nauseous induces nausea.” The relevant entry in Chicago reads,

Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity of nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participial adjectives nauseated and nauseating.

Though it seems like a straightforward usage tip, it’s based on some dubious motives and one rather strange assumption about language. It’s true that nauseous once meant causing nausea and that it has more recently acquired the sense of having nausea, but causing nausea wasn’t even the word’s original meaning in English. The word was first recorded in the early 17th century in the sense of inclined to nausea or squeamish. So you were nauseous not if you felt sick at the moment but if you had a sensitive stomach. This sense became obsolete in the late 17th century, supplanted by the causing nausea sense. The latter sense is the one that purists cling to, but it too is going obsolete.

I searched for nauseous in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and looked at the first 100 hits. Of those 100 hits, only one was used in the sense of causing nausea: “the nauseous tints and tinges of corruption.” The rest were all clearly used in the sense of having nausea—“I was nauseous” and “it might make you feel a little nauseous” and so on. Context is key: when nauseous is used with people, it means that they feel sick, but when it’s used with things, it means they’re sickening. And anyway, if nauseous is ambiguous, then every word with multiple meanings is ambiguous, including the word word, which has eleven main definitions as a noun in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. So where’s this ambiguity that Chicago warns of?

The answer is that there really isn’t any. In this case it’s nothing more than a red herring. Perhaps it’s possible to concoct a sentence that, lacking sufficient context, is truly ambiguous. But the corpus search shows that it just isn’t a problem, and thus fear of ambiguity can’t be the real reason for avoiding nauseous. Warnings of ambiguity are often used not to call attention to a real problem but to signal that a word has at least two senses or uses and that the author does not like one of them. Bryan Garner (the author of the above entry from Chicago), in his Modern American Usage, frequently warns of such “skunked” words and usually recommends avoiding them altogether. This may seem like sensible advice, but it seems to me to be motivated by a sense of jealousy—if the word can’t mean what the advice-giver wants it to mean, then no one can use it.

But the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage. If 99 percent of the population uses nauseous in the sense of having nausea, then who’s to say that they’re wrong? Who has the authority to declare this sense “poor usage”? And yet Garner says, rather unequivocally, “Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea.” How does he know this is what nauseous means? It’s not as if there is some platonic form of words, some objective true meaning from which a word must never stray. After all, language changes, and an earlier form is not necessarily better or truer than a newer one. As Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper recently pointed out on Twitter, stew once meant “whorehouse”, and this sense dates to the 1300s. The food sense arose four hundred years later, in the 1700s. Is this poor usage because it’s a relative upstart supplanting an older established sense? Of course not.

People stopped using nauseous to mean “inclined to nausea” several hundred years ago, and so it no longer means that. Similarly, most people no longer use nauseous to mean “causing nausea”, and so that meaning is waning. In another hundred years, it may be gone altogether. For now, it hangs on, but this doesn’t mean that the newer and overwhelmingly more common sense is poor usage. The new sense is only poor usage inasmuch as someone says it is. In other words, it all comes down to someone’s opinion. As I’ve said before, pronouncements on usage that are based simply on someone’s opinion are ultimately unreliable, and any standard that doesn’t take into account near-universal usage by educated speakers in edited writing is doomed to irrelevance.

So go ahead and use nauseous. The “having nausea” sense is now thoroughly established, and it seems silly to avoid a perfectly good word just because a few peevers dislike it. Even if you stick to the more traditional “causing nausea” sense, you’re unlikely to confuse anyone, because context will make the meaning clear. Just be careful about people who make unsupported claims about language.

By

My Thesis

I’ve been putting this post off for a while for a couple of reasons: first, I was a little burned out and was enjoying not thinking about my thesis for a while, and second, I wasn’t sure how to tackle this post. My thesis is about eighty pages long all told, and I wasn’t sure how to reduce it to a manageable length. But enough procrastinating.

The basic idea of my thesis was to see which usage changes editors are enforcing in print and thus infer what kind of role they’re playing in standardizing (specifically codifying) usage in Standard Written English. Standard English is apparently pretty difficult to define precisely, but most discussions of it say that it’s the language of educated speakers and writers, that it’s more formal, and that it achieves greater uniformity by limiting or regulating the variation found in regional dialects. Very few writers, however, consider the role that copy editors play in defining and enforcing Standard English, and what I could find was mostly speculative or anecdotal. That’s the gap my research aimed to fill, and my hunch was that editors were not merely policing errors but were actively introducing changes to Standard English that set it apart from other forms of the language.

Some of you may remember that I solicited help with my research a couple of years ago. I had collected about two dozen manuscripts edited by student interns and then reviewed by professionals, and I wanted to increase and improve my sample size. Between the intern and volunteer edits, I had about 220,000 words of copy-edited text. Tabulating the grammar and usage changes took a very long time, and the results weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped they’d be. There were still some clear patterns, though, and I believe they confirmed my basic idea.

The most popular usage changes were standardizing the genitive form of names ending in -s (Jones’>Jones’s), which>that, towards>toward, moving only, and increasing parallelism. These changes were not only numerically the most popular, but they were edited at fairly high rates—up to 80 percent. That is, if towards appeared ten times, it was changed to toward eight times. The interesting thing about most of these is that they’re relatively recent inventions of usage writers. I’ve already written about which hunting on this blog, and I recently wrote about towards for Visual Thesaurus.

In both cases, the rule was invented not to halt language change, but to reduce variation. For example, in unedited writing, English speakers use towards and toward with roughly equal frequency; in edited writing, toward outnumbers towards 10 to 1. With editors enforcing the rule in writing, the rule quickly becomes circular—you should use toward because it’s the norm in Standard (American) English. Garner used a similarly circular defense of the that/which rule in this New York Times Room for Debate piece with Robert Lane Greene:

But my basic point stands: In American English from circa 1930 on, “that” has been overwhelmingly restrictive and “which” overwhelmingly nonrestrictive. Strunk, White and other guidebook writers have good reasons for their recommendation to keep them distinct — and the actual practice of edited American English bears this out.

He’s certainly correct in saying that since 1930 or so, editors have been changing restrictive which to that. But this isn’t evidence that there’s a good reason for the recommendation; it’s only evidence that editors believe there’s a good reason.

What is interesting is that usage writers frequently invoke Standard English in defense of the rules, saying that you should change towards to toward or which to that because the proscribed forms aren’t acceptable in Standard English. But if Standard English is the formal, nonregional language of educated speakers and writers, then how can we say that towards or restrictive which are nonstandard? What I realized is this: part of the problem with defining Standard English is that we’re talking about two similar but distinct things—the usage of educated speakers, and the edited usage of those speakers. But because of the very nature of copy editing, we conflate the two. Editing is supposed to be invisible, so we don’t know whether what we’re seeing is the author’s or the editor’s.

Arguments about proper usage become confused because the two sides are talking past each other using the same term. Usage writers, editors, and others see linguists as the enemies of Standard (Edited) English because they see them tearing down the rules that define it, setting it apart from educated but unedited usage, like that/which and toward/towards. Linguists, on the other hand, see these invented rules as being unnecessarily imposed on people who already use Standard English, and they question the motives of those who create and enforce the rules. In essence, Standard English arises from the usage of educated speakers and writers, while Standard Edited English adds many more regulative rules from the prescriptive tradition.

My findings have some serious implications for the use of corpora to study usage. Corpus linguistics has done much to clarify questions of what’s standard, but the results can still be misleading. With corpora, we can separate many usage myths and superstitions from actual edited usage, but we can’t separate edited usage from simple educated usage. We look at corpora of edited writing and think that we’re researching Standard English, but we’re unwittingly researching Standard Edited English.

None of this is to say that all editing is pointless, or that all usage rules are unnecessary inventions, or that there’s no such thing as error because educated speakers don’t make mistakes. But I think it’s important to differentiate between true mistakes and forms that have simply been proscribed by grammarians and editors. I don’t believe that towards and restrictive which can rightly be called errors, and I think it’s even a stretch to call them stylistically bad. I’m open to the possibility that it’s okay or even desirable to engineer some language changes, but I’m unconvinced that either of the rules proscribing these is necessary, especially when the arguments for them are so circular. At the very least, rules like this serve to signal to readers that they are reading Standard Edited English. They are a mark of attention to detail, even if the details in question are irrelevant. The fact that someone paid attention to them is perhaps what is most important.

And now, if you haven’t had enough, you can go ahead and read the whole thesis here.

By

Relative Pronoun Redux

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Pullum wrote on Lingua Franca about the that/which rule, which he calls “a rule which will live in infamy”. (For my own previous posts on the subject, see here, here, and here.) He runs through the whole gamut of objections to the rule—that the rule is an invention, that it started as a suggestion and became canonized as grammatical law, that it has “an ugly clutch of exceptions”, that great writers (including E. B. White himself) have long used restrictive which, and that it’s really the commas that distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as they do with other relative pronouns like who.

It’s a pretty thorough deconstruction of the rule, but in a subsequent Language Log post, he despairs of converting anyone, saying, “You can’t talk people out of their positions on this; they do not want to be confused with facts.” And sure enough, the commenters on his Lingua Franca post proved him right. Perhaps most maddening was this one from someone posting as losemygrip:

Just what the hell is wrong with trying to regularize English and make it a little more consistent? Sounds like a good thing to me. Just because there are inconsistent precedents doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to regularize things. I get so tired of people smugly proclaiming that others are being officious because they want things to make sense.

The desire to fix a problem with the language may seem noble, but in this case the desire stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the grammar of relative pronouns, and the that/which rule, rather than regularizing the language and making it a little more consistent, actually introduces a rather significant irregularity and inconsistency. The real problem is that few if any grammarians realize that English has two separate systems of relativization: the wh words and that, and they work differently.

If we ignore the various prescriptions about relative pronouns, we find that the wh words (the pronouns who/whom/whose and which, the adverbs where, when, why, whither, and whence, and the where + preposition compounds) form a complete system on their own. The pronouns who and which distinguish between personhood or animacy—people and sometimes animals or other personified things get who, while everything else gets which. But both pronouns function restrictively and nonrestrictively, and so do most of the other wh relatives. (Why occurs almost exclusively as a restrictive relative adverb after reason.)

With all of these relative pronouns and adverbs, restrictiveness is indicated with commas in writing or a small pause in speech. There’s no need for a lexical or morphological distinction to show restrictiveness with who or where or any of the others—intonation or punctuation does it all. There are a few irregularities in the system—for instance, which has no genitive form and must use whose or of which, and who declines for cases while which does not—but on the whole it’s rather orderly.

That, on the other hand, is a system all by itself, and it’s rather restricted in its range. It only forms restrictive relative clauses, and then only in a narrow range of syntactic constructions. It can’t follow a preposition (the book of which I spoke rather than *the book of that I spoke) or the demonstrative that (they want that which they can’t have rather than *they want that that they can’t have), and it usually doesn’t occur after coordinating conjunctions. But it doesn’t make the same personhood distinction that who and which do, and it functions as a relative adverb sometimes. In short, the distribution of that is a subset of the distribution of the wh words. They are simply two different ways to make relative clauses, one of which is more constrained.

Proscribing which in its role as a restrictive relative where it overlaps with that doesn’t make the system more regular—it creates a rather strange hole in the middle of the wh relative paradigm and forces speakers to use a word from a completely different paradigm instead. It actually makes the system irregular. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. Grammarians have looked at the distribution of which and that, misunderstood it, and tried to fix it based on their misunderstanding. But if they’d step back and look at the system as a whole, they’d see that the problem is an imagined one. If you think the system doesn’t make sense, the solution isn’t to try to hammer it into something that does make sense; the solution is to figure out what kind of sense it makes. And it makes perfect sense as it is.

I’m sure, as Professor Pullum was, that I’m not going to make a lot of converts. I can practically hear copy editors’ responses: But following the rule doesn’t hurt anything! Some readers will write us angry letters if we don’t follow it! It decreases ambiguity! To the first I say, of course it hurts, in that it has a cost that we blithely ignore: every change a copy editor makes takes time, and that time costs money. Are we adding enough value to the works we edit to recoup that cost? I once saw a proof of a book wherein the proofreader had marked every single restrictive which—and there were four or five per page—to be changed to that. How much time did it take to mark all those whiches for two hundred or more pages? How much more time would it have taken for the typesetter to enter those corrections and then deal with all the reflowed text? I didn’t want to find out the answer—I stetted every last one of those changes. Furthermore, the rule hurts all those who don’t follow it and are therefore judged as being sub-par writers at best or idiots at worst, as Pullum discussed in his Lingua Franca post.

To the second response, I’ve said before that I don’t believe we should give so much power to the cranks. Why should they hold veto power for everyone else’s usage? If their displeasure is such a problem, give me some evidence that we should spend so much time and money pleasing them. Show me that the economic cost of not following the rule in print is greater than the cost of following it. But stop saying that we as a society need to cater to this group and assuming that this ends the discussion.

To the last response: No, it really doesn’t. Commas do all the work of disambiguation, as Stan Carey explains. The car which I drive is no more ambiguous than The man who came to dinner. They’re only ambiguous if you have no faith in the writer’s or editor’s ability to punctuate and thus assume that there should be a comma where there isn’t one. But requiring that in place of which doesn’t really solve this problem, because the same ambiguity exists for every other relative clause that doesn’t use that. Note that Bryan Garner allows either who or that with people; why not allow either which or that with things? Stop and ask yourself how you’re able to understand phrases like The house in which I live or The woman whose hair is brown without using a different word to mark that it’s a restrictive clause. And if the that/which rule really is an aid to understanding, give me some evidence. Show me the results of an eye-tracking study or fMRI or at least a well-designed reading comprehension test geared to show the understanding of relative clauses. But don’t insist on enforcing a language-wide change without some compelling evidence.

The problem with all the justifications for the rule is that they’re post hoc. Someone made a bad analysis of the English system of relative pronouns and proposed a rule to tidy up an imagined problem. Everything since then has been a rationalization to continue to support a flawed rule. Mark Liberman said it well on Language Log yesterday:

This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.

Unfortunately, this is often par for the course with prescriptive rules. The rule is taken a priori as correct and authoritative, and all evidence refuting the rule is ignored or waved away so as not to undermine it. Prescriptivism has come a long way in the last century, especially in the last decade or so as corpus tools have made research easy and data more accessible. But there’s still a long way to go.

Update: Mark Liberman has a new post on the that/which rule which includes links to many of the previous Language Log posts on the subject.

By

Rules, Evidence, and Grammar

In case you haven’t heard, it’s National Grammar Day, and that seemed as good a time as any to reflect a little on the role of evidence in discussing grammar rules. (Goofy at Bradshaw of the Future apparently had the same idea.) A couple of months ago, Geoffrey Pullum made the argument in this post on Lingua Franca that it’s impossible to talk about what’s right or wrong in language without considering the evidence. Is singular they grammatical and standard? How do you know?

For most people, I think, the answer is pretty simple: you look it up in a source that you trust. If the source says it’s grammatical or correct, it is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Singular they is wrong because many authoritative sources say it is. End of story. And if you try to argue that the sources aren’t valid or reliable, you’re labelled an anything-goes type who believes we should just toss all the rules out the window and embrace linguistic anarchy.

The question is, where did these sources get their authority to say what’s right and wrong?

That is, when someone says that you should never use they as a singular pronoun or start a sentence with hopefully or use less with count nouns, why do you suppose that the rules they put forth are valid? The rules obviously haven’t been inscribed on stone tablets by the finger of the Lord, but they have to come from somewhere. Every language is different, and languages and constantly changing, so I think we have to recognize that there is no universal, objective truth when it comes to grammar and usage.

David Foster Wallace apparently fell into the trap of thinking that there was, unfortunately. In his famous Harper’s article “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” he quotes the introduction to The American College Dictionary, which says, “A dictionary can be an ‘authority’ only in the sense in which a book of chemistry or of physics or of botany can be an ‘authority’: by the accuracy and the completeness of its record of the observed facts of the field examined, in accord with the latest principles and techniques of the particular science.”

He retorts,

This is so stupid it practically drools. An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language.

The irony of his first sentence is almost overwhelming. Physics is a set of universal laws that can be observed and tested, and electricity works regardless of what anyone believes. Language, on the other hand, is quite different. In fact, Wallace tacitly acknowledges the difference—without explaining his apparent contradiction—immediately after: “It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an ‘authoritative’ ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.”1David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” Harper’s Monthly, April 2001, 47.

Now here he hits on an interesting question. Any argument about right or wrong in language ultimately comes down to one of two options: it’s wrong because it’s absolutely, objectively wrong, or it’s wrong because arbitrary societal convention says it’s wrong. The former is untenable, but the latter doesn’t give us any straightforward answers. If there is no objective truth in usage, then how do we know what’s right and wrong?

Wallace tries to make the argument about ethics; sloppy language leads to real problems like people accidentally eating poison mushrooms. But look at his gargantuan list of peeves and shibboleths on the first page of the article. How many of them lead to real ethical problems? Does singular they pose any kind of ethical problem? What about sentential hopefully or less with count nouns? I don’t think so.

So if there’s no ethical problem with disputed usage, then we’re still left with the question, what makes it wrong? Here we get back to Pullum’s attempt to answer the question: let’s look at the evidence. And, because we can admit, like Wallace, that some people’s behavior is moronic, let’s limit ourselves to looking at the evidence from those speakers and writers whose language can be said to be most standard. What we find even then is that a lot of the usage and grammar rules that have been put forth, from Bishop Robert Lowth to Strunk and White to Bryan Garner, don’t jibe with actual usage.

Edward Finegan seizes on this discrepancy in an article a few years back. In discussing sentential hopefully, he quotes Garner as saying that it is “all but ubiquitous—even in legal print. Even so, the word received so much negative attention in the 1970s and 1980s that many writers have blacklisted it, so using it at all today is a precarious venture. Indeed, careful writers and speakers avoid the word even in its traditional sense, for they’re likely to be misunderstood if they use it in the old sense”2”Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Finegan says, “I could not help but wonder how a reflective and careful analyst could concede that hopefully is all but ubiquitous in legal print and claim in the same breath that careful writers and speakers avoid using it.”3Edward Finegan, “Linguistic Prescription: Familiar Practices and New Perspectives,” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2003) 23, 216.

The problem when you start questioning the received wisdom on grammar and usage is that you make a lot of people very angry. In a recent conversation on Twitter, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, said, “You would not believe (or maybe you would) how much grief I’m getting for saying ‘data’ can sometimes be singular.” I responded, “Sadly, I can. For some people, grammar is more about cherished beliefs than facts, and they don’t like having them challenged.” They don’t want to hear arguments about authority and evidence and deriving rules from what educated speakers actually use. They want to believe that there’s some deeper truths that justify their preferences and peeves, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. But for now, I’ll keep trying.

Notes   [ + ]

1. David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” Harper’s Monthly, April 2001, 47.
2. ”Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
3. Edward Finegan, “Linguistic Prescription: Familiar Practices and New Perspectives,” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2003) 23, 216.

By

More on That

As I said in my last post, I don’t think the distribution of that and which is adequately explained by the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction. It’s true that nearly all thats are restrictive (with a few rare exceptions), but it’s not true that all restrictive relative pronouns are thats and that all whiches are nonrestrictive, even when you follow the traditional rule. In some cases that is strictly forbidden, and in other cases it is disfavored to varying degrees. Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in your analysis.

In researching the topic for this post, I’ve learned a couple of things: (1) I don’t know syntax as well as I should, and (2) the behavior of relatives in English, particularly that, is far more complex than most editors or pop grammarians realize. First of all, there’s apparently been a century-long argument over whether that is even a relative pronoun or actually some sort of relativizing conjunction or particle. (Some linguists seem to prefer the latter, but I won’t wade too deep into that debate.) Previous studies have looked at multiple factors to explain the variation in relativizers, including the animacy of the referent, the distance between the pronoun and its referent, the semantic role of the relative clause, and the syntactic role of the referent.

It’s often noted that that can’t follow a preposition and that it doesn’t have a genitive form of its own (it must use either whose or of which), but no usage guide I’ve seen ever makes mention of the fact that this pattern follows the accessibility hierarchy. That is, in a cross-linguistic analysis, linguists have found an order to the way in which relative clauses are formed. Some languages can only relativize subjects, others can do subjects and verbal objects, yet others can do subjects, verbal objects, and oblique objects (like the objects of prepositions), and so on. For any allowable position on the hierarchy, all positions to the left are also allowable. The hierarchy goes something like this:

subject ≥ direct object ≥ indirect object ≥ object of stranded preposition ≥ object of fronted preposition ≥ possessor noun phrase ≥ object of comparative particle

What is interesting is that that and the wh- relatives, who and which, occupy overlapping but different portions of the hierarchy. Who and which can relativize anything from subjects to possessors and possibly objects of comparative particles, though whose as the genitive form of which seems a little odd to some, and both sound odd if not outright ungrammatical with comparatives, as in The man than who I’m taller. But that can’t relativize objects of fronted prepositions or anything further down the scale.

Strangely, though, there are things that that can do that who and which can’t. That can sometimes function as a sort of relative adverb, equivalent to the relative adverbs why, where, or when or to which with a preposition. That is, you can say The day that we met, The day when we met, or The day on which we met, but not The day which we met. And which can relativize whole clauses (though some sticklers consider this ungrammatical), while that cannot, as in This author uses restrictive “which,” which bothers me a lot.

So what explains the differences between that and which or who? Well, as I mentioned above, some linguists consider that not a pronoun but a complementizer or conjunction (perhaps a highly pronominal one), making it more akin to the complementizer that, as in He said that relativizers were confusing. And some linguists have also proposed different syntactic structures for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, which could account for the limitation of that to restrictive clauses. If that is not a true pronoun but a complementizer, then that could account for its strange distribution. It can’t appear in nonrestrictive clauses, because they require a full pronoun like which or who, and it can’t appear after prepositions, because those constructions similarly require a pronoun. But it can function as a relative adverb, which a regular relative pronoun can’t do.

As I argued in my previous post, it seems that which and that do not occupy separate parts of a single paradigm but are part of two different paradigms that overlap. The differences between them can be characterized in a few different ways, but for some reason, grammarians have seized on the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction and have written off the rest as idiosyncratic exceptions to the rule or as common errors (when they’ve addressed those points at all).

The proposal to disallow which in restrictive relative clauses, except in the cases where that is ungrammatical—sometimes called Fowler’s rule, though that’s not entirely accurate—is based on the rather trivial observation that all thats are restrictive and that all nonrestrictives are which. It then assumes that the converse is true (or should be) and tries to force all restrictives to be that and all whiches to be nonrestrictive (except for all those pesky exceptions, of course).

Garner calls Fowler’s rule “nothing short of brilliant,”1Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.” but I must disagree. It’s based on a rather facile analysis followed by some terrible logical leaps. And insisting on following a rule based on bad linguistic analysis is not only not helpful to the reader, it’s a waste of editors’ time. As my last post shows, editors have obviously worked very hard to put the rule into practice, but this is not evidence of its utility, let alone its brilliance. But a linguistic analysis that could account for all of the various differences between the two systems of relativization in English? Now that just might be brilliant.

Sources

Herbert F. W. Stahlke, “Which That,” Language 52, no. 3 (Sept. 1976): 584–610
Johan Van Der Auwera, “Relative That: A Centennial Dispute,” Journal of Lingusitics 21, no. 1 (March 1985): 149–79
Gregory R. Guy and Robert Bayley, “On the Choice of Relative Pronouns in English,” American Speech 70, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 148–62
Nigel Fabb, “The Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 26, no. 1 (March 1990): 57–77
Robert D. Borsley, “More on the Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 28, no. 1 (March 1992), 139–48

Notes   [ + ]

1. Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”

By

Which Hunting

I meant to blog about this several weeks ago, when the topic came up in my corpus linguistics class from Mark Davies, but I didn’t have time then. And I know the that/which distinction has been done to death, but I thought this was an interesting look at the issue that I hadn’t seen before.

For one of our projects in the corpus class, we were instructed to choose a prescriptive rule and then examine it using corpus data, determining whether the rule was followed in actual usage and whether it varied over time, among genres, or between the American and British dialects. One of my classmates (and former coworkers) chose the that/which rule for her project, and I found the results enlightening.

She searched for the sequences “[noun] that [verb]” and “[noun] which [verb],” which aren’t perfect—they obviously won’t find every relative clause, and they’ll pull in a few non-relatives—but the results serve as a rough measurement of their relative frequencies. What she found is that before about the 1920s, the two were used with nearly equal frequency. That is, the distinction did not exist. After that, though, which takes a dive and that surges. The following chart shows the trends according to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English and his Google Books N-grams interface.

It’s interesting that although the two corpora show the same trend, Google Books lags a few decades behind. I think this is a result of the different style guides used in different genres. Perhaps style guides in certain genres picked up the rule first, from whence it disseminated to other style guides. And when we break out the genres in COHA, we see that newspapers and magazines lead the plunge, with fiction and nonfiction books following a few decades later, though use of which is apparently in a general decline the entire time. (NB: The data from the first decade or two in COHA often seems wonky; I think the word counts are low enough in those years that strange things can skew the numbers.)

Proportion of "which" by genres

The strange thing about this rule is that so many people not only take it so seriously but slander those who disagree, as I mentioned in this post. Bryan Garner, for instance, solemnly declares—without any evidence at all—that those who don’t follow the rule “probably don’t write very well,” while those who follow it “just might.”1Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.” (This elicited an enormous eye roll from me.) But Garner later tacitly acknowledges that the rule is an invention—not by the Fowler brothers, as some claim, but by earlier grammarians. If the rule did not exist two hundred years ago and was not consistently enforced until the 1920s or later, how did anyone before that time ever manage to write well?

I do say enforced, because most writers do not consistently follow it. In my research for my thesis, I’ve found that changing “which” to “that” is the single most frequent usage change that copy editors make. If so many writers either don’t know the rule or can’t apply it consistently, it stands to reason that most readers don’t know it either and thus won’t notice the difference. Some editors and grammarians might take this as a challenge to better educate the populace on the alleged usefulness of the rule, but I take it as evidence that it’s just not useful. And anyway, as Stan Carey already noted, it’s the commas that do the real work here, not the relative pronouns. (If you’ve already read his post, you might want to go and check it out again. He’s added some updates and new links to the end.)

And as I noted in my previous post on relatives, we don’t observe a restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction with who(m) or, for that matter, with relative adverbs like where or when, so at the least we can say it’s not a very robust distinction in the language and certainly not necessary for comprehension. As with so many other useful distinctions, its usefulness is taken to be self-evident, but the evidence of its usefulness is less than compelling. It seems more likely that it’s one of those random things that sometimes gets grammaticalized, like gender or evidentiality. (Though it’s not fully grammaticalized, because it’s not obligatory and is not a part of the natural grammar of the language, but is a rule that has to be learned later.)

Even if we just look at that and which, we find a lot of exceptions to the rule. You can’t use that as the object of a preposition, even when it’s restrictive. You can’t use it after a demonstrative that, as in “Is there a clear distinction between that which comes naturally and that which is forced, even when what’s forced looks like the real thing?” (I saw this example in COCA and couldn’t resist.) And Garner even notes “the exceptional which”, which is often used restrictively when the relative clause is somewhat removed from its noun.2S.v. “Remote Relatives. B. The Exceptional which.” And furthermore, restrictive which is frequently used in conjoined relative clauses, such as “Eisner still has a huge chunk of stock options—about 8.7 million shares’ worth—that he can’t exercise yet and which still presumably increase in value over the next decade,” to borrow an example from Garner.3S.v. “which. D. And which; but which..”

Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in its formulation. I’ll explain what I think is going on with that and which in a later post.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”
2. S.v. “Remote Relatives. B. The Exceptional which.”
3. S.v. “which. D. And which; but which..”

By

Till Kingdom Come

The other day on Twitter, Bryan A. Garner posted, “May I ask a favor? Would all who read this please use the prep. ‘till’ in a tweet? Not till then will we start getting people used to it.” I didn’t help out, partly because I hate pleas of the “Repost this if you agree!” variety and partly because I knew it would be merely a symbolic gesture. Even if all of Garner’s followers and all of their followers used “till” in a tweet, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar of usage.

But it did get me thinking about the word till and the fact that a lot of people seem to regard it as incorrect and forms like 'til as correct. The assumption for many people seems to be that it’s a shortened form of until, so it requires an apostrophe to signal the omission. Traditionalists, however, know that although the two words are related, till actually came first, appearing in the language about four hundred years before until.

Both words came into English via Old Norse, where the preposition til had replaced the preposition to. (As I understand it, modern-day North Germanic languages like Swedish and Danish still use it this way.) Despite their similar appearances, to and till are not related; till comes from a different root meaning ‘end’ or ‘goal’ (compare modern German Ziel ‘goal’). Norse settlers brought the word til with them when they started raiding and colonizing northeastern Britain in the 800s.

There was also a compound form, until, from und + til. Und was another Old Norse preposition deriving from the noun und, which is cognate with the English word end. Till and until have been more or less synonymous throughout their history in English, despite their slightly different forms. And as a result of the haphazard process of spelling standardization in English, we ended up with two ls on till but only one on until. The apostrophized form 'til is an occasional variant that shows up far more in unedited than edited writing. Interestingly, the OED’s first citation for 'til comes from P. G. Perrin’s An Index to English in 1939: “Till, until, (’til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since ’til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned.”

Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English, however, tells a slightly different story. It shows a slight increase in 'til since the mid-twentieth century, though it has been declining again slightly in the last thirty years. And keep in mind that these numbers come from a corpus of edited writing drawn from books, magazines, and newspapers. It may well be increasing much faster in unedited writing, with only the efforts of copy editors keeping it (mostly) out of print. This chart shows the relative proportions of the three forms—that is, the proportion of each compared to the total of all three.

Relative proportions of till, until, and 'til.

As Garner laments, till is becoming less and less common in writing and may all but disappear within the next century, though predicting the future of usage is always a guessing game, even with clear trends like this. Sometimes they spontaneously reverse, and it’s often not clear why. But why is till in decline? I honestly don’t know for sure, but I suspect it stems from either the idea that longer words are more formal or the perception that it’s a shortened form of until. Contractions and clipped forms are generally avoided in formal writing, so this could be driving till out of use.

Note that we don’t have this problem with to and unto, probably because to is one of the most common words in the language, occurring about 9,000 times per million words in the last decade in COHA. By comparison, unto occurs just under 70 times per million words. There’s no uncertainty or confusion about the use of spelling of to. We tend to be less sure of the meanings and spellings of less frequent words, and this uncertainty can lead to avoidance. If you don’t know which form is right, it’s easy to just not use it.

At any rate, many people are definitely unfamiliar with till and may well think that the correct form is 'til, as Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar did in this post four years ago, though he checked his facts and found that his original hunch was wrong.

He’s far from the only person who thought that 'til was correct. When my then-fiancee and I got our wedding announcements printed over eight years ago, the printer asked us if we really wanted “till” instead of “'til” (“from six till eight that evening”). I told him that yes, it was right, and he kind of shrugged and dropped the point, though I got the feeling he still thought I was wrong. He probably didn’t want to annoy a paying customer, though.

And though this is anecdotal and possibly falls prey to the recency illusion, it seems that 'til is on the rise in signage (frequently as ‘til, with a single opening quotation mark rather than an apostrophe), and I even spotted a til' the other day. (I wish I’d thought to get a picture of it.)

I think the evidence is pretty clear that, barring some amazing turnaround, till is dying. It’s showing up less in print, where it’s mostly been replaced by until, and the traditionally incorrect 'til may be hastening its death as people become unsure of which form is correct or even become convinced that till is wrong and 'til is right. I’ll keep using till myself, but I’m not holding out hope for a revival. Sorry, Garner.

%d bloggers like this: