Tag Archives: grammar

Look! It’s a noun! It’s an adjective! It’s a number! No, it’s…

My latest piece for The Week is an introduction to that double-agent class of words, there in the numbers but not of the numbers: quantifiers.

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

Linguistics is great for making you aware of things you were already doing consistently but weren’t consciously aware of. In fact, that’s the basic point of several subfields of linguistics. There are a few particularly memorable examples that one learns in the course of an education in linguistics. One of these is the order of adjectives: we have a standard order for adjectives when there are several before a noun. We may not be analytically aware of it, but if someone says “a red big balloon” it will sound wrong.

If you’re a linguistics student, you take that as more data, and the point of such data is to use it to help you figure out why we tend to do that, and to do that you have to see what exceptions there are and sort out what the various inputs and influences are. It’s explanation-seeking behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a linguist but an ordinary English speaker, you may approach English with an eye to finding out what is right and what is wrong. We learn that good grammar is the great sorter, and we treat errors as evidence of flawed character and intellect. And so when you encounter a new fact about the language, you may well be inclined to turn that fact into a rule. It’s rule-seeking behaviour.

So when, recently, a book came out pointing out (in passing) the standard order of adjectives to the lay masses, many people were all “mind=blown” about it. The author, Mark Forsyth, stated confidently that the order absolutely has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun, and “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Linguists, of course, quickly critiqued this overstatement; read Language Log for some responses. But non-linguists didn’t just say “Wow, I didn’t know I was doing that”; many of them were writing down that order and determining that any deviation from it must be wrong. I didn’t see any instances of people telling other people “You didn’t put it in this order, so you’re wrong,” but I did see instances of “What’s the correct order? I don’t want to get this wrong!” English speakers, you see, are in general convinced that they’re always making mistakes and doing things wrong, and they want to know the right way to do them for those instances where they’re going to be judged. (Ironically, many of them think one of those instances is when they’re talking to a linguist. Listen, honey, whatever you say or don’t say is great with us; it’s all data.)

So I feel I need to say this: There is no official correct order of adjectives you must adhere to. If something sounds wrong, then adjust it, but if it doesn’t sound wrong, it’s not wrong.

In fact, we vary the order depending on context, priority, and sets of words that we’re used to having together in a certain order. Consider a nice big old round red Spanish silk riding hood. Try moving any of the words and it may sound wrong (but not like a maniac!), although big old nice Spanish red round silk riding hood doesn’t sound awful to me. You might also get away with Spanish red silk. Some orders are more weighted than others. But change nice in the original phrase to good. Suddenly it doesn’t work as well: not good big old but good old big will sound better because of collocation – good old travels together. Also, any compound noun will defeat the word order. You have a tawny giant tortoise, for instance, because giant tortoise is a thing. And it will be different in what it can convey than giant tawny tortoise. We can even vary the order to adjust the sense: a little dumb ass is different from a dumb little ass because dumb ass is a common collocation.

So if you come up with a string of adjectives and it doesn’t sound right, just change the order so it sounds right. Make things that go together go together. Do not start overthinking it: don’t say “this one must go before that one because that is more common or more essential,” as is a common explanation for the ordering. Go with what sounds right. Afterwards, you can use that as interesting data to tell you what you see as more essential, but do not arrange the order by asking yourself which is more essential, because you could be wrong. For instance, we would all say big red building and not red big building, even though the building can be repainted more easily than it can have its size changed. And yet even that order can be changed in some circumstances: for instance, we use little closer to the noun to express an attitude towards it: I’m not gonna drive that purple little car of yours all over town communicates something not altogether the same as I’m not gonna drive that little purple car of yours all over town.

The number one thing we should learn from this, then, is that in general people aren’t fully aware of how their language works and yet they make it work, and when people start trying to analyze it and come up with prescriptions they very often miss things and get things wrong. The most poplar grammatical cudgels are based on thick-headed simple-minded misunderstandings of how and why we do things, and on grotesque overapplication of rules. That’s why they’re used as cudgels: not everyone follows them because they aren’t real rules, they’re made up.

Mistrust imposed rules, especially inflexible ones. You’ve been using English your whole life. If someone tells you that something that sounds right to you is wrong, and that something that sounds odd to you is right, they’re probably just wrong. And if your analysis tells you that a sentence that sounds awkward to you is right while one that sounds good is wrong, question your analysis. If you love the language and want to understand how it works and use it effectively, engage in explanation-seeking behaviour, not rule-seeking behaviour.

About this sentence that you’re reading

Originally published in Active Voice, the magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

About this sentence that you’re reading…

Should that be “About this sentence, which you’re reading”? After all, you’re not reading any other sentence, are you? So it’s not restrictive, so it must be non-restrictive, meaning it should have a comma and use which. Right?

I was talking to my wife Aina and a friend about this the other day…

What?

What do you mean, how many wives do I have? Look, if I set it off in commas, it would be “I was talking to my wife, Aina, and a friend about this the other day,” and you would be saying “So that’s three people? Who’s your wife if not Aina?”

Since you’re an editor, you’ve heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is like a little Santa Claus in the sentence: it gives the reader a gift, with a comma or two as tiny ribbons.

The cakes are served warm.

The cakes, which are kept in the refrigerator but carried under the waiters’ arms, are served warm.

The sentence would be coherent without it, but it’s there as a special bonus of information. It’s also called a nonrestrictive relative, which works because it’s not really Santa Claus giving you gifts, it’s your relatives. (The rules apply similarly to non-clause modifiers as well, such as the name of my wife, Aina.)

A restrictive clause or relative (or modifier) is like your aunt who says “I’m giving you anything you want as long as it’s this sweater!” It no sooner gives than it starts to take away.

The tea is served cold.

The tea that is carried by Pat is served cold; the tea that is carried by Alex is served warm.

But where there is a Claus, there may be a Grinch. What is a restrictive Grinch? It’s one of those people who carp at things that are perfectly clear to reasonable people. Consider:

He went to a famous school called Eton.

The restrictive Grinch might say “Oh, so there are multiple famous schools called Eton?” In fact, the sentence does not necessarily imply that there are multiple famous schools called Eton (although it does imply that there are multiple famous schools), and ambiguity is not automatically a grammatical error – although it can be worth avoiding… when a reasonable person might reasonably misread it, or when too many people might deliberately (and unreasonably) misread it for their own entertainment.

Reasonableness is important. Communication normally (outside of contracts and courts of law) depends on people being reasonable. We make inferences on the basis of what’s reasonable, given our knowledge of the world. If we have some new data, such as a sentence,* and we choose among different interpretations on the basis of what we already know to be the case, we’re using a loose form of Bayesian inference.

Let’s take a Bayesian look at “my wife Aina and a friend” versus “my wife, Aina, and a friend.” In the version with commas, if we don’t know my wife’s name, we need to conjecture or determine whether I use the serial comma; if I don’t, it’s clearly two people, but if I do, it may be three. In the version without commas, the possibilities are (1) that I have more than one wife or (2) that I am disregarding the usual rule about setting off nonrestrictives with commas. Why would I disregard it? To avoid interrupting the flow or causing ambiguity with the extra commas. Given that bigamy is illegal in our society, option 2 is far more likely. Indeed, only a restrictive Grinch would raise the objection that the comma-free version must mean option 1.

There are, of course, many cases where proper use of commas is necessary to set off nonrestrictive clauses for clarity or legal defensibility. But there are also cases where the commas make no difference to the meaning but may make a difference to the flow or tone. The moon, which orbits the earth, is also the moon that orbits the earth (since there are many moons but there is one we call the moon); the sun, which we orbit, is also the sun that we orbit (for the same reason). This sentence that you’re reading is this sentence, which you’re reading, and the different possible uses of this make both defensible, but flow and tone may make one a better choice than the other.

So, when we are faced with a modifier such as a relative clause and we’re not confident about whether it’s restrictive or unrestrictive, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Will the commas help or hurt the flow?
  2. How likely is it to be misread accidentally?
  3. How likely is it to be misread deliberately?
    1. By which readers?
      1. And do they really matter?

 

*Or some new data such as a sentence – equally true.

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word

 

scenicest

“It’s not the scenicest day,” I said to Aina, looking out the train window at a cloudy sky as we headed to Niagara for some wine and walking.*

Or perhaps I should spell that scenic-est, so you know I wasn’t saying it like “see nicest,” even though what is scenicest is nicest to see.

“Is that a word?” you may be thinking – or perhaps typing in an email to me. Well, I used it and you understood it, so yes. But is it a well attested word? No. You can find a couple hundred hits for it on Google, but it’s a safe bet most of them are – as I was – self-consciously using it as an awkward construction rather as Lewis Carroll used curiouser.

Why wouldn’t I just say most scenic? Because I like playing with words. Now it’s your turn: Tell me why scenicest shouldn’t be allowed. It’s a two-syllable word, after all, and it’s quite common to append –er and –est to one- and two-syllable words. The selection of those for which more and most are reserved is almost random-seeming. At the very least, the distinction is not black and white. For some words, it is a matter of personal taste which to use: beautifuller and beautifullest were formerly common enough, but now it seems we see the two-word version as the more beautiful.

I do think that what we see is part of the problem here. For assorted historical reasons (mostly to do with palatalization before front vowels in Latin and Romance languages), c “softens” before e and i. But the sound /k/ does not have an actual allophonic alternation with /s/ in modern English. We just retain the rule about c because of our borrowings from French and Latin. This makes a problem when we have something that sounds fine but runs into a spelling issue. Take chic. Lovely word, stylish, smart. Borrowed from French. By borrowed I mean adopted – actually I mean stolen. Anyway, it’s treated like an English word: it’s one syllable, so instead of saying most chic we often just add the –est and make it chicest.

Which looks horrible on the page. And chic-est looks at least as bad. And you can’t add or swap in a k because chikest would look completely wrong and incomprehensible and would conduce to yet another inaccurate pronunciation, and chickest is chick plus est. Somehow the chicest word to say is one of the unchicest (let’s say least chic) words to write.

Well, what do we expect? It should be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

Am I the only one who feels certain that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious should be two words? Normally, morphologically, we can add only other suffixes after a suffix, not a whole new root, let alone a prefix plus a root plus a suffix. And yet that’s what appears to come after the the ic in supercalifragilistic. Another bit of evidence to marshal for its being two words is that the spelling would seem to require a pronunciation like “–listi sexpi–,” which is clearly wrong.

Which takes us back to our problem of the orthographic scenery. Now, –ic words often used to be spelled with a k, as in musick and magick. So could we borrow on that and make it scenickest? Hmm. It looks a bit of a snickerfest. It may also tempt a person to shift the accent onto the second syllable because of the “heavy” consonant ck.

Or we could just keep using it and writing it and people will get used to seeing it and saying it. That’s how a lot of things in English have come to be as they are.

We ought not to be distracted by looks, anyway. A cloudy day may be warm and lovely. Indeed, when the sun is out and it looks most scenic, you are at greater risk of getting burned.

 

*It was not a reference to the fact that we would not be taking in a play at the Shaw Festival, even though scenic referred to the stage a century before it referred to the natural environment – it comes from a Greek word for a stage.

In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake

A recent cartoon from Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which is the most intelligent cartoon in existence, has been brought to my attention. You can see it at http://xkcd.com/1652/ but, since Munroe gives permission, I’ll reproduce it here for ease of reference:

This interpretation is not just pedantry and not just a turn-off. It’s a callow mistake.

It’s callow because it transgresses standard expectations of interpersonal decency in conversation – if the other person is using a common turn of phrase and you understand what they mean, don’t be a dick about it (or, as I put it in a haiku for the ACES Grammar Day haiku contest, Which do you prefer: / keeping your friends’ grammar right / or keeping your friends?). But it’s also callow because it imposes an inappropriate misreading, the sort of simple-minded overbroad application of a rule that is characteristic of an immature understanding of grammar. The clause in question, you see, only looks like a conditional.

I’m put in mind of an anecdote I recall from the actor Simon Callow. When he was first trying to make it in theatre, he worked in the box office of a theatre. Later on, when he was becoming established as an actor, he was in the cast of a play that happened to be performing in the same theatre. One evening before a performance, one of the box office staff saw him and, thinking he still worked in the box office, asked him to come help with some box office function.

Thinking this if you want to hang out is a conditional is like thinking Simon Callow still works at the box office. It’s the same clause, but it’s been elevated. It’s a sentence adverbial.

In case the term isn’t familiar, a sentence adverbial is a word or phrase that, within the ambit of a verb phrase, could serve to modify the action of the verb, but that is instead applied to the entire sentence to frame it within a discursive context such as the attitude of the speaker or writer towards the utterance. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” uses Frankly to mean ‘I speak to you frankly and say…’; “Among other things, this book explores the concept of silliness” uses Among other things to position the following statement within a larger possible set of observations (‘There are various things this book does; one of them is that…’); “Going forward, we’ll do it this way” uses Going forward to mean ‘I am making a prescription that applies to future instances when I say…’. They do not mean, respectively, that Rhett doesn’t give a damn frankly but he may give one covertly; that the book only explores silliness when the book is among other things; or that we will do it this way only when we are progressing ahead. And In case the term isn’t familiar doesn’t mean the preceding applies only in the case where the term is unfamiliar. It means I’m saying it in anticipation of the possibility of unfamiliarity.

Because sentence adverbials use words and phrases that can be used to different effect at lower levels, they are like candy to immature minds who are eager to pounce on other people’s “errors” to show their superior knowledge. But, as with so many rigid “rules” propounded by people who claim to care about grammar but really care mainly about demonstrating superiority, the “pedantic” interpretation is founded on a simple-minded misunderstanding. We have no difficulty understanding the sentences as they are intended – the pedants don’t even have the excuse that the box-office employee (who evidently didn’t read the programmes) had. The most they can argue is that the sentences are ambiguous. That can be something worth fixing, but it’s not a grammatical error. And they’re not always ambiguous, either. We usually understand them with no risk of confusion.

To add another analogy: When I was in New Zealand, I rented two different cars on separate occasions. In New Zealand they drive on the left, and so some of the driver’s controls are also the reverse of what I’m used to. With the first car, I managed to get used to the turn signal being on the opposite side from what I expected. Then when I rented the next car it was a model with the turn signal on the North American side. So I had to get used to it again and not keep turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn left or right. But in all of that, I did not say that the controls were wrong and I was right and stick to my preferred sides. I did not insist on turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn off the highway – or on signaling a turn when I wanted to wipe the windshield – because those were the correct sides for the controls to be on. I did what worked. When my expectations did not correspond with the results, I corrected my perspective. Which is what those who care about understanding language must do if they do not wish to be wrong.

So this pedantry is both a turn-off and a callow error.

Which, of course, Randall Munroe knows. He also knows that linguistics isn’t his area of expertise, and I’m not going to hold it against him for missing the analysis. He’s not the only one.

Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t: sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/when-an-error-isnt/)

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.