Tag Archives: rules

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.

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.

Famous quotes that break “rules”

I expected my latest article for TheWeek.com to generate some reaction in the comments, and I was not disappointed. Not that I wrote it just to troll people, but when you venture into certain territory…

The idea behind the article was to look at some famous quotes – sayings that are well known and often said – that break rules that are often learned in schools at about the same time as the quotes are. And then, of course, to look at whether those rules are really rules or not. But I didn’t explain that in an introduction. I just dove right in (or, if you’re a hoary prescriptivist, dived right in). Which may not have been the best idea, since – in combination with an eye-catching but slightly misleading headline (I don’t write the headlines, by the way, but I do get to see them in advance and could always suggest a change) – this approach provoked a variety of reactions in the comments section.

Here, for better or worse, is a link to the article:

9 famous quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect

And feel free to tell me what you think!

Rule-bound tut-tutters?

I mentioned, in a discussion on editing, that editors don’t want to be seen as a bunch of arbitrarily rule-bound tut-tutters. One of my colleagues replied (tongue in cheek, she assures me), “at least when we’re NOT at work – after all, the essence of most editing is being a rule-bound tut-tutter!”

To which I replied:


Sorry for the emphasis, but I must respectfully disagree at the top of my lungs. We are, or we certainly should be, pragmatists, and friendly, helpful ones at that. That means that we understand that rules are made for the sake of communication, not the other way around, and everything we do is to help the author communicate well with the audience. We don’t enforce a rule if there’s no good reason for it – and we have to be able to explain the reason – and we should be helpful, encouraging, and empathetic, not prissy tut-tutters.

English is too good, fun, and useful to be some kind of gotcha game. One of our primary jobs as editors is to pry it loose from the morbid grips of those who would make it simply an arbitrary and devious status game (you know, those who say “Aaargh! I hate idiots who start a sentence with ‘hopefully’!” or who insist coolly “Split infinitives are a sign of poor breeding”). We are not bound by rules; we understand them and understand why each rule exists and we apply them intelligently, not dogmatically. And we ought not to tut-tut! Such is for those who are still in the middle school of the mind, pretending to be adults but maintaining their status by trying to bring others down.