Mogg’s rules

No sooner had Jacob Rees Mogg accepted the position of Leader of the House of Commons than news emerged about him issuing a list of language rules to his staff. 

I’m not a fan of enforced speech, (regardless of who is doing it) and have written quite a lot about the kind of arbitrary pedantry which passes for ‘good style’ in the minds of many editors and journalists (see here, here, here and here for examples). I’ve even made a video about it. 

While it’s important for people to write clearly, Rees-Mogg’s rules probably seem baffling to those uninitiated in the long history of linguistic prescriptivism. So in this post I will attempt to explain what I think are his (misguided) rationales for choosing these words to ban. Some of them, like “due to” are old favourites for language mavens. Others, such as ‘Disappointment’, are a bit harder to guess at


A few of Rees-Mogg’s prohibitions fall into the category of being considered by some to be ‘redundant’. This category usually includes gripes about things like ‘ATM machine’ ‘pin number’ and ‘HIV virus’ which have been dubbed RAS syndrome Other writers, Like Bill Bryson in his ‘troublesome words’ complain about ‘each and every’, ‘reason why’ and ‘revert back’. The usual complaint is that two words are used when one would suffice. This seems to be the case with the following 

  • Meet with 

probably Rees-Mogg wants just ‘meet’. 

  • Ongoing 

Ongoing has been criticised for being redundant, and journo @JohnRentoul has claimed that “Any piece of writing can be improved by deleting the word. The always excellent language log have a post on it in which an editor is overheard saying ‘If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing.’

Academic/formal English 

Others fall under what is often called “academic style“. This is the idea that writing for academic subjects should be objective and impersonal. Thus, a lot of the words banned here are things which an academic might consider too vague. They include:
  • too many ‘I’s

Not impersonal enough

  • Got 

Too vague perhaps? I got a new car (did you buy it? did you steal it? did someone give it to you?) 

  • very 
I’m guessing Rees-Mogg would want an exact number or a more substantial word. No doubt he would consider this ‘meaningless’. Neville Gwynne, a retired accountant who rose to fame after publishing a book on ‘correct grammar’ called “Gwynne’s Grammar” writes of very use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves” (a quote he took directly from the awful ‘elements of style‘ by Strunk and White.) As an aside, actual linguist Geoff Pullum describes Gwynne as a “preposterous old fraud” and Oliver Kamm described his grammar as “the worst book I have read on language and perhaps on anything”. 

  • Lot 

Pretty much the same as very.

old favourites 

  • due to 

The alleged problem with this phrase can be seen in ‘Gwynne’s grammar’:

Due to. Incorrectly used for “through,” “because of,” or “owing to” in adverbial phrases such as “He lost the first game due to carelessness.” In its correct use, it is related to a particular noun as predicate or as modifier, as in “This invention is due to Edison”; “losses due to preventable fires.”

This is a case of someone claiming ‘the whole world is using this word incorrectly except me and the smart folks I know’. Oliver Kamm writes:

“Style guides typically describe due as an adjective. They maintain that it remains an adjective in the phrase due to. It must therefore have a noun or noun-phrase to qualify or complement. In the sentence above, it has none. Instead, due to has been used as a prepositional phrase…If due to as a prepositional phrase offends you, don’t use it. But it’s Standard English”

  • hopefully 
This is a real old chestnut. Hopefully is allegedly wrong because ‘very smart‘ people see phrases like ‘Hopefully, I will be able to go’ and believe the writer is actually saying, ‘I will be able to go in a hopeful manner’. Of course, the contortions they must mentally perform to believe this are as ludicrous as the people who convince themselves upon hearing a double negative that someone might really get confused about the meaning. Kamm states that the criticism are “quite arbitrary” and notes that “the adverb thankfully provokes far less hostility than hopefully when used to modify a clause or sentence (thankfully, the idle columnist has at last submitted his article).”

  • Yourself 

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;”
Yourself is an odd choice as it singles out only one of the hated reflexive pronouns. In contrast, grammar scold Bill Bryson does not mention yourself but rails against ‘myself’. I had started to believe that all of Mogg’s rules were coming from one place, namely, Gwynne’s Grammar but Gwynne actually uses the word throughout his book saying thing like:

Remember always, when you are writing for anyone other than yourself, that you are giving. Do not, therefore, write to suit yourself; write with your readers constantly at the forefront of your mind. Put yourself in their shoes when you are deciding how to express yourself. (source)
Despite the seeming approval from Gwynne, Kamm notes that this is quite a common peeve. “Sticklers are incensed at the way reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves) are used in constructions that are not reflexive or not intensive”. Rees-Mogg has a point that constructions like “you yourself said it” or the ubiquitous restaurant question “and for yourself, sir?” can seem a bit clumsy. But the blanket ban is equally ridiculous.

Ask yourself Jacob, Could you live with yourself if Kipling’s ‘if’ was banned? 
  • Commas and spaces 
As well as the word list there are items insisting on double spacing after full-stops and a ban on comma use after the word ‘and’ (not before, as in the Oxford Comma as many are mistakenly reporting) which is also entirely arbitrary. Regarding the two spaces after the period, copy editor Benjamin Dreyer gives this advice.

Q. Two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence, right?A. Wrong. I know that back when you were in seventh-grade typing class and pecking away at your Smith Corona Coronet Automatic 12, Mrs. Tegnell taught you to type a double space after a sentence-ending period, but you are no longer in the seventh grade, you are no longer typing on a typewriter, and Mrs. Tegnell is no longer looking over your shoulder (Dreyer)

Though it should be noted that Dreyer also thinks people should try to avoid words like ‘very’ and ‘really’ so whether or not you want two spaces after a full stop (not necessary but some people prefer the way it looks) is really up to you.

Harder to guess

The remaining words are a bit harder to guess. If anyone out there has any good ideas as to why he has allegedly taken against these words, please let me know.
  • ‘Invest’ in schools 
**Update** so this is apparently unacceptable as it is emotive. If someone ‘invests’ in something then there is an assumption among the listener that there will be some kind of ‘return’. It is possible to pointlessly give money to schools (buying class sets of Ipads for example, or spending it on BrainGym training). It seems Rees-Mogg doesn’t like the ‘settle argument’ sense of ‘invest’ in schools. 
  • unacceptable 
  • equal 
  • Speculate 
  • No longer fit for purpose –Possibly considered a cliche
  • I am please to learn 
  • Ascertain 
  • Disappointment 
  • I note/ understand your concerns 

Some have claimed the list is all a ruse to make the public focus on the wrong things but as with claims of Trump’s cunning media strategy, I am sceptical. It would not surprise me at all to learn Rees-Mogg really does believe in the correctness of his pronouncements on language. I was more surprised to see what was missing from the list. No mention of split infinitives, ‘disinterested’ or ‘literally‘. 

Like all pedants and grammar scolds, Rees-Mogg apparently breaks his own rules. (though this does seem to be in speech and not in writing). And like all pedants, he seems not to care if these rules make any kind of sense, as long as people are forced to follow them. Recently, Rees-Mogg authored a book about Victorians despite not being a historian. Reviewers were not kind, and it seems to me that the criticism of the book as staggeringly silly” and “mind‑bogglingly banal” could equally apply to his ideas about good grammar use. 

Me, my wife and I

Should you say ‘me and my wife went to the party’ or ‘my wife and I went to the party?’ 

Most people who are likely to care at all about this kind of thing will tell you that ‘my wife and I’ is correct and anything else makes you sound uneducated or impolite. There are three reasons given for this:

1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ . 
2. Removing words from the sentence indicates that ‘my wife and I’ is correct. 
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves. 

In this post I’m going to attempt to convince you that the pillars holding up the ‘my wife and I’ position are unsound. Most of what I will write about comes from John McWhorter‘s lexicon valley podcast (link). I would strongly recommend listening to that instead of reading this. 


Many defenders of ‘my wife and I’ will tell you that this is a ‘rule’. You always have to be a little bit weary when someone tells you that something is a grammar ‘rule‘ because they’re often talking about arbitrary prescriptions or personal taste. This is the case with ‘my wife and I’ which is one of those ‘rules’ that people need to be taught like ‘double negatives‘. I’ve talked at length in this post about how if you need to constantly explain to native speakers that their language use is wrong, then maybe it isn’t. Also, like double negatives, other languages have no issues with ‘me and my wife’ construction. As McWhorter notes, in French ‘moi femme et je’ would not be a possible construction and the correct  ‘Ma femme et moi’ clearly has the object pronoun ‘moi‘ in the subject position. 

so without further ado, let’s have a look at those arguments. 

1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ 

English sentences usually start with subjects. so in ‘I love you’, I is the subject. If it were the object it would change to ‘me‘ such as ‘you love me‘. The sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ seems to flaunt this rule because ‘me’ is in the subject position and so it should be I. 

The problem with this argument is, were it true, the sentence ‘I and my wife went to the party’ would be a perfectly proper sentence, after all, the subject is properly ‘I’. However, ‘I and my wife’ sounds a bit off to me. So is something else is going on here?

McWhorter makes the rather bold claim that ‘me’, not ‘I’ is in fact English’s subject pronoun and that I is a rather special word that is only used when there is only one subject before the verb. Therefore ‘I went to the party’ sounds OK, and ‘me and the lads went to the party’ sounds OK, but ‘I and the lads went to the party’ doesn’t sound right because there is more than one subject. I’d never heard this argument before but I’d welcome some disconfirming evidence. 

McWhorter defends his idea by noting that the sentence ‘Who did it?’ is normally answered by ‘me’. To explain why this is a problem for the ‘my wife and I’ crowd I need to explain a bit of grammar. 

Who did it?’ is what is know as a ‘subject question‘ because the question word ‘who‘ is replacing the subject word of the sentence and so the answer would be the subject of the sentence. It might be ‘John did it’ for instance. This is in contrast to an object question like ‘What did John eat’. You can’t answer this by simply swapping out the ‘what’ with the answer (*pizza did John eat’). 

The answer to ‘who did it’ should therefore be ‘I’ because it’s the subject of the sentence. However people don’t say that. They say ‘me’. So ‘me’, McWhorter argues, seems to be acting as the subject here. You could, I suppose, try to make the case that this is an abbreviated form of ‘It was me’  but this just seems like convenient hand-waving to me.  Besides, the ‘my wife and I’ crowd would surely also insist on ‘It was I‘, not ‘it was me’. 

2. Removing a word will indicate whether the sentence is correct. 

A second pillar of the argument is that If we remove ‘my wife’ from the sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ we end up with ‘me went to the party’ which is incorrect and therefore it must be ‘I’ not ‘me’. I have two objections to this. 

Firstly, if you remove any word from a sentence there is a good chance it won’t be correct anymore. Take ‘John and Dave are going to the party’. If we remove ‘and Dave’ we end up with ‘John are going to the party’ which is wrong. The sentence with the word removed though tells us nothing about the correctness of the original sentence. 

Secondly, a form may ‘break rules’ in certain contexts. Take for examples the sentence “I am lucky’. We note that the verb ‘am’ correctly matches the subject ‘I’. However, if we tried to stipulate that ‘I’ must always be used with ‘am’ we would run into problems. In the very specific case of a contracted negative question form ‘am’ changes to ‘are’:

I am lucky 
am I lucky? 
am I not lucky? 
aren’t I lucky? 

I defy anyone to claim that ‘are’ is the correct verb form to use with ‘I’. But in this very specific case most people would accept it as correct. And so it follows ‘me’ might act as the object pronoun most of the time, but it may also act as the subject pronoun in a very small set of circumstance such as with the sentence ‘me and John got pizza’. To see ‘me and my wife’ as problematic but none of the other instances of abnormalities in English ‘rules’ seems wholly arbitrary.  
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves in a sentence. 
As noted earlier, supporters of ‘I’ being the subject pronoun and thus correct run into problems when encountering the sentence ‘I and my wife’. to get round this the usual suggestion is that ‘it is polite to put your other people before yourself.’ On the face of it, this is quite an odd statement. We are at this point no longer appealing to grammatical accuracy but to ‘politeness’. It is curious then that this ‘politeness’ rule doesn’t seem to work very well when we switch to third person. 

my wife and I went to the party 
His wife and he went to the party 

No doubt, the grammar aficionado would stress that ‘he and his wife’ is correct in this case because we don’t need to worry about ‘putting other people before ourselves’. In that case, and since we are considering ‘politeness’, wouldn’t ‘ladies first’ be a good rule to follow? 

Does all of this mean  that I think everyone should say ‘me and my wife went to the party?’ Not at all! The ‘rule’ is silly, but enough people know it that you risk looking bad by not following it. Rather, I would like people to stop insisting the perfectly normal subject ‘me and…’ is a ‘grammar mistake’. It’s really no more of a mistake than a split infinitive, ‘healthy food or saying ‘I’m good’ as a response to ‘how are you?’ 

It’s rare for me to quote Chomsky in agreement but I think he is right when he says: 

I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on …. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. (Chomsky 1991)

The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of ‘parts of speech‘, the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say ‘Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.’ and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent ‘Toms’ for ‘he’ and you’d be all set.

Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom. 

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say “I figuratively died!” in case they get confused, argue that as ‘someone’ is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘it’ were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for ‘he’ as “the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine. ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ”someone left his phone in the classroom.’

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that ‘he, him and his’ could be used ‘to cover both male and female in general statements.’

In modern times ‘singular they‘ has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept ‘Someone left their phone in the classroom’. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:

A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.

And so with even style guides accepting ‘singular they‘ it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror…
the current pronouns of English
The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and ‘gender nonconforming’ people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that ‘for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.’ Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she.
Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of ‘misgendering‘ -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children’s father still, or is she now their mother?
This confusion though is nothing when compared to ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender nonconforming’ individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are ‘two spirit‘, ‘agender‘, and ‘bigender‘. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns ‘singular they’. This may sound similar to the ‘singular they’ mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This ‘they’ is used to directly replace ‘she’ or ‘he’ in all sentences.
For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written ‘has decided that the pronouns they would like…’ and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot.
Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as ‘Munroe’ (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):

Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.

There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below:

It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe – ‘Jack’ being short for “Jack of all trades“, their nickname.

So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a “tomboy” until the age of 16…

That this doesn’t really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:

Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them “Kit,” instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with…

Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn’t so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.

Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist…

Can’t see the issue? That’s because you’re used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain.

Verbs match pronouns. We say ‘I am’ not (usually) ‘I is’ or ‘I are’. We say ‘he is’ we don’t (usually) say ‘you is’, ‘they is’ and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson’s preferred pronouns are ‘they’ which takes the verb ‘are’ (they are friends). When we use someone’s name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say ‘John is tired’ the reason I use ‘is’ and not ‘are’ is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal ‘she’ or ‘he’ but ‘they’ the sentence should read:

 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist…

This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):

Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings
Munroe were unable to arrange work
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to ‘improper gender pronoun use’ after her colleagues refused to call her ‘they’ (they ‘they’?). New York City human right’s commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as ‘Ze’ or ‘Hir’ is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:

Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed with.In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open.

*2019 update*
It now seems that, in theory at least, people can be prosecuted in the UK under hate crime laws for using the wrong pronoun. Stories here and here.

*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron’s blog here.

Your getting you’re grammars wrong!

People get angry about ‘grammar’ on the internet. To the extent that memes have sprung up about it.

The scare quotes around ‘grammar’ are because most of what passes for grammar mistakes are really nothing of the sort. I work with foreign students, helping them get up to speed with English for university courses in the UK. They make real grammar mistakes. Here’s an example of what someone without a firm grasp of English grammar sounds like:

‘She have no much friend.’

Any one who has taught EFL will tell you that this isn’t all that bad either. Learners can come up with some quite impressively bad sentences. At least with this one we can sort of guess of guess what the person is trying to say. That’s why I think it’s wrong to call something like ‘your/you’re’ a ‘grammar’ mistake. Native speakers are very unlikely to make what could legitimately be called a ‘grammar mistake’. More often than not they are spelling mistakes due to homophones like ‘they’re/their/there’ or ‘too/to’. The person knows what they want to say but they don’t know how to spell it. Even the cringe inducing ‘could of’ is a misspelling. In rapid speech ‘have’ preceded by a consonant (the d of could) will almost always lose its ‘h’. Sometimes we’ll write this as could’ve. The problem is that the sounds of ‘ve’ /əv/ and ‘of’ /əv/ are identical. So again, we see homophones causing spelling mistakes.
How do I know that Native speakers are not making ‘grammar’ mistakes? Consider the following sentence: 


She doesn’t have many friends.  

How many grammar rules are in this sentence? In fact there are numerous rules here all of which native speakers manage to observe almost all the time without any problems whatsoever – a feat quite beyond most of my students -even those at quite high levels of proficiency. Hold on, this is going to get complicated.

First the sentence is arranged subject verb object like most English sentences. In Japanese it would be subject object verb as in ‘she many friends doesn’t have’.  Next there is the fact that the object ‘friends’ is plural. So the noun has an ‘s’ on the end. It’s quite amazing that we don’t get this wrong since it’s so small and fiddly and also because English has a huge number of irregular plurals (dog dogs, potato potatoes, child children, party parties, mouse, mice, men man, fish fish, wife wives, ox, oxen, datum, data, bus buses, passer-by passers-by, index indices, octopus octopods). The writer also knows that as ‘friend’ is a countable noun (unlike say rice or coffee) we not only have to add an ‘s’ but we also have to use the word ‘many’ not ‘much’.
I told you this was complicated.
The native speaker also effortlessly manages this most complex of verb situations. the main verb is ‘have’ but as we are using 3rd person ‘she’ it changes to ‘has’.  However that’s not all, as we’re using the negative ‘not’ we need to add ‘do support’. Did you know English is one of the only languages to have do support on the planet? Of about 6,000 languages around now, there are only about three with do support and you can speak one of them. You lucky thing!
Back to the sentence. So we’re in the middle of negating the verb and you’ll notice that all  of the verb information has moved from the ‘have’ to the vampiric ‘do’ which has become ‘does’. The negative marker ‘not’ has reduced and been sucked in by the ‘do’ as well. All bow down to the mighty ‘do’.
So there you have it, three paragraphs to describe five words. All of the information I’ve described about English grammar is contained in a native speaker’s head and flows out effortlessly when they speak. In fact, most of them probably couldn’t describe these rules if  asked. Sure, some variations may exist (‘she don’t have many friends’) but even these are regular and systematic. That is, no one says ‘She have don’t many friends’ as a matter of course. If anything the ‘she don’t’ is a more regular and logical version (but let’s not get into that one).

As Atkinson notes, every native speaker knows more grammar rules than any grammarian has ever been able to codify. Your command of the intricacies of English grammar is so vast and complex it has not yet been fully recorded. Instead of celebrating this incredible fact we get upset when someone spells a word incorrectly and wonder if they don’t understand ‘grammar’ and perhaps if they’re stupid. It’s a funny old world.
Happy #Grammarday.

If you need to explain why it’s wrong…

Do you know what the word ambivalent means?

A student of mine was very pleased to be able to catch me out with this word. I had assumed it meant “not particularly bothered”, but apparently it doesn’t. I had a hunch about this word so I asked four of the native speakers sitting with us what they thought. Three said they had no idea and one said she thought it meant something similar to what I had thought. 

This student got me thinking; when no one knows the so-called ‘correct’ meaning, how can it still be considered correct? Likewise, if a language rules exists but no one follows it, is it still a rule? If an ‘h’ is dropped in a forest and no pedant is around to hear it, is it still wrong? Unfortunately language and language usage holds a kind of power over people and it’s very easy, if you’re that way inclined, to cow others into thinking they’re getting it wrong when it’s really rather questionable that they are. 

For example, everyone knows that “Two negatives make a positive“. So saying “I aint got nothing” must mean that you have something. Another example is ‘literally‘ used to mean ‘not literally’. “literally” means something actually happened, so if you say “I literally died” what you’re saying is that you really died!  That’s impossible, because how could a dead person say that? so when someone says “the cross to Rooney was literally on a plate“, listeners wonders how tableware has found it’s way on to the pitch.

Or rather they don’t. In  fact no one ever gets confused about literally, and no one ever gets confused by double negatives; annoyed, yes, confused, no. What actually happens is some smart arse informs everyone that it is ‘wrong’ and then explains why. The redundancy of this would beggar believe if it wasn’t for the fact it happens daily.

Is there any other area of human endeavour where we so readily assent to be told that we are ‘wrong’? If you baked a cake which tasted delicious and someone told you the way you made it was wrong or, when eating soup, someone sneered at you for lacking an oyster fork or cutting the bread too thickly you would (rightly) think they were either insane or an intolerable bore. Make this kind of ridiculous comment with regards to language and everyone will nod approving and consider you to be a very sophisticated sort.

People get by using double negatives in English all the time. As with all these silly rules, they are of course countless exceptions that the pedants oddly let slide such as “not impossible” or “it’s not that I don’t…”, “it’s not like I don’t want to”. In AAVE double negatives can strengthen a statement such as “I didn’t do nothing”. They also exist in a huge number of the world’s languages and no one gets confused. I have no problem criticizing language that is clearly illogical but this is just pedantry.

If we allow people to dictate language use to us, we end up with the bizarre situation such as the one I heard the other day on “In Our Time“. The situation arose because the speaker used the word ‘decimate’ which has the prefix “dec” meaning “ten” as in December, the 10th month (blame Numa Pompilius for this) and means “destroy one in ten. Most people use it to mean “destroy” because having a word for “destroy one in ten” isn’t that useful. On the show the speaker said, something like “the Romans decimated the enemy, -they literally killed one in ten of the enemy soldiers.” Call me an old cynic but if you need to explain a word after you use it maybe it’s time to admit that the meaning has changed and get on with your life and if you need to explain why something is wrong you probably need to think carefully about your definition of ‘wrong’.


My final post on language articles in newspapers (probably)

I’ve written a few posts about the (mis)treatment of linguistics and language in many newspaper articles. In short, it’s bad. But then what should we expect? Journalism is largely page filling these day (for more about churnalism read this excellent book) So I’ve decided this is my last article about bad linguistic journalism. Whatever I write and no matter how much evidence can be brought to bear on these kinds of wrong-headed articles, history shows that they will continue to proliferate. However, as I will hopefully show, the tide of history is almost always on the side of usage.
The author of the today’s article “There are lots of bacteria, but there is only one genetic codeDr Dixon, is a scientist and unsurprisingly also an editor (like grammargirl). Many journalists have a seemingly fetishistic obsession with prescriptivism regardless of  the mountain of evidence against it. An example from an earlier post is Bill Bryson describing all the reasons why “whom” could be allowed to die a natural death but then stating “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.  This is pretty much the way with many writers. Scientists who would question almost any claim about their field and demand evidence have seemingly no problem swallowing linguistic rules without the slightest curiosity as to their validity. 
Ironically, Dixon penned an piece complaining about the press’ lousy coverage of science, yet he, -a non-linguist, has set himself up as an arbiter of proper language usage. And what particular idiosyncrasies does he have a problem with? Before I dissect the article in detail I would quickly like to go over the mistaken argument from linguistic regularity which, in short, is the assumption that languages are regular and logical. Like organisms, languages evolve and as with organisms this doesn’t lead to perfectly functioning “designed” languages but rather languages with a lot of inherent waste.
In animals, an example Dixon might understand is the recurrent laryngeal nerve. the nerve especially in animals like giraffes is massively wasteful looping down then back up the neck when in reality, it only needs to travel a few inches. This is the result of evolution applying an “if it aint broke” approach.  Languages too have massive amounts of waste because they weren’t designed either, though people like Dixon act as if they were. Phrases like “the reason why“, “the end result” and “over-exaggerate” are redundant. So are things like the third person ‘s’ on verbs, the word “whom” the word “fewer“, the bizarre conjugations of the “be” verb and “do support” which only a handful of languages possess at all. As this chaos swirls around them the Dixons of this world accept 95% of the disorder but vehemently oppose the last 5% like victims of the titanic complaining that their shoes are getting wet.

So let’s examine the article in a little more detail.

She’s developed something called anorexia.”

“I was reading about that in the newspaper. It’s quite serious, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and more young women are getting anorexia these days.”

A simple enough conversation. What the speakers did not realise is that they were not talking about anorexia at all. Anorexia means loss of appetite. That is its definition in both medical and general dictionaries. There is, however, also a condition called anorexia nervosa – a psychological illness, commonest among female adolescents, in people who deliberately starve or use other methods, such as vomiting, to lose weight. But relatively suddenly, anorexia has lost its original meaning. In the media and in everyday conversation, anorexia now means anorexia nervosa

This reminds me of “Frankenstein’s monster” bores who insist on pedantically telling everyone and anyone who’ll listen that Frankenstein is not the monster! anorexia is understood by most speakers as shorthand for anorexia nervosa as “Frankenstein” is for his monster. Who cares about this? The good doctor apparently. He goes on:

Language and the connotations of words and expressions evolve over time – helpfully so, when new distinctions and subtleties arise. But meanings also change simply as a result of ignorance or error. So when, some years ago, more and more people began to say “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested”, the misuse gradually became a normal meaning of that word

Dixon thus is quite happy for language to change, -so long as it changes in ways he likes. The short sighted nature of his rant can be illustrated be looking at some of the words he uses. “error” for example means to “to wander” originally, the misuse seems to have gradually become the normal meaning. More interesting is that Dixon is actually wrong as his potted history falls a little short of the truth. Etymologically speaking:

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

So rather than switching, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that they switched back to their original meanings. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good old language rant Doc!

What seems to be happening today is that such shifts are occurring more and more quickly. Consider the word “issue”. I heard a cricket commentator saying that an Indian batsman was “having issues with” an opponent’s spin bowling. As recently as five years ago, he would have said the batsman was confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended. “Issue” then meant something quite different. Since then, however, it has come to mean “problem”.

Dixon offers (as all news articles it should be said) no evidence for his (amazing if true) suggestion that the pace and amount of language change is increasing in English. He seems to have issues with the use of “have issues with” (hohoho) and actually Google Ngram does show an increase in its use between 1990-2008. That said, if the alternative to “having issues with” really is “confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended” then forgive me for calling it a welcome addition to English.

What is especially surprising nowadays is that misuses of words can increasingly be found even in specialised communications – as in my own particular field of science. Long ago, when I was a microbiology student, I learned that the singular of bacteria was bacterium. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, print and broadcast journalists began to say “this bacteria”. And the alteration did not stop there. It is now affecting professional discourse too. In the past three months, I have seen “a bacteria” or “this bacteria” six times in research journals. I have even heard a speaker making the same mistake throughout his conference presentation.

Most of what is described here I have dealt with in detail in this post and so won’t rehash suffice to say that what Dixon describes as a “mistake” is a change in usage and also that it is altogether unreasonable to expect foreign words to retain their foreign morphemes in a host language. Note that Dixon admits that it was not evidence of usage that led to his knowledge about “bacteria” but rather that that is what he was taught -and what he unquestioningly accepted. When his friends tell him that “this spaghetti is delicious” does he, I wonder correct them “THESE spaghetti ARE delicious!” Shoddy stuff for a scientist.

Sports commentators appear to be culpable in another area – the demise of the adverb. Within the past 10 years, firstly snooker commentators and then those in other sports began to tell us that “he hit that one strong”, that “she’s playing confident”, and that “he’s bowling accurate”. The habit is now spreading more widely.

This is a pretty old chestnut. This type of inflexible thinking is what leads to people avoiding saying “I am good” (I am well!) and “This food is healthy” (This food is healthful!) A basic question to be asked when people talk about “bad” grammar is whether communication is actually breaking down. As with the pedantic parental chide “two negatives make a positive” (they don’t) the listener understands perfectly what they speaker is saying but just insists that language must, for some unknown reason, stand still at this moment in time and stop changing. Really quite a bizarre position for someone presumably well versed in evolutionary theory. The good Dr. seems to be suffering from a linguistic form of the “golden age fallacy” namely that there was a time when the English language was perfect. Perhaps a little after Shakespeare and a bit before the Bronte sisters. Ever since then it’s just been on the decline and will eventually reach a state where morlock-esque yoof roam the streets of Neo-England burbling an incomprehensible text-like patois to each other as society collapses.

In many cases, although it is impossible to pinpoint the initial change

And of course this is true though as a biologist such a statement should have him holding his head in shame. He’s basically asking for a missing link which could never exist. Just as no old world monkey gave birth to a human, no linguistic change can really ever be pinpointed. As McWhorter notes, Latin didn’t die, it turned into French, Spanish and Italian, but there wasn’t a day when people woke up saying “OK, now we’re speaking French”.

the reason why people begin to adopt erroneous usages so quickly is probably one of fashion and a desire to demonstrate familiarity with the modish vernacular. Consider “fantastic”, which is now a universal expression of hyperbole. Anyone interviewed in the media about anything that impresses or excites them will repeatedly call it “fantastic”. Over recent weeks, I have heard a celebrity chef describe a particular dish as fantastic (when he meant unusually succulent), a drama critic call an actor’s performance fantastic (when she meant disturbingly realistic) and a politician describe a party conference speech as fantastic (when he meant inspiring).

Reading this I’m almost tempted to think Dixon is pulling our collective legs. The idea that language use is something like wearing hipster jeans and not related to a complex set of social and psychological factors is quite staggeringly simplistic. Also does he really have a problem with the word ‘fantastic’? Does he really expect people only to use the word only for “characteristic of fantasy”? He goes on to talk about ‘literally’ which I dealt with here and so won’t go into nor will I again deal with what he calls the “important differences between ‘who and whom‘” (tl;dr = It isn’t an important difference.)

At the end he wonders “why are even the editors of scientific journals adopting fashionable but incorrect usages?” and this is where I would like return to the point I made in the first paragraph. The reason that editors are (sensibly) adopting “fashionable” usages is because those usages will almost certainly, triumph. And for the second part of this (rather long!) blog I’d like to take you and Dixon on an Dickensian tour of the ghosts of pedants past. I’m hopeful there is still time for the good Doctor to have a change of heart. So here it is, a list of complaining prescriptivists throughout the ages:

George Fox (1624-1691) wrote in his Epistle:

If you’re not getting that then Fox was complaining that only a ruddy great idiot would say “you” to one person, when as any fule kno the right word was “thou”.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) disliked past tense ‘ed’ being pronounced softly, (i.e. as we pronounce it now) he wanted it pronounced as the ‘aed’ in ‘dead’. He also didn’t like the words “sham, banter, bully, bubble, cutting and shuffling”.

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) thought that (formal) sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions. Somehow this opinion became accepted as a ‘rule’ by editor types at some point although almost everyone ignores it. Lowth also argued for “My wife and I” over “me and my wife”.

William Cobbet (1763-1835) wrote “A grammar of the English language” and complained about the use of the following as past tenses “Awoke, built, dealt, threw, swam and meant” (among many others) arguing instead for the more ‘proper’ “awaked, builded, dealed, throwed, swimmed and meaned”. (McWhorter)

Strunk and White, authors of a famous style guide loved by the likes of Dixon and first published in 1919, proscribed against the use of “hopefully”, the verbs “host” and “chair” and the passive voice. Rather amusingly (or at least, this passes for amusing to sad folks like me) of the four examples they give of mistaken use of the passive voice, only one of them is actually passive. And this isn’t their only mistake. As Pullum notes, they “The book’s contempt for it’s own grammatical dictates seems almost wilful.” The awful situation therefore is that we have know-nothings telling others how they should be writing and incredibly being listened to.

Steven Pinker notes that the verbs parent, input, showcase, impact, and contact “have all been denounced in this century” (1994:379)

So, if we examine the broad sweep of history we can see that most of the things that have been railed against have become normal and natural. Dr. Dixon and people like him can get upset about usage but his views about the word “fantastic” will, if they don’t already, eventually be seen as preposterous to future generations. I might be losing the battles against this type of newspaper article buthistory shows that the war is already won.



I couldn’t care fewer*

I got told off by a guy at work once for saying “We have less students this year”.

“for god’s sake” he said “fewer!”

Especially shameful, supposedly because I’m an English teacher and so should know better. But doesn’t the fact I had lived a good thirty years without knowing better, not perhaps tell us something about this word?  In fact, it’s completely possible that  large numbers of people will live and die in English without knowing that they are getting it ‘wrong’. And the people they are talking to  often don’t know that they are also getting it ‘wrong’. In fact the only people who are bothered seem to be the ones getting it right.
Yeah Jane Moore!  You idiot!

And my god are they bothered. People actually get very worked up about this (check the tweets, right). You can read blogs about just how bothered here, here, here and here. Or here, here, or here. And some more here and here. People really hate this.

So what are the rules?

GrammarGirl, (who I talked about here) gives us this handy guide and it’s actually fairly straightforward. Countable nouns use “fewer” and uncountable nouns use “less”. If that isn’t clear then look at this table:

Time, money, bread
Students, problems potatoes

Simply put, things that you can count, (1 monkey, 2 squirrels, 3 turnips, etc) should be used with ‘fewer’, with other things, like money, (moneys) you should use ‘less’. Simple really, -so why can’t thick thickos like me (and supermarkets) get this into their thick thicko skulls?

Well when we examine GrammarGirl’s advice we find this interesting note:

There are exceptions to these rules

Oh yes?….do go on!

for example, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (2, 3). For example, you could say, “That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than $400.” So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you’ll be right most of the time

Ah-ha! so things are not actually that straight-forward. I don’t want to be right “most” of the time dammit, I want to right all of the time! OK, so just use “fewer” with count nouns, except for time money and distance…right? right, I’ve got it!

But what about weight?  Can I say “I weigh 5kg less than last year” or should it be “I weigh 5kg fewer?” The latter sounds ugly so I’m going to go ahead and add weight to those exceptions.  OK so, time money, distance and weight, got it!

Well not quite, it also seems that you can’t use “fewer” with singular count nouns. For example “that’s one less thing to worry about.” should be wrong but no one say “one fewer thing to worry about”. So is this another exception or do we have to make some ugly compromise like “Now I don’t have so much to worry about”

And what about “less” in the phrases “more or less”? Surely regardless of what number was being referred to  a person would always say less, like “I ate 10 of those cakes, more or less”, but they would never say “more or fewer”. So set phrases seem to be exempt as well. (This is turning out to be as useful as the I before E rule.)
“Illiterate” signs? Hmm

Don’t even get me started on the mind-boggling world of “least number/amount, fewest number/amount”. I’ve never heard anyone get upset about this, but a Google search shows a huge state of disarray. If you’re going to get upset at supermarket signs, then don’t go anywhere near this one. workers in the UK take the least number of paid holidays” says the daily mail, noting later in the same article that they take the fewest. If ‘holidays’ are countable then it should be “fewest”, no? And least number? Shouldn’t it be ‘least amount’ and ‘fewest number’? or just fewest? (head asplodes)

An important question that the people who get angry about this never seem to ask is, -why does  English even need two words for things being smaller in number/amount when we manage to get by fine with one word for things being larger in number? No one has a problem saying “more money, more friends, more time and more stupid grammar rules.” No one gets confused and feels the need to invent a word to fill that gap. So why do people get so upset about this? Why the mindless observance of this useless rule?
Some people might say that we need to retain the historically correct rules of English. That’s a nice idea but as the Motivated Grammar blog notes, this so-called rule has only been around for a few hundred years:

As it turns out, this whole notion that fewer is countable and less is uncountable has been traced back to 1770 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. And it wasn’t a rule back then, but rather a preference of a single author, Robert Baker.

That’s right, if you’re insisting on this in 2012 then you’re basically peddling the preferences of some eighteenth century dude. You’re getting angry over something someone 200 years ago didn’t like the sound of. You might imagine yourself the arbiter of “good grammar” but you might as well be running around shouting “don’t use the word bully, Jonathan Swift didn’t like it!”

The earliest example of someone getting it “wrong” was Alfred from Batman the Great who in 888ad wrote Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon” or “with less words or with more, whether we may prove it.”. However I don’t think that people are concerned with historical value at all, they are concerned, as always where language is involved, with showing that they are more educated, more discerning and thus better than those oiks who get it wrong. Thus, like so much maven prescriptivism, this is yet another foundationless linguistic Shibboleth.

If we listen to these kinds of people we’ll end up with supermarket signs saying “10 items or fewer”, teachers saying “Write an essay of five-hundred words or fewer” and people being forced to say “that’s one fewer thing to worry about” and let’s be honest, that just sounds crap. Ignore these pedants, and if they insist then tell them that you couldn’t care fewer.

* Thanks to Florentina Taylor for pointing out that there is a difference between the adverbial use of “less” and the adjectival use.


The False Gods of Grammar

In a recent tweet Conan O’Brien asked:

One reply was from Grammar girl, (mignon Forgarty) author of “quick and dirty grammar tips”. Grammar Girl is a grammar expert and is an editor and an MS graduate in biology,  -not linguistics, and while this shouldn’t matter, I’ll explain later why it does. Her reply was:

First of, it’s important to say that this is absolutely correct and she presents a completely accurate explanation of the differences on her websitetoo. My issue is with the rule itself. A grammar expert can repeat learned rules but it strikes me that someone with a background in science, like Grammar Girl, might want to peek a bit further behind the curtain and think about why those rules exist and if they are worth following at all. These kind of language ‘rules’ along with splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, only exist because people in authority have decided they should exist, and a small band of self-proclaimed “experts” (from the 16th Century at least) have pronounced on their particular proclivities.

What’s wrong with who/whom?

A good place to start would be this piece about John McWorter’s (professor of linguistics) take on Who/whom. “Whom” is a fossilized piece of old English which is somehow still clinging to life. In  “myths, lies and half truths of language usage” he notes that many language experts, including the influential Robert Lowth fought for the survival of “whom”. However, McWorther notes, Lowth also fought for the survival of Sitten (sat), spitten (spat), wert (was) and Chicken as a plural (I have two Chicken). How many of these strike you as worth keeping?

If we look at other similar pronouns we can see how odd “whom” is:

pronoun use















General all purpose



 Linguistics quirks like this serve no purpose, as far as I can see, but to intimidate others and give people the chance to demonstrate their superior learning. The whole thing works like something of a catch 22. You can willfully split your infintives or refuse to use “whom”, despite knowing the “rules” but the maven you’re talking to may judge you as being less well educated, so you might feel obliged to use it anyway. It’s also worth noting that who/whom has been a source of mistakes throughout history, with errors appearing in The Bible, and works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchhill and Swift. So if you are confused, you’re in good company.  It’s certainly no indicator of stupidity.

The Grammar

In grammatical terms, who/whom are pronouns, they often appear in relative clauses such as:
        The person who/whomyou’re talking to is a blithering idiot.

Grammar “experts” would tell you that because the word is an object here, then it “ought to be” “whom” not “who”. If we follow Grammar Girl’s rule (above) we would say “I’m talking to him” and thus use “whom”. This “ought to be” is what is called prescriptivism. But what does that mean?  Steven Pinker( linguist and cognitive scientist) defines it like this:

The contradiction begins in the fact that the words “rule,” “grammatical,” and “ungrammatical” have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one “ought” to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk. 

Most of what I write here has been said before, notably by Pinker in his 1994 book The Language Instinct. Although this is a lengthy quote it is worth reproducing here:

[who/whom] is one of the standard prescriptivist complaints about common speech. In reply, one might point out that the who/ whom distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like he/him. Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject ye and object you has vanished, leaving you to play both roles and ye as sounding completely archaic. Whom has outlived yebut is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?

It also follows that if a person believes “whom” to be necessary when in an object position, shouldn’t they also extend that rule to spoken English? Look at the following sentences:

Who are you looking at?

Who do you think you are?

Both of these, according to the “rule” are incorrect. They should read “whom are you looking at” and “whom do you think you are”. Now if you think that this sounds odd and would rather say “incorrect” things like “who are you talking about?” then why on earth would you insist on using whom at all?

More expertise

Bill Bryson is another such language expert. His popular style guide troublesome words, shows again how keen people are for an authority figure to tell them what the “rules” are. People seem to crave this kind of stuff (judging from the reviews). The section on Who/whom is typical of much of the book. Bryson has done his homework and seems to understand the arguments against this kind of rule but inexplicably always chooses to support the rule anyway, because…well…he’s fond of it:


English has been shedding its pronoun declension for hundreds of years; today who is the only relative pronoun that is still declinable. Preserving the distinction between who and whom does nothing to promote clarity or reduce ambiguity. It has become merely a source of frequent errors and perpetual uncertainty. Authorities have been tossing stones at whom for at least 200 years. -Noah Webster was one of the first to call it needless- but the word refuses to go away. (Bryson 1984: 216)

Bryson then goes on to say, right after this barrage, “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.

As an interesting aside, Bryson also notes Grammar Girls “him/he” rules but then points out that it doesn’t always work. He offers the example of:

“They rent in to whoever needs it”

Apply the rule and we get “they rent it to him” him = whom (but who is correct) 

In order to apply this “quick and dirty” rule you have to have the grammatical knowledge that the clause “whoever needs it” is the object of “rent”, not “him”.That is you should say “he needs it” to reach the correction pronoun “who”.


Language Experts


The problem again with advice like this is that it is not based on any empirical findings, but rather, as throughout history, on the predilections of “authorities” and the recitation of commonly accepted “rules” which usually again originate in the predilections of “authorities” or a mistaken/superficial understanding of how the English language works. The real experts, professors in applied linguistics for example, are usually ignored and words like “whom” are kept alive on the artificial respirator of prescriptivism.

I have shown above that linguistics like Pinker and McWhorter have quite a different take on who/whom than “language experts” like Bryson and Grammar Girl.  The difference is that  Bryson and Grammar Girl are essentially more involved with journalism and publishing than linguistics.  Writers and editors get their ideas from style guides like the Chicago Manuel of Style and Strunk and White who are again often just rehashing of previously held prejudices and blackboard grammar rules.  McWhorter comments that Strunk and White “made decisions based on how nice they thought something looked or sounded, just like arranging furniture.”  And while Grammar Girl and Bryson have made notable leaps forward, accepting, for instance, split infintives, there is still a tendency to let personal preferences dictate rules:


She also tends to accept the word of authorities without questioning them.  In this interview She notes that “like” is frowned upon but she uses it:

MF: I tend to use “like” as a conjunction. Technically, we’re supposed to say “It looks as if it’s going to rain” or “It looks as though it’s going to rain.” I tend to say “It looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s wrong, but I’ve been saying it that way my whole life and it’s a hard habit to break. I’m constantly correcting myself.

To a linguist, the idea of you using something your whole life which is “wrong” is an astonishing notion and one which Pinker gently mocks here:

Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees’ nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys’ cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could it mean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an “error”? Isn’t the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?

I have nothing against Grammar Girl personally. She’s a popular, talented and successful person, if anything I’m a bit jealous, -but I do wish she turn over the grammatical rocks and look a bit deeper underneath. It’s fine knowing the “rules” but it’s more important to know where those rules come from and if they are worth following. Admittedly the facts are perhaps not as crystal clear or as neat and satisfying as the “rules”, but surely the facts are more important.


References (not hyperlinked)


Bryson, B 1984 Troublesome words London: Penguin











The argument from linguistic regularity

The argument from supposed “linguistic regularity” is one of the key arguments language perscriptivists, mavens and their ilk use when trying to impress upon others the correctness of their view about language usage.  An example would be the word “innit” which comes in for much bashing and hand-wringing.  As with other terms which are derided or frowned upon, it is not surprising to find the term generally used by a groups which are also derided or frowned upon -namely young people, specifically inner-city young people.  It is important to remember that this is even true of favourable and less favourable accents in English.  Despite the language being perfectly understandable and used widely, it is considered somehow inferior, either funny or just unclear and weird. Brummies and  Scousers will understand this kind of attitude well.
So back to the example.  “innit” or so the argument goes, is not good English because it doesn’t make sense!  Innit is a tag question and as such should repeat the verb that precedes it, (or “do” in many cases):

You are, aren’t you?
he is, isn’t he
He went, didn’t he?
You haven’t been saying “innit” have you?

You like him, do you?
He went, did he?
You like him, you do!

So this regularity is presented as evidence that “innit” as an abbreviation of “isn’t it” is unacceptable. We say “you want to go, don’t you?” not “you want to go, isn’t it?” That doesn’t make any sense.  And so here we have an example of the argument from linguistic regularity.  However, as with most of these arguments, it is usually pretty easy to point out that “correct” language isn’t all that reliable or regular either.  In the case of tag questions we have this one.

I am, aren’t I?

Why not use the same form of the “be” verb here?  Why not say “I am, amn’t I”?  Obviously it sounds weird, because we don’t say it, but it much better fits the supposed “rule”.   The second problem is that we (or more precisely Americans) have no problem applying one tag to all questions.  The word “right” can be uniformly applied to every sentence, right?  It doesn’t seem odd, right?  It is something we’re used to, right?  It’s also pretty easy and not something English learners would have much trouble with.  French uses “n’est pas” in the same way and Japanese “ne” and according to the BBC these are called invariant tags.  Perhaps, therefore, if innit annoys you it is best to think of it as one word, like right, right?

The problem , I would argue, is that rules grew out of usage, not the other way round.  Like noticing people opening their umbrellas when it rains and assuming that the umbrella opening causes rain, we have perhaps got the relationship between rules and language the wrong way round.  Certainly we view written language as being more important, serious and accurate than spoken language despite the fact that written language has existed for a fraction of the time that spoken language has. 

English is not a regular language.Its plurals are odd and irregular (sheep, mice, children, wives,roofs, potatoes, cellos, babies, boxes, fungi), Pronouns are odd (I-me but you-you, I-we but you-you) spelling is weird (comb, bomb, tomb, finger singer), some verbs conjugate many times whereas others hardly change at all (eat-ate-eaten, look-looked-looked, put-put-put) some bjects look singular and yet are plural (glasses, jeans) and others look plural and yet are singular (the news, maths, physics), someone will write to you (if you’re british), but they won’t email to you.  And all of this is accepted with complete indifference. But should someone utter “innit” then call The Daily Mail because the world is possibly coming to an end.

 All living languages are like this so, why not just relax and enjoy the variety? Status Quo bias means we ignore the massive amounts of weirdness in our native language and only notice those new things we don’t like. Before you get upset about the way someone else is using language have a look at the roll call of history’ mavens and see how valid their complaints seem these days.